by SR Foxley
© SR Foxley -- all rights reserved
The sweet smell of a great sorrow lies over the land
-David Gilmour, "Sorrow"
"Oh good! Then it printed out OK?"
"Hey, don't worry about it-- it happens to the best of us."
"Well, I'm sorry the salesman told you it was an infrared model-- Just so you know: All the infrared models are labeled with that 'IR Away' icon on the box. All the printers without that label have to have an actual physical connection to the computer."
"Yes, with a cable."
"Well, when you tell the computer to print something, then it wants to relay that information to the printer. If there's no connection between them, be it IR or cable, then the printer has no way of knowing what to do. Sort of a 'spirit is willing but the flesh is clueless' kind of deal."
"No, ma'am. I just have a little bit of a cold-- our company is strictly a humans-only employer."
"Yes, that's right-- 'We're doing our part to ensure the survival of humanity' as well."
"No SCABS. Not even the janitors."
"Yes, we're also very proud of our track record."
"No problem, ma'am. That's why we're here."
"Thank you. Merry Christmas to you, too."
SR hung up the phone gently, pressing the 'make busy' button to be sure that he didn't get any more calls. He leaned back into his chair, letting out a long breath and removing the specially-adapted headphones from the pointed ears on the top of his head.
"Damn." He muttered to himself. "And I liked this job." Turning off the computer, he stood and to shake the kink out of his tail.
It hadn't actually been a long day yet-- it was only ten o'clock in the morning-- but for SR, it was over. He paused to glance over the sea of cubicles that made up the customer support section of Brink-Goddard Technologies before walking to one of the wall-spanning windows of the third floor. Leaning heavily on the sill, he drummed the claws on the tips of the fingers of one black-furred paw as he waited for the verdict.
BGT didn't hire SCABS. At least, not officially. SR had been lucky enough, two months previously, to get caught helping a cashier in a local supermarket get her register to function correctly. His soon-to-be supervisor, a Ms. Esther Georgia Nourse, had been in the check-out line directly after SR and had witnessed the whole event. BGT was in a bind for more support consultants on the voice-only lines, and Ms. Nourse had been impressed with SR's customer service skills. SR's mediocre knowledge of BGT's personal-computing products had convinced Ms. Nourse to offer a job to the unemployed red fox morph. Both parties walked out of the Safeway with smiles on their faces.
Of course, the fact that SR was willing to work for much less than the minimum wage probably helped keep him on longer than a week. He figured that Ms. Nourse probably pocketed the difference between his earnings and those of the rest of the support staff, but didn't really care that much about it-- in other places, he'd been paid less to do twice the work. No, it was not a bad deal at all-- for a SCAB.
All SR needed to do was work without breaks, and make sure to lock himself inside the custodial closet whenever the department head was around.
Larry Wilson-- Now there was a man that made the Human Firsters' statutes his religion! Throughout the office were posted flowery, "inspiring" posters designed to drive the human soul into the worst kind of intolerance. "SCAB," to Larry, was the worst of the four-letter words-- and he used it enough to make a truck driver blush.
Ms. Nourse was usually good at giving SR plenty of advanced warning to skedadle to his hole in the wall before the wicked warlock of the west came by. But as the rumors began to fly that there was "a fox in our midst," Larry began to make more random and frequent visits to the third floor, and SR was forced to live even more like a Gattacan Degenerate.
On this particular Friday, because it was Christmas Eve, the third-floor staff was reduced by half. Ms. Nourse was forced to spend more time working the phones. Consequently, she was entrenched in a conversation when Larry decided to make one of his irregular visits. SR had just gotten done cheerily greeting the customer on the phone with, "Thanks for calling BG Technologies Customer Support! How can I help you?" when Larry's balding and plump melon poked its way over the cubicle's wall. His eyes widened upon seeing the fox on the phone. Making a stiff about-face, he marched angrily into Ms. Nourse's office.
It couldn't have been helped-- not really. SR had known all along that this game of cat-and-mouse would eventually end in the termination of his employment. At this point, though, as SR gazed dejectedly at the rows of grey buildings lined up neatly in what constituted the inner city, he hoped that Ms. Nourse wouldn't also be joining the ranks of the unemployed.
As Norms sometimes do, both Larry and Ms. Nourse had forgotten that SCABS often have more acute senses than their more human cousins. As it was, SR was intently listening to the conversation taking place on the other side of the door numbered 304.
"...know that this company has a strict policy against the hiring of any of those damned SCABS!"
"Yes-- but you should know that our company never actually hired him."
It was foggy outside, and threatened to snow again...
"WHAT?!? Are you trying to tell me that the rumors I've been hearing for the past month are actually about some fucking SCAB that you just happen to let into the building every morning to sit at one of our terminals and have conversations on our phones with the rest of his diseased kind? What, is he on some kind of extended tour of the facility? Are we suddenly allowing all the vermin off the street come in here and spend their days surfing the web at computers that we obviously don't need for our legitimate employees to get two ounces of work done around here? As if that thing could actually do the kind of work we do here!"
...They'd really done a good job decorating the city this year. Every other street light had a large, green-tinsel Christmas tree hanging off the pole. In the light of the foggy morning, it made the streets look like infinitely long corridors of pale green and grey....
"I never hired him."
...A few people could be seen walking on the sidewalks of the dreamy-white outside....
"Then just what, for the love of Mary, is that damned SCAB doing here?"
...SR saw a Taxi quickly make its way past the front of the building. It was being driven by a bald-eagle morph. SR began humming to himself....
"He works for AT&T."
...SR smiled. If anything, this job taught you how to be quick on your feet-- to make the customer feel like you're in complete control, even though you're talking out of your rear-end half of the time. Ms. Nourse was the best....
"What? Why do we have a SCAB from AT&T here?"
"Do you remember the trouble we were having with the static and disconnections on the voice lines last month? Well-- AT&T sent this guy."
...Smiling, SR walked up to the outside of the door, waiting for his cue....
"Well, why didn't you tell them to send someone normal? And why on earth has he been here for an entire month?"
"I did tell them to send a Norm, but they said he was the only one available at the time. And once a technician gets into a job, they like to have the same guy finish it. They said he had to do some major re-working of the wires."
"Oh gee, I wonder why! Damned SCAB probably fucked up everything so bad in the first place that it's taken him this long just to get it right!"
SR opened the door. Ms. Nourse was seated more-or-less comfortably behind her desk. Larry was leaning heavily on it. His scent and face were changing from the red of angry to the red of embarrassed.
"Well, that was the last of them," began SR. "You had some ROUS's in the CGI's that mangled the MP3's pretty badly. I had to completely RTFM the LCD's. Of course, that also meant that your ISDN had to have its CRT replaced before the CRC fried the ENIAC. You were lucky-- if the TLA had gotten to the CAT-5, then I would have had to USB the UPS. As it was, IMAPing the IRQ's did the trick."
Larry suddenly looked pale. "Oh... um... good. Then it's fixed? How much is it going to cost us?"
SR smiled smugly. If nothing else, at least Larry lived up to his reputation as a complete idiot! "Naw-- it was our fault. We should have made sure the PCI had a properly tuned IDE. You won't be billed. Sorry about the inconvenience."
Larry smiled weakly. Ms. Nourse carried a shocked, although certainly entertained look on her face. SR turned to her, heart pounding, lips turned upward in a smile. "I found which connection I should cut; Today, I won't need a replacement." She looked justifiably confused. "Hey," he said, "you can keep my things, they've come to take me home."
He turned and closed the door quickly before sprinting down the hall, eager to get out of earshot before they had time to react. Donning his navy-blue woolen jacket, he pause to take one more look at the the expanse of movable walls and listen to the ambient murmur of the consultants working the phones before turning and walking down the stairs and out the front door.
Of course, it wasn't the first time he'd lost a job-- and also not the first time he'd lost one because he was a SCAB. Still, despite the fact that he knew that his boss's boss would eventually catch on and fire him, SR had allowed himself to become attached to that place of employment. For the first time in months, other people had treated him just like any other human being. That civility alone almost let him forget what he'd lost.
"Stein's Chronic Accelerated Bio-morphic Syndrome"-- SCABS. It was never easy to deal with-- for victims and victims' acquaintances alike.
It was as if the world was being forced to act out some cheap science fiction movie: In the first years of the twenty-first century an exploratory mission to Mars brought back several samples of Martian soil and rocks-- and a virus that would change the face of humanity forever.
The Martian Flu, as it came to be known and feared, became sort of a post-pubescent chicken pox, except that there were no pox and the side-effects were gravely worse: Just about everyone got it at some point in their lives, after which they needn't fear contracting it again. It was a severe virus-- depending on the living conditions and medical facilities where one lived, between six and thirty percent of those who contracted it died as a direct result of the strains on their bodies. Most everyone else survived unscathed, the Flu becoming just another forty-eight hour cold to them.
For an unfortunate one-out-of-twelve, however, the Flu developed into the curse of SCABS: Shortly after the symptoms of the Flu ceased, the bodies of the sufferers of this syndrome would begin to mutate. It seemed that all laws of science and sensibility were repealed when it came to what this virus could do! Most SCABS ended up becoming part-human, part-animal things. Some completely became animals, their human minds and consciousness falling prey to the scourge as well. Some changed gender. Some changed age. Some became inanimate objects. A very few were burdened with the ability to control their forms. Even fewer still could temporarily affect any number of the above mentioned mutations on other people.
It seemed that the virus was blind to barriers of nationality, race, gender, or social status, transforming whoever it desired.
Of course, not everyone believed these changes occurred out of mere chance...
SR waited patiently at the bus stop for the fifty-occupant Mercedes that would take him back to his little apartment on Gnade Street. When the vehicle came, however, he found himself still standing on the curb, paws in his pockets, considering what he should do.
He wasn't ready to come home yet. It was a Friday, and Friday was the day of the week that he got his letter returned.
Ever since arriving in this city and obtaining his lower-class- but-not-yet-poverty-level apartment in the complex at 46 Gnade Street, SR had been diligent in sending off a letter every Saturday to the residence of his parents, over a thousand miles away. His mail-carrier, a stout full-morph blood hound SCAB named Sam, was just as diligent at bringing that same letter back every Friday with "Address not found-- return to addressee" displayed prominently on the outside in large, glaringly red, rubber-stamped letters.
It was too early in the day to return home and find that waiting for him in his mailbox. Instead, SR spontaneously decided to wander the city. After all, it was Christmas, and with his job, he hadn't taken the time to see any of the festivities. Turning, he began to meander his way along the streets.
After about an hour of aimless wandering, SR found himself in a narrow alleyway between two major avenues. He was humming "Greensleeves" to himself and walking past an over-full dumpster when something on the ground caught his eye. Without thinking, he bent down and picked up the mangled magazine. He turned it over and read the title:
Pethouse Magazine: Hot and Hairy Erotica!
SR smirked. When humanity was irrevocably altered, it adapted accordingly-- even down to the nuances of adult entertainment.
He was about to toss it on top of the pile of refuse next to him when he got a better look at the scantily-clad female crocodile-morph on the cover. He recognized her from somewhere. Instinctively, he checked the date. This edition was ancient-- nearly seventeen years old!
It bothered him that he could not place the memory of that woman's face. Flipping open the magazine, the center-fold fell out. And SR remembered....
"Are you sure you want that one?"
SR grinned dazedly at the full-color picture of the rabbit-morph who was showing off much more than her digitigrade legs in the center-fold of the magazine. "Yeah. I like this one."
Chad Beasly, SR's friend in since the first grade, and current companion in their fourth-grade mischievousness wrinkled his brow, frowning. "You know, I found a whole lot more of these other ones with normal people in them under my brother's bed."
SR glanced at the pile of Playboys, Penthouses, and other pornographic magazines to which Chad was referring. When Chad had found his older brother's stash of yiff-material, he and SR made plans to share the bounty when neither of their brothers or mothers would be home. Among all the magazines, there was only one brand that featured SCABS.
"I know. I just wanna look at this one."
Chad shrugged, then grabbed the topmost piece of adult entertainment and began gawking. Both boys sat in SR's parents' garage for the next few minutes, the only sound being the rustling of pages and the occasional gasp from their shocked mouths as they explored newly-emerging hormones.
After a while, Chad broke the silence. "Hey SR, are you sure that your parents are gonna be gone for a while?"
"Huh? Oh... yeah, my dad's in the church, and my mom's at a singing lesson. She won't be back for an hour or so."
On cue, both boys were started by the voice of SR's mother, coming from directly behind them: "Oh, I won't? Just what do you think you two are doing." In unison, the fourth-graders dropped the incriminating evidence and spun around.
Chad spoke. "Oh, hi, Mrs. Foxley. We were just... um..." He broke off as he received the full blow of Janice Foxley's angry stare.
"Chad, I want you to go home, right now!" Chad gulped, then bent to pick up the magazines. Mrs. Foxley interceded, "I'll get rid of those for you. Just go home." Chad gave SR a pitying glance before running quickly through the door behind SR's mother.
SR cowered in his mother's presence. Mrs. Foxley stood there in the doorway, both hands on her hips and an eternal frown on her face, while she considered what to do. After letting SR contemplate his doom for a minute, she finally spoke. "SR, I want you to go and wait for your father in his office."
Oh boy, he had really done it this time! Normally, when SR was caught doing something naughty, his mother would chasten him with a stern talking-to and sometimes a spanking. But whenever SR was caught doing something particularly heinous, she would reserve the duty of administering punishment for SR's father, one Doctor Pastor George Foxley of the Gnade Street Christian Church.
George wasn't abusive to his son by any means (physically, emotionally, or psychologically). In fact, it could be said that George Foxley treated his son better than any father should. Perhaps it was because of this love that his punishments carried such a lasting impression on SR's heart and mind. In any case, however, these occasions were always far from pleasant for SR.
Without a word, SR lowered his head and shuffled past his mother through the doorway. He heard her putting the magazines into the garbage can as he opened the door to his father's office.
He didn't particularly dislike this section of the Foxleys' three-story residence, but he had few fond memories of it. George had had the walls covered with a wallpaper that was made of some kind of bleached, bristly grass. The carpeting was tightly packed, and of a rich green color. Opposite the door stood George's imposingly large desk. There was a window to the right of the desk, through which the ambient afternoon light shone dully. There were a few straight-backed velvet-covered chairs scattered around, facing the desk. On the wall opposite the window hung a grandmother clock that constantly and solitarily ticked. Poor ventilation made the room slightly stuffy.
The whole effect, on SR's mind, was that he was entering a foreboding, warm, velvet box-- a place for confessions and trials. After closing the door, he selected one of the fuzz-covered chairs and sat upon it, feet dangling and head bowed, as he waited for his father.
Outside the door, he heard his mother close the door to the garage, then walk to the door that adjoined the Foxley residence with the church proper. When George Foxley had had his house and the church built, he had had the architect design them to be on the same plot of land, and adjoin them with a single doorway. He reasoned that with this arrangement he'd be able to better handle church affairs and spend more time with his family. In retrospect, however, he had opened the door for various church activities to occur, sometimes without his permission or approval, inside his own house. Despite this, however, his initial objective was obtained.
A few minutes after Janice Foxley went through the door to the church, SR heard his father's distinct gait coming through the same door, toward the office. Seconds later, the door to the office opened, and George walked wordlessly in. Still not talking, he sat in the large leather chair behind the desk and stared, concerned, at SR. SR did not return the gaze.
After several minutes, George finally spoke. "Your mother told me what you were doing with Chad in the garage." SR did not respond. George continued, "I hope you're proud of yourself."
SR felt like dirt. Tears were forming in his eyes.
"SR, I know that you know it's wrong to look at filthy pictures." A tear rolled down SR's face.
But the next question caught SR off-guard: "But I want to know something: When you had the choice, why did you choose to look at the magazine with SCABS in it instead of the magazine with normal people?"
SR looked up into his father's eyes. "I don't know," he croaked. And he didn't.
George frowned. After a moment, he reached over to one of the drawers in the desk. SR knew this drawer well: It was in the top, right section of the desk. It had no rollers, but was made of finely crafted mahogany, and its opening and closing were accompanied by the smooth sound of wood sliding on wood. But most importantly, it was the drawer in which George kept his Bible.
Retrieving the dog-eared and highly-marked tome, he turned to the first part of the book and began reading:
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our
George paused for a moment to give the words their deserved respect. He said, "SR, do you know why God made humans last of all, instead of the animals last of all?"
"'Cause we're different than the animals?"
"Yes, that's right. Does that mean that we're better than the animals?"
"Um... I don't know."
"No, SR, we're not." George could see the confused expression on his son's face. He sighed. "SR, we were made to rule over them. But this doesn't mean that we're better than them."
SR nodded his head, sniffing. George continued, "But God never wanted us to be like the animals. So, SR, is it right to look at filthy pictures of animals?"
SR bowed his head again, and almost inaudibly said, "No."
George kept at it, "Do you know why it's wrong?"
Even quieter, "No."
George took a deep breath, then released it. "SR, it's wrong because when people look at pictures like that, they lust after the animals, and want to be like them. And it's wrong to want to be an animal."
SR didn't understand the word 'lust,' but the meaning of what George had said was completely clear: SR had done something wrong-- even more wrong that just looking at dirty pictures. He began to cry. "I'm sorry, Dad. I'm sorry."
George walked around his desk, shushing his son and hugging him tightly. "Ssh... ssh... I know. It's all right."
After SR was under control of himself again, George held him by both shoulders and looked into his eyes. "Are you going to do it again?"
SR wiped a tear from his eye, and replied, "No, Dad. Never again."
George smiled. "Good. Now go help your mother make dinner."
SR turned and walked out the door, George staying behind in the office. In the kitchen, SR could hear his mother cooking something on the stove. His little brother William was sitting in front of the television, watching a rerun of some ancient cartoon.
"Hey Mom!" cried William, "My teacher, Ms. Meyer, looks a lot like one of these turtles, except she doesn't have a head-band, or use a bo or sai, and she wears a dress."
"Mmm-Hmm. That's because she's a SCAB and your pre-school teacher, and not a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle."
William was fascinated by the cartoon. "She can't talk like these guys neither. She has to use this little box thingy."
"That's a Vodor, dear."
There was a pause, then, "Hey Mom! How come she has to use a voder? Why can't she talk like the rest of us?"
SR heard the activity in the kitchen stop, followed by a lengthy pause. "Because God doesn't want her to talk, William."
William pondered that for a moment, then rose to turn off the T.V. Entering the kitchen, SR heard that his mother had a UCD of Hymns playing quietly in the background. The current track was, "Our Father, by Whose Name"
SR picked up the center-fold off the ground, neatly folding it again and replacing it in the magazine before jamming both deep into the pile of refuse. He wished he could do the same with the memory that that magazine had brought to the surface. Frowning, he replaced his paws in the pockets in his jacket before turning and walking to the end of the alley.
He had only two more blocks to go before he would reach the walking section of the city. This consisted of a twelve-block area that was closed to all but pedestrian traffic. The streets there were lined with all kinds of shops. During festivals and holidays, most of this city's celebrating occurred within this district. SR was sure that on this Christmas Eve there would be plenty of action going on there.
As he approached the corner that turned onto the first of the walking streets, he heard an a cappella group singing "Joy to the World." He smiled. Christmas-time was probably his favorite time of the year, and he loved the carols that accompanied the season. When he turned the corner, his smile only grew broader.
The choir that was singing it was a hodge-podge collection of SCABS-- about fifteen altogether-- being led by a wildly flailing female red fox morph wearing a yellow dress. SR recognized the conductor.
When he'd come to this city less than a year ago, searching for a place to live, he stumbled across a hand-painted street sign that proudly displayed "Gnade Street" to the passing traffic. Amused that he was able to find something so 'close to home,' he went down it to see what there was to offer. He was nearly floored when he saw the sign in front of the church around the corner:
Gnade Street Christian Church
The coincidence was too uncanny for SR to pass up, and he knew he needed to find an apartment in the area. To his luck, there was an opening in the complex directly across the street.
