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Wild and Crazy
by Oren the Otter and Phil Geusz
Oren the Otter and Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
 

The bathtub is my most favorite place in the whole house. It has been ever since I was a child, but it has become all the moreso since my transformation. You can probably tell by the collection of toys and dirty dishes in the bathroom that I spend a lot of my down time here. The best part is that I don't have to pay for most utilities, so I can take as many baths as I want.

Eventually, though, I knew I would have to get to work. Stepping out of the bathtub I stepped into the blow dryer (what would furries do without these?) And got myself dry enough to safely use a keyboard.

The computer sat on my kitchen table, waiting for me, as always. Trusty old Rover would always be there, I thought to myself. A flip of the switch and it was ready to go.

"Check E-mail." I told it. It clicked and whirred as it obeyed.

"You have nineteen pieces of mail." it said. I hopped up, took hold of the mouse, and began flipping through them.

Phone Bill.

Net Bill.

Ad.

Ad.

Bank Statement.

Electric Bill.

Ad.

A story from Charles to look over. I sent it to the printer.

Ad.

A reminder that my rent was late.

Ad. I thought darkly that they should have kept E-mail ads illegal.

Then came the good stuff. I recognized some of my story and script titles in the subject lines.

Rejection.

Rejection.

The Printer jammed. Badly. With a sigh, I forwarded it to Jesse and asked him to print it up and bring it over next time he stopped by. I continued.

Rejection.

Rejection.

Rejection.

Stinging critique.

Rejection.

And lastly, a notice that 4D comics does not accept electronic submissions.

I looked over toward my refrigerator. It was getting awfully bare inside. I was living off of milk, practically. If I didn't make a sale soon, I was going to starve.

I switched from net mode to word processor mode and began typing like mad. So intent was I on my work that I began shifting to my human form. I didn't even realize that I had changed until I paused for a moment and noticed that the metal of my chair was chilling my bottom.

I decided that I ought to take a break. I'd already written three comic scripts and two short stories. And I was getting cold without my fur. I sat down on the couch and turned on the Speed Eidelson show on the radio. With luck, his political commentary would get me emotional enough to change me back.

Once I had become furry enough to go out in public without any clothing (since I no longer owned any) I slung my money pouch over one shoulder and headed off to the Blind Pig for a few moments of relaxation.

As I closed the door, I noticed a note taped conveniently down low where I could reach it.

 

I placed a dollar bill on the counter and asked for milk. I thought it best to pay in cash today, since my tab was getting so high. As I drank, I read the note again and again, hoping to find some clue to tell me that it was all a cruel joke.

No such luck. I had run short of funds one too many times.

In 30 days, I was to be evicted.


The Pig was a warm and quiet place. A safe place, even. It had taking a long time for me to get that through my twisted lapine brain, sure enough, but f it. Mustelids are as naturally playful as I am naturally cautious, and in Oren's case it seemed to me that his human tendencies had been enhanced rather than contradicted. The way he cavorted about sometimes without seeming to have a care in the world was deeply moving to me, in a way that seemed impossible to express. When the door opened and the little guy passed through, it was as if a ray of sunshine had permeated the bar.

But not today, or at least not for long. Oren just ordered a milk with his usual enthusiasm, and quietly opened an envelope. From my nice quiet corner booth I watched closely, expecting the otter to wave the paper about and share some sort of good news with us all in his usual inimitable style. But instead he slumped a bit, and looked as though some of the life had gone out of him.

What could be wrong? None of my business, of course...

It was sad to watch, though, as the usually ebullient otter quietly drained his glass to the dregs and left, saying nothing to anyone. Were I that quiet, no one would be surprised. But Oren?

Somehow, it didn't surprise me at all when Donnie came clomping back, and sat down across from me. The booth groaned in protest, and shifted a little under my friend's bulk. But it held.

"Hi!" I said. "What's wrong with Oren?"

A bit of surprise showed on his placid features.

"Come on, Donnie. You've pulled this dodge too many times now. I can read the signs"

In response he raised his bovine eyebrows, and removed a piece of paper from his pocket. It was a bar tab.

Now, many of we furry types, especially heavily morphed and handless SCABs like myself, tend not to carry cash. It's not easy without clothing, and hard for us to handle in any event. For my day-to-day expenses, like many others I ran up tabs here and there and paid them off monthly through my computer. For a moment I though I had read Donnie wrong, and there was trouble with my account. Then I saw the amount, and how past due it was. My jaw dropped.

"Donnie, I...."

Donnie explained by signing. I was still slow, but was able to follow him. This was Oren's tab, he explained. For a good customer and a good friend he would extend credit. After all, he knew the Pig was a support center for many people as much as it was a bar. And the tab itself wasn't a problem. There were certain funds available for such purposes.

My ears went up. This was the first I had heard of such funds...

But, Donnie continued, there was more. Had I noticed how thin Oren was getting? And how he had quit using shampoo?

After a moment's thought, I nodded. The scent WAS different, and he had seemed a bit bonier, but with shapeshifters it was always hard to tell.

The big bovine hesitated a bit before he continued. It was clear that he felt he was sticking his neck out. Then, finally, he began signing again. Had I seen Oren open the envelope, he asked.

"Yes," I replied aloud.

It was an eviction notice, Donnie gestured in a rush that I had difficulty following. It had been written in magic marker, and the ink had bled through. Without meaning to, Donnie had read it from the back.

"Oh, no!" I said quietly, as the pieces came together. "Poor Oren!"

Donnie sighed. Then he looked me in the eye.

"All right. I understand. And I will see what I can do. But this is really none of our business, you know. I can't really do much unless he asks for help. Unless you want me to tell him you read his mail..."

Donnie threw his hands up in a clearly negative gesture. Clearly, he wanted this held in confidence.

"I see. Let me think on this a bit, and the next time I see Oren I'll try to get him talking. Maybe I can get him to ask for help finding work. It's what I do, you know."

The barkeep smiled widely, and nodded. Clearly, this was the answer he had been hoping for. Then, he got up and took his more usual post behind the counter.

I watched the bovine for a bit, as he took orders and made little comments and social adjustments here and there that seemed always to result in people getting to know each other better, coming out of their shells, feeling safe. Then, after I drained the last of my Strafford I took a moment to be grateful to the Donnies of the world.

For it was they who, quietly and unthanked, made it all work for the rest of us.


I rifled through the refrigerator vainly searching for something that wasn't at least half as fuzzy as I was. Coming up with a half-eaten can of corn I prepared to fix lunch. Halfway through the heating process I took the corn out of the microwave and threw it away. It just didn't smell good and I had no appetite anyway.

I tried to go back to my writing, but I couldn't do that either. I was still too upset over the letter and my creative juices were clogged. I only ended up produced half a page of garbage. Frustrated, I closed up the word processor and checked the mail again.

One letter this time.

