The coach trundled along the motorway. At the start of the journey the group of college students had been rowdy; singing songs and generally treating the coach like a party bus. But now, a couple of hours since they departed their college, they were mostly quiet, willing their destination to somehow move closer so they could leave the cramped bus. The smell of salt and vinegar crisps wafted through the air; someone evidently hadn’t been able to wait until lunch. Mr. Lee kept a watchful eye over all of his students to ensure they didn’t make any mischief, but even he was bored of the travelling and was eager to reach the museum.
Peter Rogers sat with his unkempt brown hair flattened against the window. The vibrations caused by the coach’s speed made his head bump against the cold glass, just gently enough that he didn’t feel pain. His blue eyes looked out onto the road, past his own ghostly reflection, at the cars whizzing by and further beyond that towards the trees and fields, a contrast between a peaceful life out in the wilderness and the hectic strain of civilisation. Idly, his mind wandered to a story he heard on the radio while getting ready in the morning. It was about someone who left cans of food laced with poison in alleyways in order to kill animals. Pete wondered how anyone could be so cruel and heartless to put so much thought into a plan of such an evil nature.
Despite knowing that it would only lead to him feeling morose he let his mind drift to thoughts of those poor helpless creatures giving way to their instinct and eating the food only to die a violent, painful death. And even then the suffering didn’t end, as pet owners frantically searched the house and the neighbourhood. Children lost best friends, adults lost companions and Pete lost a little bit of his soul. He had only just turned 18 and yet he often thought about the savagery of the human race and whether that darkness was locked somewhere deep in everyone’s soul. Perhaps clothes and family and society and love were all masks people wore to try and forget their true faces, the twisted, selfish, ugly faces driven to survive at all costs. Pete’s eyes moved across the window and they focused on his reflection and he wondered what lurked within his soul. He’d always felt different, not necessarily special but just a feeling that he didn’t belong, as if there was some secret of which everybody apart from him was aware.
He sighed and looked down at his friend Stephanie who was resting her head on his shoulder. Quiet, gentle snores escaped her lips and strands of multicoloured hair fanned out along his upper chest. She looked so peaceful he felt guilty about waking her, but he was bored and his shoulder was aching. As he moved, her head fell and she stirred, shocked at first but then she rubbed her eyes and yawned.
“Uh…wha…oh did I fall asleep again?”
“Yeah, and you know you should stay awake. You don’t want me throwing up on you.”
“That was years ago, I thought you were over your travel sickness by now?”
Pete shrugged. “I think mostly I am, but sometimes, especially on long journeys, it comes back. Like in the summer on Lesbos we went around this hill twisting and turning and twisting and turning one way and then the other it never ended…Steph,” he said, looking groggy, “I feel a bit sick.” She rolled her eyes.
“Maybe you should stop talking about your travel sickness.”
“That might be a good idea.”
“How long do we have until we get to the museum?”
“Shouldn’t be too long now, you were asleep for quite a while,” he said teasingly.
“You should be more entertaining then,” she fired back. He looked mock-hurt but then he burst out laughing.
“It’s going to be so cool. I can’t wait to see all the Egyptian artifacts,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to the Greek and Roman stuff more, sucks that I have to miss textiles though.”
“Yeah that’s such a shame…I wonder if I’ll be able to find any evidence of alien activity.”
“Pete, trained experts have been studying these things for decades. I highly doubt that some 18 year old will come in and discover something that will affect the whole planet.”
“You never know, I could discover something that would change our lives forever.”
“Don’t worry, I will.”
“Maybe you should put more thought into what you’re going to do with your future?”
A black look instantly came over Pete’s face. The future had been weighing heavily on his mind. It was his last year of college and he had to start either making plans for university or a career. The only problem was that he had no idea what he wanted to do. He had no real passions to speak of, no real talents, he just seemed to drift through life without having a place of his own. Stephanie had her future all planned out, she was going to study fashion at a leading University and then move into the industry, either as a journalist or a designer (she was hoping for the latter). Still, she worried about Pete, always thinking that he could do so much with his life if he just believed in himself. She’d told him exactly that many times over the course of their friendship but he never seemed to listen, so when he brushed off her question again she didn’t press him. They’d been friends long enough for her to know that when he wanted to ignore something it would stay ignored.
