Ka-thump, ka-thump go the rails...
If someone told me I'd be on a one-way train to the end of the line, I'd probably laugh in their face. Just another rimshot in my suddenly Catskills-esque tragedy of a life; they're a dime a dozen nowadays...
A man came to my seat and proceeded to sit down, paying no attention to the tiny squirrel seated on the cushion. With a tinny, angered chitter I scrambled up the upholstered seat backing as his portly back hit the seat, fearing for my own safety. Enraged as a squirrel can possibly be, I jump up on his shoulder and pull on a few whiskers.
If I were still human this guy would have a mouthful of knuckle a la Hulk Hogan, but SCABS changes your perspective a little.
I put on my best ear-sneer -- my facial muscles are too badly transformed to be of any use -- and put on my pathetic tone of indignation. "Excuse me?" I kindly ask in my squeaky, barely-human voice, "Why are you sitting in my chair?" Even with the snobby emphasis, I still sounded like Dale the chipmunk. Besides, what good is a threatening tone when it comes from something that tips the scales at a menacing one pound?
The portly man brushed me off his shoulder with a gigantic hand and brushed his beard out. "I bought this seat at reduced fare because they said a tiny SCABS patient had half of it."
Damned hidden discount clauses...
"So I don't count as a full person?" With a voice like mine, why would I?
I watched with satisfaction as the gentlemen frowned, his wrinkled face showing a twinge of guilt. "Nothing against you, of course; I'm just on a tight budget."
You and me both, brother. "SCABS isn't too light on the wallet, either." It came off cold, callous, and completely alien to my normal personality. But what's normal anyhow?
My seatmate smiled. "Looks like you save a lot of cash on grocery bills, Mr. Squirrel."
I ignore the rimshot in my head. "Ever been to life insurance hell?" I asked acidly, "Well, I live there." I leave out the hidden clauses (much like the bitch that sold me this damned ticket) involved in my insurance flop: like how my girlfriend threw me into a hospital I couldn't afford, how she sapped my savings as I slipped in and out of medicine-induced coma...
My live-in ironic drummer Mr. Skins started going crazy with that one.
As harsh as the retort came off, my aged seatmate ignored it. Instead, he groaned, shifted in the seat, and yawned. Silence fell over the two of us, letting the ka-thump of the tracks fill the compartment.
Suddenly his face lit up. "You know, maybe you could move up into the baggage compartment. There's not much in the hole, and you're small enough to be comfortable there?"
My tail flicked in anticipation as I saw how the joke would unfold. I tried to put on an expression of helplessness and innocence as I looked into the man's eyes. "Could you help me up?" The man replied by reaching for my body with his fat, grubby, monstrous hands. Together, they were bigger than me.
With my best emulation of a human smile I let out a loud chitter and clambered up the upholstered wall into the luggage compartment. Sucker!
Okay, so not every joke is on me. If I couldn't pull that prank every once in a blue moon, I'd probably go insane.
Away from the giant, I recollected my thoughts. The edges were worn from the activity; I've been over it with a fine-toothed comb so many times already. Just like beating a dead horse. A really dead horse.
With a tired sigh I reached into my small suitcase and pulled out an almond, shell and all. Might as well grind down these rodent teeth while I muse...
I tried looking out the window only to find a nice wall. Drat! No window in a luggage compartment? What about these ill-regarded suitcases and whipped squirrel SCABS?
A year ago I would have missed the view. The squirrel transformation not only allowed me to live in high, cramped, dark spaces, I actually enjoyed them. Go figure.
I hate the Martian Flu. I hate SCABS. One in twelve odds, and I manage to get lucky. Maybe I should hit the Strip sometime...
Sure, it beats the hell out of the alternative. I've seen the piles of burning bodies in the street, sizzling like ribeye on the grill. Flaming white moths fluttered around their bodies in a sort of twisted pathetic fallacy...
Sometimes, just sometimes I wish I were dead. Would be much easier... and cheaper.
Looking into my kids' eyes -- my wrestling prodigies, the reason I lived and worked where I did -- was the most painful thing I've ever had to do. Before them I stood, a squirrel broken by medical debt and punishing psychological pain, only a hollow shell of what he once was. It was hard for them to see past the fur and bushy tail, to see the last shred of their fun-loving, respectful, strong wrestling coach.
My one true love suddenly torn from my heart. Damn SCABS...
I was pretty big on the coaching circuit pre-SCABS; I kid you not! Team Indiana head coach, consistent showings at IHSAA Semi-State (and one beautiful run at Team State), kids that would run through a brick wall for me if I asked. I taught them dedication, grit, and determination. God bless every one of 'em.
And my body! Damn proud of what I had. Ever since I won the State Championship in high school, I was committed to keeping myself in good shape. Every day right up to when SCABS took my humanity, I was in the weight room in one way or another. In fact, I had just finished putting up 300 lbs. on my bench press before it all slipped away...
Something like that never leaves your blood. Never.
It poisoned me, and probably always will. Hard to teach a grappling move when you have no hands and can't stand on two feet for more than a few seconds. Which left me without a coaching job and a mind full of finely-tuned information I can't put to use. Great situation, eh?
Sure, I had my teaching job in school. Math was just a way to make money so I could keep coaching. Algebra was easy, and I enjoyed teaching it to kids while recruiting for the team. I couldn't stay there, though; sticking around and trying to fill my old shoes would have been absolutely traumatic.
I could see my kids now: "Mr. Hart? Why aren't you coaching again? Oh, can I scratch your ears?" Oy vey.
Which left me on a one-way train, choked with knowledge I can't use, gnawing on a hard almond shell, trying hard to accept the rodent behavior as normal.
Who was I trying to kid?
No goodbyes, no Casablanca-esque 'Another place, another time' monologue; I just hopped on a train and went where the wind took me. It hurt to split like that, but it beat the alternative by a longshot.
All about the quintessential Catch-22.
The ultimate punchline -- my form -- eats away at the last shred of my dignity. Outside and in, I'm a completely morphed squirrel. For some reason my mind survived, though flight reflexes poison my brain every day.
And if you're wondering how I kept the human intellect, I don't ask. The second I wonder about something it seems to get worse.
I'm still adjusting to the new habits. Due to the lack of clothes in my size, I go around au naturale most of the time. The new diet completely isolates me from the meat I once loved. On top of that, my teeth grow continuously, so I have to chew something for at least an hour a day.
Hell, my dog even turned on me! I came home, and he chased me down like a Sunday night dinner. When my girlfriend captured me in a tree, she knew the leverage she had, so she tossed me into the hospital while she sucked away at my savings.
True love indeed.
One month of therapy and sedatives later, I was released back into the world on probation. They wanted to send me to a colony; $5000 in lawyer's fees later, they dropped the subject. If I'd been human, I would have given them a piece of my mind...
Of course, back then I was confident that I could defend myself against anybody. Lately I'm lucky if I can push away a Yorkshire Terrier.
Lucky me, I had enough money to float my expenses; unfortunately that didn't leave me much to live on. Specifically, a Benjamin with change and my bag of stuff. I couldn't hock my possesions for much money; they were mostly pictures, notes, reminders of my human life. Though the classic Gables would still catch a hefty price...
Not the shoes. Anything but the shoes. They were all I physically had left of my past life, a painful but necessary reminder.
The train sighed as the brakes settled in. I followed its lead and pushed my baggage onto the floor. Portly man (I never did get his name) tried to offer his help, but I ignored him as I righted my bag and attached it to a small harness I could pull it with.
My name is Jim Hart. I am a fucking squirrel. I am a living punchline.
As I pulled my luggage down the handicap ramp, an itch gnawed at the back of my ear. Damned fleas. My doctor suggested I wear a flea collar, but I absolutely refused. To me, the collar was a sign of submission, of a final loss of humanity.
