Salamander

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Jane knew about the salamander.  The salamander was capable of regenerating its limbs, to a certain degree.  As such, it had been studied by scientists who sought to unlock the secrets of tissue regeneration.  Wound-healing in humans was a messy and half-hearted affair and sometimes lead to more harm as useless scar tissue formed where living, operating tissue had once been.  The process could go so far as to render an organ completely useless, the only solution being to replace the organ.  Even the human liver, with its great capacity for regeneration had its limits.  But Jane worked with a particular group of scientists studying the liver and the salamander, who joined with another group who were studying the effects of aging.  They believed they had struck upon a treatment, a combination of gene therapy, the application of small doses of radiative energy, stem cells, and even specific bacterial cultures to induce regeneration of wounded tissue.

Jane knew about the salamander.  The animal’s mythical association with the element of fire.  Fire cleansed and fire sealed.  It was a good symbol for their project.

They had been tinkering with variables and failing for two years.  Until they hit upon a formula that worked.  Upon the insistence of the team leader, they tested their treatment not on a group of laboratory-bred animals, but wounded and injured animals provided by a veterinary clinic nearby.  Their patron and principal investigator, Dr. Cornwall, was rich, rich enough to afford advanced rapid gene-sequencing and imaging technologies among others that would help to characterize all the animals that came to be test subjects.  It was his belief that as higher beings, it was the responsibility of humans to treat less advanced creatures with care and compassion.  This was a luxury that he could afford, and that those who worked for him could afford as well.  He knew that his results would have to go through the usual trials by other scientists.  But by then, he hoped, the treatment would be so refined that neither the animals nor humans who underwent those preliminary trials would suffer.  Rather they would heal and thrive.

It was a strange and some said naïve and wasteful way of doing science.  But the team was following all rules and regulations, federal, state, and local, and going beyond them.  Safety of the laboratory staff and the animals was the ultimate priority.

They applied their treatment on three mice, four cats, and two dogs, and they waited.  The results were stunning.  Complete regeneration.  No scar tissue.  It was as if the wound never existed.  Dr. Cornwall stood in the conference room with his team, raising a glass of champagne.

“This isn’t regeneration.  This is turning back time.  We’ve just unbroken the egg.”

When Jane looked back at that day, those words seemed prescient.  Only instead of going back in time, they were going forward.  They didn’t un-break the egg, they used the matter of the broken one to make a new egg.  A changed egg.

The institute named their animals, to make it all the harder to mistreat them if ever they were tempted to do so in a rush to test some new method or formula.  The mouse under Jane’s care was named Riley.

Riley was good and well for a few weeks and then started exhibiting strange behaviors.  He seemed to be watching Jane with more than the typical mouse-like interest.

One day, she found his cage empty.  The door was open.  Jane was certain she had latched it.  It was not a simple latch that a mouse could fumble open.  And yet no one admitted to leaving the door unlatched.  They searched the lab for Riley.  Someone found some drops of blood.  Jane pushed everyone else aside and followed the trail to the next room.  There was hardly any gap between the door and the floor, but Jane knew mice could squeeze through the tiniest of gaps.

She gasped when she saw his body.  His fur was covered in blood and he was lying still.  He had bite marks in him from some other animal.  Her colleagues crowded around Jane, proclaimed it was a shame, assured Jane she would not be sorely reprimanded as the study still had other mouse subjects, and they left.  But Jane gently lifted Riley’s body, and cradling it in the palms of her hands, carried him back to her bench.  She held him in her hands.

“Riley, I’m sorry I let you down.”

She felt a shock then, because she thought she felt him move in her hands.  The regeneration therapy couldn’t have been so successful as to bring him back from such a severe state of injury.  Jane froze and held her breath.  She looked at the little body in her hands.  He was moving.  Jane made a bed of gauze on her bench top and lay him carefully on it.  She performed scans to see if it was safe to try and treat his injuries or give him food and water.  It wasn’t.  His internal organs had been punctured.  He had lacerations everywhere.  He was bleeding inside.  He had likely been dropped, maybe even from a height if a cat had grabbed him and climbed up with him in its jaws.  He should not have been alive.