"Dear Mr. Verden

It is my regret to inform you that your story, "The Rising of Hope" does not meet with our current standards, due to an alteration in the editorial policy on religious matter. Please see the new guidelines included below."

"What?" I bellowed. "I spent three months on that piece getting it just right for you guys!" In anger and disgust I slammed the "off" switch and plopped down on the couch.

I wanted to go out for a walk in order to cool down, but that seemed silly since I had just gotten in. Instead, I filled up the bathtub once again.

Have you even relaxed in a nice hot tub and tried to forget your troubles? Let me tell you, it's one of the most difficult things in the world. The harder you try to leave your troubles in the next room, the more they pester you to come in and jump in the tub with you. Unable to clear my mind, I began running through equations.

As I ran through the six times tables at breakneck speed, I could feel myself getting heavier and sinking down into the tub. My fur retracted into my skin, which meant that it was going to need to be washed again once it re-sprouted.

I lay there soaking up the warmth of the water with my pink human skin as I settled into the relaxing rhythm of a quadratic equation. I finished with x^2-3x+40=0 and was letting my mind go numb once again when there was a knock at the door. Without waiting for an answer, Jesse-Roo entered.

"Otter? You at home?"

"I'm in the tub!" I called.

Jesse came hopping. "I brought along that new software you... oh GEEZ!"

I opened my eyes and suddenly remembered that I was human. "Cripes!" I said. "I forgot."

"I'll... I... I'll just... wait out here."

The embarrassment of having Jesse walk in on me was already fuzzing me out, but I did my best to hurry the change up.

He apologized profusely when I returned to the living room, fully morphed. "It's okay." I assured him. "I know how awful my human body is to look at. Hee hee."

"It is not hideous."

I sensed there was more.

"Oren, how much do you weigh? As a human?"

"Two-seventy, two-eighty... why?"

"The man I saw in the tub couldn't possibly have been more than one-fifty. How is it you've lost so much weight?"

"Well... I suppose I haven't been eating right."

"Goodness sakes, cuz, what have you been eating?"

"Bread."

"Bread?!"

"And milk."

"You've been eating nothing but bread and milk?"

"No... no... I have been eating halfway decent suppers."

"Of what?"

"Well, last night I had a cheddar melt."

"You mean like a burger?"

"No... just the cheese. But I had it on a tortilla."

"Why are you eating like this?"

I sighed as I sat down and stared at Rover, my computer. "I haven't sold a thing in months. Money's been tight."

"How long has it been?"

"Since April."

"APRIL?!"

"A magazine in Europe bought "the ATM". I never thought they would. It's one of my worst pieces. Maybe I can sell better if I write dreck."

"Oren, why didn't you tell anyone that you hadn't sold anything in so long?"

"I didn't want to worry anyone. Jesse, this is only temporary. Something's bound to sell soon."

"And in the meantime, where are you going to live?"

"What do you mean?"

He picked up the eviction notice from where I had put it down on the table.

"Cripes."

Jesse bent down and put his paws on my shoulders. "Look, cousin, if you ever need anything from me, I'm here for you. You're welcome to move in with me. For one thing, I'll feed you better than you're eating here."

"Jesse, you still live with your parents."

"Oh yeah."

"Thanks, Roo, but I'll be all right. You'll see. If all else fails, I can go out in the woods and eat fish."

Jesse didn't smile. "Don't even joke about a thing like that, Oren."

"I'm not. I've actually considered it. At least I would be eating."

"Oren..."

"Jesse, I appreciate everything, but I just need to figure out what I'm going to do."

"Okay. I'll leave you alone to think, but promise you won't be rash? And if you need to talk, you call me, okay?"

"Okay."

After Jesse hopped away, I turned on Rover.

BLAM!

I rarely curse, but when Rover's hard drive breathed it's last and shorted, I let out a string of interjections so foul that I made myself blush. Quickly unplugging the tower, I unsnapped the cover to view a mass of melted circuits. What do you expect for a PC from the previous century? I put out the small electrical fire with a napkin and sat there, desperately wishing that the damage would somehow magically reverse.

When it didn't, I got on the phone with the intention of calling my father and asking him to be on the look out for a cheap, REALLY cheap computer tower.

I hit the #5 speed dial button. At least I thought I did. Instead of either of my parent's voices, I was surprised to hear a friendly, familiar voice saying "West Side Shelter, Phil Geusz speaking.

"Phil? Hi. This is Oren. How ya doin?"

"Otter? Hi!" I could tell immediately that he was trying to keep a feeling of joyous relief from his voice. He had been hoping I would call.

"What can I do for you?"

I had promised Jesse that I would consider what I had mentioned carefully. I supposed that would include asking advice. I might as well, and Phil was the person to ask about such a big move. "Phil?" I said. "What do you know about living wild?"


I admit, it was not what I had expected to hear. "Living wild?" I repeated dumbly.

"Yeah, you know. Going all the way, full-morphing it out in nature. Eating fish, in my case."

"Well..."

"Phil, you probably don't realize this, but I am broke. Flat, busted, and bankrupt. If I sell out now, dump my furniture and stuff at a fleas market or something, I can pay off a couple bills and just about break even."

"But Oren... I mean, have you thought this through?"

"Yes, and the more I do, the better it looks. I mean, there's no income tax on fish you catch yourself. And I won't have to worry about ignorant publishers, cheapskate landlords, busses running late... It's how God meant us otters to live, Phil."

I sighed. Already I knew his mind was made up, and quite foolishly so in my opinion. But it was still my duty to try. "Oren, you like fresh fish, right?'

"Of course! And do NOT try to tell me I'll get tired of it. That'll happen the same day you eat a T-bone!"

I gagged a bit at the thought. "No, Oren, I know about how SCABs changes your taste in food. I was just wondering if you've ever tried carp, raw?"

There was silence.

"Most fish in a stream are so-called "rough" fish, you know, fish that no angler wants to keep. There's buffalo, red-horse, eels, mooneye, gar, suckers, all sorts of delightfully inedible species. And you know what? In the wild they make up most of an otter's diet. Because they are by far the most common species."

More silence.

"Also, Oren, I was just wondering. Have you ever tried swimming in icewater?"

"Yes, of course. It was fun!

"How long did you stay in?"

"About ten minutes."

I rocked my ears ironically. "Think you can always catch a fish in ten minutes? Winter goes on for months, you know. And there will be no warm radiator to curl up around afterwards, either."

Silence again. This was getting old.

"One other thing, Oren. Do you ever get sick? Most otters do not live long enough to get old, you know. Think you can treat your own case of, say, distemper on a floating log? Alone?"

"I've had my shots!" He was shouting. This was not like Oren at all. It was more like someone who only had one dream left, and would do anything to defend it. People in such straits often get irrational. Above all , I HAD to try and keep my friend from doing something he would regret. "OK, then Oren, how about trappers? That pelt you wear in full morph would bring a pretty penny, I am sure. Not that anyone would hurt you on purpose. But an otter trap is an otter trap, and if you are living the musteline life, guess what? The trapper has no way to tell who and what you are! And the trap itself doesn't care!"