Too late, friend.
I just hope all the fleas on my body have mites. That'll teach them...
Speaking of vermin, the train platform opened up to an anti-Utopia. Dense cigarette smoke reduced my world to the small wood patio. Through the smoke I could see a shadow of the privacy fence erected around the area, isolating the desolate platform even further. The only exit was manned by a middle-aged clerk, his biker-look foreshadowing what I'd see beyond the door.
With a sigh I got my luggage rolling again. I feared the worst case scenario, but there was no turning back now. Nothing to it but to do it. The story of my life -- my so-called life.
Cue the rimshot!
The biker-clerk poignantly looked down and nodded as I passed through the gate, wearing a sadistic smile that said 'I'll give you a day, tops.'
I'll show him... He'll have a bite he'll never forget!
I'm sure you know what goes here.
The rimshot fadeed away as the barren landscape unfolded before me. This was an urban desert -- a real Black Hole of Calcutta. All the storefronts had a welcoming steel siding pulled over them, the material plastered with graffiti. Their signs ranged from new-age health shops to nickel smut shows, in varying degrees of disrepair.
Off in an alley, four bums gathered around a drum fire, passing around a bagged bottle as they sulked. A bag lady gingerly picked through a dumpster on the next street; with a gasp of elation she pulled out a rotten apple core that tied my stomach in a knot. I turned away as she bit in to see two poorly-dressed partygoers sleeping peacefully in their own vomit. The pool under the drunks shimmered in the dim streetlight.
Bag ladies, winos and bums, oh my!
Squirrel perspective really changes the way you look at cities. Going from five feet to six inches does wonders for relative size. Imagine a football field of asphalt, surrounded on each side by 15-story skyscrapers; that's pretty close to how I felt now.
Prey instincts set off loud warning bells in my head. This is too open! Must be hidden/confined/higher up...
Imagine that: Big, bad wrestler scared of a little vulnerability. Well, big, bad wrestler turned tantalizing squirrel prey.
Do your stuff, Mr. Skins!
I tried my best to stifle the primal urge to sprint up the nearest pole. I've seen squirrelcides before; logically speaking, running on wires means fried Jim Hart.
Okay, so maybe I was exaggerating on the whole squirrelcide thing. Call me paranoid. For a feral squirrel, ignorance is truly bliss.
One step at a time... that's it. No problem! I can do this. All I have to do is keep walking...
A can clattered on the ground -- smelled like a predator -- DANGER-THREAT-RUN! I took off like a bolt as I heard the soft mrowr of a cat behind me. For the first time in my life, I was the prey.
Take five, Mr. Skins; this is serious life-or-death stuff.
Of course, a lot of this came as an afterthought. While that cat was on my bushy tail, the only thing on my mind was escape. I completely ignored the suitcase strapped to me; it toppled as I took the first corner and I dragged it loudly through the streets.
I turned a corner into a blind alley, desperately hoping for some sort of escape route. The cat was still behind me, still breathing down my back...
Later, I shuddered at the thought.
A chipboard window cover! With a sigh of relief I booked it for the refuge. The relief was so great I managed enough human thought to unhook myself from the luggage so I could climb.
One, two, three bounds and I was out of harm's way.
The cat stayed close to my suitcase, acting like he had all day. My will (and terror) held fast, though, and the kitty went on to other pursuits. As I watched the cat swagger off, I gradually regained my normal human thought-patterns. The heavy, rapid-fire breathing began to settle down, giving my mind a tiny bit of relaxation.
How incredibly embarrassing! A month ago, I would have given that kitty one good boot to the ribs and sent it running. But now, suddenly I was an entrée on its dinner menu.
Great; every time I start feeling the least bit human, something happens and I go completely feral. Let's hear it, Mr. Skins!
SCABS patients have many charity options -- all I have to do is ask.
Never! I can beat this disease without help. A little work, and I'll be on the road to recovery. Once I settle into an apartment and find a job, then I can start putting things back together.
Things will settle down, I'm sure of it; it's the question of when that scares me.
With a sigh I scramble back down the rotting chipboard and recollect my stuff, thinking of where I could possibly lay my head down for the night.
() () () () ()
Well, damn. After spending the night in a shoebox I found on
the street, I tried finding an appropriate apartment. Nobody had
lodgings for my price range.
Okay, so I drove a hard bargain. A really hard bargain. Five bucks a month hard. When it's all you can afford, it seems like so much more... I gave my price maximum to all the local realtors, who stifled chuckles as they gave me a shake. Nothing. Zip. Nada.
Mr. Skins spoke up even as I thought about my options.
Trying to keep a no-worries attitude, I continued walking through the town right up to sunset. The general quality of neighborhood never rose above a low-rent district, sometimes going as low as Hell's Kitchen. Quite charming, when you think about it...
An hour before twilight, I stumbled upon a large park. The street sign toted a 20-acre public forest, open to anyone and everyone.
That's when I put two and two together. I'm a red squirrel. This is a park. A park has trees. Red squirrels live in trees. So, logically, couldn't I just hole up in a tree for as long as I needed to?
Bingo! With a chitter of excitement I unharnessed my bag in a bush and went house shopping.
After going through a few trees I finally found a unoccupied full oak, a true dream piece of real estate. The hole itself was just large enough to house me and a few stores, big enough to make my human side feel less cramped, yet small enough to keep my squirrel instincts happy. There was a homely smell to the tree, something like oak.
Okay, so it is oak. Badda boom.
Once I had tried out my home for comfort, my mind turned back to the luggage. I still had to get it up here... Thankfully I had a length of rope in my bag, so getting the luggage out of harm's way was as easy as running rope over a branch and hoisting the luggage up. A quick knot later and my luggage was on the same level as my home. It was only a jury-rigged job, but it'd have to do for now. Squirrels don't usually have carry-on luggage...
Next stop on my list was food. Sure, I could probably live off the nuts in this tree, but there was a feeling of humanity when I went to the market. Like I wasn't as much of an animal as SCABS made me out to be. If worse comes to worst, I'll always have the option of living off the land; as long as money held out, though, I was still a consumer.
A quick zip (carefully, to avoid losing everything in the bag) and my wallet was out of the case. I strapped it to my back with the harness I used for my luggage; obviously I didn't have pockets in my fur. One more check on the jury-rigged closet and I was springing to the ground. On the tarmac, I could see a strip mall across the street featuring a grocery.
One hundred yards to the store, and somehow I managed to get there without going nuts. My instincts tried, though. Every step was plagued with a command to run up the nearest telephone pole. Smart squirrel that I was, I managed to refuse the urge to take the high (voltage) road.
The automatic door wouldn't open; the motion sensor was made to tolerate small animals like me without opening. Go figure. I sneaked in as another shopper left with her shopping bag. Good thing she couldn't see me; otherwise we'd have a situation on our hands.
Mr. Skins, if you would be so kind...
Big, open, sterile places like the supermarket make me nervous. My claws clicked on the marbled white linoleum floor, shining in the fluorescent glow from above. Shelf upon colossal shelf towered over me, displaying piles of foodstuffs bigger than I was.
I knew what I really wanted. If this market had rotisserie chicken... I haven't had any in so long!
I remembered a place I went to when I was human that had the best chicken I've ever tasted. Meat so tender you could pinch it off the bone with no trouble at all. And it was so tender and juicy...
This time I'll stomach it. This time I'll have the hunger for it...
But as I pass by the butcher stand, my nose wrinkles at the disgusting smell of searing meat. Damn! What's happened to me?
Stay out of this, Mr. Skins.
The stench slowly ate at my already dwindling appetite, leading me down a more fitting aisle. Bags of shelled mixed nuts lined the walls; I scrambled up to the third shelf and paraded down the landing, eventually finding a small bag of tasty macadamias. I would've bought bulk, but I did have to get my booty home somehow. With a little modification, the harness was able to grab onto the bag so I could drag it to the counter.
