Midnight 45

Standard

I’m turning into a cartoon.

Not metaphorically, but…actually.

***

“It’s the app,” I said, as I sat in the therapist’s office.  “The app is doing this.”  He wasn’t my therapist.  That is, I haven’t been seeing him for other things.  But I needed a professional to see the transformation.

I’d uninstalled the application in a panic and when I tried to search for it again in the marketplace, I couldn’t find it.  I hadn’t written down any information about the developer.  After searching and scouring the internet, I’d finally found what I thought was the number for the company that developed the app.  I needed a mental health professional to contact the company with me, so that the company would take me seriously when I told them what their app was doing to me.

“Eleanor,” the therapist said.  “Let’s back up.  Tell me about the app.  What does it do?  Why did you start using it? When did you first notice something unusual?”

***

I was searching for something that would help me stop procrastinating on writing up my dissertation.  I’d been sitting on it for six months.  In those six months, I’d managed to not procrastinate with a lot of other stuff.  I tutored my niece in algebra, worked full-time in an adjunct lab of the local ancient studies museum, and started learning guitar like I’d always wanted to.

But that dissertation…all that writing.  I’m a reader.  I could happily read all day.  But.  Just.  Don’t.  Ask.  Me.  To Write.

So I tried out this new app I found.  I created an account, set up a profile where I noted my overall singular goal, “finish writing my dissertation.”  I set my deadline, mini-goals along the way, and even “streak” challenges, like doing a specific dissertation-related task for seven days in a row.

The app’s conceit wasn’t unique or original.  It used the strategy of games, of gamifying my goal.  I was an ordinary human at first.  I customized the cartoon avatar until it resembled me.  If I completed my self-appointed tasks and challenges, I was rewarded by turning into and winning special items related to my chosen “hero” persona.  In my case, I chose a character who was as unlike me as I could think of, an acrobat in a traveling troupe.  Whenever I did well on my tasks for the day, my ordinary cartoon self would transform into the acrobat, and it would just so happen that she used her acrobatic skills to save someone in the town or village our troupe was currently in.  I earned a mystical pair of shoes, and learned new moves, combinations, and routines.  I did well for a while and it was fun.  And not just fun, but I felt stronger than I’d ever felt before.  I actually felt more flexible and light on my feet.

But as expected, it wasn’t too long before I faltered on the schedule and the tasks.  I missed a day here, a task there.

The app did what my profile had instructed it to do.  The heroic acrobat started losing her skills and well-earned prizes, until she became ordinary me again.  I missed more self-appointed deadlines.  And ordinary cartoon me started turning into the monster that I had chosen.  A manticore.  A creature with the face of a human, the body of a lion, the tale of a scorpion, and the quills of a porcupine.  As the acrobat was my reward, the manticore was my punishment.

One day I woke to find out that the manticore had ravaged a nearby village, killing and eating a few people.

It was morbid, but not really, because it was a cartoon.  But I felt bad about the villagers.  Way worse than I should have considering they were fictional, and animated, and I’d never even met any actual villagers within the environment of the app.

I dragged myself through work that day, and when I came home, I just knew that I should work on that dissertation, before my cartoon manticore persona killed or maimed anyone else.  If I did some work, the manticore might just wander around that night, and then I could do some more work, and transform her back into an ordinary human.

That was how it worked, with ordinary cartoon me serving as the fulcrum of the pendulum that swung between hero and monster.

***

I couldn’t get back on track.  The manticore changed form a little to demonstrate that it was becoming more monstrous.  Her lion’s body became more human-like.  She was standing upright now.  And she killed more people.  One morning, I woke up gasping as if I’d just been holding my breath for a while.  And as I woke, that feeling seeped into my gut.  A horrible guilt.

A few days later, I woke up with shallow scratches along my right forearm.  They were already dried and crusted over.  I cleaned myself up and checked my whole place, wondering how I had done that to myself.  The next night, I found out where those scratches came from.  At exactly twelve forty-five in the morning, I found myself standing in my yard, holding my neighbor’s cat by the scruff of her neck.  She struggled desperately and scratched my arm.  I dropped her and coughed.  I coughed because something was stuck in my throat, in my mouth.  I spit it out.  Cat hairs.

