Geoffrey-McDermott

Cuddly Doom (Chapter 4)

Jun 26th, 2017
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  1. “Can you even solve one of those things sober? I’m not sure you’ve made a whole lot of progress…”
  2. >Ryan stiffened his back and turned the Rubik’s Cube over once again, his fingers working to sort it out in a sluggish, yet somehow still incredibly frantic, flurry of bright neon squares
  3. >I was doing everything in my power to suppress the urge to grab it from him, shifting the weight on my feet as I watched a solitary row of red squares break amid the chaos of blues and greens
  4. >The colorful geometric puzzle was the perfect final addition to the dim pulsing lights and rhythmic bass of the party – a little disco ball to really bring the spacious room together
  5. >“I’m definitely sober enough to solve this! Dude, let me show you just how sober I am!”
  6. >Another partygoer, who we both knew from the night’s outset was a lightweight in the arena of sobriety, bumped into Ryan’s back and sent him stumbling a step or two forward
  7. “You know, there are like a dozen rooms in this house; hell, there’s an entire empty floor right up those stairs! Why do you insist on solving that in the middle of the dance floor?”
  8. >Shouting over the deafening drop of the nondescript dance music, Ryan took one hand off the Rubik’s Cube so that he could point at me with something more than his half-lidded gaze
  9. >“Hey! This is where the party is! See, we’re all having fun, man, ya gotta relax – Have some… uh… water… or… or something!”
  10. “Sure thing, just don’t break that; I was hoping to get it back some time TONIGHT”
  11. >“Oh yeah, of course! And I’ll have it totally solved long before then, too!”
  12. >Turning his attention back to the puzzle, he fumbled with one of the half-stuck layers before his hand slipped, a blur of color tumbling to the ground with a resounding crash
  13. >A flash of orange and white skipped beneath a radiator as a corner broke off, probably as a sacrifice for maintenance workers to find twenty years down the road
  14. >Their gain was my loss, and I took a deep breath to help quell my seething need to get far away from Ryan at this exact moment, before I started a senseless fight
  15. >As I slowly made my way through the crowded front room toward the stairs, I did my best at ignoring the cost of replacing the puzzle, not to mention ignoring his pleas for forgiveness
  16. >“I’ll make it up to you man – I’ll get you some rum for next week’s party, eh?”
  17. >Yeeaaah, sure thing, assuming I don’t get the short straw of being the designated driver… again… Hell, that assumes I even go to another party next week…
  18. >It took me ten minutes just to work out the parallel parking… all after driving less than a quarter mile to get here from my place…
  19. >When you add on all the time spent dressing up to at least be presentable in public – time that could’ve been spent levelling my characters – it wasn’t remotely worth it just to NOT get tipsy
  20. >Ryan’s voice was gradually drowned out by the din of music and creaking of old wooden stairs as my shoes trudged upward to the house’s top floor
  21. >The upstairs hallway was indeed barren of life, the dim overhead bulb quietly buzzing as it tried ineffectively to outdo the flashes of light, music, and shouts echoing from downstairs
  22. >Nearly every one of the guys who usually haunted these rooms was off nursing their drink of choice, with one exception in the room at the end of the hall
  23. >Alexander had told his roommates that he was out of town for the weekend, but anyone who knew the right pattern of knocks on his door could prove that to be untrue rather quickly
  24. >“It’s open – and man, you’d better have brought me something else to drink”
  25. >I slid the door open as a few paltry rays of light from the hallway cascaded into the cavernous room, which was otherwise lit by nothing more than a desk lamp
  26. >Alexander was seated at his desk, swirling the final dregs of a can of beer, which based on the small stack atop his desk, was the sixth of the night… at the very least
  27. “If ya don’t finish your beer, you can’t have any vodka! How can ya have any vodka if you don’t finish your beer?”
  28. >“Right, sorry mom… although I could definitely go for something harder than this swill right now…”
  29. >While I took a seat on his bed and kicked the door closed, Alexander knocked back the last of the can and cautiously formed a small pyramid with the support of some other empty cans
  30. >The guy could certainly hold a lot of alcohol without it showing much, but between his delayed speech and wavering hands as he maneuvered the cans, he clearly wasn’t infallible
  31. “There’s no shortage downstairs. Just slip down and grab some – they won’t even notice if a bottle is gone”
  32. >“The problem isn’t that they’d notice the bottle of booze being GONE, it’s that they’d notice the antisocial Russian who’s HERE… You can’t just grab me some? Pretty please?”
  33. “Well, I guess I can in a minute, although I don’t want to look like the trashy designated driver walking around with a bottle in hand… especially since I figure people will need rides pretty soon”
  34. >Alexander furrowed his brow and swiftly rolled up a sleeve away from his watch
  35. >“What the hell, it’s already… quarter past midnight… and has nobody, nobody at all, left yet?”
  36. “Well, nobody that needs me to give them a ride home…”
  37. >Alexander threw his head back and groaned, the alcohol on his breath mingling with the faint smell of beer, body spray, and dirty clothes that lingered in the room
  38. >“People gotta get out of my house, fuuuuck”
  39. “People have a hard time leaving your wonderful house, hey, just look in a mirror for Exhibit A”
  40. >“Hey! Okay. No. No no no. That’s not even my fault, man. Because I actually bought bus tickets and was down at the station, right at five once classes let out – got there early and everything”
  41. >“I’m sitting there for a while, and the bus never showed! Now I gotta go through their bureaucracy for like two weeks just to get my thirty bucks back; it’s hardly even worth the time”
  42. “The bus just… didn’t arrive? The one that was supposed to be connecting through the city?”
  43. >“Yeah, they didn’t say why, but in the station I was sitting near the, uh… traffic controller guy, I guess? You should’ve heard the stuff this bus driver was shouting at him, it was crazy, man”
  44. >“Driver was losing his mind, saying the bus was overrun and all this stuff about shit screwing with the passengers’ heads… he went silent pretty soon afterwards so I take it his radio died”
  45. >“And I get those guys need to make a profit, but come on, those buses are designed to run for, like, a hundred thousand miles but have double that tacked on – of COURSE they’re overrun”
  46. >“I hope it was just a belt or a thing with the steering wheel. I dunno, he said his hands were cramping up; I’d hate to hear it was carbon monoxide or something messing with them”
  47. “Ah, I hope they’re alright. It’s not a super long drive from the city so it must’ve been a big deal. Any reason you didn’t tell your roommates about this ordeal?”
  48. >Alexander conjured another beer from a previously unseen box on the floor, cracking it open in the midst of an indifferent shrug
  49. >“Eh, they’ll figure it out sooner or later. What’s wrong with a guy wanting to get drunk alone on a Friday?”
  50. >Tapping my hand on the upper leg of my jeans, I rose to my feet and wandered to the side of Alexander’s desk, avoiding a few scattered books on the floor in the process
  51. “My parents could probably give you a dozen reasons against it, but you’ll hear none from me. Say, what’ve you been working on all this time, anyways?”
  52. >“Ah, as I’m sure you’d recognize, anatomy notes!”
  53. >With a modest grin, he waved a hand over the copious papers covering his desk, the endless sheets plastered with the mad scrawling and crude sketches of someone truly fit to be a doctor
  54. >His hand floated toward my chest, gradually balling up into a relaxed fist and playfully punching me in the torso
  55. >“Gonna be addressing me as ‘doctor’ in six years… give or take. But here and now, that’s still your gig”
  56. >As my gaze followed his arm, it dawned on me that I’d arbitrarily chosen to wear one of my old EMT T-shirts, its dark blue cotton emblazoned with a cracking Carmine Ambulance logo
  57. “Shoot, I’m no doctor; if anyone knows the basics of consoling a drunk kid, they could do just as good a job as me”
  58. >“Hey man, give yourself some credit…”
  59. >I thumbed through the nearest page of Alexander’s notes, gradually finding myself getting lost in thought as nostalgic memories from old lectures rushed back
  60. >After a few minutes had passed, I snapped out of my reverie, setting down a couple of pages pertaining to eyes and kidneys
  61. “I should probably be getting back out there –after all, I’m sure someone’s going to need a designated driver sooner or later”
  62. >“Preferably sooner… and while you’re at it, you said there’s hard liquor down there? I’ve had enough with these notes for tonight; I just want to be so, so so far gone by half past one”
  63. “Ahhh, sounds about right man, I’ll see what I can do”
  64. >I couldn’t manage to stifle a chuckle as I opened the bedroom door and stepped into the doorframe toward the renewed pulse of bass-heavy music
  65. >No sooner had I shut the door behind me and taken one step did the long, swinging ponytail of Ryan’s girlfriend poke around the hallway’s corner
  66. >She was hunched over the top stairs, her face twisted with sobering concern even though she was undoubtedly at least a few drinks deep herself
  67. >“Uh… James… you’re an EMT, right?”
  68. >There it is, a question I never liked to hear. At least she wasn’t in hysterics about it, enough to read the logo emblazoned on my shirt with a nod of understanding
  69. >“Ryan’s feeling a bit… off… would you mind taking a look at him down here?”
  70. “Yeah, sure thing… my kit’s in the kitchen”
  71. >Today’s your lucky day, Ryan; I may still be a bit pissed, but I’m good at putting petty shit in the rear-view mirror when I need to help people
  72. >Without another word, we descended into the mania of dancing partygoers in the front room, a small crowd apparently enamored by something near the edge of the dance floor
  73. >I could see Ryan anxiously seated in a chair in the kitchen, but my journey was momentarily stalled by curiosity, the wall of onlookers mostly blocking what seemed to be a pair of colorful blobs
  74. >As someone shifted to the side, I could see slightly more, the pastel colors resolving into blue and purple, with a texture akin to fur based on how the light was bouncing against each wriggling mass
  75. >Were they a pair of large plush toys? They were at least a few feet long so no one in their right mind would bring something that nice, and probably expensive, to this trashy party…
  76. >Actually, no, they can’t be plush toys, the purple thing’s got feathers, not fur
  77. >No wait, it actually does have fur, although that would-
  78. >“James, you coming?”
  79. “Uh… Yeah, be right there!”
  80. >I turned back toward the kitchen, taking a few short steps through a narrow hallway to find Ryan seated at a table, his drunken, agitated expression dimly illuminated by the light over the stove
  81. >The diagnosis was pretty straightforward without any questions whatsoever – you’ve knocked back just a few too many – but talking was still helpful to get people thinking, calm, and comfortable
  82. >With a clinical force of habit taking over, an almost unconscious part of me jumped into the first set of questions
  83. “Hey there Ryan, how are you feeling right now, having a good time at the party?”
  84. >Retrieving and zipping open the small bag of medical supplies I’d left out of the sight of prying partygoers, I pulled out a pair of nitrile gloves, procedural muscle memory taking over once again
  85. >As they slid over my fingers, I realized I didn’t really need them, but gloves were cheap, and I could always raid the ambulance if my personal kit ever needed more
  86. >“I’m having fun, yeah. I’m really sorry about your puzzle again – I actually got the piece that broke off and put it back in, if… if it makes you feel any better”
  87. >Raising the Rubik’s Cube from its resting place on the table and turning it with a twist of the wrist, Ryan’s sheepish smile was the most telling admission of the guilt he felt
  88. “You didn’t mean to drop it; it’s quite alright. Although it’s still not solved, eh?”
  89. >“Well, see, I got a bit more done, but my hand’s been aching for a few minutes and had to put it down”
  90. “Your hand? Mind if I take a look?”
  91. >“Nah, go right ahead – also my forehead’s kind of hurting, though I figure that’s just the alcohol making itself known”
  92. >Ryan held out one of his arms, and though my original intention was to deftly check the dexterity of each of his fingers, as I wrapped a gloved hand around his wrist, I quietly gasped
  93. >Taking a seat in a chair next to him, I leaned in for a closer look at his forearm, the hairs of which had unmistakably turned a lurid mix of bright blue
  94. >“So I take it I’m not the only one seeing it…”
  95. “Ryan, this doesn’t look like paint or anything… why, or what… did you get someone to put hair dye on your arm?”
  96. >I pinched a small clump of strands and slid my fingers along their length, ultimately finding that the color wasn’t simply adhered to the hair’s surface as it would be with cheap paint
  97. >It was clearly the work of a professional, the color permeating all the way down to the roots with remarkable consistency, despite the blue’s marked difference from the originally brown hairs
  98. >“I don’t… remember… getting this done… I’ve been here at the house since classes wrapped up; when could I have done it?”
  99. “Okay, in that case, maybe when you first noticed it? Because someone must have put this dye on at some point”
  100. >Nervously starting to question what kind of chemicals might be at play, I hadn’t recalled anything out of the ordinary about Ryan less than ten or fifteen minutes ago…
  101. >Whatever this was must’ve worked pretty fast, which could mean it was administered in an excessive dose
  102. >I set my phone on the table, knowing that if the symptoms spread across his skin, to others, or worsened beyond cosplay levels, I’d want to have an ambulance on hand as soon as possible
  103. >I briefly glanced at Ryan’s forehead – the other oddity he’d mentioned earlier, and noticed a small lump of bright blue discoloration veiled underneath his overhanging hair
  104. >Maintaining as neutral of an expression as possible, I resisted my curiosity to poke at it, especially in light of the fact that some mystery chemical could be all over my gloves at this point
  105. >Uneasily, I slipped my gloves off, being careful not to make contact with the contaminated fingertips, and tossed the offending articles into a nearby wastebasket
  106. “I’m not actually sure what would do this… bright blue pigments like this… don’t just occur naturally…”
  107. >“Wait, actually, yeah they do – How do you explain blue jays, or bluebirds?”
  108. “Those are structural colors; they just bounce the light in certain ways, much like why the sky’s blue. Okay, bright blue HAIRS don’t exist, I’ll clarify”
  109. >“Still though, what about the pony out in the front room?”
  110. >Pony? What pony?
  111. “Are you… are you seeing things? Has your headache gotten worse… Are you feeling alright?”
  112. >“No, really… The blue one, and then there’s another oddly colored purple one too”
  113. >If this was a practical joke, it was turning into a really elaborate one; there weren’t a lot of people who knew I was a low-key fan of My Little Pony, although those who did liked to rib me about it
  114. >Still, I couldn’t imagine Alexander or any of my other close friends convincing Ryan, of all people, to get in on the act just to get a rise out of me
  115. “I think… those were just plush toys… it’s… synthetic fabric and dyes…”
  116. >“Nah, full sized, real talking horses! I got to pet the purple one, cute as a button! Said her name was Storm Cloud and she was telling me about how excited she was to make friends here”
  117. >This was getting weird… I couldn’t imagine Ryan taking hallucinogens, and even then, that wouldn’t explain what I was seeing on his arm…
  118. >Maybe Ryan mistook the plush for a real thing… if it were packed with a shitload of servos and a speaker… or a high-tech ventriloquist’s dummy… the hairs might have rubbed off on his arm…
  119. >Wait, that doesn’t make sense… I saw there was a blue pony but he said he was touching the purple one… maybe the blue one’s hair’s came off? But still, it was Ryan’s OWN HAIR changing color…
  120. “Ryan, uh… you said you had a headache too, why don’t you… tell me all about what you’ve had to drink today”
  121. >“Well, it’s more of a pain in my forehead than a headache, but… my drinking began around nine when people started arriving and I opened the first beer…”
  122. >Leaning back, I put my hand to my chin and let my staring eyes wander around the room, giving the appearance of being lost in thought even as I found it hard to focus on Ryan’s regaling
  123. >My gaze landed on the modern silvery finish of the refrigerator door, giving me a slightly distorted view of the front room’s reflection through the narrow hallway
  124. >It was a mostly dim space punctuated by fancy lights and the slow undulation of a crowd shifting under the collective sway of alcohol and pulsing music
  125. >But amid the overwhelming sea of black and red from students sporting school colors, there was a dancing spot of blue… brilliant, shimmering blue… in the unmistakable shape of a pony…
  126. >As its tail whipped about and its hooves danced a jovial little jig, deep down I felt strangely unsettled, as though this… robot? Puppet? Drug-fueled vision? As though it were something sinister…
  127. >Even if it were the real deal, my blood ran a bit cold and a shiver raced up my spine as something seemed wrong with the scene, in spite of this pony’s adorableness
  128. >Attempting to tune my ears to the clamor of drunk female shouting from the room, it was clear the ponies had the attention of many of the girls, even though the guys were largely oblivious
  129. >“Come on Sky Meadows, let me give you another drink, you’re just too cuuuute!”
  130. >“Hey, I didn’t get a very long chance to cuddle with her earlier…”
  131. >“Yeah, not like Mary, she’s got those cute ears and tail and hooves… I’ve always wanted to snuggle a pony – no wait, but, even better, to be one!”
  132. >“Well, now there’s three of them, so more to go around! Here, you take this pink one…”
  133. >“Snuggle her, she’s so soft! Don’t you want your fur to be just as soft and adorable as hers?”
  134. >Rapidly beginning to question the truthfulness of the reflection, I took note of a whole spectrum of vivid colors rapidly appearing on what had once been the sparingly clothed skin of each girl
  135. >No, this can’t be happening… This is impossible… Blue isn’t a natural color to be spontaneously appearing on someone’s skin, nevermind green, bright yellow…
  136. >Ryan’s girlfriend, who had one of her arms curled around the purple pony, was toying with its mane and… wing… while patches of dark blue appeared to seep across her arm
  137. >My eyes flicked back to Ryan, who was still inattentively counting off on shaky fingers the array of drinks he’d consumed in the past few hours
  138. >I tried desperately to remain calm, doing my best to control my breathing and keep my eyes from going wide, as either would have accomplished nothing more than spread alarm
  139. >Come on, you’re a fucking EMT… you’re supposed to be the one with his head on straight when everything’s going to hell!
  140. >It’s got to be some kind of weird gas leak, maybe someone’s spreading hallucinogenic drugs through the air – this isn’t the time to panic… but it’s no time to be sitting still either!
  141. “Ryan, can you give me a second, I need to check on something…”
  142. >“Wait, but my arm…”
  143. >I briskly stumbled to my feet, taking a few steps toward the front room, the excited group of half-neon girls… and for when things really went south, the only door I knew to get out of here
  144. >It was a solid plan until Ryan’s girlfriend rounded the corner, her face and arms covered with dark blue fur and a pair of fuzzy ears poking through the top of her mostly-brown hair
  145. >She wasn’t someone known to smile much, whether drunk or sober, so the sight of her grinning – pony ear to pony ear – was terribly uncanny
  146. >“James, hiiii! How friendly are you feeling this evening, huh?”
  147. >Abruptly halting, I scurried backwards, pinning myself again the wall of the kitchen as far as possible from her, and secretly hoping that Ryan would get a hint to break down a wall and start running
  148. >That is… unless the bright blue hairs… fur… on his arm meant it was already too late for him…
  149. “Ryan, I think you and your girlfriend need to get to a hospital! Like, now! Something’s wrong!”
  150. >The infected girl was utterly unfazed by my suggestion, utterly unalarmed by her own physical changes, and still shambling toward us with an unbalanced gait of drunkenness and… something else
  151. >While I found it hard to avert the gaze linking her forbidding eyes to mine, I noticed that she was walking on her toes, her feet seemingly slightly elongated as her tight socks strained
  152. >Her toes clicked unnervingly against the tile of the kitchen floor as she stepped into Ryan’s line of sight, the concerned boyfriend suddenly paralyzed with shock upon seeing her
  153. >“Nothing’s wrong with us… Ryan, look, we match; we’re both blue!”
  154. >Wrapping her arms around her boyfriend, she held out one of her arms next to his, the thickening patches of fur on each radiating rapidly
  155. >Ryan’s eyes went wide, suddenly sporting an expression of unabated fear, but doing so only briefly before he mellowed to a smile and let his eyes slide shut, slowly returning the embrace
  156. >While I still had a window of time to escape uninfected from… whatever was happening… I bounded off the tile into the hallway
  157. >I didn’t spare a glance back to discern whether my half-blue-furred friends were pursuing me, but if I didn’t get out of this house soon, I would have a lot more to worry about than just them
  158. >Thankfully, everyone in the room ahead had their attention directed toward other people or the front door, meaning that with a few light steps, I was able to sneak to the base of the stairs
  159. >By now, the room was populated by a small herd of ponies numbering at least a dozen, many of whom were still partially entangled in the trappings of their former clothes
  160. >A nearly equal number of people were already well on their way to meeting the same fate, many lovingly embracing a pony as their fingers began fusing into brightly colored hooves
  161. >Others were faltering from their feet as their hips realigned and their pants shifted downwards against the pressure of a new tail, succumbing to gravity as the flood of equines enveloped them
  162. >Despite the dance floor having been stiflingly warm for hours prior, one guy sporting a full three piece suit was still putting up a respectable fight, the ponies unable to breach his clothes
  163. >Doing his best to keep his exposed hands high, he’d fervently struggled to within a few feet of the door, swinging his elbows frantically
  164. >I used his shouts as appropriate cover under which to climb the creaking stairs, my self-perceived helplessness beginning to dawn as everyone touched by a pony rapidly joined their ranks
  165. >“Get the fuck off of me you pastel freaks, I don’t want to be one of you! Leave me the hell alone!”
  166. >Rolling into the upstairs hallway from the top stair, I peeked around the corner just enough to see the purple Pegasus, who had been one of the first in the room, snap her wings outward
  167. >With a leap, she soared toward the guy’s chest, wrapping her wings and forelegs tightly around his torso while gently nuzzling his neck, a clashing lime green color beginning to spring up
  168. >The brave fighter’s breathing gradually slowed, a wave of calm and pleasure overtaking his face as he lowered his arms, the suit’s fabric slowly relaxing its creased folds
  169. >A pair of Pegasi at his side quickly took to nuzzling his hands, a series of pops echoing through the front room as they shifted into what I presumed would be hooves very, very soon
  170. >With some twenty to thirty ponies flicking their sensitive new ears amidst the booming bass of the former dance floor, they turned their attention to the development of their herd’s final addition
  171. >Slumping against the floor, his suit was enveloped in several different colors of magical auras, the soft glows clumsily but steadily succeeding at removing his armor, piece by piece
  172. >In the meantime, the ponies without horns were starting to glance at the rest of their surroundings, the most recent victims kicking off the last of their clothes while others flicked their manes
  173. >Much as I was deeply intrigued by the scene – magic, unicorns, Pegasi, all I’d ever dreamed of! – I desperately wanted to remain a passive observer by any means necessary
  174. >Withdrawing my head into the upstairs hallway before any of the ponies could see me, I crawled to Alexander’s door and tapped out the pattern alerting him of my presence
  175. >The knob lurched open with a click, adding to the unnerving cacophony of giggles, hoofsteps, music, and shouts of glee
  176. >The noise was all snuffed out a moment later as I rolled into the bedroom and let Alexander shut the door in my wake, swiftly locking its flimsy knob
  177. >I rose to my feet, heart still hammering as my trembling posture refused me the ability to stand straight
  178. >“Are you feeling alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost – you were only gone a few minutes”
  179. “Alexander… please tell me you… you took the bars off your window…”
  180. >“The old wrought iron frame? The one I hate architecturally but at least it keeps burglars out? I still have those up – I don’t open this window much”
  181. >He paced to the window and threw the curtains aside, revealing a breathtaking nighttime view of much of the town, but alas, the view was partially obscured by thick metal lines
  182. “We gotta get the fuck out of here, man”
  183. >“James… what’s going on?”