My friend got VERY angry. "How stupid do you think I am, Phil? Just because YOU'RE scared to go out and live free doesn't mean that I have to be a coward! Sure, YOU can't hack it in the real world! That's why you live at the Shelter! But I AM going to survive, and I AM going to make it as an otter! And you are NOT going to stop me!"

Something was very, very wrong here. I had done nothing to deserve such a tirade, but the shouting was having its effect on me anyway. My trembled audibly as I replied. "Oren? I... I..."

Then the anger in the otter's voice turned into self-disgust. "Geez! I can't believe I just did that. Scaring rabbits, now! What kind of pitiful excuse for a human being am I anyway?" There was an awkward silence, then he continued. "I'm sorry, Phil. I am SO sorry. In fact, I am the sorriest thing that ever lived."

And then he hung up.

For a time I went to my cage and snuggled mindlessly with Shortcake and General Patton. But once the trembling had passed, I began to think again. And eventually I understood. Oren might not realize it, but he appeared to see himself as a failure, probably due to his financial situation. Having "failed" as a human, he was determined to succeed as an otter. It was quite simple, really. My friend was not the first to walk that particular path.

But Oren WAS a stubborn cuss, and I knew he would not back down until circumstances forced him to. It was a virtual certainty he was going to attempt the wild and free life, and it was an equally good bet that like the vast majority of SCABs that tried it he would come back home very soon. My best bet, therefore, was to see that had a way to do so. An escape hole in his burrow, so to speak.

I checked the clock; it was still early. Then, I took a pencil in my mouth and dialed the telephone. "Hello, Omni Wireless? Yes, I can hold." A few moments passed, then the clerk came on the line. "Yes. I was wondering, do you sell a really small, durable and watertight mobile phone?"

There was a pause, while she checked her product line. Then she gave me the bad news, and I sucked at my big front teeth.

But it could have been worse. "Cost is no object," I replied. "This is a gift for a friend, and I'm afraid his life may end up depending on this unit..."


I was trembling when I hung up the phone. I trembled as if I were sitting naked in a half-finished igloo. Rover's blank screen stared at me as did my reflection within. There was a stripe on my nose. I winced inwardly at that revelation. Bryan had said that in times of need or perceived need, my body would display the characteristics of other mustelid species. Perhaps that was the reason for my badger-like outburst at Phil. He had only been trying to help, and I was the one who had made the call, yet I had yelled at him.

I was indeed a sorry creature.

Slipping into something routine might just get my mind out of the whirlpool it was in long enough for something to make sense, I thought, so idly, I went over to the other side of the room to feed my rats, David and Ana.

The cage was always unlocked, since I trusted them with the run of the apartment, and so David immediately rushed up and kissed my paw. His back legs were healing nicely since his accident, I noticed, but in all likelihood, he would never walk normally again. "Life isn't always the way you want it, is it boy?" I said, more to myself than to him.

I looked about me. I had very few things to sell. Perhaps even one item less if Rover could not be repaired. Jesse could handle the disposition of my things, and Matt would be more than willing to take in David and Ana as two of his poorer relations.

As for my job, it would be simple enough to leave. Of the seven comic book series I had been drawing, two were given to a big name artist who did miserable but high volume work, one had been sold to another company, one I quit for personal reasons, and two were canceled since the recent rise in

SCABS cases had made the metamorphic super-heroes within too mundane. I had one left, which had been the only thing between me and starvation. If I went through with my plan to live feral, I could simply send a note with my next issue saying that the following issue would need to be assigned to a new author/artist.

In fact, since my obligations had been taken care of, and all that would be required to wrap up my affairs was three little notes, there was nothing stopping me from taking off right away.

Fishing out my laptop, I sent out my requests to Jesse, Matt, and my sole remaining publisher, the Joy Mission.

I closed up the laptop and pondered it for a moment. What if Phil was right? What if the otter life didn't work out and I wanted to come back someday? After careful consideration I placed the computer in a sealed plastic bag and took it with me. It would be my passport back to humanity, should I need it again.

I spent my last two dollars hopping a bus to the north end of town. From there, I would travel on foot to the lake.

The laptop quickly became very cumbersome, and I knew I was going to have to leave it eventually, so I picked out an easily recognizable landmark- a gateway to a horse ranch- and making sure the bag was sealed tightly, proceeded to bury it by the northern gatepost.

Some detached part of my brain watched me work, and was amazed at the total lack of emotion I felt. I should have felt distressed... or free... or despairing... or adventurous... or SOMETHING. But I felt nothing as I buried my last connection to humanity.

The lake was a good several hours away. It might have been even longer for a small animal moving along on oversized swim fins. Fortunately, it didn't. Once again, my body shifted to meet the perceived need, and my flippers changed into paws. I was able to move at a smooth, loping gait for most of the trip, stopping only once to rest.

It wasn't long before I reached the cabin that belonged to the sleeper family. I wasn't going to be using it, but it would be good to live nearby. For one thing, trappers would be unlikely to place traps next to a

house where someone obviously had children, as the tire swing and the treehouse attested. To be absolutely certain, I took a piece of charcoal from the long- unused barbecue and several pieces of wood from the woodpile. I wrote on the wood chunks: "OTTER MORPH IN AREA NO HUNTING TRAPPING PLEASE". After careful consideration, I decided to carve the message with a sharp rock so that it wouldn't wash away.

Another advantage to living here was that if any of my friends should come looking for me, living near the cabin would make me easier to find. I might be going feral, but I still loved company.

Taking the signs, I placed them around the area I wanted to make my new home. I then proceeded to dig myself a den. There was an attractive little hillock beside the water which would do nicely.

As I dug, my claws began to enlarge, so as to dig more efficiently. This bothered me. "No." I said, willing them to change back. "I'm going to prove that I can make it out here as an otter. I don't want any badger claws helping me out."

I sighed as I sat and waited for my claws to return to normal. I remembered telling Brian that I was jealous of his shape-shifting abilities. Now, here I was with a bizarre combination of his, Jon's and

Rydia's, and I didn't like them. I just wanted to be an otter. I didn't want to change to human or borrow traits from other species in the family. I just wanted to be what I was.

What I was seemed to be hungry.

I dove into the water to do some fishing. It would have been cold to anyone else. I've always been comfortable to temperatures well below freezing. Being an otter only boosted that tolerance. Still, the water did have a chilly edge to it.

The bottom would be the best place to catch a fish the first time out, I knew. I swam about half a mile out and taking a deep breath, plunged down.

At times like this, I loved my body. After two minutes, my lungs would have been burning as a human, and yet I was quite comfortable. In pressures that would implode a human eardrum, I felt nothing wrong. My vision underwater was as excellent as if I'd been wearing a mask and carrying a flashlight. My movements were graceful and dextrous, not to mention swift.

The catfish never had a chance.

