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This is a Box
by Feech
Feech -- all rights reserved
 

From my vantage point on the black box wall I can see a gathering of Hayden Heath students. They probably do not know I am here, given that I almost always go home at six and it is now past ten on a Friday night.

This Friday gathering is habitual for those on the floor below me. I can watch from a fold in the curtains near the scene shop and go unnoticed, while I think. I did not have Melodie drive me home tonight. Too much is going on in my mind. Too much centers on the tiny container I carry alongside the notepad bound to my foreleg.

Maybe the goings-on below will distract and relax me-- but probably not. Not tonight. I am not the only one distracted, and I suppose we each have our own distinct reasons.

Improvisation night goes on without fail every Friday that there is not a show running. Usually, what with Gabriel's lack of inhibition while performing, Bethuel's sense of humor, John's silliness and everyone else's plain enthusiasm, the evening is bound to be a lot of fun. I have attended once or twice, just to watch, but tonight I do not feel ready to join them. For their part, the students are showing an unusual lack of motivation to play tonight. They arrived at nine, though some are still missing, and following one half-hearted round of Storyteller took disconsolately to the bleachers set up along the wall under the sound booth.

The only consistent activity so far is that of Calico, battling an "indestructible" red Cressite ball in a rolling, swishing pursuit up and down the black box. Rattling and growling, ball and leopard approach the bleachers, carom off them, and bound off to a corner only to start all over again. Calico's grim concentration on the potential death of the ball leads me to believe that he is not in the most casually playful of moods tonight, either, but it is hard to tell.

Bethuel and Juliet sit next to each other on the bleachers and watch Kent Dryer idly arranging plastic chairs into a four-seated "car" formation as he hums quietly to himself. Gabe sits with wildebeest head in hand and sighs.

"Come on, guys, let's play Car," Kent suggests, hopelessly attempting to arouse interest. "What kind of Improv night is this?"

"Mm," Gabriel says.

"Is there anything else we could play?" Beth asks, not unpleasantly, but realizing that no one, save Calico, is boisterous enough for Car tonight. Unless maybe they play 'Hearse'. Ha. Just my own little attempt at a joke there.

"Slide Show, then," Kent offers. "I'll be the lecturer."

The group on the bleachers descends to the black floor and organizes into a rough bunch in front of Kent. "We need somebody for lights," he notes.

"Isn't Jax coming?" A student inquires, while the others look around trying to figure out who can be spared to do the lights for the Slide Show game.

"Not this Friday," Gabe informs him. "I think he's at home. I think he was too upset to come."

"That's pretty drastic," Kent observes.

"Well, he's not originally a Theatre person," Beth points out. "Maybe one of us should go see him later. Anybody going to bars tonight? Maybe he'd like to go out?"

"I doubt it," says Gabe. "He'd rather we leave him alone, even if it does seem like he's being really negative. Come think of it, I haven't seen AAALLAAAAN, either." The wildebeest-morph shouts the snake's name from the habit of an old joke, and nobody reacts.

"He may be pretty upset, too," Beth mentions. "I think we assume a lot about Feech and Jax. If Alan's not here he must be down, all right. But maybe he'll come later..."

"Maybe. Anybody want to do the lights?" Kent is only half-trying. He keeps his amber eyes on Gabe, now, having sensed some darkness about him as he spoke of Jax. Perhaps Gabe should have stayed home tonight, too.

"Well, are John and Bahni coming?" Someone inquires.

"They are, yeah. Later."

"Well I wish they'd hurry up and get here. This is the deadest Friday we've had yet."

Understandable. The Theatre Department students have become used to being there for each other and do not thrive when deprived of that ability. It may be best for Feech that her family took her home to their city's hospital, but this does leave her companions at a loss.

No one speaks for a moment (except the coughing of Calico as he determinedly attacks his toy). As the group mills aimlessly, Slide Show forgotten since they were never really interested anyway, The flat black door to the Lobby squeaks slightly as it is swung open from the outside.

"Shit!" The brown-haired man with beard stubble and a green bookbag greets the other students cheerfully. "You guys look dead as Hell! Any news on Feech, anyone?"

"Hi, Bahn-John. Yes, I got a phone call," Beth tells him. "Her sister called and said that it is Martian Flu. Her father's treating her. But no details other than that, yet."

John bustles into the group and removes his lover from his bookbag. "So everyone is depressed. Well, me too. Let's play a game, already!"

Noncommital mumbles are the reply. Kent seems to agree, but is still watching the morose Gabriel. "Got any ideas, John?" he asks.

"What have you done so far?"

"Nothing. A little Storytelling."