  184. “Please, look, there’s no time to explain, just…”
  185. >Drawing in a deep breath, the unpleasant smell of the room suddenly gave me an idea, one that I didn’t really want to act on… but if we couldn’t run, we’d need to hide
  186. “Okay, Alexander, how much do you trust me and my crazy ideas?”
  187. >“Oh, I trust them more than my own… Yours usually get results…”
  188. >His half-hearted approval would need to suffice, as I grabbed a can of body spray from the top of his dresser, uncapped it and held its nozzle down as a vile aerosol filled the room
  189. “I don’t know how strong their sense of smell is, so we need to make this room a fucking gas chamber – I promise I’ll help you wash the smell out for weeks on end later if we survive”
  190. >“Survive… what?”
  191. “These… just trust me… these ponies, okay. Think zombies, but smaller, and more adorable. But. For. The. Love. Of. GOD. Don’t let them touch you no matter what. I’m dead serious”
  192. >“Okay, okay! What, are we supposed to just hide in here?”
  193. >He and I each coughed amid the thickly scented chemicals lingering in the air, a sickening mix that blended with the alcohol enough to make me truly envy those with blocked sinuses
  194. >With clearly perceptible hoofsteps and the creaking of wooden stairs getting louder just beyond Alexander’s door, I glared at him, my breath suddenly caught in my lungs
  195. >I hoped my staring eyes would say everything my mouth couldn’t: Yes, Alexander, we’re going to hide, and by the grace of God this is going to work!
  196. >Pointing him to a hiding place beneath his small bed, I turned off his desk lamp, set down the can of body spray and carefully, quietly, slid his closet door open
  197. >Squeezing inside and closing it behind me, I couldn’t see much through the thin ventilation slits that did a lot of block my view, but little to block out the drifting smell of body spray
  198. >It was hard to resolve much in the darkness, although the slow rise and fall of Alexander’s chest beneath the bed stood out, in addition to the faint glimmer of…
  199. >Is that his pocketknife? His dinky little three inch blade that he uses to open packages sometimes?
  200. >No no no… put that away, you can’t take on the horde of ponies out there with that butterknife!
  201. >For once in your life, don’t be a cocky bastard and pick your battles wisely – if you fuck this up you’re going to get us both turned into horses!
  202. >I wanted to dissuade him, but as a hoof thumped against the door, I realized a frantic, wide-eyed nod of disapproval in the darkness was the best I’d be able to do for my friend
  203.  
  204. >For a moment, I remained hopeful that upon hearing no response from Alexander, the ponies would simply leave his bedroom door unopened
  205. >Unable to fully steady my breathing, I softly gasped when another hoof thumped repeatedly against his bedroom door, this time considerably louder and more insistent than it had been at first
  206. >My position in the closet was already almost as far back against the wall as the menagerie of assorted coats and shoes would allow, but I pressed further as the hoofbeats echoed menacingly
  207. >An unnerving pause briefly followed, only to be shattered by the crash of hooves against the door, the pony landing a solid kick that sheared the lock and threw the door open in a single hit
  208. >Light streamed into the room, flooding brilliantly over the carpet, books, bed, and closet door, though it predominantly passed on the darkness in which Alexander and I were concealed
  209. >A faint glow hung in the room’s air as light struck the lingering haze of body spray, which I prayed would help shroud any trace of us that the ponies would otherwise detect
  210. >A pair of silhouettes threw shadows across the floor, and upon closer inspection I resolved their forms as a dark blue Pegasus and a light blue unicorn
  211. >Clearly, Alexander had realized what they were as well, as he shot me an expression that couldn’t find a stable balance between fear, intrigue, and confusion
  212. >It was as if to say, he may not have believed me before now, but if these were the very same beasts that had filled my eyes with that horrified gleam, something truly bizarre was taking place
  213. >Each pony glanced into the room hopefully, the light blue unicorn quietly identifying herself as a mare as she flicked her long, flowing mane to the side and let out a disappointed sigh
  214. >“It doesn’t look like he’s in his room – ponyfeathers, I was really hoping to make friends with him!”
  215. >She took a few steps forward, her hooves halting only a couple feet from Alexander’s hiding place beneath the bed as a powerful cough escaped her throat
  216. >Unsuccessfully attempting to fan the air with a hoof, I worried she was going to inadvertently hit Alexander… and spread the infection in the process
  217. >“Goodness, what is that awful smell?!”
  218. >The Pegasus still in the doorway let out a long, monotone note of confusion, cocking his head to the side while his marefriend persistently tried to clear the air
  219. >He took a nonplussed step into the room, quickly gagging and shutting his eyes against the aerosol onslaught
  220. >Fanning his wings in a desperate attempt to provide some circulation, it was a minute or two before the unicorn’s coughing finally stopped and she could get a word out
  221. >“That’s… what I was talking about…”
  222. >“My word, do you know whether he’s always lived like this? In this overpowering air smelling of body spray?”
  223. >“I… I wouldn’t know – I mean, it isn’t usually socially… acceptable…”
  224. >“To drown one’s self in these chemicals, or for you to come into his room?”
  225. >“For us to come into his private room when we were his roommates, and if he became a stallion I definitely wouldn’t be coming in here, well, considering you and I are already a couple”
  226. >“Well since you became a mare, it’s a good thing I ended up as a stallion then – you don’t need any others tempting you, eh?”
  227. >The dark blue Pegasus stepped next to the much smaller unicorn and wrapped one of his wings around her barrel, nuzzling his face against hers while avoiding the prodding of her horn
  228. >In the darkness, I clamped a hand around my upper arm, trying to keep my blood pressure high enough to avoid passing out as a void opened where my stomach had once been
  229. >Oh, fuck, no…
  230. >No no no…
  231. >Don’t tell me that the soft-spoken unicorn mare just beyond the closet door is… was… Ryan…
  232. >He played football and hockey all through high school… he and I worked together to put up new timbers in the house… he was always the person carrying a hundred pounds over his weight…
  233. >He was never perfect and we weren’t incredibly close, but he was a really good guy… a good… guy…
  234. >He had been perfectly healthy, if a little inebriated, but then in what seemed like the blink of an eye he’d lost his species, his gender…
  235. >…And if his willingness to take it all in stride was any indication, he lost sight of the guy he once was, too…
  236. >With pleading eyes, I begged Alexander to put down the knife he was still firmly gripping, which he gently did upon realizing he wasn’t prepared for a fight with these adversaries…
  237. >Not when they were capable of turning him into one of… them… and they seemed happy, even if the human bodies they – Ryan and his girlfriend – had discarded… were now just memories
  238. >I… I know I don’t want to end up like that… In the words of Talbert, everything’s right where it should be… and by God, that’s how it’s going to stay!
  239. >The Pegasus broke from the embrace with a deep cough, tracing his marefriend’s mane with a hoof as he eyed her sweetly
  240. >“So I guess if Alexander isn’t here, from the looks of things…”
  241. >“I… I could’ve sworn I heard footsteps in here, honest!”
  242. >“It’s okay dear, I don’t doubt you! I’m just as disappointed as you are that we couldn’t make friends with him right now”
  243. >“He mentioned that he’d be travelling this weekend… So that must be where he is…”
  244. >The Pegasus stallion wandered over to Alexander’s desk, pulling the chair back and jumping onto its seat as it slid a few inches along the carpet
  245. >A gust of wind whipped about the room when he reflexively twitched his wings mid-jump, knocking a few empty beer cans to the ground in a heap with a dreadful metallic clanging
  246. >“If he’s gone though, why did he leave behind a bunch of beer cans? Not to mention all these notes – couldn’t he be studying these on the bus?”
  247. >“That… something about that does strike me as a bit odd… Is it possible… he was still somewhere in the house?”
  248. >Alexander looked at me from under the bed with wide eyes, his breathing rapidly increasing in tempo as his hand drifted back toward the knife, gently wrapping around the cold metal
  249. >No… steady, Alexander… just stay calm… don’t be too quick to act here…
  250. >The stallion flicked his tail, hooves moving the papers rather quickly and absentmindedly at first, but then… more slowly, as though his attention was being demanded by something else…
  251. >“What was that? Did you hear something?”
  252. >“I did – You heard that too?”
  253. >The ponies rose to attention, their spines stiffening as they swiveled their ears about, the pointed tips standing on end as much as they could manage
  254. >I held my breath, taking one final look at my trembling friend while he was still privileged to have ten fingers and toes
  255. >I’m sorry Alexander… I’m so sorry… all I could do was warn you in what little time we had… there were too many of them… it all started too fast and spread too fast…
  256. >Amid the dull thud of bass emanating from around the hallway corner and down the stairs, a faint voice echoed, our meager human ears unable to discern it
  257. >Our equine counterparts, on the other hand, seemed to perceive it loud and clear, swiveling their ears to catch the noise as they looked at each other
  258. >“Was that Storm Cloud?”
  259. >“Yeah, sounds like the herd’s heading out to make some new friends”
  260. >The Pegasus jumped off the chair, his wings excitedly catching on a few papers that reached the ground shortly after the impacts of his hooves
  261. >“Oh, I can’t wait, what fun we’re going to have!”
  262. >“Let’s get going before they get too far away! I still need to thank… uh… whoever the pony that James is now… I need to thank them for being such a caring friend!”
  263. >“Agreed! I know it wasn’t us who showed him the ways of friendship, but I’m glad he learned them all the same – It’s so wonderful that he was in the house and he’s in our herd now!”
  264. >“I just can’t wait to get some fresh air after being in this foul room…”
  265. >The Pegasus giggled at his marefriend’s comment, presenting her a toothy grin as he wrapped a wing around her and they trotted through the doorway
  266. >With a brilliant, alien glow, the door and unicorn’s horn were each enveloped by a magical aura that caused the door to swing closed without physical contact, plunging us back into darkness
  267. >The only light to be seen was the moonlight drifting in through the barred window, and if I were a bit higher in the closet I’m sure I’d be able to see the gently glowing lights of the town below
  268. >For as peaceful as everything looked now, a shiver ran down my spine as I realized the calm would be evaporating very soon, and very rapidly as the ponies began fanning out
  269. >There was just enough light to make out the vague silhouette of Alexander beneath the bed, his chest rising and falling dramatically with each deep breath, each exhale struggling to remain quiet
  270. >The sight prompted me to release the breath I’d been holding for what felt like a full minute, my jaw hanging open as the suspense dissipated, if only a little bit
  271. >We could be nearly certain that there were still ponies gradually filtering out of the house, but following their less than thorough search, at least there were none in Alexander’s room
  272. >Neither Alexander nor I dared move as we heard the slam of the front door, indistinctly drowned by the bass-boosted speakers that watched while passively, apathetically thumping away
  273. >There wasn’t much pony life to be easily heard in the wake of the cheery voices and faint thunder of hooves exiting the house, but that monotony was a double-edged sword
  274. >Alexander and I didn’t know whether we’d be able to discern any lagging hoofsteps against the backdrop of music, and with the ponies’ exceptional listening, who knew what they could hear…
  275. >The time dragged like chains for well over an hour, the pauses between playlist songs downstairs functioning as the best timekeeping mechanism I could surmise
  276. >Alexander had a watch, but it wasn’t worth asking him for the time while so much was still at stake, as a single pony remaining in the house could spell doom for both of us
  277. >They certainly seemed to be curious, skilled, and social creatures, giving them an alarming effective repertoire in the realm of search and destroy, or rather, search and ‘befriend’
  278. >The house’s echoing heartbeat had a unique tenseness to it, with Alexander and me listening and repeatedly mistaking various percussion instruments for the unnerving clacks of hooves
  279. >Each lonely song would begin, crescendo to a drop or peak, throw in some choruses and bridges for conformity’s sake, then disappear to repeat the whole process again, every four minutes or so
  280. >It was maddening… four minutes, eight minutes, twelve minutes…
  281. >Of all the things I’d have expected from the opening hours of an apocalypse, anxious boredom wasn’t high on the list
  282. >I simply wanted the music to conclusively stop so we could know for certain whether the ponified roommates had stayed, but the digital disc jockey was truly demonstrating its staying power
  283. >Amid the thumping of bass, at one point I could have sworn I heard a relatively distant gunshot outside the window, heralding the beginning of the inevitable turmoil
  284. >However, its echo gradually died, and even in a pending apocalypse, the rarity of a single gunshot led me to question whether it was a car backfiring or a synthetic sound effect on the playlist
  285. >After a full hour in the prevailing darkness of the room, my eyes adjusted quite well, though there wasn’t much interesting scenery to look at aside from Alexander’s diverse signs of confusion
  286. >I briefly considered throwing down against him in a classic game of rock-paper-scissors through the slits in the closet’s door, but it didn’t seem appropriate for the time and place
  287. >Instead opting to twiddle my thumbs to the music’s beat, the subtle fidgeting helped me relax a little bit in the midst… of…
  288. >What’s going on…
  289. >Alexander… what are… you… what’s going on? Alexander?!
  290. >My heartbeat was stirring to a frenzy the more I stared at the shadows shrouding my friend beneath the bed
  291. >His neutral expression caught a few flecks of moonlight, but amid the inky darkness, the top of his head was silhouetted with… a point…
  292. >A blurry point right where the ponies’ ears had been…
  293. >No…
  294. >It… it can’t be… Alexander… no, no no no, not you too! Please!
  295. >We were so careful! I thought we took every precaution we could in what little time we had, and never made physical contact – this isn’t fair! No, this just isn’t fair!
  296. >What more could I have done? What… Whatever’s causing this, is it an airborne virus that got to you? And come to think of it, it could’ve gotten to me then, right?
  297. >Oh God… Where… where did I make a mistake – I must have done something wrong… this is my doing! I’ll do it over again, I’ll do it right, please give me a second chance!
  298. >Alexander, fight… fight it! It’s only taken a little piece of you, don’t let it win, please! Please don’t let it win!
  299. >We’re like brothers, I won’t care if you’re one percent pony – we can cut off your ear and call it a day, just fight it! Fight it, fight it, fight, please!
  300. >I didn’t know what to do for my friend, and as the thought set in that I might be losing him, on top of already having lost a dozen of my other friends, my resolve to hold back tears crumbled
  301. >Silently weeping at first, my cheeks were already wet before any shuddering gasps came though, resonating with the first sound from within the room since the ponies left an hour ago
  302. >The blue ponies, that is… if they got any part of Alexander, he and I were both doomed to ponydom already; it just took a bit of time for the inevitability to actually set in
  303. >Maybe it was Alexander’s enhanced ears doing the listening, but his eyes returned from wandering the carpet, ultimately landing on the closet door from which my gentle sobbing originated
  304. >His face was wrought with concern & confusion, and while he didn’t have much space in which to shift his position, he tried to raise his head toward me to see what was wrong
  305. >In doing so, he shifted his arm… as well as the flattened hand which he’d been resting against the side of his head…
  306. >And as he moved his arm, the point where his… pony ear… had been… slid away into the shadows
  307. >It… it was gone… So… He wasn’t… He wasn’t going to be a pony…
  308. >It had all been a mistake… just a trick of the light in the shadows…
  309. >I wiped my eyes, trying to console myself that for once a positive turn of fortune had arrived
  310. >Alexander’s face said everything he and I were both wondering: For Christ’s sake, why are you breaking down, now, of all the times to lose it?
  311. >And to tell the truth… I don’t know… I’m sorry… It’s just… the shadows… your hand… I was so scared of you losing your humanity… that I let it… it got the best of me for a moment…
  312. >Finding it difficult to make eye contact with him, I hung my head shamefully, returning to twiddling my thumbs as another song started up and a final tear rolled from my depleted reservoir
  313. >Alexander, I’m worried about losing the only friend I think I can still trust in this town… but I know I still need to toughen up, neither of us is guaranteed to stay human forever…
  314. >If I… If we can stay calm, if we can assess things for what they really are, this won’t be the end of us… We won’t let that happen… I won’t let that happen to us
  315. >I let out a forceful exhale, slowing regaining my personal sense of calm in the desensitized darkness of the cramped bedroom closet
  316. >The sense of calm beyond the window, on the other hand, was rapidly deteriorating, as the cacophony carried by the wind brought with it reports of gunshots, crashes, and clashes
  317. >If the steady timekeeping of the songs downstairs was reasonably reliable, the outcries of the ponification campaign started occuring as much as once every few minutes
  318. >Repeatedly, a shattering window accompanied the chaos of a car running off the road, followed by a few horrified shouts as the humans inside got picked off like sardines from a can
  319. >When patterns of gunshots came through, they were always the same, never reflecting any semblance of a proper defense that really stood a chance
  320. >One or two steady shots - if they were lucky - followed by a few in frenetic, rapid succession as the unseen shooter was hopelessly overrun by equines
  321. >For those caught in the wave of ponies, successfully reloading seemed to be an unattainable privilege, and far out of the question for those who couldn’t even make use of a full magazine
  322. >To say that the resistance was anything but negligible would be laughable, as there was a distinct lack of sirens, and the number of shots ringing out was hopelessly low
  323. >A total of twenty or thirty shots, even if they hit their marks, was hardly enough to simply deal with the initial herd that had departed my house…
  324. >I was initially surprised that so many people were even awake around two in the morning, but it dawned on me that as the panic spread, people were awakening to the furry horrors
  325. >Whether many of them had time to actually fight back as they were roused from sleep was a different question entirely
  326. >My imagination conjured thoughts of my eyes sliding open to see the unrelenting smile of a pony silhouetted against my bedroom ceiling, its tail flicking with excitement as it pulls back the blanket
  327. >As a ceiling fan slowly swirls in the darkness overhead, the pony’s gentle caressing brings a few strands of mane groggily into view…
  328. >First a single pink arc… then a few more locks appearing in clumps… then a flood of pink hair as the changes wash over me, my head being thoroughly taken by the infection
  329. >Rapidly, it races down my nose, my face pressing out into a muzzle through which I can only manage to let out a single shocked gasp
  330. >Trying to push the pony away does nothing but incur the transformation’s wrath further, hands turning to hooves on contact as my body weakens, becoming as small as the pony’s
  331. >By the time she lowers herself from her domineering standing position, my chest… barrel… is rising and falling frantically with each deep breath
  332. >And then… nothing… I can’t imagine what happens to me after that, because the final embrace of the pony marks the end of it truly being ‘me’ after that point…
  333. >The process is swift… unrelenting… dangerously efficient… and by the time it’s done, I forget why I was even fighting back in the first place
  334. >However, the story doesn’t end there – the transformation finishes, I join the herd, and it all repeats… except I’m taking part in it from the pony’s perspective the next time…
  335. >The noises outside seemed to originate from a steadily creeping wave, one without a distinct front line, but as we listened, Alexander and I could tell that the chaos was growing more distant
  336. >I had to hope someone else, somewhere, was awake at this early hour of the morning and had found a successful hiding spot, or had managed to escape…
  337. >There are… were… thousands of people living in this town – they couldn’t all become ponies, could they?
  338. >With the crash of a car somewhere nearby, my ears caught the slow timber of a utility pole, the illumination from outside growing slightly dimmer as the glow of streetlamps flickered out
  339. >In the same moment, the music went quiet downstairs, the thud of rhythmic bass giving way to silence throughout the house, save for our breathing and firm heartbeats
  340. >In one form or another, I guess that’s exactly what I’d wanted to happen…
  341. >Alexander held his ear to the floor while I listened to the air around us, anxiously waiting for any signs of ponies active in the house
  342. >The silence was crushing, with each of us flinching at the slightest gust of wind, but as time dragged on, we became more confident in our willingness to conclude that we were alone
  343. >Alexander let out a sigh before putting forth his entry for the quietest perceptible whisper ever uttered
  344. >“It’s been fifteen minutes – I think the coast is clear…”
  345. “Yeah, I think so, too”
  346. >“What fuck, dude… who was that girl pony earlier? I don’t have any girl roommates; I never have…”
  347. “I think that unicorn is… was… Ryan, and the Pegasus with him was his girlfriend; there was blue fur spreading all over them last I saw”
  348. >Alexander’s breathing became markedly labored and his face twisted into shock as he grappled with the implications I’d set before him
  349. >“You can… you can come out from hiding whenever you’d like, I’m just… going to keep lying down for a bit… I’m just a little dizzy”
  350. “Yeah, take your time. Don’t come out by the front of the bed though; I don’t know what kind of pathogens caused these transformations, so we have to assume anything they touched is infected”
  351. >“Right, right, that’s a good idea…”
  352. >I slid the closet door open and moved to the window to shut the blackout curtains, hopefully to prevent peering Pegasi eyes from seeing in, and prevent any light we used from spilling out
  353. >Curiosity meant I couldn’t stand on this end of the room near the window without catching a moonlit glimpse of the town… or at least, what remained of it
  354. >A pair of thick smoke plumes curving across the sky pointed the way to a pair of distantly wavering fires, the flames making quick work of a cluster of structures on the far side of town
  355. >Just above the horizon, a small group of Pegasi circled some unseen target, one of them doing a carefree corkscrew in the midst of their decisive victory
  356. >Though Alexander’s watch would be quick to point out that it was the early morning hours, I still found it unsettling how dark it was, save for the warm orange glow of the fires
  357. >There wasn’t a single streetlamp to be seem for blocks, nor any lightbulbs, cars, or illuminated signs – not even a private generator seemed to be in use anywhere
  358. >As I shut the curtains, I couldn’t help but think how the Dark Ages had prominently resurrected after their centuries of dormancy… and those were not good times
  359. >Turning back into the room, Alexander had risen from his hiding place and shook out one of his legs with relief
  360. >Grabbing a tissue from a suspect box at his bedside, he stepped over to his desk and picked up a small flashlight, making sure to avoid direct contact with everything around it by any means necessary
  361. >Tossing the tissue into a wastebasket, he winced as the otherwise dim bulb assaulted his unprepared eyes, the room veritably glowing after the hour or two we’d spent in darkness
  362. >“Oh, goodness. And what happened to everyone else at the party? Did anyone make it out?”
  363. “The ponies were close to the door early on, and it spread like wildfire… one almost made it out, with… ‘almost’ being the key word”
  364. >“And you think everyone else in town…”
  365. “We both know they probably met the same fate”
  366. >He let out a forceful exhale, setting his hands on his hips while his eyes flicked back and forth
  367. >“Well, shit, we can’t just stand around twiddling our thumbs until they find us to turn those thumbs into hooves!”
  368. “I just don’t know what we can do about it…”
  369. >“We need to get a message out to someone, someone who would believe that we’re trapped in a hellscape of cuddly terrors. My phone’s not working; do you have service?”
  370. >I dug my hand into the pocket where my phone should have been, only to find it barren
  371. “Shoot… I left it downstairs when I had to book it out of there…”
  372. >“I’ll help you get it; let’s go before the ponies get the bright idea of returning to the house”
  373. >With a flick of the wrist, he removed another tissue from the box, gently draping it over his hand as he stepped toward the doorknob, the flashlight’s glow dancing in his hand
  374. “Alexander, wait…”
  375. >Halting his movement, he straightened up next to the door and looked at me with determined but confused eyes
  376. “When people get turned into ponies, they seem to keep their memories even though their primary directive suddenly becomes the relentless conversion of everyone they once loved…”
  377. >“Yes, that’s what you were telling me – they’re adorable zombies; what’s your point?”
  378. “We’re the only ones who know we’re here, and hell, they seem to believe I’m already a pony in their herd. So if one of us is seen and gets turned into a pony…”
  379. >“…shoot, that means we BOTH spend the rest of our days eating grass and flowers in the fields…”
  380. “Right, so if we both go, we’re doubling our chances of being noticed or touching something that was infected”
  381. >“Damn, you do make a good point...”