The clerk was of course skeptical of a squirrel tugging on her shirt with a wallet on his back, but when I muttered "SCABS" she nodded her head in understanding. She removed the bag from my harness, scanned it, and asked for my money. I paid in disgusted silence, making the clerk bend down with a grumble to take my pay.
Feel the pain, woman!
Once she had the parcel bagged for me, I stepped into the plastic straps so I could drag the bag home. It crackled as I walked out the door; fortunately the bag was just big enough to trigger the sensor so I didn't have to ask for help. Things were uneventful on that 100 yard walk to my tree.
My tree. Who knew?
Once I had my bounty up in the small knothole I called home, I sliced open the plastic bag with my incisors. The first macadamia was out almost as soon as the bag ripped open, the shell ripped open immediately afterwards. Macadamias taste so good...
Never thought I'd say that in my lifetime.
The edges of the knothole were sticky with sap.
Maybe I should buy some cotton balls to line it with, you know, to help keep the place nice and tidy? This will do for now, though; it's late, and I've had a long day. I could probably fall asleep in a vat of crazy glue right now and not know the difference.
Tomorrow I'll fix everything. Yes, tomorrow I'll go for a run and sort my thoughts out. Until then, I'll give in to my reflexes and sleep, semi-happy to be alive.
() () () () ()
I shook off a little morning dew and started towards the densely
wooded 10-acre reserve inside the park with a shiver of anticipation.
A small drip of adrenaline surged through my body, and I found
myself actually looking forward to the run.
Am I going crazy? A few years ago I loathed running. Terrible memories from my senior year of high school ruined the activity for me, waking up at dawn every morning in two layers of sweatsuits running sprints up and down my park. The things I did for that sport...
No pressure here, just a perfect amble through the park. Maybe that competitive pressure is what I'm missing...
Not now. This is supposed to be a relaxing jog, after all.
The aromas of a forest full of life assaulted my sensitive nostrils: fresh wild herbs greeting the day, earthy topsoil aerating in the morning dew, the smell of moisture everywhere, a lot like the air just before a rainstorm. I remember how I used to look forward to a downpour just so I could get a lungful of the air.
Yeah, I had a soft side too. Go figure.
The morning was incredibly relaxing, and suddenly I found myself doing that ear-smile thing again. It's so different from a typical smile; it comes from a different place entirely. In fact, it's almost enough to make me actually appreciate the form... The sudden odor of a wild cat's musty territory marking made my hair stand on end, though, so I bolted up a large cypress tree.
Once up the tree, I found my body arguing with itself. My squirrel side wanted to simply start hopping from tree to tree, while my human side was afraid of falling. Years of training in a human body taught me a thing or two about climbing trees, how careful I had to be, how to keep my balance, which branches wouldn't hold my weight...
But that was when I weighed more than a few ounces. And I didn't have a tail to balance myself.
Without thinking about it, I picked out a line to take across five trees. One deep breath later, I started out across the tiny branch, halfway expecting it to crack under my weight. It swayed a little, but my tail moved autonomously to counterbalance me.
I reached the end of the branch with a nervous intake of breath. The gap ahead of me was only six inches, but it was a long way down from here. Trying to visualize myself making the jump, I went through how I would do it in my mind, letting my new squirrel instincts guide me. Three times I hunched back like I was going to jump, but dropped away at the last second.
On the fourth squat, I leapt and prayed that my instincts would pull through.
I didn't notice that I had landed until I was five steps into the branch. My blood was pumping with energy, suddenly infused with the new event. The ear-smile grew wider as I set up for the next jump. This time I didn't hesitate, taking a running start and getting a heady rush of weightlessness before I landed.
Three jumps later, I was going at full tilt. It was such an incredible and heady feeling; the jumps were at the back of my mind as I planned the next part of my line in human portion of my mind. Every aspect of my brain was dedicated to getting from point A to point B.
After a good ten jumps, I gradually slowed to a stop. The heady feeling slowly died away, leaving me warm and fulfilled. This was such a great way to get around! If there's a crowd, I could just leap over them all...
Wait a second -- I have trouble with large streets and sidewalks, but who said I couldn't jump from building to building? Reduced traffic, and a whole hell of a lot easier on my nerves.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!
I started chuckling in my strange high-pitched voice as I start up again. So this is what it's like to be a squirrel, eh? Count me in.
A pop, a splinter out of the tree, and my shocking jolt of terror.
The event registered while my squirrel body scrambled into deep cover. As I turned to look back to the ground, I found a pair of orange-vested kids toting guns. I never understood orange vests; I can't believe animals ignore the color...
Why was I thinking that? God, I was just inches away from being on the wrong end of a gun!
The human side of my brain thought about the hunting trips I used to take with my dad. We'd go to a forest one of his friends owned for a weekend. During the day, we'd strap on rifles and go hunting. He usually sat up in a deer stand, but I preferred tracking down prey. So I followed squirrels all day. I was good, too; an average weekend bagged me ten or more squirrels...
Mr. Skins, meet Lady Irony. Mr. Skins, you've been a great guy, but the Lady's got this one covered. O lady who wears her feather boa like a bandolier! Dance your seductive dance of comical tragedy! Clack your castanets of calamity! Tap your toes to the terrific beat! Dance, Irony, Dance!
As the instinctive terror died down, my human brain replaced it with rage. How dare they fire upon another human! Without any consideration for my form, I picked a line and bolted towards the two kids, screaming human expletives that would make a sailor blush as I went. Needless to say, they were flabbergasted that a squirrel they had just fired upon was chasing them down. One tried to run, but gave up as I ate the gap between us with massive leaps.
"Damn kids!" I screamed, "I was running there. Do you know what happens to boys that shoot at other people?" I stayed in the tree boughs; the height advantage gave me the psychological edge I needed to keep this tone of voice.
"W-w-w-e're sorry, misther," the smaller one said, "our dad told us this woods was SCABS-free. We never wanted to hurt nobody..."
Why didn't someone tell me that?
The teenager tried to wave me down, but I stayed put. With a sigh he shrugged his shoulders and stated in a harsh tone of voice, "You're not from around here, are you?"
I shook my head, knowing that if I were to open my mouth I'd probably cuss the kid out again.
"We have rules and regulations here that protect SCABS," he continued, "but there are areas where the rules fall away. Public parks that allow petty hunting..."
Oh, so now I'm a petty squirrel. Just make me feel that much better, will you?
"...protect SCABS only if they wear an orange vest."
Great; so now I'm going to be a fashionable woodland creature? Images of Bambi in a bikini come to mind.
The small one lit up, and pulled out a pocketknife. "I can fix you up, misther! I'll give you part of my vest!" He was suddenly enveloped in concentration, humming as he cut out the arm-holes in a small square of heavy orange nylon.
"Dad's gonna kill you for ripping his vest," the teenager mumbled, his warning falling upon deaf ears.
"Here you go, misther squirrel," the boy held out a tiny-size jacket, frayed at the corners, "This should do you just fine."
The teacher in me surfaced as I accepted the gift graciously. "Why thank you, kind sir! It's a wonderful jacket." You gotta treat the little ones this way. He beamed with pride, making my effort worthwhile. I felt my jitters melt away as I tried on the jacket, suddenly thankful for good Samaritans.
"You should really visit The Blind Pig Gin Mill," the older one cut in. "They know more about this stuff than we do."
I was moving around while he talked, breaking the new jacket in. "The blind what?"
"The Pig for short. It's a bar for all the SCABS. When our uncle came down for the weekend, he was adamant on going there."
"Why was that?"
"SCABS turned him into a five-foot rock golem."
Oh. That's why. Open foot, insert footpaw.
