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A View From the Fence
I just sit there. Hanging around in a tree in a yard that belongs to my friend Kim, just because there's nothing better to do, nothing I want to do, nothing that can possibly be done, ever, anywhere in the world, ever again.
Kim is a SCAB.
* * *
Kim's official picture does not appear in my Senior Yearbook. No mention of her is even made in the list of Graduating Seniors. I caught one picture of her, slipped into the "photographic scrapbook" section, a sort of collage of various human-interest shots pieced together by the yearbook staff. It was a picture of Kim, dressed for our Junior Prom. Just to be difficult, Kim decided that instead of doing the traditional dress-up thing, she was going to go in her favorite black trenchcoat and fedora, sporting a pair of sunglasses to boot. Upon arriving, completely dateless (as usual), she discovered, to her delight, that they were handing out corsages at the door. The photo that I have is of Kim, trying vainly, in a lackadaisically cool fashion, to pin the corsage through the thick fabric of the trenchcoat. I _love_ that photograph, and the yearbook editors must have loved it too. It was perfect Kim material. Completely unconventional, totally laid-back, delightfully stupid, utterly classy. I still remember the way that she made all the clique-squad girls with their hundred-dollar-a-night dresses look totally pedestrian, all in the way that she wore that coat. How she made it look like _they_ were the ones that were overdressed and that she was the one setting the norm. I told her that. She just grinned and made a friendly comment about how nice my shirt was, but she didn't really mean it. I couldn't have cared less. All that mattered for me on that night was remembering how she looked. So that I would always be able to recall this one magic night where Kim DeJong and I came independently and date-less to the Junior Prom, where we _left_ independently and date-less _from_ the Junior Prom, but somewhere in the time in between, after joking incessantly at how we both _really_ needed to get a better social life, shared one, single, slow dance. Together. Just friendly, you understand. But we danced. The song was "Gardens of the Sky," an aughts-nostalgia- like piece written and performed by the then in-vogue Top 40 Celtic-Techno group known as "Sanctuary," and I kept running into her shins because I couldn't (and still can't) successfully dance anything more complicated than the Hokey-Pokey. But it was a dance. My first and only.
Two months into our Senior Year, Kim came down with SCABS. After finally pulling myself out of that tree in her yard and dragging myself back to my house, I idly paged through _Grohler's Encyclopedia of Wildlife,_ trying to find some way to quantify what I had just seen in an attempt to deal with it. At first, I wandered through the section on raccoons, because, superficially, that's what she looked like, but nothing there seemed quite right. So I ended up flipping and flipping and flipping until I finally got to the section on Africa, where it made mention of a primitive and vaguely coon-like primate known as the Ring-Tailed Lemur, native to Madagascar, which had finally become extinct in 2014 due to over-forestation of its homelands. The entry referenced me to a particular photographic plate, and yes, that was it. That's what Kim looked like. She was still pretty much the same size as she used to be, maybe a little bit smaller if anything, but that was it.
And, just like that, Kim DeJong didn't go to my school anymore. Nor did she ever set foot upon the grounds of Edgerton High again.
Or at least she wasn't supposed to.
* * *
Sunset again. High clouds to the West signal a possible storm in the making, but right now, the sky's a wonderful clear-orange hue. I am sitting in the Chatting Tree, amongst the frost-burned bright leaves. Above me, looking rather absurd, is a large, human-sized female Ring-Tailed Lemur wearing a heavy black trenchcoat. From beneath the coat, you can just barely catch a glimpse of a ridiculously long and fuzzy black-and-white striped tail. The whole thing would look positively silly if you didn't look closely at the lemur's black-masked face and see the devastated, haunted expression thereupon. Neither of us is supposed to be here. My Dad would _kill_ me if he knew I'd been hanging out with Kim, and Kim's folks want her to have as little contact with my family as humanly... or whateverly... possible. Funny how that works out.
"How does it feel?" I ask, idly to break the silence that has reigned between us thus far.
"It feels like I've suddenly mutated into a Ring-Tailed Lemur. Were you expecting something different?" Kim's voice sounds hollow, dead.
