by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
The Secrets of Jubatus, #275 in a series (collect them all!):
I don't really have a disposition -- it's more of a rocket-propelled
roller-coaster ride. How can this be, you ask? I've got a seriously overbuilt endocrine system, that's how, with glands that could
satisfy all the hormonal needs of any three ZIP Codes in the continental
United States. It's just the ticket for any critter whose lifestyle
is built around the need to at any moment go from zero to 50 MPH
in two seconds. I don't recommend it, myself. The downside is
that my bloodstream gets flooded with insane quantities of hormones
and enzymes and God knows what at the drop of a hat, ergo my emotions
tend to hit hard and fast and very intense.
And here I'll bet you thought my severe mood swings were merely a sign of mental instability, am I right? No such luck. Oh, instability is part of it, true, but not a particularly large part. Under 30% for sure, might be less than 10%.
It's not unlike living in a minefield -- hit just one "danger zone" by mistake, and whammo! your mental equilibrium gets whipsawed all to hell. All of which said, I have been like this for a couple years, and by now I've pretty much got a handle on it. For the most part.
The exceptions can be pretty memorable. Let me tell you about one of them.
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
This has not been a good day.
I've just spent six clock-hours smashing my brains against a wall that happens to be a client. Figuratively speaking, of course -- he's no inanimorph, just an unmitigated idiot with more dollars than brain cells. I know, I know, twits happen, but this bozo is in a class unto himself. Call him Mr. Moron. Son of a bitch not only welches on our contract, refuses to pay me any money at all, but also files suit against me when I politely request that he destroy all the work I sent him.
He's got lies and bluster on his side, nothing more. I, contrariwise, have plentiful documentation, complete with digital timestamps, digital signatures, and wall-to-wall encryption, all of it open source, all peer-reviewed algorithms. And as per usual, I've also got a couple surprises up my sleeve for any fool who tries to hack my chosen crypto. You say 'unfounded paranoia'; I say 'prudent precaution for anyone who does business over an intrinsically anonymous medium such as the Net'.
Mr. Moron's actual complaint is a thick document, chock full of boilerplate text. I amuse myself by perusing the silly thing and identifying all the bits which just don't apply to this situation. My attorney is kind enough to check my guesses; I'm batting .550, not bad for a layman. It's obvious that Mr. Moron is posturing, in an attempt to intimidate me into silence.
Like a cute little bird once said, He don't know me vewwy well, do he?
I'll give you the Reader's Digest Condensed Version, no sense in both of us going half-mad waiting for the inevitable: Seven weeks of pre-trial maneuvers. Six unendurably protracted hours of sitting on my ass in an overheated Chicago courtroom. Four minutes for the judge to rule in my favor after the lawyers shut up. 3.5 seconds for Mr. Moron to announce (through his mouthpiece) that he's appealing the decision. One big, fat, juicy countersuit to recover my legal expenses and then some. No partridges nor pear trees in sight.
Mr. Moron's got money, but then so do I. He thinks he can stretch it out until I'm broke, and then declare victory, he's got a major surprise coming. Is it any wonder that I've been thoroughly torqued off since halfway into today's legal ordeal? Still, while my temper may burn hot, it also burns out quick. We cheetahs have no reserves to speak of, we can't sustain much of anything for long. Thus does my anger diminish from NUKE THE ENTIRE BLEEDING WORLD, GOD WILL KNOW HIS OWN! all the way down to i'm annoyed, really i am by the time I pull into the Blind Pig's parking lot. No reserves, nothing left in me. You slowpokes don't know from tired; a cheetah running on EMPTY, now that's tired.
I'm irritated to see Wanderer's glee club, random mixture of species that it is. I completely forgot that this was one of their nights to rehearse. My end of my relationship with that group is a love/hate deal, thanks to my own (lack of) singing ability. There are times I wish SCABS had finished the job, made me completely mute, because total silence might just be more tolerable than the half-assed vocalizing I'm stuck with.
Don't sweat it. You would understand if you'd ever heard my real voice.
I get a boilermaker with an ounce of whatever it is Sinclair found that can get me drunk -- alcohol won't work, I burn it off too fast. The glee club isn't singing? Of course not, they must be through for the evening. Morbidly curious, I move towards them to eavesdrop on their conversation.
"-- turns into a howl!" That's Wanderer. Momus' beard! I hope they're not discussing what I think they're discussing -- not while my own musically useful range covers all of an augmented third, pestilence take it.