I chalked it up to stress.  But just to be safe, from that point on, I watched myself.  I did what I could to get the manticore back under control.  But more than that, I focused on becoming aware of when the transformation happened in the app.  After a certain set time of day, I couldn’t possibly catch up with my tasks.  That was when the transformation began in the app.

And that was when the transformation happened in me.  When I tried to watch for it, I was able to see it, at least the beginning of it.  I couldn’t feel anything.  I couldn’t stop it either.  I couldn’t stop my hand from curling into a fist that then melted away, replaced by a cartoon lion’s paw.  I couldn’t stop the quills from emerging from my back, and the scorpion’s tail from growing down from my tailbone.  And after a certain point in the transformation, I wasn’t conscious of it.  I didn’t remember what I did.  The only thing that stopped me was the clock.  The time I’d set for my particular day to end.  Forty-five minutes after midnight.

And come twelve forty-five, no matter what I was doing or where I was, I would become me again.  The change back to me was instantaneous.  I never saw the manticore vanish.

So I thought I must be hallucinating and maybe sometimes sleepwalking.  I deleted the account, uninstalled the app, and went on with my life.

I thought everything was fine until a few days later when my neighbor came knocking on my door, looking for his cat.  She had been missing for a few days.

***

I remember gagging as I stood over the bathroom sink after my neighbor left.  Because a part of me knew.  That cat wasn’t lost.  The manticore had gotten her.  I had gotten her.  I stood watch again, and I saw the transformation begin again, cartoon fur sprouting around my forearms.  The weight of a tail tugging at my backside.

I didn’t always go out and do any damage.  If I did my tasks for the day, the manticore might just sleep.  But I couldn’t sure.

I tried to find the app again, so I could figure it all out, but I couldn’t.  I went online to see if people using the app were experiencing weird hallucinations about their avatars.  I found nothing.  It was as if the app never existed.

So the only thing I could think of was to get someone else to see what I was seeing, or to not see.  Either way, I would know more about what was going on with me.  And just before my appointment, I finally found a contact number for the app.

***

It was sometime in the nine o’clock hour that the transformation usually began.  That was why I’d ask for such a late session with the therapist.

He began asking me some questions about the app and why I was putting so much pressure on myself to juggle all these activities in my life.

I remained silent and waiting.  Even when he prompted me.  I’d said what I wanted to say.  He let me remain silent for a while.

Then it happened.  I’d started feeling it by then.  Just before it happened. A kind of stretching feeling over my skin.  I stood up, startling the therapist.  I held my hands out before me and saw all the lines and wrinkles smoothen.  The subtle hues and shadows blended into a single pastel shade of mauvy brown.  My fingers plumped.  The reflections and shadows on my wristwatch flattened.  I had done extra work on my dissertation that week to stave off the manticore and make sure that I turned into human cartoon me.

The therapist dropped his pen, and his jaw.  In my head, I’d gone through all the possible reactions he might have.  Screaming.  Calling the police.  Running out of the room.  Throwing something at me.  Attacking me.  Or maybe even yelling out in joy and jumping up and down, because…”real-life” cartoon over here.

The response he gave was one I’d hoped for but didn’t dare entertain.  He gaped for a moment, cleared his throat, recovered his pen, and then took a deep breath.  He exhaled through his mouth and then took another.  He was getting a hold of himself.

“I can’t believe my eyes right now,” he said.

“I thought of another possible explanation,” I said.  “Other than my hallucinating, which I take it, I’m not doing, because you’re also seeing this.”

“Go on,” he said calmly.  Maybe he hadn’t yet processed it.

“This isn’t real,” I said.  “Maybe I’m sitting in a room somewhere with a headset on and this is virtual reality.  Maybe the way the app works is to put me through months and months of habit-training in a one-hour session.”

The therapist was shaking his head slightly.  “I don’t relish the thought that I’m not real. I feel pretty real.  If you go down that avenue, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t.  Instead, what about assuming that this reality is real and working within its rules?”

“Then, but that would mean…”

“You’ve actually and really turned into a cartoon.”

***

He helped me, of course, the following day, to call the number I’d found for the company.  He needed answers too after what he’d seen.  He needed to know too that his concept of the nature of reality was not completely wrong.  Or maybe that it was.

We got through the automated menu options, none of which offered the chance to speak to a person, and we finally just tried pressing zero.  It didn’t work.  We got disconnected.  We tried again a few times.  I’d feared that when he saw me again in the daytime, as a regular human, he might have changed his mind about what happened the night before.  He might have convinced himself he’d been tired and maybe dreamed the whole thing.