All Jane could do was bundle him up and watch him through the night.  She fell asleep at the bench and when she woke, she saw a dead mass of fur in one corner of the cage.  But before her spirits could sink, she looked at the other end of the cage, where a very much living mouse sat eating ravenously.  He was unwounded and slightly bigger than before.  She studied the mass of fur.  It was like a pelt.  As if the mouse had been skinned…or if he had molted.  Like a salamander.

***

There was a strange black mark at the bottom of the cage in one spot.  It looked like a scorch mark.  The lining of the cage was likely burned away.  Riley had finished all the food pellets and was reaching a paw through his cage at Jane.  She studied him curiously.  No one else was in the lab yet.  It was too early.   She grabbed a pen and notepad and started writing observations and glancing up at the miracle mouse.  Riley twitched his whiskers, pulled his paw back into the cage and reached out with his other paw.  Jane tried to figure out what he wanted.  She tried to give him food, but he gently pushed it away.  She gave him a toy, but he did the same.  She realized he was gesturing to her pen when she watched his gaze follow it.  She gave it to him, clicking it closed so he wouldn’t poke his eye out and watched to make sure he didn’t hurt himself.  To her astonishment, he clicked the pen and fumbled with it as if he were trying to make a mark on the cage lining.

“Riley,” she called out to him as she would a dog or a chimp.  Riley stopped his efforts and turned to her at the sound of his name.  She reported this when her boss came in and suggested that she give Riley some tests that would normally be given to smarter animals like dolphins, ravens, and dogs.

There was so much going on in the lab and so much excitement about the success of the regeneration treatment that her boss hardly seemed to hear half of what Jane was saying.  He furrowed his brow and asked her if the mouse she was talking about was the one who had died just yesterday.  He asked her if she’d been in the lab all night, if she’d gotten any sleep.  Jane tried to tell other colleagues what had happened, but everyone seemed to think that the mouse in the cage on her bench top was a different mouse.  They were glad she had gotten back on her feet.  And Jane was too tired to try and convince them.  She felt compelled to let Riley know that she was going home to get some rest and would see him later that day.

Riley continued to grow bigger and bigger.  Jane administered modified versions of those intelligence tests and found Riley to be quite sharp.  She continued on with her other duties, preparing more batches of treatment with slightly modified variables as part of the refinement process.  Then one day, Riley vanished again.  This time, Jane did not find him right away.  She searched for a week before she found him.  Only this time, it seemed he was out of his cage because he wouldn’t fit.  And this time, it was Riley who had blood on his jaws.  He looked like nothing that she had ever seen outside of the fantastical drawings of Victorian beasts or photographs of extinct animals.  He looked like a cross between a cat and a dog.  Like what the common ancestor of those two creatures would be.  He was about the size of a housecat.  She wouldn’t have known it was him if she didn’t recognize some quality in his eyes.

“Riley?” she said.  And he walked forward, wagging his tail as hesitantly as she had called his name.  He was filthy, like he’d been rolling around in the dirt and grass.

He gave out a call that sounded something like a hyena or jackal.  And something like a subdued roar.  And even if he’d been hunting, she wondered how he had gained all that mass in such a short time. She wondered if they had unleashed something they did not understand and could not control.

She ran scans and molecular profiling on Riley and observed that his genes had indeed changed.  The bacterial flora in and around him had changed.  He had gene sequences that were similar but not identical to canine and feline DNA.  And she found another pelt from his unusual mammalian molting.