  382. “Alexander, I… I don’t like the idea of going it alone in the apocalypse, in any capacity…”
  383. >He set a hand on my shoulder in an effort to ease my troubled mind
  384. >“I’m not going anywhere – we’re in this together even if I’m not right beside you. We’ve been together since the first day of classes, and I’ll see you through to the end of this mess”
  385. “Th-Thanks… Okay, get the phone, get back, piece of cake”
  386. >“You can do this”
  387. >He poked my chest with the handle of the flashlight, gently patting my shoulder and stepping back with a smiling display of encouragement
  388. >I can do this. I can do this.
  389. >Floating his hand toward the doorknob again, I didn’t balk this time as he turned it, opening the door to the darkened hallway into which I promptly threw a circle of light
  390. >As I slowly walked to the top of the stairs, Alexander’s bedroom door creaked behind me, just in inch or two short of fully shutting
  391. >I lifted my foot and set it down as carefully and stealthily as possible with each step, keeping much of the flashlight’s glow shuttered as it wavered in my trembling hand
  392. >In the lifeless silence, every sound seemed to echo infinitely, from the rattling of the decrepit pipes in the ceiling, to the unnerving creaks of each step I descended
  393. >I reached the base of the stairs and looked out into what had once been the lively front room, full of cheery partygoers simply happy to have made it through another week of classes
  394. >Far gone were the hours of drinks and music, and the scene now took on the appearance of a rapture’s aftermath
  395. >Spilled drinks and an assortment of abandoned clothes littered the floor, everything from shirts and pants, to underwear in various stages of ripping
  396. >Some people had fought tooth and nail to keep their transformations from occurring, while others’ hearts melted at the sight of the ponies and giddily threw away their clothes to join them
  397. >I shut off and pocketed the flashlight, a dim blue glow softly illuminating the room as a laptop in the corner, the former music master, ran down the last of its battery life
  398. >Its perplexed screen searched for the missing notes of the playlist’s stream, a pair of error messages blinking to no one in particular that Wi-Fi and power were in desperately short supply
  399. >Absentmindedly I reached for a pair of jeans with some passing curiosity about exploring its pockets, but realized my mistake only a moment too late as my hand wrapped around the denim
  400. >If these were on the floor… and they had been on someone who’d transformed… oh, shit, no, no!
  401. >I let go of them, and as they crumpled to the ground again, I violently jerked my hand back, grasping its wrist with my other hand as I stared at the exposed palm
  402. >I fucked up… I didn’t even make it thirty seconds before fucking up… Some pony’s hooves, fur, feathers… were definitely touching that at some point, and I rushed to do the same…
  403. >I’m sorry Alexander… you were so careful and if you were here, you’d have stopped me from making such a dumb mistake – you were always the smart one…
  404. >I stared at my hand for a full minute, my heart hammering as I waited for my fingernails to start turning blue, or for fine green hairs to start pushing out of my palm…
  405. >…but it never happened…
  406. >For as fast as I knew this infection was supposed to spread… it didn’t… and as my breathing slowly calmed, I realized that I wasn’t about to become a pony…
  407. >Okay, so maybe the infection was only effective in directly cuddling with the ponies; I guess that makes it a bit easier to deal with – just avoid the ponies
  408. >Although… it’s still better to not tempt fate
  409. >Clicking on the flashlight again, I made my way through the narrow hallway back to the dark kitchen, ultimately finding my medical kit right where I’d left it while treating Ryan
  410. >With a pop, I opened it and removed a pair of nitrile gloves, sliding them over my hands as a knight would put on a pair of gauntlets
  411. >I couldn’t resist the urge to waggle my fingers a bit – even after a few years providing medical services, acquiring the perk of touching things without consequence was oddly entertaining
  412. >The EMT pouch in which I kept my kit was adorned with a few straps designed for tactical vest webbing, but just as well, I zipped it closed and secured the straps snugly around my belt
  413. >Grabbing my phone off the table, I unlocked it and checked my signal, the cool glow of the screen glimmering brightly throughout the whole room
  414. >The signal showed zero bars… damn, I always got at least three or four in this town, even while indoors…
  415. >Of all the times for it to go out, this wasn’t the least bit opportune, and I had to wonder whether the ponies had a hand… hoof… in the network’s sudden outage
  416. >Clicking it off, the cell phone slid into my pocket and reached for the landline attached to the wall in the corner of the kitchen
  417. >Pressing it to my ear, I let out an irritated sigh as the phone whined out an unerring dial tone, effectively turning it into a useless hunk of plastic
  418. >Damn, this really wasn’t supposed to be easy, was it?
  419. >Returning the headset back to the receiver with an annoyed click, my gaze settled on the wallet and keys left on the chair where Ryan had been seated a few hours earlier
  420. >Opening the wallet, I didn’t know what I expected to find out of the ordinary – there was a faded greyscale picture of the person once known as Ryan on his driver’s license
  421. >Naturally his ID photo, like so many others, didn’t sport much in the way of a grin, and I would have been ecstatic to see him – the original Ryan – doing anything but grinning right now
  422. >The unnerving thought of his girlfriend shambling towards me with her toothy, half-ponified smile was still burned into my mind, and it was strange to think that joyous faces now conjured fear
  423. >I shook my head in an attempt to clear the errant thoughts, ultimately turning Ryan’s wallet to its side and eyeing the forty dollars that a pair of abandoned bills represented
  424. >What would money even be good for in the scenario Alexander and I currently found ourselves in?
  425. >Figuring it was definitely a bit immoral to do so, but also considering Ryan… or the unicorn that was once him… probably wouldn’t be returning for them, I pocketed the bills
  426. >If Alexander and I could get beyond the ponies by one means or another, a fair deal of pocket change would be useful for buying essentials
  427. >The glimmer of his car keys caught my eye, and I bit my lip contemplatively while considering our chances of making a break for it on four wheels
  428. >Hell, there were probably a dozen sets of keys in the various pockets and purses now scattered through the house – we’d have free reign to choose the fastest or most fortified car
  429. >But the gauntlet of Pegasi that we’d be facing for several miles through the town was do-or-die, and it didn’t seem like anyone before us had been very fortunate
  430. >A few hits to a standard car window would be enough to break it, and from there, a Pegasus that manages to get in the car has every close quarters advantage
  431. >Within a few moments, it’s impossible to grip the steering wheel or reach the pedals any more, and two or more ponies exit the car
  432. >From the moment an engine revved up, it provided a constant homing beacon, a focus point to which all the Pegasi would be swarming – never mind the unicorns and regular ponies
  433. >Tossing the wallet back to the table and leaving the keys behind, I grabbed a sealed plastic water bottle from the kitchen counter, silently praying only certain utilities were out of commission
  434. >The electricity and wired connections were clearly out, and if running water was out with them, our situation was going to become dire rapidly, as our water reserves wouldn’t last long
  435. >Jotting down a mental note to start running a faucet during part of the ‘hunkering down’ process, I made my way through the narrow hallway, back toward the front room and stairs
  436. >There would be plenty of time later to rifle through everyone’s clothes, and surely there would be something we could use in their purses and the abando-
  437. >I stopped dead in my tracks
  438. >Snuffing out the light of the flashlight against my T-shirt, I stared at the silhouette illuminated by the soft blue glow from the laptop
  439. >Lying against a wall on the far edge of the room was… a blue pony…
  440. >Sleeping on her side as she faced me, she didn’t have any wings or a horn that I could see, but that didn’t make her much less threatening than her feature-furnished counterparts
  441. >As I stared at the firmly shut eyelids of her cartoonishly large eyes, my thoughts raced, questioning whether she knew about the presence of the humans accompanying her in the house
  442. >What if it’s just an act… what if she’s just pretending to be asleep? What if she’s the bait for an ambush?
  443. >That would be silly though… if they know we’re here, is there really that much point in an ambush?
  444. >Rushing at us while we were unprepared like they did to everyone in the front room would net them an easy victory…
  445. >But… if it’s not an ambush, what were the options here? Kill h- oh, fuck, no, don’t even think about that!
  446. >What happened to ‘do no harm’; that’s not something to throw out the window just because it’s convenient!
  447. >Come on James, think about this… You have time to think – you don’t have anywhere to be now that your classmates and professors are snuggly little equines…
  448. >While I stared at the sleeping pony, she stirred slightly, shifting a foreleg forward and gently kicking a hind leg
  449. >The movement elicited her to let out a soft groan, followed by a faint squeak of pain that clearly illustrated her agony despite the absence of wakefulness
  450. >Even as someone aspiring to be a doctor, Alexander was going to kill me for this… the least I can do for this pony now is to do my job…
  451. >Carefully stepping toward her as the uncomfortably hurried breathing continued, I dropped to one knee, doing my best to assess her condition without touching her fur to my arm
  452. >Even from far away, it was evident she was in a fair deal of pain, and the cause became crystal clear as I deftly shifted her legs to get a better look at the gashes running along her bruised stomach
  453. >The ponies’ victory over the transforming humans had been an overwhelming landslide, but maybe not as overwhelming as I’d first though…
  454. >The more I looked over her and the faint groans of suffering escaped from her mouth, the more I steeled myself to do something, anything, for the poor animal
  455. >She may have had four legs instead of two, and I sure as hell wasn’t a veterinarian, but I was more than aware of the weight of responsibility resting on my shoulders
  456. >I uncapped the water bottle, in case she’d be parched upon awakening, softly setting it on the floor in front of her closed eyes
  457. >Unzipping the EMT pouch, I withdrew everything I’d need, acting on instinct as a sterile cleansing wipe dropped to the floor in front of me, the soft crinkle of plastic failing to disturb the pony
  458. >Breathing in deeply, I released the breath a moment later as I unwrapped the wipe, taking one last look at the blood-soaked fur lining her stomach
  459. >The belly of the beast… here goes nothing…
  460.  
  461. >As the cleansing wipe moved toward the largest bloody patch and made light contact, the pony winced, certainly acknowledging its presence even though she wasn’t acting much upon it
  462. >I gently dragged the wipe through her fur, cleaning the area surrounding the worst of her injuries before I readied myself to tackle the patches that I knew would be a real challenge
  463. >With the pony splayed out on her side, I finished doing the first pass with little resistance from her during the span of a few short seconds
  464. >The sleeping pony letting out a gentle sigh as I drew back, bloody wipe in hand
  465. >I glanced back toward the kitchen because it contained the nearest garbage can I could recall seeing, but it dawned on me that no one would be taking out or collecting the garbage anytime soon
  466. >It defied my sensibilities to let this house become a pigsty, but I grabbed a forsaken baseball cap that happened to be within arm’s reach and tossed the waste there for later removal
  467. >Unwrapping and unfolding a second wipe, I stared back at the pony’s stomach, the relatively clean, light blue contrasting sharply with the deep red of her wounds
  468. >As the wipe met her chest again just a couple inches from the gash, I cautiously dragged it along the direction of the fur, exhaling deeply as I closed the distance
  469. >The pony’s closed eyes were twitching as the seething burn of alcohol met the slash, and before I’d even made it a quarter of the way down the line, she let out a yelp
  470. >She and I both flinched, with me falling backwards while her forelegs swiped at the air, narrowly missing my exposed arm by a few inches
  471. >With quickened breathing, I leaned back in my seated position, petrified that the sudden stimulus could rouse her into wakefulness and instinctive pony action
  472. >After all, I was the bad man who was causing her pain, and that meant I needed to be immediately converted into a loving, friendly pony who wouldn’t hurt a fly, right?
  473. >Thankfully, aside from her uncomfortably quick breathing, she calmed surprisingly rapidly, her legs giving in to gravity about as quickly as when they’d begun their insurrection a moment earlier
  474. >As she let out a groan, I shifted my attention toward the source of her agitated plea for the first time since I’d begun treatment, and noticed that her eyelids had slid open, if only a crack
  475. >I could feel the perspiration instantaneously collecting in the small of my back as her eyes looked groggily in my direction, but the panic dissipated when she retracted her gaze a moment later
  476. >What are you doing; don’t you want to get on your hooves and do what you came here to do, just make more of yourselves with reckless regard for the consequences and lives of those affected?
  477. >After staring at her unsettled – yet far from hostile – expression for a few moments, I realized that her muzzle was moving almost imperceptibly, gentle breaths of air escaping with words’ traces
  478. >“W… waa…”
  479. >Her eyes were staring longingly at the plastic bottle in front of her, gleaming with desire as her eyebrows twisted into a beggar’s slant
  480. >I responded with a gentle whisper that sought to not only confirm her request, but also assure her I was an ally
  481. “Water? Is that what you want, little pony?”
  482. >A yearning whine left her throat, its falling pitch providing affirmation in the apparent absence of her speaking abilities
  483. “Please be good for me, okay?”
  484. >I’m serious… If you grab at my arm and still want a drink, you’d better be damn sure of your presumption that I’d end up as a unicorn…
  485. >I gripped the bottle firmly, removing the cap with a snap that prompted the pony’s nearest ear to twitch slightly
  486. >The first drops of water fell to the floor, but as I tipped the mouth of the bottle to meet her parched lips, she began nursing tranquilly, taking a few respectable gulps of water
  487. >I could tell by observation that it wasn’t enough to fully rehydrate her, but as a contented expression spread across her face, it evidently did her a lot of good
  488. >Gently stroking her face, I brushed a few wandering strands of her mane away in case they would otherwise bother her the next time she maneuvered for a drink
  489. “Did you have enough for now?”
  490. >“Mm-hmm…”
  491. >Her eyes slid closed again, comfortable with the current arrangement and either too sleepy, worn down, or disinterested to make an immediate, aggressive effort at transforming me
  492. >I set the bottle flat on the floor in front of her again, leaving it uncapped upon realizing she wouldn’t be able to remove the cap with her own hooves
  493. >It was a minute or two before I finally turned my attention back toward the half-used wipe that had I’d dropped to the floor in my prior frenzy
  494. >As dirt and a small clump of hair clung to its damp surface, I resigned that its sterility was long gone, tossing it into the baseball cap with its predecessor
  495. >More than anything else, I wanted to let this pony sleep… her immune system was no doubt working overtime, and between the water and rest, she was going to need all the help I could provide
  496. >She would likely need stitches sooner or later, but then again, my only two options for that procedure were essentially doing it with… or without… anesthesia
  497. >Doing it without too little or no anesthesia, she would probably end up crying out and fighting back, inevitably hitting my exposed arm in the process, and then I doubt I’d be very helpful with hooves
  498. >Doing it with copious anesthesia brought up important questions about how she would fare, meaning the gashes could soon be the LEAST of her problems with a too-large dose
  499. >There were too many variables to try to address in her current state, even if I knew the anesthetic options inside and out – questions about allergies, weight, recent food consumption…
  500. >Softly sighing and withdrawing a very modest amount of topical analgesic that would slightly numb the pain, I applied it to her cuts to make the last bit of cleaning go a bit more smoothly
  501. >For now, I was clearly just kicking the can down the road with regard to putting in stitches, but the more I thought about it, the more I envisioned this working out for the benefit of me and Alexander
  502. >If this pony is awake and aware for the procedure, she might realize that the humans are here to help, and that could either lead to peaceful coexistence, or a cobblestone to the path out of town
  503. >She already knew I was here – hell, if my cover’s already blown, what was there to lose in trying by keeping her around for a bit longer?
  504. >I rose to my feet while clutching the flashlight, turning it on as the front room’s closet loomed closer in my view with each cautious step through the darkness
  505. >Sliding the door open with an unnerving creak and rumble, I was met with a varied plethora of sports equipment that at been made obsolescent by its now-equine owners
  506. >Hockey sticks, a pair of basketballs, even a compound bow that had recently been polished to perfection…
  507. >Now, granted, as ponies, they were still very interested in hunting, but based on what I’d seen it was more of an instinctively-fueled urge to befriend as many humans as they could
  508. >Boy, if only Richard Connell had been alive to see this manifestation of the most dangerous game…
  509. >I was disinterested in most of the equipment lining the walls, but my eye was drawn to a small box on a lower shelf with Alexander’s name carelessly scrawled in permanent marker
  510. >Pulling a leash and chain from the box, I recalled Alexander’s optimistic enthusiasm about getting a dog before his landlord unyieldingly put the notion to bed with a strongly worded letter
  511. >Shutting the closet door behind me, I returned to the sleeping pony and clicked the leash around her neck, the strap fitting snugly, but without being constricting
  512. >A modest lead of chain snaked its way to the radiator, where I tied off several loops in a convoluted knot, with neither the chain nor radiator showing any give when I gave each a solid yank
  513. >Stepping back with the intention of self-assuredly admiring my work, instead, I frowned
  514. >I knew that not even a few hours ago, this pony was a full-blooded human – someone’s friend, classmate, and son or daughter – and now she was chained up like a common pet…
  515. >Lord knows I wasn’t doing this because I wanted to, but it needed to be done if Alexander and I were to retain our humanity… There was no other choice…
  516. >Retrieving a piece of paper, tape, and a permanent marker from the kitchen, I scrawled a large message in block letters and taped it to the chain near its midpoint
  517. >I’M SORRY
  518. >This wouldn’t exactly be conducive to getting the pony to cooperate with us, but if she ran off and alerted other ponies, Alexander and I would be overwhelmed so quickly it’d make our heads spin
  519. >If we wanted her to help us, we were going to need to go above and beyond with her quality of treatment so long as she was being unwillingly kept
  520. >Lowering myself to a seated position at her side again, I glanced at the site where I’d applied the topical analgesic
  521. >In the past few minutes it had started to settle in, and she happily murmured, shifting her body slightly without muttering so much as a peep of pain
  522. >With her breathing gradually tempering to a rhythm more akin to what I imagined from a normal sleeping pony, I ran my gloves through her mane, whispering softly into her ear
  523. “There you go little pony, that’s a good girl…”
  524. >I gave her a few scratches behind the ear, which she eagerly received and even leaned into despite her drowsily unconscious state
  525. >With a free hand, I brushed along her haunches in gentle circular motions, which elicited a soft moan of pleasure as I felt her muscles relaxing more with each pass
  526. >Petting her mane and running my fingers through its silky strands caused her to melt, like butter on a hot summer day, while a subdued smile took root and persisted even as I drew my hands back
  527. “There, there… Such a wonderful little pony…”
  528. >After seeing her in such a state of bliss, I knew it’d break my heart if cleaning her wounds upset the scene’s mood by stinging even a little bit
  529. >Unwrapping another wipe, and doing so without even needing to look by now, I unfolded it and floated it over the gash I’d partially cleaned already, accompanied by a circumspect exhale
  530. >The wipe met her skin with a careful yet firm touch, and the pony’s expression was utterly unperturbed as it passed along the wound’s full length, picking up a deep red color by the end
  531. “Good girl, good girl…”
  532. >Tossing it away and obtaining a fresh wipe, I repeated the process with the other gash, leaving behind a pristine mat of fur, save for the pair of narrow lines snaking across its length
  533. “You’re such a beautiful pony, you’re doing great…”
  534. >For now, the most I could do to protect her from infection was to wrap the cuts in bandages until the opportunity presented itself to stitch it all together
  535. >The action of putting on bandages required almost no conscious thought, as I’d done it a dozen times in just the last month, even though it had been on decidedly less equine patients
  536. “Good girl, I’m so proud of you…”
  537. >Giving her one final brush and leaning back to admire my work, the bandage held true against the rise and fall of her chest, and I was confident it would remain that way through the night
  538. >It wasn’t a terribly chilly night, but with the electricity out, the radiator to which she was loosely chained was a useless hunk of metal, as was the house’s entire heating system
  539. >For every bit of energy the pony spent on keeping herself warm, that was a bit less energy she could devote toward getting better
  540. >There was no shortage of insulating fabric at my disposal, and ultimately I settled on the velvety, but not excessively thick, suit jacket that had fallen by the door
  541. >It had looked good as a fashion accessory and ponification armor for its previous owner, and as I draped it over the pony, it seemed to work as a good blanket for her, too
  542. >Pulling it to cover most of her body while she moaned gently, I noticed that aside from a few inches at the tip of her tail, the jacket’s generous length provided thorough coverage
  543. >Quietly packing away my trash & supplies and zipping up the EMT pouch, I started to remove my gloves simply out of force of habit
  544. >Catching myself halfway through doing so, I figured that it couldn’t hurt to keep them on so long as one pony… AT LEAST one pony… was still in the house
  545. >I clicked on my flashlight, silently rebuking myself for casting more light into a room in which there was a comfortably sleeping pony that sincerely needed rest
  546. >After ensuring she and I were alone in the front room, I did a quick sweep through the darkness of the downstairs bedroom… closets… bathroom… before finally circling back to the kitchen
  547. >I was anxious about the consequences of a beam of light incurring the interest of outside ponies, but as I turned off the flashlight, I could at least take solace in the lower floor’s vacancy
  548. >Creaking open a cabinet in the kitchen, I retrieved a colossal screw-top jug with a comparatively puny spigot that once held inexpressibly strong concoctions of mixed drinks
  549. >It was a miracle it hadn’t been in use at the party a few hours earlier, meaning it could be filled with a couple gallons of water as a steady drinking source for me, Alexander… and that pony
  550. >Yes, as much as it’d be tricky to find fresh produce in the apocalypse, I had some duty to provide water, food, basic comforts, and indeed, much more for her whenever possible
  551. >Our obligation was especially pertinent so long as she was tied up in the house and unable to contact her herd, but I had to continually ward off the urge to think of her as a prisoner
  552. >She was… a guest… which was perfectly reasonable – Alexander’s name was on the lease agreement, but not Bright-Blue-Happy-Hooves, right?
  553. >If we could treat her kindly and establish a mutual rapport, she could be very beneficial… that is, if she didn’t first convince us that munching on daisies was preferable…
  554. >The cabinet with the jug also contained plentiful other party supplies, and before shutting the cabinet I grabbed a single plastic straw out of a small box that had been shoved to the rear
  555. >Just to be sure that the ponies outside hadn’t dug down several feet to the pipes or taken a few crushing swipes at the town’s water tower, I flicked a knob on the kitchen faucet
  556. >Without delay, a thin stream of water began to trickle out, and I cut it off almost as soon as it struck the basin
  557. >The town’s water system was out of commission for fire hydrant flushing, rust, or pressure problems some three weeks every year, but through the apocalypse it was flowing smoothly
  558. >Returning to the front room, I dropped the straw into the bottle, giving it a slight bend in the hope that keeping the straw near the pony’s muzzle would make it just a bit easier to quench her thirst
  559. >I folded the laptop closed, extinguishing the blue light that had been continually dimming over the last few minutes, and started ascending the stairs with the empty jug
  560. >“Took you long enough to get your fucking phone”
  561. >Casting a startled glance into the upstairs hallway, I confirmed that the familiar whisper had originated from the silhouette of an irritated Alexander at the top of the stairs
  562. “I had a few detours along the way”
  563. >He waited until we were both back in his room, with the door closed and locked, before restoring the conversation just a bit below his normal volume
  564. >His hands were anxiously at his hips, and as he shifted his weight nervously between each foot, it was clear he was far more upset at the cards we’d been dealt than at me specifically
  565. >“I just want you to be honest with me; that’s all I’m asking. How far in over our heads are we right now?”
  566. “So I’m guessing you saw her?”
  567. >“That pony? Hell yeah I saw her. And I also saw that you put a leash on her like she’s a family dog”
  568. “Well, what bothers you more, the fact that she was a human once and the tables have turned, or that I’m being friendly with her?”
