by Bryan Derksen
© Bryan Derksen -- all rights reserved
It was very late. Or perhaps one could say it was very early; 4 a.m. could be classed as either. I wasn't particularly tired, and insects have a different concept of 'sleep' than humans did anyways, but the extreme cold was still making my thoughts a little sluggish. I turned the power on the heat suit I wore under my thick overcoat up another notch, and sighed as the warmth slowly began to seep back into me. I kept on walking.
I wasn't too worried about the weather despite one or two close calls I'd had earlier in the winter. I had become used to it by now, and despite not being able to find clothing tailored for anthropomorphic arthropods I managed quite well with what I had managed to custom tailor. The long coat that I wore even concealed my form somewhat, and I could probably pass for a normal humanoid to a human's limited night vision. I wouldn't have fallen for it myself, of course; cockroaches were nocturnal and the faint glow of the citylight seemed as bright as day to me. Despite the cold and the wind I actually felt safer under these conditions than I did in broad daylight, my roach ganglia didn't like being caught out in the open in bright light.
But tonight such base feelings of physical safety couldn't hold my troubled thoughts at bay. I lightly touched the base of my right antenna, and the memory it evoked banished the cold even better than my heat suit did; a sweet, beautiful little fawngirl named Grace had kissed me right there not too long ago. It had been the most wonderful feeling I could remember. Most people avoided touching me, and some couldn't even stay in the same room as I; my insectoid appearance tended to have an unfortunate impact on the human psyche. But Grace hadn't noticed. She'd simply and innocently expressed her gratitude to me, with a perfectly ordinary little kiss. I don't know if I'd ever experienced anything like that, let alone since I'd become stuck in this form. And then the pure joy she'd felt when her mother had recovered from her injuries, and then when she and Jon had held her...
Were I physically capable of it, I would probably be in tears right now; the feeling swelling in my hearts were incredible. Yet here I was, walking alone in the cold and the dark, in the deserted streets outside the Blind Pig. I shook my head and trudged wearily on, trying to figure out how I could be so depressed when I was simultaneously feeling so happy.
I knew that Christmas was normally a very depressing time of year for many people, of course. It had never been so for me before; for me, Christmas was just another holiday. I wasn't bitter about it or anything, I simply attached no special significance to it and I really had no problem with that. This business with Jon and Grace, it wouldn't have been any more or less joyful if it had happened at some other time of year. But still, there was something about this particular night...
I arrived at the Blind Pig and was surprised to discover that it was closed. I hadn't really planned this far ahead when I had parked and started walking since the walk itself had been my primary goal, but it was still a little disenheartening; I had hoped for... something, I wasn't sure what. But in hindsight I shouldn't have been surprised; everyone else had someplace to be right now. They were probably all at home.
I suppose I was well off for a Scab; I had a nice house in a reasonably nice neighborhood, and it was still only rarely vandalized despite my new appearance. But it was just a house, just a building that I kept my stuff in. I guess it will have to do, I sighed silently. But I hesitated before giving up and beginning the long walk back to my car; I noticed that despite the bar being closed the lights were still on. My cerci were muffled by my abdominal covering so I couldn't tell if there was any movement inside, but after a moment I heard the faint sound of the piano being played. It was a sad, distant melody, quite unlike Jack's usual medley. After a final moment of hesitation I tried the door. It opened easily despite the 'closed' sign, and I quickly stepped inside.
The music stopped, and although my vision was momentarily blurred by condensation on the transparent chitin that covered my eyes I could immediately tell that the man seated at the piano wasn't Jack. I wiped my eyes with the backs of my gloves, not wanting to wait for them to reach room temperature and stop fogging up, and saw that he was an elderly male norm wearing a fedora. "Uh, sorry," I apologised, noting that the bar was otherwise deserted. "I thought the bar was open..."
At this range I didn't have the visual resolution to make out the man's expression very well, but his voice was calm and somehow trust-inspiring. "Oh, don't worry about that. Please, come in, it's far too cold to be outside tonight."