Jane’s well-meaning boss could handle a few animals who didn’t respond as expected, whose regeneration wasn’t as extraordinary as the others, in the otherwise successful regeneration project.  But this new issue was something he was not prepared to deal with.  When Jane presented the data, he rejected it.  When she showed him pictures and video of Riley, he told her that there were any number of rare animals that people foolishly brought into their homes as pets, and then dropped off at the pound or the vet because the wild animals were never meant to be kept in a suburban home.  What she was showing him was one such animal that someone had likely brought to the institute for study.  She had, after all, no proof that it was Riley, as his genetic profile had changed.  She tried to show her boss the raw data and even reports she had written up.  He asked if she actually got a video of the metamorphosis happening, but she, of course, did not.  She asked permission to bring Riley home with her so she could get that proof, assuring Dr. Cornwall that she would take good care of him.  She had a new reputation in the lab of losing animals, having lost two mice in the perception of those who did not know that Riley was still alive, and that Riley was now a different animal.  Jane wanted to prove it to herself more than anything and she leveraged her outstanding work in the other parts of the regeneration project to convince her boss.  He allowed it provided she filled out a mountain of paperwork and purchased some special insurance.

***

When she took him home, she asked Riley to let her know when he was going to go through his next change.  He responded with his peculiar call and a wag of his strange striped tail.  He would not now be part of any official research, so she didn’t have to feed him a controlled diet.  She tracked what she fed him, continued taking readings and blood and tissue samples.  He continued looking her in the eyes as if he had something to say to her, grasping a pen or marker between his teeth whenever he got the chance, and trying to make marks on paper.  She obliged and taught him to write his name.  He managed a shaky version of it.  She taped him writing.  She taught him to draw the Greek letter delta.

“In science,” she explained to him, “it is the symbol for change.”  And it was a simple enough symbol to draw.  A capital delta looked much like a triangle.

She realized that the metamorphoses, as she called them seemed to start at night.  She realized this when she woke one night and found a note on the wall that merely read “Riley” and the Greek letter delta.  Riley.  Change.  She got up, grabbed her camera, and searched for Riley, calling out to him.  She found scorch marks on the floor and stairs leading to the basement.  At the foot of the stairs, she found a pelt, Riley’s pelt, his molting.

It was almost unbearably hot down there.  She heard animal sounds of grunting as if in pain.  She had brought down her camera, but had set it aside when she saw that Riley’s transformation was causing him pain.  The floor and walls were splashed with blood.  Riley must have cleaned the blood on himself before by rolling around in dirt.  The creature she now saw before her looked somewhat like a primate.  He resembled a young chimpanzee, only he had a long tail like a monkey.  Jane took him gently by the hand.  He moved slowly as if all his muscles were sore.  She cleaned him up and dried his fur.  He fell asleep right away.  And when he woke, he ate enough food for three meals.

The transformations were not going according to evolution.  Jane was not an evolutionary biologist, but she looked up the charts on the internet and there was no direct line from mouse to cat-dog to primate that she could find.

His eyes were slightly different at each transformation, but their expression was the same.  She saw intelligence in his eyes.  And more.  She saw a soul.

This time, Riley was able to hold a pen and write his name though a bit clumsily.  Jane taught him to write hers as well.  Jane.  She taught him to write her given name, Djana.  Riley stayed in his primate form for almost a year.  During that time, he learned and he grew a bit older and he even helped Jane with household duties and with her personal research.  He remembered being a cat-dog.  He remembered flashes of being a mouse.  He even vaguely remembered, he wrote, being a salamander.  He asked her what was happening to him, and why it was happening, and when it would stop.  All good questions, to which Jane had no answers.  She didn’t know if she should tell him everything about the experiment.  He was intelligent, but in the way a human child was intelligent.

Jane had been excelling at work.  She wanted her boss to know she was serious when she presented her mostly anecdotal findings concerning Riley.  He would ask of course why no other mouse or animal reacted to the treatment the way Riley supposedly had.  The only real difference between Riley and the other animals in the experiment was what happened to him when he escaped the cage.  He was mortally injured, and she wondered if that condition forced the treatment they had given him to kick into overdrive.  To not just regenerate, but rebuild him.  And now it was rebuilding him again and again.  Each time into an organism that might be considered better than the last.  A better egg.