The vixen in her trade-mark garb, who was presently finishing the last notes of the carol, worked at the church across from SR's apartment. On Sunday mornings she could be seen heartily greeting parishioners as they came to worship. SR had had a few conversations with her, and knew that she not only worked there, but had an apartment in the third floor of the building. The pastor, a man who carried the very slight markings of a badger that his bout with the Martian Flu had given him, had been gracious enough to give her a place to stay in return for her services as choir director.
She had always enthusiastically invited SR to attend the services-- well, as enthusiastically as one could, using the mechanical voice of a vodor-- but SR had always turned down her invitations.
The choir paused now to enjoy the applause of the few people who were standing around, enjoying the show. Of all the clapping, SR's was the loudest. Turning back to her choir, the vixen raised her hands in preparation for the next carol. A calico housecat-morph stepped forward, signifying that she was to sing a solo part.
The choir exploded into the resonant sound of "Kling, Gloeckchen, Kling," sung in the original German. As expected, the soloist's voice rang above the rest of her companions'.
SR smiled, unconsciously showing his teeth. This wasn't the first time he'd heard a calico cat sing this particular carol....
"Sssh! You kids be quiet!" Mrs. Frederickson literally growled at the two children at the front of the line.
"But SR pulled my tail!" whined Tara Nedrow.
"Sssh! If I hear anything else from either of you, I'll march both of you straight down to the principal's office this minute!"
Tara growled, then turned to punch SR in the shoulder, hard, before crossing her fur-covered arms and pouting. For the next few moments, the only sound was Tara's annoyed rumble, and the Christmas carol being sung by the class of fifth-graders on stage. The line of sixth-graders, in the front of which Tara and SR impatiently stood, waited back stage for their turn to participate in Washington Elementary School's Christmas performance.
SR watched, mesmerized, as the tip of Tara's tail involuntarily flicked back and forth.
"Psst. Tara," SR leaned close to whisper in her ear, "What's it like to have a tail?"
Tara's growling stopped, and she turned to face SR. She looked confused. "What?" came her quiet reply.
SR shifted on his feet. "You know. What's it like to have a tail? And claws, and fur, and purring and stuff?"
She wrinkled her brow a little bit, and stared with her slitted pupils directly into SR's brown eyes. The audience was clapping now as the fifth-graders filed off the stage.
Suddenly Tara's lips turned upward into a smile and her whiskers twitched with excitement. "It's like I get to sing the solo now, and you don't!"
Before SR could respond, however, their wolf-morph sixth-grade teacher was ushering them onto the stage. Tara sang beautifully, and, although SR couldn't have known it at the time, actually pronounced most of the words to the difficult German carol correctly.
He wasn't annoyed that at the last minute, Mrs. Frederickson had chosen to let Tara sing the carol instead of himself. Even in his limited understanding of others' feelings, SR knew that Tara needed the emotional boost that such an honor would provide.
Shortly after her eleventh birthday, Tara had contracted the Martian Flu, and was one of the unlucky one-out-of-twelve for which it developed into SCABS. Despite the SCABS-education classes that all the students were required to take in their fourth- and fifth-grade years-- despite the fact that all the students had been told that when their bodies were changing due to puberty, some of them would change even more because of the Martian Flu, no one, especially not Tara, was quite prepared when she padded into the classroom on December fourth, after a two-month hiatus.
A lot of her friends immediately disowned her. She had been told by her parents that SR, because he was the son of that pastor, would do the same. As it was, however, SR had long had a crush on this young lady. (He had even once asked her to marry him during one afternoon's recess of their fifth-grade year!) Their schoolyard games of soccer four-square continued until the snows of the winter made the game impossible.
After the sixth-graders had finished singing three more carols, the rest of the grades were filed onto or in front of the stage, and performers and audience joined in a chorus of "Silent Night." Principle Jackson thanked everyone cordially for coming the the show, then all were released to find their ways back to their respective homes.
SR's parents had, months previously, made an unchangeable appointment with one of the higher ecclesiastical officers of the church, and therefore weren't there to watch their SR, nor take him home. SR skipped his bus, and ran down the street next to the school in an attempt to catch up with Tara. She heard his approach from a great distance, and upon seeing someone chasing her, took off in a dead run.
SR yelled after her, "Wait! Tara! It's just me!"
She stopped and turned, tail twitching nervously. SR finally caught up to her, out of breath and panting. Before he could say anything, Tara chided, "Dang it, SR! Don't ever chase me like that! If you'd been any closer, I might have lashed out at you with my claws!"
SR smiled weakly, leaning over in an attempt to aid his burning lungs. "Oh... sorry... didn't... know..."
Tara smiled. "That's OK. What do you want?"
SR paused for a few moments. When he felt that he could talk normally again, he replied, "Oh, nothin'. I just figured I'd walk you home."
Tara frowned, then smirked. "Ok. If you want."
With that, the two set off for Tara's home, nearly three-fourths of a mile away. After a few minutes of walking to nothing but the sound of their boots crunching the crusted snow on the side of the road, Tara stopped and faced SR. "OK, SR, what is it? What do you want?"
SR looked aghast. "What? Nothin'! Honest! I just wanted to walk you home!"
Tara's eyes narrowed. "You're lyin'. I can smell it." SR's cheeks flushed. "You want to know what it's like to be a SCAB, don't you?" SR's cheeks turned even redder.
"I... uh... well, shoot!" he stammered.
Tara's expression lightened, and a smile touched her lips. "That's OK. My mom's a lizard-morph, and I always wondered what it might be like."
SR lifted his eyes to meet hers, the flush leaving his face. "So what's it like to have a tail and claws and fur and stuff?"
"Well, once you get used to it, it's not all that different than it was before. I mean, I smell a lot more things than I did before, and hear stuff better, and can see real good at night, now, but you get used to it after a while."
SR looked somewhat disappointed. "Oh. I figured it would be... well, I guess I don't know what I figured it would be like. But not that."
Tara frowned. "Oh-- there's certainly some things that are way different than before. Like last week I heard a mouse in the wall, and when it came out for one of the crackers in the mouse trap in the kitchen, I caught it and ate it!"
SR made a face of disgust. "Ugh! Gross!"
Tara smiled broadly, "Actually, it wasn't half bad. Come to think of it, I actually liked how it tasted. It was weird and all, with its bones crunching in my mouth and stuff, but it tasted good."
SR shook his head, trying to imagine what Tara could have been feeling or thinking at the time. Slowly a smile stretched itself across his lips.
Tara continued, "My mom told me that if I catch another one, I should save some of it for her!"
Both of them starting laughing. Before he could react, Tara took SR's right hand in her left paw and continued walking down the street.
SR had never held a girl's hand before, much less one who had SCABS. It was decidedly strange to feel the soft fur between her fingers offset by the cold hardness of the pads on her palm and fingertips. But it didn't take long for him to decide that he liked the sensation. Really liked it.
They walked that way, Tara contemplating something completely outside their situation, and SR dazedly staggering with a googly smile plastered to his face, for several more minutes.
At last, Tara stopped, drew in a hard, shaky breath, and spoke. "But what really sucks about being a SCAB is that most people don't like SCABS all that much."
SR looked up toward her face, concerned. She didn't look at him. "Last summer, Mom and Dad had a security system put in at our house 'cause some jerk from 'Humans First' sent us a mean letter." She looked into SR's eyes. "And when I got back to class, my best friend Suzy Billows told me that I was gonna go to hell and that she wasn't my friend no more."
SR broke eye contact, not wanting to tell her what his father would probably say about that last statement.
They began walking again. SR was torn between worlds, and didn't know what he should do. He glanced up at Tara's face, seeing her facial hair wet with tears. In that moment, he made his decision.
Stopping, he waited for Tara to look him in the eyes. "Tara," he said, "No matter what happens, I'll always be your friend."
She smiled, and to SR's surprise, hugged him tightly, crying. "Thanks, SR." she managed to say after a minute.
She wiped her face and grabbed SR's hand again as the two again made their way toward the Nedrow family's residence. Stopping on her porch, Tara gave SR another hug before saying good-bye and walking inside. SR stood there for a minute, then staggered home in emotional and hormonal overload. Inside the Nedrows' house, he could hear someone playing Alphaville's "Forever Young."
SR clapped as loudly as he could when the beautiful calico finished her solo. It had been years since he had heard that song. She took a bow and returned to the choir to sing with the rest for their next carol. SR continued to watch her mouth open and close, her voice blending with the others as they sang, "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
Of course, Tara was right-- After SR had contracted SCABS, the new sensations of having a tail, fur and claws, and the heightened sense of smell, sight, and hearing were strange for only about the first two weeks. Mostly, it was as routine now as completely human sensations had ever been.
But some things still startled him: He had once been walking down a country road when a jack-rabbit jumped out of the bushes next to him. He didn't realize that he was chasing it until he had knocked it down and pinned it under his forepaws, ready to deliver the fatal bite. In that moment, he realized that he was a carnivore and predator-- and that he suddenly had a whole new set of instincts. He stopped growling and let the rabbit go, suppressing the urge to chase it again.
Once he could no longer hear it running in the distance, he trotted back to the heap of clothes that lay where he'd been standing and set to work trying to figure out how to morph back into a more humanoid form. That was the same day that he decided he'd always try to wear something made out of wool-- to ease the stress on rodent and avian SCABS by masking part of his vulpine scent. SR didn't think he'd ever get used to the instincts that came with the body.
When the choir's carol was over, SR applauded loudly, then continued his journey into the walking part of the city, contemplating the words he had just heard.
"...So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav'n..." He sighed. Things had not gone as hoped with Tara....
SR announced his arrival upon entering the front door of the Foxley residence. It had been the second-to-last day of school, and he was eager to start playing. He dropped his backpack behind the stained-glass window of the foyer and turned the corner toward the family room, intent on asking his mother whether he would be allowed to ride his bike to Chad's house before the threatening storm struck.
His mother was there, along with his father. They turned to face SR, a look of solemn concern on their faces.
"Hey Mom," asked SR, "can I go over to Chad's house today?"
She didn't respond, but glanced quickly at SR's father.
"SR," he began, "could I have a talk with you?"
SR didn't like the sound of that. "Um... sure, Dad. What's up?"
"In my office."
Uh oh. SR was left wondering what he had done this time as he turned and walked to the warm velvet room. He sat nervously in one of the chairs as George Foxley quietly closed the door and took up his position behind the desk.
George didn't wait long. "I drove by your school today. I think it was recess time. You were playing a game with a soccer ball on the pavement."
SR nodded, trying to figure out where his dad was going with this.
"... with a SCAB."
Oh crap! So that was it. SR's mind raced, trying to come up with something to say. George waited patiently for SR's excuse.
"Oh... yeah... Tara. She's... um... one of the kids in my class."
George inhaled, then exhaled deeply. "I wondered about that, so I called your friend, Chad Beasly. Do you know what he told me?"
SR cringed. Chad was a good friend, but was also the sort of person who couldn't keep a secret. And SR's father was just the sort of person who is good at finding out secrets. "Um... No..."
Without a pause: "He said that you and Tara have been 'going out' for several months now. He said that she was your girlfriend."
SR looked down at his feet, which were just long enough to reach the green carpeting. He didn't say anything, but he could feel the tears beginning to form. He couldn't see any way out of this one.
George waited for a minute then asked, "Do you want to tell me about it?"
SR spilled his guts. He told his father about everything-- from the glances and notes they'd exchange in class to the games of soccer four-square, to the hand-held walks home, to the one time Tara had kissed SR ("on the cheek-- and it was more like a lick than a kiss. And her tongue was scratchy"). It took about ten minutes for SR to get through it all, and at the end of it, he was crying pitifully, although he wasn't sure why.
George took it all in solemnly, nodding his head to indicate comprehension whenever that was needed. When it was over, he waited for SR to get control of himself before responding.
"Son," he began, "You know how your mother and I feel about you having SCAB friends."
SR nodded. He knew all right: He was to have none.
George shifted in his chair. "Well, in the next few years, some of the people you know are going to become SCABS." SR nodded: He knew that, too. George frowned as if contemplating something, then signed deeply. "SR, do you know why it is that your mother and I don't want you to have SCAB friends?"
SR shook his head. George reached for the drawer in his desk and pulled out his Bible. He flipped to the middle and began reading:
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it
And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it
To say the least, SR was confused by what his father had read. George paused for a moment then asked, "What do you think this scripture has to do with what we're talking about?"
SR shook his head. "I don't know... that we should cut ourselves off from bad stuff?"
George smiled, "Exactly. Now what does this have to do with those who get SCABS?" SR shook his head again, and emphasized by shrugging his shoulders.
George took another deep breath before continuing, "SR, SCABS are like the offending eye or hand in this scripture. They are bad. Now, why do you suppose they're bad?"
SR was shocked. "I... I don't know!"
"SR," began his father, "SCABS is a disease that God uses to punish wicked people. God makes SCABS out of people who are unhappy with what He has given them-- whether that be their bodies, or their gender, or anything else in their lives that they can't change, or that He didn't want them to try to change. He uses it to show them that they should have been happy with what they had."
SR raised his voice in protest, "But Mrs. Frederickson says that SCABS can't do nothin' about gettin'..."
George cut off his son in a voice devoid of emotion. "Mrs. Frederickson is a SCAB."
SR opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again as the implications of his father's last statement hit home. He looked down at the carpet, blinking his eyes. "You mean, everyone who gets SCABS gets it because they didn't want what God gave 'em?"
George nodded solemnly. "They actually want to be SCABS."
To say that SR was dumbfounded would have been a gross understatement. He looked up at his father. "Gee... Tara sure doesn't act like it."
George nodded again, then said, "I know, it's really surprising, isn't it? With some of them, you'd never suspect it."
SR shook his head, trying to contemplate how Tara could want to have her friends leave her, to have mean boys pull her tail and put signs that said, "Scratch me, I'm in heat" on her back, to have them make jokes about whether she'd land on her feet if she fell out of a thirty-story building. Was having fur and claws really worth that much?
George interrupted his thoughts, "Now, why is it wrong to associate with SCABS?"
SR wrinkled his brow. "I guess it's because if you hang around with them, then they might convince you to want to be a SCAB, too."
George smiled. "That's right. So what should you do about Tara and any other SCABS you might meet?"
SR felt deflated. Ever since he became known as the one who hung around with 'the Housecat,' some of her curse had rubbed off on him, and a few of his own friends had ungraciously become enemies. But it was perfectly clear what his father was driving at. He began to cry. "I should tell them that I don't want to be their friend."
George came around his desk and hugged his son. "Sssh... I know how much you like her. I'm sorry it has to hurt so much."
They stood that way for several minutes, rocking slowly back and forth, as SR's tears wetted the front of his father's suit. Still embraced, George asked his son, "Are you going to tell her that?"
"Yeah. I'll do it tomorrow," SR croaked.
George smiled. "I'm proud of you, son. You're really beginning to become a young man." But SR didn't hear-- he was too busy watching the rain streak down the windows. To him, it was as red as his tears.
The next day in school, SR tried his best not to look at or talk with Tara. But a few days previously, he had promised to walk her home that afternoon. He decided that this was when he'd break the news to her.
They had made it nearly half way home, in silence, SR's hands conspicuously in his pockets, before Tara finally said something.
"SR, you've been acting and smelling weird all day. What's wrong?"
SR frowned. He had learned that it was useless to try to conceal anything from her. Yet he really didn't want to do what he needed to do, and therefore tried to delay it as long as possible.
"Um... I'll tell you when we get to your house." Tara frowned, then began walking again.
When they got there, Tara stopped on the porch, and put her paws on her hips. "Well, are you gonna tell me what's up, or what?"
SR stared down at his feet and kicked his shoe. It was D-day: There was no way around this one anymore. "Um... I was talkin' to my dad yesterday, and um... well... we can't be friends no more."
Tara looked like she'd just seen both of her parents shot. She let out a small, suppressed squeak, then put her paw on SR's shoulder-- her indication that she wanted a hug. He shrugged it off.
And that was it. Since he didn't have anything else to say, he simply turned and sullenly dragged his feet off the porch and down the road towards home. Tara remained sobbing pitifully in front of the house. From the time they'd left the school, SR had never looked at her. When the sound of her crying faded into the distance behind him, SR still hadn't lifted his eyes from the ground.
When he arrived home, he went straight to his room and cried himself bitterly to sleep. Downstairs, his mother was playing hymns again. The last one he heard before his eyes closed out of exhaustion was, "Nearer, My God, to Thee."
For what must have been the ten-thousandth time, SR mentally kicked himself and dug his claws into the pads on his paws because he'd never given Tara that goodbye hug. Splitting up was unavoidable, really, but there was no reason to deny her that last comfort.
Two weeks after he'd so unceremoniously dumped her, her father got a job with a large, out-of-state firm, and she was whisked away to that imaginary land known as 'Florida.' In all of his subsequent searching, SR was never able to find Tara Nedrow again. He would never forgive himself for that.
Presently, SR was listening to the happy melody of "Jingle-Bells" as he walked past the front of one of the toy stores along the main walking street. Inside, to the dismay of one shopkeeper, four teenagers were 'testing out' some of the merchandise.
One in particular caught SR's eye: He was flipping a butterfly yo-yo dangerously close to the back of one of his companion's heads (who was attempting to reassemble one of the shop's store-front displays the he had, moments previously, knocked over). The one struggling with the pile of Legos would occasionally hear something, and turn to look accusingly at his friend. In the meantime, the one with the yo-yo would do some other trick, plastering an overly-innocent look on his face.
This charade ended when he misjudged the length of the string and gave his friend a solid knock upside the cranium. A short and uninteresting scuffle ensued, but the shopkeeper shooed them out of the store before they could damage anything else.
SR chuckled to himself. Aah, the wonders of the yo-yo! He'd learned in junior high that the best way to get some breathing room in a crowd was to pull one of those magical toys out and begin flipping it uncomfortably close to his neighbors' surrounding ankles. He'd also played the 'let's see how close we can get' game with his younger brother William's head-- except that he usually made William face the yo-yo and keep his eyes open. Considering the number of black-eyes that William had received, it was a miracle that they didn't fall out! Of course, SR also paid dearly each time William's complaining cry reached his mother's ears.
Those were the days! Upon entering junior high, SR's social life changed as much as his body and attitude. The first thing he realized was that there were a lot more SCABS in this school than his previous one. In Washington Elementary, there were only four students who had SCABS, all of them sixth-graders who were transformed during that year. In South Junior High, a school of nearly three times the size, there were over fifty.
But it still wasn't hard to have a Normals-only group of friends. SR was rather introverted, but was quickly enveloped into a tight-knit clique of four rather gifted boys: Chad Beasly, Jeff Matthews, Rick Porter, and Kelly Pope. They all excelled in school, but also carried some of the more negative stereotypes of students of their achievement. Before long, they were known as the 'Yo-yo Club,' for their chosen lunch-hour pastime.
In the eighth grade, Rick introduced the other three to the magical world of computers. Of course, they had all used them in school and home before, but none of them had ever attempted to program one. For SR's amusement, his father dug out an old machine that he bought during his college years. SR wasn't sure, but he figured it was made sometime between 2005 and 2007: It only had 4 processors, a very ancient voice-recognition system (SR actually had to use the keyboard sometimes), and its 3-D rendering hardware could only handle fifty million polygons at sixty frames per second. But despite its obvious shortcomings, SR had it purring for him in almost no time at all.
SR watched the four boys make their way down the street, obviously enjoying each other's friendship. When they went around the corner, they passed a couple coming the opposite direction. He was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Norm. She was a five-foot walking lady-bug. The walked, arm-in-foreleg, very much consumed in each other's love.
SR sighed. Throughout his high-school years he and his friends had kept themselves busy with computers, orchestra, and a few extra-curricular programs like the Honor Society and Academic Decathlon. Through his expanding education and church seminary classes, it became gradually clear to SR exactly what his religion dictated in terms of the eternal fates of those who got SCABS. To SR's luck, during those years he never had another friend as close as Tara had been commit the unpardonable sin. Consequently, he had never had another serious talk with his father over that particular matter.