"Anyway... I can tell you where it is, if you want."
Hell, why not? I nodded, and he pulled out a convenient pen and paper. Must be a writer... In an instant he handed me a very small note with the address scrawled upon it; amazing that this kid had some consideration for my size. I slid it into the sleeve of one of my pockets and said a cordial thank you.
As I slipped the note away, the boy frowned and spoke candidly. "And for what it's worth, we're both really sorry about this. Right?"
"No problem!" Like hell it's not a problem. I almost died! No reason to push my luck, though... "Have a nice day!"
"You too." And they were gone, mumbling amongst themselves as they trailed off.
I let out a massive sigh, feeling like a great weight had been lifted from my chest. Okay, so now I'm potential petty game for hunters. Big hairy deal, right? The sun was high in the sky now; I must have spent three hours out here in the forest. With a shrug I started picking a line out of the forest en route to my tree.
My, how time flies when you're having fun!
() () () () ()
Okay, so after being shot at I thought I could spare a few bucks
for entertainment. An arcade I passed during my grocery escapade
advertised an insane token deal, so I thought it would be nice
to play some good ol' violent video games. If it weren't for the
virtual bodies I put away in arcades, I'd probably go nuts!
I never took off the hunting jacket; a few modifications with my incisors and a length of rope let me carry my wallet on my back. Oh, didn't you know? Wallets are all the rage in backpack fashion. All the squirrels in Europe are sporting it. Hit it, Mr. Skins!
The arcade would be a pleasant diversion from my hectic life. Besides, I didn't want to give in to the Pig just yet. I still had a chance to squeak through on my own, without charity or help. The address was in my wallet, there just in case I fell.
But I wasn't going to fall.
The door conundrum faced me again, suddenly faced with a wall I didn't have the strength to push open. Armed with my newest squirrel instincts, though, I was able to climb up a drainage pipe and get in through a small open window near the ceiling of the place. I used the wooden trim molding to slither down to the redemption desk, nearly giving the young clerk a heart attack.
"Hello, miss," I said in my high-pitched voice, "I'd like a 50 for 5 deal, please." She chuckled at my voice, puled out a bag of tokens, and took my fivespot without a word.
Oh well. At least she didn't take a shot at me...
I looked over to the line of pinball machines with a sniffle of regret. When I was human, I had a passion for those gigantic physics demonstrations, but with this body I couldn't fathom playing the games. All the old tricks come back as I look at an old favorite, eating at my soul like acid.
Mr. Skins takes a moment of silence as I try to put the past behind me.
Shrugging off the pain, I scrambled onto the counter of a football game. I had played the game before: no-rules football with massive tackles and high-speed play. It was gratuitously violent, allowing players to body slam and perform unnecessary roughness.
And you know what? I absolutely love the game.
The problem overcame me as I looked at the joystick and button configuration. How was I going to reach all the buttons? I tried different positions, but eventually settled for using my forepaws to move the joystick while smashing the buttons with my footpaws. Silly, yes, but sometimes you have to work with what you got.
I asked a passerby to put in my money. He stared for a second, but eventually complied. I hit the start button and fell into video game trance.
Those who play video games know the feeling. For a moment, you're not moving a joystick and smashing buttons in time with a flickering screen. Instead, you're enveloped in the action, watching the game unfold as you pick the plays in living color. All your focus falls in on that small square of light, conducting the ballet as you see fit.
An hour passed, and I started to get the hang of the strange joystick handling. Two hours passed, and I was starting a season with my team. Incoming challengers added tokens for me when I needed it. Two hours stretched into three hours. Three to four.
Hard to believe when you only have 50 tokens, right? Free game for every win. Let's hear it for honest and fair arcade owners!
I was on my last game when it happened. The clock was right at six -- five hours of work on this machine -- and I was pumped to get my record in the book. In fact, I was so pumped I didn't notice her sneaking up behind me. Usually I see the glare of a watcher in the glass on the screen, but the new angle makes it hard to see an eight-year-old who can barely see over the cabinet herself.
No, my only warning came from a squeal of elation.
"Mommy! Mommy! A real squirrel!" The surprise caused me to whip around, suddenly face to face with the tiny Shirley Temple-esque cutie. She was close enough to grab me and squeeze me to a pulp...
I was so terrorized I froze. For a moment a tense silence filled the air, intermingled with the sound of my game behind me. Damn, turnover on downs...
Okay, now I'm a little angry. No problem.
Mommy came over, and she backed away enough for me to come back to my senses. "Mommy! It's a squirrelly-whirlley! Can I pet the squirrelly-whirrley?"
"Why don't you ask squirrelly-whirrley?"
Oh no, don't peg this one on me!
"Awwww... doesm's Mr. Squirrelly-whirrley want his lil' head scritched? Does'e? Does'e?" Her finger dangled just above my head, coming ever closer. I instinctually slithered out of the way as she came close, trying to come up with a tactful response.
Come on, now, she's just an eight-year-old. She can't possibly know this is the image I loathe, that I never wanted to be cute in the first place. She can't understand that being treated like a lower being is as demeaning as being called a slave...
"Listen, little girl..."
"Yous'a got the cutest lil' voice!" she interrupted, "Isn't Mr. Squirrelly-whirrley cute? I could love him for-ever-and-ever..."
I completely lost it. With my most sarcastic cute voice, I cooed to the girl, "Would you excuse Mr. Squirrelly-whirlley while he takes a barfy-warfy in the grassy-wassy?" Crass, yes, but effective in getting the scary girl to back away.
Mommy gave me the look of death, and I knew I had made a mistake. I booked it before she could bring her purse in position to swing at me. I'd always prided myself on being able to keep my cool with kids...
Wow! I didn't know a drum solo could be that fast.
What was happening? These damn flight reflexes were destroying every shred of self-control I had, from how I walked to how I reacted. Suddenly my reflex was on a "me first" basis.
Once I was up and out through the window, I high-tailed it up onto the roof. In the blazing sun I angrily whipped out the instructions to the Pig, smirking as I read the directions.
The Pig means SCABS patients. SCABS patients mean predator morphs. I'll whip this flight reflex yet!
() () () () ()
By the time I found the Blind Pig Gin Mill, twilight had been
and gone. So squirrels aren't made to grab up ground; not much
I can do about it. I'm tired of punch lines; it's safe to assume
that I've made my point. Just consider my life a never-ending
joke, can't go wrong with that...
I just hoped the Pig was one of those hole-in-the-walls that really shined on the inside. Gritty establishments were hit-and-miss affairs; sometimes they were pretty terrible, but a few bordered on absolutely mind-blowing. My experience usually sides with the former, unfortunately.
Yet here I am, standing in front of a bleak wood building, staring at a ramshackle aluminum sign lit by a single dim halogen floodlight, wondering what awaits me within. The door was a jumble of different handles, the likes of which I had never seen in my life. A small handle near the bottom fit my muzzle perfectly; a little push and the door opened wide, releasing a musty odor from within, so thick with predator scent I nearly bolted.
So far, not so good...
I rearranged the wallet on my hunting jacket harness and stepped across the threshold, belittled by all the action going on inside. A light smoke filled the air, creating cones of diffused light where the stained glass lamps shone down upon the plain floor. Dim tables lined every corner, their seats filled with faceless silhouettes chattering idly amongst themselves. In the center of the room, a large mahogany wet bar manned by a bull-headed human.
My kind of place.
A man at the piano picked at an unfamiliar melody, fleshing out the song as he saw fit. The dismal Dorian mode of the tune set a somber mood, like something Tennessee Williams would recommend in his scripts. Real nice place, though; a "streetcar named despair" from all appearances. Fitting for my needs; all they needed was a drummer to pound out the harsh rhythm of my life.
Yeah! Then I'd be set for life!