  569. >He sighed, waving a hand through the air as if the answer was clearly written in unread neon letters over his shoulder
  570. >“That you’re getting too friendly, man! It’s a miracle you made it out of there with ten fingers – you told me all it takes is one little touch, even indirect contact”
  571. “Well, you see, on the bright side I figured out that it’s only DIRECT contact with the ponies that causes the transformation, so that’s one less thing for you to worry about”
  572. >Wait, could I have worded that better? I definitely could have worded that better…
  573. >Alexander, abruptly taken by a new surge of mistrust, opened and brandished his pocketknife, levelling its blade toward me with a white-knuckle grip
  574. >“Okay, I don’t want to hear another word. Put your hands where I can see them, and turn and face the wall”
  575. “Wait… can’t we talk about thi-”
  576. >“I’m not going to ask again. Please. You didn’t get infected, did you?”
  577. “No, no! Come on! I would have told you if I did!”
  578. >“Marvelous! Then we have nothing… nothing to worry about”
  579. “Alexander, please, we’re supposed to trust each other…”
  580. >“I know, damn it!”
  581. >He shut his eyes and exhaled deeply, using his free hand to wipe his brow
  582. >“I know. I… I want to trust you, and know I can… really, I do… I just want confirmation that you’re still… you… completely you… from head to toe…”
  583. “Okay… okay, I understand… Well, what did you want me to do after I faced the wall?”
  584. >I turned away from him, having read his emotions enough to be confident he wasn’t about to lose his mind and literally about to stab me in the back
  585. >“I was going to have you take your shirt off so I could get a more complete look for fur, wings, you know. Just… don’t worry about it, you’re fine, don’t worry about it”
  586. >Alexander, you and I both knew that if I were condemned to having cutesy wings by this point, I would be flaunting them everywhere
  587. >With a single swift motion, I reached over my shoulders and grasped the seams of my T-shirt, lifting it over my head and setting it in a heap on his desk
  588. “Here, how about this; I’ll even do you one better”
  589. >For good measure, I undid my belt and dropped my jeans, meanwhile trying not to audibly chuckle as I could sense Alexander had gone red in the face
  590. >“Okay, I believe you! God, you can be a real pain in the ass sometimes – pull your damn pants back up; your legs weren’t even exposed!”
  591. “I dunno man, these underwear are blocking your view of my sweet tail!”
  592. >Having had my fun, I returned my pants to their proper position, refastening the belt with a quick flick of the hands while the EMT pouch dragged heavily along its side
  593. >I turned to face Alexander again, his face utterly buried in his hands
  594. >“Ugghhh, you’re insufferable, you know that?”
  595. >As I donned my T-shirt, my face disappeared for a moment before returning through the fabric’s opening with one the smuggest smiles I think I’ve ever shown him
  596. “Well, you seemed to think I was being incompetent in my dealings with the pony”
  597. >“I mean, you ARE an incompetent idiot. Didn’t you implicate yourself in touching something pony-infected?”
  598. “Ah, but it wasn’t! I accidentally touched some clothing someone had transformed in, and from that experiment I learned that so long as you don’t touch the ponies, you’re good!”
  599. >“Ah great, James one, ponies zero. Just be careful… Try to keep your experiments to a minimum from now on, especially around that pony you seem awfully fond of”
  600. “Oh, she’s still downright terrifying, not gonna lie. But she might be our only way out of here – I mean, do you have any other ideas?”
  601. >Alexander sighed and hung his head in defeat, the sense of defeat palpable in the air as he had always been exceptionally good at thinking himself out of messes
  602. >“You know I don’t. Back to the original reason you went downstairs, I have to assume your phone’s kaput too?”
  603. “Yeah… landlines and WiFi are also down, the whole nine yards. It’s like a damn EMP went off…”
  604. >He let out a long, pensive exhale while running his hand through his hair, ultimately dropping his arm and lightly smacking the desk with his falling hand
  605. >“Shoot… Well, I guess as long as there’s a pony aware of our little secret, we don’t have much choice, do we?”
  606. “I’m afraid not. She got left behind with a couple of lacerations on her stomach – I cleaned the wounds and maybe we can wrap our arms in saran wrap tomorrow to get the stitches in”
  607. >“A part of me feels like you’re not entirely joking when you say that…”
  608. “Dead serious. Keeps the infection from getting on the arms, doesn’t it?”
  609. >“Oh, for God’s sake…”
  610. >Alexander agitatedly sighed, coughed, and walked to his closet, from which he retrieved a dull grey hoodie with a zippered front, promptly tossing the garment at my head
  611. “Wait, you have other hoodies, besides the one you wore every single day possible between September and November? I’ve never seen this one”
  612. >Sliding the light cotton over my arms, its fit was just a bit snug, the sleeves falling just an inch or two shorter than what I was used to, but it beat wearing my sole T-shirt by a mile
  613. >“Yeah, fancy that. So, what, do you want to find this pony some oats, carrots, maybe a nice sugar cube too while you’re at it?”
  614. “Honestly, we can’t say no to anything that’d get her to help us… If she can help us convince the other ponies that it’s okay to leave us alone, that’s far better than just keeping her locked up”
  615. >“I suppose… It’s a crazy plan but I really hope this works…”
  616. “You and me both…”
  617. >As my words trailed off and silence overtook the bedroom, Alexander turned his head toward the window where a bird could be faintly heard chirping as the rising sun approached
  618. >“You hear that?”
  619. “Damn, how late is it?”
  620. >Alexander pulled back his sleeve and turned to get a better look at his watch in the dim light
  621. >“Really, really fucking late. I think that’s half the reason why I was so irritated with you a moment ago; we’re both sleep deprived, and I’m getting over drunkenness on top of that”
  622. “Could’ve fooled me; you certainly don’t SOUND drunk…”
  623. >Alexander furrowed his brow sportively, as if to question my attentiveness during every weekend evening of the past year
  624. >“I never sound drunk when I am… What’s your point?”
  625. >I simply shrugged, unwilling to clarify that drunk Alexander’s speech wasn’t slurred, but drunk Alexander invariably loved to complain about our ‘weak American booze’ with his every breath
  626. “I was going to check for any other hooved stragglers before turning in for the night”
  627. >“That’d be wise. And I see you brought up that empty jug – do you want me to fill it? With… with water, of course”
  628. “Yeah, I’d appreciate that”
  629. >Unlocking and opening the bedroom door, I lit up a corner of the dark hallway with a warm circle of light, which soon sluggishly drifted around a corner into the bathroom
  630. >After retracting the ominous veil of the shower curtain, only to find a small group of lonely shampoo bottles within, I whispered my declaration that the room was clear
  631. >Alexander followed closely, and as I moved to inspect the other rooms on the top floor, the flow of water into the jug, steadily rising in pitch as it filled, provided the backdrop to my search
  632. >Ryan’s bedroom… other bedroom… closets… other other bedroom…
  633. >My heart skipped a beat as one of the posters in the last bedroom stared blankly at me with hollow paper eyes, but after inspecting that room I could finally relax and chuckle about it
  634. >One pony, on a leash, in an otherwise cleared house, was definitely not too much for us to handle
  635. >We could do this
  636. >By the time I returned to Alexander’s bedroom, he’d already set the water aside and laid out a bunch of folded blankets in the form of a makeshift bed, a few inches in height on the floor
  637. >While crude, it was better than the tightly woven carpet it had usurped, the plush fabric of the stack’s white top layer providing a veritable cloud on which to lay my head
  638. “You didn’t need to do this; at this hour of the night… er, uh… morning… I could sleep just about anywhere”
  639. >“Hell, I didn’t do this for you – you’re sleeping in my bed tonight, and that’s an order. I’ll gladly take the floor”
  640. >Since when are either of us in a position to give the other orders?
  641. “We can’t talk this over, settle this like real men with a game of rock-paper-scissors?”
  642. >“Okay, winner gets to take the bed, or winner gets to choose?”
  643. “They get to choose”
  644. >In three rounds, Alexander won… he chose to sleep on the floor
  645. >Neither of us changed out of the clothes we’d been wearing the day prior, primarily considering we didn’t want to cheat ourselves out of what little armor we had against the ponies
  646. >The most susceptible victims at the party had been those with the most exposed skin, which was particularly unfortunate considering the ample heat that had been lingering in the room
  647. >On an otherwise brisk evening, many partygoers had disrobed to undershirts – if they were still wearing a shirt at all – before the ponies came along and rendered ALL their clothing unnecessary
  648. >Tucking under the blanket, it gave me a slight semblance of protection in so much as it provided another layer of fabric the ponies would need to rip away before getting to me
  649. >I finally removed my nitrile gloves, recovering a pair of sweaty hands grateful to finally be kissed by the dry air
  650. >If we needed to fight ponies on a moment’s notice, the EMT pouch lay at my side with plentiful gloves for myself and Alexander
  651. >As if having a few extra gloves would make a difference in dealing with a herd of ten ponies each – hell, scores of ponies once they started swarming at their ‘new friends’…
  652. >“Say, James…”
  653. “Yeah, what’s up?”
  654. >“Honestly, what… what are we going to do if other ponies… find us? Before we can get that pony downstairs to help?”
  655. >This was far from the first time the thought had crossed his mind – or my mind – but neither of us had bothered to put forth the question because it, as well as its answer, worried us to no end
  656. >And what really worried us, in the deepest recesses of minds, was the fact that we knew exactly what would happen
  657. “We can’t change some things… we just need to stay focused on what we can do, that is, if we want to get out of here with our humanity intact”
  658. >With a slow, tired nod of affirmation, Alexander leaned onto his improvised bed, clicking off the flashlight and plunging the room into darkness
  659. >Even considering how tired I was, sleep didn’t arrive quickly or easily, but after a few minutes, it did arrive
  660.  
  661. >Over the past few semesters, I’d comfortably settled into a daily routine of waking to the cry of my alarm clock right at seven, on the dot, with the sun still hanging low in the sky
  662. >It hadn’t exactly been the gentlest, most forgiving means of rousing myself for the start of each new day, but particularly on days where time was of the essence, at least I never missed an exam
  663. >Now, as my eyes slid open following my first apocalyptic night of uncomfortable, dreamless sleep, the first thing I noticed was that the room was almost completely dark
  664. >A solitary, narrow beam of light filtered through a small crack in the blackout curtains, and judging by its steep angle, the time of day was approaching mid-morning
  665. >I wiped a hand across my eyes, the ray’s offending radiance still a bit too much for my gradually adjusting vision as my middle finger and thumb pressed on my eyelids
  666. >I sat up in the bed, sliding the blanket off my torso as my arms extended forward, a resonant series of popping joints echoing through the otherwise serene room
  667. >That was another thing I’d need to get used to – waking up to silence, with no noises to speak of aside from the soft, languid breaths of Alexander, sleeping on the floor a few feet away
  668. >Though it was peculiar in the face of my former routine, the silence was still far preferable over every other form of provocation an apocalyptic scenario could deliver mid-slumber
  669. >If I were to awaken to ponies’ cheers of joy, explosions, or Alexander shouting frenzied profanities in my face… I could pretty safely say that things were not going well
  670. >Throwing the blanket aside, I groggily reached into the EMT pouch at my side and retrieved a pair of gloves, swiftly pulling them on as I’d done hundreds of times prior
  671. >With keys and wallets made unnecessary by the cuddly horde, any precautions that would prevent infection supplanted my definition of ‘everyday essentials’
  672. >The pouch hanging weightily at my side may have been less than conducive to outrunning ponies, but that was of little concern when running would often lose out to swooping Pegasi anyways
  673. >Zipping the front of Alexander’s donated hoodie as far as it would go, I threw the hood back with a gust of stale air
  674. >Even after the Pegasus’ circulating efforts and almost half a day’s time to settle, the repulsive odors of body spray and alcohol still hung weakly in the air
  675. >Swinging my feet off the bed and stiffly standing with a grunt, I tried not to disturb Alexander, who was probably unconsciously nursing his hangover as he lay with his arms indifferently at his sides
  676. >While tiptoeing to the door, I almost snatched the flashlight from beside him before it dawned on me that our room was likely the only one in the house still submerged in darkness
  677. >Allowing time for minimal light to spill onto Alexander’s makeshift bed, I briskly slid the door open and pulled it shut behind me, cautiously making my way to the top of the stairs
  678. >Downstairs, a soft moan met each of the pony’s exhales as she continued her mid-morning slumber, and I breathed a sigh of relief that she didn’t appear to be in any pain
  679. >Descending the stairs, the wretched creaking prompted her ears to twitch a couple times, but her expression of calm placidness appeared utterly unperturbed by the sounds
  680. >I noticed that she had shifted position over the course of the night by a couple feet, and the impromptu blanket that the forsaken jacket had provided now only covered her halfway
  681. >Kneeling by her side, slightly further from the wall than I had done so last night, I replaced the jacket over her gently snoring barrel, pleasantly giving her a scratch behind the ear
  682. >She moved slightly with a blissful sigh, and a rustle of a piece of paper beneath one of her forehooves caught my attention
  683. >I carefully retrieved the paper as to not disturb her, flattening the familiar note against the floor
  684. >It had been the same paper I’d taped to her chain in apology, except now it bore a second message, crudely written in permanent marker, on the reverse side
  685. >THANK YOU FOR SAVING ME AND BANDAGING MY WOUNDS YOURE PEACHY KEEN I LOVE YOU –SKY MEADOWS
  686. >As well as I could discern, the symbols that followed were a barrage of hearts, though several of her similar glyphs were difficult to differentiate without any context
  687. >Noticing the uncapped marker she had left near her water bottle, replete with a few tooth marks on its grip, I quickly checked its writing ability against the paper before pocketing the note
  688. >With the implement still doing its job, I retrieved a couple more pieces of paper from the kitchen and set them by the sleeping pony’s side in case she’d want to write more upon awakening
  689. >Gently petting her mane one final time before leaving her to slumber in peace, I strolled into the kitchen and began rummaging through the cabinets
  690. >Between fortifying and shrouding the house, befriending the pony, giving her stitches, and even making a supply run or trying to find ‘other survivors’, there was no shortage of work to do
  691. >The first step to any of the jobs, though, was invariably starting with a good breakfast, as none of us would be of much use on an empty stomach
  692. >The selection would have been exceptional if we still had electricity at our disposal, but the microwave and electric stovetops had been rendered useless by the blackout
  693. >Immediately, several pounds of pasta, rice, lentils, and dried beans were delegated to bottom-tier sustenance, for when resources were scarce enough to warrant eating chewy, half-soaked grains
  694. >On the upside, they wouldn’t go bad for several months, or even years, unlike a disappointingly significant portion of the kitchen’s contents
  695. >Reaching for a loaf of sliced bread, I reasoned it would probably be one of the first items in the pantry that would go stale or soon become a repulsive home for a spectrum of mold
  696. >Whole wheat wasn’t my personal preference, but it would need to suffice for now, and at the very least, I was fairly certain Sky Meadows could eat it without getting sick
  697. >Retrieving what I had estimated to be about half of the loaf, it amounted to seven slices… a couple sandwiches for us, and three slices for the pony… uuh, yeah, sure, that worked I guess
  698. >Swinging open a cabinet near the sink, there was a modest amount of snack food lining its lower shelf, with condiments scattered along another shelf in bottles of every shape and size
  699. >Alexander and I could definitely survive off peanut butter sandwiches – I had done so my sophomore year – and a quick test by Sky Meadows could determine if peanut butter was safe to eat
  700. >If we had jelly that would make these sandwiches even better, but I couldn’t seem to find…
  701. >Oh, I remember… Alexander and I had this conversation the last time he was visiting me…
  702. >He treasured jellies and knew his favorite producers top to bottom, in addition to when certain types were in season
  703. >Still, he always insisted on keeping them in the refrigerator despite the distinct lack of any exhibiting labels prompting him to do so
  704. >With a long inhale and an irritated sigh, I looked at the fridge, its shimmering silver finish reflecting my agitation as my hand landed on its handle
  705. >With the power out, the dull hum of the fridge was notably absent, and an anxious voice musing in the back of my head lectured me about preserving the chilled air within for as long as possible
  706. >My hand gripped the handle for what seemingly amounted to several minutes
  707. >There was plenty of food in the pantry and I didn’t really need to delve into the fridge for breakfast, right?
  708. >Between the slices of bread and boxes of cereal I could’ve sworn I saw, that was plenty of grain at our disposal…
  709. >I’m sure I could find few cans of preserved fruit or vegetables – straining out and putting a bit of sugar on some diced carrots might not be so bad for Sky Meadows, right?
  710. >A few slices of bread and some soggy carrots…
  711. >I shook my head at the absurdity of it
  712. >The apocalypse started not even twelve hours ago, and already this is what I felt we’d been reduced to…
  713. >And moreover, this is what I wanted to serve to our sole hope of escape, not to mention a former human… for all I knew, this might have been one of Alexander’s roommates; I couldn’t tell…
  714. >Goodness, what if she… he… had happened to put some delicious, bright red apples in the fridge yesterday, and upon awakening, she wasn’t met by the fare she’d been excitedly awaiting, but…
  715. >A few slices of bread and some soggy carrots…
  716. >Tightening my grasp on the fridge’s handle, I cracked the door open with a solid yank, a light plume of cold air washing past my ankles… underwhelmingly
  717. >It dawned on me that the food didn’t have much time left on the clock anyways, so at least there was a member of our household who gladly gobble up all the produce well before it went bad
  718. >Passing over the plastic and metal of the assorted leftovers and firewaters, I pulled open the individual vegetable drawers, stumbling upon a vivid array of oranges, reds, and greens
  719. >None of Ryan’s roommates had struck me as health freaks who fancied a salad every once in a while, and I couldn’t help but smile that I’d been sorely, sorely mistaken
  720. >My hand wrapped around a large, bright green head of lettuce, lifting it closer into view as I admired its faint, crisp crunching under each of my fingertips
  721. >I almost wanted to save something this nice for a special occasion, but never again would it be in such good condition as it was right now
  722. >On top of that, Sky Meadow’s first meal here was going to be extremely crucial to establishing her rapport with me and Alexander as more than ‘humans who needed immediate conversion’
  723. >Considering she could be munching on the front lawn, with equine friends no less, I sought to show her that working with the humans in here was better than what the world outside could offer
  724. >Setting the entire head of lettuce on the counter, I selected a half-filled tub of cherry tomatoes and a modest carrot to accompany it
  725. >Shutting the refrigerator and unsheathing a large chef’s knife, I cut the lettuce and carrot into large pieces, reasoning that they’d be easier for Sky Meadows to pick up without hands
  726. >Based on what I’d vaguely seen, the ponies’ teeth closely resembled those of true horses – in other words, great for munching on vegetables
  727. >The simple salad filled a large, shallow bowl, and as I tossed it, I eagerly savored a few pieces of the delicious lettuce myself
  728. >Retrieving a small plate from a cabinet, I filled it with a shallow pool of sweet-tasting dressing I’d noticed in the fridge, providing Sky Meadows something into which she could dip the lettuce
  729. >I couldn’t be certain whether she’d take advantage of it, but she would appreciate that she’d at least been given the option
  730. >With enough food prepared to sate a stallion king tremendously, I finally turned back to the stout stack of bread Alexander and I would be enjoying
  731. >Following a perfunctory spread of peanut butter or jelly on each slice, I lowered three sandwiches and a lonely piece of peanut butter-coated bread onto some unassuming paper napkins
  732. >Ferrying the salad, salad dressing, and single slice of bread through the narrow hallway to the front room, I softly set them on the floor beside the dormant pony’s water bottle
  733. >Her minimal response presented little more than an ear flick and a twitch of the nostrils, but I was certain she would awaken soon enough, probably quite hungry
  734. >Commandeering her marker and a piece of paper, I quickly wrote a message for her and left it beside the bread where she would plainly see it
  735. >SKY MEADOWS, PLEASE SAY IF PONIES LIKE PEANUT BUTTER, CALL UPSTAIRS IF YOU NEED ANYTHING, BE GOOD, I LOVE YOU
  736. >I tried to imitate her bombardment of hearts at the message’s conclusion, but couldn’t bring myself to scribble more than three
  737. >Considering the undeniably high chance that this pony had been a stressed, agitated, salty college student just a day ago, what could’ve happened to make her just… so… sappy?
  738. >Brushing my hair as though it would shake the muddled answer from my mind, I stared thoughtfully at the pony’s drowsy breathing while each of her exhales elicited a soft, contented moan
  739. >Is this flippant display of glee and gratitude really what’s going on in her mind? Really?
  740. >Whenever she awoke to write her message earlier this morning, she awoke to a lightless house and a chain around her neck that had been tied off around a radiator
  741. >Anyone else in her position would be freaking out about the psychopaths behind it, and the fact that I wasn’t roused by a frenzied thrashing of metal this morning was at least a little suspicious
  742. >I was trying to get her to trust us by any means necessary, but there was an inherent danger in thinking that I’d made more progress than was truly the case
  743. >One innocuous suggestion for an ear scratch could lead to a hug of appreciation against my clothed chest, and the closer the embrace became, the easier it was to reach my uncovered face…
  744. >It was like trying to win a complex game of chess where I’d lose once a single member of my faction fell…
  745. >Still, as I looked back at the opponent, her fluffy ears twitching while visions of carrots and sugar cubes danced through her dreams, I accepted that it was a game I had no choice but to play
  746. >I returned to the kitchen, peeking my head into the fridge again to put back the bottles of salad dressing & jelly, and to conduct a final survey of our options before heading back upstairs
  747. >Unlike the familiar problem of looking into the fridge only to find nothing tasty, I looked into the fridge to find most of it well and truly inedible, in light of the absent electricity
  748. >The milk was probably already bad, the meat and eggs weren’t safe uncooked, and the condiments didn’t have anything to go on or with them
  749. >I shut the door, plunging our edible perishables – a couple apples, some carrots, an onion, a small serving of soaked pasta, and an old box of Chinese takeout – back into tepid darkness
  750. >If we were going to keep this pony indoors AND well-fed… it was time to go shopping…
  751. >Shutting my eyes and letting out a long, meditative exhale, I grabbed a sleeve of saltine crackers and the trio of sandwiches before ascending the stairs toward the bedroom
  752. >Alexander was still fast asleep when I entered, swiftly shutting the door behind me and, instead, allowing the room’s light to filter in from its other side as I drew the curtains slightly apart
  753. >Taking a quick glance through the narrow gap, it was an overcast day, the sky painted grey uniformly, save for a singular Pegasus and several small, black plumes of smoke on the distant horizon
  754. >A few hundred yards down the long hill that led to the center of town, a group comprising a half dozen ponies were idly chatting, laughing, and munching on the grass lining a nearly park
  755. >It was calm and tranquil, but eerily so when I realized just how quickly the entire town had been pacified by their rapidly increasing herd
  756. >With a sigh, I set our breakfast on Alexander’s desk, brushing aside the last of his anatomy notes and taking a seat in the chair where he’d been studying
  757. >Gently prodding him with one of my shoes, he stirred in his impromptu bed for a few moments before his eyes weakly slid open, acquiring my gaze
  758. >“Hey… uh, what, the ponies here?”
  759. >He asked it with unshakable definiteness, as though his fate was already sealed and the wrath of the cuddly horde was utterly unassailable if they’d zeroed in
  760. “Not yet man, it’s still just Sky M- er, uh, the pony downstairs; she calls herself Sky Meadows”
  761. >His eyes slid closed again, the wrinkles in the blanket around his head reappearing as he settled back into a state of relaxation closely resembling sleep
  762. >“Oh, how… cute. Was there anything ya needed me to… to do?”
