Camille began to walk. She squinted up toward the canopy, trying to get her eyes to focus well enough on the trees high above her to discern her orientation. The world looked so different from this angle. All she had was the border between clearing and wood to try to get her bearings.
There were bugs, skittering across the ground. Bugs of all sorts — ants, spiders, beetles. Camille had never minded bugs before, but now, so much closer to her in size, they revolted her. Mentally. Her mind resisted, yet every time she drew close to one, her stomach called out to her, tempting her to dart forward and consume one of them.
The temptation frightened her, and not just because the thought of eating raw, crawling insects revolted her. It made her feel inhuman. She still thought of herself as human, though her body had changed drastically. Could she even think of this as her own body? She had seen her human form, cast aside like a snake’s molted skin. Now her mind inhabited the body of a rodent, and that body hungered for meals no human would eat. Insects, and raw flesh.
There came a place in the border of the woods where the undergrowth opened up slightly before her. She allowed herself to feel hope that this was the path she had taken to arrive at the clearing. Camille sniffed at the ground, a compulsion that came to her from outside her own mind. She tried not to think about that, instead focusing on what she believed might be the smell of her honeyed-strawberry scented lotion, left in a trail leading back toward the house.
She scampered along the faint scent trail, following the trodden leaves more than the scent, which was inconsistent and, she feared, a hallucination born of hope. The branches and ferns and leafy growths of the forest floor were a much greater barrier to her small body than they had been on her trip here.
Camille ears twitched. Something akin to the sound of falling rain came to her, subtle beneath the ambient sounds of the woods — the creak of the trees in the wind, the rustle of the leaves as they twisted and turns, and the sweet sound of birdsong. It sounded like a light shower, hissing upon the leaves and branches, but it was softer and more subtle. And besides, the sun had been high in a clear sky before Camille had been assaulted. Even now, from her stunted vantage, she thought it still shone uncovered.
The hairs covering Camille’s body stood on end. Something about that sound meant danger, something that Camille’s mind didn’t recognize but her new body did. It was such a smooth sound, almost like light paper being pulled across a wooden desk. It drew closer. Camille’s muscles tensed, full of a compulsion to freeze in place rather than keep plodding along the forest floor.
Like a flash of light searing her eyes out of total darkness, the memory of the snake she had seen on her way to the clearing exploded into Camille’s mind. If she’d had her own throat, she would have screamed. She couldn’t see it, yet, but she knew what the sound meant as surely as she knew her own name. The mouse body still wanted to freeze, but Camille ran instead.
The slithering sound of the snake came from her right, and slightly ahead. Running along the path brought her closer to it. Her heart beat so quickly inside her chest she thought it might give out. The instincts welling up in her body desperately wanted to run the other way, but Camille wanted so much to be home in her bed that she fought against them, running toward the sound instead of away.
She brushed past the base of a fern and there it was, the snake. Its smooth scales sparkled in the dappled light that pierced through the dual canopies of the trees and the undergrowth. Screaming — or squealing, or squeaking; her mouth was emitting some horrible noise of terror, but it wasn’t anything human — Camille ran right toward the snake’s serpentine body. Its head was turned away from her, intent on its destination.
She bounded over it, pushing off against snake’s own back as she thrust herself forward. Its head whipped around, and she spared it a glance as she ran. Its eyes, which a human Camille might have called beautiful and mysterious, seemed like two dark pits of evil hunger. It lashed out, trying to catch her in its jaws, but she was already out of range. Its lips brushed against the tip of her tail.
The snake pursued her. Camille scrambled over roots and pebbles, terrified, hoping it would abandon the chase. It was not a large snake; or at least, it had not seemed so, looking down from what now seemed so impossibly high up. From its markings, it was also not poisonous. She was pretty sure it was a common garter snake, which had posed no threat to her in her real body but now represented death.
Something else moved ahead of her on the path, something larger than herself or the snake. She wanted to stop, or to dart right or left, but any of those three options would only slow her down and, she thought, result in the snake capturing her. She barreled forward with the hope that, as she had done with the snake, she could just dart past whatever was ahead. Perhaps then it and the snake would distract each other, allowing her to flee.
She rushed forward, between two thick clumps of grass, and smacked right into something. Or rather, something smacked into her, knocking her backward and rolling her over onto her back. She looked up at her assailant and felt not horror, but warm, comforting relief. Oscar. Oscar stood above her, lit dramatically by sunbeams like the last-minute savior in a movie posing for the camera.
His focus was behind her, in the direction of the snake. She froze, watching as his fur stood on end and fearing that he would turn and run from the reptilian threat. But no, his head dipped low, and his mouth opened, revealing his glistening fangs. He hissed. It was not Oscar that turned to flee, but the snake. Camille twisted back onto her feet in time to catch sight of the snake’s tail as it retreated through the undergrowth.
Oscar had saved her. He would protect her and see her safely to her home. She turned back to him. Had she been in her own body, she would have collapsed to her knees, sobbing and pulling Oscar into her embrace. He loved her. He loved her more than her parents ever had. He slept with her every night, curled up between her legs or on her pillow next to her head.
She stepped tentatively toward him. The instincts that had come with her body resisted, wanting to flee from the cat, but she overpowered him. For the first time since that man had stabbed her, and for the first time since she had awoken in this new body, she felt safe. Perhaps the end of this dream came with Oscar and not, as she had hoped, in her bed. Perhaps she could finally awaken from this nightmare.
Oscar looked down at her. Faster than she could register, one of his paws lashed out, driving her to the ground. The weight of him crushed her stomach. She wriggled, not comprehending what was happening. His head came down, mouth open, and something hot and sharp pierced through her flesh just below the base of her skull.
Darkness came, and numbness, and this time, Camille did not awaken.