I walked up to a barstool and stared up at the bull-man tending to his customers in silence. The stool was at least four feet high, a seemingly impossible distance to cover in my small form. Opportunity...
A kind female wolf passed by and gave a piteous yip; she wasn't my target of choice, but something was better than nothing. Her claws honestly scared me as she reached down, and before she could come close I sprang up onto the barstool. I chuckled lightly as she tromped off in frustration.
From the stool I hopped up onto the bar itself, my claws scraping for some semblance of grip on the polished wood. I looked deep into its heavy, dark grain, homely yet melancholy, perfect for every patron.
It takes all kinds, you know.
As my eyes adjusted, I began to realize why the place was so highly recommended. It was full of changelings! In one corner a large rabbit drank what looked like carrot juice from a specially-made paw cup. The back of the establishment belonged to a pack of wolves, whooping and hollering and having a good time. A plant -- a lycra-encased plant! -- sat in a small booth, drinking from a large tinted glass.
I watched one of the wolves nearly sit down on a chair; he fell when the seat melted into a human form. It takes all kinds indeed.
The bull-headed man walked over to where I was standing, a wry smile on his face. He offered a cordial hello in the form of a simple, silent nod.
"How's things?" I asked kindly, putting on an ear-smile myself. No use in acting cold to everybody when I'm the one that's so screwed up...
To my surprise the minotaur pulled out a pen and paper to write a reply. Why didn't he just say something?
Apparently the rabbit in the corner saw my distress, and found it prudent to chime in. "Donnie's mute," he said matter-of-factly, "Usually he uses ASL; you'd do good to pick it up sometime." His voice was high-pitched and hyper-cute, a lot like Chip the chipmunk.
He's Chip, and I'm Dale. We should hit the Vaudeville circuit sometime.
I hesitated, caught up in my own frustration. "Ummm... Thank you, sir."
"We don't get many squirrels here," the rabbit continued. "Don't think I've seen you around before. Name's Phil."
"Pleasure to meet you, Phil. They call me Jim Hart."
"Welcome to the Pig, Jim," Phil said cordially. "So what's your story?"
That went over like a lead balloon. "It's a long one." It came out acidly, like so many other things that have happened in the past few days.
Phil didn't skip a beat, to my pleasant surprise. "'Kay. Some other time, then?"
"Yeah." Silence. The piano player started into a beautiful ragtime tune. I wanted to compliment his skill (always been a sucker for good piano) but I didn't want to ask his name. Then I'd talk with Phil again, and I'd start actually enjoying myself...
Lady Irony knows I wasn't here to have fun.
A tap on the bar brought me back to Donnie pointing to his scrawled message. [Welcome to the Pig. What can I get ya?]
"Do you have coke?" He nodded. "Great; I'll have that then." Never been one for drinking; ever since I went to a busted party I've avoided the stuff. Yep, this dysfunctional life is all-natural...
As the minotaur walked off to fix my drink, I suddenly realized the mistake I had made. Forgot to order a tiny size! Whenever I don't ask for a special cup, I always end up with a drink I could swim in. Of course my mom always taught me to finish what I ordered... and squirrels have tiny bladders.
Donnie returned with a light plastic cup about the size of a shot glass and another message. [I assumed you wouldn't need a normal sized drink. If this isn't enough, I can always get you a normal cup.]
This guy had to read minds! "Thank you; this is perfect. What do I owe you?" I tore the wallet off my back and looked up to Donnie, who was shaking his head in disappointment.
He pointed to the wallet on my back as he added to the message. [You shouldn't carry that thing around, it makes you a target. Amazed you haven't been mugged yet. We run on an honor system here; I'll start a tab for you. Would you like me to get someone to take you home so you don't have to walk with a big prize on your back?]
"That sounds great!" And I barely knew this guy... Five minutes in the bar, and already it felt like home.
Miraculously, Mr. Skins didn't perk up on the development.
[Unfortunately, I have to charge you half price for a quarter of a drink. Gotta keep the place running, you know.]
"For a place like this, I'd pay any price..." I cut the phrase short and buried my face in the drink, suddenly realizing I had work to do. The only way I could drink it was to bury my face in the fizzy liquid; my paws weren't strong enough to lift the cup.
Okay, there's Mr. Skins popping up again. Phew! Started to think I lost him at the door...
I looked over the lip of my glass for an appropriate target, my eyes adapted to the dim light. The wolves were too rowdy; one slip-up there and I'd end up with a serious injury. The plant wasn't threatening at all, and the rabbit would probably befriend me.
No, what I needed was a lone predator, enveloped in a seal of harshness, crass beyond reason; someone that would scare the piss out of me. The image floated through my head as I turned to a corner table, where a lone cheetah was watching the world unfold, drink in hand.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!
With a nervous cough I called to Phil. "Who's that in the corner?"
"That's Jubatus," Phil replied. "He's kind of a loner and a little twitchy, though; I wouldn't suggest getting to know him on the first day, especially with your form..."
Before he could utter another word, I was on the ground scampering over to the cheetah's table.
I composed myself as I walked over to Jubatus, mainly to help my confidence. If I could make a clean impression, this might not be so bad... I nibbled off the remaining strands of cotton stuffing hanging out the sides of the vest, and made sure to get every thread out of my mouth before I stepped up to the table. I had cottonmouth without requiring the stuffing's help.
Mr. Skins must be taking a bathroom break, much like I'd like to do right about now.
My focus intensified as I started up the side of the booth. For a fleeting moment I felt like I was back in the wrestling groove, mind focused on a single goal, body ready to strike at any time with everything I had. The nervous energy surged through my body, making my tail twitch.
I was as ready as I'd ever be.
There still was a chance to turn back, to call the whole thing off. All I had to do was say, 'I was getting a closer look at what he was drinking, that's all.' But running would bring me back to my torturous life, to my embarrassing flight reflex, to the harsh Mr. Skins and his never-ending punch line.
With a single bound I jumped from the seat up onto the cheetah's table; I blinked and Jubatus was in a completely different position. The motion was so swift, so effortless that I was left stunned.
Okay... so that's what Phil tried to warn me about. No problem. I swallowed an overpowering urge to turn tail and run and nodded to the feline. "Nice jacket," Jubatus commented. "Looks like you cut it out of a hunting vest with a Swiss Army Knife."
I would have explained myself, but I was still dumbfounded by his moves. When I did find my voice, it was a canned response you'd expect out of someone who just learned English.
"S-s-s-s-so h-h-how areyou? I'mJimandI'mnewhere..." Goodbye, first impression! In a less stressful time, that could have passed for a commendable impression of Dale...
Jube laughed, the tone deep, scratchy, inhuman. "Okay, you're scared shitless. So what brings you to the big, bad predator in the corner?"
Damn. Does everyone here carry Tarot cards with them? I consciously slowed my speech down so it wouldn't spill over itself. "I'm. Trying. To. Overcome. A. Flight. Reflex."
"Flight reflex. In other words, you run from dangerous situations. So what?" His cheetah muzzle was lined with irritation, seemingly indignant that this little runt would interrupt his quiet time.
"I'm. Not. One. To. Run." If I didn't have my dignity, I would have soiled myself as Jubatus's sneer deepened.
"Bets on that?" And suddenly his claws were fully exposed, faster than my eye could blink. If he weren't so far away, I would have ran for my petty little life. Terrified, I could only stand in a paralyzed stupor, mesmerized by those talons. My heart pounded against my ribcage, trying to escape without my body.
The cheetah went on without pity: "You little guys break real easy. When the weapons come out, you damn well better run, or you're dead meat."
He made a logical point, but what use did I have for logic? Passion took control of my voice. "I would kill to be able to stand and fight..."