In his final year at Andrus High, SR wrote his senior thesis about the detrimental effects of SCAB employees and researchers in the high-tech marketplace. He received an A+ for the paper, and his English teacher, an activist in the local chapter of Humans First, encouraged him to polish up the work and attempt to have it published in a professional journal. SR's father provided his support as well. SR never told them why he didn't.
Shortly before graduation-- SR would have a 4.09 GPA, second only to his friend Kelly's 4.16 GPA-- the group of socially-defunct introverts prepared to attend the senior prom. For three of them, SR included, finding Norm dates proved easier than expected.
During that same year of school, SR watched with increasing concern as Kelly gradually became attracted to and began going steady with a female cricket morph of his same age. When the time for the prom came around, it was obvious who his chosen date would be.
Since the foursome planned on making a quadruple-date of the event, and because George Foxley had a very strict 'As long as you're under my roof, you'll obey my rules' policy, SR knew he'd have to have a chat with his dad about it.
It didn't go over well...
"Damnit! It's only one stinking night, and she's not even my date!"
"SR, please do not curse in this house!"
SR sank heavily back into the velvet covered wooden chair across from his father's desk. "Sorry," he spat.
George placed both elbows on the desk, lacing his fingers in front of his mouth. He exhaled loudly through his nose.
"Look, SR," he eventually said, "Do you understand why we don't want you to have any association with SCABS?"
SR frowned. "I understand all the doctrine behind it-- about being happy with you're lot in life, and keeping out of temptation and all that stuff. But I really don't see how one little evening could hurt." SR held his right hand out toward his father. "I mean, come on! I hardly even know the girl, and after dinner we'll be going straight to the prom-- and you know there's going to be plenty of SCABS there! I haven't heard you say one thing about not going to the prom or to school where I have to be around hundreds of SCABS every day!"
"The SCAB your friend Jeff chooses to associate with is a bad influence. She has made choices in her life that she can never repeal..."
SR was on his feet again in an instant. "Now where do you get off saying that? I know the doctrine, but I've never understood why you believe it! I mean, all the scientific evidence in the world says that SCABS affects people at random! Sure, there've been some rumors flying around that susceptibility to SCABS might be hereditary, but for the most part, it's completely random-- changing who it wants, whenever it wants! And how can you say that they actually wanted that disease? Do you know their thoughts? Can you climb into their heads? How can you say that they wanted to be shunned? Or frightened? Or alienated? Or killed? Jesus! You know the statistics-- how many of them commit suicide after they start to show symptoms!"
SR was breathing heavily, leaning on the front of George's desk. George waited patiently for the tirade to end, and for his son to calm down before speaking again, eyes lowered to the floor. "SR, please sit down." SR turned and sat in his chair, arms folded in defiance.
At last, George looked into his son's eyes with warm sternness. "SR, I know it's been hard for you to accept what's been happening around you at school, and especially to accept some of the doctrines of this church." SR huffed sarcastically. "I know you love to analyze things, but please realize that science doesn't have all the answers, and that it can sometimes be blatantly wrong." SR only frowned.
George continued. "Science tells us the world was made over the course of millions of years instead of just seven days. It tells us that there was no great flood. It says miracles do not happen, and tries to attribute some of them to freak phenomena in nature. It tells us that Mary, as a virgin, couldn't have born a child. It tells us that Jesus couldn't have risen on the third day." He paused to let his word sink in, leaning forward. "And it tells us that SCABS can't do anything about getting that disease."
SR shook his head, staring at the floor. George went on. "This isn't the first time that God has used a disease to punish the wicked. In Egypt, among the plagues sent on that country for not letting Israel go was a plague of boils. In ancient Greece, God used sexually transmitted diseases to end their abominable practices. In the middle ages, God sent the black plague to punish the people for falling away from His righteous ways. In the late twentieth century, God used AIDS to scourge sodomites, homosexuals, adulterers, and fornicators. And today," George paused, "God has sent SCABS to punish those who are ungrateful for the many blessings He has given them."
SR smirked, "He sure has pretty poor aim with his plagues, then, doesn't He?"
George did his best to ignore the sarcastic tone of his son's blasphemous remark. "Well, of course there have been some who unnecessarily suffer. In Pharoah's Egypt, the plagues were caused by one man's unbelief. And in the middle ages, entire towns of righteous, god-fearing folk were decimated. Look, bad things happen every day. People die needlessly in auto accidents. Murderers and robbers get away with their wicked crimes. But God more than makes up with it with the paradise in which he allows the victims to dwell."
SR looked up. "And with SCABS?"
George sighed, then leaned back into the folds of his leather chair. "With SCABS, I'd estimate that maybe one in ten-thousand unjustly suffer."
SR leaned forward angrily, this time controlling his temper enough that he didn't stand. "But how can you say that? How can you know that any of what you've told me isn't some sort of paranoid pipe-dream?"
George frowned and reached toward the top drawer of his desk. Pulling out the Bible, he flipped to a passage near the end and began reading:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth
But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that
He paused for a full minute before speaking again. "SR, do you believe in God?"
SR responded quietly, "Yes."
"Do you believe that he hears and answers prayers?"
Even more quietly, "Yes."
"Then what should you do about this?"
SR bowed his head, looking at the carpet in front of the desk. "I suppose I should ask God."
By this time, George was already around his desk. "Will you do that?"
Without raising his head, SR responded, "Yes."
This was met with a good half-minute of silence. George finally spoke, whispering. "Thank you, son. I'm proud of you. Could I have a hug?"
The Norm/SCAB pair slowly made their way from store-front to store-front, more intent on enjoying the company of the other than actually shopping for Christmas merchandise. No one seemed to think that this combination was at all out of the ordinary.
SR smiled. Perhaps, in this city at least, it wasn't. After his transformation, it seemed like the natural move for him-- to go to the Mecca of SCABS-- the city where they congregated in droves; where some of the best research was being conducted in efforts to discover the actual cause, and hopefully the cure for the disease; the city where SR had hoped, vainly, that SCABS would be more accepted by the general population....
SR had kept his promise to his father and approached God concerning the matter. A few days later, he called Kelly on a voice-only line and told him that he wouldn't be going to the prom with him if Kelly chose to take 'that bug' along. Of course that fractured their friendship, but SR figured it didn't matter much anyway, since he would be going to the State University in a few months while Kelly would be going across the country to major in computer science at MIT.
Not that SR couldn't have attended MIT, had he wanted-- it had just seemed too inconvenient at the time. In his church, young men sometimes devoted two years of their life to preaching the Gospel to the world. Since his earliest years, SR had planned and dreamed of 'going on a mission.' After his graduation, he planned on attending one semester of college at the State University, then traveling wherever God wanted him to go to spread the good news.
Again, more out of convenience than anything else, SR submitted one application to one institution, and got one letter of acceptance back from that same University. He would be rooming with his life-long and devout atheist friend, Chad Beasly.
...SR arose from the bench upon which he had been sitting and stretched, making sure he didn't open his mouth too wide during the subsequent yawn. It was nearing four o'clock in the afternoon, and his stomach was telling him it was time to get something to eat. He walked up to a nearby concessions stand and ordered a Reuben, watching the sun as it began to set....
Upon entering the relative freedom of college life-- his parents were nearly three hundred miles away-- SR and Chad had little difficulty forming a new clique of friends. This time, however, it included SCABS.
That, of course, was mostly Chad's doing. SR certainly wasn't going to go out of his way to make SCAB friends, but found himself reluctant to shove them off when they so graciously tolerated him.
Toleration was something SR was going to learn a lot about that semester. Unfortunately for Chad, SR considered it his personal vendetta to convert his long-suffering roommate to the 'right way.' SR wasn't sure how many nights he'd kept Chad up into the wee hours of the morning debating some aspect or another of his religion. Chad would get back by loudly playing Nine Inch Nails or having his computer randomly load holographic images of nude rabbit-morph SCABS when SR was trying to study.
By mid-term, they had come to an unofficial truce-- Chad was missing too much sleep, and SR couldn't get any studying done. Eventually, though, SR began to let his hair down and more freely associate with his SCAB friends, and they with him. They all knew he belonged to that church, and even planned on spending a good chunk of his life preaching against the very things they stood for. Still, they were friends-- and for SR, friendship had very little to do with religion.
Two of them in particular, Dianne Garrison and Alice Larson, nearly floored him one morning when they asked him if they could attend church with him the following Sunday. SR was fairly certain he knew how the congregation would react to the bobcat- and lemur-morphs, but knew these two were also intelligent enough to surmise these facts as well. As it was, he was more than happy to assist them in their 'sociological experiment.'
The hour went about as expected-- all three of them uncomfortable under the eyes of the other worshipers. Afterward, some of the other members introduced themselves to the two newcomers, some of them shooting questioning glances in SR's direction.
SR was amazed when Dianne asked to come again the next week. Things went similarly. Experiment concluded, the motivation and results of which SR would never understand, none of his friends ever asked to go to church with him again.
Probably the biggest surprise of that semester, however, occurred only a few days before the end of it: It was SR's birthday and when he arrived home that evening, he found a note on the door instructing him to come to the building's third floor lounge as soon as possible. When he opened the door and turned on the lights, he was greeted with the stereotypical surprise birthday party.
Except these weren't stereotypical people. The members of his clique-- and nearly every other SCAB on his hall-- greeted him with gifts and good cheer for the two years he would be spending in Germany-- the country where God was sending him on his mission. His favorite gift was a wall-sized, hand-drawn map of Germany on which each of these friends had written a short note to wish him well on his journey. SR still has that map.
...The night had set in, and SR was gazing skeptically at a wire-frame set of eight reindeer and sleigh that had been assembled in the center section of the walking streets. The power to the Christmas lights wrapped around the wires had just been turned on, and in the dusky light of the sunset, the display looked obtusely artificial. He passively wondered how much it would have cost the city to pay a few unemployed deer-morphs to stand there instead....
All-too-quickly-- certainly too quickly to have time to show his friends any real gratitude for the kindness they had affected him-- SR was driven home for the winter holiday. Shortly thereafter, he found himself wearing a black suit and trench coat, going from door to door and manning street displays on the other side of the world, attempting to speak a language that, at first, sounded to him more like the cookie monster's multiple failed attempts at dislodging an offending pastry from the back of his throat. To say that the experience was traumatic is putting it lightly.
...Ignoring the offensive, flashing display of failed human ingenuity in the center of the square, SR could hear a choir singing "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" somewhere ahead of him in the distance. He smiled-- that was one of his favorite German Christmas carols. He began to walk vigorously in the direction of the music....
Mission life was rarely easy. Most people couldn't understand why a Christian religion was sending missionaries to a country that was already Christian-- never mind the fact that the Catholic and Protestant churches that could be found on every- other-block of the larger cities were almost always empty. Of course, SR's religion had more than just Christianity in mind when they sent out missionaries.
...The music, bouncing off the surrounding buildings, was almost deafening to SR's sensitive ears now. It had to be a choir of over two hundred members to achieve that kind of volume and tone! Just around the next corner...
If nothing else, then one gets to know one's own religion when forced to preach it. Along with the nicer aspects come the things one would rather remained in the closet.
...The choir had just finished the carol when SR rounded the corner, a wide smile stretching the corners of his mouth.
That smile vanished instantly, as if someone had slapped it off his face.
Before him stood a gigantic Christmas tree with an equally huge 'Humans First' banner draping down from the top. In front of the tree was a huge choir-- nearly two hundred fifty members in size-- that was composed entirely of Normals. In front of them, a podium had been erected on top of a short stage. Around this entire arrangement stood a wall of policemen, again all Norms., there to protect the performers from any vicious-minded SCABS who might want to crash their party. They didn't have much to worry about, however, since the crowd that had gathered was composed almost entirely of Normals. SR had no doubt everyone present on the scene were members of the local-- and largest in the nation-- 'Humans First' chapter. This city being the Mecca for SCABS also made it attractive to this other breed of low-life.
A short, stocky man approached the microphone, smiled broadly, then began to speak:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd like to thank you for coming to our little Christmas celebration this evening.
There was and agreeable chatter.
"As many of you are well aware, our movement has seen better times. With the demise of our late illustrious leader, Humans First chapters across the globe have become disjointed and misdirected. With the lack of a unified goal, some chapters have taken up political arms against their brothers. In the resulting battles, the only winners have been the disease of our society: SCABS.
The crowd murmured in worry.
"But friends, I didn't come here to tell you tales of impending doom. Rather, I am here to tell you that the dream lives on.
"Thirty years ago, a mission to Mars brought back a disease that ravaged the earth: the Martian Flu. Oh, what a terrible thing that was! For a while, it seemed that all of humanity was cursed to walk the earth like the dumb animal.
"But then, we began to understand what God was doing with this disease. With His almighty Hand, He was pointing out in a way that could not be any clearer those among us who were or desired to be sodomites, murderers, pedophiles, rapists, thieves, adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals, and just about every other kind of despicable, abominable creature that walks the face of our beautiful Earth!
"With the key given so clearly, shall we not separate the wheat from the tares in this, the time of the harvest?
"Yet in our workplaces, on our streets, in our busses and trains, and in the public schools where our children must be sent to learn, this blister on the foot of humankind is allowed to run free, spreading its virulent spores among our friends and neighbors, and among our lovely children.
"But the dream lives on.
"After the manner of that great martyr for human rights, Martin Luther King Junior, I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'
"I have a dream that on the sandy oil fields of Texas, my brother the oil worker will be to go to his table at night without fear that tomorrow he will be replaced by a mutated horse.
"I have a dream that even the city of New York, a city frozen with the fear of violence and carnage, will be transformed into a warm savannah where the claws, the horns, and teeth of the jungle are not to be feared.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation untainted by the foul judgment of malicious scaled and furred schoolteachers.
"I have a dream that one day Man will have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
"I have a dream...
The tyrant's rant continued for another fifteen minutes, but SR was too busy to hear it, three blocks away, vomiting the last of his Reuben sandwich into a trash can. The magic of Christmas Eve was over. It was time to go home.
It wasn't the first time that he'd heard such beautiful words so spitefully misconstrued. And especially not this Saint For Tolerance's words. In modern times, 'human rights' had taken on an entirely different meaning than its authors had intended.
SR did his best to clean the foul taste from his mouth, then started his journey to the apartment complex across the street from the church at 45 Gnade Street. It stung to see people miss the mark so badly...
"The Human Firsters' tactics are wrong, but their message is essentially right: SCABS have lost their humanity, and therefore need to be controlled." SR explained to his junior-companion, "In any case, though, it's pretty pointless to approach one on the street-- after all, you can't save them!"
Paul LaMont nodded his head solemnly. Earlier that day, when approaching people on the little pedestrian section of Bad Nauheim's Dieselstrasse, SR had made four new contacts while Paul was having an extended conversation with a goat-morph of some sort. SR certainly wasn't annoyed that Paul had spent so much time talking with the SCAB (four new appointments in only two hours' time was a rarity for this Protestant town), but because SR would be going back to America in just two months, he wanted to be sure to pass along as much wisdom as possible to the new-comer. And wasting time with SCABS didn't normally make for a very productive day.
Paul responded, "I was just practicing my German. I'm still not too comfortable talking to someone when it really counts." SR nodded.
Paul looked up. "Hey SR, have you ever had the Flu?"
SR answered almost mechanically-- it was a question he'd been asked well over a thousand times by people with whom he'd had conversations during appointments, on the street, on the phone, or wherever else the subject of SCABS discrimination came up: "No, but I have no doubts as to what would happen if I actually contracted it." Then more personally, "Have you?"
Paul looked down at his scuffed black shoes. "Yeah. When I was fourteen, our whole family got it. My dad came out as a little girl."
SR frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that." No more words were necessary-- both of them knew what his/her fate would be.
Paul shrugged. "Aah, don't worry about it. I'm over it."
The Strassenbahn they were riding came to the stop they were looking for, so the two young men exited and began walking to the location of their next appointment: Gunther Blase's apartment in the basement of a house at 16 Friedhof Weg. As they had before, SR and Paul chose to take the longer route through the adjacent cemetery because it was both shorter and provided a much needed break from the usual corridors of three-story stone buildings that made up a large portion of modern Bad Nauheim.
About half-way through the neatly-aligned rows of gravestones, Paul stopped and pointed at one. "Hey SR, check it out!"
SR looked at the object of Paul's interest. It was a shoe-box sized stone box with a small marble marker at the head. The inscription was, "Kam ein Voegelein geflogen, setzt sich nieder auf mein' Fuss. Friede sei Dir, Voegelein."
Paul smirked. "I thought they didn't bury SCABS in this cemetery."
"Depends on how much money you have."
"What's it say?"
SR shot a slightly annoyed glance at Paul. Paul had been in Germany for only three months, and was having trouble mastering the language. Still, SR was beginning to find it tedious to have to translate everything for his partner. "It says something like, 'Came a little bird flying, and sat down on my foot. Peace to you, little bird.' The first part comes from a German Volkslied. They sing it all the time at the old folks' home we'll be visiting next week. The rest is just some sentimental SCABS crap."
SR snapped his fingers. "Oh yeah! Don't let me forget to introduce you to Heimo Gustavsohn next week-- he's the president of the local Humans First chapter, and lives in the neighborhood of that home."
Paul nodded, and the two black-clad missionaries continued their way toward Gunther Blase's apartment. Gunther was an interesting character: SR and Paul had stumbled across him as he was remodeling a house on the other side of town. They asked if they could speak with him about Jesus. He responded that Jesus was a carpenter and that if the two missionaries knew anything about Jesus, then they ought to come up and lend a hand with the woodworking. Gunther nearly fell off the roof when the two, still clad in their black suits, actually did.
It didn't take long for SR to become as impressed with this man as he initially was with the missionaries' boldness. He was about thirty-five and a widower. His wife, Sara, had contracted SCABS little over a year previously. She became a full- dragonfly-morph and lost any humanness she had ever had. One August morning, Gunther had accidentally left the door to her cage open, and she flew out the bedroom window, never to be seen again.
Most people who had relatives who had become SCABS immediately closed their ears and minds to anything else the missionaries had to say after hearing about the church's strict doctrine pertaining to the sufferers of that disease. Gunther, on the other hand, kept listening, and seriously considered the points that SR and Paul had taught him. SR found his conversations with Gunther to be among the most mentally stimulating he'd had on his entire mission. Paul always liked the discussions, as well, because Gunther spoke flawless English, and insisted on holding their discourses in that language.
It had been nearly three months since the three had first met, and on this particular evening, SR planned to ask Gunther to join the church.
Paul rang the doorbell, and Gunther was almost immediately at the door. He greeted them, then chided them for being two minutes late.
For the most part, the course of the conversation went just as it always had over the previous weeks: They 'quatsched' a little bit, talking about the weather, the work, and the other more frivolous aspects of life, then Paul and SR answered some of the questions Gunther had regarding the passages of scripture that SR had asked him to read at their last appointment. Finally, as the conversation drew to a close, SR felt the time was right, and popped the fatal question: "Well, Gunther, we've talked for several weeks now about God's plan for us, and about the other aspects of this church. I'm certain that you know the doctrine very well. Will you make a covenant with Christ by joining His church?"
Gunther sat as he always had-- hands on knees, leaning slightly forward in attentiveness. He nodded slowly as he digested SR's words. A few minutes later, he stood and walked to the window, resting his arms on the sill.
At last he spoke: "You know, the things you've told me have made a lot of sense, to me. Logically, I can't see anything wrong with any of it." He looked directly at SR. "But how can I know it is true?"
SR paused for a moment, then responded, "Have you prayed about it? If you'd like, we could..."
Gunther was shaking his head slowly from side to side. "I tried that," he said, turning back to the window.
Another pause, then Paul spoke, "And?"
"I don't know." Gunther looked as if he were fighting some kind of inner battle, "I mean, how do you know?"
SR considered his response. "Well, to me, it's sort of a feeling I have-- I just sort of know it's true. When I prayed about it, I feel that God told me through my feelings that it was true."