I was most pleased with myself when I surfaced with the wriggling morsel in my mouth, and hummed merrily through my nose as I made my way back to shore.

With a smile on my face, I sat down to eat my catfish. It tasted...

It tasted like... sand. Intellectually, I knew it would. I've had badly prepared catfish before. Guess I was hoping for some twist of fate to make my own catfish taste different. I was disappointed, but was also soon comfortably full.

Back to digging.

By tracking the moon across the sky, I could tell that it was almost midnight when I finally became too tired to move my arms any more. I decided to lay down in the hollow spot I had made and try to sleep.

Digging could wait for the morning.

I never did get to sleep, but just lay there in the dirt, waiting to either loose consciousness or meet the dawn.

The sky was just starting to get light when I heard footsteps. They were not human footsteps, but the soft, careful tread of a woodland creature. I looked up to see a familiar face.

"Good morning, Phil." I said.


I didn't get out in the woods very often any more, and hadn't been there at all since SCABS had ensured that I got a lot of greens in my diet. The experience was a bit overwhelming. It was sort of like being in the park, but more so. The sun was warm overhead, Interesting scents surrounded me, and thorn bushes simply begged me to come and explore! Moreover, I suddenly found myself hungry. But I knew the autumn vegetation would be tough and stringy, though it still smelled inviting. And this was business, not a recreational trip.

Almost soundlessly, I walked up the little trail with the cellular phone clasped firmly between my left forepaw and thigh. Jon had told me about the little stream flowing out back, but it would have been easy to find anyway due to the merry sounds the rushing water made. A little path led in the direction of the water music, and it took me straight to Oren.

"Hi, Phil!" he greeted me. This surprised me, rather. I had thought my approach was fairly quiet. Oh well, I knew I was a domestic rabbit, deep down, and not well adapted to real survival situations.

"Hi yourself!" I replied cheerfully. "How's the fishing?"

"Oh, it's wonderful!" Did I detect a note of concern, or was it my imagination?

"Everyone from the Pig says 'Hi!' of course, and they're all curious about how you're doing. It's been a week now."

"Already?"

"Sure enough. You kinda snuck out on us quicker than expected, you know. We wanted to hold a party for you." Donnie and I had cooked that up between us as a way to show Oren that he really DID have friends in the world of humanity, but he had just moved too quickly.

"Really? I'm sorry to have missed that! Tell everyone I'm doing well, would you?"

"Sure. Listen, I came for more reason than just to check up on you. I wanted to give you a present."

"A present?"

"Just a little something." Awkwardly I used both forepaws to toss the little phone into the stream, and like a flash Oren was after it. Despite the speed of the current, he had it in seconds. Frankly, I was impressed. Once he had caught the device, the otter swam for shore and began to examine it minutely.

"Phil," he responded finally, "I don't need this. If things get bad there's a laptop buried not far from here. This is too much."

"No, it's not," I replied firmly. "The wilderness is serious business, Oren. Things can go bad VERY quickly. We rabbitty-types know that better than anyone. And I worry." My friend looked like he was going to speak, so I overrode him. "That cellular phone was developed for SCAB mountaineer rescue units. It's watertight, shockproof, and has a homing feature. That's what the big orange button is for. Keep in the sun a couple hours a day and it will stay charged. It only weighs a couple ounces, and even floats. The thing is about as foolproof as electronics can be."

"But..." Oren replied.

"But nothing! Oren, I am WORRIED about you! Night and day! PLEASE take this, so that I can relax some."

Finally the otter relented. "Well... OK then. But I'll never use it." He seemed genuinely touched. Then, happy and energetic as he had ever been, he offered me a tour. "Want to see my new home?"

By virtue of a little twisting, I was able to get inside without getting wet or too awfully muddy. And right away I saw that Oren was going to have problems. Rabbits KNOW about holes, at a very deep level. It is preprogrammed into us all.

"Oren," I asked. "Isn't it kind of, well, big in here?"

"Yeah! Isn't it great?" He was so proud. "I'm not quite done, but close."

"But... In winter, you're going to be depending on your own body heat for warmth. That's why burrows are usually not much bigger than the animals that use them."

"Well... You need to keep in mind that I'm a shapeshifter, Phil. I sometimes revert to human form while sleeping. Then I'll NEED all this space."

"Hmm. You're right- I hadn't considered that. In that case, where are the blankets and such?"

"Blankets?"

"Of course. In our fur a snug burrow is pretty comfortable in winter, I would imagine. But in skin..."

Oren looked stunned. "I never thought of that."

"And this lodge IS too large for an otter. You'll be cold either way. This is not good, Oren. And we haven't even mentioned how you'll be damp so much of the time. You could get pneumonia pretty easily with a setup like this." A dangling root claimed my attention. Irritated, I nipped it off without asking permission. I HATE dangling roots. It's a rabbit thing.

"Well..." Oren thought about it a minute, and then came to a decision. "It's still warm out. I'll figure out something, I'm sure."

"Want me to bring some blankets?" I asked hopefully.

The otter looked like had bitten into something sour. "No, Phil. I'll take the phone, to make you feel better, and stash it in an out-of-the-way corner. But what's the point of living as an otter if I am going to have human stuff all over?"

I sighed. "Oren, you need the human stuff because you ARE human, and you ARE a person. A very good, special, and beloved one."

My friend got a bit testy. "Only I know what's in my head, Phil! And only I can make my decisions. You know that!"

It was true enough. But still... "The Shelter could put you up for a time."

"No. That part of my life is behind me. It's time to see if I can cut it here." And it was obvious that he was as stubbornly determined as ever.

"All right, then. Like you say, it's your life. And I DO sincerely wish you well. But I did notice one other thing..."

"Yes?"

"You know those signs you put up warning away trappers? They all face away from the water."

"So?"

"Trappers wade up and down streams, or use boats if the water is deep enough."

"Hmm...." He paused for a second, then went on. "Have to do something about that then, too."

"And they travel before dawn. Without lights, Oren. They couldn't read your signs anyway."

The otter got a little perturbed at that. "Well... I'm not going to get trapped anyway! The signs were just to make you feel better."

It was clear I had worn out my welcome, and a friend was waiting for me back at the car. "Oren..."

"I know, Phil. I'd be just as worried about you, if a rabbit were trying this. But I'm not a prey animal, I am a kind of predator. It's easy to see why you have a hard time seeing things from my point of view. Predators dominate their environment. They need not fear nearly as much as their prey, by the nature of things. "

He was wrong, of course. But there was no way for me to prove it that.


I had lied. It wasn't just a little blue splink. It was a whopper with extra cheese. I knew that most of Phil's emotional life was predominantly controlled by the ever present fear of being eaten. I thought he'd buy the bit about the confidence of a predator. The truth was that I felt nothing of the sort. I'm not even a predator. I'm a fisher.