***

One night, Jane woke again and saw a note from Riley and felt déjà vu.  This note was more sophisticated than the last.  It read “Riley change.  Jane stay away.  Danger.”

It was the basement again.  She saw the new scorch marks.  And she heard a commotion downstairs.  She prepared herself and got her camera.  Just as she was about to try the basement door, there was a knock at her front door.  She cautiously checked who might be knocking in the middle of the night.  It was her neighbors.  They asked if everything was okay and Jane sheepishly asked them in turn if she should turn it down.  The neighbors guessed she was watching a movie and that she knew it had been too loud.  They gave her stern looks as they left upon her assurances.

Jane made a note to sound-proof the basement and made her way to the door, but it was locked.  She banged on the door and called to Riley, no longer concerned about the neighbors.  She remembered she had a key somewhere and sweating from the heat and the anxiety, she fumbled through the house, cursing herself for not being more organized.  She found the key, hesitated on thinking of Riley’s admonition, and then decided she could not stand idly by while he suffered.  She grabbed a fire extinguisher from the kitchen and headed downstairs carefully, conscious of Riley’s intermittent cries of pain.  There was a crash as of something being knocked from a shelf.  It sounded like a horror movie.   She couldn’t make it down.  It was so hot that she felt as if her skin would burn if she took more than a few steps.  She worried that the basement might be on fire, but she didn’t see or smell smoke.  She called out to Riley and helplessly waited at the top of the stairs until she felt a sudden and palpable change in the air.  The temperature dropped and she ran down the stairs.  There were a few small fires and melted and cracked things.  She extinguished the fires and looked for Riley.

Déjà vu struck again.  She saw the pelt of the old form.  She saw the new form that Riley had taken.  No longer a primate.  He was more like a hominid now.  He was still fairly hairy, but his face, palms, and bottoms of his feet were bare.  And he had lost just enough hair and looked just human enough for the need to think about modesty.  Jane took him upstairs and cleaned him up again, dismayed and somewhat afraid of him when he touched her once or twice in inappropriate ways and places.  He was a pup as a mouse, an adolescent as a cat-dog and a primate.  And now he was, as far as Jane could tell, a young adult, and they were almost the same species.  She commanded him to stop groping and to heed her.   Riley became so submissive and gentle that she apologized and told him that from that point on neither of them should touch the other without permission in certain areas, and here she gestured to her chest and to the entire region of her body between her belly button and her knees.  Realizing she had just given Riley the beginning of the “sex talk,” she burst out laughing, startling Riley, who tried to emulate her.  His smile was natural enough, but his laugh sounded more like braying.  Jane stopped laughing and slapped him on the shoulder.

She realized that she could not keep him hidden.  Moreso she realized that if the transformations continued, he would likely next turn into a human man.  Feeling out of her depth, Jane called her boss and asked him to come to the laboratory after hours.  She brought Riley with her in the car.  He remembered his past incarnations and was neither startled nor bothered by modern devices as one would have expected from his caveman appearance.

He grunted and practiced vocalizations on their way to the lab.  Jane almost crashed her car when he uttered her name for the first time.

“Jane!” he said, as if he had just figured something out.

***

Her boss thought it was a hoax.  He praised her work so far, but he looked at Riley and flipped through her data, and told her that the sort of thing she was describing could only happen in a fairy story or an existential novel.   Everyone saw that Riley the mouse died that day.  Dr. Cornwall believed that Jane had concocted a delusion in which he was still alive and transforming at random into various more advanced animals.  He gently suggested that she should talk to someone.  He said he would agree to review all of her findings and data out of respect for her and the excellent work she was doing on the regeneration project.  But only if she would seek the help of a mental health professional.

“If Riley is dead, then who is this?” she asked.

“Who?” hominid-Riley repeated.  He bared his teeth at Doctor Cornwall.