"I know," says another lupine, I think it's Ringwolf, obviously sympathizing. "Me, I can't even reach high C before my control is shot." Heiliger Christus, they are -- No, damn it, I will not stand here and listen as these multi-octave sons of bitches piss and moan about how unfair it is that their range isn't any wider! But of course, I do anyway. Somehow, it's all I can do to not collapse into a chair, let alone move my entire body away. The damnable lupine morphs continue on in this vein, and it's the Maraschino cherry on the sundae, it is.
Something fragile and overstrained shatters inside me -- I do believe it's the last surviving vestige of my patience, however much of that managed to withstand a day of dealing with Mr. Moron, L'Imbecile Sans Peur. Yes indeed, the wolves' self-pitying complaints are the proverbial pluperfect Last Goddamn Straw, complete with genuine imitation rhinestones inlaid to spell out YOU DONE GONE AND SCREWED THE POOCH, SONNY-BOY! on its dorsal and ventral surfaces. My brains and blood almost vibrate with a surge of adrenaline I wouldn't have believed I still had in me. I move before my conscious mind kicks in, and for once I and my hardwired instincts are as one.
"Outta my way," I growl, shoving past and through anyone who doesn't obey quickly enough to suit me. I couldn't care less about the disgruntled murmurs that mark my progress through the crowd. Once at the piano, I arpeggiate a C major chord an octave above high C -- and that pisses me off even more, the fact that a goddamn fifth is now close to my limit, when my human hands were able to span an octave plus change.
"Wanderer! Howl!" I snarl at him, punctuating the command by snapping my other arm up to point directly at him. He obeys, I'd say more out of shock than for any other reason.
-- and the instant he hits that G, I clench my hand shut and snap out, "Hold that note!" Next it's "Ringwolf! Howl!" and "Hold that E!", and finally Wolfshead on the C. Their chord has a unique quality to it, a timbre that I can't recall hearing from them ever before.
I repeat the C chord. "Modulate! Up!" I transpose to D, and the three wolves move up a major second. "Down!" Back to C. "Down!" Next stop: B flat. "Up!" Back home at C. They've tracked me pretty damned well, considering they were just recently kvetching about how impossible it was for them to hit controlled, musically useful notes in this register. After a few seconds more of C, I end it by ripping my arm through the air in a gesture that looks well-suited for gutting a very large sturgeon.
"You got all that?" I ask, hurling the question at them as though it were a hand grenade. "You damn well better, because I never want to hear any of you bloody sons of bitches making any goddamn noise about the top end of your fucking range ever again! Jesus Christonagddmnfknscr --" and my tempo begins to rise even before I finish swearing at them. The front door slams within seconds.
I'm done. Spent. Exhausted. If I was running on fumes before, what I'm burning now must be the memory of fumes. The proof is in my involuntary upshift: I didn't do it because I was in a hurry to leave, I did it because I was so damned tired that I lost the concentration I need to stay at the human tempo. No, I lie. Forget exhaustion; it's hunger that docks me 60 IQ points, and it's my attorney's advice that brought me to this state, more fool I for following that advice. It's been nine whole clock-hours since I've eaten any protein, and for a turbocharged metabolism like mine, this constitutes a hunger strike. It's always time to feed the beast, damn it. Next time a lawyer advises me not to bring food into a courtroom, I'll advise him to shut the hell up.
It's a still night, not much going on in the neighborhood. I've got slabs of meat in a small fridge in my Extremis -- the largest Ford-made SUV of all time -- I trudge on over. The colors of fast-time are as odd as ever, but I'm long since used to it. I hear the purring rumble of crickets in a vacant lot a couple blocks to the north, the leathery sounds of fistfights and arguments from many directions. My vibrissae (cat-whiskers) tell me there's a breeze, but I can't really feel it through my fur. Too bad. I catch the scents of fresh urine and vomit from faceless drunks here on West Street. Fun location we're at. I don't quite fumble the key, and the side door opens.
Three kilos of sirloin start thawing; I dial my hotplate to 40 degrees Celsius. Waiting for the microwave's bell, I have time to set the table for dinner. Good silverware, china, and crystal, the whole nine yards. I may be a true carnivore, but there are still forms that must be observed, by God. I'll be dead and damned before I adopt non-human eating habits to go with my non-human diet. Not that the diet is absolutely non-human, mind. I've a decent collection of condiments -- sauces and spices and such -- and tonight I choose to experiment with a garlic-enhanced Worchestershire blend.