"You want to kill things? Been there, done that. Don't recommend it." He sighed. "Okay, we've established that you're going crazy. What the hell, I got time to kill, so I'll just pick your brain." It came out with a malicious edge, sending a chill down my spine and rousing up my flight reflex again. Another hard swallow.
"You're an uptight little rodent that wants to act like a badass, but you don't have the body for it. What's your story?"
I tried to skirt the subject; the treatment was a success so far, but if he got under my skin I might still crack... "I wrestled."
"And now you can't find a suitable opponent. So what?"
"A tough nut to crack; I like that. So you used to be on top of the world, but now you're at the bottom of the ladder."
The words poured forth from my mouth, paying no heed to my situation. "I used to be somebody! Back in the day I was a respectable man!" Did I just say 'back in the day'? Only a month into this escapade, and I'm already getting nostalgic.
"So that's your problem: SCABS took you away from what you love. Ripped a jagged hole in your heart." He snorted an unnerving laugh. "Well, guess what? You're not the first, and you damn sure won't be the last. Take a number and join the fucking club, friend."
All this time he had slowly moved closer to me; during the short pause I caught a whiff of his ground beef breath. "I got four words for you: Deal with it, tree-rat." He flashed his teeth, and I ran up the wall screaming like a little girl. The piano stopped in the background; once I was out of harm's way I turned to see the entire bar staring at me.
I did it again, damn it! Another wonderful opportunity to fix what ails me, and I choke like a wimpy little rodent.
Go ahead, Mr. Skins; I know you're dying to dig in.
What's the point of going on? My life is shattered beyond repair. All the knowledge I've gathered on my sport is absolutely useless, collecting dust in my terrorized mind. Anything and everything scares me. I wrap my arms around my head and squeeze, trying to squeeze the frustration out of my skull.
It's just so painful...
A whimsical thought pops in my head; only a year ago I was counseling kids who came into my wrestling room trying to escape the exact same emotion. Back then I was the pillar of strength!
That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I screamed out a cold request for a deck of cards; one of the wolves in back tossed me a pack. As the deck slid to my feet, I started pushing it towards the door.
"Where you going, Jim?" Phil shattered the silence.
"Out," I snapped, "I need to vent."
"What's the deck for?"
I spat a reply as the door closed behind me. "Special recipe for stress relief." As the door slammed shut I felt a furious energy coursing through my veins, bringing me on the verge of tears.
Yep, it would be a good workout indeed.
() () () () ()
What a wonderful night... the moon was out and the stars were
shining brightly, setting an almost romantic mood. Too bad I had
to ruin it with a hellish workout. I needed the pain, though;
I needed the slap on the face now more than ever.
My sweaty palms made it hard to open the card deck, but a few wipes on my fur and I had the problem solved. The vest and wallet were off to one corner of the tiny alley, hidden under the corner flap of a trash bag. I found a place on a high sill; even with frustration, the prey side of my mind still managed to maneuver me out of harm's way.
Thanks a lot, squirrel instincts! Don't know what I'd do without you.
Once I had the cards up on the platform (a warm-up in itself), the problem hit me. Squirrels weren't exactly built for push-ups and sit-ups; I'd have to change the workout to account for the new body. Just what I need: another wrench in the works courtesy of SCABS.
With a little thought I decided on squat thrusts and candlesticks for my two exercises, painfully draining yet squirrel-friendly. I found a good grip under a jamb, slipped my forepaws under it, and began lifting my lower body up, trying to get used to doing candlesticks in this new body. Each lift sent a fire through my abs -- just the feeling I was looking for. I repeated the same proceedure with squat thrusts; sit back on my haunches, then leap up for a target on the wall. Each time I jumped my mind drew a line to touch, always taking it higher.
I was caught up in flashback as I flipped the first card on my blue deck of cards, memories of my middle school coach who recommended this exercise as a quick fix while travelling. One deck of cards, aces are worth 15, face cards are worth 10, and twos through nines are worth face value. Flip the first card, do exercise one as many times as the card says. Flip the second card, repeat with exercise two. Continue until deck is exhausted. Repetitive, yes, but highly effective.
Besides, I could let my body go on autopilot while I sorted out this mess.
While I flipped the first card my sensitive ears picked up sounds of laughter and merriment inside the Pig. Why were they in there having fun while I was out here ready to work my ass off? I did an aggressive set of ten squat thrusts as the thought burned in my head like a potent acid, eating at my dignity, my willpower, feeding my desire, my rage.
Jump up, squat down. Jump up squat down jumpupsquatdown...
As I finished the last thrust I landed by the cards, ready to flip the top one over so I wouldn't have to stop. An ace popped up; instantly I had myself locked down and ready for candlesticks. Fifteen lifts later, I struggled to stand back up.
Yeah, it's been a while.
Five cards later, I was developing my rhythm and able to go over what happened only a few minutes ago. Squirrel instincts struck again, all right; I tried to talk to a predator and choked on my instinct. The more I thought about it, the less I believed Jubatus wanted me as a dinner. If that were the case, he would have sliced me to ribbons right off the bat.
But hindsight is always 20/20.
I shouldn't have treated Jubatus like Jack the Ripper; he didn't deserve that. He's just trying to be a human, after all. With reflexes like mine, he'd be able to talk to people without feeling a hidden urge to kill them off like petty thieves...
Man, you should see it now! Lady Irony is cutting a rug to Mr. Skins' crazy drum solo. Yes, I do believe the shirt is coming off -- and would you get a load of that tattoo! Amazingly blatant!
The dance spurred me into another hard set of candlesticks, making my lower torso light up with absolute agony. I'd feel this workout in the morning, that's for sure!
Fifteen cards into the deck, and I was already exhausted. Endorphins were kicking in, though, so I didn't feel any pain. My body adjusted to a constant rhythm, an up-and-down, even pace that kept my energy up to speed.
At card 25, I realized something was wrong. Terribly wrong. There was no sweat! My paws were dripping with the salty liquid, but my fur was bone dry. I started bouncing on the balls of my feet, trying to work up a quick sweat. Back when I wrestled, we called it "chopping the feet", and it was guaranteed to get you dripping in a minute flat. Nothing came.
No sweat? What's a workout without sweat? That's like toast without butter! Sweat cleanses the body during a workout, lets you know you're working hard! The reason I work out was suddenly out of my reach.
Go ahead, Mr. Skins; get it out of your system.
Disgusted, I left the pile of cards where it was, collected my jacket, and walked back into The Pig. Thankfully, someone had propped the door open; I wasn't going to ask why. I walked into a sea of staring eyes. I ignored the silence and hopped back up onto the bar. "Your cards are outside," I calmly said over the silence, "I didn't have the strength to bring them back in."
"I can see why," one of the wolves replied. "Where'd you learn that insane stress reliever?"
I ear-smiled in reply. "I was a wrestler." And I left it at that. The bar slowly returned to normal, like a phonograph spinning up to speed. As I lost the center of attention, I turned my attention to Donnie.
"I don't know what to order," I admitted. "Never drank a drop of alcohol in my life. Just blitz me."
Donnie nodded in silent understanding, going back to the paper tablet. Seconds later I was reading his concerned message. [Your choice, but I'm not giving you anything until I know where you live. You're DEFINITELY not walking home if I'm going to blitz you.]
I chuckled. "Fair enough; give me that tablet and I'll give you directions." Donnie slid the tablet to me, and I drew a map. So I'm not civil enough to have an address; what can I do? Satisfied with my doodle, the minotaur turned to his bottles and began pouring.
He put a bucket in front of me, filled with a sharp-smelling liquor. Okay, so it was a normal shot glass; work with me here! I stared at the amber liquid sitting in the large shot glass in front of me. I know what you're all thinking: Wasn't this the Jim that said he never drank? Well, I needed a little escape right about now.