  763. “I actually didn’t, if you’d like to go back to bed”
  764. >“Well, I get that YOU may be used to waking up early… but I’m just gonna… gonna do that then…”
  765. “Go for it, I just wanted to let you know I brought you breakfast, and I’m going to be out of the house for a bit”
  766. >Alexander’s eyes shot open and he sat up with a wide, staring gaze, looking at me as though I’d just violently slapped him awake
  767. >“Wait, you’re fucking joking, you’re going to go out THERE? Are you nuts?”
  768. “Look, I don’t want to do it, but the fridge wasn’t stocked with a lot of fruits and vegetables when this all started. We’re lucky there were any at all.”
  769. >“Fruits and vegetables? What the hell are you talking about? Fuck off with the leafy green shit; we have, like, a thousand cans of spam and tuna downstairs!”
  770. “Come on dude…”
  771. >“You’re not some pregnant chick with food cravings… unless, what, you got genderbent and fucked by some stallion last night when I wasn’t paying attention?”
  772. “I’m being serious here! This isn’t about me, this is about what we can feed Sky Meadows. She’s a horse – an herbivore, for God’s sake!”
  773. >Alexander shook his head and wiped his brow
  774. >“I hate this fucking horse, man. Let’s just dump her already and get out of town on our own. Leave her a box of cereal and a note on the door if you want to be so benevolent”
  775. “Damn it you dense motherfucker, it’s not that simple!”
  776. >I let out a long, shuddering exhale, filling my lungs from empty while trying to piece together my thoughts and fight back tears
  777. “It’s… just… It’s not that simple… The ponies have everything in this town… you look out the window and it seems they’ve taken everything clear to the river…”
  778. >“That far? No… wait, you’re kidding… You’ve… you’ve got to be…”
  779. “They fly, they do magic, and their herd grows exponentially – there is no ‘getting out’ on our own; don’t you get it? We’re really, really lucky to at least have Sky Meadows…”
  780. >Alexander leaned back on the blankets with his head in his hands
  781. >“So, what, we need to treat her like our little princess if we want to have a chance…”
  782. “Hey, I don’t like this any more than you do! But I still think we have a better chance with me running to the corner store than both of us trying to run through miles of this hellscape”
  783. >Alexander rubbed his temples, releasing a long, pensive exhale as he mulled over our distressingly limited options
  784. >“Fine… Fine, okay, I guess that’s… reasonable. But I’m doing the next TWO stores, between you previously going downstairs AND to this first place ALONE, you hear me?”
  785. “Yeah, yeah… of course… if there even is a second run…”
  786. >My mumbling, far from going unnoticed, prompted Alexander to hit his fist angrily against the floor, enough to warrant concern about the tenacity of his wrist function
  787. >“Okay, get out with that Debbie Downer bullshit; there WILL be a second run! How about this, we’ll do this one together”
  788. “Alexander… you know we’re in this together, but we can’t have both of us potentially drawing their attention. And besides, at least this way, you’ll be safe if… if they get me…”
  789. >I looked sullenly at my feet, which had suddenly gone cold as I realized this simple run to the store was going to make me face the very real possibility of not returning as a human
  790. >“We don’t need you to be a hero, man. And besides, if they get you, they’ll get me too; you’re the one who knows I’m here”
  791. “Okay, then how about this, just to be safe: while I’m gone, make your way to the house next door, and if a swarm of Pegasi descends on your house, hunker down there”
  792. >“Except if we plan to do that, ‘pony James’ would have his equine friends scour the houses next door, too”
  793. “Watch from even further away? Make a run for it and don’t look back if things go sour?”
  794. >“James, surely you know that any plans we make will be used against me until I’m converted to your cult of magical friendship; it’s almost better for us not to have a plan at all”
  795. “Going forward without a plan? Seriously, are you even listening to yourself?”
  796. >“It’d pretty much be game over for us both. There’s no way for human James to outsmart pony James”
  797. >I let out a groan, swinging my head in a slow circle as my brain fried, its neurons overloaded with hopelessly futile plans to defeat the pony version of myself
  798. >There had to be some way to defeat them, come on, what were we even trying to do here?
  799. “Well shit, why even bother with this? If it’s so hopeless, why don’t we both go running outside right now and wave our arms around until a pair of Pegasi picks us off?”
  800. >Alexander gave a few gentle, reassuring slaps to the side of my lower leg, as though toughening up my leg muscles would toughen up my mental fortitude too
  801. > “Relax. We don’t need to outsmart our hypothetical selves; we just need to outsmart the ponies. You said it before: so long as neither of us ends up with hooves, we’ll be alright, yeah?”
  802. “Yeah… okay… get to the store, get back, don’t fuck it up. Same thing I’d been planning to do”
  803. >“Exactly, that’s the spirit”
  804. >Following a brief bout of silence, Alexander picked up one of the sandwiches from atop the desk, prying it open to observe its contents before taking a small bite
  805. “Anything wrong with it?”
  806. >“Nah, I love these, just feeling a little sick is all”
  807. >While reaching for a sandwich of my own, I couldn’t help but furrow my brow
  808. “Is it… should I be concerned? Like, would you prefer a sandwich with lettuce and tomato?”
  809. >“I see what you’re getting at, and no, still perfectly human and I’d be all over a plate of bacon if we had any way to fry it up. This headache is the price I’m paying for drinking last night”
  810. “Ah, okay… how about this, I’ll leave you with the saltines and you can snack on those while I’m out, if you get hungry-”
  811. >“Yeah, if my worrying doesn’t wreck my appetite…”
  812. “Well, then you can share with Sky Meadows too, if she wants something salty to eat. Do you mind if I have the third sandwich before it’s no good anymore?”
  813. >“Go for it; you’ll need the energy”
  814. >Breakfast proceeded in relative silence, and while I could attribute Alexander’s slow eating to a loss of appetite, my own lethargy came about from the temptation of delaying the inevitable
  815. >I knew it’d be time to depart once I finished, so I greedily wolfed down the entire first sandwich, ate half of the second at a reasonable rate, and picked apathetically at the final half
  816. >Eventually, Alexander’s impatient drumming on the floor prompted me to finish it, and the last bite was washed down a moment later by a modest serving of water
  817. >I sighed, double-checking the fit of my gloves and contents of my EMT pouch while Alexander emptied his faded, brown backpack of its defunct books and stationery
  818. >Slinging the spacious accessory over my shoulders, I was struck by how light it was, though I also noted that it would only get heavier based on how successful the trip turned out to be
  819. >A lust for fetching more could be my demise, and much like every other challenge the apocalypse had presented, it required me to walk a narrow tightrope
  820. >“You’re going to want this in order to get out the bedroom window on the bottom floor, and I’m sure you’ll find it more useful than I would over the next hour or two”
  821. >A shimmer of metal in the room’s low light caught my eye, and, tracing my gaze down Alexander’s arm, I found he was holding the handle of his pocketknife, its blade folded in
  822. >Deftly taking it from his grasp, I clipped it onto my belt, just a bit behind the pouch hanging at my side
  823. “Thanks, but what do you… an… an hour or two? Do you think it’ll take that long? I mean, I guess the soonest I need to be back is lunchtime for Sky Meadows, and I need to check her vitals-”
  824. >“Don’t you worry about Sky Meadows; I can keep an eye on her until you’re back to properly put in the stitches. No rush… just be cautious out there”
  825. >He spoke with an enviable calmness, although he obviously wasn’t the one going out into the great unknown just beyond our door
  826. >Deep in my gut, a voice was bubbling up that longed to tell Alexander what a wonderful, reliable friend he’d always been, and that I’d be sincerely sorry if my mistakes led to his demise
  827. >I swallowed, a frail attempt to keep my feelings in check, while nodding in affirmation and sliding open the bedroom door
  828. >Making my way downstairs, I passed Sky Meadows, still fast asleep as I turned the corner toward the rear of the house
  829. >Sky Meadows, I sure hope your friends out there are just as forgiving as you seem to be… or better yet, just as sleepy…
  830. >With the front and side doors opening dangerously close to the street, Alexander had advised me to leave by way of a window, and in slashing the screen, the knife already proved its worth
  831. >With a quick pop and a toss, the discarded fixture was out of sight, allowing me to roll into a narrow gap between the dense bushes lining the back of the house
  832. >Pressing tightly against the brick, I peered around each corner in search of ponies, listening for a clicking of hooves or the wayward flap of a Pegasus’ wings
  833. >Instead, the brisk grey air yielded nothing more than a whistling wind, while the cars of yesterday lay abandoned to solitarily fight their first losing battle against the oncoming rust
  834. >Cautiously, I crossed into the neighbor’s yard, a traitorous slip of shoes on driveway asphalt momentarily ringing out through the air
  835. >Lying down amid their bushes, my neck swiveled about, wondering whether there were any ponies living within that may have perked up at the alien one-two stepping rhythm of a biped
  836. >I lay motionless for ten minutes, and as my confidence steadily grew that no ponies had taken notice of my presence, I concurrently realized how this trip could be a several-hour endeavor
  837. >Staring down the row of houses, I could see the familiar overhang of the deserted Carmine Corners gas station, not even two hundred yards away
  838. >While I wasn’t exceptionally athletic, I wouldn’t be far behind the football players and sprinters who could’ve closed the distance in thirty seconds
  839. >Granted, that was on an open track…
  840. >Scanning the sky for Pegasi, I rose to my feet and kept my head low as I approached the short fence delineating the edge of the next backyard, vigilantly peering over it for a moment
  841. >It creaked and shuddered as I vaulted over its top, with the weak, poorly painted wood splintered from years of disrepair
  842. >Scampering between a shed and the neighboring fence, I again paused, spending several minutes listening for any rhythms of hoofsteps
  843. >With the coast still seemingly clear, I rolled onto my feet and soon set out again
  844. >My progress proceeded with an agonizing and intermittent, albeit overall steady, sluggishness while each errant noise sent me scrambling for cover
  845. >Adrenaline raced through my veins at each corner and fence, with the looming hazard of encountering a random pony happily munching away on some grass in each blind spot
  846. >At one point, I pressed myself into the dirt beneath a row of bushes as the shadows of a pair of Pegasi flittered across the yard, their forms silhouetted against the darkening clouds
  847. >As they performed a playful spectacle of aerial acrobatics high in the sky, I prayed that they’d remain too enamored in their newfound flight to attentively scan their surroundings
  848. >With wings flapping animatedly, they raced out of sight a few moments later, laughing heartily as they found joy in the gusty wind whipping through their manes
  849. >My own heart was hammering and the impermeable gloves were trapping a veritable sea in my sweaty palms, but I dared not lose focus of my gradually approaching objective
  850. >Peering across the final backyard along the row of houses, I caught sight of the beautifully ornamented clock hanging over the sidewalk from the bank on the street corner
  851. >The minute hand creeped towards noon, and I noted that although my movement down the street had been very slow, it had succeeded in its primary objective of remaining stealthy
  852. >With a light-footed jog, I made it through the final leg of the journey, taking a knee between an abandoned car and the wall of the convenience store while I caught my breath
  853. >Amid the eerie silence, a gust of wind whipped mightily, rustling the pages of a newspaper lying at my feet as a single tiny shard of glass tumbled from a broken window frame
  854. >The front page could have been representative of any news day from the past century, featuring bold headlines concerned with the geopolitical threats of the day
  855. >The stories were a few days old, and included no mention of the unexpected reality of the apocalypse’s actual harbingers, whose cuddles surpassed the effectiveness of conventional warfare
  856. >Lifting my gaze and scanning across the expanse of asphalt ahead and behind me, I seemed to be alone, the gas station’s pumps and parking lot sitting unattended
  857. >With footsteps as soft as a kitten’s, I hurried through an already-smashed glass pane into the convenience store, ducking into a dark corner as its shards clung into the soles of my shoes
  858. >Sheltered from the roughest gusts by the punctured façade, the gentle clinking of the glass underfoot echoed worryingly, although the store seemed largely deserted… and untouched, too
  859. >Far from the caricature of post-apocalyptic looting, the shelves comprising my dim hiding place were reasonably aligned, with row upon row of well-stocked bags of pretzels
  860. >Peering around the corner, a few misplaced bottles resting on the floor were the only prominent signs of disarray amid much of the same mildly diligent organization
  861. >The most recent time I’d visited to Carmine Corners was to buy an energy drink during my first round of exams, as its location was within fifty yards of the library’s front door
  862. >At that point, the owner was an older gentleman who took much pleasure in running the store on his own, and had been known to run a very orderly operation
  863. >True to life, he was courteous and quick to ring up my order, though I found him a bit too insistent on trying to push his homemade ‘artisan’ salads
  864. >Proud as he was of them, I hadn’t the remotest intentions of spending eight dollars on a salad, particularly when I could’ve made about twenty servings of pasta for the same price
  865. >At the time, many fellow consumers seemed to silently agree with me, the inventory seldom decreasing as it sat largely ignored against the back wall
  866. >The man would be a millionaire in ponybucks right now if he were still running the store…
  867. >Slowly creeping to the shelf where I’d remembered seeing the salads, I braced for sheer disappointment, instead finding that dozens remained untouched in a neat stack of plastic containers
  868. >Rising to an awkward half-standing position that couldn’t be easily seen from a pony’s eye level, I began delving into a quick perusal of the available variety
  869. >I found over a dozen with no meat to speak of, and what rich choices, too!
  870. >I began to slide as many as I could carry into the backpack, ultimately finding that I would be able to accommodate five or six at most, yet that still wouldn’t leave me too overly encumbered
  871. >The dead space between the plastic containers could ideally be filled with snacks for myself and Alexander, especially considering the ponies wouldn’t miss a few pieces of jerky or deli meat
  872. >Nonetheless, I didn’t want to push my luck when the impetus for the trip had simply been a search for food that would keep Sky Meadows happy
  873. >As I slowly zipped up the backpack, I envisioned the genuine glee written in her face upon hearing that these kind humans were keeping her so well & deliciously fed while she recovered
  874. >Some of the salads had apples, or cute slices of mandarin oranges, or little pieces of melon, or s-
  875. >“Hey, did you hear somepony in there?”
  876. >Just beyond the rows of shelves toward the front of the store, a chipper voice piped up over the din of swirling wind
  877. >As my brain began running a mile a minute, every muscle in my body locked up, not daring to move a single inch while the clicking of several sets of hooves traversed the asphalt outside
  878. >“I didn’t hear anything, Storm…”
  879. >Don’t… draw… their… attention…
  880. >With my heart pounding, my wandering eyes tracked along a narrow, diffuse beam of light that pointed… right to a window facing the gas pumps outside…
  881. >Fuck… the ponies weren’t quite there yet, but they’d have an unmistakably clear line of sight to me in just a few seconds… They sure as hell wouldn’t doubt Storm after that…
  882. >Forgoing the salad-filled backpack as a worthy loss if I needed to run, I rolled off my feet and began silently sliding across the floor into a neighboring aisle that couldn’t be seen from outside
  883. >I hadn’t traversed more than three or four feet, but as I pulled my feet behind cover, I frenetically hoped and estimated that it would be sufficient
  884. >In the dim light shrouding the store, I watched the vague reflections of the ponies from around a corner, holding my breath when one blurry profile appeared to pause at the window
  885. >She looked in, seemed to tilt her head to the side out of confusion, and then, just as quickly as she’d appeared, she departed to rejoin her herd
  886. >I breathed a noiseless sigh of relief only when I could hold my breath no longer
  887. >That was too close… that was way too close… I’m going to give them at least twenty minutes before heading back out, because damn, that was too close…
  888. >Lest my footsteps be heard, I was determined to sit still for a few minutes, and considering I’d never previously seen this aisle, I began scanning the newfound array of bagged snacks
  889. >That’s when I noticed the indiscriminately scattered pieces of lettuce on the floor
  890. >That’s when I noticed the half-eaten containers of salad resting in the middle of the leaves, not twenty feet away
  891. >That’s when I noticed the hooves, twitching wings, and anxiously flicking tails attached to the pair of Pegasi sitting just beyond, their feathery forms dominating my view of the aisle
  892. >My eyes went wide and it took everything in my power not to scream, not to cough, not to even gasp as my muscles were suddenly awash in adrenaline
  893. >While my mind screamed for me to do something – anything – I presented my trembling palm, a gesturing plea for personal space, as if to say, ‘I didn’t see you there; I’ll just be on my way now’
  894. >The ponies appeared unperturbed in their state of mild shock, as evidently I’d crashed their lunch date, with bits of half-munched lettuce still hanging from each of their mouths
  895. >Most of the light bound for the aisle was swallowed by the imposing grey body of the stallion, who had a wing blanketed over his marefriend and a confused expression written on his face
  896. >With gently parted lips, the other pony, a blue Pegasus with her pink mane twisted into a long, flowing braid, furrowed her brow questioningly at me
  897. >“Uh… hi? My name’s Typhoon Twist, and this is Cobalt here… do you… do you want to cuddle?”
  898. >Rising to a seated position, my vision briefly flicked back to the window’s reflection, the herd outside still nowhere to be seen… not yet…
  899. >I briefly considered my chances of escape by sprinting out the side of the store away from the herd, but an overbearing fear of just how many ponies lay beyond paralyzed my judgment
  900. >When I glanced back into the aisle, the mare was still trying to establish eye contact, but not yet making an aggressive move to transform me by force
  901. >“Say, friend, if you could do us a favor, could you actually come over here, please?”
  902. >No, not on your life! Now shut the fuck up you stupid horse, before you draw in all the others!
  903. >Realizing that the window to evade the herd’s curious ears was already shut, my heart sank as a low cacophony of hoofsteps gradually drew closer against the asphalt
  904. >“See, I thought I heard somepony talking in there!”
  905. >Suddenly indifferent to the consequences of any noise I made myself, my breathing audibly picked up, panic starting to set in
  906. >I began reaching for the knife hanging idly at my side… I knew I couldn’t fight my way out of this… A pony hostage was an absolutely terrible idea, but it was my only recourse…
  907. >That, or an unrelenting slice… right into the heart or neck… It could be nice and quick, albeit messy…
  908. >No… No, even if I were willing to do that and it bought Alexander a bit more time, he would be devastated if he learned that I had used his own knife for it… He’d never forgive himself…
  909. >I guess one of these ponies was to be my bargaining chip… Typhoon Twist, please tell me you weren’t a wrestler before all this, because I need you to get me out of this mess…
  910. >The blue Pegasus mare, sensing my unease, rose to her hooves with a wince of pain and a high-pitched grunt, flaring her wing protectively in front of the stallion as he spoke up
  911. >“Typhoon… sweetie, don’t be too hasty now…”
  912. >She and I anxiously locked eyes as my hand hovered at my waist, her gently bobbing head drawing nearer with each strained step
  913. >Gloves, shoes, long pants, sleeves, hoodie fully zipped… James, whatever you do, just don’t let any of her fur touch your head on the takedown…
  914. >The menacing clicks of approaching hooves resonated from every possible direction as the sound bounced through the store, though I could see only one of the hooves’ owners
  915. >And yet…
  916. >Typhoon Twist’s steps were… distinct from the others… they were exceedingly short, and every fourth step… had something odd about it…
  917. >One final attempt at diplomacy…
  918. “T-Typhoon?”
  919. >“Yes, friend?”
  920. “Your legs... are… are they okay?”
  921. >“Just… a bit hurt… I guess…”
  922. >Bingo...
  923. “Would… would it be okay if I took a look at them? I have medical experience”
  924. >She halted, a single set of hooves ceasing its contribution to the racket of crescendoing clicks
  925. >My muscles tensed, given that the decision to reach for my EMT pouch, or brandish the knife, was riding on her response
  926. >“O-Okay…”
  927. >I let out a forceful exhale, unable to completely veil my relief
  928. >Thank God…
  929. “That’s a good girl… then could you just take your weight off it…”
  930. >She nodded hesitantly and lowered herself, never disturbing her unwavering gaze that stared at my every motion, most of all the drag of the zipper as I opened my odd-looking EMT pouch
  931. >Slowly reaching in, I absentmindedly retrieved a large pad bandage and syringe… which would be of no use to me for helping Typhoon Twist, but they LOOKED exceedingly medical
  932. >As I uneasily took a seat next to the faintly trembling pony, my peripheral vision caught two forms curiously watching my every move
  933. >Down one end of the aisle, her stallionfriend had risen to his hooves and was chewing his lip apprehensively
  934. >At the other end, a white unicorn had poked her purple mane around the corner and was slowly approaching, the calculated impacts of her hooves no longer resonating as distant echoes
  935. >The more I observed the ponies, cornered and lowered to their eye level, the more I noticed their warmly burning desire to make me just like them, and bring an end to the threat I posed
  936. >I wasn’t in the clear just because I had offered to help their friend… not by a long shot…
  937. “Wait, wait, hold on – I’m an EMT, I can help her!”
  938. >The Pegasus stallion’s unassailable gaze was still locked into my movements, but it was the unicorn who spoke with a commanding authority and appeared the most eager to pounce
  939. >“Ah, yes, you find a pouch full of medical supplies, and suddenly that makes you a medical authority… there was a guy… well, a mare… just like you on Hamilton Avenue earlier today…”
  940. “No, please, I’m telling you, look!”
  941. >I frantically swiped at the hoodie’s zipper, catching it after a few failed attempts and tearing it downwards to reveal my shirt sporting a Carmine Ambulance logo
  942. >Displaying my torso for both ponies to plainly see, the unicorn’s narrowed eyes reflected her incredulity, but I could perceive that her resolve was slowly crumbling
  943. “I spent fucking YEARS busting my ass for sick and injured folks, just like I’m trying to do for Typhoon Twist here – not to mention Sky Meadows”
  944. >The last piece of my sentence clearly hit a nerve with the unicorn, her eyebrows lifting in surprise as a clamor of hooves erupted from behind her
  945. >Out of the modest group of multicolored ponies peering around the shelf’s corner, a purple Pegasus surged forward, mercilessly pounding my backpack with a hoofbeat in the process
  946. >Gently upsetting her unicorn friend’s mane, her hooves skittered over the tile and she slid toward me at an alarmingly high speed
  947. >Had I not leaned away in fright, she would have bumped into my nose, and even now she allowed for little more than a few inches of clearance as I found myself beginning to hyperventilate
  948. >“Where is Sky Meadows – do you expect us to believe that?! What’d you do with her?! I’ll GLADLY make you a pony if you don’t want to tell me!”
  949. >What the hell, you’re going to inadvertently turn me into one if you’re not careful with that muzzle of yours!
  950. “Wait, wait! I didn’t do anything! Please, I’m begging you!”
  951. >With an air of emotional instability permeating the whole aisle, I couldn’t suppress my tears any longer
  952. >One touch would be the end of me, and that fact had been terrifying enough in the midst of Sky Meadows, even when she was asleep
  953. >In contrast, this pony was getting right in my face, causing me to shudder as her warm breath hit me, smelling faintly of grass and cinnamon candies
  954. >“Give me one good reason not to tackle you right now! That would get you to spill it!”
  955. “I’ll tell you, honest! Please! She gave me a note!”
  956. >The rustle of paper in my pocket prompted the Pegasus to take a surprised step back, reestablishing a meager semblance of personal space as she observed my hand’s fishing expedition
  957. >The unicorn lent her own assistance, enveloping the paper in a soft glow as it floated from my shaking hand and unfolded on its journey through the air
  958. >Silently, I mourned the fact that I was giving away what pretty much amounted to my only ‘get out of jail free’ card with these ponies
  959. >“Daisy, what’s it say?”
