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* * *
"Hello? Who is this?" An unseen child screams petulantly in the background.
"Hello, Ma'am. Am I speaking to Mrs. Vondracek?"
"Yes..." The child keeps screaming. Away from her end of the receiver, the voice says, "DAMN IT, MAGGIE! I'LL BE RIGHT THERE!" Then again, to the receiver. "Who is this."
"Yes. Hello. My name is Michael Bix, from Apex Telemarketing, on behalf..."
"You, sir, have got a lot of nerve. I don't want anything. I don't have _time_ for this..."
"I understand that, Ma'am. If I could just have a minute of your time..."
"No! No, you may not have a minute of my time. And you can tell your goddamn company that I am _never_ going to be interested in giving any more of my time. Do you realize-"
"MOMMY! MOMMY! TIMMY TOOK MY DOLLY AN' HE WON' GIVE IT BACK AN'-"
"TIMMY, YOU GIVE YOUR..." Exasperated grunt. "Look you. I don't want _any_ of you _ever_ calling me _again_. Do I make myself-"
"Ma'am, I'll certainly make a note of it to my-"
"MOMMY! MOMMY! HE'S PULLING OUT HER EYEBROWS-"
"DAMNIT, TIMMY!" And then, to the phone. "And damn you, too."
"I'm really sorry, Ma'am. This is just my j-"
Michael slumps against his desk. Only call number twenty-seven of the day. And plenty more to go. He carefully records a "Not Interested" response on the log sheet.
After a fashion, Michael considers, Murph was right. In a way, it's refreshing to know that one would be treated this way _regardless_ of any personal considerations. Unconditional Negative Regard. But it drains on you. And already, Michael is looking forward to his one reliable form of relaxation at the end of the day. With this thought in mind, Michael consults his log sheet, clicks the "talk" switch, and dials the next number. Call twenty-eight.
* * *
Michael is drunk.
"Damn it, Michael! I hate it when you do this! You told me, 'never again!' D'you remember that, Michael?"
Michael mutters something. Not even modern voice-recognition software could decipher it, even were Jenny to have some on hand.
"This has got to stop."
A moment's pause. And then the sound of crying.
"You're not getting out of this that way again..."
The crying continues.
"I mean it!"
Again, the crying. There is a moment's pause.
Tail patently hung between his legs, Michael Bix crawls over to Jenny and rests his chin on her knee. Seizing hold of an ancient memory that has connected men and canines for thousands upon thousands of generations, she scritches him behind the ears.
"Don't do this to me anymore, Michael."
There is a brief murmur of assent.
"Don't do this to me. I can't... take it..."
Again, the murmur.
He does so.
* * *
This is one I really didn't want to have to see.
Panting in the age-old exhaustion of afterglow, a human and a near-human lay amongst rumpled covers, silently debating the equally age-old question of who gets the side with the wet spot. Tongue lolling from his jaws, Michael Bix finally arises from the bedclothes to clean himself up. As he does so, Jenny leaps to the drier side with the fierce intensity of some predatory animal. Michael pivots one-hundred-eighty degrees, snarls playfully, and lunges at her; the struggle for the dry half of the sheets begins anew.
Blink a few more minutes ahead. Michael and Jenny again upon the bedclothes. Michael _seriously_ panting now. A question forms in his mind. He probes it for a moment, and then lets it fly. Why not.
"It didn't... hurt this time...?"
The pause is a bit too long. The feeling of contentment drains.
"No. Not really." Jenny has never been a very good liar.
Another question forms in Michael's mind, unbidden. This one, he tries to stop before its release. To no avail.
"Are you happy with me like this?"
Again, the slightly longer pause.
Bix sighs, closes his eyes and grits his teeth together so that she won't see. All around, his canine nose picks up the smells of sweat, of laundry detergent on the sheets, of the sheets themselves... and above all, the smell of her lilacs.
* * *
Michael knows a little bit about the Dalmatian, as a breed. Once, shortly after SCABS had finally finished its course, Jenny attempted to lighten Bix's mood by playfully reading to him from a breed-book as she toyed with his spots, first touching them, then kissing them, one-by-one. Between kisses, Michael learned that the Dalmatian was originally bred as the penultimate carriage-dog; with an in-bred congeniality towards horses and a shoulder-height ideally proportional to the axles of a standard cart, they could keep the horses happy _and_ remain at post underneath the master's carriage to guard it from any potential miscreants.