Of course, you may say "What's the difference? Fish are live prey." This is true, but fish don't buck, kick, claw, bite, ram or spray. They just kind of... flop. As an otter, I had no advantages to rely upon if I had to fight for my life.

Sure, I had done my share of fighting as a human, but that was back when I was a huge, lumbering bear of a man with a polymorph who was willing to give me built-in tazers. Nowadays, I was just another helpless critter.

I had also lied about the den. I never shifted in my sleep. I had made that up to cover for my ignorance of den design.

Ignorance, it seemed, was a bigger enemy than I had realized. I knew a lot about being an otter, but the nature books never mentioned where and when trappers come hunting for otters. I had thought that I had found the perfect spot right between the point where the stream flowed into the lake and the Sleepers' summer cabin. Now, it looked like all I had done was endanger myself.

It seemed a shame to move my den after I had done so much digging. I had done a lot. I didn't remember having dug such a large space. How did I... oh. The wolverine's clawmarks on the walls said it all. The burrow had seemed smaller because I had been larger.

That made me stop and think. I'm not an otter, I realized. I never have been an otter. I am an otter SCAB, and as such, I am a totally unique being. I had unique needs. Was it such a crime to use my uniqueness to meet them as well?

First, breakfast needed to be caught, then I would tackle the other challenges that lay ahead.

As I fished, the story of Mitchbill came to mind. Though he was a domestic otter, he had no trouble catching himself breakfast. Of course, he was fishing in a shallow stream, not a lake. My skills were nowhere near as sharp as Mitchbill's, either. I ended up resorting to going for catfish once again.

Then at the last moment, I saw it. FLASH I was on it! I had it! YES! It nearly broke my neck trying to wriggle free, but I wasn't about to let go. Little old me rose to the surface and swam back to my den, the proud owner of a bass breakfast.

I didn't eat much. It wouldn't do to be stuffed, as there was a lot of work ahead.

The first thing I did was to pick up every stone I could find and take it to the river. About ten yards up from the lake, I built a stone dam with all the rocks, save only the most flat- sided stones. I would need those.

The dam would serve three purposes. It would give me a place to corral fish in the river. From the other side, it would give me a place to corral fish from the lake. The spillway in the middle would also serve as a primitive water filter so that I would have something to drink.

That task took me the better part of the morning, but it was satisfying work. I wasn't done for the day, though. The next thing I did was to swim along the bottom of the lake and collect the longest weeds I could find. I laid them out to dry in the sun.

As they dried, I mixed up a puddle of thick mud. I used the mud as mortar to place between the flat rocks as I assembled them into a fireplace and chimney for my burrow.

I was most satisfied with my second building project. I had been very careful. I had put a lip at the bottom to keep cinders from tumbling out onto me, and I had used a piece of trout skin to make a flap over the chimney that would let smoke out but not cold air in.

Having finished that, I went back to the weeds. They were mostly dry now, and so I began weaving. I made a nice, big mat for the floor, first, and then a blanket, as Phil had suggested.

When everything was all done, I surveyed my handiwork. I had the most luxurious den any otter could ever hope for. What I also had was an empty feeling in my gut. I had cheated, and I knew it.

The next few days were fairly uneventful. I spent most of my time learning how to improve my fishing.

I built a fire only once, and that was to harden the mud mortar in the fireplace.

I dug myself a side burrow off of the main one, better suited to my size. I tended not to stay in there much, though. The tight fit had the feeling of a womb, which played havoc with my carniphobia.

By and large, my time was spent staring at the walls.

More days went by, blurring together. I did finally start to relax and enjoy myself. I had some happy hours frolicking in the water. A few times, I even went skinny dipping as a human. In the evenings, though, I would begin to miss my friends and my computer. I would snuggle down into my blankets feeling cold and lonely.

Then it happened.

It seemed like an occasion for happiness at first. I detected a damp, earthy smell in the air, vaguely reminiscent of pottery. I stuck my head out of the den, and sure enough, a big, blue dragon made out of clay was walking up the path.

"GORNUL!" I shouted. I ran up and embraced him. I hadn't realized just how lonely I had been this past week until tears fell down my cheeks unbidden.

"Hi, Otter." replied the claymation wonder as he returned my hug. "How ya been?"

"Okay, I guess." I said, a sad sniffle putting my words to the lie. I let go of him, coming away with blue specks all over my fur. "So... what are you doing up here?"

"I came to talk to you, of course. You know, everybody misses you a lot. Won't you consider coming back?"

Sadly I shook my head. "I can't go back." I said.

"But why?"

With my paw, I gestured to my hut. "This is all I have. I've nothing left back there. No home, no job, no possessions..."

"You have your friends, and you have your writing. I know how important both of those are to you."

Once again I shook my head. "I've given up on writing. Nobody wants my stuff."

"Oren... Won't you please reconsider? Phil says you've very little chance of surviving in the wild out here even through the winter."

Perhaps I should have been touched that Phil had been so concerned for my well being, but that was not the case. "Did he send you out here?" I asked acidly.

"No. I came out here on my own."

At this point, I was already returning to the burrow. Why I was going inside, I don't know. Maybe it was to show Gornul that I had a new home, now, and was determined to make it out here. He followed me over to the door, talking all the way about friends who missed me.

"Look," I said. "I'm not going back, okay? I HAVE to do this."

"Then will you just come outside and talk?" He reached in, took my hand and pulled.

"Hey!" I shouted. "Let go!"

"Just for a minute! Will you come out here, please?"

"Let go of me!" I demanded, rolling his fingers off of my paw.

And then there was a splash.

Then silence.

I stuck my head out the door. No Gornul. All that was there was an impression in the dirt which could only have been made by someone losing their footing and falling backward into the lake.

Looking into the water, I saw Gornul laying just under the surface. "Silly dragon." I chided. I grabbed one of his hands to help him up. The arm came off. It melted in my hand into a muddy mass. Ice ran through my body. Tossing what had been his arm onto the shore, I reached for the other arm. It, too, melted as I held it.

Panicking, I got behind him and tried to lift his head out of the water. His clay was so moist that as much as I succeeded in lifting him, my paws went through him. In lumps, I brought the dragon ashore, only to be left with a sickening blue mass that had once been my friend.

"Gornul, don't be dead man!" I pleaded. "You're an inanimorph. You can't be killed."

The clay did nothing.

"Gornul, PLEASE!" I begged, barely able to speak at all. Again, there was no answer.

For five days, I did not leave his side. I kept vigil over my fallen brother's body, neither eating nor sleeping. Such luxuries held no appeal in the face of this loss.

I vaguely remember making a phone call to the authorities to report what had happened. Something in the back of my mind told me that this was important. I'm not sure, but I think I did more chirping than speaking. Perhaps that's why no one ever came.

I suppose that after those five days was when I really started to lose it. The first thing I did was to move Gornul's body next to the hillock where my burrow was. There was little point in burying him, since he was already earthen, so I simply molded the clay to fit the landscape and topped it with sod.

