No one paid attention to the tree on their way back from class. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle was beginning to fall. Strange things cropped up on campus all the time, what did this tree have that was so special? The only person who truly saw was a freshman girl. She was on her way back from English to the dorms, head down, backpack hunched up on her shoulders. Her sneakers squeaked slightly on the damp pavement. The gray sky matched her gray eyes. Her mousy brown hair fell in waves over her shoulders and across her backpack. It was a miracle she noticed the tree at all.
She paused on the corner of the pavement before the street running by her dorm hall. The tree was to her right, silhouetted by the sheet of gray that was the sky. She stood there, poised on the curb, staring and pondering. The tree forked low the ground at a sharp angle, creating a narrow 'v' before shooting up towards the sky. In this v was a tangle of metal and wire. She regarded it carefully, trying to figure out what it was. Nothing sprang to mind. It was just twisted bars connected by metal wire looping up and around and off the tree. If anything, it most closely resembled an art student's discarded project. Yes, that was probably what it was. Some dissatisfied student taking out their frustration on the tree.
She continued walking to the dorms. Up the stairs, into the stifling heat of the halls, and into her small room. Her roommate was gone. She dropped her backpack and collapsed on the lower bunk. Technically she was top bunk but her roommate wasn't there to care. She sighed again and stared blankly at the wall. The door to her room was open but no one came in. They just walked on by, glancing inwards as if she were an exhibit at the zoo. They didn't stop to talk though. They had better things to do.
The girl had homework. It wasn't much but it was something she could do. If she could just muster enough effort to get up and walk to her computer. She sighed again and looked at her schedule. Late classes tomorrow. She could work on it tomorrow. She swung herself onto the metal frame of the bed and climbed up to her bunk. Might as well get comfortable. She lay down and stared at the ceiling. 'Maybe they'll throw some food,' she thought as she heard footsteps again pass her door. She smiled at the funny image of people gawking at monkeys wearing sweatshirts crammed into a dorm room. The image drifted into other things and then into mist as she fell into sleep, still in her clothes, shoes, and all.
She woke a couple hours after midnight. For a moment she just lay there, taking bearing of her surroundings. There were no familiar markings, nothing that made this place hers. Just white walls and unfamiliar furniture. She rolled over and peered down below. Her roommate was fast asleep, one arm thrown up over her head. The girl silently slipped off the bed, dropping to all fours as she hit to absorb the impact. Then she padded over to the door, claimed her keys, and went out into the hall.
It was stifling in the dorms. The heat was oppressive; none of the relative coolness was making it into the halls. She padded down the four flights to the ground floor and outside into the pale moonlight. The clouds had parted and a half moon beamed down onto the scattered patches of grass and cement. She walked aimlessly until a shadow of movement caught her eye. She watched it until it detached itself from the wall and stole out across the dewed grass.
It was a boy, obviously older, tall and with shoulder length brown hair. He wore boxer shorts, a gray hooded sweatshirt, and nothing else. Not even sandals. She followed him. Warnings about rape and murder danced through her head but she shoved them aside.
The boy stopped before the tree bedecked with twisted metal. Then he did something very odd. He dropped to his knees before it and trust his hands up to the sky, flinging his head back. He did not move and for a moment the girl wandered if she should call someone. Was he having a seizure of sorts? Again, she shoved the thoughts of caution aside and moved closer.
The boy was speaking. It wasn't in any language she'd ever heard before though. Almost animalistic gibberish. She hesitated and cleared her throat.
The boy stopped speaking. He slowly rose and turned. The girl took a couple steps back. The slow, deliberate way he moved. The way he kept his head low and just stared out of eyes that glittered darkly in the moon. Like an wolf that had just caught wind of easy prey.
"Sorry…" she whispered, "I – didn't mean to…"
"You're lonely," he said abruptly.
She stayed silent for a moment, listening to the wind rustle the leaves and the beat of her own heart.
"Yes. I am."
"I knew that. You are here because you're lonely. Cause you don't fit in. That's why I'm here."
"It's cause I'm an animal," she blurted out, unsure of why she was trusting this mysterious boy with such a deep pain, "Because I sit in my cage all day and people just stare."
"You are an animal," he affirmed, "but there is more dignity in animals than in humanity. That's why you're here."
"But what is so important about here?"
He smiled and turned back to the tree and again fell to his knees.
"What are you doing?"
"Join me and see," he replied.
Feeling foolish, she crossed over to him and knelt by his side.
"The tree is a gathering place," he said, "That's what the metal pieces mean. If you look closer they have words inscribed on them. I made it when I first came here."
"But why has no one taken it down?"
