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Entrances and Exits
by Phil Geusz and J.(Channing)Wells
Cell phones are a blessing. My mouse-client's family had arranged a car for me as transportation to get to their relative, and luckily the driver was about as taciturn as they come. I had about an hour each way to work on Bix's case, and I couldn't waste a single minute. I had a hunch that Bix wouldn't be the sort to stand for extended therapy; he might not even show up for his first session. And, the root of the problem from my point of view was obvious. If you want to talk about your childhood and deep sexual secrets, see a shrink with a real license. If you want practical help surviving in the real world, or an opinion on whether a rodent or lapine SCAB can function as human, call me. My obligation to Bix was to help him either act or learn to live without it. For my money, the odds were on the former.
Actors compete for parts like athletes for gold medals- there are always FAR more bodies than roles. And Bix had a very obvious handicap working against him. But we bunnies are renowned for our cleverness in a pinch. When cleverness fails, we are not above deviousness. And if deviousness doesn't cut it, well, then we get nasty. And this time I was pulling out all the stops. The lapine schoolteacher, Mrs. Swindell, and a sure loser tomorrow were getting me down. I was beginning to doubt myself, my ability to help other SCABs. I NEEDED to help Bix for myself as much as for him. As we hit the Interstate, I got out the cell-phone. Where to begin...
Using my trusty pencil, I dialed the city's Chamber of Commerce, and asked for the Chairperson. Eventually, after holding a bit, I got Dot Poiters on the line.
"Phil! How are you! I haven't seen you since, well..."
"Since I got interested in greenery in more than an academic way. I know. And just for you, you can go ahead and tell me I have a cute voice now, too. I won't be insulted."
She giggled. We had worked together when I was Chair of the Community Services Committee in my Union. Together, we had distributed tens of thousands of charity dollars from our Local to needy individuals and projects. Since then, we had exchanged letters about the Shelter, but had never talked. Until now.
"OK. You have a VERY cute voice now. So quit fishing for compliments, already!"
I laughed with her. Dot had always been one of my favorite people- how had we fallen out of touch? "S'all right. Tell me, are you folks still funding the Community Players Group?"
I hesitated. Was it fair, what I was about to ask? Was I going to make another deserving prospective actor lose a part he or she badly needed? And deserved? Then I realized it just didn't matter. Bix was suffering for certain, and the scales were balanced against him utterly. Throwing a little weight around was the right thing to do. "I need a favor, Dot."
She answered immediately. "We're already doing a lot for the Shelter, Phil."
"No, no. We're very grateful, it's nothing to do with that. What I want won't cost you a dime."
I swore her to client-patient confidentiality, then explained to her about Bix. Not everything, but enough. Including the spots. To my surprise, she began to laugh hysterically.
"Dot, this isn't like you. What's happened to this guy isn't in the least bit..."
"No, no, no!" She was still giggling. "I would NEVER laugh at..." And she broke up again.
I was getting impatient. "Dot..."
Finally she came back to Earth. "I'm sorry. It's just..." She snickered, then quit again. "Phil, I may be able to sway the director a little in your favor on this. We ARE a big part of their funding, after all. And we owe you personally, too. But you'll have to help us out on something in return..."
She explained. I didn't like it at all. But she wouldn't come off of it.
"You can't find another rabbit?"
"Nope. Not anywhere. You guys don't grow on trees, you know."
Damnit if she didn't laugh again. "Phil, I was going to call you on this eventually anyway. You want the favor, it's tit for tat. Period."
And so I found myself promising to be the Easter Bunny at the First Annual Chamber of Commerce Egg Hunt next year, and to appear at God knew how many fund raisers ahead of time.
It's amazing, the things I've done for clients. Damn. And I hate crowds now more than ever...
And, still laughing, Dot told me to expect a call from the director.
Sharon, the field mouse I had come to see, had been over the Flu for some time, but had shown no real signs of intelligence or purpose despite promising brain-scans. She was still very disoriented, as might be expected of someone who now weighed only a few ounces. Going full-morph had made her so tiny that her whole universe had changed. But she seemed quite sharp and responsive for a mouse, and I believed that she would someday come back to human norm mentally. Once she got over the shock, she could begin to heal. I noted that she reacted better to me than to any of the medical staff or even her own family. Perhaps she was trusting my friendly scent? She was sniffing everyone and everything continually, and her eyes were blinking a mile a minute. Continually, she tried to burrow under me, seeking security in the warm softness of my safe-scented fur.