Phil raised his glass from the corner of the bar. "Salud," he said across the bar.
Not what I expected, but I'll drink to it. I nodded my head and dove into the drink; moments later my mind was too foggy to be concerned with such trifles as humanity and submission.
For those next few hours I was myself; not the me I knew a year ago, but the squirrelly me that arose from the ashes of SCABdom.
I'm pretty sure I fainted at about two bells; it was a big blur after that.
() () () () ()
I regained consciousness back in my knothole, immediately aware
of a massive headache and a painful tightness in my stomach. Gauging
by the sun, it was two o'clock; I managed to sleep through the
best hours of the day!
Let me tell you I was so crushed...
My wallet! I panicked when I discovered it wasn't on my back, but my tail brushed up against it as I whipped around. I let out a big sigh and tossed the wallet into my 'closet' bag, heeding Donnie's advice. I walked out onto my 'front porch' and took in a lungful of the park air, a mixture of smog and summer lilies.
My orange vest was hanging on a small nail someone had driven into my tree. Pulling it off revealed the note behind: [Hope you enjoy the housewarming gift.] It was unsigned. What in the world?
Oh yeah, last night. The Pig. The drink. The embarrassment. It's all coming back to me now.
Shaking the cobwebs out of my groggy mind with a quick jaunt out to the limb's edge, the events started to come back into focus. First the kind wolf, then the dumb barkeep, then that cordial rabbit, then Jubatus...
For some reason my mind drew a blank as I tried to remember that conversation.
The workout -- oh the disappointing workout! -- the one time I've pushed myself without breaking a sweat. I remember that as being a put-down somewhere, something to the effect of not having to work that hard for something.
Don't believe me? I remember talking to Russ Hellickson at a camp I went to years ago, and how he wore layers of sweatsuits while he coached just to get a sweat going. No joke; this guy was like a walking Michelin Man. Years of wrestling had crippled him, and still he wanted to feel the slimy skin and dry mouth one gets when they wrestle.
A sucker for punishment; a lot like me. Badda boom.
Out on the limb, I slipped my vest on and got ready for a run. When I hunched down to leap, though, a crinkle came from my jacket. Investigating led me to a note in my inside pocket, penned in Donnie's handwriting. I read the note carefully, trying to remember when I told him to write it down for me.
[Goal for Jim Hart: break a sweat.]
A respectable goal indeed! I must have told the bull-man to write that down for me in the wee hours of the night. One thing's true about the barkeep: he can connect with anybody.
Well, there's no time like the present... I tossed the note to the ground and set off on a sprint, leaping from tree to tree with the sole purpose of wearing myself out. My abdominal muscles screamed in protest, but after the first few trees they started to adapt and stopped hurting. Okay, maybe I just have to reach a certain point before I start dripping with the stuff.
My grip began to fail around the five-minute mark; every step left a small puddle on the tree. Still no sweat in my fur. What did I have to do to get this to work? As my mind chewed over the negative thought the excited energy left me, leaving me frustrated and stuck on a lame branch.
This wasn't working at all. What I needed was a new approach, a tool to help me along. I needed to stay hot for a long period of time, to give my body time to get into the act.
I remember the homemade 'solar suit' I used in my college years to shave off pounds. That thing raised my body temperature a few degrees; just walking around made me drip with sweat...
A sandwich bag discarded on the ground sets off a light bulb in my head. I chittered happily as I scrambled down to pick it up, running from there straight to the water fountain to wash it off. Once it was clean, I used my incisors to snip limb-holes in the bag and stepped into it, suddenly feeling considerably warmer and constricted.
Perfect. A jog to The Pig should get me dripping with the stuff. Jim, you're a genius!
I sprinted the last hundred yards to The Pig, and I was still as dry as a bone. My leg muscles were beyond tired; when I slowed down to open the door I nearly collapsed. Years of pushing through the pain kept me from falling, though, and I managed to stumble through the door when a concerned window-watcher opened it for me. I would put my arms over my head to let more air in, but when you walk on four legs those forepaws are rather important...
Silence from the drum set. I think I outlasted Mr. Skins! Yes, he's doubled over in a corner trying to catch his breath. How's that for endurance?
A wave of soft chuckles filled the air as I walked into the bar in my sandwich bag. I ignore the laughter, finding it hard enough to concentrate on walking forward. One foot in front of the other, that's it... You can do this, Jim! A few more steps and you can hop right up onto the bar...
Yeah, right. The kind wolf lady I pranked yesterday walked over to pick me up; I was too tired to even flinch. When she set me onto the table my legs gave out from under me, and I lay flat on the cool bar. The cool wood feels heavenly on my skin, but within moments it was steaming hot, offering no solace to me.
Donnie eyed my heaving body with absolute concern, and immediately turned to his bar. He returned with a shot glass of water and a note: [You will drink this water, even if I have to force it down your throat. You look like hell.]
I wanted to say something strong, but I only had the energy to whisper. "I feel like it too, Donnie; I've spent the past two hours trying to get a sweat going." It was a long run here, I wanted to add, but I was too tired to continue.
"So, what's with the new fashion?" Phil asked from his corner, "I thought the bag look went out years ago." I would ask why he was here in the middle of the day, but I was too tired to ask. Maybe he was taking a break from the daily grind...
I've never been one for breaks.
"It's a solar suit," I replied. When I tried to gulp down the water, I choked. "I'm okay," I replied before anyone could ask. When a throat's that dry, you have to take things slowly... I proceeded to take smaller sips; I was so dry I could feel the water going throughout my body.
"A solar what?"
"Solar suit. It brings up my body temperature so I can sweat easier." On my fourth sip my body felt full, so I pushed the glass over to one side.
The rabbit blanched. "Why in the world would you do that?"
"I just..." a hacking cough cut into my conversation, "I just want to break a sweat. It's been so long since I've had a good sweat going... I just miss it. Wrestlers have used them for years to shave off the extra few pounds, and nothing bad happened to them..." I left out the dead wrestlers; this rabbit was already worried, and there was no reason to egg that on.
"Jim, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but..."
I've talked for too long! If I don't start back up soon, I'll lose all the work I've done today! "Sorry to cut you short, Phil, but I have to get going. I'll lose my rhythm if I rest for too long."
"But Jim..." I rallied all my energy and sprang to the floor as he tried to stall me.
"Are the cards still outside?" I asked, holding the door open as I waited for his reply.
Phil yelled at me, passionately, harshly. "Jim, you're gonna kill yourself if you keep this up!"
"Never mind, I don't need them. Be back in a bit!" As the door closed behind me, I could hear Phil swear and slam his paw cup to the ground. I afforded myself a small chuckle, but as I approached the sill I refocused on the task at hand.
I have to do this. I have to get back to where I was before. I have to prove my worth to everybody.
Every time I sneak a peek into the window, I see their staring faces. They doubt me. They mock me! Not that I blame them...
With a grunt I start the workout off with a punishing set of candlesticks. My stiff muscles refuse to work for the first few reps, but by the end of the set I was getting back into the groove. I went right from one exercise to another, starting squat jumps as soon as my feet hit the ground.
So far, so good... was this going to be the one? It felt so right, somehow. I was ready.
Back and forth, up and down, a smooth, unbreakable rhythm of planned pain. Endorphins flowed through my body, nullifying all the agony. The sandwich bag I wore crinkled with each motion, spurring me on, mocking my situation. The pads on my paws were dripping wet.
And still they stared.
Can't they find something else to look at? All the time I'm the main attraction. Half a seat this, squirrelly-whirlley that... I'm a human being, God damn it! The workout sped up tenfold as the words bounced around in my head, forming a veil of hatred over my twisted mind.
Lady Irony spat in my eye as I continued to push through the hellish workout, yelling hypocrisies I've based my life upon. The socialite athlete turned antisocial wimp. Fearless leader turned into terrified prey. Guilty on all charges!