“I don’t know.  Who are you, sir?” Dr. Cornwall said, addressing Riley.  “And why are you humoring Jane instead of helping her?”

Riley must have felt threatened, or perhaps he thought Jane was threatened.  Dr. Cornwall was tall and he towered over Jane.

Riley launched himself at Dr. Cornwall and small as he was, he still had some primate strength in him.  Dr. Cornwall could not throw him off.  Riley grabbed the man by the throat and they both toppled over with Riley atop the doctor.  Jane called out to him to stop, but Riley would not heed her this time.  He raised a fist and struck Dr. Cornwall.  Jane glanced about the lab and rushed to the reagents cabinet.  She filled a syringe with sedative and prayed she didn’t end up killing him.  She acted as quickly as she could and managed to get most of the dose into Riley’s back before he turned and looked at her stunned and incredulous.  She saw anger in his eyes and hurt.  She had attacked him.  The one who had always protected him had attacked him.

“Jane,” he said.

She held out a scalpel and warned him to stay back.  When Riley fell, Jane checked on him first.  Then she checked on Dr. Cornwall (whom she was already referring to in her mind as her ex-boss).  He was more stunned than hurt.  She was loathe to involve anyone else, but she didn’t want to leave either Riley or Dr. Cornwall alone.  She called a colleague and explained that Dr. Cornwall had been attacked by one of the laboratory subjects and that it was her fault.  She was taking the subject out of the lab under sedation and needed someone to take Dr. Cornwall to the hospital to get checked out.

It was later discovered that all the subjects were accounted for.  And Dr. Cornwall said that he had just taken a fall on being startled.  Whether he forgot what happened or was covering it up, Jane did not know.  She never spoke to him after that day.  She resigned before she could be fired.

And she watched after Riley.  She was by his side when he woke in his own bed.  She understood that he was just trying to defend himself or her.  But she admonished him to follow her judgment when it came to defending themselves against others.  Riley gruffly agreed.  But weeks later, when he seemed to have advanced even more, he remembered the incident with shame and regret and asked if he might apologize to Dr. Cornwall.

“I must say ‘sorry,’” Riley would say.  “I feel sorry.”  To which Jane replied that it was out of the question.  She told him that she no longer worked at the laboratory and when he asked why not, she said nothing.  One day, to take his mind off the subject, she tried to dress him in jeans and a hoodie and take him on a trial outing on a quick errand.  But his posture wasn’t quite upright.  His face and bearing seemed just strange enough that he was noticed, even when he said nothing.

***

Jane found a new job in another research laboratory.  Dr. Cornwall had, despite the incident that parted them, given her a glowing recommendation.  She wondered when the next transformation would occur.  She prepared the basement as she’d promised herself she would.  She sound-proofed it.  She fire-proofed it as well as possible, after finding melted bottles, broken bits and pieces of exploded machinery, and most dangerously a bottle of alcohol that caught fire the last time.  She stored tools and other objects elsewhere.  Over the course of a year, she transformed the basement to become Riley’s transformation room.

She woke one night, as she only woke when she sensed that something was awry with Riley.  It may have been that she felt heat or maybe it was some bond they had formed.  She found a note that read “I am changing.  Stay away.  Fire will burn.”

She felt the heat through the floor this time.  Though in reality just under fifteen minutes passed before she thought it was safe to go downstairs, it felt as if hours had passed.  Her ordeal was waiting.  Riley’s was the pain of being born yet again.  When she went down to the basement, she was taken aback by what she saw.  She knew Riley would become a man.  She had left clothes for him and he had donned them before she came down.  She did not know he would be quite such a handsome man.  That his familiar eyes would look so spirited and normal.  He was smiling and looking at her as if they were old friends and he was waiting for her to arrive so they could go out to coffee.  As she came closer, she saw there was blood and gore on him that he had not managed to wipe away.

“Water,” he said.  He frowned and pointed to the buckets of water she had left.  Or what was left of the buckets.  “Too much heat.  The water went away.  It…”  He didn’t know the word and raised his hands in the air and wiggled his fingers.