"Because they can't see it," he said, flashing her a feral grin, "They are too enraptured with the sheer humanity of their existence."
He raised his hands to the air and threw back his head.
"Do what I do," he instructed.
She hesitated. This was stupid. A nighttime ritual with someone she didn't know. But the yearning in her heart bid her to do what he said.
The moonlight poured down upon them. The boy started chanting and she threw back her head, drinking in the light, the power of his words. Suddenly it felt right, good, to be here. She hardly heard or felt the same words come out of her mouth in a chant older than primal man. Everything was different, the night, the moon, the stars. They were caught up in a piece out of a world where history and rules had no meaning.
The chanting stopped. She opened her eyes. Next to her sat a wolf, huge, shaggy, and silver. He looked at her with yellow eyes and panted in greeting. She growled her own response. Moonwalker was his name. She just knew that. She stood and stretched, feeling her muscles ripple under ebony fur. Sleek, elegant, deadly. The girl stood and flicked her long tail, smiling softly. Her eyes also glittered yellow. Without a word the wolf and the panther slipped off to roam the night, where they belonged. Animals.
The girl woke the next morning in her bed. It was almost time for class. She jumped down and quickly gathered up her things. Wet grass clung to her shoes, a memory of last night. She paused, thinking. Human by day. Nightdream by night. That was her name now… Nightdream. The night was her guardian, the realm of nature her friend. The people still glanced in as she passed but now she felt their stares with a feeling of satisfaction. Stare at the animal. That's all she was and all she cared to be.
She saw Moonwalker in the halls after class. She ran up to him and grabbed his shoulder. He merely caught her wrist and put one finger to his lips.
"I know you as Nightdream and that is all I care to know," he said, "See you tonight."
She nodded her understanding and ran off to catch her next class.
Her existence continued in this manner for quite a while. She did not see much of her roommate or of the other humans that inhabited the dorms. They weren't animals. Her only joy came from once the sun fell and she could run to the tree where she would once again become the only thing that would set her free from a self-imposed cage. A panther, stalking the night, rejoicing in the sheer instincts of an animal.
She only remembered vague flashes of her time as a panther. Her mind worked differently when she was Nightdream. Instinct was more important than rational thought. When her human mind heard of the dead student though she was forced to examine her actions.
There had been such pleasure as Nightdream. Joy and exhilaration, the ecstasy of a hunt. The copper tang of blood and the feel of skin beneath her claws. The shiver of death as their prey stopped moving. The power, the thrill of holding such sway over another. She shuddered and leaned against the wall, feeling horribly ill. The masses of humanity rushed past her while she stayed frozen in time. She had to find Moonwalker.
He was in his dorm. She had a hard time of finding it as she had never been there. Finally she just closed her eyes and forced the memories as Nightdream to awake. The smell of him, leading this way and that, twisting up to the windows. She ran across the crowded campus grounds and into the dorms. Some stranger keyed her in. She found his door and banged on it until her fist hurt. He finally opened and silently ushered her in.
"We killed someone," she blurted out.
"I know. It happens."
"What do you mean, 'it happens'?"
He shrugged casually.
"They're just human. So what if we kill one every now and then? We're hunters. That's what we do. That's how things are."
"But – "
"You're thinking like a human," he snapped, "I can recite all your arguments already. Killing is wrong. Killing is evil. It's dangerous. Etc."
She dropped her head in shame.
"But are we animal or human?" she asked softly, "We can't be both, can we?"
"Perhaps. But if it comes down to that I'll live and kill and die as an animal."
He bared his teeth at her in a savage and feral gesture. She growled in return and stormed from his room.
"You can't stop it!" he called after her, "Now that you've taken the first step you won't be able to help yourself. I've all you got now!"
Once again alone in her room she sat and thought. Below her the tree beckoned, waiting for night. Her roommate came and went to bed but she remained where she was. The night was calling. The panther was calling. The images of blood cycled through her mind again and again. There were two ways out. Stay as a human and suffer from the rejection and pain. Stay as an animal and hunt what she once was.
The pull was growing stronger. She climbed up onto the window ledge and looked down. She could see Moonwalker stealing across the lawn to the tree. It was gnawing at her now, a rending emptiness that demanded she go and surrender to the night. To the panther within her.
This could not go on. The authorities would eventually hunt them down and kill them one night. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She had exchanged one cage for another. The cage of an animal or the cage of a human. There was no way out. There was no key. Moonwalker was trapped, as trapped as he was when he was still fully human. She stood and kicked the window screen out. It floated down to land on the ground four stories below. She leaned out and felt the night calling to her. No way out save this. She would break the bars of her cage once and for all. And she let go of the edge to die as neither human nor animal but something in between.