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Timing
by Brian Eirik Coe
Brian Eirik Coe -- all rights reserved
 

I opened the door and stepped in, taking a long look around. It looked a little like I had expected, perhaps a touch seedier.

'Cheers' it wasn't.

It was definitely a SCAB bar, though. I didn't see that many people in here that were normal, or passed as such. Then again, it was early, only a little after 5:30. There were only about half a dozen customers in the bar.

I walked over and took a stool, dropping my small case on the bar. The bartender walked over, and he was frankly huge. "What'll you have?" he said through an electronic voicebox.

"Hot coffee, with about half of it Irish Cream.

He smiled a little and reached back for the bottle. "A bit high class for this place."

I returned the smile, "I'm just in a high class kind of mood."

He placed the cup on the table and looked me over while he poured. I probably looked a little out of place. I was about to head home from work when I decided to stop in here. I was still dressed in my shirt, tie, hat and jacket. I'd considered taking off at least the hat and coat, but I still didn't know if I wanted to stay.

Even before the Flu, I'd always felt out of place in a crowd. Oh, it wasn't hard for me to go out and have dinner with friends or something, but wandering into a bar like this, or any gathering place for that matter, was out of character for me. But, frankly, I was getting tired of being alone every night.

The bartender finished making my coffee and set the pot back down. He eyed my small brown case with a little suspicion. "You're not here to make some sort of delivery, are you?"

As I took a sip, my eyebrows went up. "Huh? What do you mean?"

"The case?"

I glanced over at it. "Oh, no. It's mine. It's just some patient's files that I need to work on tonight."

"You a doctor?"

"In a manner of speaking. I've been an optometrist since '00"

He looked around the still largely empty bar, then he looked me over a little. From his position over me, he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. "You might like to know that this is mostly a SCAB hangout."

I smiled a little and slipped off my hat, revealing my ears. They were peaked up the side of my head and covered in light gray-brown fur. "I've got a tail, too. I just don't show it often. It's small and flexible enough to keep hidden down a pant leg."

He picked up a glass from the bar and started wiping it. "I doubt that you'll need to hide it in here."

I shrugged. "Force of habit. It tends to make my life a little easier when some patients don't see the extent of my change. Besides, to get it out now means taking off my pants."

He set the glass down and gave me a long look. "I really hope you're kidding. I really do."

I didn't say anything, just took a long drink. He walked to the other end of the bar to help another customer shaking his head a little. I swivelled a little in the chair and looked around. Not much going on. A couple of canine types were sitting over in a corner around a fairly large table. A couple other SCABS were sitting around the bar. Another reading the paper, a pair watching the news on TV. One guy with tall, gray equine ears and an elongated face was sitting at the piano and plucking away a tune that I could almost remember. Something from my youth, I think, but I'd never been that good with music. A very feline woman was leaning against the piano and nodding her head a little to the soft beat.

If it wasn't for the fur, feathers, ears and tails, it could have been any normal bar in the world on a quiet afternoon.

I got a little lost in though, and started to wonder what I was doing here. I felt out of place. Since the day that I got the Flu, I'd been in a state of flux. I'd been practicing for four years when it happened. Up to that point, I'd managed to build a relatively good practice in a short period of time. I was turning a profit, making good money. After years of hard work, I was going to be a success.

Then I woke up one morning with a raging headache, a nose so stopped up that by the time I cleared it I was blowing blood out with the mucus, a pair of peaked ears, a striped tail and a back covered in a thick gray-brown pelt. My eyes had even changed to dark brown, but still looked human enough. Purely by accident, I discovered I could change fully raccoon and back again. No matter what I tried, though, I couldn't ditch the ears or tail.

For months afterward, I was deathly afraid of losing everything. Despite the rather modest obvious changes, most of my patients left. My schedule book went from booked two weeks in advance to being able to take walk-ins. My assistant quit. It was really a blessing, I guess. I'd only barely been earning enough to make ends meet when I was paying her and since she had a family, I hadn't wanted to fire her.

In the end, I retained about 1 in 10 patients. Most of the ones I retained were either SCABS themselves or were among the few who saw past the changes. No matter what I tried back then, I simply couldn't bring anyone back. All they saw were the raccoon ears.

Most didn't even know about the tail.

I fell into a sulk for a few years. After a while, I didn't do much to try and drum up business. I was too busy wallowing in self pity. At first I was earning barely enough money to stay in the black, though as the years went on I slowly began to fall into debt. I simply didn't care. A few years ago, I came close to hitting bottom.

I began to seriously debate either suicide or simply going fully raccoon and leaving all this behind. The first option seemed repugnant to me, and I didn't have the guts to do the other.