"Ah, yes." I quip, in an attempt to lighten the mood. "I know that feeling well."
"You do not." She snaps.
"Sor-ree. Bite my frigging head off next time, whydontcha."
"I just might." She says, mockingly. "You never know."
"Sheesh, Kim. I didn't sneak out past my Dad just to have you yell at me, here."
"Sorry." She says, sounding genuinely apologetic. "What did he say?"
"He said that I'm pretty much a grown man now, and that I have to make my own choices, and that includes in the area of who I hang out with." I swallow. "He said... he said he knew I'd make the right choice."
"Bastard." She says, almost as a casual observation.
"I think that I _am_ making the right choice here, Kim..." I say, trying to make her feel better.
"Yeah. Not the 'Right Choice' your father meant when he said that, though."
"He's just looking out for my welfare. He doesn't _hate_ you... people..." I realize, too late, what I just said. Thankfully, Kim doesn't pick up on it.
"Pull the other one, Jay. It's got bells on. Your father is the most dedicated anti-SCAB activist this district has ever known. Thing is, it never really mattered to my folks before now. Of course, _now_, they think you're working for the enemy."
"But, that's just the thing. My dad _doesn't_ hate SCAB's. It's just..." I gesture, trying to think of the right word, conscious that Kim is staring holes in the back of my skull. "I mean, he doesn't hate... you... personally--"
Kim cuts me off. "Mm hm. C'mon, Jay, why don't you tell me how SCAB's are just as much a victim of this as _everyone else_ is. How it's so fucking _unfortunate_, yet, regrettably, necessary, to keep me and Skippy and whoever the fuck else from graduating because we can't be trusted to be within fifty yards of a 'normal' person without biting their nuts off or something. Come on. Buy into the lies. You're almost there."
"SHUT UP!" I explode at her, suddenly. "Just shut up, Kim. You have no Idea."
"_I_ have no Idea? *I* have no Idea? Who's the goddamn SCAB here, Jay? Huh?"
"Look, I'm sorry, all right? You're _obviously_ not in the mood to talk right now, so, why don't I just go or something." I swing my leg off the branch and am about to drop to the ground, when Kim speaks.
"Stay." It's not a command. It's a plea. "Jordan. Please. Stay. I can't... do this..."
I swing my leg back up. "I'm staying." I say, trying to sound as compassionate as I can.
"Thank you." Her relief is almost painful. There is silence, again, for some time.
"Wanna have a Chat?" I remark, after a while.
"What's the topic?" She asks, unenthusiastically.
"Um. I dunno. You're the one who always picks the topic, Kim."
"I'm not in the mood."
"Oh-kay..." I say, and trail off.
"I got one." She says, suddenly. "Kim DeJong: Exactly _how_ ugly is she, anyway?"
"She's not." I say, bravely.
"Not a possible stand to take for this debate, Jay." "
I don't care. I submit that the resolution is flawed, if it _assumes_ Kim's ugliness."
"Kim's ugliness is an empirical fact, Jay. All we need now is to determine the degree."
"You're stating your ugliness as being an empirical fact." I point out. "All right, let's concede that, for the moment. So, as long as it's an empirical fact, it can be operationally defined, right? And, since it can be operationally defined, we've answered the question posed in the concept statement, thus rendering the entire debate null and void. I submit we draft a new resolution and start over."
"And your proposed resolution is?"
I pause to collect myself.
"Resolved: Kim DeJong is just as beautiful today as she ever was."
Silence, from above. And then, the sounds of soft crying.
"Kim..." I say...
"I need a hug." She states, matter-of-factly, despite her tears.
A faint twinge of worry at the thought of physical contact. I try with every ounce of my strength to suppress it.
With thoughts of Skippy strong in my mind, I finally manage to succeed.
However, there _is_ one little problem left... "I... um..." I pause. "Kim, you're a lot better at climbing this damn tree than I am. Probably now more than ever."
"All right. I'll come down."
And she does, with unearthly grace, until she is sitting beside me on the branch.