Bahni, freed from the bookbag, eagerly approaches his friends in greeting-- and is noticed by Calico. Suddenly still, the black leopard ignores his Cressite ball and fixates on the little black-and-yellow form moving through the dust on the black box floor.

Calico's shoulders and rear set for a pounce, but before he can move further Beth spots him and speaks sharply. Instantly the leopard is doing nothing more than grooming. He was in no way intending to chase the garter snake, is his obvious statement. As if all leopards go into hunt-mode before grooming, and Bethuel should know that. Beth laughs slightly, but Calico will not look at him. Nor will he look at Bahni for the rest of the Improv meeting. When cats deceive, they do it all the way.

"I know," says John, "let's play a drinking game. Everyone in a circle. Sit down."

"We don't have anything to get drunk on," Gabe points out.

"No matter. We'll make it hard. We'll screw up whether we're drunk or not. Let's see... We need some items..."

"Use Bahni!" Juliet laughs. She's killer at this game. I've been watching her tonight, wondering how she's feeling about all this. Now I know. She can't figure out how to deal with all the stress going around, and is relieved to have an activity she can take charge in. She has probably never messed up a round of a concentration game like this one since first learning the concept. It's all by rote. This she can do and then some.

"Good idea. Come 'ere, Bud." John catches up his lover in one hand and joins the slowly forming circle in the middle of the box theatre. "Okay. One more."

"I have a pen," a student holds it up.

"Great! A snake and a pen. Okay. I'll start Bahn here to my left and the pen to my right."

They can't help but play along. After all, they came here for company, and to prove that the Theatre group remains come Flu or high water. But it begins rather reluctantly.

"This is a snake," John announces to Kent, sitting at his left. He hands the man-turned-garter-snake, who seems amused by the situation, to the accepting student and waits for the reply.

"A what?"

And John repeats, "A snake."

"A snake."

A nod of agreement, and on to the next person. Meanwhile Beth, on John's right-hand side, has been informed that he is now holding "a pen".

Kent gives Bahni to Gabe, who, admittedly, flinches a bit before accepting him. Bahni, too, shows slight hesitation. They suppress the instinct to crush and fear crushing, and quickly the game continues. I think about the box strapped to my arm and consider what may be possible. Below me the voices layer upon each other, going around the circle in an almost rhythmic fashion, at least to the hearing of an outside observer like me. I wonder exactly what Melodie is doing right now. I wonder whether Gabe will be okay, and what Jax is doing instead of coming here. I wonder if someone is going to screw up the pattern.

"This is a snake."

"A what?""This is a pen."

"A snake.""A what?"

"A snake. This is a snake."

"A what?""A pen."

"A what?""A pen. This is a pen."

"A what?""A what?"

"A snake.""A what?"

"A snake.""A what?"

"A snake.""A pen."

"This is a snake."

"A pen."

"A pen."

"This is a pen."

I wonder how Feech is doing. I wonder whether I will stay here all night, or make my presence known and ask for a lift home... or to Melodie's place.

Laughter. The players are beginning to loosen up enough that they make silly mistakes in the phrases that pass back and forth around the circle, and laugh at their own goofs and the ridiculousness of the whole idea. The fact the Bahni often makes it difficult to handle him without being tickled helps to improve some people's spirits.

Gabe backs out the second time through the game. "I'll just watch," he says, but then he doesn't. Instead, he kicks the red ball so Calico can chase it, then urges the big cat to settle down near the bleachers so he can pet him. Kent's concern over Gabe's mood causes him to break the pattern, and although he picks it up again quickly the smoothness of his actions is gone. Bahni darts his red-and-black tongue out to tickle Kent on the wrist, but is disappointed with the lack of response.

Gabe's blue-grey half-man form slouches on the seats, staring at nothing for the next forty-five minutes or so that it takes everyone else to get bored with their drinking games. His lightly-furred hand rubs the back of Calico's ear until the leopard tires of this and hints that he might prefer a chin-scratch or a back-rub. Gabe complies automatically.

The Improv group has not been fully made to forget by John's enthusiasm. There is still little response to suggestions of other games, and before eleven-thirty the students are dispersing.

"Give me your phone numbers," Beth tells the group, "and I'll call you if I get a call from Wisconsin again."

Gabe speaks up at that. "I have her address. In case anybody wants to write to her or anything."

The phone numbers and address are exchanged and many of those present in the black box start out to their dorms and apartments. I consider showing myself, but decide to wait. Kent goes to sit next to Gabriel, at the same time that Juliet calls Calico and the leopard follows her and Beth to the door.