He admitted to me that he had a hard time believing what he’d seen with his own eyes.  But he tried helping me all the same.

On our fifth try of calling the number and going through a slightly different set of menu options, I put my head down on the desk.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before.

“I may know someone who can help you,” the therapist said.

I raised my head.

He continued.  “I don’t go in for the supernatural, ghost-hunting and vampires and all of that.  Most of it probably isn’t real.  And the people who try to take your money and show you it’s real?  Most of them are probably as false as the ‘evidence’ they’d show you.   But I have seen some strange things—not this strange—but strange.  There is one person I believe is the real deal when it comes to strange.”  He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a card.  “I’ve worked with him a time or two before.”  He handed it to me.  “Tell him I sent you.”

I took the card, despite having no intention of calling the person on it.

“I’ll keep trying the company,” the therapist said.  “You try him.”  He pointed to the card.

I nodded and left his office.

***

I didn’t have the motivation to even eat the burger combo I’d picked up on the way home that day, much less work on my dissertation.  When night approached, I got nervous.  I was certain to turn into a manticore.  If I remembered the rules of the app, once I ate that cat, I had a morality deficit that prevented me from ever being able to transform into my hero form.  The best I could do was get back to ordinary cartoon human, unless I did something to raise my virtue, which would either take a very long time, or would require the reversal of the heinous deed somehow.  So it only took one day of missing a task or deadline to revert to my monstrous manticore form.

I wondered if there was some way I could restrain myself.  I didn’t own a pair of handcuffs, and even if I did, they might not be able to hold my cartoon form.

It was a moment of desperation about the impending nine o’clock hour that compelled me to reach for that card the therapist had given me.  Business hours were over.  But the hours listed on the card were unusual, six in the evening till dawn the next morning.

I called and told the pleasant male voice who answered the direct truth (in abbreviated form).  I was too tired to run through the scenarios of how he might respond.

“Assuming this isn’t a prank call,” he said.  “We can see you tonight, Miss Nimera.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.  The manticore is coming out tonight.”

“Do you have a way to contain it?”

I sighed.  “No…do you?”

There was a slight pause and I thought he’d hung up on me.  “Maybe,” he said.  “We wouldn’t know for sure until we saw you.  Should we expect you tonight?”

“Sure.”

***

The place was some kind of detective agency.  Their offices took up the entire second floor of the building I was directed to, but when I arrived there were only three people there.  I was welcomed by a young man with a cloud of fluffy blond hair, holding some device that he said he’d like to keep in the room while I spoke to his boss.  He was the one I’d spoken to over the phone.  He led me down the hall to the first office.  Inside was a strikingly handsome man in a dark suit and a woman with an enviably serene expression on her face.

The handsome man smiled and gestured to a chair.  I sat down, followed by the others.

“My name is Alastair,” he said.  “You’ve met my colleague Roland.”  He gestured to the young man.  “He handles all our tech.”  He then turned to the woman.   “This is my other colleague, Perry.  She can see things that other people can’t see.”

I raised my eyebrows.  “Like…ghosts and auras and stuff?”

Perry smiled.  “Something like that.”

“Do you see anything weird about me?”

She narrowed her eyes and peered, not at me but around me.  I guessed she was looking at my aura.

“The basics of your story are extraordinary,” Perry said.

Alastair nodded.  “We have a lot of questions for you, Miss Nimera.”

I waved a hand and smiled.  “It’s Nori, please.”

Roland looked up from behind the boxy device he was mounting on a sturdy tripod.  “Whoa, secret identity name.”

“Just as you said, we couldn’t find the app you were using,” Alastair said.  “But Roland is going to look into it further.  Tonight we want to observe as much as we can about your transformation.”

“I hope you’re planning on locking me in this room,” I said.  “With all of you outside of it.”

“Yes, that’s why we’re setting up cameras.”

***

They left me in the room, locking the door.  That particular office had only one window.  It was small, but they had blocked it.  They had definitely taken my claim seriously.  There was a couch in the office.  I lay down with one of the magazines they’d left in there for me.  It didn’t take long for me to start feeling drowsy.

I must have fallen asleep.

When I came to again, I was outside of the office, lying in the hallway.