I suggested that they call for a consultation from Dr. Coe or another SCAB eye expert to determine whether Sharon's vision was mouse-normal, human-normal, or something in between. If it was mouse-normal, as I was beginning to suspect, then she couldn't make out anything more than a few inches away from her muzzle. And her depth-of-focus would be so shallow that even once-familiar objects and faces would be frightening amalgams of motion and color. At the same time, she had certainly not yet adapted to the mouse-normal way of interpreting the universe through scent. This was potentially a cause of serious disorientation, and therefore fright. And fear was certainly ample reason for Sharon's delay in returning to sentience. Glasses had the potential of helping her a lot. If I was right...
If not, I was plumb out of ideas.
The family wanted me to stay in the cage with her, seeing how well their loved one reacted to me and having heard that I had enjoyed a few successes in bringing patients around, but my availability is limited. Even if I lived in cages full-time the rest of my life, I could never fill the demand. And Sharon had, I truly believed, a good chance without me. But the family wanted me to stay so badly! They saw the life of a family member at stake, and naturally could see no further. I had wondered if they were ever going to let me out- circumstances had forced me to use an ordinary cage for my evaluation, one without a release I could operate with my paws or mouth. They had stood around the cage and argued with me every time I asked to be released. Not in a nasty way, mind you, but in a pleading one. Finally, a doctor passing through had tripped the release while the family was gathered in the hall trying to figure out to get me to change my mind, and I had gotten out of Dodge.
If only my prospective patients and their families knew the truth. I was a bumbler, a know-nothing who had gotten lucky a few times with patients who would probably have gotten better anyway. But still, I kept getting more and more requests for evaluations...
I don't know just when it was that I started getting calls from around the country. God knows there's plenty to do right in town. All you have to do is stand outside on the shelter steps and take a good sniff to know how much suffering SCABS has brought to the community. But somehow I had gotten onto the databases as a lapine and rodent counseling and behavior expert. And, there being no others, that made me THE expert, even without a degree. I knew how weak my credentials were, how thin my training. And how close to the edge of the lapine colonies I stood myself most of the time. I felt like a fraud. But as Donnie and Dr. Derksen have pointed out to me more than once, these people literally have no place else to turn. I'm the only rabbit in town...
So I often take cases I have no business, in my own opinion, dealing with. Like the little joyous gathering I expected tomorrow morning. It was REALLY getting me down. I sighed, and headed for the parking lot with an understanding security guard in tow.
As soon as I got to the car the driver explained to me that the phone had been ringing itself off the hook. He hadn't even finished explaining who it had been all those times when it rang again, and to his relief this time I got it.
"Are you the rabbit?"
"Er, yes. This is Phil."
"Is he still interested?"
"The Dalmatian, for crying out loud. Dot Poiters said you were hooked up with a Dalmatian actor. Who else would I be talking about, for a part like this?"
"Yes! I'm tearing my hair out, trying to find a Dalmatian for George. This is supposed to be a town with a big SCAB community, and what do I find? Zippo! So, is he interested?"
"Oh, I suspect he might be. Tell me more." I was trying to sound like the agent this guy apparently thought I was.
"Sure, big guy. "Sunday in the Park with George"- you know it?"
"I didn't figure you would. It's a revival of an old musical. The story's loosely based on the life of Georges Seurat, the pointillist painter. The pointillists..."
"...painted everything as a series of dots, large and small. Yeah, I've heard of them." I'm not ENTIRELY uncultured, damnit. And a Dalmatian lead? It was beautiful...
"Right. Anyway, who better for George, I figure, than a Dalmatian SCAB? How better to underline the changes fifty years have brought since the last time this piece came around? So I've come to town to recruit, and what do I find? Nada! Zip! Zilch! Tell me, this Dalmatian, he's not a total rookie is he?"
"Oh, he's performed a major Shakespearean role for Harald Wallace..."
Stunned silence. "No shit?"
It was in the bag. I'm no agent, but I've helped negotiate enough contracts and settle enough grievances in my time to know a little about the game. Bix was in, if he was half the actor Wanderer thought he was. "No shit."
"What... Where.... I mean, can you..."
"Hold on just a minute. You say you've come to town to recruit?"
"Yeah, absolutely! I WANT a Dalmatian, bad. Especially if this guy..."
"You're not with the community theater?"
"Community theater? Listen, rabbit-guy, I don't have anything against community work. I started there myself. But I intend to tour..."
Dot had utterly taken me to the cleaners- this guy was DYING for someone like Bix. For something bigger than I'd ever hoped. But, gleefully, she had extracted a promise from me anyway, a promise I would now have to keep.