I was, maybe, three months from losing what I had left. It turned out that I needed a little slap of reality. Actually, I needed a really big slap.

That came with a request from a downtown shelter for homeless SCABS. They had been trying for a long time to get someone down to see some of the residents in the hopes that some of them could be helped, maybe enough to help get them back on their feet. Since I had plenty of time, I had packed up some portable equipment and come down the next day.

That was almost ten years after the peak of the Flu, and it hadn't been until then that I realized how good that I had it. It wasn't until I started seeing them, the people who had really lost a lifetimes worth of work, that I started to see that I got off easy. Really easy.

I met people who were once managers, executives, factory workers, engineers, doctors, teachers, and a host of other occupations who had been forced out when they changed. They lost family, friends, co-workers and everything they worked for. Some lost their sanity.

I'd lost a number of relatives to the Flu, which is probably why the ones that survived stuck by me. Most of them, anyway. I'd heard through the grapevine that one cousin in Europe, who looked more like a mouse than a man, was being actively shunned by my European relatives while they stayed in long distance contact with me. I guess it's easy to be supportive from 5000 miles.

I'd had few close friends to loose. In fact, I still talk with some of them over the phone or by letter. Separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles, I'd kept my change a secret from them. Even if we've spoken, I hadn't seen any of them for years. After all this time, I'm not sure how they would react to the truth. Not so much that I'm a SCAB, but that I didn't trust them enough to tell them years ago.

While I examined the people at the shelter, I discovered that while some had been blessed with better vision than anything human, many had lost it. For every one that had picked up eyes like an eagle or owl, a dozen had lost color vision, night vision, depth perception or had become severely near or farsighted. For some, it was a reason for not being able to get back on their feet. How could you find work if you couldn't even read a newspaper anymore?

It had been a cold slap of reality all right. I also saw people who couldn't blame the Flu for their sight problems. Blow out fractures of the eye socket, caused by a blow to the head. Detached retinas, scarred corneas, even embedded objects and a host of other traumas all came through my door. All were attributed to beatings and attacks by normals. I was able to help some, but not all. By the time that I saw them, the damage was often long done, and I simply wasn't trained to do the surgery that some of them needed.

I'd managed to avoid the hate squads up to now. I had the occasional phone call, the occasional dirty look, but nothing like these people. Even when most of the doctors affected had been forced out of their own practices, I'd managed to survive. Optometry, being non-invasive, slipped through the cracks. Somehow, when the politicians began drawing up the restrictive laws, they missed the fact that disease gets in through mucus membranes, of which the tissue around the eyes certainly qualified.

Of course, no one ever accused a politician of being a genius.

I went back to my practice and started getting a few SCABS in. The shelter staff had passed my name around a little, and it had begun to filter slowly through the growing community of SCABS who were getting back on their feet.. I had more patients now. I often had as much as a full week booked in advance. I wasn't making much money, most of the time I took the cases on a pay-if-you-can basis. Some could, some couldn't. I didn't care, really. The ones that could were helping pay the bills and maintain my equipment. So far, at least as far as I knew, I hadn't been taken advantage of.

I was just happy to be busy again.

In fact, if the trend kept up, I was going to need to hire a new assistant. Probably a SCAB this time. There were certainly plenty of them qualified.

So, that brings me to tonight.

Since I never went to bars before, why did I come into this one?

In the last few months a couple patients had mentioned The Blind Pig in passing. Not an invitation, mind you, but a comment here or there. I'd seen it mentioned in a few news stories around the time of the election. I'd been a little curious.

I hadn't actively decided to stop here, really. I was about to leave the office when I abruptly decided that I didn't want to spend another night alone watching TV. Stuck for something to do, and knowing few people to do it with, the name of the bar had popped into my head. I knew that I wouldn't be welcome most places, but this one sounded different. I looked up the address in the phone book and took a cab over after work.

I had reached the bottom of my mug and singled the bartender again. A few others had walked into the bar and he took a minute getting over to me. "I'll take another, if you don't mind." I said as I slid the mug and money across the counter.

He took it and poured the combination of alcohol and coffee into the mug. I nodded my thanks and let my eyes wander around the bar some more. I noticed idly that the piano player had shifted from that old soft piece that I barely remembered to something faster, also barely remembered.

I hoped to see someone I knew here. A patient, a friend, something. But as the sun went down, and the bar began to fill up, I started to feel more than a little alone in a crowd. It was a feeling that I didn't like all that much. Most of the people here seemed to know each other. I suddenly didn't want to try and break the ice. I just wanted to leave. I picked up my hat and was moving to put it on when the door burst open.

"Somebody, help!"