I gasped and sat up, coming fully awake.  The door of the office I’d been locked in was hanging from a single hinge.  There was no one else around.  A seed of panic bloomed in my gut, throwing out vines that seized my limbs from within.

What I have done?

I heard a faint sound through my rapid breathing.

Beeps.

The beep of an alarm.

I glanced at my wristwatch.

Twelve forty-five.

It was past midnight.

And I had unmasked.

“Is is safe to come out?” a voice called from down the hall.

I turned toward the voice.  It was Perry.  She had poked her head into the hallway.  She was peering at the spaces around me.  From behind her, another head poked out.  Roland.  Panic’s grip on me weakened.  I let out a breath of relief and noted that the two of them, with their heads poking out from behind the wall, looked cartoonish.

“It would seem,” a voice said from the other end of the hallway, “the traditionally prescribed traps don’t work on cartoon manticores.”

With another relieved breath, I turned my head to the sound of the voice and watched Alastair emerge from another office.

***

They showed me the video.

I transformed while I was lying on the couch, fell off, and woke up in my cartoon manticore form.  That form.  That particular design.  It was almost cute.  It—I–pawed at the walls for almost an hour.  Unable to exit the room, I tried to pace, but the room was too small.  I cried out, an eerie half-human, half-feline yowl.  The manticore’s head was human, a cartoon human that looked just like my cartoon human form.  Only, my manticore head had a permanent scowl on her face.  I swiped my tail around the room, toppling a small bookcase, and the few items that had been sitting on the desk.  My hair was a lion’s mane and hidden within that mane were porcupine quills.  I bristled as I failed to find some way out of the room, my hackles rising, and with them, the quills.  Several quills, held taut, sprung away from the mane as if launched.  A few of them were launched with such force that they embedded in the wooden wall panels.

“Here,” Alastair said as we stood gathered around the video in another one of the offices.  “You’re about to make a break for it.”

Manticore-me let out another cry, only this time, no part of the cry sounded human.  It was a high-pitched squawk that shorted out the microphones in the room.  The cameras kept recording, though silently.  The manticore hesitated for a moment.  And then directed what appeared to be another squawk at the door to the room.  The door burst open.  And in cartoon manticore form, I bounded out of the room.

“Some kind of concussive blast,” Roland said.

I blinked, still recovering from the transformation and from seeing all of myself as a cartoon manticore.  “Was that—did anyone know that was possible?”

Roland shook his head.  “It’s not part of a manticore’s known power set as far I know.”

“I have a theory,” Alastair said.  Everyone turned their faces to him.  “Nori has found way to breach the cartoon realm.”

I frowned.  “The cartoon…realm?”

“Okay, sure,” Perry said.  “There’s a fairy realm, a demon realm, so why not a cartoon realm.”

I felt my tired eyes burn a little as they widened.  “There’s a what?”

Perry placed a hand on my shoulder.  “Steady.  You might hear us say a number of unfathomable things here tonight.”

“Somehow you have managed to open a breach into another dimension,” Alastair continued, “the youngest dimension, a dimension that we created.  The cartoon dimension.”

Roland shook his head as he stared into the middle distance.  “Your words are both ridiculous and awesome at the same time.”

“I’ll assume we’ve all watched cartoons at some point in our lives,” Alastair said.

Roland crossed his arms.  “Some of us still do.”

I sighed.  “If it weren’t for the fact that I might have killed you all tonight, and most definitely ate my neighbor’s poor cat, turning into a cartoon would be a dream come true for kid-aged Nori.”

“The rules of reality in cartoons, and presumably in the cartoon realm, are flexible,” Alastair said, slipping a hand into the pocket of his slacks as he leaned back against the desk.  “That’s probably why you had a power that a manticore doesn’t typically have, according to mythological accounts.  But the realm does have rules.  In your case, Nori, the realm is following the rules of the app, specifically the rules of the profile you created.”

“But how is this happening?  What’s the connection with the app?”

“Maybe we didn’t create the app,” Alastair said.  “We in the ordinary realm that is.  Maybe that’s why we can’t find it anymore.”

Perry raised a brow.  “Someone in the cartoon realm created the app?  And somehow got it to our realm?  How?  And why?”

“I don’t know, but it makes a sort of sense that if the realm reached out to make contact with Nori through the app, at least the first time, then its manifestation in our world was filtered through the app and through her profile.  That’s why it’s following the profile’s rules.”