And then I hug her. Finally. There is no hesitation, no drawing back, no anything. For this one moment, there is no communicable disease, no SCABS, no consequences. Just me and Kim. Like we've always been. It's one of those moments that, in a universe with any sense of justice, would never end.
Suddenly, Kim's hug becomes desperate, and she begins sobbing in earnest. The magic is broken, the reality comes sweeping back in. I watch that moment as it departs, even as Kim dampens my shoulder with her still-human tears.
"Jordan... I can't take this... I can't do this... I _hate_ being like this..." Kim, my unfailingly calm and collected friend, is wavering on the edge of hysteria. I never thought I'd see the day. She's actually looking a bit irrational...
"Shhh." I say, in an attempt to give some banal comfort. "Shhh."
"My... my _mom_ says I'm beautiful. I thought she was lying."
"You _are_ beautiful, Kim. Just like I said."
"Thanks.... Jordan..." She resumes her crying, pulling away from me a little bit.
I swallow, hard. "Kim. Is there anything I can do..."
She hugs me again. "I just wish..."
Time slows again...
"...I weren't alone..."
And that's when it happens.
There is a faint prickle from Kim's fingers, from their position at my shoulders. It's an uneasy prickle, somewhat sickly to the touch. My mouth fills with the taste of piss and hot lead and my head swims crazily for a moment.
In a heartbeat, the prickles migrate downwards from my shoulders, coalescing at the base of my spine...
There is a brief, uncomfortable feeling of pressure, relieved quite suddenly, only to be followed with a streak of sharp pain that races up and down my spine like a molten razor..
It lasts only for a second. And then it is over. Kim's odd-looking copperish eyes go wide.
Nervelessly, almost unconsciously, my eyes follow her gaze downward, to a point beneath the limb on which I sit.
There, hanging patiently at a point directly beneath my body, is a handsome black-ringed tail.
Another heartbeat passes. Both of us stare in ghasted shock.
_I_ twitch it.
"...Jesus Fuck..." I breathe.
"Jay... Jay, I'm sor-"
"JESUS FUCK, KIM!" I'm still staring at it. I cautiously give it another flick. No doubt about it. That's my tail down there.
...oh, my god...
"JESUS FUCK!" I repeat, for lack of a better phrase. Wildly, I begin to check myself over. Nothing's different, substantially. Still the same old Jordan. With one extra feature...
"Jay, I didn't mean it... I don't even know what happened..." Kim is definitely becoming hysterical here. I know how she feels.
"FUCK!" I exclaim, again. I continue my desperate self- examination. So frantic am I that I lose my balance on the tree limb upon which I'm sitting and fall gracelessly to the leaf-strewn ground below. Above me, Kim rushes to the end of her branch, checking to see if I'm okay.
I'm _not_ okay. I'm pretty fucking far from being okay.
"JESUS CHRIST, KIM!" My rampant horror is practically shriveling the greenery upon which I lay. "Jesus Christ, Kim! You fucking infected me!"
"I didn't mean it!" She cries. She looks almost as afraid as I imagine that I must, right now. Tears are streaming down her furry cheeks, dampening her characteristic black mask. My heart isn't going out to her. I'm concerned with other things at the moment...
What would my Dad think...
It's a good thing that I'm too horrified to scream right now.
In the blink of an eye, Kim has flicked down the tree to ground level. She's looking at me with the most frantically apologetic eyes that I've ever seen on a living creature.
She makes a move towards me.
Desperately, I scrabble to my feet, my back aching from my fall, tripping over my new-grown tail in the process. I stumble away from her, watching her guardedly. "Don't you come near me!" I shout.
Tears well up in her eyes. "Jordan..." She makes a move towards me again, as if she's going to hug me. Fuck that. We can see where hugging Kim gets us, yes? I back away. She advances.
"You stay the fuck away from me..."
"STAY THE FUCK AWAY!"
And she falls at me, half-stumbling on her as-yet-uncertain legs, arms open, crying rivers, desperate in an unthinking and mindless way to recapture the lost moment of our final hug.