“Evaporated,” Jane said.

“I could not, couldn, couldn’t clean myself, good, well.”

She had tried to teach him how to use the shower in his past form and he had had some phobia about the running water, though baths he liked.

Jane sighed.  “Come on.”

“You rest,” he said.  “I can clean myself.”  He rose and stumbled on his new feet and legs.

Jane rushed forward.  “No inappropriate touching,” she said as she took his arm and slung it over her shoulder.

Riley laughed and he stopped, startled by his laugh.  He had laughed in his previous form, but it had been a mostly silently expression.  He laughed again.

“That feels good,” he said.

“Laughing?”

“I have a lot to learn, Jane.”

“Poor thing.  You must be exhausted.”

“I am very tired.  I want to sleep first.  I want to be clean, then sleep, then eat a lot.”

This time Jane laughed and she thought about how easy it would be to take him out in public now.  He slept for nearly a day.  And when he woke, she took him out to her favorite local diner.  He remembered the rules she had set.  And he learned quickly by watching others.  She had taught him to read at a rudimentary level.  But this time, she ordered for both of them.

In less than a month, Riley’s reading skills skyrocketed.  Since he was seen often by neighbors, she explained Riley’s sudden presence in her house as a cousin coming to stay with her indefinitely.  A year passed.  And another.  Riley had become a charming and brilliant man, and while Jane noticed this, she also remembered who and what he really was.  And as time passed, they become more and more like true family.  He became the best friend she had always wanted all her life but had given up on having.  Riley too never forgot what he was.  In public, he invented details of his childhood (details which changed if he was talking to a stranger and if Jane was around to be amused).  But in private with just her, he would crack jokes about his various incarnations.  Jokes that often started with “remember that time?”

Remember that time that cat ate me and you thought I’d died?  Remember when you taught me to write my own name?  Remember that time I accidentally touched your boob?  I actually knew what I was doing.

Jane fired back once with, “Remember that time you attacked my boss and ruined my career?”

But she hadn’t realized that he still carried the weight of that guilt.  “I ruined your career long before then, didn’t I?” he said.

“I was just joking, Rye.  Are we not there yet?  He was fine.  You didn’t hurt him.  And I don’t care about that job.”

“Now maybe.  But then it meant a lot to you.  It meant your happiness.  You felt as if you were saving the world, just like you wanted to do when you were young but realized you couldn’t do when you got older and jaded.  And then you realized you really could do it.  Until I came along.”

Jane shook her head.  “I couldn’t even save you, much less the world.”

“You did save me.”  He gulped.  “He dropped me when he heard you coming.  I couldn’t do anything but lie there.  I was so small and helpless.  I saw a shadow come over me and I thought it was the shadow of death.  But it was you.  And I saw more shadows come and go.  Only you stayed.”

“That’s because I felt responsible.  I was responsible.  You were my assignment.”

“Still, you didn’t throw me in the incinerator.”

Jane raised her brows at a loss for words.

“I’m still getting smarter.  I might get smart enough to help you solve what happened to me.  Maybe you can start your own lab.”

Jane shook her head.  “I don’t have the right degree for that.  And I’m not sure what practical applications there are for uncontrollable metamorphosis.”

“What if we can find a way to control it?”

“We should just start with describing and characterizing it before we start trying to manipulate it.”

“Maybe I should write a memoir instead.  From Mouse to Man.  Colon.  Subtitle.  The Metamorphic Journey of Riley Kuznetsov.”

Jane winced and smiled at the same time.

“You’re right, I should invent my own last name.  Something simple.  Riley Smith?”

***

Jane was content.  Jane was happy.  An extraordinary thing had happened to her.  An extraordinary being was in her life.  She didn’t have to understand it or use it.  She was merely grateful for it.  Five years had passed since she first met a mouse named Riley.  Five years had passed since she first changed that mouse, using genes from a salamander, stem cells, bacterial cultures, radiative energy, tools and forces she barely understood.  He was hurt and she had healed him.  By luck and skill, she had healed him.  And by some other force or means, he was more than healed.  He had lived many lives.  And now he had reached the apex of life on earth.