“It’s interesting that you can interact with ordinary matter,” Roland said.

“So this is a first for you guys,” I said, glancing from one to the other.  “He said you could help.”

“This is one of the strangest cases I’ve ever encountered,”  Alastair said.  “And yes, it’s a first, but it’s definitely in our wheelhouse.”

“In other words,” Perry said.  “We don’t know if we can help, but we will try.”

“How do I stop it?  I’ve been trying to get my goals done, but…I can’t, there’s no way I can get the dissertation written in time to stop me from turning into a manticore at least a few times.  And what if I don’t stop even after the profile’s defined goal is reached?”

Alastair peered at the video of manticore-me going on a rampage.  “What if the purpose of the app was to identify individuals who might be able to connect our dimension with a dimension that is right under our noses and in our faces every day…the cartoon realm?  It sounds ridiculous, but it’s a fascinating place where the laws of physics are changeable and sometimes don’t even apply, where the balance between good and evil tends toward good…”

“Alastair, we can wax philsophical about the cartoon realm after we help Nori turn back into a human.”

“Right. So… assumption one, there is a cartoon realm. Assumption two, someone from the cartoon realm is reaching out to you using the rules of the app, of the profile.  Can we use that somehow?”

“Maybe we can cheat and get a bunch of experts together to write up that dissertation for you,” Roland said.

I shook my head.  “I’ve actually kind of tried.  I could have fooled the app, but I can’t fool the…cartoon realm, or whatever other force is causing the transformations now.”

“Then maybe we’ll just have to figure out a way to keep you contained, the cartoon manticore you, whenever you emerge, until you get that dissertation written.”

“You weren’t able to contain me tonight,” I said.  “I can’t risk hurting anyone else.  I mean, would regular tranquilizers work?”

Alastair shook his head.  “Even if they did, that’s too big a risk.”

“You should work here,” Perry said.

I glanced at her.

“Part of the reason you don’t have time to do your tasks is your job, right?  Come work here and we’ll give you flexible hours until you finish the goal.”

“But if the aim is for this entity or person or whatever from the cartoon realm to reach out and enter our  realm, they’re not going to give up so easily.”

“Probably true,” Perry said, “but per ‘assumption two’ they are currently limited to the rules of the profile.  So what else is in this profile?  Is there any wiggle room?”

“Yeah, can you set a less daunting goal?” Roland asked.

I shook my head.  “No, once set, you can’t set a less ambitious goal.”

“What about a more ambitious goal?” Alastair asked, his eye glinting.

Perry narrowed her eyes.  She gazed at the space around him.  I figured she was reading his aura.  “What are you thinking?”

He pointed to the video, reversing it a bit and freezing the frame.  “There, the bookcase.  Notice anything?”

After my manticore self swept her scorpion tail across the desk, knocking over a bookcase, the books spilled out.  They were an indistinct mass of bound pages and dark leather covers.  And in their midst was an object, lacking in shadows and hues, its two-tone dark maroon color flat, dimensionless.  It was a plastic flower pot with a mass of dark soil spilling over one side of the rim.  Inside were two daisies painted a vivid magenta, their dark green petals lacking in wrinkles and pores, swaying gracefully on their stems in the wake of the scorpion tail’s whip.

The flower pot was a cartoon.

***

There was another plant in the corner.  An adorable succulent.  It too had turned into a cartoon.  Both plants were still in camera for the whole time I’d been transformed, roaming the hallways, being partly thwarted by the containment efforts of Perry, Roland, and Alastair.

Like me, both plants had turned back into real-world plants at exactly twelve forty-five.

Alastair’s theory was that I was instinctively turning some of the things I touched into cartoons—particularly living things.  Either I was doing it, or the cartoon realm was doing it through me.  If that were true, and if the rules of the cartoon realm were indeed flexible, Alastair believed there was a good chance that my neighbor’s cat was inside me, alive and dead at the same time, trapped on that bridge that connected the ordinary realm to the cartoon realm.  If that were so, then I might be able to get him back by using cartoon logic.  And if I could get him back, I would erase the morality deficit on my character.  That deficit was the reason it took only one day of missing my scheduled tasks for me to turn into a monster.  Lifting it would buy me time.  It would stave off the manticore.

“So what’s the plan?” Perry asked.