Mandibles splayed in a grateful smile, I struggled to shed my overcoat. With a groan of relief I released my secondary arms and antennae from confinement; I didn't really mind keeping my lower pair of arms tucked away inside the two-sleeved jacket, but having my antennae wrapped up in fabric like that felt a lot like having one's nose stuffed with cotton. But at least it was preferable to leaving them out, which in this weather felt like having one's nose stuffed with icecubes instead.
I draped the coat over the back of a chair and refocused my attention on the old man. I noticed with some surprise that he seemed completely at ease as he watched me. I guess he must have known I was an insect the instant I came in, my face had been exposed after all, but it was still an unusual response for a person who probably hadn't seen me in the flesh before. I wondered if I knew him from somewhere.
"Well," I said at last, "looks like a slow night." The old man nodded wistfully. Then the silence continued for a while longer, the old man idly plinking at the piano while I stood there. It was weird seeing someone other than Jack sitting there, I still thought of Jack as familiar fixture at the bar even though I didn't come to the Blind Pig very often any more.
"Would you like a drink?" The old man asked at last.
"Sure, why not. Uh... scotch, no ice, please." I didn't drink very often either, but tonight felt like a good night for it. As the man got up and walked behind the bar, I watched him curiously; I still couldn't place him. "I'm sorry, you seem familiar. Who are you?"
"A friend," the man replied simply.
"Of Donny's?" I asked.
The man nodded. "You could say that. I'm just visiting, taking a brief rest before moving on... As you say, a slow night." He poured my drink with an expert hand, and I found stool and brought it over to the bar. The Blind Pig had a selection of unusual furniture for patrons with unusual anatomy, and I had found stoolto be one of the more comfortable things I'd sat on since I'd become stuck in this form. My thick tail-like abdomen had trouble with most chair designs and I wasn't too flexible.
As I sat and quietly sipped my drink, I kept my attention aimed in the direction of the old man. He sat down behind the bar and leaned back, somehow giving the impression of both strength and world-weariness at the same time. I still thought he looked familiar, even though his scent definitely wasn't. I cocked my head and shifted slightly in my seat, trying to build up a more detailed image of his face. I hadn't seen the movie for a long time, and never through compound eyes, but... "You're that old guy from 'It's a Wonderful Life,' right?" I guessed jokingly.
The old man actually chuckled. "Oh, I'm hardly an angel," he demurred. "I just see a bit farther ahead than most and try to help people find their way."
It was a strange answer, and I didn't really understand it, but it seemed to fit him well enough. I took another sip of my drink. I was beginning to feel nice and toasty again, the alcohol probably helping somewhat, so I unbuckled my abdominal covering and laid it over my coat on the stool next to me. I sometimes worried that one day some entomologically-savvy cop would arrest me for indecent exposure when I did that, but even at the best of times I didn't find it a particularly important concern. I took a deep breath through my newly exposed spiracles, glad to finally get some ventilation down there, and flexed my cerci to feel the room's air currents and vibrations. Even after all the time that had elapsed since that accident had stuck me like this, and the considerable experience with normal insect forms I'd had before that, some of my senses still had a refreshing quality of newness about them.
"So, who are you?" The old man asked.
I was somewhat startled, both from being abruptly jerked from my thoughts and from the fact that he didn't know my name. Despite my attempts to keep out of the public eye I had been on the local news at least three times in the fairly recent past, and arthro-morphs were rare among Scabs; I would have expected my image to stick. But he said he was just visiting, perhaps from out of town, and I'd never really thought of myself as a celebrity anyways. "I'm Bryan Derksen, Dr. Bryan Derksen. I do SCABS research up at the hospital."
The old man nodded to himself. "A name, a degree, and a job. Anything else?"
I started to answer "cockroach", but stopped myself. I didn't really think it was a big deal, but it sometimes annoyed me how individual Scabs were identified first and foremost by what they looked like. "Not really," I said at last.