I spoke to him regularly, as one speaks to the graves of departed friends. One of my hopes was that wherever he might be, he might forgive me for causing his death by my stubbornness.

He wasn't the only one I talked to. One night as I was trying to retreat from the cold from both without and within, I imagined that in the dancing shadows of the fire I had built, I could see Phil.

"Hi, Rabbit." I said. "I'm glad you stopped by. I can really use some company."

"So I surmised." said the imaginary councilor. "I like the fireplace. Nice touch."

"Yeah." I said, clutching my seaweed blanket tighter. "I built it and wove the blankets like you suggested."

"But you left the den as this huge cave."

"I dug another one. A small one. Right over there. I just can't use it because I get scared."

"Scared?"

"Too small."

"Well, you can dig a slightly larger one to help you get used to it." Said the figment. "How about right here?"

"NO!"

"Why not?"

"Gornul is over that way. You'd be digging through his body."

Phil crossed is furry arms. "You weren't even going to tell us that he died?"

"Well... I..."

Phil scowled. "You inconsiderate son of a... Did you ever think to pick up the cell phone and TELL someone? There it is, right over there! All you have to do is pick it up."

Doing my best to hold back sobs, I picked it up and dialed Phil's number.

Nothing.

"You forgot to set it in the sun, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"Oren, you are a pathetic excuse for a mustelid. You wonder why I don't expect you to last the winter?"

There was no holding back the tears, now. I held out my paws to my imaginary friend, but since I knew I deserved no comfort, so did he. He merely scowled and sneered at the pitiful creature before him. "Get out there and dig up that computer." he ordered.

I did as I was told by my own imagination. After placing the phone on top of the hillock, I headed out to the highway and made my way south.

This time, there was no change to help me move faster. The trip was long and arduous. By the time I made it back to the post where the computer was buried, I just wanted to lay down and die.

The machine was right where I left it. The bag was still intact, but just to be certain that it was all right, I took it out and flipped it on. It worked. Whew! I turned it off, put it back in the bag, and headed back toward the lake.

Upon my return, I noticed that the phone was working again. I still needed the computer for this, though. I needed the time to compose what I was going to say. I turned the console on and accessed my e-mail. The laptop sang as it looked for the nearest cell tower. Once I was connected, I typed:

"Dear Phil:

I have tragic news.

While he was visiting me several days ago, a tragic accident took Gornul Eaves' life. While struggling to bring me out of my den, he lost his footing and fell into the lake. The water softened his clay until it was no longer cohesive.

I have buried his remains next to my home."

At this point, I no longer cared about being tactful or eloquent.

"I am the one responsible. It never would have happened if I had simply come out to talk with him. It's my fault he's dead.

Please pass this news to his family, as I have no way of contacting them, or if you wish, find their phone number and I will call. I guess it's wrong to saddle you with bearing the news since I'm the one who killed him.

Phil, I realize now just how stubborn I have been, and how wrong. I treated you terribly when you tried to help me, as well as Jesse Roo, and now my foolish pride has cost Gornul his life.

I am so sorry."

I hit the "send" button, simultaneously retrieving incoming mail as my letter to Phil was sent.

There weren't many letters. There were a few leftover rejection notices. There was also a letter from Sadie. I opened it.

"Dear Oren:

I hope this E-mail reaches you. I was told that you took one of your computers with you. Oren, why didn't you tell me that you were going wild? Am I part of the life that you wanted to leave behind?

I love you, Oren, but if you wish to be free of me, I will respect your wishes. You can consider our relationship broken.

Best wishes in your new life
the heartbroken

Sadie Sherry White"

I stared at that for what seemed like forever. I had not told her because I had not told anyone. I didn't want her to fret over me. I had planned to go back and visit her after a few weeks and tell her once I had gotten settled in, but she was so hurt that she let me go.

I couldn't believe it.

I couldn't take it any more.

Taking the phone, I dialed the number of someone I knew would lend an understanding ear. This time, there was no speed dial to get it wrong.

"Thank you for using 1-888-CALL-COL. Please enter the..." I interrupted the recording by dialing. "Please say your name after the tone. BOOP!"

"Oren"

"Thank you, Oren, for using 1-888-CALL-COL. Your call is connected."

I heard a vodor say "Grace Baptist Church."

"Hi, Dad. It's me."

"Eric? Hi, Son!"

I smiled inwardly. Only Dad ever called me by my real name. No one else, save my family, of course, even knew it. "How are you?" I asked, absently.

"Not bad. Things have been a lot calmer since I got my feathers. Your Mom got me a vodor attachment for the computer so that I don't have to type with my beak. How are you doing, Son?"

"Not very good." I said truthfully. "I was wondering if I could c-come and... visit for a few days?"

"You know you're always welcome at home, Eric, but unfortunately, the house is kind of full."

"Oh? What's going on?"

"A whole bunch of thing happening at once. Your Brother-in- law, Dale, has gotten a bad case of SCABS. He's become a tiger. They say his mind is gone, so Felice and Michael are staying here with us until they can get back on their feet."

"Oh."

"And Your sister, Elaine, has gone and spent all of her and John's money on grazing land. John and the girls have nothing to live on, so they're staying with us as well."

"Oh no."

"It's not as bad as it sounds. John's already got a job working with young teenage predators at the juvenile facility."

"How are Patrick and Elvin?"

"Elvin quit his job. He said he got tired of all the harassment he got being a wolverine. He went with John, though, and found a job where he's working. Patrick has been having a hard time at work since he became a woman, but that's to be expected. He's just knuckled down even harder, and he's even gotten promoted to shift manager.

"That's good, I guess. How's Paula?"

"Having some problems with her natural parents. They're not dealing well with the fact that her daughter is half manatee."

"Oh boy."

"It'll be all right. They're both tough girls, and they're coping."

"Dad..."

"Yes?"

"I need to tell you... I did something kind of... dumb."

"And what's that, Son?"

"I quit my job with the comics and went wild."

"You did wh..."

The phone suddenly went dead.

"ARGH!" I cried as I threw the phone outside. "Dang solar batteries!"

I sat there and thought. My father and my siblings were all dealing well with SCABS. They hadn't let it stand in their way. They were all coping, while I was being a quitter and a loser.

I was a shame to my family. I was a failure as a human and as an otter.

I lay on my side and tried to cry myself to sleep, but while the crying was easy, sleep wouldn't come.

Hours upon hours passed. It may have been days for all I know. I began to feel hungry, but I didn't care. If starvation was to come, let it come.

I was aware of the phone ringing, but I didn't care. Nothing anyone could say could possibly matter anymore.

There on the dirt floor of my burrow, I waited to die.


Hot-line duty reminds me a lot of how airliner pilots describe their job- long hours of tedium interrupted by moments of utter terror. This morning had been typical. There had been one wrong number, a lapiform SCAB who often called me from the payphone at a lapine colony for a bit of badly-needed phone snuggling in the lonely hours, and two hang-ups. Otherwise, the peace of the wee hours had remained unbroken, and I was able to spend some quality time with my mobmates. Real snuggling is so much better than the phone stuff....