Gunther looked back at SR. "But how do you know that you didn't just need to feel that way at the time? How can you be certain that that answer came from God, and not just yourself?" He returned his gaze to the window.
Paul was about to respond, but SR put a hand on his arm to let him know that Gunther wasn't done yet.
"I mean, it's like this city-- the teachers tell us that it was at the edge of the Roman empire; I mean, the Romans built this place, and built a wall and a temple, and prayed to their stone gods. But in the end, their empire crumbled. Sometimes I find another piece of their wall when I'm digging the basement to a house." He looked at SR again. "I'm sure they felt like their prayers were being answered, but they lived, and now they are dead, and their gods didn't have a thing to say about it."
SR thought long to try to come up with a response. Before he could say anything, though, Gunther was shaking his head, looking at the carpeting in front of the window, and speaking again. "Oh, never mind. I suppose that isn't the real problem, anyway."
SR and Paul waited patiently for Gunther to open up. Eventually, he looked back up, out the window and spoke. "You know, I'm never going to be anything but a poor carpenter."
SR was quick with a response. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
Gunther chucked to himself, shaking his head and returning his gaze to the ground. "What good is a used up world, and how could it be worth having?"
SR was taken aback. "What?"
Gunther looked up. "It's a song. Sting. 'All This Time.'" He looked back to the ground.
"Oh." SR paused. He was about to speak when Gunther visibly made a decision, and turned to fully face the pair of missionaries.
"Why don't you ever talk about what sucks in heaven?"
SR was even more surprised. "WHAT?"
"You know-- you have talked about all the good things, but if this is a real place, then I want to know what isn't good about it!"
SR was stammering. Paul jumped to his rescue. "I guess we don't talk about what sucks in heaven because we don't think that anything sucks in heaven. I mean, the place is literally perfect! I has everything you'd ever want, and then some..."
Gunther was looking at the carpet again. Under his breath, he muttered, "Not one thing." After years of contemplation, Gunther raised his head to look straight into SR's eyes. Gunther's were glistening with tears.
"I guess what it comes down to, is I would rather spend an eternity burning in hell with my Sara, than a minute in your heaven without her."
SR was too stunned to carry any part in the rest of the short conversation. If his religion had been Catholicism, then what Gunther had done could roughly be equated to walking into the Mainz Cathedral during High Mass, going up to the statue of the Mother of God there, outlining her lips in bright red lipstick, and planting a big, fat, juicy one on her.
After saying their good-bys, SR remained standing on the porch for several minutes, facing the closed door, mouth slightly agape. Of all the times he'd been spat upon, screamed at, chased, threatened, beaten, and humiliated on his mission, nothing came close to the defeated feeling he felt as Gunther closed the door.
Eventually, he regained control of himself and dumbly walked off the steps, his companion casting worried glances in his direction as they made their way back to the Strassenbahn Haltestelle.
About half-way through the cemetery, he stopped and turned, stealing one last look at Gunther's front door. He could hear music: Sting's 'All This Time.'
SR envied Gunther-- Gunther was the bravest man in the world.
That was the beginning of the end.
SR walked briskly along the streets of the city in which he lived, paws in the pockets of his navy blue jacket. This route home was longer, but generally safer than a more direct route. Still, it wasn't so safe that he needed to have no fear of the Norms and SCABS loitering on the corners and in the alleyways.
The only signs on this street that it was Christmas were the occasional Christmas lights in the windows of some apartments over his head, the green-tinsel Christmas trees hanging from every-other lamp post, and the infrequent carol drifting down to the street from someone's open window high overhead. The current selection was 'Angels We Have Heard on High.'...
Two months after wishing Gunther the best in his life, SR found himself on the ten-hour flight back to his home in the United States. There were the warm greetings from family and friends, the few days of acclimation back to speaking English and eating with his fork in the right hand, and then faster than he realized, SR was back at college, checking into the dorms and preparing for the spring's classes. Again, more out of laziness and convenience than anything else, it was back at the State University.
He was standing in line at the bookstore when someone behind him called out his name. Spinning, all he saw behind him were two dog-morphs and a few uninterested Norms. SR leaned to look around the SCABS.
"I'm right here, dude." The golden retriever smirked.
SR's eyes went as wide as dinner plates. "Chad? Whoa, man! You've changed."
The retriever laughed huskily. "No shit! So've you!"
He introduced SR to the woman-to-whom-he-was-boyfriend, the pomeranian-morph who was also in line at the bookstore: Amanda Roberts. They spent a few minutes getting caught up on old times, and Amanda and Chad invited SR to join them and some of their friends that evening for dinner and a movie in the basement of their co-ed dorm. SR accepted.
...SR carefully walked around a large rat-morph who was passed out on the sidewalk. He'd certainly had a bit too much Christmas cheer! Still, after a moment's consideration, by the look of his clothes, SR decided that the rat was already at his home, and continued his journey to the apartment complex across from 45 Gnade Street....
He never regretted accepting that invitation. It was largely because of this group of friends that he was still alive after SCABS had run its course in his body.
That first evening was uncomfortable, to say the least. Some of the people he remembered from before were there-- Dianne, Chad, and another friend from his high school, Tod Freeman. But all of them, old friends and new, were SCABS. And all of them knew what SR had spent the last two years doing.
But what an eclectic group of misfits they were! To this day, SR was still not sure what actually unified them as a group. One afternoon, Amanda and Dianne had been overheard in the library discussing some of the finer points of that day's philosophy 365 lecture. On the other side of the partition from where they were sitting, one sorority girl asked her fellow member of Delta Delta Delta what they were talking about. She responded, "Oh, don't mind them. They're just part of that Threatening Intellectual Clique." Amused, the odd collection of friends conceitedly adopted the name.
...SR paused to enjoy light of a Christmas tree glowing in the window of a clothing store on one street corner. He could smell that it was real-- a rarity these days, and in this part of the city. His stomach began to remind him that it had only had half a lunch....
The awkwardness didn't end after that first meeting, either. SR figured they wouldn't want to associate with him, being who he was. Still, Chad and Amanda continued to invite him to movies and dinners that the group frequently had in the basement of the dorm where they lived. Eventually, partly to alleviate Chad's chiding, and partly to escape the clutches of one Margie Withers, a marriage-crazed member of SR's church who thought it was open season on returned missionaries, SR moved into the dorm where half of the members of TIC resided. It was then that SR really began to get to know them.
There was Chad, who, along with growing a new fur coat, had become the Computer Science Department's resident encryption and security guru. There was one occasion during the spring semester when some of the faculty of that department came to him to ask for help catching a hacker that had broken into one of their systems. Within a week, he had the culprit. It took SR nearly a month to worm that information out of Chad. In the end, SR had the distinct impression that it hadn't been the first time Chad's services had been called upon.
Amanda probably did the most to keep the group together. The self-proclaimed and accepted Empress-for-Life of TIC, she had a knack for cooking and organizing that made her the natural choice for the High and Mighty Declarer of Meetings of TIC. Her charismatic skepticism and detestation of things technical more than made up for the occasional long hair that would find its way into the food. (Damned fur!)
Diane and Tod made what at first SR thought was an unlikely couple-- a bobcat-morph and a small boy. Before SCABS, Tod had been the tallest member of the group. Now, with the body of a six-year-old, he was forced to bring his Electric Circuits book to class to sit upon so that he could reach the top of the table and take notes. Still, they were engaged to be married in the distant future, and SR eventually came to understand their great love for each other.
...SR stopped and ordered a burger from a fast food joint on the way home. Aside from the two SCAB employees, he was the only person in the place. The two equine-morphs (SR couldn't quite place the breed) were busily cleaning the area before closing time....
Among the people SR hadn't known before came Victor Gnu. When he wasn't in his cave-like darkened dorm room, hunched in front of his coveted computer, he could be found hanging precariously from one of the nearby cliffs or riding one of his cherished twentieth-century motorcycles at break-neck speeds down the highway, the fur on his wolf-tail and face flapping madly in the wind. It was rumored that Victor was responsible for having made all the screens in the student computer labs blink on and off to the rhythm of Metallica's 'Enter Sandman' during dead-week of the previous semester. When SR asked him about it, he merely looked up, flashed a broad, toothy, wolfish grin, then turned back to his glowing monitor. Good hackers don't get caught.
Then there were Jack(ie) Green, Chris Moffet, and Gene Gruber. Jackie had been a homosexual male before SCABS had transformed him into the embodiment of every fourteen-year-old boy's wet dream. SR had once procured the Queen Goddess of Goth's wrath by assuming that homosexuality was the same as trans-genderism, and making a statement to that effect. Chris and Gene, both of whom became reptile-morphs (SR never found out which species) after the Flu, were, along with Jackie, avid role-players. All three could often be seen together, watching the latest fantasy flick or playing the cards. Gene had the unique ability of making his vodor say the most sarcastic remarks in the flattest of tones. It made for an odd sort of cross between Stephen Hawking and Dennis Miller.
...SR looked upward as a shadow glanced across the building on the other side of the street. High overhead, an owl-morph of some sort was making its way home on this chilly Christmas Eve. SR smiled....
Aah! And then there was Jason Kaufmann. Of all the members of TIC, SR felt he could identify with him best. His parents had promptly thrown him out of their house when the first signs of plumage began to appear. Appropriately enough, this Alaskan now sported the white down of a snow owl. He loved his parents, but seemed to be eternally hurt by their thoughtlessness. Although he was fairly certain Jason already knew about it, SR was reluctant to tell him about some of the activities in which he had participated in Germany.
An overly modest programmer, he and SR had done some of the craziest things together-- from the nights they'd wandered the campus aimlessly, cavorting and musing about their own insanity; to the numerous times SR had driven them both, at an average speed of fifteen miles-per-hour over the speed limit, Jason's talons digging into the nylon carpet of SR's green Jeep and his already wider-than-life eyes nearly popping out of his head for fright, to the place SR called the Stargazing Spot; to the time they drove almost fifty miles over icy roads at nearly ninety miles-per-hour in pursuit of an apparently drunk driver, flashing their lights in warning to the oncoming traffic until the officers of the peace were able to catch up and detain the menace.
...SR stopped dead in his tracks when a peculiar scent wafted past his sensitive nose. Could it be? No-- but it couldn't. Drifting down from a second-story apartment came the distinct aroma of skunk. But not the skunks SR was thinking about-- he had spent so much time at their house that he could identify their unique pungent odor at a hundred paces. Sighing, SR picked up his feet and continued on his journey....
Terry and Terri. Neither had known each other before SCABS had left its scar on their lives. Still, they seemed to go together like butter and bread, and SR was sure that had they not been partially mutated into the same species, they would have met and fallen in love anyway. For them, the fact that they were both black-and-white furred mustelid-morphs was merely a convenience.
Remarkably enough, Terry's parents didn't react badly to his transformation. But when they learned of his intention to rent an apartment and move in with Terri, they made it clear that he wasn't welcome at their house. That nearly destroyed him. Still, Terry was resolute, and in less than a year he was able to afford the down-payment and mortgage costs of purchasing his own house-- with very little of his parents' help.
A skunk in an enclosed space for a long period of time is a very bad thing. Consequently, Terri almost always had some kind of incense burning whenever they had any of the other members of TIC over. Although they could live with the smell-- about which they could do little to prevent-- the other members of TIC, especially the dog-morphs, often found it unnerving. The incense burning was so frequent that some of the aroma had the reciprocating effect of rubbing off onto Terry and Terri, giving their presence a unique flavor that SR would come to identify with friendship and warmth.
During the spring semester, Terry introduced SR to late twentieth century rock, and SR almost instantly fell in love with the sound of Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, and Sting. His collection of Ultra Compact Discs would nearly triple during that next year-- almost all of the new acquisitions being from that musical era.
...SR briskly walked past the large front doors to a Normals-only church. They were open, and someone was playing 'Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful' on the immense organ within. Despite his love for that song, SR was glad that he wasn't joining in with that particular congregation....
To his surprise, SR's religion didn't become as taboo among his friends as he expected. At one point during the spring semester, during a normal conversation with Diane, the Terries, and a few other members of TIC, the subject came up, and SR was invited to tell them what he believed.
Elated that the people he, by now, held so dear would have an interest in his religion, SR spent the next two hours talking about God's Plan, Heaven, Hell and many of the various other things he'd spent two years preaching in Germany-- all the while carefully avoiding the issue of SCABS.
All through the discussion they asked questions, intent on really learning, perhaps, what made the clock tick in SR's head. At the end, there was a pause, and Terry looked into SR's eyes with a look of concern showing through the black and white fur on his face. "So, where do SCABS fit into all this?"
SR's cheeks instantly reddened, and he broke eye contact with Terry. Looking at the carpeting on the floor, he slowly responded, "Um... well... they don't."
SR looked back at Terry. This time Terry looked at the carpet. "Oh." was all he said.
It could be said that what followed was a moment of clarity for SR.
For the first time in his life, he realized that SCABS are human.
...At last the music of the organ was far enough away that even SR, with his sensitive vulpine ears, could no longer hear it. 'Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful.' SR smiled to himself. Perhaps he would take up the vixen-in-the-yellow-dress's offer to attend church, one of these Sundays. But it was still too early....
That semester ended pretty uneventfully. Chad, Amanda, Victor, and Diane graduated and moved to coastal towns to pursue their careers. There were still jobs out there for SCABS, if they were qualified enough. And all four of these certainly were.
Because of a summer-long, out-of-state internship (SR didn't do too badly in school, either!), SR was able to spend all but the last week away from his family. This also went by uneventfully: SR put on his best happy-face and managed to keep his family from finding out about any of his acquaintances.
The next semester brought many changes for TIC. With Her High and Mighty miles away, sharing an apartment with Chad and Diane, the position of Declarer of Meetings of TIC was suddenly vacant. Due largely to the lack of applicants to the position and his want not to see such a great group of friends fall apart, Terry, almost by default, took up the responsibility. He did his best to ensure that the weekly get-togethers kept happening, even cooking the meals himself when necessary (which was more often than not).
...SR smiled as he reminisced on those days. Life had been so perfect then! He'd so loved his friends-- and it was so easy: so much easier than hate.
Out of the corner of his ear, SR heard a faint melody being played off in the distance. Stopping, he strained to hear it. From an open window high overhead came Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from his "Nutcracker" Suite...
"You know, Tchaikovsky was manic depressive. He tried to commit suicide several times. Once they even had to pull him out of the Volga river in the middle of winter. He was naked and floating among the ice floes."
Terry nodded his head solemnly. He and SR were sitting across the couch from each other, listening to the cannons blasting on the UCD of the 1812 Overture. They had been talking for nearly two hours about everything an nothing. Terri, Jackie, Jason and a few of the others who had been at dinner that evening had decided to go to a drag show that was going to be happening at a local bar. SR and Terry, not wanting to battle the crowds and cigarette smoke, stayed at the Terries' house to wash the dishes and pass the time.
"It's amazing how many geniuses like him were also insane or otherwise screwed up in the head," Terry stated.
SR nodded and waited for the finale to finish before popping out the disc and inserting a re-mastered Pink Floyd UCD. He waited for the guitars to begin fading into "Signs of Life" in that band's characteristic style before pressing the 'random' button and leaning back into the couch.
After a minute of enjoying the music, SR spoke. "I still can't believe that I never saw you at Andrus High. I mean, me being in orchestra and you in band, spending so much time in the music building. Sure, you were a year behind Chad and I, but still-- I'm amazed that I don't remember you."
Terry smiled. "Well, I didn't exactly have this black-and-white fur coat back then. I remember you-- you and Kelly, the 'red streak' darting from class to class with his overloaded backpack."
SR perked up. "Did you know that he never used his locker? I know-- I shared it with him. He always said that there wasn't enough time between classes to stop and exchange books. So there he went, putting almost everything in his red backpack and carrying his folders in that huge stack in his arms."
"No wonder! Six minutes is hardly enough time to get from one end of the building to the other, in that high school."
SR nodded and listened for a few minutes to David Gilmour's guitar play "Terminal Frost." "You know, I wonder what happened to him. I wrote him for a while on my mission, but at one point the letters from him just stopped. I guess he just got too busy with his course load at MIT and all."
Terry twisted his head slightly. "You never heard? He got the Flu almost two years ago."
SR was stunned. "Really? Um... how'd that turn out?"
"Inanimorph. He became a two-foot tall stuffed bunny-rabbit. He could still walk and talk and do his work, but I guess he just..." Terry shrugged.
Deciding it was time to change the subject, SR spoke. "Have you ever noticed what an odd collection of friends we have? I mean, I remember that first evening where Chad and Amanda invited me over for the movie. That was quite a shocker for me!"
Terry smiled. "You looked shocked, too. The way you sat, all up-tight and uncomfortable in the couch."
Shaking his head, SR continued. "No, but really-- I mean, we've got philosophy majors, english majors, architects, electrical engineering majors, and who knows what else in this crazy group."
"Don't forget the computer science majors."
"You mean computer science gods. I still can't believe that Victor actually made his computer sit up and bark like that. And that isn't even half of it. I mean, take Chad, for instance: he's a devout there-is-no-God-no-ifs-ands-or-buts atheist. And then there's Tod: a totally faithful and god-fearing Catholic. I mean, people like that shouldn't get along!"
Terry grinned broadly. "Let's not forget the others, either: We've got wiccans, christians and agnostics, a couple like me, who know there's a God but don't know what else to make of it, and you..." Terry trailed off.
SR smiled and completed the thought. "Me: the white heterosexual Norm and member of that religion."
There was a pause, then Terry spoke. "Pretty weird, huh?"
The two sat in silence there on the sofa for the next few minutes, reminiscing and enjoying the sound of "Poles Apart." Terry looked as if he were contemplating something for a minute, then shifted in his seat, repositioning his tail.
"You know, the first time I saw you, as uncomfortable as you were, I didn't expect you to stick around. I mean, I think the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw you was something like, 'Oh boy, well this ought to be fun.'"
SR smiled, leaning his head back to look at the fake wooden support beams that crossed the length of the ceiling of the mobile home. "Yeah, I guess it was kind of weird of me to keep coming to the dinners and movies."
"No kidding! And especially with your religion-- I mean most of the other people I've heard about who are in your church don't associate with many people outside of it. And with SCABS? Hah! And then you moved into the dorm where we lived...."
SR cut him off. "Aah! You know me: anything to get away from Margie Winters. I still have no idea why she thought that I was interested in her. I mean, geez!" SR shuddered.
"No-- if it were puppy love, then she would have been stalking Chad instead of me." Both Terry and SR laughed at that. SR went on. "And that time she 'invited' herself to the movie that once."
"Real conversation stopper, there."
"Holy crow, man-- it was so intense! And then Amanda there was about ready to bite her head off the whole time."
Terry laughed. "She practically did bite your head off afterward!"
"Aah well-- her bark is a lot worse than her bite; unlike the Queen Goddess of Goth. Sheesh!"
But Terry wasn't easily distracted. He smiled and returned to the previous topic. "No, really though-- I mean, why did you actually stick around?"
SR smiled, squirming uncomfortably in the couch. Shrugging, he said, "Aah-- I don't know." He looked out the window in an effort to divert the topic again.
Terry remained silently staring directly at SR's face, a smile slowly spreading itself across his lips until his sharp mustelid teeth could be seen. Intermittently, SR would steal quick glances back at Terry.
After a minute of "On the Turning Away," SR finally looked directly at Terry and spoke with narrowing eyes. "What?"
It was Terry's turn to look away, the broad grin still attached to his face. "Oh... Nothing..."
SR shook his head and huffed, turning to look out the window. The words of Pink Floyd filled the empty spaces: "Is it only a dream that there'll be no more turning away?"
He took a deep breath. SR had contemplated for months telling his friends about his secret motivation. He had promised himself that before the end of that semester, he would tell them. Here the opportunity was presenting itself, and SR was about to pass it up...
Damn it! Come hell or high water, I'm going to do this! he thought to himself.
SR turned back to Terry, drawing in a sharp breath. Terry turned back to SR and waited for his answer.