I could just inhale the raw protein right now, as is -- there's a vacuum inside me that's bigger than I am -- but I won't. Makes for a fine test of my willpower, and thus far I'm winning. Can't do much about the drooling, damn it. About the same time as my main dish is ready, the Pig's front door creeps open, framing a silhouette. I transfer one slab of meat to my plate, the rest to the hotplate that will keep them at body temperature until I'm ready for them. The shadow-shape inches towards me, gradually resolving itself to Wanderer as the seconds ooze by. I've got plenty of time to observe him in motion, plenty of time to think as I cut (with a fork and knife!), chew, and swallow.
I don't understand people like Wanderer. In my experience, generosity is the fastest, surest route to ingratitude; no good deed goes unpunished; turning the other cheek gets you a matching bruise; intimacy just lets them get close enough to stab you in a vital spot; and anyone can fuck you over at any time. And yet Wanderer is generous and forgiving and on and on -- he makes himself a perpetual goddamn target -- so how does he get away with it? It irks me, it really does. I don't like unsolvable puzzles...
Ah. His mouth is open. His voice dopplers up as I downshift to his tempo: "--rrre you in a civilized mood?"
I let out a sigh; even that sounds "off" to me. I swirl my glass, hold it up to let the single street light within 100 meters sparkle off of its contents. "Getting there." I lower the glass, take a sip, look at the wolf. "How in hell do you manage, damn it?" I ask, irritated.
"Excuse me? I really --"
"Fuck that noise," I interrupt. "You know damn well what I'm talking about, or at least you should. You're the life of the bleeding party, you are, always ready with a quip and a smile, and never a hint that you know how positively shitty life can get. How in Polyhymnia's name do you do it?"
He doesn't answer, just looks at me, and finally (after a good second of silence) states, "You honestly don't know."
I grimace. "Suurre I do. The only reason I even bothered to ask is that I just love to hear the sound of my own voice." I sigh again, and my whole body sags in on itself -- I can't sustain more than a pilot light's worth of annoyance, if even that much. "Never mind. What do you want from me?"
Another pause, this one well over two seconds.
Finally, Wanderer says, "I want to know how long you're going to continue making yourself miserable. Didn't you say it's been more than two years? When will you get on with your life?"
"'Life, don't talk to me about life'," I quote, then laugh and echo his earlier words. "Heh heh heh. You honestly don't know." I continue laughing, and it's a bitter, jagged, thoroughly unpleasant noise; whatever humor it might have held to start with is soon absent. Hysteria, thy name is Jubatus. And then Wanderer is in the Extremis with me and he grabs my right shoulder and there's a sharp pain in --
-- damage: non-impairing: kill --
-- NO, Goddamnit! --
-- and I stifle a murderous yowl. Or maybe I just let it die for want of effort, it's hard to say. It is hard to say. Hard to speak, think, do much of anything else. That last adrenal surge really took it out of me. The forepaw that was poised to rip the wolf's face off of his skull, I instead let drift down along my own face, gingerly tracing the shallow furrows he left when he slapped me. My hand comes away with fluid on it. Smells like blood, feels like it, doesn't look like it. Oh. Right. Colors of fast-time. I try to raise my hand for a closer look, can't do more than slow its descent to my lap. Don't have the energy. Heh. Fastest SCAB alive, and here I am too tired even to move. Funny.
My head falls forward. Good. Wanted a clearer view of the stuff on my fingers. Heh. Just thought of a punchline. Wanderer will love it. Oh yeah, gotta downshift, he won't understand it at this tempo. Can't hardly think, hard to shift. Okay, talk slow & deep.
"TThhaaannkksss... II... nneeeeddeedd... tthhaaa..."
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
I'm lying down?
I am. On a full-sized bed, under a blanket which (amazingly enough) is only warm, not sweltering. I'm not wearing any clothes, that must be why I'm not overheated. I feel a dull, throbbing ache all over, head to tail and toes. Still tired, just not the marrow-deep exhaustion of last night. I could open my eyes, but why bother? I can already catch the scents of antiseptic, specialized foods, and Wanderer. Not to mention the delightful sensation of sharp things poking into blood vessels in my arms. Put it all together, it spells "hospital".