Eventually, though, even snuggling gets old. Bored, I checked my e-mail.

Spam.

Spam.

Spam.

Letter from Clover. Quickly I replied to her happy teases and innuendoes.

Spam.

Update on the ongoing lapine lecture series downtown.

Query from Hayden Heath regarding my long-forgotten application for Mannie. Sadly, I explained that he wouldn't be going to school after all.

A note from my ISP offering a new service. Spam, in other words.

And then the big one from Oren. Oh my God...

For a few precious moments, I simply could not believe what I had read. Over and over again my eyes retraced the cold, empty words that refused to penetrate my hare-brain. But eventually my training kicked in, and with trusty pencil in my mouth I began trying to get some wheels into motion. My first instinct was to call an understanding friend. I paged him with the "911" prefix on my number that he had always encouraged me to use if I ever found myself in a jam. Then, resolutely, I waited until he rang me back before making any other calls, so as to leave the line clear.

But the wait wasn't long. The phone rang within a couple minutes, and the most welcome voice in the world came onto the line. Before I could even speak, a calm but rather odd voice asked me a question. "What's the matter, Phil?"

"Ken!" I replied, relief evident in my tones. "Look, I've got something hot going down here. Really hot. And it may involve an accidental death that a disturbed SCAB has tried to conceal."

"Um," Ken replied. "Fill me in."

So I read my ostrich friend and one-time client the e-mail- he already knew about Oren's back-to-nature expedition, of course. And he was shocked. "Oren? You say OREN wrote this? And Gornul...."

"Yeah," I replied, secretly glad not to be the only knocked a bit off balance. "His burrow is just inside the county line, which makes this your jurisdiction, right?"

"Right. I've gotta phone the office..."

"I know that, Ken. Really I do. But can you bring me along? In my professional capacity as Oren's counselor, I mean. And maybe we can keep from shaking up our otter friend too awfully bad?"

"Of course. And there's another guy I need to bring along too. But we have to get on this right away."

"I'll meet you in front."

The trip out to the Sleeper cabin was short, but intense. Ken and I agreed to let me go in first, and to keep everyone else at a distance until I found out where Gornul was buried. Then, Dr. Williams, an inanimorph expert from the City hospital, would take over.

He and the cops. Hiding a death is illegal, and ALWAYS causes suspicion of murder. Oren was in for a rough time no matter how easy Ken and I tried to make it for him.

All the way there I tried calling Oren, of course, to let him know what was about to happen. But there was no answer. Probably he was out fishing, but I feared something far worse might have happened. By the time we arrived, I was half-wild with worry. Even the fresh scent of a stray dog didn't slow me down from getting out of the police cruiser. Or at least not very much.

"All right!" I said, hopping down from the big car. "I'll be as quick as I can! And watch out for dogs, Ken. I smell a big one!" And with that, I was off down the familiar path.

It was just as well that the dog had moved on, since there really wasn't any cover. I was still vaguely making plans for a dash back to the police car and hope the door was still open if chased when I came to the entrance to Oren's lodge. It had seemed a friendly place before, if badly designed. But now it took on an aspect that was... sinister.

Where was Gornul buried, anyhow? Was I walking on his grave? It gave me the heebie-jeebies...

In the end, though, it was fear of the still-unlocated dog that got me to speak up. "Oren!" I called out. "Oren! It's Phil. I got your e-mail. Can I come in?"

No answer.

"Oren? There's a dog somewhere out here, Oren. A big one. I NEED to come in."

More silence. Vaguely, I noticed the smell of something rotting. The dog had preoccupied me too much to notice it before.

"Oren?"

Finally, a response. "Phil?"

I took this as a most welcome invitation, and went inside. There, the rotting scent became overwhelming. For a fevered moment I thought it might be Gornul, until reason prevailed. Then I recognized the odor. Fish, naturally enough. Spoiled fish.

My eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness, being more human than most of me, but even overly-large burrows are easy for me to get around blind. I remembered the layout quite well, and somehow sensed Oren curled up in a corner.

"Phil!" he said dreamily, "Don't dig over there! PLEASE don't dig over there!" And my friend began quietly sobbing. His cries tore at my heart. There was only one thing to do. On all fours, I hop-crawled over, and hugged Oren. Like a drowning man, he hugged back as the tears flowed and flowed. "It's going to be all right," I said over and over, though I was far from sure that it would be all right at all.

The moment seemed to go on for an eternity, and then I got my friend moving towards the exit. It wasn't until he was walking that I realized just what kind of shape he was in. Oren's fur was dull and brittle, and skin-and-bones was too generous to describe his emaciated state. He staggered as he walked, as if walking was a great effort. Which perhaps it was, for a creature in his condition.

It was so sad. My happy, playful friend had become a poster-child for the scourge of clinical depression. Clearly, he needed to be hospitalized immediately. What a tragic mess! It was only by staying detached from the pathos all around me that I was able to keep on functioning myself. Eventually I half-dragged Oren out into the sunlight, though the unaccustomed brightness seemed to hurt his eyes. "Please," he was murmuring under his breath, too quietly for anyone without SCABS-enhanced hearing to detect. "Help. Please!" I didn't even think he realized what he was doing.

It was hard to free a forepaw from the otter's embrace, but eventually I was able to wave at Ken to get his attention, then indicate roughly where I thought Gornul was interred. Ken's partner Dan, whom I barely knew, most gently chivvied Oren and I into the back seat of the idling cruiser, keeping me safely away from marauding canines and Oren insulated from a reality that was probably going to be more than he could handle just then. He continued to cling to me tightly, sometimes subvocalizing little distress yips or more human cries of anguish.

In the distance, I could hear a shovel grinding into the sandy loam.

Eventually the digging stopped, and I could hear excited voices. They were too far away for me to be able to make out exact words, but it was clear that they had found Gornul. Oren must have heard and understood on some level too, as he began hugging me so hard I could not breathe. Desperately I writhed and kicked, actually drawing blood with my hindclaws before the otter understood and let me get some air. A panic reaction tried to set in, but I swallowed it down and pretended my friend was a snuggling mobmate. This worked, and we comforted each other until an endless time later the opening of the front door of the cruiser startled us both. As I looked up, Ken snaked his head in. "We've found him," the ostrich said. "Right where you thought. The doc is looking him over now. He wants to see you."

Uneasily, I disentangled myself from Oren, who began to whimper again but let me go without a fight. Since my legs were a still a bit stiff and sore from a too-long snuggling session. I hopped over to see the medical man on all fours. For some reason, I'm more comfortable being myself around doctors- perhaps it is because they are more understanding of my condition.

Dr. Williams was carefully scraping blue clay out of the ground and making a ball out of it. He looked tense, and the mud all over his white lab coat looked insanely out of place somehow. "You said you know this inanimorph personally?" he demanded, looking up.