Glancing quickly between the shaggy carpet and Terry's eyes, SR spoke. "I guess... well... uh... I guess it's just that I've always wanted to be a SCAB like you all."
A look of shock crossed Terry's muzzle, then a smile pulled at his face and he rolled his head back in a great and resounding peal of laughter. Wiping a tear from his eye, he rolled forward again, ending with a chuckle in his voice. "Geez, SR-- you really had me going there for a minute."
SR did not smile. He didn't even move. He stared directly at Terry with earnest resolve.
Slowly the shocked expression returned to Terry's face. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"
SR's face was an unblinking steel plate.
Terry began shaking his head. With audible concern, he said, "Why?"
SR breathed again. "I don't know."
"You don't know why?"
"No. I don't."
Terry was shaking his head vigorously. "No, SR. You do not want this!"
"Yes, I do."
Terry was on his feet by now. "But, I mean, have you even thought about this-- what would happen?"
"Long and hard."
Terry was pleading with his friend. "But, come on man! Think about this! Do you have any idea, when I got the Flu, how scared I was that I might end up being a chair, or a slug, or some horrible thing that goes 'bump' in the night? Do you know what it's like to be stared at as you walk down the street? Or to be chased, or beaten, or to run for fear of your life? Or to know that you'll always have to be twice as qualified as a Norm and expect half the pay to get a job? Do you know what it's like to get up in the morning and see an animal in the mirror, knowing that there's no way you'll ever look human again? Do you know how hard it is to resist instincts that tell you to hose down those Humans First jerks when they jeer and throw rocks and pull your tail? Or your girlfriend's tail? Do you have any clue how full of shit this whole deal is?"
Terry was standing over SR with both arms held out, the pads on his paws upward. SR was staring dejectedly at the carpet.
Finally, he looked up with watery eyes. In a wavering voice, SR said, "No, I don't know what it's like. But I've thought about all those things."
Terry lowered his arms, slumping his shoulders. Incredulously, "And... and you still want it?"
Before he could answer, the front door opened and Terri, Jason and Jackie walked in, laughing among themselves about the drag show from which they were returning. Jason strolled over and grabbed Terry on the shoulder. "Man-- you should've seen it! One of the stage managers didn't want Jackie to go on, because this was supposed to be a drag show and he looks pretty female. But then Terri here threatened to go outside and spray near one of the air-intake vents-- Dude! You should've seen how pale he went! I thought he was going to crap his pants right there!"
Terry swallowed hard and turned to face Jason, managing a weak smile. "Um... cool."
Jason paused for a moment, blinking his large eyes. "Man-- what's up with you two? It feels like death himself has been hanging out here!"
SR put on his happy-face and stood. "No, Death Herself is over there. But I suppose buzzards like you would know about that sort of thing anyway, right?"
Jason's eyes narrowed and he shot SR a look of mock contempt. "Watch it, monkey brains. The carrion in the pink skin is the best kind." All three of them laughed at that.
In the background, Pink Floyd was finishing up the last stanza of "Learning to Fly."...
SR kicked a small rock lying in the gutter. He was getting closer to home now, but was beginning to curse the fact that he'd passed up the chance to take the bus from the walking streets. Foxes, unlike wolves, are not made to be great distance travelers. He paused, sitting on the curb to rest his aching feet. At this point, he wasn't sure if it was a good thing that he'd ended up with the plantigrade variety, instead of the digitigrade that were more natural for the vulpine form.
Sighing, he leaned back to look up at the gibbous moon overhead. She gazed complacently back. SR took a deep breath, then stood on his feet again. It was time to continue the journey.
"So, how have things been going at school lately?" George smiled across the table at the older of his sons.
SR looked up from the cold turkey he had been idly pushing around on his plate. "Huh? Oh... fine. Circuits is a pain in the rear, but I suppose that's just the sort of class that it is."
That seemed to satisfy the patriarch, and the family continued to eat the leftovers of Thanksgiving dinner with little sound but the tinkling of flatware on ceramic plates. It was nearly the end of the fall recess. So far, SR had made it through five long days under his parents' roof. Tomorrow he would be returning to the company of his friends.
After dinner, SR helped clean up the dishes, then announced his intention to hit the sack early so that he could get on the road and make the three-hundred mile trip back to school before the heavy traffic from people returning from the holiday made the trip slow and dangerous. As he was making his way to the stairwell to go to his room in the second story, however, his father asked to have a quick word with him in his office. SR began to worry.
Sitting down in his usual chair, SR clasped his hands nervously and stared across the mahogany desk into his father's grey eyes. After about thirty seconds of uncomfortable silence, SR smiled and tilted his head slightly upward. "Um... Dad? I do believe it was you who called this meeting. What's up?"
George frowned, leaning back in his chair. "Well, SR, I kind of hoped you'd be the one to tell me what is up. I waited all week for you to approach me, but since this is the last opportunity we'll have to talk before you go back to school tomorrow, and because I love you, I decided to approach you."
SR's stomach fell through the floor: His father knew. "Uh... what are you talking about?"
George shifted in his seat again. "I got a call from Pastor Jacobsen from the congregation you go to up at the University. He seemed pretty worried about you. He said you hadn't been to church in over two months and that you weren't participating in any of the church's activities."
SR did his best to keep the panic that he felt from showing itself on his face. "Oh... yeah." He cleared his throat and looked at the carpet.
George leaned forward over his desk. "Do you want to tell me about it?"
SR shot a glance at his father, then returned his gaze to the floor. "What's there to tell?"
"Well, how about you start with the group of SCABS you've been keeping company with?"
"Oh yeah. They're some people who used to live on my hall. We sometimes get together for dinner and a movie."
George waited to speak until he was sure SR wasn't going to offer any more information. "How long has this been going on?"
Although SR certainly wasn't keen on the idea of confessing everything to his father, he believed in honesty: He wasn't going to lie to him. "You know when I got back from my mission, almost a year ago? I ran into Chad Beasly a little while after that and we've sort of been a group ever since."
George suddenly looked ten years older. Closing his eyes, he removed the glasses from his face and began to rub the bridge of his nose slowly. He set the glasses on the top of his immaculate desk, breathing deeply and tightening the muscles in his jaw. Eyes still closed, he said, "SR, what are you doing?"
SR shook his head slowly, responding to his father's anger in kind. "Look, in case you didn't notice, I am old enough to make my own decisions. I don't see how any of this has to do with you."
George's eyes shot open. "To do with me?" he began with mounting volume, "Do you really think I enjoy seeing my son walk the path that leads straight to hell?"
"Jesus!" SR muttered.
George sprang to his feet. "You watch your mouth!" SR shook his head and looked out the window, lips tightly pursed. Eventually George calmed enough to resume his position in the leather chair behind his desk.
Crossing his arms, he took a deep breath and continued. "SR, this has got to stop."
SR looked straight at his father. "Why?"
"You know why! You spent two years preaching about it in Germany. Have you forgotten everything you learned?"
SR slouched in his chair and returned his gaze outside. "Maybe just the things that were wrong."
George paused for a moment, considering how to proceed. "Son, do you believe in God?"
SR smirked. Almost inaudibly he said, "Father, if Jesus exists, then how come he never lived here?"
Startled, George sat up. "What?"
Still with a half-smile glued offensively to his face, SR responded, "It's a song..."
George interrupted. "I know that. I used to like Sting, too. What did you mean by it?"
This, in turn, caught SR off-guard. He blinked, shaking his head and returning his gaze to the floor. "I guess... I mean, Christ came to this earth to preach about love and forgiveness, yet all I ever see is hatred and spite for SCABS. It seems to me that we're missing the mark."
George sighed. "SR, that's not the only thing Christ came to the earth to preach. He also spent a good deal of his time talking about heaven and what it takes to get there." He frowned. "But since you seem to be interested in marks..." George reached for the drawer in his desk and pulled out his Bible, replacing the glasses on his face.
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of
Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded:
For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell
Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and
During the subsequent pause, SR spoke up: "But didn't Christ say that he came not to the world to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance?"
George looked up, still leaning over the tome. "Are you saving them or joining them?"
SR had no response to that: He'd been caught in the hypocrisy of his own words, implying that his friends were sinners.
George began to flip to another passage, but before he had gotten there, SR rolled his eyes and stated loudly, "Dad, if there's anything I learned during those two years, it's that you can make that book say whatever you want it to say."
His father sat and looked up at SR through the glasses perched on his nose. Closing the book with one hand, he leaned back into his great leather chair. "All right, then. Why do you think that we should be tolerant of SCABS?"
SR took a deep breath. "Because they deserve it. I mean, they're people, too! They have feelings and souls, just like the rest of us!"
"So do the damned sinners in hell."
SR stood up angrily. "You know, in all my years I've never been able to understand how you can think that they'll be doomed to eternal torment! You say they get SCABS because they want it! I say bullshit! Nobody could want that! Why do you hate them so much? I mean, they never did anything to you!"
Suddenly, the anger disappeared from George's countenance, and he closed his eyes. For nearly a minute, he sat that way, breathing long, heavy breaths. At last, SR still on the verge of rage and George still with his eyes closed, George spoke, whispering. "SR, please sit down."
Under any other circumstance, SR would have once again lashed out in anger. But as he heard the tremble in his fathers voice, and saw the ghostly expression on his face, he was overcome with awe, and took his seat. His father wasn't a man to show tender feelings very often.
At last, George opened his eyes. They glistened with tears. In a trembling voice, he said, "I know you don't believe that SCABS are getting what they deserve. From the time I caught you in the front room when you were three years old-- the time you had gotten hold of a permanent marker and painted yourself to look like your zebra-morph preschool teacher-- I knew you would have a hard time believing."
SR remained silently attentive. George went on, "I've tried to teach you with the Lord's words-- words that have supported me like the bones in my body when I have had times of tribulation. But despite all my efforts, I've been unable to pull away the darkness that has hold on your heart."
George looked up, directly into SR's eyes. He whispered, "Satan wants your soul in the worst way." SR was too stunned to react. George closed his eyes again.
"You may not believe this, but both Janice and I have had the Martian Flu. We survived unscathed." The pastor opened his eyes. "But your mother didn't."
SR's mind reeled. Of all the topics not to be discussed under the Foxleys' roof, this was the most taboo. SR knew that he wasn't Janice's literal offspring: He was born to George Foxley and another woman, Teresa, who was George's first wife, and who had-- according to what SR had been able to pick up-- died a few months after SR's birth. George married Janice about a year later.
There was pleading in George's voice. "SR, I'm sorry that I never told you what happened to her before. Please forgive me." SR swallowed with a dry throat and nodded.
George reached for the lowest drawer on the right side of his desk. From this receptacle he retrieved a worn piece of paper and what looked like a small, simply framed paining.
"About three months after you were born, when Teresa was going through the worst of the after-baby blues, she made some SCAB friends who belonged to a radical religious sect. For weeks, I pleaded with her, but she decided to join them anyway. Laws were different in those days, and people still hadn't figured out how to react to SCABS and the Martian Flu."
He held the paper out for SR, who leaned forward and took hold of it. George spoke. "About the middle of May, she wrote this."
The letter was brief, and outlined her feelings of divine inspiration that she should move to a small camp in Montana with this group of SCABS. It seemed almost disjointed-- as if the author had trouble completing her sentences and thinking logically. On the bottom, the name "Teresa Foxley" was spelled out in great, flowing letters.
SR looked up to ask a question, but stopped short as soon as he saw his father. George was holding the small painting in both hands, the back facing SR. His entire frame was quivering slightly as he attempted to control his emotions, cheeks wet with tears. At last he opened his mouth an drew in a great, shuddering breath. He looked up and saw his wide-eyed son staring unabashedly back.
He turned the painting around. It was one of the older, impressionistic kind depicting a woman in a yellow dress, rowing a boat among great waves on the sea. The coloration was dark, giving the scene the feeling that it was night. George spoke. "Every time I look at this painting, I am reminded that we're like the woman in the boat, riding the stormy waters, and that there is only One who can guide us safely through to the island of God's paradise." He stood, knees and hips trembling, and stumbled around the great desk.
"Two days after she wrote that, she contracted the Flu. Doctors confirmed her death about a month later." Again, he held the painting in both hands and spoke without raising his eyes from its soft colors. "I loved her.... I still love her.
He looked as if he were about to lose control again, and closed his eyes, prompting another stream of crystal water to streak down from each eye. Eventually, he opened his tired eyes and stared directly into SR's.
"Would you... would you like to keep... her?"
By this time, SR was too emotionally overloaded to register the feelings of shock he should have had at that last statement. His cheeks were wet with his own tender feelings. He swallowed and gingerly took his mother in his trembling left hand, never taking his eyes from his father's.
At last, George broke the gaze. He was an empty shell. He stood with both arms held slightly away from his body, shoulders slumped in defeat.
His own body quaking, SR stood and gripped his father in a tight embrace. Between sobs, he managed to say, "I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't know. I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry..."
"Oh son," his father began, returning the hug, "I don't shun people who are SCABS because I hate them. I love them! I shun them because I love and have hope for the people who aren't SCABS. I don't want to lose you."
This was the first and last time that SR ever remembered hearing his father refer to SCABS as people.
They remained that way for several minutes, tightly gripping each other and rocking from side to side. Outside, SR's little brother was playing "Be Still, My Soul" on the family piano.
I should have run, SR thought, I should have run and never come back. But hindsight is better than foresight.
He padded quietly along the nearly-deserted street. It was starting to grow late, and most of the small families that lived in this part of town had already retired to their apartments to enjoy Christmas Eve with each other. Still, the relative quiet made for a very serene and reflective evening.
SR smiled sadly, staring at the pavement as he walked. If this were a perfect world-- or at least a world without SCABS, then maybe it could have all worked out in the end.
Fortunately for SR, the last three weeks of the semester were always the most busy, and he was able to avoid TIC for nearly the whole time. But despite his efforts, and unbeknownst to him, when they were together, they noticed that something was wrong.
On this particular evening, SR had just gotten done with his last final. In two days he would be driving back to his parents' home. It was Thursday, but most importantly, it was his birthday.
He arrived home with the intention to grab his telescope and drive to the Stargazing Spot. But as he approached his dorm-room door, he saw a note taped to it:
SR! Come to the Terries' house ASAP!
Hrumpfing, SR threw his backpack on his bed, grabbed a Peter Gabriel UCD, and drove to their house to "That Voice Again."
He'd spent almost all of the past three weeks considering how he would make his exit from TIC. His father was right: This had to stop. But SR still loved his friends very much, and was reluctant to part ways. As he approached the darkened house, he idly wondered if an opportunity would present itself this night.
Upon knocking on the door, he was greeted with a muffled, "Come in!" He entered and turned on the lights.
Damn them-- they had done it again! SR's cheeks flushed as he saw his friends-- some of whom had come from great distances across the country-- gathered together to wish him well for his birthday. He stood there, mouth agape, scanning the faces as they silently waited for his reaction.
After a few seconds, Gene's vodor piped up: "You know, SR, breathing through your mouth won't help with the smell." Terri slapped him, and everyone laughed.
Terry and Amanda had prepared a meal of spaghetti and meatballs (for those who could digest them), and before long everyone was conversing like it was old times. SR momentarily forgot his obligation to his father.
After dinner, most of the members of TIC were scattered around the kitchen and front room talking when Chad stood up, called everyone together, and announced, "I'd like to thank everyone for coming out to SR's birthday party this evening. But what's a birthday party without a birthday present? What do you say we give it to him now?"
This brought a murmur of agreement from everyone present, and suddenly all attention shifted to Terry. Finding himself unexpectedly in the spotlight, Terry shifted in his seat, making Terri get out of his lap.
Clearing his throat and rubbing his paws together, he addressed SR. "Um... We're going to let you choose the movie ton-- Ouch!" Terri elbowed Terry in the ribs. They exchanged a couple of playful frowns, then Terry took a deep breath and continued. "Um... I hope you don't mind, but I told everyone about the little conversation we had a month or so ago-- you know, about SCABS and your desire to be one."
SR's cheeks went bright red and he buried his face in his hands with an embarrassed, "Oh gosh!"
Terry continued, "Well, we... uh... thought we might give you the opportunity to find out what it's like."
SR looked up, face still red. "Um... no offense, guys, but there's no way I'm going to put on some kind of costume..."
Jackie interrupted, "That's not exactly what we had in mind."
SR gave her an inquisitive stare. Slowly, and with narrow eyes, he scanned the faces of his friends, stopping at Terry. "What's going on?"
Terry cleared his throat again. "Um... let me put it this way: Shortly after I got SCABS, I was holding my cousin's baby daughter and... um... to make a long story short, for the next day my cousin had a baby skunk for a daughter."
Gene interjected, "I'll bet that made for really stinky diapers!"
The realization hit SR like a two-by-four to the head, "You're a polymorph?"
Terry smiled. "Well, I can only do skunks, and can't affect myself..."
"YOU'RE A POLYMORPH?"
"...and it only lasts for a day, give or take a few hours, and it wears me out pretty badly whenever I do it..."
"YOU'RE A POLYMORPH?"
SR put his hand on his forehead. "And you want to...?"
Terry looked concerned. "But only if you want to!"
SR put his hands on his face an closed his eyes. A million thoughts were shooting through his head. The most frequent one was that of his father's voice saying, "I don't want to lose you." It was crunch time: SR realized that with the commitment he'd made to his father and to his God, that accepting the offer would be among the gravest of sins. Still, he also realized that this might be the only opportunity he'd ever have to do this, polymorphs being as rare as they are. He would be going home in two days-- that ought to leave enough time for the effects to wear off...
SR removed his hands and opened his eyes. "I've never wanted anything more in my entire life. What do I have to do?"
This brought a cheer from his friends. Terry smiled. "Nothing much really, although we might want a little more privacy to do this."
He led SR to the bedroom and shut the door. Handing him a towel, he said. "Take off your clothes."
SR went beet red. "What?"
Terry frowned. "Well, unless you want a serious cramp in your tail from those Levis, I suggest you take them off. Put the towel around your waist."
SR submissively did as he was told, embarrassed that he hadn't thought of that.
Terry had SR sit on the edge of the bed, Terry kneeling behind him. He said, "Now just close your eyes and relax. I'll tell you when I'm done."
SR's stomach was churning with a mix of excitement and dread. His mind raced with thoughts like, Is this safe?; Will it hurt?; and What if he screws up? Before long though, he felt the cold pads of Terry's paws on his shoulders. Over the course of about ten minutes, the coldness grew hotter until it was almost searing on SR's skin. SR felt no other unusual sensations during that time.
At last, in a very tired voice, Terry said, "OK," and removed his paws.
SR slowly opened his eyes. The first thing he noticed was that his nose seemed considerably longer than it was before. There was also a white stripe down the center, accented by black on each side. He reached up with his hand to touch it, and gasped when this came into his field of vision. He looked down at both of his hands.
The palms, and each of the fingertips were covered with a leathery pad of black skin. The fingers were quite a bit shorter now, and the nails were more claw than nail. Except for the pads and claws, each of SR's hands-- no, paws-- was covered in a soft black fur.
A 'whump' sound jolted SR out of his reverie. Spinning, he saw that Terry was lying unconscious on the bed. Worried, SR stood up, intent on getting help. He was momentarily distracted by his new, bushy, black-and-white striped fifth appendage, but then his better sense took hold, and he walked to the door.
Upon opening it, he was greeted with a cacophony of wolf-whistles, churrings and howls. He smiled weakly and said, "Um... I think Terry passed out." The members of TIC continued their racket, spouting things like, "Lookin' good!"; "Now that's what I call skunk 'Au Natural'"; and "As if we didn't already have enough stinkers here!"
Amused, Terri stood up, heading for the kitchen, and said, "He must have overdone it. I'll get an ice pack. You can get some of Terry's sweat pants out of the top drawer of the dresser."
SR was momentarily confused as to why Terry would need another pair of pants in his condition. Then SR realized that he'd forgotten the towel. "Oh geez!" he said, covering himself. If his cheeks hadn't been covered in black fur, they would have been the brightest of reds.