Michael Bix considers this as he lies flat upon a mechanic's creeper beneath his mistress's late-model Nissan hatchback, doing routine maintenance. From Murphy's substantial collection, he elected to take just two books: _The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare_, and R. Pirsig's _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_. The second was a bit of a whim when he first picked it out, but he fully recalls sitting down at the bus station near Murphy's and cracking the dog-eared paperback to pass the few minutes until his bus arrived. The book would never be closed again for the remainder of the day, and by the time late evening / early morning rolled around, when he finally let the book drop out of sheer exhaustion, he had made a vow to find out if he, himself, could find the spiritualism inherent in engine mechanics. Within a week, the empty spaces which his abstinence from alcohol had left were filled with the routine care and upkeep of Jenny's automobile. Funny how it all seemed to make so much more sense, now; back in high school, the shop rooms had seemed like foreign landscapes where strange, mechanically-minded students performed arcane tasks that collegiate-minded students steered well clear of. Now, all of a sudden, everything seemed to click into place. Of course, he reasons, his breed-inspired predilection for hanging around under vehicles probably has something to do with it. It seems as though Martian death-viruses have a sense of humor after all. Michael hums slightly to himself as he practices the systematic art of automotive maintenance, and for a moment, all is right with the world again. Then...
"Hey! You! Dog-Fucker!"
It is a curious and long-standing tendency of the human race to attempt to justify the causes of incomprehensible diseases and conditions according to gut instinct, regardless of how much research is presented to the contrary. Michael has heard this one before - intuitively, to some, SCABS _must_ be some sort of sexually transmitted disease caused by carnal relations with the animal type in question. Never mind the volumes of research that state otherwise, never mind the resulting patent impossibility of existence of some of the more exotic 'morphs. Sometimes, man acts purely on instinct.
Bix knows a lot about instinct. Normally, he bears such insults with fairly good grace. But here, beneath his mistress's vehicle, faced with potential adversaries, ancient and long-suppressed breed instincts are beginning to go "Ping."
"Talking to you, dog-face!" Fraternity boys, probably. Two, by the smell of them. Probably head-up over St.I-U's recent victory over rival Marymount College. Celebrating their vicarious victory by slogging a few beers and having a little fun with the freak next door. Bix grits his teeth and suppresses the urge to come out from under the car fighting. His instincts scream at him, and he plugs up his internal ears and attempts to distract himself with the fuel-line clips. Suddenly, the creeper lurches, feeling the impact of a foot. Michael's chin slams against the exhaust pipe, and he tastes blood.
fight fight fight fight fight fight fight fight
"'Zamatta, dog-boy? Your girlfriend not enough for you?" Another chuckle. "I seen her, dog-boy. Damn fine broad."
Fight Fight Fight Fight FightFightFightFight
"Nah," says the other one, "He ain't into 'broads.' He's into _bitches_..."
A low growl escapes Michael's throat. His hand closes around a nearby lug-wrench...
"Your girlfriend ever get sick a' that big-ass swollen dog cock inside her alla time? Somebody oughta show 'er a _real_ man again one 'a these..."
In a single motion, Michael thrusts himself from under the car, the creeper's wheels grinding the asphalt. He swings the lug-wrench once, and it connects solidly at the hamstring. As the kid stumbles, Bix leaps from the creeper and brings the wrench around in a broad arc at the kid's face. Blood. The wrench falls unheeded to the pavement. And then, the shreds of Michael's conscious mind are burned away by the fires of instinct as the world dissolves into a red haze of claws and teeth.
And then pain explodes in his skull.
The last thing he sees is Frat Boy Number Two, advancing on him, the fallen wrench held menacingly in his grasp.
* * *
Michael lies upon his couch, ice compress clutched against his still-aching skull. Jenny sits at the table nearby.
"You messed up the one kid pretty bad, Bix."
"They were insulting you."
"Damn it, Bix, let them insult me. I'd rather that than this..."
"I couldn't help it!"
"So what you're saying is, now, every time you're under the car, you turn into a psychopathic wrench-wielding maniac?"
"No... It's just... the protectiveness instinct goes through the roof. It's the _breed_...
"Don't pull this genetic crap with me, Bix. You're human. You can control your actions."
"I am _not_ human."
"You're not a dog, either!"
"Yeah. I'm currently a really shitty combination of the two." The yelling is making his head hurt, and he re-positions the ice pack. Jenny coughs. She's been coughing a lot these days. The stress has been working her over again.
"You should see somebody about that cough."
Jenny hrm's noncommittally. "Next payday, maybe."