  960. >Daisy levitated the paper closely in front of herself with a dispassionate glare, shifting back and forth between the note and my pleading eyes
  961. >“Thank you for saving me and bandaging my wounds. You're peachy keen. I love you. Signed, Sky Meadows”
  962. >“Wait, Daisy, that was something Sky Meadows always said, even before we had friendship in our hearts – that folks she likes are ‘peachy keen!’”
  963. >“I’m inclined to believe you, Storm Cloud, meaning this note’s the real deal, and we owe our friend here a debt of gratitude for all the work he’s done…”
  964. >The unicorn began a slow, deliberate series of steps in my direction, which terrorized me to my very core with each hair-raising click against the tile
  965. >I didn’t dare raise my eyes, knowing fully well that she would think my meager attempts at brave defiance were ‘cute’ in the wake of the ponies overtaking the entire town so quickly
  966. >“It’s a real shame that it took you so long to find us after helping our friend… after all, Storm Cloud was morally ruined this morning when she forgot where she’d lost sight of her friend…”
  967. >The purple Pegasus backed away and tucked her tail between her legs, a wave of guilt apparently washing over her as she hung her head low
  968. >“Luckily, you’re going to tell us exactly where she is, right?”
  969. >I swallowed, fearing that I might upset Daisy if I tried to meet her gaze, a soft reply escaping my mouth
  970. “Y-Yes… Daisy…”
  971. >“See, that’s not so hard, right? That’s a good boy…”
  972. >I nodded slowly, another puzzle piece of coercion falling into place amid my struggle to maintain my humanity
  973. >“And then we’ll make Typhoon Twist and Cobalt all better with your help, and you’ll get the hero’s welcome you deserve!”
  974. “Hero’s… welcome?”
  975. >“Oh yes, all the mares will adore you for what you’d accomplished. Or, stallions, if that’s your preference once we’re done…”
  976. >A shiver ran up my spine and I struggled to keep my hammering heart in check
  977. “Daisy, do you… it’s impossible to… to work some of these medical devices with hooves… How would you even work a syringe? Or open a bandage?”
  978. >“Oh, you underestimate unicorns’ abilities, and I sincerely hope you end up as one so you can learn to appreciate them and continue your work. I’ll show you in a moment…”
  979. >The impatient twitching of a certain purple pair of wings prompted Daisy to circle back to a previous question
  980. >“But first, about Sky Meadows… where is she recovering again? You want to be a good little pony and tell us, don’t you?”
  981. “Y-Yes… Yes, I do… I will…”
  982. >My mind raced to come up with a fitting lie
  983. >I could tell them she’s somewhere on the far side of town?
  984. >Although, then Storm Cloud would bolt over there, find her absent, and brand me a liar before I could escape…
  985. >I could tell them tha-
  986. >“Well, we’re waiting… maybe it’d be easier to find the motivation if you were a pony, hmmm?”
  987. “Sixty Rockwell Avenue! She’s in the front room on the bottom floor of Sixty Rockwell Avenue…”
  988. >With a hurried scramble of hooves and a cheerful shout that she knew the exact location of that house, Storm Cloud practically flew out the side of the storefront
  989. >I knew the house well too, as it was, indeed, the house in which I’d spent a couple hours working to treat Sky Meadows’ lacerations
  990. >It was, indeed, the house in which Alexander and I had established our base, hidden from his roommates, and where we observed the beginning of this nightmare unfolding
  991. >And, if luck was playing in our favor, it was the house in which Alexander would be safely upstairs when Storm Cloud arrived to whisk her friend away…
  992.  
  993. >“See? Look how happy you made Storm Cloud, now that she knows where to find her friend… Doesn’t it feel good to help a friend?”
  994. >I let go of a breath that had stalled in my lungs, pausing once my diaphragm could go no further, before deeply breathing in with my whole body trembling in fear
  995. “Daisy, please… She… I’m not… I’m not friends with Storm Cloud like you say I am, and th-there’s nothing wrong with that…”
  996. >The unicorn flicked her mane over her shoulder and my hair stood on end as she loomed in my peripherals, whispering closely into my ear with a quiet yet firm demeanor
  997. >“You know what? You’re right… you’re absolutely, completely right. But we’re lucky that you’ll be joining our herd very soon. Now, it’ll be a lot more comfortable if you’d remove your gloves”
  998. “Daisy, please…”
  999. >“I know it may seem scary, but in the end you’ll be very happy you chose to embrace us… aren’t you curious to know what pony fur feels like without those troublesome things?”
  1000. “And… And how am I supposed to help poor Typhoon Twist then? You’re just going to leave a member of your herd to suffer – why would you do that?”
  1001. >Daisy pulled her head away, breathing in with audible outrage as her hooves paced to the middle of the aisle in front of me, allowing her cold eyes to more effectively meet my gaze
  1002. >Oh… Hold on! No, I’m sorry – I-I-I didn’t mean it! Whatever I said, I take it back! Daisy…
  1003. >“Look at me.”
  1004. >Slowly, my head rose, passing over her wrathfully tapping forehoof, her legs, chest, and neck, before landing on the stern expression etched into her face
  1005. >In one side of my vision, Typhoon Twist and Cobalt watched with fervent curiosities, while in the other, a plentiful herd of ponies brimmed along the shelves bordering the aisle’s end
  1006. >With my back to the shelf of defunct reading material, the only thing that could’ve doomed me further was Storm Cloud & company busting through the ceiling and hovering overhead
  1007. >‘Oh hey, you’d neglected to mention your friend hiding out with Sky Meadows, but he sure did make for a stunningly beautiful Pegasus mare!’
  1008. >I threw my head back for a moment, barely relieved to find the ceiling intact – nonetheless… all these ponies… and now I’d managed to piss them off, too
  1009. >“Hey! Look. At. Me. I don’t like to repeat myself”
  1010. >My eyes pleaded for compassion as they swiveled back to meet her gaze
  1011. >“I ALWAYS have the interests of my herd in mind, every second of every minute of every day, waking or sleeping. You must have a lot of nerve to accuse me of anything less!”
  1012. “No, I didn’t me-“
  1013. >“Let me finish! I don’t appreciate being interrupted!”
  1014. >Her ears were pressed back against her head, tensely flicking with each breath
  1015. >“I’m not much different from the rest of my herd, either. We don’t have a ‘friends quota’ to fill here; everything we’re doing is for the wretched people who are finally finding friendship”
  1016. >“You don’t even know the first thing about ponies and what we’re doing, yet you think that by remaining human you’re somehow contributing something to us that you wouldn’t as a pony”
  1017. >“I asked you nicely to disrobe so I could do the honors of showing you, in the flesh, the joy it brings… and so you would know that it was your hidden desire all along…”
  1018. >“Every second that you continue to fight me about it, and spurt your accusatory speech, is another second my patience grows thinner amid the opportunity to convert you less-than-willingly”
  1019. >Her muscles tensed, accompanying a subtle shift of weight onto her hind hooves that would have gone unnoticed by anyone not gaping with wide eyes
  1020. >“So I’m going to pardon your previous objections, and give you another opportunity for this to end amicably for us all. Give me your gloves, hoodie, and shirt. Now.”
  1021. >Please Daisy… You don’t need to do this… Please…
  1022. >Desperately, with my head drooping downwards and my mouth hanging ajar, my violently sparking neurons struggled to reel in a few crumpled thought processes, awash in a sea of adrenaline
  1023. >I slowly reached for the seams of my hoodie in a hopelessly compliant show of submission, the subtle jingle of the zipper nearly overpowering the sole question escaping my lips
  1024. “And… what ¬¬of… the human that’s now you, Daisy?”
  1025. >Daisy’s eyebrow rose, her head rolling to the side almost imperceptibly as her ears flicked unsuccessfully to catch my words
  1026. >“What was that?”
  1027. “You’re right, I don’t know much about life as a pony… but you’re so hasty to judge – what do YOU remember of your life as a human? Who were you before this?”
  1028. >Her face drew into a scowl, though she didn’t appear to be specifically upset about the fact that I’d stopped removing my clothing, the shoddy armor resting limply on my torso
  1029. >“You all ask that… every last one of you asks that, practically every human I meet… You’d think there were some kind of scheme to do so…”
  1030. “Were you a doctor, nurse, EMT? Do you trust yourself to care for the health and well-being of others – to be there when do one else w-”
  1031. >“I! Don’t! Know! I don’t know, okay?”
  1032. >The unicorn took a deep breath, an unproductive effort to ease her frustration
  1033. >“What does it even matter to you what I can or can’t do? You’re the one who’s going to be looking at Typhoon Twist, not me!”
  1034. “Yes… But I can’t tell what kind of pony I’d be, and if I’m not a unicorn, how do you possibly expect me to deliver treatment with a pair of coconut halves where my hands once were?”
  1035. >Directing Daisy’s eyes to area of the tile onto which I’d dropped the large pad bandage, I energetically pointed with a pair of open hands
  1036. >Levitating the bandage with a brilliant, crackling aura that matched her horn’s, Daisy irately ripped its packaging completely away in one fell swoop
  1037. >Tossing the useless slips of protective paper halfway across the aisle in a rage-fueled ticker tape parade, she pointlessly affixed the bandage onto my jeans with a resounding slap
  1038. >“I can just do it for you then. Anything you can do, so can unicorn magic, understand?”
  1039. “You know what? No! No, I don’t! You act like opening a bandage is difficult when any kid after a five minute first aid class can do it”
  1040. >“Well, that’s fantastic! Then even a regular pony or Pegasus could probably do it without magic – I still hope you’ll join us as a UNICORN, but if not, it’s apparently no big deal!”
  1041. >Daisy started to lean forward, but I held out a firmly gesturing hand, preventing her eager advance to determine the end result of my ponification
  1042. >She responded to my signal for her to back off… I wasn’t able to play her like a cheap fiddle yet, but she was starting to move to the music… Just a little more…
  1043. “Alright Daisy, how about this: see that syringe?”
  1044. >The unicorn glanced downwards, momentarily scanning the floor before a faint shimmering noise heralded the appearance of her softly glowing magic, its light wrapped around the syringe
  1045. >Meticulously levitating it in front of her crossed eyes, she slowly spun it, a delicate tug at its handle confirming what little she know of its intuitive function
  1046. >“What about it?”
  1047. “You know how to use it?”
  1048. >“How hard could it be? I’m guessing you want a demonstration, from me to you?”
  1049. >As she acknowledged each of our roles in the proposed trial, the needle’s glimmering tip vacillated between pointing at her face, and pointing at mine
  1050. >I wanted to write it off as thoughtless negligence, a simple case of her using an arbitrary object as a visual aid, but her leering expression retained the possibility of a more sinister intent
  1051. >Daisy probably didn’t know whether ponification could occur more rapidly via direct injection of the fluid-borne virus, and it could be an interesting question to explore, right here, right now!
  1052. “Honestly, yes. It takes a delicate hand to work even a large syringe, and I mean HAND”
  1053. >“You continue to insist that something about your humanity gives you an edge over us… but go on, I’m up for a challenge”
  1054. >Attempting to stifle a sigh, I averted my eyes from Daisy’s arrogantly confident grin
  1055. >I swiftly reached for my side, and while I unhooked the first strap affixing my EMT pouch to my belt, I heard a muted symphony of clicking hooves as each pony took a step backwards
  1056. “What’s the matter?”
  1057. >“Just thought you might reach for your knife, that’s all… When this is all over and you’re our friend, that’ll be a concern of the past…”
  1058. >Yes Daisy, I was totally about to fight my way out of here - you caught me; give yourself a pat on the back
  1059. >Moving with a bit more thoughtful conspicuousness, I carefully undid the pouch’s straps and set it on the floor in front of Daisy, one of her forehooves rising amid her faint bewilderment
  1060. “Daisy, how much do you know about Jenkins-North injections?”
  1061. >Probably ‘nothing’
  1062. >I was banking on none of the ponies in the audience having enough medical inclination to question me either, because I just invoked a completely nonexistent procedure
  1063. >Thankfully, while there were a few furrowed brows and the absentminded movement of lips, none spoke up over the general confusion of downright unfamiliarity
  1064. >If I weren’t thinking off the cuff and had invented something less contrived, it would’ve been easier to keep a straight face amidst my display of absolutely absurd medical jargon
  1065. >Nonetheless, she bought it
  1066. >“Are those… I don’t know anything about them – you’re the doctor! You know I can’t do this alone; you have to help me!”
  1067. “Easy, Daisy… Just breathe… I’ll walk you through it… Just imagine I’m a magicless pony helping you through this…”
  1068. >Briefly shutting her eyes, she took a deep breath, a faint wind wafting across the aisle a moment later with her considerably calmer exhale
  1069. >“Okay… What do I need to do?”
  1070. >I did my best to speak calmly and slowly, as though I were a benevolent teacher genuinely guiding a student in a fairly structured task
  1071. >The hardest part was shutting out the thoughts of what might be happening to Alexander right now, but what was I supposed to do, tell the ponies ‘ignore the upper floor at Sixty Rockwell’?
  1072. >Any divergent discourse would arouse their suspicions, and the most I could do for him now was simply avoid getting myself turned into a pony, by any means necessary
  1073. >We would probably need to leave the house after my carelessness had piqued the ponies’ curiosity to that particular address, but if I joined the herd, the charade would be up much sooner
  1074. “It’s simple; we teach these procedures to every one of our newer EMTs, and we practice them all the time whenever a patient has a potentially infected cut. First you need a syringe-“
  1075. >“Ah, already got that!”
  1076. “Let me be more specific: a smaller syringe, and I have some moderately sized pills with blue and white casings in a clear bottle – it’s marked with a number nine”
  1077. >After her muzzle had taken a few moments to poke through the pouch, accompanied by a gentle clinking of various plastics and metal, a dainty syringe and bottle of pills floated to eye level
  1078. >“Okay, these ones?”
  1079. “Yeah, those are the ones. You know those ads for painkillers in liquid capsules that are said to release faster? When you want them to work REALLY quickly, and in a targeted area-”
  1080. >Before I had even finished my thought, Daisy simultaneously began uncapping the syringe, lowering the bottle to the floor save for a single pill, and narrowing her eyes at the needle’s point
  1081. >She was beyond excited in her quest to not only show that unicorns didn’t need humans to do medical work, but also that they could do it faster and better too!
  1082. >A Napoleonic quote briefly flashed across my mind, the notion ringing true that it’s better not to interfere with an enemy in the midst of making a mistake
  1083. >“Just say when”
  1084. >Poking the needle into the semi-firm capsule through mild resistance, she started to pull back on the syringe’s handle, drawing a partial vacuum into the pump before letting it snap back
  1085. >Gluing her eyes to the syringe’s side… it was empty… not a single fraction of a drop had made its way in…
  1086. >But… it was supposed to be so simple… what happened? Needle goes in, liquid comes out, this was a regular procedure the humans did regularly! This ought to be a breeze with magic!
  1087. >Typhoon Twist piped up from behind Daisy, still laying placidly on the floor while she watched her friend struggle
  1088. >“Daisy, you silly pony, you need a hole for the air to go INTO the casing too if you want any suction!”
  1089. >Daisy’s head swiveled back toward me, casting a self-assured expression of superiority at the witty – but not witty enough – human who had tried to deceive her
  1090. >“Thanks Typhoon, I caught on to the little trick just as you did”
  1091. >Withdrawing the needle and stabbing into the casing again, the handle of the syringe pulled backward in her telekinetic grip with a soft hissing noise, but still no liquid occupied the chamber
  1092. “Daisy, it’s simple if you j-”
  1093. >“Quiet! I can do this!”
  1094. >Firmly planting her hooves, the glow surrounding the demonstration intensified as Daisy punctured the casing in a third spot, the airy hissing again intermixing with the twinkling of levitation
  1095. “Daisy, just imagine you’re treating a patient with an open wound, you n-”
  1096. >“Quiet! I told you to be quiet!”
  1097. >Frantically drawing out the needle again, she poked into the casing again, only to suck in more air, the aura glimmering brighter and brighter with each failed attempt
  1098. >I could have told her that it was NEVER standard procedure to draw medicine from pills, as the binders and fillers alone could cause clots and poisoning of drastic proportions
  1099. >I could have additionally mentioned that the pill she held contained a granulated solid, rather than a liquid, that added some nice heft to the pill but wouldn’t enter a needle
  1100. >Mentioning either fact would have done a lot to reassure her that she wasn’t an utterly inept unicorn, especially when it came to medicine…
  1101. >So instead, I egged her on
  1102. “Daisy, you’re the unicorn on site, it’s all up to you to save a friend because you turned the last medically inclined human into a magicless pony!”
  1103. >“No, no! Be quiet! Oh, hayseed, stop saying that!”
  1104. >Tears were starting to well up in her eyes, the intensely staring, glimmering pupils of which were locked into the syringe’s dry volume, still occupied by nothing more than air
  1105. “Daisy, your patient has an open wound and is in really bad shape, you need to help them!”
  1106. >“Stop saying that! I’m trying!”
  1107. “They’re depending on you!”
  1108. >“No, no, I can do this, I need to! Merriment! Come on!”
  1109. “You’re their last hope! You turned me into a pony so now you h-“
  1110. >“Shut! Up! F-F-F-FUCK!”
  1111. >As the syringe’s plunger drew back as far as it could go, the aura surrounding it crackled brightly – almost violently – before a resounding snap ripped through the air
  1112. >With a hair-raising shout, Daisy threw the two halves of the syringe in an unpredictable trajectory across the store, its fragments skittering off some faraway tiles
  1113. >Gritting her teeth, she turned to me and lunged with fire in her eyes, forcing me to fall to the side lest I suffer the full extent of her wrath, the unicorn now looming over me
  1114. >Maybe I’d egged her on just a little too much?
  1115. “Daisy, calm down, calm down!”
  1116. >“Why did you make me do that? You’re supposed to be a doctor, why didn’t you step in to help?! I thought you cared about patients!”
  1117. >Realizing my hands had curled into fists following her charge, I exhaled and relaxed, my fingers gradually uncurling
  1118. >Slowly, and with a compassionate tenderness that seemingly took an eternity to arrive, I reached a hand onto one of Daisy’s forelegs, softly caressing her fur with gentle brushes
  1119. >As I realized that tears were unabatedly flowing from her misty eyes, my gloves moved toward her face to wipe them
  1120. >I wasn’t eager to find out whether they were infectious as they dripped downwards, and it prompted me to slide out from underneath her, lifting myself back to a seated position
  1121. >Continuing my pacification efforts, I continued running my hands along her fur and mane while speaking just above a whisper
  1122. “Daisy… that’s a good girl, it’s okay… it’s okay… you did your best…”
  1123. >“But… the patient… I couldn’t get anything into the syringe… I couldn’t even do the very first step of the something… North…”
  1124. “Jenkins-North injection?”
  1125. >“The Jenkins-North injection… And it’s all my fault… when you didn’t have magic to help…”
  1126. >For a few seconds she clenched her eyes closed, although the dams of her eyelids did little to hold back the flood of tears surging out
  1127. >I reached a hand under Daisy’s chin, gently lifting her head so she would have no choice but to meet my gaze when her eyes slid open
  1128. “Daisy… Sweetie, look at me… It’s okay if you can’t do everything… even with magic, no one’s perfect… and besides, when you look at me, do you see a magicless pony?”
  1129. >She paused before responding, filling her lungs with a trembling inhale amid her sobbing
  1130. >“N-N-No… I… I still see a human…”
  1131. “Right. Now, I’m a little sad that I can never be a pony, because I have my duty to provide medical help to the herd, and I can only do that with hands, okay?”
  1132. >Daisy didn’t respond verbally, instead signaling her understanding with an almost imperceptible nod
  1133. “If it’s impossible to even do a simple procedure like the one I just asked you to do with magic, then naturally it w-”
  1134. >“Show me! Please! How can I do a Jenkins-North injection? Please… I… I-I don’t want to every feel helpless like that ever again… not again… it hurts too much…”
  1135. “And use another syringe? You already broke one of the three I had with me; I need to find some more because if I come across more than two injured ponies I’ll be all out”
  1136. >That, plus the fact that I can’t pull granulated solids through a needle either…
  1137. “Not to mention, that procedure is only the tip of the iceberg. Unicorn magic is impressive, but there are dozens of similar procedures I can think of that really require hands…”
  1138. >“I just… I want you to be our friend…”
  1139. “I know, Daisy, I know. But this is how it has to be if I’m going to help your herd… maybe someday…”
  1140. >Still scratching the base of Daisy’s mane in small, tight circles, I tried to suppress any outward displays of turmoil as my mind flashed back to Alexander’s possible peril
  1141. >I’d pretty well managed to wriggle myself out of MY mess, and now I was just responsible for getting Alexander out of the mess into which I may have inadvertently dragged him
  1142. >Maybe Sky Meadows had hidden the note I’d left her, and shown enough appreciation not to immediately out us to Storm Cloud? Explaining the leash might be a bit tough…
  1143. >If he made it through Storm Cloud’s search, and that was a pretty big ‘if,’ I could take a moment to explain to the ponies that he was also medically inclined
  1144. >It would have been a cinch using his anatomy notes, and we could drive the point home with a brief battery of medical questions
  1145. >Come to think of it, this could be our ticket to establishing trust with the ponies while remaining humans – suddenly, us having hands was crucial to them!
  1146. >Establish ourselves as people who can help their injured friends, and… well, I didn’t have a second step in mind, but so long as there were injuries, they couldn’t transform us, right?
  1147. >I was still lost in thought when my eyes settled on Typhoon Twist, staring inquisitively while her vivid pink braid trailed across her forelegs and framed her expression
  1148. >Without moving her mouth, her eyes silently asked whether I was still going to make her legs all better, seeing as any other medical professional with hooves was apparently unqualified
  1149. “Typhoon, uh… when did… when did your leg pain start?”
  1150. >“Last ni- uh, early this morning – I hit it on a car when I was flying… I can still fly perfectly fine, but walking is really uncomfortable unless I’m using my wings to relieve some of the weight…”
  1151. “Okay then, just be good and try not to move your leg; you can do that for me, right?”
  1152. >With a frail nod, she exhibited her approval before lowering her head to the floor, relaxing each muscle in her body in order to expedite my inspection
  1153. >Now that I could finally take a good look at her leg, a well of concern grew with each inch my gaze tracked across her fur, resolving numerous faint discolorations consistent with bruising
  1154. “Daisy, could you pass me my medical supplies, and could someone in your herd run to grab a piece of candy, something soft? Check by the registers”
  1155. >The unicorn’s ears had perked to attention, and with a swift flick of the eyes she prompted a nondescript Pegasus to trot away, turning to levitate my pouch towards me a moment later
  1156. >Gingerly, my glove met the fur coating one of Typhoon Twist’s injured legs, prompting the nerves buried in her skin to ripple with a mix of surprise and discomfort
  1157. >Applying slightly more pressure, I pulled back before I did any more damage, either to her leg, or to the fragile trust she and the other ponies held in my healing
  1158. >I had already learned what I needed to know… what I didn’t know for certain was whether minor fractures in Pegasi would heal the same as with human athletes lacking shinguards…
  1159. >Reaching into my EMT kit, I retrieved a bottle of aspirin and dropped two tablets into my hands, rattling the recapped bottle back into place just as a clattering of hooves surged nearer
  1160. >I had a fleeting moment to enjoy a wave of comfortable familiarity as I strapped the pouch back in place at my side, as a young child would feel upon hugging a security blanket
  1161. >Giving the pouch a gentle tap, I turned my attention to the Pegasus standing patiently sentinel next to me
  1162. “Thanks for bringing these, be sure to take one as a reward for yourself”
  1163. >Grasping the small bag of gummy bears from his muzzle, I tore open the plastic and held out a couple treats for him in my palm
  1164. >Warily, he sniffed the candies and grabbed them after a few seconds’ pause, freeing up my hand to reach behind his ear for a few well-earned scratches, for which he gratefully smiled
  1165. >Turning back to Typhoon Twist, her ears flicked in time with the musical crinkle of plastic, listening attentively as I mingled a few more gummy bears with the aspirin
  1166. >“Mister doctor?”