A few minutes later, Terry was sitting on the bed with a screaming headache, Terri holding an ice pack to his forehead. SR was in the bathroom, donning a pair of sweat pants, eyes widely staring at his own reflection. Jason was there, enjoying SR's enthusiasm, smiling as widely as his beak allowed.
SR reached up and felt his rounded ears.
"Oh my gosh!" he said.
He looked at the pads on the bottom of his feet.
"Oh my gosh!"
He spun around, trying to get a better look at his tail.
"Oh my gosh!"
He opened his mouth widely, looking at his sharp teeth and flat tongue. He tested them with one paw.
"Oh hy hoth!"
Gene could could be heard in the other room, "Oh great. Now his voice is broken."
The body SR now occupied felt oddly familiar. Yet in a way he couldn't quite grasp, the sensation was very different. With all the fur sending messages to his brain, it was sort of like removing his hand from a latex glove that had been worn for ages-- it tingled all over, yet there was more than just that.
At least there was one thing that was totally new to his experience: his tail. SR turned around again to get a better look at it. He began flexing muscles in the area of his rear end in an attempt to figure out how to control it. In a few moments he got some movement. After several minutes, he was wildly thrashing it back an forth. He bent over, and raised it as high as he could in the air...
Suddenly, Terry jolted off the bed, "Careful with that, SR! You've got a full clip and one in the chamber with that thing! I don't want it going off in here!"
SR immediately felt very sheepish. Standing upright, he said, "Oh geez, man, I'm sorry! Um... how would I do that, anyway?"
Terry walked over to the bathroom, holding the ice pack to his head. "Well, you were about two seconds away from really giving Gene something to complain about. Of course, if you ever actually do spray something, it'd be a good idea to pull your pants down first."
"Oh," SR said. His mind was still reeling at the image he saw in the mirror.
Jason spoke up. "Well, now that you've got the fur coat, what do you want to do with it?"
Not taking his eyes off his reflection, a wide grin slowly spread itself across SR's muzzle until all of his sharp mustelid teeth were visible. "Let's hit the town!"
The rest of that evening was spent doing what one could do in this rural college town: SR drove like a madman on the highways, frequently sticking his head out the window and whooping for joy, allowing the wind to whip his fur every which way. They also went bar hopping. Although SR didn't drink, he enjoyed being there when his friends did. Tod and Jason would do the strangest things. Apparently six-year-old boys and snow owls don't hold their alcohol well.
Eventually, it began to grow late, and the members of TIC began dispersing to their various places of residence. SR wanted to try out his new sense of smell in the woods, but because a good portion of his friends had finals the next day, and making the drive would make it a very long night indeed, he settled for the school's arboretum.
Walking back, SR pulled Terry aside, asking the rest of the group to go on without them. As soon as they were out of sight and earshot (which can take some time, when one is dealing with canine morphs), SR spoke.
"Terry, under normal conditions, I'd probably have killed you for telling everyone about that conversation. As it is, though, I can't tell you how much this has meant to me. Thank you so much! I owe you big time!"
Terry smiled. "It wasn't much really... but there's one thing about that conversation that still bothers me. You never really told me why."
SR looked at the ground as the two skunk morphs, one more permanent than the other, meandered their way along one of the school's walkways. "To be honest, I have no idea."
Terry wrinkled his brow at that. "Really? I mean-- you said you'd thought about most of the negative aspects, and I must assume you have, especially being a part of that religion; but what could possess you to want something that would be so, well, devastating to your life?"
"I know-- It makes absolutely no sense to me, either. But for some reason, the desire is undeniably there. I just don't know why. Maybe I was supposed to be some furry critter, chittering my life away in the woods and somehow got born in the wrong body. Maybe this is all some sort of chemical imbalance inherited from my mother. Maybe my dad's right: Maybe Satan is trying to drag me down into the inexorable depths of The Pit. Maybe God is playing some kind of sadistic practical joke on me. I mean, I really have no idea what's wrong with me."
Terry stopped, pausing for thought, and forcing SR likewise stop and look him in the eyes. "SR, there is nothing wrong with you. Sure, you may screw up now an then and even be a little messed up in the head, but that's no reason to go around thinking you're somehow fatally flawed, or that this desire is wrong. I mean, this may seem to make no sense at all, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily bad."
"Well, it certainly isn't good."
"Who knows? I mean, how do we know how things will turn out in the end, or what the grand scheme of things really is? There's more truth to that old cliche 'All I know is that I know nothing' than people like to admit. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I do believe it's not right for you to think that this desire is wrong or even your fault."
SR smiled, casting a sideward glance at his companion. "There you go: Getting all philo-scoffical on me. But really, thanks-- I needed that. I owe you again."
Terry returned the smile as the two continued their stroll. "Hey, man, don't mention it. It's good to have you as a friend."
"Same here, man."
They continued walking slowly for the next couple of minutes in silence, enjoying each other's company and reflecting on the conversation. After a few minutes, both were startled out of their complacent strolling when someone around the corner of the next building, where a young woman had just walked, shouted, "Hey Lady! Wanna fuck?" This was followed by whoever-it-was's companion, thinking the statement somehow humorous, erupting in a rude and drunken laughter. It sounded like two young men had indulged a little too heavily in their end-of-semester fraternity celebrations.
Terry grabbed SR on the elbow and turned to walk the other way. Doing his best to ignore the insufferable sounds greeting them from around the corner, Terry spoke. "Let's not introduce you too soon to some of the more negative aspects of being a SCAB."
SR followed suit. "Good idea."
By now both of the men around the corner were laughing as the woman they'd verbally assaulted walked angrily away. Terry continued his efforts. "Well, SR, you'll be looking like Pepe LePew for at least the next eighteen hours, and won't be completely back to your old pink-skinned self another twenty-four. It's still your night-- is there anything else you'd like to do?"
"Oh gee, man. I can't think of anything else tonight. Besides, don't you have a final tomorrow?..."
"HEY! CHECK OUT THE SCABS!" The two men had just rounded the corner, and caught sight of the two lagging members of TIC. Terry grabbed SR's elbow again and quickened the pace.
"Hey! Where ya goin'?" one of the men called out and began chasing after the black-and-white striped friends. Incredible as it may sound, even in his drunken state, he was able to catch up.
"Stop, you lousy pieces of shit! Or I'll knock both of your hairy little heads in!" Terry and SR stopped. "Turn around."
As he turned, SR recognized Randy Jacobsen from his congregation. Although Randy certainly wasn't the charismatic type, he was at least respected because he, a starting lineman for the University's football team, had about three hundred pounds of muscle to throw around. He was joined a moment later by a wheezing Roger Shannon, fellow member of the congregation and fraternity brother to Randy.
"Oh, ho! Would you look at what we have here? A couple of skunks in love! How many tits do you have, skunkie?"
Roger pulled his friend's arm. "Dude! Check it out! They're both guys!"
"Holy shit, man! Fuckin' gay skunks!" Both men, who were wearing 'cute' T-shirts prominently portraying some Humans First propaganda, doubled over in laughter.
Suddenly a thought occurred to SR and a wicked smile flashed onto his face. He shot a sideward glance to Terry. "Actually, now that I think about it, there is something else I'd like to do tonight." Terry's eyes narrowed, then the same wicked smile grew on his lips.
A moment later, the fraternity boys were being introduced to the business ends of two upset skunk morphs (which, by the way, are not the front ends). Tails were up, pants were down, and then...
"What the...? OH FUCK!"
SR was laughing so hard he could barely run. Not that he really needed to: Randy and Roger were both on the ground, tearing their clothes off and rubbing their burning eyes, all the while shouting threats against the lives of both of the skunk morphs. It was clear that, at least on this night, neither of them would be making good on their claims.
Terry was laughing as well. "Great shot! You nailed him square in the face!"
"Thanks! You should've seen how shocked Randy was-- and he was nice enough to have his mouth open so you could get some in there, too!"
"Oh man! I've always wanted to do that! I just hope we haven't stirred up a hornets' nest!"
"Don't worry about it-- if I know those two, then tomorrow morning they'll wake up with a couple of nasty hang-overs and a scent that won't wash out with the best of detergents. They won't have a clue who hit them or how. Everyone else will just assume that they stumbled across a wayward skunk in the arboretum."
Both of them were wearing out from their running escape by now, so they slowed their pace. "I hope so. There aren't a lot of skunk morphs at this school, and you know how nasty a bunch of pissed-off Human Firsters can be."
"I wouldn't worry too much about it. Besides, even if they do remember what happened, they'll be looking for two homosexual male skunk morph SCABS, right? And in twenty-four hours, half of that pair will no longer be a SCAB." SR grinned at his friend.
Terry picked up where SR left off. "I only wish I were the one who wouldn't be the SCAB."
"So do I, Terry. So do I."
SR laughed as the memory of that night returned to him. He stopped to look down at his vulpine paws. They were very similar to the mustelid ones his friend had given him that evening, except that the fur was somewhat coarser. He opened an closed them, considering the biological wonders such appendages were. Because of SCABS, evolution had had little to do with how they were now formed, yet SR was still able to do almost everything he had been able to do with human hands. Yes, he had been lucky he didn't end up a chair or a slug or some horrible thing that goes 'bump' in the night.
Sighing, SR leaned up to look at the concrete corridors that the surrounding buildings made. In the frosty air, his breath made two plumes of condensation as it exited his nose. It was quiet, and except for SR, only the occasional homeless person occupied the streets. SR was within a few blocks of home now.
He frowned, picking up his feet again. SR never really expected to keep his birthday experience a secret from his family forever, but he was surprised at how soon he was made to pay the piper....
SR was chuckling to himself and humming "Zippedy-Do-Dah" as he climbed the stairwell to his dorm room. He had decided that he'd definitely need to convince Terry to do this again. Due to the bushy tail still extending from his backside, he was still wearing Terry's sweat pants. He had just turned the key half-way in the lock on the door when he heard two syllables that made his blood freeze.
Two words shot through his mind: OH SHIT!
He turned to face the person down the hall who had addressed him. "Oh! Ahem Hi, Margie."
Margie Winters stood, bracing herself on a nearby door, eyes much wider than SR cared to see. "Good Lord Almighty, SR! What the hell happened to you!?"
SR's knees and hips were literally shaking beyond control: Margie was the sort of person who goes out of her way to right the wrongs she perceives in the world. What's more, SR knew that she knew his father's phone number. "Um... A couple of my friends decided to throw a birthday party for me, and things got a little carried away."
"You let a polymorph change you into... into a skunk SCAB? Good Lord Almighty! What were you thinking?"
"Um... I guess I wasn't, at the time."
"Boy, you can say that about a million times again! Did you even consider what your father will do when he finds out?"
SR had his door half-way open and was talking while leaning out of it. "Margie, I was kind of hoping you'd keep this under your hat."
Her eyes narrowed and an her usual look of disdain replaced the shocked expression that had momentarily taken hold of her pudgy face. "You mean, let you just keep on making your way to hell without any help from church authorities? For your own good, SR, I wouldn't dream of it!" She seemed to enjoy watching SR nearly go into a seizure at that. "But I suppose that since I am your friend I can be discrete. Don't worry, SR. Your father won't hear about this from me!" She smiled evilly.
SR was far too knowledgeable in matters of the church to believe that she would keep this secret. No-- she'd probably call one of her friends and have that person contact SR's father. Still, SR knew there was no way out of this, so he did his best to look relieved, then said. "Thanks, Margie. I know I can trust you. Um... If you'll excuse me-- it's after midnight, and I'd like to get some sleep."
"Just a second, SR! I didn't wait three hours for you to get home to have you run away before I could wish you a happy birthday. So, here you go: Happy Birthday!" She held out an enveloped card in one hand. SR gingerly took it in one black-furred paw. She seemed to jump away from his touch in fright.
With that, SR quickly closed and locked the door. He tossed the card in the general direction of the trash can and sat down on his bed. This was not good: Dr. Pastor George Foxley would more than likely know in a matter of hours just what his son had spent his birthday doing.
SR leaned back, trying to begin to think of what he'd say to his father. He glanced at his mother, hanging delicately on the wall, the woman in the yellow dress still battling the waves of the frozen ocean. "Oh man, what am I going to do now?" She either could not or would not respond.
He turned on the radio, hoping the music he loved would help calm his nerves. He switched it off a moment later when Pink Floyd's "One Slip" came on.
And like the song predicted, there was no sleeping in SR's dorm room that night.
The next morning, SR groggily awoke to the sound of his phone ringing. He glanced at the clock: 10:23. That meant that he had gotten about an hour and a half of sleep. Throughout the night of worried brainstorming, he had been unable to come up with any excuse, let alone a feasible story that his father would accept.
He switched the phone to voice-only mode and answered: "Hello?"
His father's voice greeted him. "Good morning, SR! It's Dad. How are you doing this morning?"
"Oh... um... not too bad. I was just um... sleeping in, since I don't have any finals today."
"Oh, then you're doing well? Good. I'd like you to come home today." There was marked tension in his voice.
SR sat up in bed, looking at his still very-mustelid reflection in his mirror. "Oh gee, Dad. I was kind of hoping to celebrate with a couple of people from the congregation tonight. Couldn't I come home tomorrow?"
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. At last, George's barely-controlled voice could be heard. "SR, I want to see you in my office in no less than six hours." With that, George hung up.
SR slowly reached out with one paw and pressed the 'off' button on the phone. Six hours. He wouldn't even begin to change back to a pure human for another eight. But that didn't matter: George knew about last night, and just wanted to verify what he had heard. Not that SR would have lied to him; but there is something to be said for seeing it oneself.
Quickly throwing some clothes in a bag along with some other supplies he'd need for the winter holiday, SR pulled on Terry's sweat pants and headed for his Jeep. He made the entire three-hundred mile trip nonstop and in silence.
As he expected, the door was unlocked when he arrived, and his mother and brother were not to be seen. The black-and-white striped, furred creature that was SR headed straight for his father's office. Of course George was already there, hands clasped and resting on his desk, fiery grey eyes burning in his head. SR walked in without looking up and took his usual seat in the warm velvet box.
They sat that way for nearly ten minutes, George's stare wanting to burn the fur from SR's body, and SR distantly gazing into the mysterious depths of the thick green carpeting on the floor.
At last George cleared his throat and spoke. "If you're wondering about the group of SCABS you used to spend time with, don't worry: I've made several phone calls to some old acquaintances I have who work in the administration department of the State University. They won't be bothering you again."
Anger flashed into SR's mind. He looked up, matching his father's hateful stare. "What did you do?"
George was unflinching. "I made sure they won't try to corrupt my son's life again. You should be grateful: I could have informed the local Human Firsters about who doused two of their party members last night." He shook his head. "SR, did you realize that Randy Jacobsen is the son of your congregation's pastor? Do you know how hard it was for me to resist the urge to tell him the names of the rest of his son's assailants when he called me up this morning to inform me that my son had-- as a SCAB-- assaulted his son on campus the previous night? Can you imagine my embarrassment?"
SR was surprised to hear himself growl. "This wasn't their fault! I asked them to do this!" he said, gesturing to his own body.
"You'll knock off that offensive noise right now! Or are you planning on spraying me as well?"
SR actually considered it for a moment, then dismissed the idea as foolishness: He was already in for the worst of George's wrath anyway. There was no sense in adding more fuel to the fire. He stopped growling, then lowered his eyes to the carpeting. "No."
George stared for a moment longer, then lowered his eyes to his desk. "I assume this is temporary?"
"I'll start changing back in another couple of hours. Tomorrow morning I'll be completely normal."
George exhaled the breath he had been holding, visibly becoming more relaxed. "Thank God for that!"
The pair sat in uncomfortable silence for a few more minutes. In the mean time, George's countenance went from anger to sorrow. "SR, the last time we spoke, I thought we had come to an understanding. I thought you were going to tell those SCABS not to bother you anymore...."
SR felt his throat constrict at the knowledge of his own guilt. He quickly shifted his gaze from the floor to the window.
"I shared some of my most tender feelings with you-- and you trampelled on them! This isn't like you at all, SR...."
Oh no, SR thought, here it comes.
"Instead of doing what you said you would do, you did the exact opposite, and encouraged your friends to lead you away..."
Oh God! Please don't make me do this!
"I love you, SR. I've always loved you. You're easy to love. And no matter what happens, I will always love you...."
Please, no! I'm not ready to do this!
"But there's one thing I can't understand: Why? Why did you do it, SR?..."
SR's eyes were closed and watering, and he was literally shaking in an effort to control his emotions. Oh please, oh please, no!
"Why did you commit an act that denies your faith? Why did you throw away everything you were taught and that you believed?"
SR was a trembling leaf, waiting to be blown away. No!
George was having trouble controlling his own voice, now. "Why, SR? Why... did you deny our love?"
SR's facial fur was wet with tears. OK. OK-- you win. Pucker up, Mary: Here it comes.
He drew in a great, shuddering breath and forced his eyes open, staring into the unfathomable depths of his father's. "Because," he croaked, "...because, for as long as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a SCAB."
George's jaw dropped to the floor and his eyes glazed over. He leaned back into his large leather chair, exhaling long through open mouth.
SR could barely see his father through his bleary vision. "Don't ask why, because I don't know. All I know is that the desire is there, and has always been there. I've never told you because I've always been scared shitless at what you'd do about it when you found out."
George had both eyes closed and he was slowly shaking his head back and forth, not wanting to hear. To his credit, he at least didn't cover his ears.
SR spoke in a panic, trying desperately to control his own sobbing so that he could express what he felt. "Last night, for the first time in my life, my best friends gave me the chance to finally wear my inside out. I was unable to resist. And how could I be expected to? Damnit, Dad! What the hell is wrong with SCABS? I love you too. But this is what I am! I'm sick and tired of pretending I'm something I'm not!" He was no longer able to speak, being overcome by the need to cry.
George was shaking as well, now. "Jesus help you, SR!" he whispered. And SR was afraid, because his father didn't take the name of the Lord in vain. "Uh... I think I need to be alone for a while."
SR rose on trembling hips and knees and staggered his way out the door and upstairs to his room. He lay on the bed, sobbing uncontrollably. On the radio, David Gilmour was singing Pink Floyd's "On the turning away."
SR tripped on a curb. He was apparently too preoccupied with his thoughts to pay very much attention to his surroundings. Oh damn! he thought. I thought I'd put that behind me.
He arose to his feet, dusting himself off. Home was only a block away, now, but SR still didn't want to go back. He walked to a nearby store window and attempted to distract himself with the wares for sale there.
Of course, that night in his father's office was definitely not the worst....
They didn't speak for nearly a week after that.
And then it happened: On the following Christmas Eve, almost a week later, SR woke up in a darkened hospital room. He was disoriented, and felt terrible, but something was perfectly clear: He had finally gotten the Martian Flu.
A darkened figure in a chair in the corner cleared his throat, the spoke. SR recognized his father's voice. "You've been unconscious for nearly a day now. The doctors say it's... it's..." He trailed off.
George drew in a sharp breath. "They say it's too early to tell yet whether you'll... uh..." SR grunted and nodded to signify that he understood: Signs of transformation didn't occur until the symptoms of the Flu had disappeared, and it was still too early to tell if SR would get SCABS.
George nodded. "There've been some advances in diagnosing this disease. They say they should know by tomorrow."
In an adjacent room, someone was playing a recording of "Oh, Holy Night." Father and son sat in silence for the next few minutes, listening to the music.
SR had nearly fallen asleep by the time George spoke again. "The whole congregation is praying for you. William and Janice are holding a vigil in the church."
SR was too weak to react.
"SR, you're at a point in your life that is like a hinge on a great door. You don't have to swing it far to make changes that will affect the rest of your life." He paused before continuing. "I was going to prepare something from the scriptures to read to you, but since you've said those words mean nothing to you, I've chosen something else." He unfolded a piece of paper. "This is from a twentieth-century group that you said you liked:"
You can have anything you want
SR closed his eyes as the notes to Pink Floyd's "What do you want from me" echoed in his mind.