No wonder she couldn't stop laughing. Hook, line and sinker, I had tumbled to it...
I couldn't help it. With the director still on the line, I began to guffaw at my own gullibility.
He was so excited about finding his dog he didn't even notice...
I got him to hold his horses just a bit- not an easy thing to do. I would get him in touch with Michael for a "Private Audition" (you could hear the capital letters every time the director said those two words together- someday I'd have to ask Wanderer if they were significant) , but only after Bix did some talking. He needed the role, needed to act. But even more, he HAD to learn to live with himself. To deal with his pain and needless guilt. To learn to talk to others instead of striking them.
To never need to try to remove his own face, his own identity again...
As expected, the session the next morning had turned out to be a bitch and a half. My clients were the remains of a family with a developing lapine father they were insisting on bringing home as soon as he finished changing. They wanted to see me for advice. Have you ever tried to tell an eight year old boy and a five year old girl what Dad's going to be like, once he finishes becoming a rabbit? It's no fun at all.
The Cohens had flown in from Miami, and judging by the expensive clothes and luxury rental car- they'd be lucky to get half of it back to the airport after parking near the Shelter- they were pretty well off. But SCABS is a great equalizer that way, there being no cure and no vaccine and not even an established vector. Their money wouldn't help a bit. In fact, given the details in the manilla folder sitting on my desk I suspected it might actually be a burden.
Dad would be better off never coming home. His brain was going to be just about gone.
Knowing what I did, I deliberately arranged to be grazing on all fours in the tiny lawn out front when they pulled up. The Shelter's eaters of grass had pooled resources and arranged for some interesting plantings to save on expenses and provide a little variety. As long as we didn't overdo it and the carnivores didn't do too much scent marking in the area, the little patch of green was a blessing to us all. And, I had used it more than once therapeutically.
I kept picking out the more succulent stems while I listened to the car doors close and the two kids being kept close by a worried Mom. When they came up even with the little boxwood hedge at our entrance I turned my back, brought my head up where they could see it, and continued feeding off higher growth. I wanted them to have to speak to me first, to recognize me as a person and a human despite my looks and behavior before we went any further. They were going to have to look far more intently to find the human in Dad...
I heard the steps stop, and there was a long silence. I kept right on feeding like I was oblivious to them all. They had to know me, or at least Mrs. Cohen did. I never get confused with anyone else any more. Since I was pretty full- the Cohen's had run late and I had gotten a bit carried away on the Summer growth- I sat back and scratched an imaginary itch behind my ear with my right hindpaw, making sure I caught the flea collar I wore with a few strokes to make it move and thus stand out. Like it or not, flea collars were a part of their future too...
Finally, the little girl- Sharon was her name according to the file- asked "Mommy, is this Daddy?"
My heart melted, and the hindpaw stopped in mid-stroke. Jesus, she was only 5. What a shitty thing to have to face at that age. How did I ever get into this counseling mess, anyway? Why couldn't someone else deal with little girls' shattered lives? But I was the rabbit on the spot... "No," I replied, turning around and reseating myself, "I'm not your Daddy. My name is Phil, and I look a lot like your Daddy will look in a few days. Except that he will have some big black spots, and even bigger ears."
Gosh indeed. How perfectly her innocence was framed in those four letters. Daddy's going to be a rabbit. Gosh.
"Is he going to be a bigger rabbit, or little like you?" Samuel this time.
"Actually, I'm on the big side as far as rabbits go- most of the time bunnies change even more. Your Dad will probably be smaller than me, though we don't know for sure yet."
"Do you really eat grass?" The girl again.
I rocked my ears and showed my incisors in a smile, or as near as I could come to one. "Yes, I sure do! All sorts of green stuff, in fact. And sometimes I can eat just a little bit of fruit or vegetable as a treat, but it makes me sick if I get too much."
"EE-YUCK!" the boy said making a face. "And vegetables as a treat...."
There was far worse, of course. But now was not the time to let the boy know about how rabbits digest cellulose. If Dad had enough brains left to appreciate the situation, he would get corrective surgery within months. And if not, well, bunnies had been doing it for eons. Current medical doctrine was to perform the "cud" procedure only on sentient lapines, as others have trouble adapting to cud as opposed to, well...
Much to Mrs. Cohen's relief, I suggested we adjourn to my office. She still didn't speak to me, but at least she acknowledged me by nodding. I dashed to the front door ahead of them on all fours, and activated the electric door for them to pass. Mrs. Cohen nodded again, but didn't utter a word. This was common, in my limited experience. Kids understand less about what is going on, and consequently have far lower inhibitions. But adults often just can't bring themselves to address a SCAB of similar form to one they love.