On the way out, turning back to wave to Kent and Gabe, Bethuel pauses and looks up, directly at my hanging-spot. I know I am in the coal-black curtain-fold, and that my wings when pressed together will not show at his angle, but it seems highly possible that Bethuel is aware that I am here. Judging by his expression, I half-expect him to call out to me, but then he turns and is gone out the door with Juliet.

John, bookbag in hand (and snake poking his little head out through a gap at the end of the bag's zipper), sets a foot on the bottom bleacher and addresses Gabe and Kent. "See you guys on Monday, I guess, hm? Hope you feel better, Gabe. Don't let it get to you. That won't do anybody any good."

"Look who's talking," Gabe snorts, and Kent puts a warning hand on his knee.

"Thanks for trying tonight, Bahn-John." Kent turns to them and smiles a slight, grateful smile. "You kept things going, silly as it was."

"Hey, silly is what improv is for," John grins.

"Improvisation is a vehicle for the enhancement of the actor's art," Gabe says in a baiting fashion, and John intelligently lets it go.

"See you guys later," he says, and leaves, taking his snake with him.

Now it's just me, Kent and the half-wildebeest, and I suddenly cannot decide whether to stay or go. The situation has become potentially intimate, with no one else occupying the box. Still, this room belongs to the whole school. I huddle into the curtain fold, touching my tiny box with my right antenna. I have to think. I am not yet ready to go.

Gabe and Kent sit close together in silence for some time. My thoughts have freedom to wonder about Melodie and the possible insanity of what it is that I want to do. But I must try. I have committed myself to that. The question is when, and what she will do.

I am as aware as anyone that a student is down with the Flu, that the Improv group had a lousy turnout tonight and that Jax and Alan may or may not be lonely in their homes right now. To me, these things are important. But I do not feel that they make my own desires and anxieties any less. Would that be different for anyone? We all have our own connections and worries. Gabe is worried about Feech. I can hear him. He is the first of the two men to speak.

"Sorry, Kent."

"Hey, that's okay. Are you just that upset about Feech? And what do you have against John, anyway?"

"Hmph." Gabe does not elaborate on his response for some time. Then, "Bastard doesn't want anything."

"You're not on that kick again, are you? Come on. You know I love you the way you are. I think it's kind of selfish for you to go wanting to be something else."

Gabe hears the slight teasing tone to Kent's voice, and gets the message, but still he responds, "That's not fair. You can change. Even if you have no control over it. And I don't think it's fair that John is in such a frigging good mood when someone from the Department is sick."

"Maybe he would say it's not fair for you to sit around moping. I was surprised that you didn't act today. There is really something more, isn't there."

"Maybe."

"Tell me."

"Maybe I made her sick."

"Now that is utterly ridiculous." Kent tries to hug his friend, but Gabe dodges away and makes just the faintest of threats with his horns.

"We don't know, do we, Kent," the wildebeest snorts. "It could be anyone. How do you know there isn't more danger for normals, hanging around me, with how long I fought it?"

Kent sighs. "Gabe." He doesn't seem to know what to say after that. When Gabriel is in an impossible mood, there's no reasoning with him. He needs something to be angry about. I may as well approach them now as any time. I don't want to hide when they may need private time.

Kent looks up as soon as the curtains move, but does not seem surprised to see me appear. Could he have known I was here? Maybe... He certainly has a good sense of smell, but still...

I fly over to the two men and, as I land with the tiniest of scratching sounds on the bleachers, I see Kent widen his nostrils to deliberately smell anything unusual about me. Gabe just turns away, into his own thoughts.

"Shadow," Kent nods to me. "Studio, downtown?"

What can I say. He's right. Studio Jewelers, by the Cafe. I scribble an affirmative answer on my armpad.

Gabe looks at me then. "What did you buy?"

I write, "Never mind. You'll find out and if you do not, I would rather you not have known in the first place."

"Makes sense. I guess. Did you know I am useless?"

Kent and I simultaneously express dismay at that. Quickly I write, "Try something."

"What? Like what?"

Kent leans into him a little. "Change. Like you used to before the SCABS stabilized. You can do it. Maybe then you won't be so jealous of everybody else."

"That's ridiculous," the half-wildebeest scoffs, but I detect a miniscule heightening of his ears. He's interested.

"Powers," I write on my pad, "don't need to be anything special to Joe on the street. Kent, can you drive me home?"

"Sure, soon as Gabe tries something. I want him to."

That does it. Gabriel is first and foremost an actor and he is being flattered. He stands up and flexes his shoulders.

"I don't know if I can do this, guys."

"Let's see."

Gabe takes the black box floor in front of us and looks at his hands. "Maybe I should get out of these clothes, just in case. You mind?"

I shake my head. Kent laughs. "Are you kidding? That would be worth it in itself."