The old man sighed and helpfully refilled my glass, leaving the bottle on the bar next to me. "Not much of an identity, is it?" He asked.
I thought long and hard about that one, helping the process along with a few sips from my drink. "It's who I am," I finally decided. "What's wrong with it?"
"Why are you alone in a bar, at 4 in the morning on christmas day?"
"That has nothing to do with who I am," I said defensively, wondering how I had been drawn into this conversation. Just who was this guy, anyways?
"It's still a valid question, don't you think?" The man asked. Then, after a short silence, he leaned back in his chair again while I continued to mull the question over. I emptied my glass and poured myself another refill. The alcohol felt pleasantly warm as it went down my gut.
I rubbed the base of my antenna again, and sighed wistfully. It felt good to be warm. Though I didn't believe in miracles, the business with Grace might as well have been one for the effect it had had on me; I felt really good about it. And I finally realized why that also made me so sad. Grace's warmth wasn't really for me. She was probably snuggled up in her bed right now, Jon and Maxine nearby, all wrapped up in each other's warmth together.
I, on the other hand, was here. I had a decent house, a tenure and a grant that gave me a secure job working with people who generally didn't care what I looked like, all the things that other Scabs tended to be denied in life. But I didn't have a life, I just existed. I was alone and empty inside, and now I realized that I had always been empty like that; I just hadn't known it until Grace had kissed me and I found out what I was missing. I didn't have anyone to really share my existence with.
I sighed again and downed another drink.
"So you do research into SCABS," the old man observed, changing the subject. "Working on a cure?" I nodded; one such bit of work had been what got me into my current mess, stuck halfway between roach and human. It had so far produced little progress.
"Have you ever wished to be a normal human again?" The old man asked, and although he spoke conversationally I somehow felt that my answer would be very important. I stared into my empty glass for a long time thinking about it.
"Not really," I said at last. "Humanity doesn't seem to matter much; there are wretched humans and happy Scabs. Changing my outer shell doesn't really affect what's inside it. I used to be a polymorph, you know; appearances aren't really that important to me." I refilled my glass. I was nearing the bottom of the bottle.
The old man nodded, as if that was the answer he had been expecting or hoping for. "I have a secret to tell you," he began quietly. I leaned slightly closer to him, antennae twitching with nervous curiosity. There was just something about this guy that told me what he was about to say was important.
He continued. "There is another possible path ahead of you tonight. You don't have to take it, you can safely stay as you are without effort. This other path leads out of the status quo, out of this and into a real future. But following the second path carries a risk that you must be willing to take."
I licked my mandibles, my mouth feeling a bit dry all of a sudden. "What risk?"
I nodded to myself, flicking my antennae back over my shoulders; I understood perfectly what the man was talking about. Until now I had kept myself detached from the rest of the world, and as a result nothing in it had been able to hurt me. Where others felt the sting of discrimination, of hatred and fear, I had managed to remain aloof and unaffected in my ivory tower.
But at the same time I had cut myself off from the good things in society. The accomplishments I could have made, the places I could have gone, the companionship and involvement with friends. I had even remained somewhat distant from Bob, despite having worked with him for years and being stuck in a very similar situation to the one he had wound up in.
He had someone to be with tonight, shared a warmth with a woman named Janice who I hadn't even met.
"What do I have to do?" I asked hoarsely.
The man smiled again. "Why are you alone in this bar?" he asked. "It's christmas day."
My mandibles slowly spread, a smile breaking over my face too. I set down my glass. "You're good," I told him with a hint of happiness and a dash of awe. I hopped off of my stool and began gathering my overgarments again. "Thanks," I told the old man as I put the heavy garments back on. "I know what I've got to do now."
The old man nodded, almost as if confirming my personal revelation, then glanced at the empty bottle on the bar. "Do you need a taxi?" He asked.
I shook my head and cheerfully patted my abdomen. "Nah, I'm a cockroach, I've got an industrial-strength liver. By the time I get to my car I'll be completely sober again. I'd probably make a lousy alcoholic..." Then I hesitated. "Unless... that wasn't another deeply meaningful rhetorical question, was it?"