Eventually the coach pulled into the vast car park making a loud crushing sound as it crunched over the gravel. Mr. Lee got out of the coach first and waited for everyone to gather around him in a large semi-circle. The other chaperones stood by him dutifully.
“Can I have your attention please,” he bellowed, “this is not a school trip. You are all young adults. You are all responsible. Go off and do as you wish when I have finished speaking,” he made sure to say as he noticed a few students attempt to inch away from the group.
“We will all be around the museum in case you need our help with anything,” he continued, gesturing to the chaperones, “just remember to behave. You are not in the classroom you are in the real world with real people. The coach is leaving at five o’clock so be back then. I repeat five o’clock. Not five-oh-one or five-oh-two. Five. All that having been said have fun, have a good day and soak up as much knowledge and culture as you can.”
With that all the students dispersed into their little groups and entered the museum. The vast building was imposing, the ceilings stretched high above them and the whole place inspired a reverent atmosphere. Hushed whispers echoed around creating a comforting blanket of sound. Footsteps clacked against the hard floors, and occasionally a loud cough jolted life into the volume levels.
“Where do you want to go first?” Pete asked quietly.
“I don’t know, where do you want to go first?”
“Ugh, I don’t know, why do I always have to make the decisions?”
“Fine, let’s go that-a-way,” Stephanie said, motioning to go up a flight of stairs but she stopped and turned when she realised Pete wasn’t following her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked impatiently.
“That way looks boring.”
“Fine. Where do you want to go?”
“Let’s go see dinosaurs.”
“Oh yeah, because dinosaurs are so much fun.”
“Better than dirt.”
“They’re just bones.”
“I don’t know how you can’t like dinosaurs. Everyone likes dinosaurs!”
“I like to be different.”
Their conversations often went the same way. After a bit of arguing Stephanie would always acquiesce to Pete’s wishes, his stubbornness winning over her easygoing nature. He bounded to the dinosaur exhibit, marvelling at the impressive skeletons which towered before them. He stood with his mouth open in awe as Stephanie looked around mindlessly.
“Do you think at night when nobody is around all these skeletons come to life?”
“Oh, definitely,” Stephanie replied sarcastically, although Pete was so lost in his own thoughts that he didn’t pick up on it.
“I think so too,” he replied while staring up at a T-Rex.
Later that day they eventually made it to the Egyptian exhibit.
“This is fascinating. Look at all the hieroglyphics,” Pete said. Stephanie’s legs were aching and she’d had about as much culture as she could take for the day. It wasn’t that she hated museums, there was just so much information thrown at her that she didn’t have it in her to read an essay about every single arrowhead on display. Her legs were aching and she was thirsty so she excused herself, although Pete was so caught up in the golden shine of Egyptian treasures that he barely noticed she’d left. In fact, there were only a few other people dotted about the exhibit so he was left largely to his own devices. As he was scanning a glass box containing all manner of artifacts he noticed that a door was ajar.
Unlike other forbidden parts of the museum there were no ropes guarding it, yet he knew that he shouldn’t enter. However, curiosity got the best of him. After looking around and making sure that no-one was looking he crept up to the door and winced as it creaked slightly, but he slipped through the gap and wondered what he had wandered into.
The room was dark, with only a few dim lights giving any help to his sight. As his eyes adjusted he saw that there were a few tables with random jewels in glass cases. He assumed that it was some kind of storage room, although it wasn’t secure at all so he wondered how valuable these things were. He knew he should back out just in case anybody discovered him but he became entranced by a picture hung on the wall. As he looked at it more closely it seemed to get brighter and before he knew it he was standing directly in front of it. He didn’t know how he missed it when he first entered the room as it almost took up a whole wall. It depicted every type of cat imaginable, and some which Pete had never seen before. They were all sat on a sandy terrain organised in nine rings gazing up at their idol, the goddess Bast. Everything he had read about Bast told Peter that she was the goddess of motherhood and fertility yet in the picture she was painted as the image of a ferocious face, eyes narrowed in anger and a mouth baring sharp teeth. He could almost hear the angry hiss.