  1167. >Cringing at the name-drop, this ‘doctor’ unconsciously drew his lips back
  1168. >Sure, Daisy had already made the same mistake a couple times, but I still worried that it could bite me in the ass if I allowed them TOO much faith in my training
  1169. “Well, I should say outright that I’m just an EMT and not a doctor, but what is it, Typhoon?”
  1170. >“Sorry… uh, but… why are you giving me a treat already? I thought you gave those to good ponies when we were all done – are we… done already? Did I do well?”
  1171. “Not quite, Typhoon Twist, but before you know it, I’ll let you have the rest of the gummy bears here too!”
  1172. >Holding my medicine-and-candy filled hand to her muzzle, I used my other hand to scratch behind her ear, eliciting a soft, contended moan as she happily began chewing my offering
  1173. >Swallowing, she gave my glove a few cursory licks before meeting my gaze again
  1174. >“They tasted kind of funny… were they supposed to be crunchy?”
  1175. “Yes, there were a few painkillers in there, just to make this easier”
  1176. >“Painkillers? O-O-Ohh…”
  1177. >When I directed my attention back to Typhoon Twist’s injured hind leg, I found its previously unshakable demeanor had been supplanted by a faint trembling, to the tempo of her breaths
  1178. >A moment later, a shadow across the injured Pegasus directed my attention to the side, where Cobalt was looming with an expression lodged somewhere between curiosity and fear
  1179. >“You’re… you’re not going to… to hurt her, are you? Is she… going to be in a lot of… p-p-pain?”
  1180. “Cobalt, she’s going to be perfectly fine, and she’ll be right as rain as soon as I put a splint on; I promise”
  1181. >“I’m just worried that you’re giving her painkillers… I’m worried for her…”
  1182. “I understand that, little pony, but I think the best thing you can do for your marefriend is to help her stay calm by staying calm yourself”
  1183. >Suddenly, I perceived a rapid uptick in the tempo of both Cobalt’s and Typhoon Twist’s hearts, and as I looked at Cobalt with his lips flattened and his grey face tinted red, I could tell why
  1184. >“She’s… uh…”
  1185. >His rapidly darting eyes betrayed him, and I jumped in as it became too embarrassingly transparent that he didn’t have alternate justification ready to go
  1186. “Oh… I just thought… I mean, you two were… sharing a salad when I found you, and you were being awfully quiet like you were having some alone time toge-”
  1187. >“We weren’t! We were… not sharing salads… because there’s two there, see? Not sharing, just… having some salads! Like two… friends!”
  1188. >Following the trail of scattered pieces of lettuce lining the aisle, there were indeed two containers of salad… one empty and one still mostly full… and Cobalt hadn’t explained…
  1189. “What’s with the little bouquet of flowers? And in looks like there’s a heart shaped arrangement of-“
  1190. >“So! Uh… right! So, yeah, what are you doing for Typhoon Twist again? I just, uh, forget!”
  1191. >The Pegasus stallion nervously shifted on his hooves, a slight wince of pain making itself known with each sudden sideways jerk firing a lance of pain through his bruised foreleg
  1192. “I’m… putting a split on her leg, and, Cobalt, are you… feeling alright, too? Could you stop moving?”
  1193. >With his stance hardening to a stiff standstill while his twitching wings kept up the subdued display of agitation, I gently wrapped a glove around his injured foreleg
  1194. >“Shouldn’t you be treating Typhoon Twist? Please! I mean… please… you’re the medical professional here, and we… she… needs your help more urgently!”
  1195. “It’s okay, I just want to give her some time for the aspirin to work… I don’t need to put your leg in a splint or anything; thank goodness, it’s just a bit bruised, so I’ll give you some aspirin-”
  1196. >“No… no, save them for her”
  1197. “Come again?”
  1198. >“I’m not hurting too bad; she needs them more…”
  1199. >Much as I tried to negotiate an accord between my rising brow and gravity to keep my surprise hidden, I couldn’t get past the undocked seriousness in Cobalt’s suggestion
  1200. “Cobalt… I can see you wincing, just…”
  1201. >Oh for the love of God, you silly little lovebird… horse… thing…
  1202. >Grabbing the entire bottle of aspirin from my kit, I popped out a single tablet and impatiently set the recapped bottle at Cobalt’s hooves, holding the medicine in my palm
  1203. >He stared at it and repeatedly glanced back at me, silently questioning whether I was certain of my resource allocation before carefully gripping it in his teeth
  1204. >I made a mental note to grab another bottle of painkillers from the shelves on my way out, the only question being whether I’d want the travel size or bulk…
  1205. >Probably the latter… There were bound to be a lot of injured ponies out there…
  1206. “Don’t take more than the recommended dosage, and take ‘em whenever you’re hurting; that’s more than plenty”
  1207. >Turning back to Typhoon Twist, I gently shifted her leg before retrieving and unrolling a SAM splint that had been sitting in the base of my EMT pouch
  1208. >SAM splints, made of a thin aluminum sheet core and wrapped in foam, could be cradled and strapped around a broken limb to provide lightweight, and surprisingly rigid, support
  1209. >While they were designed for human legs, the simple truth was that, even on pony legs, a curled piece of metal became unyieldingly stiff in its other two axes, lending it its effectiveness
  1210. >Instead of delving right into its attachment, I gently brushed Typhoon’s fur with my free hand, simultaneously allowing her to observe, and even steal a quick sniff of, the splint
  1211. >Satisfied with her scrutiny, her head lay on the ground with half-lidded, aspirin-addled eyes in a wordless signal that she was comfortable getting down to business
  1212. >Even though I wasn’t the least bit inexperienced with splints, I moved with exceptional care, incidentally aware that Cobalt would bark at me if the slightest grunt of discomfort was heard
  1213. >Just a strap around the hock… one down around the area near the hoof… Perfect…
  1214. >Lamenting the stiffness enveloping her leg, I was about to begin adjusting the splint to grant her slightly more flexible mobility when a rhythm of hoofsteps perked up every pony’s ears
  1215. >My attention span was not immune, and with covert, idle glances, I watched Storm Cloud gallop off the asphalt and through the shattered frame that had once been the storefront window
  1216. >Expecting Sky Meadows to follow closely, my heart sank with each moment I didn’t see the seemingly inseparable other half of the pair – the salt to her pepper, the vim to her vigor
  1217. >My directions couldn’t have been clearer, but I at least took solace in the fact that Storm Cloud’s solitude meant she apparently didn’t encounter Alexander…
  1218. >Oh, God… Best case scenario… Please just say you got lost on the way to the house and need a road map… Or that the clasp on the collar was too finicky without magic…
  1219. >“Daisy, I think we need to talk”
  1220. >Through the corner of my eye, I perceived a pair of subtle nods before the mares trotted to the front of the store, their hooves gradually fading with each click against the tile
  1221. >Suddenly envious of the ponies, I briefly wished I were endowed with their superior hearing, but as Daisy’s characteristically calm demeanor escaped her, the hushed whispers rose in volume
  1222. >I tried not to react to the conversation in any fashion, vacantly prodding random parts of the splint with a systematically clinical touch, or at least, so it seemed to Typhoon Twist
  1223. >“I think I’ve made my reasoning abundantly clear on that, and I still say no!”
  1224. >“Daisy, why aren’t you friends with him yet? For his sake and ours, he would make a valuable addition to our herd; don’t you know how many injured ponies there are out there? Hundreds!”
  1225. >“And we need to keep him as a human if he’s going to help us to the best of his abilities – you can be the one to keep tabs on him if it makes you feel be-”
  1226. >“You know that wouldn’t appease me – if he were a member of our herd, he’d be GLAD to stick around with us and show us the ropes, and then the unicorns can use his advice from there”
  1227. >“But we CAN’T, Storm Cloud! He said there are dozens of procedures he needs to be human to do, and even showed me one I couldn’t accomplish; he NEEDS his hands… poor buzzard…”
  1228. >“You mean to tell me that YOU, the pony whom I’d trust most to operate on me if it came down to it, with levitation more precise and steady than-”
  1229. >“Please stop talking… I know what I did and don’t really want to discuss it further…”
  1230. >“Sorry… All I’m saying is, I’m not sure we can trust him!”
  1231. >“Well, of course we can’t so long as he’s clinging to his old self, but he seems to think we eventually will; if our rapport worsens, I won’t hesitate to telekinetically bind him and take him away”
  1232. >“At least attempt to be diplomatic at first. He’s still withholding information about Sky Meadows’ whereabouts – I just want my friend back; at this point that’s all that matters!”
  1233. >“It’s okay Storm; just breathe. You searched the whole house?”
  1234. >“Every last inch, from head to hoof! She wasn’t in the front room, she wasn’t in any of the adjacent rooms on the lower floor!”
  1235. >“And the upper floor?”
  1236. >“Well, um, he didn’t say anything about that… so… I didn’t…”
  1237. >“Go check the upper floor, and leave no stone unturned. I’ll send a few ponies to go with you to help in the search”
  1238. >Still inattentively staring at the splint, my eyes went wide and my heart leapt into my throat as I heard a resolute rush of wings through the storefront, sending papers and coins flying
  1239. >Oh… fuck…
  1240. >Alexander!
  1241. “Daisy, can you come over here? It’s serious!”
  1242. >The most immediate response was from Typhoon Twist, and thankfully my genuine terror helped me to exhibit the appropriate expression when her head swiveled to face me
  1243. >Picking an arbitrary point where her haunch met her barrel, I flattened a palm against her body and began pressing, adding my other hand to the stack a moment later
  1244. >“Oh, horseapples, is it bad? What’s going on?! I thought I was doing okay; is everything alright?!”
  1245. “No no no, you’re doing great, sweetie, just stay calm, just stay calm! DAISY!”
  1246. >A frantic thunder of hooves hooked around the corner, nudging a few bags of snacks to the ground as the aghast unicorn slid into the aisle
  1247. “I need to keep pressure with both hands here; can you look into my pouch, there’s a purple bottle with a white cap labelled ‘cupric paraffin’ that I need NOW”
  1248. >Cupric paraffin? Damn, I really was on a roll with the unimaginatively made-up jargon tonight…
  1249. >As a magic aura wrapped around my EMT pouch, it zipped open and Daisy rummaged through it, swaying in synch with my legitimately fraught breaths
  1250. >“They’re not here!”
  1251. “Motherfuck Daisy, look again! I need that medicine NOW!”
  1252. >“There’s no purple bottle! And none of these have that label!”
  1253. “Son of a bitch!”
  1254. >Through ragged breaths, I had unconsciously begun gritting my teeth and my face turned red, while tears were starting to flow from Typhoon’s eyes amid the horrifying scene…
  1255. >Whatever it took to save Alexander, I guess…
  1256. >“Where can we get some?! Please, we need them for her, and we can’t just give up!”
  1257. “We won’t! Daisy, I want you to get every pony here to start looking for it in the store; if they find any, give her two pills and wash it down with water, quickly!”
  1258. >“And… and if they can’t?”
  1259. “Just a sec… Look, Daisy, you see where I’m applying pressure? Put your hooves right here – firm, but not too hard”
  1260. >Shuffling over and yanking my hands away, I guided Daisy’s hooves onto the spot where I’d been applying pressure a moment earlier
  1261. >“O-Okay… like-”
  1262. “That’s great Daisy, you’re doing great! You feel that bump underneath her skin?”
  1263. >“No! I… my hooves aren’t sensitive enough! Oh, what the hay, can’t you do this?!”
  1264. “I have a bottle of cupric paraffin stored in a house right up the road; I’m going to get a few of the pills. If they don’t have it in the store, it’s our best hope for her”
  1265. >I squatted next to Typhoon Twist’s sniveling muzzle and carefully raised her head so she could look into my eyes, both of us doing our best to feign firm composure
  1266. “I won’t be long, okay? I’m going to make sure you’re alright; do you understand me? Think about the rest of your herd – think about Cobalt! They won’t let anything bad happen to you!”
  1267. >She stifled her tears for just long enough to nod as I began rising to my feet, taking one last look over the scene I’d be revisiting in a few minutes, arbitrary pill selection in hand
  1268. “Daisy, whatever you do, just keep the pressure on. It’ll at least buy us a few minutes…”
  1269. >“W-Wait! How much time do we have?!”
  1270. “Could be as much as a half hour, could be as little as twenty minutes – I’ll be back well before then, I promise!”
  1271. >“A-And… And what happens if you don’t?”
  1272. >I paused upon realizing that I’d never given a fatal prognosis – real or fake – and it was shaping up to be a burden I hoped I’d never need to shoulder again
  1273. “I’m trying to prevent it with every fiber of my being. Cardiac arrest… Her heart stops…”
  1274. >Turning out of the aisle, I trampled over the abandoned backpack and zipped up the EMT pouch strapped to my side, meeting no resistance from the ponies as my strides began lengthening
  1275. >Leaping through the broken storefront window onto the asphalt outside, I broke into a sprint as a few light drops of rain began landing against my face
  1276.  
  1277. >As I ran toward the sidewalk just beyond the gas station’s boundary, I elected to avoid the backyard route by which I’d approached the convenience store
  1278. >The taller fences would’ve been too cumbersome since I couldn’t easily hurdle them, and at this point, every second counted
  1279. >Alexander… I never meant for this to happen… this was supposed to be a simple trip to the store…
  1280. >Scanning the horizon for any obstacles, I acknowledged that a single wandering pony, non-abiding of Daisy’s judgement or unaware of my stated intentions, could still be my downfall
  1281. >It was almost cruel… to think that after escaping a close-quarters encirclement by an entire herd, I might succumb to a single Pegasus looking to make a friend on his leisurely afternoon flight
  1282. >Fortunately, as my eyes flicked across the open road and sidewalk ahead, the only movement to be seen was the gentle splashes of raindrops in ever-growing puddles
  1283. >Just to be safe, I passed each fenced blind spot with a sizable gap between it and myself, leaving a minimum length a bit more than that of a pony’s foreleg
  1284. >The sneakier ones could be lurking anywhere, well aware of the fact that tripping up one of a biped’s legs made them unstable mid-run, and they’d want to make that a problem of the past
  1285. >Without breaking stride, I glanced back over my shoulder to check the sky, failing to see any Pegasi silhouetted anywhere in the grey blanket as misty water continued accumulating on my face
  1286. >It could be that all the nearby Pegasi were with Daisy, or simply indoors sheltering from the rain, but I really only cared about the whereabouts of one particular Pegasus
  1287. >Please, Storm Cloud… please don’t let me be too late…
  1288. >Ragged breaths and slamming footsteps heralded my arrival at the front of Alexander’s house, and I leaped all four steps to the porch in a single bound, throwing open the front door
  1289. >It had already been ajar, and remained wide open as I stopped cold in my tracks, a modest breeze forcing itself through the new opening into the front room
  1290. >Sky Meadows… where… but…
  1291. >A shiver ran down my spine as my eyes trailed along the chain attached at one end to radiator, snaking limply along the ground to a vacant leash shimmering in the dim light
  1292. >I recognized the mostly empty bowl in which I’d left Sky Meadows’ breakfast this morning, a few smears of salad dressing lining its edge while a single piece of lettuce shifted in the breeze
  1293. >Her bottle of water was gone, and each of the papers left behind had been scattered – no note explaining her disappearance or thanking me for breakfast was anywhere to be seen
  1294. >Amid of the countless articles of clothing filling the room, Sky Meadows’ accommodations indicated that she’d joined the fate of the former human partygoers, in that she was simply… gone…
  1295. >With my heart still hammering, I took a single quick step toward the base of the stairs before I noticed the pair of eyes glaring at me from the kitchen
  1296. >I found myself fixated on the eyes, my thoughts desperately trying to move me out of checkmate without anywhere proper to escape on this particular board
  1297. >With an unsettled shifting of purple wings and a deliberate rhythm of echoing hoofsteps, Storm Cloud paced through the narrow hallway into the room, never once letting her eyes waver
  1298. >The steady clicks of her hooves against the hard floor reverberated with methodical intimidation, the sounds standing out starkly against the soft backdrop of wind and rain
  1299. >“I had THOUGHT you were busy treating the hundreds of injured ponies littering the streets, crying out for their mothers, begging for someone to lick their wounds, all that…”
  1300. “Storm Cloud, I-I-I’m working on it, honest! I just needed to grab something from the house; I was treating Typhoon Twist right before this…”
  1301. >“Aaah, Typhoon Twist… after all the time she spent this morning crying in pain, trying to stay strong for Cobalt… I must say, for her to be all healed, after THAT, you really ARE impressive”
  1302. >As the Pegasus continued her slow advance, I wiped a bead of cold sweat from my forehead, the room now feeling dreadfully uncomfortable
  1303. “There’s no… There’s no need to be facetious, S-Storm Cloud! You know I’m not a miracle worker!”
  1304. >“Oh, I just figured… with your WONDROUS hands and all, every single pony in the tri-state area is already better off on account of us knowing you as a human, rather than a pony…”
  1305. “Please, Storm Cloud! I showed Daisy why it’s important I have my hands for a-”
  1306. >I barely had time to react as Storm Cloud’s wings snapped downwards, launching her at me amid a violent gust of air that kicked up a cloud of dust from the shadows
  1307. >Without the presence of mind to even cry out, I lifted my hands to protect my face as my knees buckled, sending me sprawling backwards
  1308. >Hitting my head violently on the hardwood floor, I groaned and clenched my eyes shut in agony while my mind swam in a daze for a few brief seconds
  1309. >By the time I came to, a hard, crushing weight had begun to make itself known on top of each of my palms, my gloved hands pinned to the floor as though they had been stapled there
  1310. >My eyes opened and ascended along the lines of purple fur rising from each hand, passing over the Pegasus’ fiercely breathing chest straddling my torso, and finally meeting her furious gaze
  1311. >Rapidly, tunnel vision drew my focus unbearably to her face, my feet weakly kicking at nothing in particular just beyond the curtain of her tail
  1312. “Storm Cloud! Please!”
  1313. >“Your words aren’t going to do anything for you”
  1314. “Please, for the love of God, I’m begging you!”
  1315. >“I’m sorry, but I’m only doing what I need to do…”
  1316. “Please don’t do this! Please, please!”
  1317. >Oh God, if Alexander was upstairs, shouldn’t he be hearing my pleas and getting down here to lend me a fucking hand?!
  1318. >I shifted my weight and tensed the muscles in one of my arms, momentarily drawing Storm Cloud’s attention as my veins felt like they were bound to pop out of my skin
  1319. >“What’re you…? Now, I may be just a little pony, but I’m a strong one at that. Now, that doesn’t mean you CAN’T wriggle out, but do you really want to try when you’re just going to upset me?”
  1320. >Slowly, my protests ceased as my efforts evaporated into little more than a few half-hearted shifts of the elbows
  1321. >“Do you remember what Daisy said when we found you? You want to be a good little pony, right? Of course you do… Stop. Fighting. Back.”
  1322. >I gritted my teeth and pinched my eyes shut, resentfully following Storm Cloud’s commands to the letter as my arms went limp, my legs following suit a moment later
  1323. >“There you go… Nice and calm. I must say, you did get under my skin when you went talking about your hands again, like they make you better than the best unicorns…”
  1324. “Please… I’m sorry, Storm Cloud… I won’t talk about them… every again… I won’t do it again! I promise! Please!”
  1325. >“I told you to stay calm! Calm. Just take some deep breaths. Just deep breaths in… deep breaths out… Deep breaths back in again… Don’t you worry, this’ll all be over soon enough”
  1326. >As a heavy pause hung in the air, she and I locked eyes for a few moments, the brunt of her hooves’ weight shifting away just enough for it not to incite crushing agony
  1327. “S-S-Storm Cloud? W-What… what will be? What’ll be over soon enough?”
  1328. >The Pegasus vacantly sighed, momentarily tilting her head upwards as though Sky Meadows were suddenly standing right next to us with the right turn of phrase spelled out in bold letters
  1329. >“Well, I’m not sure what, actually. I guess I CAN’T make you join our herd right now, seeing as I trust Daisy’s judgement… even though I don’t trust you…”
  1330. “Oh thank God…”
  1331. >“…I sure as shootin’ want to though. I don’t know what you did to convince her otherwise, but it’d make both her and my plans go a lot more smoothly if you’d cooperate”
  1332. “I’m doing my best… I swear… I can be helpful – I want to be helpful – what do you want to know?”
  1333. >“I think you’re already well aware. All I want is my friend back; what the hay did you do with her in the midst of all the confusion?”
  1334. “Sky Meadows? You know about as well as I do where she is right now… When I left the house an hour or two ago, she was on that leash so she wouldn’t leave”
  1335. >“You had her chained up like a prisoner? Or a pet dog?”
  1336. “It’s not like that, not at all… You listened to Daisy reading the note; I bandaged her wounds fine, but she still needed stitches... I couldn’t let her just run off in the morning when she awoke…”
  1337. >“You should have patched her up right then and there, and let her rejoin us…”
  1338. “That’s easy for you to say now, but believe me when I say she needed rest – I let her sleep, gave her water, made her a nice breakfast, hell, I treated her better than I did my ex some days”
  1339. >“Yes, but she would have at least been with her herd, safe and sound! Now you tell me to check the front room, and for pony’s sake, it doesn’t look to me like she’s here!”
  1340. “I get that, and I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you any more than that…”
  1341. >As though she could sense the fact I was withholding information, even if it was the benign detail of Alexander residing upstairs, she sighed and closely focused on each of my eyes individually
  1342. >“Call me crazy, I still feel like that’s not all you could be telling me… Maybe… just… a LITTLE fur couldn’t hurt…”
  1343. “What’s that supposed to… wait… wait, stop! Stop! What do you mean by that?!”
  1344. >“Relax, you’ll get to keep your hands, just like Daisy wants. Don’t you think I’m cute? Just a little peck on the cheek is all I want, juuuust enough to get you talking…”
  1345. >She lowered her head towards me, her mane already draping alarmingly close as I caught an unsettlingly strong scent of lavender drifting from its locks
  1346. “Storm Cloud, why the hell would I kiss you? Please, I’m begging you, stop! Stop!”
  1347. >“Aww, you really know how to break a girl’s heart… Well, no matter, I don’t need your cooperation to plant some fur on your cheek – a little bit of persuasion, I guess you could call it”
  1348. “Stop, stop, I’ll help you find Sky Meadows! Whatever it takes, I’ll do anything! Anything at all!”
  1349. >Storm Cloud straightened up, still keeping her hooves resolutely atop my hands while her expression started to soften into a playful smirk, even stifling a childish giggle as my words settled in
  1350. >“Woooow. Just wow. It takes a lot of nerve to say something like that, to a chick who’s got your hands pinned in a position like that, but you know what? I think I’ve made my aim clear…”
  1351. >With my adrenaline slowly dissipating from my trembling body, I swallowed and tried to rid myself of the dry mouth my harried breaths had caused
  1352. “Y-Yes… you… you have… crystal clear, Storm Cloud, I promise…”
  1353. >“…I’m feeling like I can put some more trust in you, actually… so how about this? I’m going to let go of your hands, and you can held me track down Sky Meadows, no strings attached”
  1354. >Even after Storm Cloud had shifted the hard keratin burdens, I was slow to move, still locked into an impromptu staring contest between her exuberance and my uncomfortable confusion
  1355. “I mean, I… I still need to find that medication for Typhoon Twist as well, but… what… was that not the plan you originally had?”