After a moment's pause, George continued. "SR, Satan is very powerful. He can give you almost anything you want for the price of your eternal salvation." George sounded very distant. "I love you, SR. And no matter what happens, I'll always love you. But know this: If you come home from this hospital as anything other than the pink-skinned boy I've loved these many years, I'll throw you out on the street without so much as a word."
George rose to his feet. "I pray that you'll make the right choice. But the choice is yours." With that, he turned and walked out the door. In the background, "Oh, Holy Night" continued to play in some nearby room.
SR slammed a fist into the wall next to the window of the shop he was standing at. Oh, how can people be so blind? But what was most disturbing was that this blindness was contagious.
A week later, SR returned home-- as the twenty-two year old caucasian male he'd grown up to be-- and more confused than ever.
His father insisted that he remain home and go to counselling for the next semester. At first, SR refused even to go to church with his family. Then, gradually, he began to give in.
One afternoon in the middle of March, his mother walked into the room where he was reading from the Bible, and handed him a portable phone. "Someone named Jason is on a voice-only line for you."
SR thanked her, watched her leave, then shut the door before pressing the 'talk' button on the phone.
"SR? God, SR! Where've you been, man? Geez! You won't believe what's happened here! Half of the members of TIC have been thrown out of school because some half-assed administrator claimed they forged documents to allow them to get into some upper-level classes. And then a bunch of Human Firsters burnt down the Terries' place. They're OK, though-- they got out in time. But what the hell happened to you? We all figured you drove off a bridge or something on your way back to school. What's going on, man?"
SR paused to consider what he would say-- what would have the desired effect. "Jason, go to hell."
There was a lengthy pause on the other end of the line. Finally, a much-subdued Jason spoke. "Uh... OK, man."
SR smiled to himself. "Look, I don't want you or any of the other SCABS from TIC to call me again on this line. Ever. Is that understood?"
"Uh... yeah, man, whatever you say."
"I don't give a flying fart what happens to you or the Terries or..." SR spent the next ten minutes verbally abusing his former friend. When he was done, he pressed the 'Off' button on the phone before Jason could respond. He quickly extinguished the twinge of remorse he felt for saying what he had said to someone who used to be as close to him as Jason was. But it was all for the best: That SCAB was getting what he deserved.
That evening, SR apologized to his family for all the pain he had caused them. Tears of joy were shed by everyone present. For nearly five minutes, George and his son held each other in a loving embrace. The prodigal son had returned.
SR laughed loudly in agony. If there was a God, then He had to have the most gothic sense of humor! SR looked at the red, white and black fur on his forearms. Gripping it with his teeth, he tried desperately to tear it off. He screamed when a tuft came away. To his luck, the pink skin underneath did not bleed. No one acknowledged his cry of pain: The corridors of green and grey were deserted.
He remembered that day in April all too well....
It was a bright and sunny Easter Sunday.
For the previous two days, SR had been incapacitated by a nasty cold, but on this morning, apparently fully recovered, SR felt better than he had in a long time: His father had asked him to present part of the morning's sermon.
Skipping to the bathroom, SR was going over some of the things he would say when the congregation met. No, it wouldn't be appropriate to apologize to them for his blasphemous behavior, but he planned on making his speech particularly scathing to SCABS in order to show everyone that he was indeed remorseful for what he had done.
Grabbing his electric shaver, he began to hum the notes to "Christ The Lord is Risen Today." He stopped humming when the shaver jammed.
He popped off the cover and began shaking out the hairs. "Dang, this piece of crap! I thought I cleaned it out last..."
SR's heart did a somersault. Something was very wrong: The hairs in the shaver were white. SR had black facial hair.
He slowly turned to face the mirror.
"Oh, God! No! Not now!"
The face that was staring, shocked, back a him was still his own, but there were marked differences from what had been there the previous day. The bottom portion was covered with a short and thin coating of white fuzz. The top half had carried the beginnings of a red pelt, with a patch of black on either side of his nose. It was perfectly clear what was happening: SR had SCABS.
"Oh, please, no! This can't be happening!"
He looked at his ears. Each was slightly larger than before and somewhat pointed, with a thin coating of black fur on the back sides. Checking his hands, he saw that the skin on his palms had grown thicker and was becoming black. Each fingernail was darker and more pointed that the day before.
"Oh shit! What am I going to do now?"
He tore open his shirt, only to be greeted by more of the white fuzz. Gripping it in his hands, he tore at it desperately. But in spite of his efforts, the fur remained firmly rooted in his skin.
SR was startled a moment later when his mother knocked on the door and, not waiting for an answer, opened it. "SR, breakfast is read..." As soon as Janice saw her son, she stepped backward, gasping and covering her mouth with one hand.
"Mom! I can explain... uh..." But it was too late: Janice was already down the stairs by the time SR reached the door.
Of course, SR knew that no amount of explaining would get him out of this one. He collapsed on the tiled bathroom floor, beating it and himself hopelessly and desperately. Over the course of the next half-hour he made several more frenzied attempts to tear the new hair from his body, actually resorting to shaving it at one point. At last, when the initial shock had run its course, he began to consider his options.
But he knew that the choice had already been made, and that God had made it for him. There was really only one thing he could do: Resigning to his fate, he hung his head and walked back to his room. There he retrieved a small suitcase from the closet and began to pack.
When he was done he sat silently on his bed, waiting for his father to call him downstairs and letting the changes painfully grip his body.
From his room, SR could easily hear the sermon his father gave that Easter morning. In a stern voice that seemed passionate to his cause, George gave the speech SR had planned on giving, emphasizing the need to show SCABS that they would eternally pay for their mistakes.
Minutes stretched to hours. SR eventually got up to retrieve a pair of scissors to cut a hole in his pants for the tail that had begun to form there. Finally, at exactly 9:24 that evening, someone quietly knocked on the door. SR rose and opened it.
Janice was there, sheepishly staring at the wooden floor of the hallway. "Um... George wants to see you in his office," she said, noticeably not referring to George as 'your father,' as had previously been her habit.
SR nodded, picked up his suitcase, then walked slowly down the stairs and corridor to the room where he would be sentenced. By this time, SR's nose had extended about an inch and was tipped by a cold, wet, and leathery black pad.
He walked in and stood before the mahogany desk, not bothering to take a seat. George looked up and into SR's eyes. His jaw was set, and SR was unable to tell what he was thinking or feeling. After a minute, the pastor broke the gaze, and reached for the top drawer of his desk. Instead of the Bible that SR expected, George retrieved a manila envelope.
George rose steadily on his feet and walked to the door. With one hand, he held it open. With the other, he held out the envelope to his son.
SR took hold of the envelope. When George didn't let go, he looked back into his father's eyes. Again, for another minute, they exchanged that indescribable communication. At last, George let go, set his jaw, and stared angrily at the wall behind SR.
Shaking from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, SR slowly walked out of the warm velvet box. His father silently shut the door behind him.
William was holding the front door open. Before SR was completely through, William grabbed his brother's paw and pressed something into it. SR looked up into his brother's eyes. William's were red with tears. Without a word, SR returned his gaze to the ground and walked out of his former life.
The front door clicked quietly behind him. SR would never hear his father collapse in agony, wracked with sorrow at the sound of that oak door, like a gavel, sealing the verdict. He would also never see his father spend almost the entire next year in a nearly-clinical state of depression. No, SCABS was never easy to deal with.
SR walked to his Jeep at the curb without looking up. Once there, he considered the vodor his brother had given him, and whether he would ever need to use it. The envelope contained several legal documents that SR would need to establish a new life, a letter informing him that he was being excommunicated from the church, and a check for thirty-thousand dollars.
SR didn't cry. At this point, he was beyond feeling. Numbly, he looked up at the stained-glass windows of the foyer and the inviting warmth he saw there. He shifted his gaze to the sign in front of the church:
Gnade Street Christian Church
He turned the key in the ignition and drove away.
SR was nearly in a non-alcohol-related drunken stupor when he rounded the second-to-last corner that lead to his apartment complex. He was laughing hysterically. In that night, he had unintentionally completed the task of cutting himself off from every friend he had ever had. God had played a dirty game of poker with him, and SR couldn't do a thing about it except laugh.
Suddenly the laughter stopped: Ahead on the road, something was amiss. SR couldn't see anything wrong, but it definitely did not smell right. It was the acrid after-scent of burning composites having recently been smothered. Finally, his eyes caught something: the ornate sign that marked this section of Gnade Street was missing. SR sprinted to the corner.
He staggered backward as if having received a blow to the face when he saw what was awaiting him there.
45 Gnade Street-- the place that had, for this fox, become the symbol for everything he held dear-- was a burnt-out shell. From the look and smell of things, the fire had only been put out a few hours previously. The street was conspicuously devoid of anyone but SR, and yellow police-tape surrounded the affected area.
Even the two small trees in front of the church had burnt down to the ground. The holes where the stained-glass windows had been stared at SR like the empty sockets of a dead skull. In the cold winter air, great plumes of steam from these holes rose indefinitely into the night.
SR would have liked to attribute the entire thing to a freak accident, but the remains of a burnt cross on the charred front lawn told another story: This night, part of the Human Firsters' dream had been realized.
The damage didn't limit itself to the church either. In a moment, SR saw the ornate sign that announced the presence of Gnade Street protruding from the back window of a nearby parked car. The Human Firsters had rioted. Windows were smashed out and specieist graffiti had been sprayed on walls in the area around the epicenter of the church.
SR stumbled blindly to the entrance of the apartment complex, the skull mocking his back. He fumbled with his keys in the lock on his mailbox. It contained only one letter.
It was his letter-- the letter he dutifully sent out each week only to have returned six days later. Like all the others, the front loudly displayed the rubber stamp marking the mail as undeliverable. SR turned the letter over. On the back, some postal worker, thinking himself clever, had scrawled a note to SR:
Hey, idiot! For you, there is no Gnade Street. They moved it!
SR let the letter and his keys drop to the pavement. He staggered away, seeing nothing and hearing only the words to Pink Floyd's "Sorrow" throbbing in his head.
A few blocks away from the apartment complex and the church, Gnade Street came to the city's river. At this point, where the river emptied into the bay, the street had been extended into a bridge that counter-intuitively crossed nearly fifty feet above the river's widest point.
Before SR became conscious of his surroundings, he found himself leaning over the narrow hand railing of that bridge, staring downward at the water that seemed so far below. It beckoned to him with its indifferent invitation, the oily black waters swirling around the concrete pillars that supported the bridge's weight. From his vantage point, he could see small pieces of ice approaching from upstream and being enveloped in the eddies and whirlpools that formed from the turbulence introduced by the bridge's immovable supports, just before being carried out of sight underneath the bridge. It was nearly silent, with a steady breeze blowing from the bay and over SR's back, causing his head-fur to get into his eyes.
Unbidden, his analytical mind began prophesying SR's future: There would be a long, windy descent followed by a loud splash. Then there would be a few minutes of unavoidable, desperate struggle before hypothermia would tighten its icy grip. In a few days, a fisherman would have the unfortunate task of unentangling a red-furred body from his nets. SR's landlord would sell the few things of value in SR's apartment, and a new tenant would be found. No one, especially not George or Janet Foxley, would know or care what happened to the red fox morph wearing the blue woolen jacket. The disappearance of SR Foxley would be complete.
SR climbed the railing without taking his eyes from the waters below. He stood, precariously balancing himself with his right paw on a nearby street light post.
If his father was right, then this move would only begin SR's eternal fate, perhaps not prematurely, of endless wo and suffering. If he was wrong, then this would simply end the torment. SR would feel nothing, being no longer existent, having entered the unimaginable realm of oblivion. SR could not bring himself to believe in any other possible outcomes.
He removed his paw from the lamp post, and let both arms hang limply at his sides. SR began to see faces.
Tara was there, crying on her porch for the comforting word that SR never gave her. She opened her tear-stained and pleading eyes just before her image disappeared in a swirl of water.
A moment later, Kelly gazed up at SR with eyes that wanted to weep, but no longer had that capacity. He turned and hopped on all fours into the darkness, his plush rabbit ears bobbing until they were no longer visible.
Gunther was next, with glistening wet cheeks and red eyes, gingerly sheltering a dragonfly in his cupped hands. He didn't break his stare until he was swept by the current under the concrete bridge.
In the next scene, all the members of TIC were happily gathered together, conversing as a movie played in the background. Only Jason and Terry noticed SR staring down at them from fifty feet above. Each of these had expressions of silent remorse on their respective faces. Before they were gone, however, they turned their attention back to the group, rightfully forgetting the observer above.
Finally, the image that stared back at SR from the inky waters was that of Dr. Pastor George Foxley: SR's father. His jaw was locked, with the muscles on either side bulging out in tension. Yet his unfathomable grey eyes stared out in an expression impossible to read. He did not see SR, but stared into the infinity behind him. SR watched as this steel face moved silently, began rippling, then finally disappeared in the turbulence under the bridge.
SR did not cry. He moved his feet so that he was standing with the balls on the thin iron railing. This was what he should do. This was what made sense. This was... the end. He raised his arms in preparation for a great dive. He took a deep breath and looked upward at the moon, who was silently observing the suicide. He closed his eyes, and then...
Something unexpected happened: A scent wafted past SR's nose. He knew that scent: He smelled it at least every Sunday morning.
Damn! he thought. Damn! Not now! Why did she have to come now?
The next breeze carried more of the scent past SR's nose. She smelled afraid. Very afraid.
Opening his eyes, he fumbled for a grip on the lamp post, just managing to catch himself before he fell. He spun around and saw her, sitting on the railing on the side of the bridge that faced the bay. SR could hear the slight huffs she was making as she cried.
Growling, SR jumped off his railing and began storming toward her. She almost immediately heard him. Her head snapped around to see who was making the noise. A vodor crackled to life. "Who is there? Stay away!"
SR stopped. "It's just me: SR Foxley. The guy who lives across the street."
The vixen-in-the-yellow-dress's golden eyes were wide with fright and she was visibly trembling. "Stay away! Or I'll jump!"
SR's teeth were bared in his anger. "Look. I'm not going to try to stop you. I just want to go and sit over there," he said, indicating a spot on the railing about twenty feet to the right of the other suicidal fox.
"Just don't come near me!"
SR shook his head, still growling, and walked loudly to the place he had pointed out earlier. He climbed the short railing and sat upon it, facing the bay with elbows on knees and tail hanging limply over the back, the weight of his head and muzzle supported by his paws.
They remained that way for several minutes, SR angrily growling and watching the few ships that were on the waters on this frosty Christmas Eve, and the vixen gripping the railing in both forepaws, staring wide-eyed at SR.
At last, the vixen's vodor broke the silence. "What do you want?"
SR looked angrily in her direction, as if noticing her for the first time. "What do I want? What do you think I want? Damnit! Just a few minutes ago, I was about to make one hell of a long swan-dive into a much-too-shallow river, and then you had to come along all weeping and crying like that! Why couldn't you wait twenty minutes? By that time I could have been a frozen fur-ball!" He turned back to the bay, his growling continuing.
The vixen was taken aback and her jaw dropped on its own accord. Her resolve broke and she was reduced to sobbing again, the confused vodor making crackling noises. SR simply shook his head, marvelling at how shallow this woman seemed. At last she began to gain control of herself, becoming angry to counter her embarrassment. "I'm sorry Mr. Foxley, but I didn't know you had this section of the bridge reserved."
SR flashed her a look of distaste. "Oh, very funny! Aren't you the comedian? Do you really want to see me die right now?"
"I'll beat you to the water."
"What the hell is your problem?"
"What do you care?"
"I don't." SR shook his head, not knowing what to say and returning his gaze to the bay.
The vixen paused. "Well, you wanted to jump. So do it."
SR glared back at her narrowly. "What kind of sick bitch are you, anyway?"
"That's exactly what I am: a sick bitch." Although the vodor could portray no emotion, her trembling and wild shrieks and yips did the job well-- even more than a voice could have, because SR was also partially a red fox, and seemed to instinctively understand that sort of language. She caught her breath and forced the vodor to make intelligible words. "What kind of spineless coward are you?"
SR smiled broadly in her direction. He jumped up, standing on the cold iron railing on the balls of his feet. Facing the bay and barely balancing, he took a great bow before shouting as loud as his lungs could manage. "Listen everybody! The Sick Bitch has just uncovered the Spineless Coward, and would like to see him make his grand exit from this world! Shall we appease her?" He held his arms wide in preparation for the jump.
The vixen was crying again, yet managed to make her vodor function. "What is wrong with you?"
SR let his arms drop, turning his crazed eyes to face the vixen. He spoke through bared teeth. "My dear lady, do you even care?"
There was a long pause, then her vodor cut through the silence. "Yes."
This caught SR off guard. He faltered for a moment before catching his balance, then asked in disbelief, "Why?"
"Because I want to help."
SR's maniacal smile returned and he laughed loudly and rudely. He turned back to the unmoved audience of the bay, shouting. "And now the Sick Bitch wants to cure the poor Spineless Coward! Oh, isn't this rich!"
She was sobbing again. SR did not relent. Jumping down from the railing onto the street, he angrily approached her. "Listen, you little bitch, do you really think you could help someone who has told every friend he's ever had to burn in the depths of hell? Would you really want to? Yes-- I am coming over there, and if you don't like it, then you'll just have to jump. I'll be right behind you. I can smell that you were at the little fire the Human Firsters put on tonight. Did you know that I spent a good portion of my life fighting for their cause? Hell! I planned on making a living preaching that sort of doctrine!" SR was standing beside her now. She was cowering, hiding her face from him. "Now, why on earth would you want to help someone like that? This is justice, damnit! I deserve to die! I've earned it! What do you..."
SR literally choked when the scent finally registered itself in his nose. At the same time, the vixen turned her head, inadvertently showing SR the source of the odor.
The fur on the left side of her face was matted with her own blood. Her left eye was nearly swollen shut, and the ear was severely mauled. In his rage, SR hadn't noticed that this woman had very recently been beaten within inches of her life.
And she wanted to help him.
SR caught himself on the railing as his knees failed. For a moment, the mental blow rendered him speechless, and almost senseless. At last, in a much-subdued whisper, he spoke. "My God. What happened to your face?"
She turned her head in a vain attempt to conceal the wound. For nearly a minute, her shoulders heaved as she cried bitterly, the confused vodor crackling erratically. Finally, she was able to control herself enough to make the machine work. "The Human Firsters. They did this."
SR was wracked with guilt. "Oh, my God. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He hung his head, leaning heavily with both paws on the railing. "Please, we've got to get you to a hospital." He reached for her shoulder with his left paw.
She shrugged his gesture away. "No." She sniffed, stopping her sobbing, and drawing in a few shuddering breaths. "No. There's nothing left for me. It's better that I die."
SR looked down at her. "Why?"
She looked up, into his eyes. "Do you care?"
He didn't need long to consider. "Yes. I do. Now."
The vixen smiled weakly. "Thanks." She patted the railing beside her. "Have a seat." SR gladly did so.
She took a deep breath, closing her eyes, then her vodor began. "I used to be a part of the perfect marriage. I lived in a little suburb of Boston. I had two children and a wonderful husband. We had a nice three-story house with stained-glass windows in the foyer. My mother-in-law lived there as well, because she was too old to care for herself. I used to direct the choir in the church. Now and then I even had the chance to sing in a local opera or two. Oh, I loved to sing so much!"
Her mood considerably darkened. "And then it happened. I got the Flu, and a month later, SCABS. My husband divorced me, and the courts granted him full custody. For a while, I was able to at least provide for myself and pay for a little apartment by doing voice-over parts for commercials and background vocals for musical recordings. And then this damned disease even took my voice away!"
For a while, she could do nothing but cry as her vodor crackled sporadically. After a minute, she continued her narrative. "I nearly starved. I spent some time in a few SCAB-friendly homeless shelters, but you can go crazy in those places. Finally, I met Pastor Meier. You know him? He's the man who looked a little like a badger who used to run the church at 45 Gnade Street?"
SR nodded quickly, noting that she was referring to him in the past tense. Not a good sign.