I straightened my shoulders.  “Follow the rules of the app.  Build up my character for a few days to a week.  So that I can get back to being an ordinary cartoon human and stay there while I finish the quest I set for myself.”

***

I really liked my job at the adjunct lab, and I’d lose some opportunities by leaving, but I’d already decided I should step away until I got the dissertation written.  I was eligible to return, but the likelihood of regaining my spot was low.  There were plenty of people willing and eager to fill it.

I hadn’t really expected Alastair to follow through on Perry’s spontaneous offer of employment at their offices, but when I jokingly asked at a follow-up meeting one night, he agreed.  I had some savings for rent, but I needed a little something for other bills.

I didn’t transform into a manticore again.

And I wasn’t ever alone when I transformed again.  I was always in the office with at least one of my three new colleagues present.  If Roland was there, he would attempt to take readings with any number of gadgets, devices, and contraptions.  If Perry was there, she would peer all around me and make notes in her little flip-over notebook.  The note was always the same.  Nothing detected when in cartoon form.

I asked her what she detected when I wasn’t in cartoon form.  Feelings and concepts, she said.  She’d tell me more when my brain wasn’t overloaded with dissertation work.  (I’d asked everyone in my life to keep their deeper thoughts to themselves until I was done, requesting frivolous banter only.)

If Alastair was there, he would bring in at least one of his collection of totems, talismans, charms, and the like.  Sometimes a book.  Occult stuff.  Nothing ever had any affect on my cartoon self.  He’d have me try to transform inanimate objects into cartoons, then living plants, cut plants.  I felt something when I tried to transform inanimate objects.  But nothing ever happened.  Except for my clothes, which transformed on their own when I transformed, I couldn’t purposely change inanimate objects into cartoons.  Dead things also didn’t transform.  But living things transformed without effort when I touched them.  And they transformed back seeming none the worse for wear.

Plants was one thing, but I was hesitant to try transforming the mouse he put before me one day.  Her fur was a glistening jet black.  Her eyes were likewise, and she recoiled from my cartoon hand until it touched her and she transformed in a cartoon mouse.

She stood up on her hind legs and shook a fist at me.

Alastair and I exchanged a glance.

“If she starts talking,” I said, “I might blow a gasket.”

The mouse didn’t talk.  She transformed back into a real mouse when I transformed back into a real human.  I named her Max and brought her home with me when I wasn’t at the office.

I was afraid Alastair was going to make me swallow her when we were both in cartoon form, but thankfully, he didn’t.  He did point out—on numerous occasions—that the mouse had taken to cartoon rules better than I had.  I was still behaving as if I were an ordinary human, bound by the laws of the real-world physics.

So in between working on my dissertation and answering the bizarre calls that came in to the office from people who thought they’d spotted some creature in the woods behind their house or were manifesting psychic powers, that sort of thing, I did some extra credit homework.

I watched cartoons.

Lots and lots of cartoons.

I wasn’t willing to jump off a building or let someone drop an anvil on my head.  But if I let loose and didn’t think about it, I could punch walls without feeling pain.  I could squeeze through a door that was only open a couple of inches.  I could swallow an entire flower pot of daisies, then reach my arm into my stomach and pull the daisies out intact and undigested.

Finally, one day, I was ready to try and rescue that cat that my manticore self had eaten, many months ago.

***

We were all gathered in that same office again, the one I’d wrecked.  The daisies and the succulent had survived my rampage.  They were still in the room.  Alastair had placed them in there on purpose that first day.  Just as he’d put a few other objects—a mystical totem, ordinary magazines, representations of the four classic elements—to observe what would happen when my cartoon self interacted with them.

In the nine o’ clock hour I transformed.

I transformed into my cartoon human self.

“Don’t think, just do,” I heard Alastair say.

I opened my mouth cartoonishly wide.  I reached in with my right hand, going deeper and deeper, my fingers sweeping the abyss of my stomach, the space where things were suspended between real and cartoon.

It was empty.

I felt nothing.

If the cat was there, she was probably terrified.  She would probably run from the looming cartoon hand reaching for her.

Max was sitting on the desk beside Perry.

She squeaked.

I pulled my hand out of my mouth and stared at Max.