Although the painting was colourful Bast’s face was deathly black apart from blue irises which shimmered eerily in the dim light. Pete found himself enraptured by those eyes and they seemed to reach down into his very soul. He tried to move but he couldn’t, his body was paralysed under the hypnotic stare and yet he wasn’t scared, rather he was oddly calm. The eyes seemed to grow and suddenly the rest of the painting faded away until there were only the eyes and him. Then suddenly they grew so bright it almost felt like they were setting fire to his flesh. There was a bright flash and he gasped as he collapsed.
He didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious but he heard faint cries of ‘Pete’ coming from the hallway. Groggily, he stood up but the room swirled around him so he took a moment to regain his balance. The room seemed brighter than it had before, and it was easier for him to navigate between the tables. He could smell hot dogs and burgers from the cafeteria and his stomach growled with hunger but his head throbbed as if a piston was routinely pounding his brain. Before he stumbled out of the room he took one last look at the painting and the eyes didn’t shimmer but they still looked at him and he had an unshakeable feeling that something profound had occurred.
“Where did you get to?” Stephanie asked.
“I was just in that room over there?”
“Oh right, anything interesting?”
“A few paintings and stuff, nothing really amazing.”
“Are you okay? You look a bit out of it.”
He jerked his head over at a nearby wall where he saw a spider crawling. He could have sworn he heard the impact of its spindly legs against the concrete.
“No, I’m fine, just a little tired, and it was pretty stuffy in there,” he said, giving her a reassuring smile.
“Hm okay,” she said, not looking entirely convinced, “we’d better head back to the coach. There’s nothing else you want to see quickly?”
“No I think I’ve seen everything I want to, we’d better get back I guess. Don’t want to miss the coach.”
“Who would want to stay here overnight, what with all those dinosaurs roaming around, right?”
They left and barely made it to the coach on time. Mr. Lee was growing more exasperated by the second as two boys hadn’t made it back yet. He stared at his watched as the numbers changed second by second and just as he was about to tell the driver to leave the boys breathlessly charged through the door. Mr. Lee glared at them as they took their seats and the coach began its journey back to the college.
Stephanie napped again. This time he wasn’t too annoyed because if she had been awake there would come a point where he would have told her about the incident and he wasn’t sure if he was ready to tell anyone yet. As he was the only one in the room he couldn’t be sure that what he thought happened really happened, did he just black out? Could he trust his own senses, his own memory? He looked around the coach and everything seemed brighter and more vivid, even sounds were clearer and he could overhear other people’s conversations.
It was a strange sensation, as if something was changing inside him but he wasn’t quite sure what. He wasn’t even sure if it was anything at all. Stephanie always told him that he thought into things too deeply. Perhaps he was just tired, but he thought back to that room and his heartbeat quickened as he thought of those eyes staring fixedly at him, as if they had become a part of him.
Peter lived only a short walk from the college. After the coach dropped them off, he and Stephanie walked away. She lived closer to the college than him so he had about twenty minutes to walk by himself. The evening air was cool. It was early autumn so the sun was just setting, casting a red glow in the sky, making it look like it was burning. He enjoyed walking alone it made life seem simpler even though it was lonely. But the truth was that he was used to being lonely. An only child, he had spent most of his life in his own company. He’d always had friends but never anyone especially close and since he left school he’d lost touch with most of them and the only real friend he had was Stephanie. They had met in their Classical Civilisations course, purely by chance, but something clicked between them and they quickly became firm friends.
Romance was something which hadn’t entered his life as of yet. Part of him felt like he should love Stephanie but he couldn’t summon that romantic feeling. He wasn’t entirely sure how love happened, it always seemed something elusive, something which happened to other people but he tried to comfort himself with the thought that it would happen at some unspecified point in the future, perhaps once he had figured out his place in the universe.