  1356. >While slowly rising to a seated position propped up by my painfully aching hands, I met Storm Cloud’s narrowed eyes brimming with silent discernment
  1357. >“Truth be told, I was going to tie off the chain around you – a ‘shoe’s on the other foot’ kind of thing – but come to think of it… that won’t be necessary…”
  1358. >Good heavens, were all the ponies this psychotic?
  1359. >When you didn’t consider the cute letters, was getting Sky Meadows to trust and befriend us ever anything more than a hopeless pipe dream?
  1360. >Come on, I’m completely trustworthy, once you look beyond the bit about the injections… and claiming to know where Sky Meadows was… and needing medication for Typhoon Twist…
  1361. >Oh, shoot, if I don’t get back to Carmine Corners soon with a handful of pills, then THEY’RE going to out me as a liar…
  1362. >“I already checked this floor pretty thoroughly already, and obviously Sky Meadows isn’t down here; I figured I’d hear her moving around, but let’s try the upper floor anyways!”
  1363. “Uh, yeah, sounds good! I need to get that medication for Typhoon Twist from one of the bedrooms, so I’ll check in there; you can check the other rooms in the meantime”
  1364. >“Hmmm… Okay… I guess… After you, then”
  1365. >As I rose to my feet and breathed a sigh of relief that Storm Cloud wasn’t towering over me anymore, I could tell she still wanted to keep me on a tight leash despite the lack of a physical chain
  1366. >She watched my every move with cold, unwavering eyes, and as my feet steadily climbed the old wooden stairs to the upper level, each creak was met by a hoofstep following a half second later
  1367. >I let out a long exhale as I reached the upstairs hallway, turning back to Storm Cloud for a brief moment, her tail flicking as though agitated that I was stalling for so much as a single moment
  1368. >“Go on, go ahead to the bedroom… I’ll check for her in the… in the bathroom…”
  1369. >The dark, foreboding shadows outlining Alexander’s door slanted hauntingly at the end of the hallway, getting closer with each of my steady footfalls upon the carpet
  1370. >Planting my feet with a quiet, shuddering breath, I inattentively knocked out the pattern that would grant me access to the locked room
  1371. >Behind me, a perplexed voice full of intrigue echoed hollowly from the bathroom’s entrance
  1372. >“Who…”
  1373. >In the gloominess of the windowless hall, I’d failed to notice that the door’s latch hadn’t been fully engaged, and the impulse of my knocks swung the door open a few more inches
  1374. >“Who are you knocking to?”
  1375. >The room within was dark, the blackout curtains still drawn, while what little light the hallway had to offer began spilling into the room
  1376. >“Is there somepony in there?”
  1377. >My blood went cold as I caught a glimpse of Alexander’s denim-wrapped leg gently shift in the new light, nudging aside a familiar furry blue stomach, its side wrapped in bandages
  1378. >“Sky Meadows?”
  1379. >Swiftly, I swung the door open, stepped into Alexander’s bedroom, and threw it shut, plunging us into darkness while its crumbling lock feebly clicked into place
  1380. >“Sky Meadows?! Is that you?!”
  1381. >I braced myself against the door as my thoughts flashed back to how easily Ryan… or, the unicorn that had replaced him… had brute-forced her way in with a single hit
  1382. >In that single kick, she’d effectively sheared the lock and thrown the door open, and it had been a kick devoid of passion, devoid of anger, devoid of a promise of anything on the other side
  1383. >Even the frenzied knocking of Storm Cloud’s pleas against the door seemed powerful by comparison as I squared my shoulders against the door in worried anticipation of the first real kick
  1384. >“Sky Meadows! You- You better not hurt her! I knew it! I knew if I didn’t keep you on that chain you’d go right to her! I just want my friend back, that’s all I want! Open the door!”
  1385. >Somewhere in the darkness near my feet, a pair of groggy voices slowly acquiesced to acknowledging the clamor that had interrupted their sleep
  1386. >“Sky Meadows… did you… did you get locked out?”
  1387. >“Not me… sounds like… somepony’s knocking at the door? What’s going on?”
  1388. >“Take your earmuffs off, seems to… seems to help hear better…”
  1389. >With a groan and the rustle of his jeans against his makeshift bed, Alexander rose to his feet and slid the curtains open, throwing gloomy grey light across the floor
  1390. >Sure enough, the varied blankets of his sleeping arrangement lay on the floor, featuring a slight dip where he been asleep, and supporting the drowsily blinking blue pony
  1391. >Alexander stood silhouetted against the room’s far end, sporting a hoodie with its hood drawn up, one hand resting against his visibly aching head
  1392. >The other hand was stuck in an unending loop of rubbing his tightly shut eyes, the unshakable grogginess still clearly apparent
  1393. >I did my best to ignore the din of Storm Cloud’s incessant pounding as Alexander spoke with a remarkably quiet and labored voice
  1394. >“Did you have to come bother me now?”
  1395. “Alexander, where were you earlier?! We need to fucking move!”
  1396. >“I’m trying to sleep through your snuggling with that other pony – I’ve got a hangover like nobody’s business, and she’s still tired and recovering”
  1397. “Alexander, what’s wrong with you?! The ponies are wising up to the fact that we’re here, man! We can’t stay any longer! Either help me brace this door or get ready to roll! NOW!”
  1398. >“What the hay, why do you have to speak so loudly?!”
  1399. >Dropping the hand that had been rubbing his eyes, his eyelids bitterly flew open as his stared at me with his icy gaze, his irises filled with a chilling shade of pale blue
  1400. >My breath caught in my throat, suddenly unable to utter anything much more than a whisper even though it felt as though I was screaming
  1401. “Alexander… no… no, you can’t be…”
  1402. >“I mean, can’t you just let that pony in? She’s making a racket, and she just wants to see her friend”
  1403. >With a loud crash, Storm Cloud’s hooves kicked against the door, which thankfully survived the hit as I planted my feet and tried to lean even more weight against the wooden barrier
  1404. >A simultaneous twitch beneath Alexander’s hood caused the loose fabric to fall, revealing a pair of fuzzy turquoise ears protruding from the corners of his profile
  1405. “Alexander, no, you can’t be a pony!”
  1406. >“Huh? And why not, James? It does feel all-around really good – well, I still have a bit of a hangover, but Sky Meadows helped to take the worst of the edge off”
  1407. >Another kick shook the door, this one considerably firmer and more well-placed than the last
  1408. “Are you even listening to yourself right now? You’re a human, for God’s sake, act like it!”
  1409. >“Yeah, and that’s the root problem! I was telling Sky Meadows about my hangover, and she mentioned that despite everyone giving her drinks at the party, ponies are great with alcohol!”
  1410. “That’s no reason to give up your humanity, damn it! Why would you agree to be a pony for her – as if you’ve never had a hangover before, you sozzled bastard!”
  1411. >As another kick echoed through the room, the door shuddered, its willingness to stay closed becoming visibly more indifferent with each impact
  1412. >“We’d already been friends for a few minutes at that point. It just kind of… happened, and she was telling me all the things she loved about it when she mentioned that”
  1413. >The door shuddered alarmingly with another crash, as Storm Cloud increased both the frequency and ferocity of her attacks
  1414. “Alexander, please… We were supposed to outlast this TOGETHER… please don’t let one errant touch be the end of that!”
  1415. >I was knocked forward a few inches by the door’s lurching crash before I planted my foot and slammed it shut again
  1416. >Alexander, still fixated on me with the increasingly piercing color of his icy blue irises, stood firm while holding out his arms welcomingly, exuding a sickeningly uncanny warmness
  1417. >“James… you and I both know that we’re the closest of friends… I’d never want anything to stand between us… we can always be ponies together…”
  1418. “I don’t want to be a pony, damn it! And neither should you… Please…”
  1419. >My eyes brimmed with tears and my whole body quivered uncontrollably, weakly shaking as I realized my best friend, standing just across the room, may as well be a world away
  1420. >Maybe the Alexander I always knew was still somewhere in there – the one that doodled dragons in lectures, cursed at soccer matches, and spewed vitriol about abandoning Sky Meadows
  1421. >But looking into the sharp color indicative of the infection’s victory over him, a tear rolled down my cheek as I faced the inevitability of his progression… his candle was burning at both ends…
  1422. >With a resounding crash, the door flew open, knocking me into an awkwardly unbalanced stance that caused me to trip back over Storm Cloud and into the hallway
  1423. >Laying helplessly on my back with arms sprawled at my sides, my eyes reeled from the dimly lit ceiling back toward the doorway of Alexander’s room
  1424. >Their search for Alexander was cut short by Storm Cloud, whose suddenly imposing purple profile was motionlessly halted in the doorframe, her narrowed eyes glaring back at me
  1425. >She met my gaze with tensed muscles but made no approach, visibly torn between neutralizing my humanity and reuniting with her friend, with only pounding rain outside to break the silence
  1426. >You got YOUR friend back… You said that’s all you wanted… Please let me leave with mine… Somehow turn this back and make him human again… Please let me have Alexander… Please…
  1427. >Slowly turning inwards toward the bedroom, Storm Cloud’s stern expression was met with a smile from Sky Meadows, still sitting on the stack of blankets as her friend approached for a nuzzle
  1428. >“I missed you, Storm Cloud…”
  1429. >“I was so worried, Sky Meadows – I’m just glad that you’re alright...”
  1430. >Her head swiveled to face Alexander, who I could see was swimming in a turbulent sea of thoughts, the prevailing rip current dragging him toward ponydom
  1431. >“And you… what might your name be?”
  1432. >He glanced at the floor, taking a moment’s pause before responding
  1433. >“It’s… I-I-It’s… Snowfall…”
  1434. >A flood of emotions raging violently between anger, heartbreak, and guilt promptly hoisted me to my feet, only to find myself a captive audience to the helpless sacrifice
  1435. >My shoes felt as though they’d been replaced by bricks, but survival instincts again won when no other thoughts seemed to break through
  1436. >One contrite step brought me closer to the top of the stairs…
  1437. >Then another…
  1438. >Soon enough, I found myself barreling down the creaking steps and out the front door, accelerating to a sprint amid the downpour of rain, my shoes beating loudly against the asphalt
  1439. >I had left behind the salads in the convenience store, and now I was leaving behind a bottle of multivitamins that I’d purported would save Typhoon Twist’s life, with a bit of sleight of hand
  1440. >I’d broken every promise I made today, right down to the promises I made to myself that I’d return to stitch up Sky Meadows’ injuries, and that my return from the store would be uneventful
  1441. >Bolting for a break in the fence across the street, raindrops struck sharply against my face, making it difficult to discern just how much of the mist was from my tearing up
  1442. >I didn’t look back – I couldn’t, not when it would have simply reminded me that I was truly on my own at this point, and after all, the ponies didn’t appear to be giving chase
  1443. >Oh God, Daisy was going to be beside herself with anger when she found out all the promises I broke…
  1444. >I shuddered to think about what she does to bad little ponies… does she make you wear a bit and bridle, perform manual labor and farm work, lock you up in stables with the stallions to-
  1445. >No, no, snap out of it, you’re not a bad little pony! Christ, you’re not a pony at all – you’re a full-blooded human, and it’s going to stay that way! They won’t take your humanity so easily!
  1446. >Despite the fact that they’d taken Alexander just like that…
  1447. >The house immediately across the street from Alexander’s had a fenced yard, and with a ferocious grunt, I threw myself over it and onto the neighbor’s patio in a single bound
  1448. >Stopping only to find myself next to a driveway that spilled into the next block over, I ducked behind an abandoned car and scanned for ponies along the horizon
  1449. >With every other soul in town already sporting hooves, amid the raindrops plinking off the bumper I came to accept that the ponies faced marginal rewards for leaving the comfort of indoors
  1450. >Even that concern assumed a significant number of them had opted to stay behind, instead of joining the unrelenting wave of those hell-bent on spreading ‘friendship’ across the valley
  1451. >I shifted to a new vantage point next to a small group of shrubs, granting me clear sight of the home street I knew so well, my own house lying vacant far up the deserted road
  1452. >Did I really want to take the chance of it not being vacant, though?
  1453. >Probably not, and what did it matter when Alexander was just going to giddily reveal all he knew to the rest of his herd, and scheme for them to descend on my location while I slept?
  1454. >As my shoes pushed off from a soggy patch of mud in order to advance my trek toward the next house, I realized I needed to go somewhere that Alexander wouldn’t have expected
  1455. >The fact that we’d intentionally made no plan whatsoever meant that we were each playing a game with all our cards close to the vest, and if not for the high stakes, I might’ve had fun with it
  1456. >Just as I’d done on my approach to Carmine Corners, I moved swiftly from cover to cover, taking in my surroundings with implacable attention to detail before each move
  1457. >Vaulting a low stone wall, I slid into a swiftly flowing creek swelling with rainwater before scampering a few dozen feet upriver into a rusty culvert
  1458. >Spitting the acrid runoff water from my mouth, I weakly shivered in my already-soaked clothes, the chattering of teeth mingling with the rush of the creek and steady drips of rain
  1459. >Still, it sure beat hearing the rhythm of approaching hoofsteps or the flapping of a Pegasus’ wings…
  1460. >As if I hadn’t believed that locking eyes with a pony would be the death knell of my humanity earlier, it was an undeniable truth in my heart’s deepest recesses now
  1461. >Daisy could practically make a game out of tracking me down and adding me to her herd
  1462. >Any pony skeptical of her motivations behind it could be easily swayed with blatant evidence of dishonesty, medical malpractice, kidnapping… ponynapping?
  1463. >As I leaned out of the culvert and crawled up the creek’s miry bank to a patch of unkempt grass above, a familiar mantra ran through my head, not for the first time today…
  1464. >I was only doing what I needed to do…
  1465. >The message continued to ring true as I lay down in a patch of inches-deep mud to evade the wandering gaze of a faraway unicorn stallion, his tail flicking as he trotted through a street corner
  1466. >I was only doing what I needed to do…
  1467. >A few hundred yards later, I spied a stout brick building against the fading glow of the afternoon clouds, its imposing façade demarcating the edge of Carmine University’s campus
  1468. >The chasm between seeing it and reaching it proved wider than anticipated, and by the time I arrived, the clouds had taken on the dreary orange gradient of late afternoon sunlight
  1469. >While the clouds and rain had remained quite steady, the sky was still disrupted every few minutes by some attentively patrolling Pegasus, their watchful eyes scanning the ground far below
  1470. >Each appearance prompted me to hold my breath, slowing my progress to a crawl, but after a half hour and enough mud to sate a pig, I found myself in the bushes of the campus center
  1471. >For a long time I’d wondered whether the plaza’s grand clock was solar powered, or maybe had a battery, and as its face presented a time congruent with the prior blackout, I got my answer
  1472. >It certainly couldn’t have been any earlier than five o’clock, and with the final glimmers of daylight disappearing within a few hours, I wanted to find shelter before it became too dark
  1473. >As the soft trickle of rain continued to fall, I’d hoped to get out of the elements lest exposure weaken my physical abilities to effectively hold off the ponies
  1474. >Not to mention, while shivering in some miserable gutter, it would be an order of magnitude more difficult to deny the plush warmth provided by my own coat of clean, dry, pony fur
  1475. >Leaning around a narrow planter of flowers, my newfound residence of choice came into view
  1476. >By all accounts, the engineering building was a giant labyrinth of rooms with limitless pre-apocalypse potential, and no current value of which to speak
  1477. >Alexander knew I’d been inside it… hmm… maybe twice in my entire college career, if that… and it was the last place I’d imagine a carefree newly minted pony would willfully aspire to visit
  1478. >Anyone who had ever been inside would tell you that there were no vending machines, food, or valuables, and it was pervaded by a lingering aura of academic pain and crushed dreams
  1479. >In other words, not a bad spot to rest my head for a few days while I mulled over my options
  1480. >Grabbing a rock from the planter and fidgeting with its heft in my hands, I scurried through the light rain into the shrubs along the brick wall’s edge
  1481. >After a deep exhale, I raised the rock over my head and, with a mighty swing, forced its corner through part of a slim basement window, its frame largely veiled by one of the shrubs
  1482. >The crack resonated horrifically, far louder than I had imagined in even my worst nightmare, instantly causing me to freeze in place as regret began to flood my thoughts
  1483. >I don’t know where… but a pony somewhere definitely heard that… fuck…
  1484. >Flattening myself in the mire of soaked mulch, I tried to relax my muscles and lay motionless just as a Pegasus crested one of the buildings across the quad
  1485. >Her ears had perked up as her head flicked about, sporting an expression of confused intrigue after she landed on the roof, hooves slipping slightly on the shallow slope
  1486. >I tried to tell myself that, so long as a second noise didn’t ring out from the same spot, she wouldn’t have any means of determining my exact location
  1487. >Indeed, I’d dropped the rock, and the only sounds to be heard were the rhythmic heartbeats hammering in my ears
  1488. >The Pegasus rested on the roof with gently shuddering wings for several minutes, eventually resigning that the noise must have been… some sort of thunder, perhaps?
  1489. >I could only pray that it wasn’t noteworthy enough to tell her friends…
  1490. >Leaving the Pegasus enough time to return to her previous roost, I allowed the rain a few final minutes to soak into my clothes before moving to unlock the window
  1491. >Truth be told, it had taken the blow quite admirably, and the only damage to be seen was a tight, well-concealed hole, just large enough for my fingers to reach the latch within
  1492. >The edges of the glass were sharp enough to pierce my glove and draw a few gashes in the back of my hand, but I deemed it to be a worthy tradeoff, and not one I could realistically avoid
  1493. >Pushing the window, I slid into the dim, dusty basement where my feet landed atop a large wooden table covered in papers, allowing me to plant my feet and shut the window behind me
  1494. >Aside from a smothered melody of raindrops and whistling wind from outside, the spacious room was eerily quiet, each of my footfalls echoing boundlessly
  1495. >It didn’t help that there wasn’t a single soft surface to dampen the noise, despite the room having been packed to the gills with countless machines, each of which metallically reverberated
  1496. >Peeking around the aisle containing every manner of drill press, lathe, and milling machine I could imagine, an unassuming trio of doors on the far wall caught my attention
  1497. >Considering the engineering building had been constructed on a gentle slope, I could reasonably conclude that the largest of the three was a garage door leading to some lowly loading dock
  1498. >In its heyday it would’ve provided the means for the machines to be brought in and their creations to be brought out, but it was now likely condemned to remain immovably locked and rusting
  1499. >To my surprise, the two considerably smaller doors next to it had been left unlocked, granting access to a run-of-the-mill bathroom and machine shop office
  1500. >The former was dirty, but in the midst of society’s collapse I was simply grateful to have a proper place to relieve myself
  1501. >The latter had been crowded with stacks of technical drawings, which I may have been breaking some obscure security protocol by reading, but they were of no use in the current setting
  1502. >No power to run the machines, no food or water anywhere in the room, and nothing but concrete floors upon which to sleep… Shoot, I could do better than this, right?
  1503. >Walking back to the middle of the machine shop’s main floor, my eyes rested on the steep hybrid of stairs and a ladder that climbed toward the next floor up
  1504. >Was it greedy to look beyond the immediately available discomfort for the prospect of a better place to live somewhere beyond the door?
  1505. >My great-great-grandparents may have asked themselves the same thing when they passed through Ellis Island, although THEIR situation didn’t prompt them to face militantly friendly equines
  1506. >As the metal of the steps reverberated and creaked beneath the soggy rubber of my shoes, I hoisted myself to the top and rested my hand on the door handle
  1507. >For all I could say, the halls on the other side might’ve been brimming with a swarm of ponies… what else was new…
  1508. >Pushing the door open, I peered into the hallway, its unfamiliar walls lined with a patchwork of doors, academic posters, defunct awards, and a few fleeting shimmers of dim sunset light
  1509. >But above all else, as I stepped forward and shut the door behind myself, it didn’t appear to have any visible ponies, nor did hoofbeats against the tile pierce the air
  1510. >Working my way forward with steady methodology, I wriggled each office door’s handle in vain hope that maybe one of the dozens would be unlocked
  1511. >I hoped it wasn’t a testament to Carmine University’s flagging attention to detail when the third door swung open without resistance…
  1512. >As I shut and locked the door behind me, my darkest fears expected to see a converted professor rise up from behind the desk, his stereotypical elbow-patched jacket sleeves ending in hooves
  1513. >I breathed a sigh of relief to the empty room as I glanced around the furniture, finding no unexpected roommate with which I inadvertently shared the quaint office
  1514. >Drawing the blinds to stave off the owners of any wandering eyes, I removed my EMT pouch and knife at my side and set them on the desk
  1515. >I’d planned to put all of my essential supplies pertinent to survival there, but a quick search of every possible nook, drawer, and cabinet of the office yielded nothing to add but drab books
  1516. >Even a beautifully decorated commemorative lunchbox, shoved to the back of a knickknack drawer, rattled its handle without giving up a single morsel of food
  1517. >Damn it, why did the ponies have to sweep through town on a weekend night, when nearly everything’s firmly shut and no one’s leaving behind lunches for the following day?
  1518. >I loudly groaned, as did my stomach, having had nothing to eat since breakfast, and nothing to drink except for a few choice puddles of stale rainwater
  1519. >Nonetheless, while glancing at the window, I told myself that it would need to be a task for tomorrow unless I wanted to tempt the ponies’ nocturnal seeing and hearing abilities
  1520. >Ripping my gloves off with a resounding snap, my fingers struggled slightly in their suddenly dry surroundings, the skin unprecedentedly wrinkly from the prolonged soak
  1521. >Tearing away my hoodie, T-shirt, socks, and pants before dispelling the vile water from my shoes, I was compelled to embrace the fact that every last garment I’d been wearing was soaked
  1522. >Once my underwear joined the growing pile of clothes left to dry upon the office furniture, I stared with tired eyes at my naked reflection in a conveniently angled computer monitor
  1523. >No pony ears… no tail… no bony protrusions where a pair of wings or a horn would be making themselves known… no hooves… not even a single piece of fur to be seen…
  1524. >And most of all, more than anything else, I still hated what the ponies were accomplishing, with every fiber of my being…
  1525. >For taking away the life I knew… For taking my friend… For what they did to Alexander… That pony that had replaced him… it… it wasn’t him… Alexander was… he was dead…
  1526. >A decade of medical interest and study between the two of us, all through high school and college, hadn’t been enough to save him… It hadn’t made the slightest difference…
  1527. >Immune systems, classical psychology, conventional understanding of eye and ear anatomy… the infection simply scoffed at each in its incessant march
  1528. >I put my head in my hands, trying to hold back tears as I took a seat on the soft carpet, my breaths still coming in ragged gasps as slight drifting chills caused me to shiver weakly
  1529. >I tried to tell myself that tomorrow would be a new day, that things would get better, and that the sooner I fell asleep, the sooner I could wake up to outlast the ponies anew
  1530. >Lying down with the plush carpet bristling against my skin, I accepted that if even a single pony found me, it would be a walk in the park to convert me to their ranks
  1531. >Skin contact anywhere on my naked body was all they needed – it was the closest to ‘easy mode’ that Daisy’s game was going to get
  1532. >I shut my eyes and attempted to sleep, instead finding it too early to do so, and even after the last vestiges of fading daylight darkened beyond the window blinds, my thoughts swirled
  1533. >A couple hours later, a restless, dreamless sleep finally took hold
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