"Stuff it, Kent. I'm going to do this before I go home tonight or I'm not going home."

Kent submits to the sudden shift in attitude and just watches. It stands to reason that Gabe should be able to do it. After all, he fought it off for over a year.

Gabriel strips and again looks at his hands. He can't decide where to put them. Following a few moments of frustrated concentration, he sets his fingertips on the floor in the manner of hooves, and closes his grey eyes. "Now wait," he says, his breathing changing slightly. "I have to remember what I even look like."

"As a human?" Kent asks, almost reverently.

Gabe shakes his head. "Wildebeest. I'm trying to remember the television shows."

"Don't worry about them."

"...All right..."

Gabe rolls his shoulders forward, and I think I see something. The blackish mane stringing over his skin may be obscuring his progress, but indeed I do think the muscles of his back are knotting and stretching in an unfamiliar fashion. Kent is looking on in an eagerly predatory stance, but I know he is harmless. I almost want to fly to another part of the theatre, to leave the two alone, but Gabe wants an audience and I am part of it. Strange improvisation, yes, but in a way I must stay and watch for me, too. If he has the strength, maybe I do too. Not to change, necessarily, but to improvise, perform and discuss. Hold Melodie until I am done saying what I need to say.

The black box seems in some way to be accepting Gabriel's hands and toes. The look of black paint is climbing from his nails up the skin of his fingers, pushing the fur back and building a black, split support for each of his four limbs, the coronets topping them with the fine blue hairs. Gabe does not speak nor do anything but concentrate.

His tail, already fully developed in his half-morph state, now rides off to the side as the hips bulge and reconfigure... when the stripe of darkness marking the antelope's spine, an inexorable trickle of color and, under the skin, changed vertebrae works tailward from the thick blue-brown-cream neck and ends over the rejointed legs, the fringed tail presses back into place and flicks, as if Gabe is testing the balance of the parts done so far.

Kent tilts his head for a different angle. I simply sit. I don't suppose that a wildebeest is really as plain as you might think. Patterns of grey and black work and swirl over Gabriel's hide as he strives to match the whole body to itself. The hair has to go in the direction of the animal's movement, yet as if streaming back when the creature bounds forward. Until he is complete, hooves to nostrils to whorl of hair over the crease in the flank, Gabe fully intends to move nothing but the parts in transition. It is taking all his concentration.

Suddenly his chest deepens with such force that I hear the crackle of a bone changing. At that jerking of his torso into shape, the animal quivers, shakes out its mane and looks up, at Kent.

Gabe snorts, with a humming tone that I construe as pleased. The man sitting next to me leaps lightly off the bleachers and approaches Gabe sideways, somewhat carefully. Neither speaks a human word. I part and close my wings in what has become my version of applause, and Gabe notices. He goes carefully into a bow, on one thin foreleg. I hold up my jewel-box and my notepad to get Kent's attention.

"Yes, Shadow," he admits, "it's late. Gabriel, can you?"

The wildebeest nods, but then kicks out as if evading a lion, and trots twice around the black box as if nearly unable to contain an all-out gallop. We wait for a few minutes while he shows off, then Gabe returns and gazes back at himself. He twitches. He concentrates, and the hairs and bones that settled before now trace backwards over his form. He is quick, accustomed to the shape he will now resume. Shades of coat color shift as hairs resume their everyday places. And Gabe stands before us, coughing modestly into his hand as he reaches for his clothing, awaiting any sort of adulation we might wish to bestow upon him.

"Good job," says Kent. "I wish I could do that. Do you suppose that's what it looks like with me?"

"Dunno," Gabe half-smiles. "Maybe..." --a tad smugly-- "I could teach you."

Kent hugs him and he does not resist. I take a deep butterfly-breath. "Kent," I pen.

He looks at the paper. "Yeah?"

"I wish you would drop me at Melodie's instead."

He grins, wolflike. "You got it."

"I feel guilty now," Gabe informs us, not sounding in the least guilty.

"Because of Feech?"

"Yeah. Maybe I shouldn't feel good."

"Maybe you should call her."

"Maybe."

Kent flicks out the lights, at the switch near the Lobby door where they can all be operated at once. The box is now truly black. We open and step through the door, letting a patch of yellow in before closing the space and locking up. I feel conspicuous out here, same as perhaps Gabe would. I show up as black and yellow on the tile, and it is out here in the Lobby that Gabe for the first time seems to have been exposed tonight. I feel almost ashamed, not because of him, but because of me. I could kick myself sometimes for being such a coward. Well, if I could kick myself. Ha.

Clutched to me is the tiny white box. Wolves and antelope? I suppose. Swallowtail and human?

One way to find out.

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