She returned her gaze to the silent bay. "About a year ago, he took me in. Whenever I asked him why he did that, he always said it was because he needed someone who wasn't tone-deaf to lead the choir. He never was good at lying-- There are people in that choir who could easily lead the latest Broadway plays, if they would hire SCABS. But he gave me a place to stay for free, and even paid me for waving my arms in front of the group. Oh, I loved him so much. He used to sit patiently in the confessional for hours as I would waste his time talking about my problems."
At this point, she was unable to keep from crying. SR put his left arm around her shoulder. She did not push away.
For the next few minutes, the vodor crackled and popped as she tried, with herculean effort, to control her emotions enough to complete her story. "This evening, I was finishing setting up the last of the chairs to get ready for the Christmas Eve spiritual when several people shouted outside. A moment later, someone threw a brick through one of the windows and a fire-bomb followed that. They beat me till I was unconscious and left me in the church to die in the flames. They dragged... Pastor Meier out... front... and..."
Here, the vodor only made odd snapping a sizzling sounds as the vixen, wracked with emotional trauma, was no longer able to force it to speak for her. She took several desperate breaths and attempted to clear her thoughts to at least finish her sentence. Finally, out of frustration she yanked the thing from the chain around her neck and hurled it over the side of the bridge. She buried her face in her paws, shoulders heaving. SR watched the small box glitter as it fell, finally landing with an almost inaudible "splash" in the river far below.
It was more than obvious what had happened. SR had read and heard about many such occasions throughout the course of his life. He had even been friends with people who planned them.
But this woman needed to finish her story, so he spoke. "They killed him, didn't they?" She nodded.
This was not the whole story, of course. Her scent betrayed enough of this night's history to know the full extent to which the mob had abused her. For a group of people who could sleep at night after murdering SCABS, sexual abuse was not much more of a stretch to their conscience. But out of respect for the vixen crying in his arms, SR did not mention this extra knowledge.
Over and over again, he whispered "I'm sorry" in her good ear.
About ten minutes later she finished venting part of her sorrow. SR knew that if she lived to see tomorrow, then this would not be the last time that her mind would call her back to those dreadful events. But at least for now, it was over. He took his arm away from her shoulders and put it into his left pocket.
In that pocket he carried-- and had carried since the time he left his parents' home-- the vodor his brother William had given him as he walked out the door. He fingered it now, ponderously. With the demise of the church, it was the last concrete thing he had that linked him to his family.
In a moment, he made decision and pulled it from his pocket, offering it to the vixen without looking at her. She looked confused for a moment, then took it gratefully. A few moments later it snapped to life. "Thank you," it said, in a voice more feminine than the vixen's previous vodor had made. SR smiled. William must have paid top-dollar to purchase one of the fancier models that could produce a bit (and only a bit) of voice inflection in gender-specific tones.
The vixen also seemed a little surprised at the machine's tone. For a moment, she smiled.
The two foxes sat in silence for the next few minutes, the river making nearly inaudible lapping noises as it swirled around the bridge's concrete supporting pillars.
After a while, the vixen-in-the-yellow-dress turned to SR. "Well, what's your story"
SR was startled, despite the vodor's soft tones. "Pardon?"
"I told you mine. Why are you going to kill yourself tonight?"
SR looked dejectedly away, over the bay. "Oh... It's nothing special. My parents kicked me out after I got SCABS."
She stared directly at his face for nearly thirty seconds after that. SR avoided eye contact, and remained firmly staring out into the bay. At last, she, too, looked distantly in that direction. "That must have been hard, coming from that church. Was your father a pastor?"
SR gasped, blinking at the vixen. "Uh... yes. How did you know?"
She sighed. "It wasn't that hard. I've seen you come and go from your apartment for almost a year now. I've noticed each time the way you stand and stare distantly at the church. And..." She looked at SR. "you're also sitting next to a former member."
SR reeled at that for a bit, but was eventually again overcome with the sorrow of the situation. He watched the vixen. She seemed very distant, staring at nothing and everything on the horizon, considering her fate. SR spoke. "You don't want to do this, do you?"
She bowed her head. "No."
No one spoke for the next few minutes. SR, like the vixen, began to gaze at distant objects without really seeing any of them. "Me neither," he whispered, too quiet for the vixen to hear.
Suddenly, more than anything else in the world, SR wanted to do something for this person. Something-- anything-- that might somehow lessen the pain she was feeling. He jogged his brain, trying to come up with an idea. After several minutes, he resigned to the hopelessness he felt-- there was nothing he could do. She would not accept medical attention, and in a few minutes, both of them would be dead. He could see no way to avoid this fate.
SR let his mind and gaze wander. He looked to his left. There he could see the neat rows of buildings and the steam still rising from the site of the fire on Gnade Street. Turning back to the bay, he could see the waters growing slightly choppy as white-capped waves warned of an approaching storm. The few boats that were on the water seemed to handle it without any trouble.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, SR saw something different. He leaned forward to get a better look, but it was already gone. The vixen didn't seem to notice his movement. For a spit-second, SR could have sworn that he saw a woman in a yellow dress rowing a small boat to one of the small islands in the bay.
He leaned back, not knowing what to think of that. His mind again began to wander.
Gnade Street. What a peculiar name. It must have come from Germany. In German, 'gnade' means grace...
SR sat bolt upright as the idea gripped him. This time the vixen noticed. She looked inquisitively at him. "What is it?"
SR didn't look at her. "What is your name?"
"What is your name?"
SR huffed in disbelief. He had to ask another question: "The house in the suburbs where you used to live: What was the address?"
"Um... it's kind of a strange coincidence, really. It was 45 Gnade Street, just like the church."
SR opened his mouth wide, shaking his head and looking upward at the moon, who was smiling overhead. The vixen was growing annoyed. "What is it?"
"Ssh! Give me a minute-- let me see if I can remember." Anne frowned and turned back to the ocean. SR wracked his brain-- if only he could remember!
At last, the words surfaced, and SR smiled widely: There was something he could do. It might not help, but it was something.
He was not one to sing often, and especially not in public without an accompaniment. But as the beat of that song began to sound in his ears, he knew that this was something he needed to do. He cleared his throat quietly and began:
looking down on empty streets, all she can see
By this time, Anne was staring wide-eyed at SR. He couldn't be completely sure, but he would almost swear that she, too, was hearing the drums and guitars play Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street." Both foxes were breathing heavily, unable to really believe the phantom sounds reaching their ears.
nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey
SR was startled to the point that he almost couldn't continue. During the chorus, Anne had removed her vodor and quietly 'whined' in harmony with the words SR was singing. SCABS may have stolen her ability to create words with her vocal cords, but she could definitely still sing! When the chorus was over, she reached out and tightly gripped SR around the chest with both paws, crying thankful tears. Slowly, SR moved his arms around her shuddering form, fighting his own emotions. My God, he thought, this woman is brave! But the song must continue.
pulling out the papers from the drawers that slide smooth
It's hard to describe exactly what happened at that point. SR and Anne were holding each other tightly, eyes closed as they slowly rocked back and forth to the sound of their own hearts crying out in the darkness for the mercy neither had been able to find in life, with only God and the solitary moon witnessing their pleading, inaudible cries. SR was unable to finish the song, being moved beyond words. And something was born between the foxes-- a bond that perhaps would go even beyond death.
But perhaps most revealing of all...
for the first time since walking out of his parents' home at 45 Gnade Street...
and he was happy.
SR let the tears freely flow from closed eyes as he felt that warmth-- so much more than a mere physical sensation-- emanating from the saintly vixen he was holding in his arms. Oh God, he thought, I would die to keep her alive.
For period of time SR was unable to measure, the two remained firmly locked in each other's arms. Sometime during the song, their tails had also become intertwined. Each was clinging to the other as if that person was their last hope for happiness.
When the music finally faded from their ears, neither made a move to undo their mutual embrace. SR opened his eyes, and saw that Anne, too, had a sincere and lasting smile on her lips. SR looked over the bay, gently resting his head on top of hers as she leaned lightly on his chest.
After a time that by conventional measurements was long, but in SR's opinion, much to short, Anne raised her head, the smile disappearing from her face. She looked at SR and spoke, the vodor approximating a whisper. "What do we do now?"
SR looked into her eyes, the smile that had momentarily disappeared returning to his face. "Well, Ms. Dog, would you like to jump together, or would you like some help in your awful rowing to your island called God?"
She never even looked confused for a moment. Returning the smile, she countered, "Let's don't give up. 'cause I believe there's a place... there's a place where we belong."
SR smiled so broadly that he unconsciously bared his teeth. "Before we go there, let me find someone who can help clean up the red rain on your face."
Again, Anne returned the joyous expression on SR's face. "Only if you can help silence the judge and jury in my head."
SR let go of Anne to turn and slide off the railing, onto the street. He turned and knelt on one knee, offering his right paw to the vixen. "All you do is call me. I'll be anything you need."
Anne turned around, taking SR's right paw in her left. "It looks like I'm on my way-- I'm making it."
As she slid off the railing onto the sidewalk, her knees faltered and SR was forced to lunge forward to keep her from falling. The smile vanished from his face. "Uh... Anne? Seriously, let me carry you-- you've lost a lot of blood!"
She frowned. "No. Please. I can manage. Where did you want to go?"
SR shook his head, worried, but with one claw indicated the side of the bridge opposite the direction from which the steam was still rising from the church. "Mercy Medical Center is about five blocks that way."
Anne swallowed, then took SR's right paw in her left and began walking determinedly in the direction SR had pointed. This caught him off guard, and he stumbled for a moment to catch up.
When the pair reached the side of the bridge, Anne slowed the pace, and SR thought that maybe her strength was going out again. Before he could say anything, though, Anne spoke. "Mr. Foxley?"
"Anne, please, call me SR."
"OK. SR? I just realized-- I don't have any medical insurance."
SR was a step ahead of her on this one. "Don't worry about that. I've got enough money to pay for your stay in the hospital for as long as it takes for you to recover. And in case you're also worrying about a place to stay once you're out, if you don't want to stay at a shelter, then my apartment is available to you. It's certainly not large, but it's at least big enough for two. Please-- I don't want you to worry about anything right now. Let's just get you to the hospital, then we can start worrying about that stuff."
Anne squeezed SR's paw. "Thanks. Thanks a lot."
"Don't thank me just yet. Based on how some of my other former friends have fared, you may end up cursing this day."
She smiled at him as they walked.
They made it another half-block in silence. Then...
"How can I help you?"
Anne stopped, forcing SR to look her in the eyes. "I wasn't the only one about to take up residence with Davey Jones about a half-hour ago. You're helping me more than you know, right now. How can I return the favor?"
SR blinked, mouth slightly agape. After a moment, though, he caught himself and began walking in the direction of the hospital again, pulling Anne after him. He was deep in thought, staring at the pavement. Finally, a block later, he spoke. "I suppose there's really not a whole lot you can do. I mean, I guess my biggest problem is that I feel like God has stacked the deck against me. Every time I think I'm doing the right thing-- that I've finally found him and what he wants-- he swamps my boat and almost makes me drown. And I'm sick of it! I don't want to bail or tread water anymore. I guess I was on that bridge to end it all before God had another chance to destroy me. Can you help with that?"
It was Anne's turn to immerse herself in thought. Finally, "No, SR, I can't. I can't give you a new life or heart. I can't give you faith. I can't give you trust in God. I can't tell you that everything will be OK in the end. I can't tell you that you won't ever have to row for your life again." She stopped. "But maybe-- maybe He keeps capsizing your life because you're looking for Him in all the wrong places. Maybe I can help you there. Maybe I can show you the way to Mercy Street."
SR tiredly raised his eyes to look into Anne's. He was seized with awe at what he saw there-- her eyes seemed to sparkle with a radiating light and heat. And for an instant, he really could see the doorway to a thousand churches. His eyes grew wide and his jaw dropped. In her eyes, he saw the resolution of his fruitless searches and the completeness there he had never been able to find.
Her gaze unwavering, her vodor spoke. "Let me show you that place where we belong."
With that, she gripped SR's paw and weakly began pulling him in a direction that did not lead to the hospital. Mouth still agape, SR dumbly followed for several paces before he came to his senses.
"Anne! Wait! I really do want to see whatever it is you want to show me, but more than that, I want to make sure you live to see the morning! Please-- Let's go to the hospital first!"
She stopped and smiled, turning. "OK. But you have to promise me that you'll go, with or without me."
"For whatever it's worth, you've got my word that after you're safe in the hospital, I'll not rest until I've gone wherever it is you want me to go."
This satisfied her, and she changed her course back to the original route to Mercy Medical Center. They walked without speaking until about two blocks from the hospital. Then...
"Wha...?" Quicker than he could react, Anne's tongue lapped across SR's cheek in the vulpine equivalent of a kiss. SR was so surprised that he stumbled backward, blushing under his facial fur and raising a paw to touch the cheek she had kissed, mouth agape.
"Uh... SR? I think... I think... I'll let you... carry... me... now..."
Rushing forward, he caught her limp form as she lapsed into unconsciousness. "Oh shit!" he cried. Picking up Anne's light frame, he sprinted in the direction of medical salvation. During the run, she briefly became conscious again, smiling and stealing the chance to once again snake her tongue across SR's muzzle. A moment later, she was again oblivious.
They were in luck when they got there. Unusual for this holiday, it had been a relatively slow night, and they were able to immediately treat her in the emergency room. It took nearly an hour for SR to fill out the requisite paperwork and to convince the clerks that Anne was not his wife, and that he hadn't been the one who had beaten her that night. By the time it was over, Anne had been moved to a room in the third floor. Being as late as it was, visiting hours were over, but SR would be damned before he'd let them throw him out of the hospital before he saw her.
The room was darkened, and Anne was asleep, the left side of her head wrapped up in a mess of bandages. He found an empty chair near the bed and sat, waiting for any sign of consciousness. At last, at about two o'clock, she began to stir. She didn't open her eyes, but smiled as soon as she smelled the wool of SR's jacket. Her vodor came to life. "They didn't kick you out, yet?"
SR collapsed in the chair in a surge of relief. "No. I wouldn't let them. Um... they said that you'll be OK. You were very lucky-- there are no internal injuries, and the concussion is only minor. They said that your vital signs began to stabilize as soon as you'd had a transfusion of blood. You might even be able to go home tomorrow, or the next day, if you don't feel like it tomorrow. You needn't worry about the bill. I've taken care of that. Stay as long as you like."
The smile never left her lips. "Thanks, SR."
They sat in silence for several minutes, and for a while, SR thought that she had fallen back to sleep. But her vodor eventually dispelled the quiet.
"Do you have a pen and some paper? I want to give you an address."
"Uh... I'll be right back." He quietly left the room to retrieve her request from the secretary's desk. She heard him enter the room the second time.
"Here, write this down. I want you to go there tonight." She gave SR a street address.
SR looked a little confused. "What is this place, anyway?"
"You'll see. But I want you to go there tonight-- since it's Christmas, they should still be open."
"Uh... if it's all the same to you, I'd rather stay here with you."
Her smile grew wider. "No, SR. You promised me. Besides, I'll be OK-- just let me rest, and you go to that address. Come back for me tomorrow."
SR raised his voice in protest, but Anne had already fallen back to sleep. He looked down at the piece of paper in his paws. The pads on his feet made almost no sound as he rose and walked out the door. Anne smiled.
It was nearly three AM before he got there. When he did, he paused in front of the entrance to the place, double- and triple-checking the address Anne had given him.
"A bar?" he muttered, "'The place where we belong' is a lousy bar?" To his sensitive nose, though, it smelled more like a zoo.
He shook his head, frowning, and almost walked away when the scent of Anne's blood on his jacket reminded him of the sanctity of his obligation. SR didn't drink and usually instinctively avoided drinking establishments. Still, if Anne wanted him to march to the top of Mount Everest and back, he would have done it. Why not, then, into a bar?
Swallowing and gritting his teeth, he raised his paw to open the door. It was then that the music started.
SR froze, paw on door handle. He recognized that melody. It was a hymn that had been taken out of his church's hymn book shortly after the Martian Flu first ravaged the earth. He looked upward, grinning at the sign over the door.
Tears in his eyes, SR walked into The Blind Pig Gin Mill in enough time to join in singing "All Creatures of Our God and King."
The author either quotes, mentions, or otherwise makes allusion to the following works by the following artists (when known), all of which he highly recommends:
Sorrow -- (C) 1987 by David Gilmour
Solsbury Hill -- (C) 1977 by Peter Gabriel
Greensleeves -- Old English folk song from the 16th cent.
Our Father, by Whose Name -- text by F. Bland Tucker (1895-1984); music by John David Edwards (1806-1885)
Joy to the World -- text by Isaac Watts (1674-1748); music by George F. Handel (1685-1759)
Kling, Gloeckchen Kling -- German Traditional; text by Theodor Enslin
Silent Night -- by Franz Gruber, 1818
Forever Young -- (C) ??? by Alphaville
O Little Town of Bethlehem -- text by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893); music by Lewis H. Redner (1831-1908)
Red Rain -- (C) 1986 by Peter Gabriel
Nearer, My God, to Thee -- text by Sarah F. Adams (1805-1848); music by Lowell Mason (1792-1872)
Jingle-Bells -- music by James Pierpont
More Holiness Give Me -- by Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876)
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen -- 15th century German carol
Kam ein Voegelein -- ??? German Volkslied
All this Time -- (C) 1990 by Sting
Angels We Have Heard on High -- French traditional, ca. 1862
Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful -- attributed to John F. Wade (1711-1786)
Enter Sandman -- (C) 1991 Metallica
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy -- Tchaikovsky. from the "Nutcracker Suite"
The 1812 Overture -- Tchaikovsky
Signs of Life -- (C) 1987 by David Gilmour and Bob Ezrin
Terminal Frost -- (C) 1987 by David Gilmour
Poles Apart -- (C) 1994 by David Gilmour, Polly Samson, and Nick Laird-Clowes
On the Turning Away -- (C) 1986/87 by David Gilmour and Anthony Moore
Empty Spaces -- (C) 1979 by Roger Waters
Learning to Fly -- (C) 1986 by David Gilmour, Anthony Moore, Bob Ezrin and Jon Carin
Be Still, My Soul -- text by Katharina von Schlegel (b. 1697); music by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
One Slip -- (C) 1987 by David Gilmour and Phil Manzanera
Zip-ah-dee-doo-dah -- From Disney's live-action/animation Uncle Remus movie, "Song of the South."
O Holy Night -- 19th century French carol
What do you want from me -- (C) 1994 by David Gilmour, Polly Samson, and Richard Wright
Christ the Lord is Risen Today -- by Charles Wesley (1707-1788); music anonymous
Mercy Street -- (C) 1986 by Peter Gabriel
Don't Give Up -- (C) 1986 by Peter Gabriel
That Voice Again -- (C) 1986 by Peter Gabriel and David Rhodes
Sledgehammer -- (C) 1986 by Peter Gabriel
Big Time -- (C) 1986 by Peter Gabriel
In Your Eyes -- (C) 1986 by Peter Gabriel
All Creatures of our God and King -- text by Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226); music is traditional German
Of those above-mentioned songs, the author knows these can be found on the following albums, again all of which he highly recommends:
A Momentary Lapse of Reason (C) 1987 by Pink Floyd
The Division Bell (C) 1994 by Pink Floyd
The Soul Cages (C) 1990 by Sting
Shaking the Tree (C) 1990 by Peter Gabriel
So (C) 1986 by Peter Gabriel
This novella was highly influenced by the poetry of Anne Sexton, the incredible woman for whom Peter Gabriel wrote the song, "Mercy Street." Again, I do highly recommend this great, late poet's work. Specifically, the following three poems by Anne Sexton had a great impact on the imagery and symbolism I have used in this story:
"45 Mercy Street." From 45 Mercy Street, copyright 1976, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
"Rowing." From The Awful Rowing Toward God, copyright 1975, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
"The Rowing Endeth." From The Awful Rowing Toward God, copyright 1975, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org