The Missing Element (Part 9)

Buck lurches back from the frail woman as he feels her surprisingly strong grip start to sear into his flesh, but she clutches him even tighter. The light bouncing all around them is blinding, yet he can faintly make out the ears and eyes of the curious cats encircling them. The old toothbrush, still crackling with electricity, threatens to explode like aluminum in the microwave. His ears are on the brink of bleeding and his head is swimming. The sound rises to the tenfold intensity of a whistling kettle in a snowstorm.

Or was he actually in a snowstorm?

Images start to flicker on his peripheral vision. He sees distant snow-capped mountains, close-ups of raging grizzlies bearing, if you will pardon the pun, their fangs, swirling snowflakes and howling squalls. The gentle breeze within the shop grows colder. Buck blinks a couple times and soon finds himself to be outside, the air so thick with snow he cannot even discern the woman standing in front of him. He can faintly hear the wisp of a cackle, but it may just be his imagination or the endless shrieking of the wind.

“Where are we?” he tries to call out, but the words are stolen right out of his mouth by an icy draft.

If the woman answers him, he has no chance of hearing her, let alone reading her lips. He stands still, bracing the chill that works its way deep within his bones and settles deftly into tight knots at the bottom of his stomach. At some point just standing is no longer sufficient, so he starts to run just to stay in place, leaning on the breeze and hoping it does not slip out from under him to trip him on his face.

He inhales slowly, deliberately, feeling the icy fire burn his nostrils as he clamps his mouth shut and exhales as smoothly as he can. This whole thing feels like some sort of endurance test. He cannot tell whether the woman is highly adept at creating illusions that evoke all senses or whether he is truly here.

Buck suddenly hears a faint knocking. It is almost as though it is coming from within his own mind, another voice visiting his consciousness asking to be invited. Hesitantly, he opens the metaphorical door allowing for communication with this strange other that requests access to his active thoughts.

“Hello?” Buck thinks.

“Ya, it’s me,” the tired voice trails into his mind.

“You!” He glares. “What are you doing? What’s happening here? What is -“

“I told ya, I need that missing ingredient,” she cuts him off. “I’d do it myself, but I can’t and don’t want to, as I have to act like the medium between our worlds here and stay grounded in place, but I can hold down the fort long enough for ya to venture off and get it. It’s at the top of that mountain, by the way.”

Buck whirls around trying to reclaim his bearings in a place where the sky and the ground are inseparable from the air itself.

“What mountain? There’s a mountain here? Where are we?” he yells out his thoughts, spitting them into the air that whips them into icy shards back at him.

“Ya ask too many questions,” the voice drags its feet into the recesses of his mind. “You’re facing in the right direction. Just let go of my hand and start putting one paw in front of the other.”

Buck looks about bewildered. “Do you see the state of the mess we’re in? This isn’t taking some merry jaunt along the SS Destiny! I can’t bloody well see anything, not my feet nor the ground beneath them! And you’re not exactly helping with that death grip of yours! Why’s it a bloody hot one, anyway?”

Buck’s stomach drops. His outstretched arm is pulled over his head, or perhaps he is slowly sinking.

No… he is shrinking! His tight-fitting clothes loosen and soon overwhelm him, engulfing him in a mass of leather and patterned fabric. He is no longer holding the woman’s hand. He tries to dig his way out of the pile he strangely now finds himself in until he catches a glimpse of his arms…

They are covered in light brown fur. His fingers are now sharp claws. He is suddenly aware of having a cute bushy tail. His ears twitch at all the new faint sounds he is able to pick up amidst the stormy mess. He is small and utterly humiliated, trapped as a frightened little animal. He can see the pant leg of the woman in front of him. He can practically hear her amused grin in the stony silence of her demeanor.

“What did you do to me??” he squeaks.

“I gave ya a chance to survive,” she responds coolly. “Ya should be thanking me. A moment longer and ya might have had irreparable damage from frost burn. Ya can suffer being an Arctic squirrel for five minutes, unless ya wanna be a famous pirate with a peg leg like the rest of them.”

Fuming, Buck flees ahead. He did not care where he was going, he just wanted a minute to get away from her infecting his thoughts and poisoning his body. He desperately hoped this transformation was on a timer and he would be back to his good old handsome self in no time in the warmth of the shop.

“By the way, that ingredient you’re looking for?” her voice chimes into his head with an annoying alert ping. “It’s in a red box. And it’s guarded. Have fun!” she crows.

Refusing to sink into hopeless despair and desperate to take action, he rushes forward. His claws propel him onward, digging and bouncing off the hardened snow. He has no idea in what universe he will be able to have the inertia to race up to the top of a mountain, fight off what is probably a ferocious bear or two and lug a box supposedly bigger than himself back to the woman. A thought pops into mind of him using the box to sled down, but that comes later. He has to be able to get there in the first place.

Piece of cake, right?

A moment later, the howling of a wolf joining that of the wind stops him dead in his tracks. Two eyes the size of saucers suddenly materialize before him, one brown and one green, and he can practically hear the creature drooling with delight, licking its lips in anticipation and sizing him up as its next snack…

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