I slap her. Hard. Across the face. As I would any other assailant.
She starts back, as if she's just been shot. It's not too far from the truth.
An angel of silence passes over the scene, as we gaze into each others' eyes.
And then she's gone. Back to the Tree and up, _way_ up, farther up than I ever remember her having been able to climb _before_ the virus took her from me...
All the way up and out of sight, into the canopy of Autumn-Gold leaves.
"KIM!" I scream. I don't even know what motivates this last shout. Apology, anger, betrayal, fear... probably a little of everything.
There is _utterly_ no reply.
I squeeze my eyes shut and turn away from the Tree, my own tears coming fast.
I limp away, towards the west. Towards my home. And the gathering storm.
I have never seen Kim DeJong since.
* * *
Observe the primate, half-running, half-staggering, as he lurches down the streets of his peaceful little town.
Watch his eyes, especially. Note the dilated pupils--a sure sign of extreme fear and shock. See the lack of coherent expression to be found there. Glance briefly, if you care to, upon a few haphazard tears that don't really seem to know why exactly they're there. Take in the rest of his face, next. Watch his jaw trembling, his nostrils flaring in hyper-ventilation. Also, observe, if you will, a few tell-tale strands of hair from his completely species-inappropriate tail where they stick out from his ruined sweat-pants. Note the clumsy fashion in which this same tail has been shoved into one of the pant-legs, in an jury-rigged and pitiful attempt to hide its existence from the eyes of the outside world.
Hear his thoughts...
Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit ohshitohshitohshitohshit...
My brain is racing.
Okay. Okay. Maybe I'm not really infected, as such. Dad told me once that sometimes people with full-blown cases of SCABS can, for some unknown reason, work changes in the bodies of people that they touch. Maybe this is just temporary. Maybe I'm not gonna be branded for life, here.
So. How long is it going to be before it goes away?
You realize, of course, Jordan, that if anyone actually _sees_ you with this fucking thing, your life is toast. Completely toast. Protest all you want about how this was forced upon you, the general public sees a guy with a four-foot long furry tail, they're going to think SCAB. And that would be it. Kiss goddamn college good-bye. Hell, kiss _everything_ good-bye. You'll be rejected by the school, denied from participating in football...
Thrown out by your family...
That sick twist of dagger-in-the-gut dread fills me again. What would my Dad think...
What _WILL_ my Dad think...
Somewhere, deep-down, a tiny idealistic voice tells me that maybe, just maybe, having his eldest son branded as a SCAB would open him up to the world... would force him to see all that he's done against SCAB rights in a new light, or something. Sure, it'd be painful for a while, but in the end, my father would be forced to see the error of his ways. And in the end, my father, the nascent hero of SCAB rights, would be able to look back on his life and say that the day his son came home with a lemur tail was the most enlightening day of his entire life, and was indeed the focal point of his _own_ transformation into a truly caring individual.
I laugh at that voice, in a harsh and merciless fashion, mocking it for its sheer stupidity.
I don't _know_ what my Dad would do. But I sure as _hell_ know it wouldn't be pleasant.
Okay. So. How do you hide, for an undetermined length of time, the fact that you have a four-foot long black-and- white striped fuzzy tail growing out of your ass?
Loose pants, my brain begins. Lots of loose pants. Maybe start wearing a long coat, like...
I grit my teeth and squeeze my eyes shut again. Okay. That might work. You're a grown boy now, Jordan, your parents let you take your own showers and everything. As long as you clean the hairs off the drain and spend as little time at home as possible, you might be able to do this for...
...The next couple days?
...The next couple _years_?
And then, I remember football practice...
No real _chance_ for loose pants, there, Jor. Spandex and shoulder pads all the way.
I'll call in sick for practice. Hang around in the library at school so no-one suspects anything at home. If it goes on for too long, I'll quit the team. Football means the world to me, but a choice between that and facing the rest of my life with the scarlet letter "S" branded into my forehead is suddenly a rather easy one.
"Damn you, Kim DeJong..." I whisper to myself.