For a moment I wonder what the wolf is doing here. Then I remember what happened. He slapped my face, and I collapsed like a string-cut puppet. Christ on a sidecar, I could lay such a guilt trip on him... heh. Forget it, I've done enough already.
"You're awake!" It's him. I must've said something, I've been known to talk in my sleep. "Are you alright?"
"Mm. I feel like..." Only cliches come to mind. "Damn. If my brain weren't wrapped in cotton right now, I'd have a better description than my brain feels like it's wrapped in cotton."
"I hardly think this is a joking matter," is the quiet reply.
"Why not? There's always something to chuckle over, if you take your humor black. 'If I may be seen to laugh at any mortal thing'..." I begin.
"...'it is so that I may not cry'," he says, completing the quote. "From Don Juan, by Lord Byron, isn't it?"
"Yes, but in my case, the operative verb isn't 'cry'. I laugh so that I won't take an illicit assault weapon to the nearest rooftop and fire randomly into the crowd."
"Hmm. That's rather a hefty load of anger you're carrying," he observes thoughtfully.
"No kidding. What was your first clue?" I sneer, but my heart isn't in it. "Yes, I've got a bad temper, and no, it's nothing to do with SCABS. I'm just an angry young man who stayed angry." I finally open my eyes, to look at the wolf. He's seen better days; it wouldn't surprise me if he'd slept in that chair. "Your turn. I've already asked, and I don't think that 'how long will you mourn' crap is the real answer: What do you want from me?"
He considers me for a long moment. "I'd like to know how you got pure tones out of us in that register, if I may. I wouldn't have thought it possible!"
I shrug. "It was obvious. Your vocal tract is basically human, but from the way you bitch about high notes, there's gotta be some lupine bits in there as well. Two different boxes of tools, two different skill-sets. Can't work with the lupine bits if you're stuck on human vocal techniques. Like I said, obvious."
He chuckles ruefully. "To you, perhaps, but I can assure you it was appreciably less than obvious to us! And such being the case, I should be very pleased if you would consent to work with us in future. What would you say to that?"
"Fuck off and die," I state, calmly and without heat. "Work with you? Yeah, right. You guys are an amateur vocal group, and I can't sing! Look, Wanderer. You can invent pointless little make-work tasks to keep me out of your hair. You can even give me a fancy title like Artistic Director to distract me from realizing what you're doing. But what you can't do is expect me not to recognize when I'm being blatantly patronized."
"I hardly think it patronizing to want to benefit from any further 'obvious' ideas of yours!"
"What makes you think there'll be any more? Even if I owned a hat, I couldn't pull miracles out of it on command."
"You're right, of course. Just because you can walk on water doesn't mean you should be able to swim."
"Say what? I think you missed my point," I begin, but the wolf doesn't give me the chance to explain.
"Nay, sirrah, 'tis you have missed mine!" he growls. "What makes you think I'm doing this for some half-brained feline with the manners of a drunken monkey? Do you honestly think you're such an attractive charity case that I just can't stay away? Please, Jubatus. If I knew anyone else who could do it half as well, I'd be on their doorstep in a heartbeat, and I mean one of yours.
"Because I know my limits. I'm an actor, a singer, and something of a comedian. But I will never be a dancer, and not just because these footpads of mine are utter wrecks on anything with less traction than carpet. I can't dance anything more complicated than the box step without a lot of training. I'll never be a choreographer because I can't analyze my own movement, let alone someone else's. And I'll sure as I'm wearing a fur coat never be a choir leader, because I can't explain it to anyone who doesn't already know it. Now, do you need more reasons, or has yon fool of a wolf satisfied thy curiousity?"
My mind whirls, albeit at a much lower RPM than usual.
Not a charity case -- Never a choir leader -- How could he not know -- No charity --What's he think he's been doing -- Instructor wanted -- No leader, my ass -- Not a handout --
"So... you really are interested. In me. With your boys. Teaching."
"I believe that is what I said, yes," Wanderer replies in a tone of dry amusement.
Hope flares without warning -- I'm a technical writer, teaching people is what I do for a living -- and dies just as suddenly. "That's great, but... I think I've burned a few too many bridges. You really think they're gonna stand for working with me?"
"You oughtn't be too quick to disqualify yourself. Would you care to know what the group thought of your little exhibition?"