Then one night she was woken from a deep and dream-filled sleep.  She saw Riley standing above her and immediately bolted up.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“It’s happening again.”

They went down to the basement.  Jane’s heart was hammering and she was dripping sweat despite the chill night air.

“What will you become this time?”  Jane asked.

Riley shook his head.  He seemed calm.  “I don’t know.  But you can stay and watch.  I can finally control the fire and the pain.”

“Can you control the transformation itself?  Maybe stave it off?” she asked selfishly.

Riley smiled.  “Maybe.  Want me to try?”

Jane shook her head.  “I do, but I don’t want you to get hurt or die trying.  No, just let whatever is going to happen happen.”

“You’re about to see the future of humanity.”

“Oh!  I should get my camera.”

“Too late.”  He began to sweat profusely.  Then his hair caught fire.

When Jane tried to put it out, he stopped her.  She felt the heat emanating from him in pulses.  According to some legends, salamanders were born from fire.  According to others, they could extinguish fire.

Riley was controlling the heat, but the brightness was too much to bear.  Jane threw her arm over her eyes and tried to peek beneath it.  She heard a roaring as of a great blaze and realized that the fuel was Riley’s own body.  But as before, she saw no smoke, smelled no odors.  The fire burned.  She didn’t know how long she stood there waiting.  When it began to cool and to dim, Jane hesitantly lowered her arm and blinked and looked around the basement.  There was no one there but herself.

I’m here, a voice said.  And she knew it was Riley’s voice though she didn’t hear it with her ears.  She heard it in her mind.

She looked up and saw a light descend from behind the overhead bulb.  The light was yellow and orange like the sun.  Like fire.  It cast out loops of liquid flame.

“Riley?”

Looks like you’ll shed your mortal forms.  How do you feel about that?

Jane had spoken his name aloud.  Now she tried to project a thought.  This is not necessarily how we’ll end up.  You didn’t evolve.  You transformed.
    
True.

What happens now?  Are you staying or going?  She knew the answer before he said it and felt a twinge of sadness in her gut.  It would be a full-blown ache by morning.

Don’t feel sad, Janey. I could stay.

Like this?  As you are?  You could stay and teach me the wisdom of the universe?

She felt laughter from him.  Like you taught me the wisdom of the earth?  I owe you, don’t I?

“No.  You don’t owe me any debts.  And I don’t owe you.  Will you be able to keep in touch?”

I don’t know.  But if it’s any comfort, I don’t have the wisdom of the universe…yet.  That’s what the next step is, I think.  

“Not having a mortal form isn’t as advanced as you think,” Jane said.  “You can’t hug me goodbye without a mortal form.”

At that the flaming light drew closer and enveloped her and she felt solid arms folding around her and a solid torso that she could put her own arms around.  Over his fiery shoulder, she saw a vision of a little mouse, a cat-dog, a primate, a hominid, and a man.

I love you, Jane.  You’re my best friend in all the world.

Jane’s eyes filled with tears.  “Take care of yourself, Riley.”  She pulled away and looked at the fiery head.  She could just make out two flaming eyes.  “I love you, too.”

She followed his form as it floated up to the living room and the second floor.  She leaned out her window as he floated above her and past her.

I left something for you to remember me by.  Don’t worry.  It’s not alive.

Jane waved goodbye as he floated up and up and out of view, traveling to somewhere out in the cosmos.  She looked up at the stars and for a moment worried more about how lonely he would be than how much she would miss him.  Then she pushed worry aside and went down to the basement.  She wouldn’t be able to sleep for the rest of the night.  When she found what he had left behind, she smiled and shook her head as she knelt down.

She lifted up the tiny carved figure, a black and yellow salamander.

Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.

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