Words I never thought I'd speak.
My tears starting anew, I continue my shambling run towards my home.
* * *
The front porch light is on, providing a steadier and more constant illumination than the distant heat lightning. From here, you can see Gloria in the kitchen, baking bread, of all things. What a fucking joke. Domestic fucking tranquility. I notice that my Dad's car is gone again, by the way. Off "doing business" in the City. For all I know, my Dad is, _at this very moment_ sleazing it up with one of the more... exclusive... services that the City offers its minions. While Gloria stays home, blissfully baking bread. Suddenly, I quite coolly and rationally realize that I _hate_ them both. Him for doing it and Her for sitting there and taking it.
The magical smell of baking fills the air. I remember holidays with the family. Christmas dinner. My father sitting quietly beside me while I cried and cried at the death of Santa Claus. A hundred-and-one indispensable electronic toys, batteries not included. Thanksgiving and the picture of me in that goddamn stupid Pilgrim outfit. Easter at Grandma's. New Year's Eve in the City, dressed to the nines and possibly the tens as well, at the annual Society of the Cincinnati bash, all family invited.
Choking back sobs, I rush through the door and am halfway to the stairs in seven seconds flat. Gloria barely has time to whirl around from the task of slicing one of her fresh loaves with the big old serrated knife that she inherited from my "real" Grandma when she married my Dad. "Jordan!" she says, surprised. I do not acknowledge her, so intent am I at getting out of her sight before she has a chance to see that anything's amiss. I fly up the steps in four and a half bounds at the very most; then, three long strides down the upstairs hall bring me to _my_ room (the one with the 49'ers pennant on the door). Gloria is just starting on the steps as I throw open the door, pass through, slam it violently shut again, and turn the lock.
I had intended to go immediately to my dresser, to find an intact pair of sweats that didn't reveal anything of my new addition. As for the damage to my current pair, I could explain it as having been caused, in part, by falling out of a tree. Not too far off. That was my _intent_. Unfortunately, things don't always work out the way you intend them to, and sometimes, especially when you've had a day like this one, the prospect of throwing yourself into bed, smothering your face into your pillow and sobbing until the pain subsides seems a very pleasing one. And so I do.
Hours pass, as Gloria attempts to get me to open the door and tell her what's going on. I pay her no heed, as usual. Eventually, the glare of headlights from the driveway indicate that my father has finished with his "business" and has decided to grace us with his presence again. In a matter of minutes, my father, too, is outside my door, threatening to break it down if I don't comply with his demands. Gloria yells at him for suggesting such a thing, Dad demands that Gloria not give him any advice on how to raise _his_ son, and that gets _them_ going on each other. Things escalate. After a time, I think that I might or might not hear someone getting struck. I wonder, idly, who it is this time. Bobby Junior begins crying, from somewhere downstairs. In a vaguely sick sense, I'm glad that, at least for tonight, it sounds like the rest of the family is going to be taking the brunt of his anger. I also feel guilty _about_ feeling glad, but I can't help it.
And still, the sobs come. On into the night and the eventual hurt and scarred-over silence of evening.
The storm finally breaks.
* * *
Three A.M. Everything bad happens at Three A.M. Midnight is for pansies, in This Modern World.
The house has lapsed into a wounded silence. From without, the storm. Lightning arcs across the sky, the rain falls in sheets, the patter of occasional pea-gravel hail. Somewhere far away, the distant and banshee-like wailing of a storm siren.
The sobbing has stopped. Tears crust my cheeks and make my eyes feel gummy. Blue-white flashes flood my room with occasional light, and the thunder, well, thunders. I'm staring stock straight ahead at the ceiling. My eyes are wide open. Sleep? Don't make me laugh...
The goddamned tail is still there. I can feel it.
My goddamned fucking SCAB tail.
I'm not going to be able to do this. I'm not going to be able to handle it. Hiding this damn thing was the stupidest fucking idea I've ever had. Why couldn't Kim have been a fucking Giant Panda, or a fucking Rottweiler or something? At least then I might have stood a chance. But not a fucking Ring-Tailed Lemur, Jesus. The damn thing is two-thirds as long as _I_ am, for crissake.