I grimace. "Don't tell me. The cat-thing reacted with amused contempt; the tenor wants my head on a platter; the bug is too spaced-out to comprehend what went on; the other wolf can't figure out why I don't just leave you the hell alone; the buffalo didn't deign to notice anything; and Wanderer would like me to apologize for publicly humiliating the lupines." My lack of energy shows in my tone all throughout this recitation. "How'd I do, Rin Tin Tin?"
He smiles. "Poorly, if you must know. In point of fact, you engendered the same initial reaction in all six of us -- intense fear. I truly cannot recall our exhibiting such unanimity on any other topic!" I wince at this statement. So I scared them all shitless. Oh, joy. "At least you're not a violent person," he concludes cheerfully.
I frown. "Fat lot you know about it."
"In truth, I rather think I do. You were quite the fearsome sight throughout your little tutoring session; I wasn't at all certain that you could refrain from opening a few arteries! Yet, the only things you did open were our upper registers. And during your first visit to Donnie's establishment you were disquietingly active, but, again, peace of mind was the only thing you inflicted any significant damage on."
I look him in the eyes. "Thank you," I say quietly, and I mean it.
He nods. "You are most welcome. Now, if I may continue: We spoke amongst ourselves after you, hrrhrm, became indisposed, shall we say? Once the topic ran to what you actually did, as opposed to the distasteful manner in which you did it, we quickly realized that your insights could be of great value to us. And as it happens, even Ringwolf is willing to put aside his enmity, presuming your ministrations prove to be as beneficial as I suspect they will.
"The question is, are you prepared to behave yourself? Can you put an end to mourning your lost voice? If not, which is to say if you continue to disrupt our rehearsals, we'd best start looking for a new space in which to rehearse."
I think I know what the wolf's aiming at here, and I cut to the chase. "You're trying for that 'shared pain is lessened' bullshit, aren't you."
He nods. "I have always found it to be helpful."
"That makes one of us," I say with another grimace. Then again, nothing I've tried has done any good yet, so what the hell? Can't hurt. "Alright, fine. You ask me 'how long, o Lord?' I dunno. I got denial out of the way already -- did I mention that I couldn't even speak at first? That, I denied so strongly that I actually taught myself how to talk again, took me five calendar days. Anger, I got that as soon as I stopped being relieved about learning to talk again, and been there ever since. Bargaining, probably not. I've never believed in any god to bargain with. Does my research into possible cures count? Depression, well, it was only frustration when all I knew was that I couldn't sing. Now that I know why I can't sing -- my vocal tract is pure cheetah, nothing to sing with -- now I'm getting some depression, big time. Acceptance... I just don't know. Ask me again next year."
"I shall. In the meantime, though... what carries you through the day? Were your life such a torment, I rather doubt you'd have lived to see the bar."
I give him a wan smile. "It's not that bad, mostly. Hell, I can go for clock-hours on end without thinking about it."
"Clock-hours?" Wanderer asks, puzzled at this non-standard term.
"Hours by the clock." I wave a vague gesture. "What you slowpokes live by. My hours are faster." He gets it -- and suddenly I get something, too: Wanderer is moving, even though I didn't downshift to his tempo. Derksen must have me on some kind of metabolic depressant. Wonder why? "Anyhow, like I said, I can go for clock-hours at a time without hurting. But with the glee club around..." I shake my head. "Think of me as a moth, helplessly spiraling to my doom around the fire of your little group."
"But surely you possess more self-control than the insect you name?"
"Of course I do! It's just, well... I think I can name that pain in four words: Humans sing. Animals don't."
"Animals do, actually," Wanderer answers with a smirk. I glare back at him. "We wolves love a good sing-along."
I cut in before he can say more. "Oh, please. You know any natural-born wolves can belt out a Broadway show tune? Me, neither. Sure, a wolf call is an interesting noise, but it's not song! And the same goes for the sounds whales make, if you were thinking about going there. Singing, real singing, is a uniquely human activity. And I was awfully damned good at it... before."
"So this is at the root of it all: You fear for your humanity."
Anger flares within me. "Yes yousonofafuckingbitch I am afraid --" I snap at him, then I realize what I've just said, what I've admitted. My anger fades.
That's what I get for having the fastest mouth in the Western Hemisphere. I wait for the other shoe to drop. I just know it's going to be a very heavy steel-toed boot, with plenty of sharpened cleats protruding from its hobnailed sole, that falls with great force onto something highly sensitive.