Guilty! My mouth dried up, and my blood ran cold. I took off in a sprint, up a gutter pipe and onto the roof of the Pig. I was guilty of losing my discipline. All those years of training, of pushing through everything, and I can't even break a sweat. A God-be-damned sweat!
I pulled back a flap of the bag, unleashing a wave of hot air. Still bone dry. With a grunt of frustration I returned to the sill for another plyometric workout.
Maybe a change in exercise would help... I picked a wood grain line and started a set of line jumps. Left side to right side, never stopping my motion, never giving my body a chance to give up. I'll beat it yet! I'll prove I'm innocent!
The world around me becomes darker, but it doesn't matter. Nothing matters now except for the bounce of the workout. Left, right, leftright...
I scream and close my eyes to block out the last of my pain, determined to finish the next set of line jumps. Every minute jostle on my frame sends jolts of pain up and down my spine, but I have my goal. The ever-important goal! I wasn't sure if my eyes were opened or closed anymore. My entire body was one big pincushion, numb to everything but the jostling pain.
And all of a sudden, like Galahad touching the Holy Grail, it came! Moisture on my face! I laughed with joy as the salty solution diffused across my fur, bringing cool relief as it evaporated into the dim summer night.
Suddenly, my celebration was racked with a sniffle, racking me with anticlimax as I collapsed onto the sill. The gruesome realization weighed like lead on my shoulders as my mind began to clam up, depressed and beaten beyond salvation.
As I lost consciousness, my mind filled in the blanks. Whaddaya know? It was only a tear.
() () () () ()
I awoke abruptly, my instincts immediately aware of the strange
scent of latex and disinfectant. When I tried to run, though,
I found myself strapped down to a gigantic bed. Instinct thrashed
against the holds, but they held fast. My body eventually calmed
down, beaten once again.
With my instinct subdued, I opened my eyes to a hospital room. The sun was shining into the room, making me squint from the brightness. As soon as my eyes opened, the blinds were mercifully drawn. When I sighed, I realized my solar suit had been removed.
I screamed out for help. "Where am I? Where's my suit?"
A high-pitched greetings came from the side of the bed; I turned my head to find the rabbit Phil sitting bedside. After I acknowledged his presence, he moved around to the front of the bed so I could face him straight on.
"Sorry for the restraints," Phil started, "I've seen you spooked before; let's just say if you were to freak now it wouldn't be pretty.
"Well, do you want the sugar-coated or all-natural version?" Phil chuckled lightly; not enough to be malicious, but effective in lifting my spirit.
"Can I get the hard truth with those little marshmallows?"
He chuckled. "You worked yourself to exhaustion yesterday," Phil said gravely, "the solar suit you concocted caused you to suffer severe dehydration, and the sheer mass of the exercise completely drained your energy reserves."
That was the point, bimbo. "And..?"
"You ignored all the signs and pushed on," Phil added acridly, "and your body finally broke. If you didn't figure it out by now, squirrels aren't capable of sweat anywhere but their paws."
I sighed deeply. Thank you, Dr. Stupid...
"You're damn lucky everyone took an interest in your antics," he continued. "If it weren't for Wanderer, you probably would have baked in your own body heat on that sill." The name rang a bell in the back of my mind, but I couldn't attach a face.
That would have to wait, though.
"So what do the docs have me on?" And how much is it going to cost?
"We brought you to the hospital as soon as we could; the docs put you on IV nutrients and water. Pretty routine, really. Luckily we got you here in time. Squirrels have a fast metabolism, and every minute counted." I shifted a little in my brace and felt the needle in my back.
Phil lifted a paw. "Oh, and before you ask, the shelter is covering this. It's not that bad of a hospital bill, but I'm sure it would have been hell for a jobless rodent."
My jaw dropped. "How did you know?"
He replied with a chuckle. "How was I not supposed to know? Come on -- no human on this earth would choose to live in a tree in the middle of a petty game park. You'd have to be pretty desperate to do that."
I sighed and shook my head as I listened. "So I guess a breakdown like this dooms me to a Colony..."
"Not today," he said happily, "They wanted to drag you there in a pen, but I sprang you."
He ear-smiled. "Let's just say I have connections. I've been there, and I can honestly say nobody deserves that fate. The directors want me in a colony, too... fat chance." A high pitched chuckle followed.
"But why me? Why save a pathetic little squirrel? You don't know me from Adam."
"Call me curious. First time I see you you're the most antisocial little rodent I've ever seen, the next day you walk in sealed in a sandwich bag hell-bent on killing yourself."
"I wanted to break a sweat."
That ear-smile again. "Same difference. Anyway, an explanation is well worth my effort. Care to enlighten me?" I couldn't run from the fact that this man had just saved my life, so I did the right thing.
I opened the floodgates onto his big, floppy ears.
"It's everything, Phil," I started, "A year ago I was big man on campus. School wrestling coach who could get kids to run through a wall for him. Freestyle coach with national champions under my belt. Indiana's coach of the year. I loved my sport more than anything. Do you know how that feels?"
Phil shook his head.
"Now look at me. In the past three days I've been shot at, treated like some sick pet, chased by cats, scared off by another human being... And then when I try to turn my life around I end up in the hospital!"
"I'm poisoned, Phil. Poisoned with knowledge I can't use. A mind full of wrestling moves my body can't perform. I've spent all my life honing the techniques and now I'm up shit creek without a paddle."
"I see." Phil kept interjecting to let me know he was paying attention. Like I couldn't tell by his concentrated stare.
"I was a high school state champion. State champion! Best in the state of Indiana. People looked up to me for that. I've had the joy of giving that feeling back to five kids. They loved the sport more than I did.
"I guess... What I'm trying to say is that I miss wrestling, Phil. I miss every little detail: the barn-burner dual meets, the state finals, the wrestling rooms that always smell like bleach and body odor, to kids who love the sport with all their heart.
"And when this happened, I denied that it changed anything. SCABS changes everything, Phil. Everything." As the last word left my mouth, I started to cry. The act immediately brought shame; men weren't supposed to cry...
Phil made a soft, cooing noise and put a paw on my back. A long silence followed; I emptied my tear ducts onto the sheets, and the rabbit sat at the foot of my bed, supporting me. For the first time since SCABS hit me, I felt completely comfortable. I was finally facing up to the facts, facing up to the grim reality.
My name is Jim Hart. I'm a human-turned-squirrel, and getting along with it.
My face came away from the bed. "I'm done."
"I've got some good news and some bad news," Phil said softly, "Good news is that I think you can still float a career in wrestling."
"Bad news: it's going to take some patience on your part. You have to take things gradually."
"That sounds great!" I would have jumped with excitement, but the harness held me down.
Phil suddenly lit up. "Say, isn't there a summer wrestling program?"
"Freestyle! How could I forget? That's my specialty." This was the first time in ten years that I've missed a season...
"I have a few connections," Phil continued. "What would you say to learning how to referee? It would be a great way to get back into the sport..."
"You mean get my certification? My whiteshirting license doesn't expire for another year."
Phil ear-smiled. "So that's what they call it..."
"In wrestling, yes. After SCABS hit, we became a pretty select group. The rulebook doubled in size after the Martian Flu!"
"That settles that, then! Bone up on the rules, and I'll set up a test for you. Let's see if I can't get the nurses to release you..." he leapt from his spot and headed towards the door. As he pushed the door open, I knew that there was one thing left to do...
"Phil!" He turned and blocked the door with his paw.
"Phil, I can't thank you enough for what you've done."
"No problem," he said nonchalantly, "I'll see you 'round the Pig."
"Goodbye!" The door slammed behind him, and I was left alone in my harness, a kindling fire burning in my gut.
That fire, friends, was hope.