Before anyone could say a word, I reached for Max and transformed her into a cartoon.  I wasn’t going to use her as bait.  I just knew she’d had a notion when she squeaked.  I’d come to understand her in ways that I should not have been able to, given the chasm of understanding between our species.  It was because of the times we both became cartoons.  We had more in common then.  She still never spoke, but I understood her squeaks when we were cartoons, and even a little when we weren’t.

I could feel the eyes of the others on us as Max squeaked at me and I nodded.  I wasn’t sure about her plan.  I’d have to trust she wouldn’t get hurt, or that she wouldn’t hurt the cat if she could really do what she was proposing.  I nodded to her.

And then I put her in my mouth and swallowed her.

I heard the gasps from the others.

“Trust us,” I said.

And I waited.

Good old Max.

It didn’t take long.

I felt a sudden and overwhelming discomfort in my stomach, right under the breastbone.  I doubled over and opened my mouth, vomiting out a furry creature that was the size of a large cat.

It was not a cat.

It was Max.  She had taken to cartoon logic better than I had from the start.  She had grown herself as she moved into my stomach abyss.  She’d grown herself large enough to swallow a cat.

Max then opened her mouth and a furry creature came dashing out, covered in slime, and shivering.  The cartoon cat shrieked and her eyes widened to the actual size of saucers.  Giant Max squeaked at her, trying to calm her.  But it was lucky that we’d locked the door.  The cat dashed around the room trying to avoid the grasp of anyone in the room—whether cartoon or real.

All we could do was watch and try not make sudden movements, until she tired herself and conked out on the couch.  Only then did Max shrink to her usual size.

And we waited until midnight.

And forty-five minutes after.

***

After all that time, I half-expected my neighbor to have forgotten all about his cat, but when I handed the still-skittish kitty back to him, telling him I’d found her in my yard, he was elated.  And once back in his arms, the cat started purring with relief.

It wasn’t too long after that day that I received proof that the morality deficit was lifted.  I started transforming into the hero persona I’d chosen, the traveling acrobat.  Being her made it easier to test the limits of my cartoon self.  It was fun climbing the side of the building without worrying about the laws of physics.

It was better than fun.  I felt…powerful.

And free, of course.

And hopeful.

I hadn’t forgotten that I might still become a monster if I wasn’t careful, and if I didn’t ultimately complete my chosen quest, my chosen goal, my dissertation, before the deadline I’d set.

It took a few more months, but I finished.  I finished before my self-appointed deadline.

The quest was complete.

And yet…

I wasn’t all that surprised when I found myself transforming that night.  And the next.  And the next.  But something had changed.

I could feel the transformation happening, and I could hold it off for a bit, like holding off going to the bathroom.  It took effort and was uncomfortable.  Holding off made my skin feel stretched taut, so if I didn’t need to, I didn’t hold off.

I didn’t transform into a manticore again, even if I slacked off on my to-do list for the day.  And I didn’t transform into the acrobat again, even if I did everything on my list and then some.

I transformed every night.

But what I transformed into was myself.

Well…my cartoon self.

*****

Two months later, we were gathered in the office, in that same room that I’d once wrecked when I was a cartoon manticore.  I was still working there.  And we were still investigating the mystery of my transformation.  Investigating, and experimenting.

In the nine o’ clock hour I transformed.

I transformed into my cartoon human self.

It was still disorienting looking out at the others through my cartoon eyes.  Their forms looked the same, but their colors were shifted.  Perry was staring at me with that strange puzzled expression that she always got when I turned into a cartoon.

Alastair reached his hand out toward me.  “Doctor,” he said.  “If you please.”

“One more time…are you sure?” I asked.  “You might get stuck.  We still don’t know who or what caused this in the first place.  Could be friend.  Could be foe.”

“Could be a cosmic being who can’t even see us because we are as small to it as bacteria are to us,” Roland said.  “And maybe this all happened because it blew it’s nose.”

I couldn’t help but to chuckle a little as Perry gave him the side-eye and said, “Lovely.”

Alastair seemed to be ignoring them.  He took a deep breath, exhaled, and gave a solid nod.  “Do it.”

“Prepare thyself, mortal,” I said, hamming it up for Roland’s sake.  “Not everyone is cut out to be cartoon.”

I wasn’t worried.  There was one rule from the profile that was still in effect.  It worked with me.  It worked with Max.  It would work with Alastair.

We would all turn back to “normal” forty-five minutes after midnight.

 

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

One thought on “Midnight 45

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