The man laughed and shook his head. "No. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and I think you've got the right idea now."
I nodded emphatically, completely disrupting my effort to tuck my antennae down the back of my coat again. "Get involved. Take risks. Got it. You didn't have to be so subtle about it, you know." Actually, I thought to myself, he probably did; a revelation like this couldn't really come from outside. Even if I had recognized the truth of what he might have told me, I probably wouldn't have mustered the resolve to actually change my life.
Well, I had that resolve now. Though it seemed terribly clichè to say it, I had just contracted a serious case of the "christmas spirit." I felt like I should be buying a big goose for the Cratchet family, or rushing down to a soup kitchen to volunteer, or something like that. Actually, scratch the soup kitchen idea; I suspected that even homeless Scabs wouldn't necessarily see the humor of a roach preparing food for them. Surely there would be other ways to become involved in something beyond my research. Start smaller, I suggested to myself.
Presents. I hadn't even bought presents for my friends, no wonder I felt so empty! I hadn't even done that for them. I hurried down the street, passing row after row of dark shops that were closed for the holiday (or simply boarded up; the Blind Pig wasn't in the best of neighborhoods). The sickening realization that I was too late grew in the pit of my stomach; what was I thinking, trying to buy presents at five in the morning on Christmas day? Although I realized I was probably expecting too much by trying to do something like this immediately, I was still disappointed.
Then I saw it, far down the street and just at the edge of my visual resolution; a single shop was still lit. I virtually sprinted over the distance to it, as if it might wink out at any minute. Fortunately, sprinting is a particular talent of roaches and it took me less than a minute to get there. I burst through the door, barely even breathing heavily, and glanced around to see what was sold here. I realized that I hadn't even checked the name of the store, but it still looked promising. The room was packed full of all manner of antiques and miscellany, I was sure to find something here.
Then the shopkeeper came out of the back room to see who had come in, and I did a double-take. He was another old male norm, and for an instant I thought it might be the same man that had been in the bar. But once I examined him more closely I quickly realized that it wasn't. Although he had a somewhat similar aura of age and hidden strength, this one projected an entirely different feeling. Not trust-inspiring at all, in fact I felt quite edgy about him. Then I noticed he was wearing a bathrobe. "Oh, I'm sorry! I thought you were open" I stammered, temporarily reviving the sense of deja vu.
"You're in luck, I was just about to close," the man grunted grumpily. "I'm moving the shop back home, there's just no business in this location. No demand. But at least you're looking for something, right?"
I nodded. "Last-minute Christmas shopping" I muttered, embarrassed.
The man gestured expansively at the interior of the shop. "Whatever you want. The less I have to take back with me, the better."
Loosening my overcoat to free my trapped appendages, I walked over to one of the cluttered shelves and began examining the merchandise. This must be a pawnshop, I realized as I went through the disorganized collection of valuable antiques and total junk; my waving antennae picked up such a blend of odors that it was impossible even for me to sort them all out. Then something caught my attention, a cardboard box shoved under the table labelled "Bargins". I don't know why, but I pulled it out to have a look.
Inside, packed haphazardly in wadded newspaper, was a collection of ceramic figurines. I picked up four of them carefully, almost reverently; they were the most beautiful things... One was a raccoon, perched playfully on a stump. Another was a mighty stallion in mid-gallop; the spitting image of Bob when he could still change all the way into a horse. Of course the third was a mule, with what could only be described as a cheerfully sarcastic expression. And the fourth was a doe and her faun, lying on a peaceful grassy hillock together.
I didn't question the amazing coincidence of my find; I didn't think it would have really been appropriate to do so. "How much?" I asked.
The old man made a face. "You sure you want those? I was going to throw them out, they don't have any magic."
I gently shook my head. I still didn't believe in miracles, but those statues did indeed have a sort of magic in them.
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