Waves of nausea overcame him, stopping him intermittently which made his stroll home twice as long as it should have been. He began to worry. If anything had happened in the museum it didn’t feel like it was anything good. And if it was something serious how was he supposed to tell anyone about it? They surely would have treated him as if he were a madman were he to tell them that he had stared into the eyes of a painting and somehow it had changed him. Whatever happened, he could never tell anyone normal about it, the only person he would ever consider telling was Stephanie but even then sometimes he felt like she just didn’t understand him. However, all he could do for the moment was grit his teeth and try to stay on his feet long enough until he could collapse on his bed.
Once home he grunted at his parents and ran upstairs to his room. His mother and father looked at each other and shrugged, hoping he would grow out of his impolite behaviour soon. They chalked his withdrawal up to the hormone-ridden period of his life but Peter felt like it ran deeper from that, although there always seemed to be a chasm between him and his parents which he could never breach.
He slammed the door shut behind him and let his backpack drop limply to the floor. Making the final few footsteps to his bed he collapsed on the mattress face down and groaned, suddenly exhausted and unable to move. His vision began to blur and out of the corner of his eye he saw various posters stare at him then all of a sudden he felt something creeping over his body underneath his clothes, as if a thousand tiny pinpricks were cascading over his skin. Shivering, he wrapped his duvet around him and he quickly fell asleep.
His mouth was dry and his limbs ached. His body felt broken and he couldn’t be sure if he could move anything. Darkness surrounded him, everywhere he looked an abyss beckoned. He tried to scream but no words came out. His eyes were open wide in terror, body strained against whatever was holding him down but he could feel no restraints, just a formless invisible weight which seemed to grow in strength until breathing became a laborious effort.
It was cool yet there was no breeze, it was more like there was an absence of heat rather than anything actually making the area cold. He wasn’t sure if he could feel his heart beating in his chest. He wondered if this was death. He searched around, craning his eyes as far as they would roll to try and find any speck of light but there was only nothingness. Perhaps this was the nothingness from which souls were born, and into which they faded. He started to convince himself that these were his last thoughts, and at any moment he would simply blink away into the eternal ether yet his last thought and last breath never came. Instead he saw silent images of his childhood, but it didn’t seem like his childhood. It seemed like he was watching a collection of someone else’s memories even though he knew he lived that life. But it wasn’t his life any longer. He could feel it now. Something had changed within him. The images faded, his eyes focused through them where he saw shadows coming into form. He couldn’t quite make them out so he peered through as hard as he could then all of a sudden he jerked back as the images shattered and burst into ash.
They were upon him. He could see them now. Sat around him in rings were every type of cat, all eyes were on him. He gulped and looked up and there were the shimmering blue irises again, the face was there again, twisted in that same angry, visceral expression and once again Peter was entranced but as he looked at those eyes they seemed to soften and become more sympathetic. Then he started to see himself, but it wasn’t really himself, it was the ideal version of himself that he had always wanted to be yet had never known how to become. Then he screamed, a raw guttural scream which charged through his throat like a cannonball as one by one the cats came up and tore off a piece of his flesh. He wanted to look at them but Bast kept his eyes fixed in a steady stare and somehow he knew it would be okay so he let the pain wash over him.
Piece by piece he was devoured by the cats, at first they came slowly but gradually it seemed as though they were all upon him, mauling him with their sharp claws. He could feel their hot breath on his skin, their saliva dripping out of their greedy mouths. He could hear them chewing on his flesh, the sickening crunch of teeth scraping against gristle made him thankful that Bast wouldn’t let his gaze wander. Their claws dug into his skin and seemed to tear the flesh from the bone and he wondered what he would be left with.
He couldn’t feel anything anymore. All the cats had gone. There was only the face, that terrible, ferocious face which had somehow chosen him, for some reason it had seen something in him that had deemed him worthy of a gift…a curse. A power which would always haunt him and send his life in a new direction from which there would be no wavering. The face bore down on him and came closer and closer until it was upon him and in that moment the transformation was complete. In that moment Felicio was born.