"Don't you have anything saved up?"
Jenny fixed Bix with a stare colder than his compress. "I _did_... but we wasted it all settling with that kid..."
Bix sits up, then stands. "What? You gave him the settlement? It was his fault, for crissakes!"
"I know that, and you know that, Bix. But we don't have the money for an extended civil suit..."
"You can't let him win!"
"Well, _maybe_ if we had any significant income coming from _your_ area, we'd have enough to hire somebody!"
"I get paid what I get paid."
"What, at Apex? Motto- 'Being Bloody Annoying to You, the Consumer, Around the Clock, Seven Days a Week?' Bix, you can do better than that..."
"Nobody wants to hire a freak in this town, Jenny."
Bix does not mention how much he has come to rely on the job. The knowledge that, for a few times each day, he will be actually talking to someone who will relate to him as a normal human being, simply out of ignorance and the magic of the voice-only telephone.
"Bix, I will not put up with this!" There is a faint quaver in her voice that suggests she is close to her breaking point. "I will not have you constantly moping around here, deathly afraid of doing anything productive out of self-shame..."
Bix actually laughs. In her face. "I'm ashamed. _I'm_ ashamed? Who refuses to even show me to her parents? Who doesn't bring friends over to the apartment for fear of what they'll think? Who _refuses_ to even _admit_ that I'm _any_ different now than I ever was? Who can't even bear to hear the name of the condition..."
"Bix, stop it."
"Bix, I mean it!"
"SCABS SCABS SCABS SCABS Bloody Fucking SCABS SCABS SCABS SCABS SCABS SCABS SC-"
"BIX! STOP IT!" The cry is high, shrieking, and bespeaks broken glass and broken dreams.
A single, hacking cough, from Jenny. Than a series of quiet sobs.
"Jen. I'm sorry."
"I didn't mean it..."
"I'm not speaking to you." Her voice is hollow, pained.
Bix tosses the ice-bag into the sink. He goes to the door.
"When should I-"
Michael Bix sighs slightly, turns, and walks out.
* * *
Oh no. Not this one. For the love of all that's holy, not this one... not again...
"Jenny!" Michael shouts, a note of concern entering his voice.
"Jenny? What did the doctor have to say?" Michael Bix walks through his strangely still apartment, having just come home from his shift at Apex, the one job he could find where nobody important had to see his face. Ever.
"Jenny? Jenny!" The kitchenette is empty.
"Jenny!" The bedroom, as well. The bathroom...
A moment of frozen horror.
The last syllable of her name is never completed.
It is a long time before he even notices the note.
An even longer time before the thought to call 9-1-1 even enters his gridlocked brain.
An even longer time before the paramedics come and take her away.
Michael does not go with them.
Almost of its own volition, the note unfolds.
"michael this is the last thing i ever wanted to do to u / u have to believe me if i thought there was any other choice i would have taken it / tests said it wasnt just the plain old flu / showed signs of contracting SCABS / please dont worry about me by the time u read this im going to be in a better place / IVE NEVER BEEN AS STRONG AS U Bix / i cant take it wouldnt be able to take it / dont worry it was completely painless tell mom and dad it wasnt your fault /
* * *
An adult Michael Bix dreams and wonders why Jenny went to the vet's but didn't come back. Wondering why his parents _still aren't saying a thing to him._ Just wondering...
* * *
Michael Bix turns the key in the ignition of the late-model Nissan hatchback. Jenny's car. Thoughts of Jenny strong in his mind.
Did she realize, in those last horrible moments, that in doing so, she gave ultimate affirmation to every negative opinion he ever suspected her of holding? That by her blank incomprehension of a future without her body of birth she delivered Michael the most grievous insult he had ever known? Perhaps she did. Perhaps she realized at the last and tried to get to the phone... perhaps if he had come home earlier, instead of stopping at the bank to deposit his paycheck... perhaps he would have discovered her, still alive...
That way madness lies.
Michael instead contents himself with idle speculation. wondering what she would have been. Had she been able to take it. Emotionally handle the prospect of existing as a pair of freaks in a small, conservative, college-town. Just wondering.
A horse, maybe. Dalmatians get along really well with horses, she said. Yeah. That fits. That fits.
A warm breeze brings the scent of fresh lilacs through the open window. They're probably a long ways off, and their scent is almost completely masked by the clogging dark-brown odor of the exhaust.
A tear wells up at the corner of my eye.
Silently, I flick the switch that raises the power windows.
And I begin my drive to New York.
To become an actor.