by Sly Squirrel
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 specil-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.