The kid's lower inhibitions showed again as they bounced and rubbernecked through the Shelter, "Oohing" and "Aahing" at the SCABs around them, many locked in full-morph or near full-morph form. By the nature of things, we tend to get the worst, most shocking, least functional cases. If the clients could adapt better, after all, they wouldn't be here. But kids are a universal tonic, and their presence, as usual, brought a wave of happiness to all the people they passed. SCABs who would never tolerate being stared at by adults actually POSED for the children, and in turn the kids were struck dumb with awe. Louie the Walking Stick was outside my office when we passed, and I suggested to Mrs. Cohen that he could give the kids a grand tour. She got the hint that I wanted to talk to her some alone, and Louie, as I suspected, was more than eager. His own grandkids never visited since he'd had the Flu, and he missed them horribly... She nodded again, and the kids cheered and headed off with the big insect.
But Mrs. Cohen still hadn't said a word...
By the time I took the seat behind my desk, I was getting worried. What kind of home support was Mr. Aaron Cohen going to be getting, anyway? The kids were adapting as well as could be expected, but the mother was the key. Everything hung on her. Everything.
Coldly, I chewed cud and waited. At this point, I would be damned if I spoke first. Silence is very empty, and most people can't stand empty spaces. Eventually she would talk- she HAD to accept me as human....
Within a minute, tears began to flow down Sarah Cohen's cheeks. Almost immediately after, she was crying great gut-wrenching sobs from deep inside of her. And I realized how badly I had wounded her with my silence....
I went to her immediately, and she hugged me crushingly and pressed her face into the top of my head, like I was a stuffed animal there to comfort her. Which I would gladly be for her, if I could. She had been stiff and emotionless because she needed to be brave for the kids, but with them gone her need for silence and apparent strength had disappeared as well. Aaron's prognosis was very bad, and his wife was at her wit's end... I could see it all, now that I'd already screwed up and made things worse...
I wished the floor would open up and swallow me. Taunting her with silence, rubbing her nose in my rabbithood, being cold toward her! This was horrible! I was horrible! How could I pass myself off as a counselor, when I hurt the clients this way? Did I do nothing but cut the already bleeding, injure the walking wounded, disappoint the hopeful? It was all too much for me- I had to get out of this lousy business...
As she continued to cry, my misery and self-pity deepened. Presently, I was crying too, with my eerie lapine wails penetrating even through Sarah's own. Perhaps I was over-reacting, perhaps I had just seen too much in recent weeks. But I needed to cry too. There was just too damn much sadness in this world, and I had made it worse when people were counting on me to make it better. Our tears went on for a long time...When we had blown our noses, each of us in our own way, I finally spoke. "Mrs. Cohen- I just don't..."
"No," she said. "Don't apologize. We needed to see what you've shown us, to understand what it's really going to be like for Aaron when he comes home. And for us. You had to make me confront you, to accept you as you are. Make me confront myself and my own feelings. You UNDERSTAND. You're the only one that UNDERSTANDS. You know what we need to learn to live with. And how it feels..."
If I understood anything, it was news to me. I had been a bastard! "Yes, well, but we should have come up with something easier on you..."
She laughed. A bitter, cynical sound. "Easier on me? How, Phil? I love my husband, love him with my body and my soul. My children trust and love him utterly. I had the family teen-age girls dream about- lovely home, adorable kids, great sex that never got old, and best of all a husband that I knew lived for me as much as I lived for him. And now it's gone- utterly gone. My husband won't even be dead- he'll be a cute, fuzzy animal that the kids can play with and forget to clean up after. I'll have to supervise to make sure they don't tease him or frighten him too much. Watch him to make sure he doesn't chew things up or mess the carpet. And, he'll always be there physically to remind me of the past. Maybe he'll even be able to perform an action or two to make me remember who he once was. And, the doctors tell me that he'll still see me as a source of sexual gratification for some time to come, most likely. So I'll have to decide- do I let him or not? And if I do, what will that make me? For God's sake, what will I be if I don't?" She began to cry again, more gently this time.
Yes, she was beginning to understand what she was up against. But just beginning...
I let her hold me again, and my fur absorbed her tears. If only it could absorb the hurt as well...
Finally, when the time seemed right I spoke. "There are places to care for Aaron. Places besides the lapine colonies. But you'll have to get him out of the country."