'Long?' Jesus Christ, did I just measure myself in 'Length', for crying out loud? Humans are 'Tall,' Jordan, not 'Long...'
I twitch my tail nervously. And then I realize what I'm doing.
I'm beginning to lose it. I just _know_ I'm beginning to lose it...
I think of the future that faces me if this thing doesn't go away. A future like Skippy's. Or Kim's. Getting the shit beat out of me by assorted members of the faculty and student body of Edgerton High. The resulting psychotherapy sessions. Losing any possibility of a college education. Taking any shit job that'll hire me. Living the rest of my life as a SCAB.
I wonder if I'm over-reacting here, and there comes to me the sick realization that I _don't know if I am or not._
I see the precipice. And it's a long way down.
And then, quite calmly, I realize what I must do.
With quiet purpose I step from my room into the silence of the house. Everyone else is asleep. I tiptoe all the way to the upstairs bathroom and retrieve some packages of sterile gauze from the medicine chest. I make my way downstairs, deliberately skipping step number four (the squeaky one), down past the laundry and the living room, all the way to the kitchen, whose warm atmosphere still carries the lingering odor of fresh bread.
There, sitting neatly in the dish-drainer, freshly washed from its use in Gloria's recent baking, is Grandma's old Serrated Knife.
* * *
Cut to Outside, one half-hour later. The storm still rages. Observe the primate, at least as much as you can see of him in the illumination of the lightning overhead. Observe him limping steadily through the buffeting wind and driving rain, wearing an over-large raincoat and galoshes belonging, ironically, to his father. See him as he picks his way towards the little vegetable garden behind the house, bearing in one hand a spade and in the other, a sealed Ziplock Two-Gallon Storage bag, which would be seen to contain, in better and more constant light, a rather large something colored a little bit black, a little bit white, and a whole lot a bit red. Observe the primate as he tediously digs deep into the muddy earth in the clear space between the zucchini and the tomatoes, at a level deeper than would ever be casually excavated in conventional horticulture. See him, as the lightning flickers all about, depositing the bag in the newly-dug hole and carefully placing shovel after shovel of almost-mud on top of it. See him finishing his labors, patting down the disturbed soil as best he can, and trusting in the incessant rain to do the rest.
See the tailless primate as he limps painfully backwards towards his home.
* * *
As noted, to this day, I have never seen Kim DeJong again. Oh, she hung around for a little while. I am told by some that they had spotted, after some careful observation, a sleek black-white-and-grey shape that would hang around all day at the very top of the big white maple at the center of the campus, mostly hidden by the autumn foliage. I never saw her. I never went anywhere near Kim's Tree. But as time went on and the leaves began to fall in earnest, and the corresponding risk of exposure became too great, Kim disappeared and went back to spending all day, every day, shut tightly up in her house with her folks. And then, one day, while Kim and her parents were off on a "vacation" to Baltimore to visit a specialist, the DeJong house was burned to the ground. It was already a total loss by the time the firefighters got there. Arson was suspected, but no suspects were presented and no charges were ever formally pressed. I get this mental picture of Kim and her family coming home from their trip to find everything, _everything_, literally, gone up in smoke. I don't like to think of that picture for very long. Anyway, the DeJongs apparently gave up on Edgerton, for we never saw hide nor hair of them...
Sorry about that phrase usage...
The lot upon which Kim's house used to stand is pleasant and green now. I _think_ that I can detect a concrete lawn-ornament set on ornamental hickory-bark somewhere there. But in the yellow two-story duplex that now occupies the lot, there is no sign of the marvelous house where my friend Kim used to live. It's like she's been erased from the Mind of God. Everything except that one little picture of her in her trenchcoat, trying to pin on a corsage.
Oh, God. I miss her.
I carefully clamp my jaw into position and turn away from Kim's Yard, and walk resolutely onwards towards the Third Corner and Piergeron Stadium.