All activity in the bar stopped and every eye turned to see the pair struggling into the doorway. They were both part wolf, both big, but one larger than the other. The smaller, less changed, one was desperately trying to keep the other upright and he clawed and his face and eyes, howling.

Someone shouted, "What happened?"

"Some nutcase just unloaded a canister of pepper spray into his face! He's going nuts!"

I knew what that meant. While the stuff didn't tend to permanently damage the eyes, this guys clawing could and would. I'd seen it before. It seemed that pepper spray or its cousins were the weapon of choice among some normals who wanted to beat the hell out of a SCAB without getting their own hands dirty. Since some of these people had such strong senses now, it was like lighting them on fire. Like some twisted version of Oedipus Rex, I'd seen at least a dozen who'd clawed out one or both eyes after getting sprayed.

As some of the patrons started toward the wolf I turned to the bartender again. "Do you have any baking soda?"

He looked at me like I was insane, "What? What are you talking about?"

"No time to explain.", I leaned over the counter and pulled open one of the small refrigerators and spotted the familiar yellow box in the back. I grabbed it and a bottle of seltzer water. The bartender made a grab for me but missed, "What do you think you're doing?"

I turned and shouted, "Someone hold him down on the floor! Keep his hands away from his face."

A couple heads turned my way, "Who the hell are you?"

"Just do it before he claws out an eye!"

A couple did what I asked. They lowered him to the floor and tried to hold back his arms. He was squirming so much that it took at least half a dozen to keep him basically still. I handed the bottle of water to a waitress with malformed hands, "Start pouring this into his eyes." I started to sprinkle to baking soda over his face and rub it hard into the fur, particularly around his eyes and nose. He started moving his head and snapping at my fingers. The guy that had brought him in grabbed his head to keep it still.

He sputtered as the water went into his nostril, spraying all of us a little.

I felt my own eyes begin to water from the lingering spray in the air.

I tried to get the mixture under his lids, but he was closing them so tightly that I couldn't. It took a firm, practiced motion to lift the lid and get the water underneath.

After a few minutes, four bottles of water and another box of baking soda, the wolf began to calm down a little. His breathing became a little more regular. I glanced up to another bystander. "Can you grab my case on the bar? It's that brown one."

He stepped away and came back with it. I popped the latch and dug around for a minute coming out with my penlight and hand O-scope. More gently this time, I peeled back one of his lids and shined a light in. "Are you feeling better? Can you see this light?"

A tinny electronic voice spoke. I hadn't noticed the voice box before. "It still burns, but I can see it."

I nodded as I looked. He'd scratched his lid pretty raw, even a little bloody, and it would be swollen from both the spray and the scratching, but it didn't look like he'd done any permanent damage to his eyes. They were the most intense gray-blue eyes that I'd ever seen, made even more so by the being bloodshot. "The baking soda just takes the edge off. You'll need to keep flushing your eyes with soda water for a while."

I looked around the half dozen guys still sitting on the wolfs arms and chest. "You can get off, now. I think that he's okay."

The wolf stood and shook my hand, another headed to his face. "Don't do that. With those claws of yours you could damage your eyes. You almost did." He nodded, still preoccupied with the pain in his face. A couple others helped him over to a table.

The one who had helped bring him in stayed. "Thanks."

I grinned as I picked my bag up off the floor. "All part of the job."

He motioned toward the case and scope still in my hand. "You're a doctor?"

"An eye doctor. Name's Brian."

He motioned me over to the bar, "They call me the Wanderer. Can I buy you a drink, Doc?"

I looked around the bar again, up to a few minutes ago, the one that I'd planned on leaving. "First off, unless you want me to shine a light in your face, don't call me Doc. Second, I'm beginning to get the feeling that it's not a good idea to be drunk in this place. Some black coffee sounds pretty good, though."

He motioned to my face. "You trying to be the masked rescuer or something?"

I glanced in the mirror behind the bar and saw the black raccoons mask going all the way to the bottom of my eyes. Sometimes, when the adrenaline started pumping, I started to change a little, spontaneously, radiating out from what parts were permanently altered. I laughed a little, "It's not intentional. It sorta happens. It'll clear when my heart starts beating normally again...If I want it too."

The lupine man merely nodded and took a stool.

The place had almost instantly returned to normal once the incident had passed. The piano player started up again, the stools filled, and the background noise level began to rise. The assistant bartender came around the bar and started mopping up the water and baking soda off the floor. After a few minutes, the only sign that anything out of the ordinary had happened that night was one wolf in the corner constantly pouring his drink in his eyes rather than down his throat.

I had the strange feeling that this little incident was nothing compared to what could happen here...

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