This got her attention. "What..."
I explained. "Here, the colonies are inevitable for your husband. I've seen his reports. The government will let you take him home, because they know you'll never keep him around. Once you realize how far he's gone, they figure, and how little human is left you'll soon tire of having to show him to your friends and neighbors. The first time a neighborhood doe goes into heat he'll turn into a major family scandal. Or, he'll get mauled and maybe killed by a pack of dogs. If he survives, the government will commit him for his own good. Eventually, you'll want to remarry, most likely. Do you think having your ex living downstairs in a hutch will improve your new relationship? The government bets against it. Eventually they'll take Aaron, and a big chunk of change to pay for the "expenses" of keeping him. And you'll be so relieved to see him gone in a way that assuages your guilt that you'll gladly pay. Then, it won't be long before you don't even think about him anymore..."
Sarah was shocked. She hadn't thought this far ahead yet.
"But the colonies are terrible places, from a rabbit's point of view. I've visited; I know. They're overcrowded, and dominance battles are allowed unchecked. Sometimes the orderlies bet on them. The losers become virtual slaves, no matter if there is considerable humanity left in them. Instincts rule- it's the curse of lapiform SCABS. Even the hutches are poorly constructed, drafty, and don't have enough cover. But the "patients" don't complain- most are afraid to, even if they're able. Rabbits are naturally quite timid, even me. Especially when we spend our lives surrounded by other rabbits. The instincts become stronger and stronger. We tend to accept our fates rather than complain..." I drifted off, remembering. My "visit" had been something more than that, though I still don't ever talk about it. I had contacted my lawyer from the hospital when I first had discovered that I was a rabbit, and her paperwork had sprung me. While a colony patient, I had lost a dominance fight arranged as "punishment" by a particularly nasty orderly. By the time Barbara had come to pick me up, I had almost totally assimilated and had even largely lost the power of speech. If she hadn't personally nursed me back.... I shuddered at the memory.
"Phil?" I had drifted away, and Sarah had noticed.
"Sorry. I was woolgathering. At any rate, other countries allow private non-nationalized institutions to take care of people like your husband. They do a much better job, if you can afford them. But you'll have to get Aaron out quickly, before the government realizes the situation. Otherwise, they'll figure you to be a potential revenue source and you'll never obtain a passport."
Sarah was shocked. Her last hopes had been drained.
I took an educated guess. "Israel has an excellent reputation for SCAB tolerance..."
"Really? Aaron always wanted to go to the Wall. And so do I."
"Then if you go as soon as he gets out of the hospital, the government types will probably figure that you'll be back. Besides, they won't try to commit him until he's given a chance to make his pilgrimage. It would make for bad press."
"Tell me," Sarah asked, "How is it that you are surviving independently? Doesn't the government want you in a colony too?"
"Yes, they've tried very hard. And the real world is a dangerous place for me- the colonies would be much safer. But I am more human than any other extensively morphed lapine I've ever met, by far. And I refuse to live in a big cage, isolated from humanity. Yes, I've become part rabbit, and I'm learning to live with it. But I am human too. I'll live free or die."
Most likely both, I added to myself. Eventually, SOMETHING would kill and eat me. But it was worth it. Freedom has always had a price...
The kids came back about then, and I distracted them by answering questions while Mom got herself put back together for the ordeal to come. Yes, I liked to dig, but I didn't because I had nowhere to do it. And they would have to very careful not to leave a dangling electrical cord- Dad would chew those up for sure once he came home. Why would he pick on cords? Because, I explained, they reminded us of roots growing across our tunnels and our instincts made us very annoyed at them. Yes, I thought I was lucky, but not because I had rabbit's feet. But the toughest one came from Samuel.
Was Dad going to be a wimp?
Well, I explained, his Dad would be living in a world where everything seemed to be out to get him. Because of this, he had to be really careful. And when you've been really careful for a very long time...
Samuel interrupted with "He's going to be a wimp!"
I didn't argue.
Eventually Sarah was ready to face the world again, and took over by thanking me for my time. She sounded very sincere, and a little less frightened. I thanked her for putting up with my amateur efforts, and she smiled and said I had done her more good than anyone else.
Frankly, I doubted that. What had I done but given her bad news? A fraud, that's what I was. A stinking fraud.
And the kids had begged to PLEASE let them scratch my ears- I complied, and they had gone to face their uncertain future. Together.
I sighed, and checked my clock. The session had taken far longer than I planned. I had 10 minutes to ready myself to deal with another emotional volcano.