"Yes, of course. Not very well though."

"Better than I do," Ken interjected.

This was probably true, I realized. "Yes."

"Then I need your help. Have you ever seen Gornul take on an alternate form?"

I thought a minute. "He's taken other clay shapes, but I have never seen anything other than that."

The doctor frowned. "That's bad. It means that he's probably limited to the one material. And soft clay is not very durable."

"No, it's not," Ken replied. But Gornul is an inanimorph, and inanimorphs are..."

"...dead," finished the doctor, "And therefore they cannot die again. However, limited ones like Gornul here CAN be damaged."

My ears went up in curiosity. Fortunately Dr, Williams understood. "The first inanimorph I ever treated was a plushie panda bear. For some reason plushies and clay shapes like Gornul here seem to be favored forms. This is part of why some people theorize that the psychological makeup of a victim has something to do with the form a SCAB takes sometimes. Anyway, this bear, named Theo, was a very limited inanimorph. His covering was of a fairly loose weave, and Theo was very fond of being handled roughly. The result was that he began to... deteriorate."

"But..." Ken tried to interject.

"Not ALL inanimorphs can change shape and heal themselves, Detective. Some are more limited in their ability than others. Most, in fact, CAN heal themselves by assimilating new materials slowly over time. But some cannot. Theo turned out to be one of the latter."

The doctor paused in his work for a moment, and sighed. "He came to me too late, really, though the eventual outcome would have eventually been the same regardless. That which cannot heal must decay over time. It's just the way of things. Theo had been out playing football in the rain, and gotten badly torn. Not knowing what else to do, he had a friend pin him up and climbed into a washing machine. He felt no pain, you see; some inanimorphs lose that ability. In the wash, the pins came out and most of his stuffing went down the drain.

"He was a sight when he came in, with grass stains still all over him, soaking wet, and blind panic in his voice. The poor guy was almost totally paralyzed. There was just enough stuffing left to fill his head, and when he tried to flow it elsewhere he could feel his mind vanishing."

Dr. Williams sighed. "We tried adding new stuffing, of course. But it turned out he couldn't assimilate it. Finally, we stuffed the rest of his body back up just to make him presentable, cleaned him up as best we could, and left him to live out his life as a quadriplegic stuffed bear. Eventually, of course, even with the minimum amount of wear and tear a seam will split, or his skin will wear through, or... Well, I have nightmares sometimes about all the things that could happen to Theo. And I thank God that I have already had the Flu long enough ago that I am probably safe from a similar fate."

There was silence for a bit. Then the doctor went back to digging. He continued for a long time before I finally asked a question. "What does this mean for Gornul?'

Dr. Williams didn't even pause in his work. "Usually, there's a sort of 'critical mass' phenomenon with plastic inanimorphs like your friend. As long as he keeps a certain percentage of himself intact and tightly bound together he will be OK. I'm hoping that your friend has just gotten too wet to move, and therefore only appears to have 'died'. It's been known to happen before.

"But you are breaking him up into little handfuls as you dig!" Ken protested.

"True. But you'll note that Gornul was spread out into a thin sheet. And then buried in moist ground where he could not dry. As I make him into a ball, I am squeezing the excess water out of him. And the ball itself is sitting on the sheet of clay, so that he stays intact except for the handful I am working at any given moment. It's the best that can be done for him."

I guess I'm a bit slow. For the first time I began to understand. "You mean there's hope?" I asked?

Ken and the doctor both looked at me strangely. "With inanimorphs there's ALWAYS hope," Dr. Williams finally replied with a smile.

The digging went on for a long time, as every possible scrap of Gornul needed to be recovered. From time to time, I hopped back to check on Oren, but he never even moved. Dan-Man suggested taking him straight to the hospital, but I wanted the otter to be on the spot if Gornul recovered.

Sometimes I'm not very professional, I know, but my methods often work.

Eventually, we got a lump of clay about half the mass of Gornul's usual self. But it was just a lump of blue clay, and no more. At Dr. William's request, I begged and pleaded with the ball, but it remained...Dead. Inert. Lifeless. The hope swelling in my breast began to die back, and subconsciously I started thinking about trying to find the poor little clay dragon's family in order to break the bad news to them.

Then I had an idea.

"Dr. Williams," I suggested, "You said it was important that inanimorphs have a familiar voice to respond to, right?"

"Of course. It's amazing how often they become active only when stimulated by someone they care deeply about."

"Well... I didn't dislike Gornul, or anything like that. But we weren't exactly close, either, if you know what I mean. But his best friend that I know of in the world is back in the police car."

"He's pretty out of it," Williams replied sharply. "Do you think he can function?"

"Frankly, I replied, "I'm not sure. But I do not give much for his chances of a good recovery unless we can save poor Gornul. And besides, what can it hurt? At worst, he will go into shock again."

"Maybe we should pack Gornul up and take him back to a real hospital," Dan-Man interjected. "I mean, then we can get Oren straightened out a little bit before he has to face..."

"No!" Williams interjected. "Look, I got as much of Gornul out of the ground as I could. As much as anyone could, I'm sure. I've done this before. But he's what, about half his previous size according to your best memories? Much of the rest of him is laying all around us in tiny microscopic bits, and the closer we are to having him all in one place the better his chances. I want to do this right now, before it rains again."

Dan pursed his lips, and remained quiet. Taking this as assent, I hopped back to the car and waited. And presently, Dan opened the door for me.

"Oren," I said quietly. "Oren. Can you hear me?"

The otter opened his eyes. He seemed to be a long way off.

A person who is disturbed often responds best to hearing their name, so I used it a lot. "Oren, I need you do something for me. Can you do something for me, Oren?"

My otter friend had always been enthusiastically helpful. He cocked his head a bit, interested despite himself.

"Oren, Gornul may not be dead. Do you understand that, Oren?'

Dreamily, he nodded. "Gornul can't be dead." He stated it as a fact, which rather bothered me. If Gornul WAS in fact dead, that attitude did not bode well for recovery. But now was not the moment to argue.

"Oren, I need you to go talk to Gornul. He's in a ball shape over by your hole. Can you do that, Oren?"

Instead of replying, my friend began getting out of the car. It was slow and painful to watch, he was so weak. Then, leaning on me heavily, he began to make his way over to the ball of dead earth that had once been our friend. When we got there, the otter looked at me as if I were crazy.

"Gornul isn't here," he said simply.

"Yes he is, Oren," I replied patiently. "That ball is Gornul."

Oren shook his head, and smiled. "That's not Gornul," he replied with dreamy certainty. "That's just a ball of clay. I'll call Gornul for you." And he turned his eyes heavenwards.

"Gornul!" he called in a childlike voice. "Gornul, come back! I'm sorry about what happened. It was an accident, you know that. Come back Gornul! It's not time for you to go yet!"

And the clay ball stirred a little.

"Gornul!" Oren called out again, smiling innocently. "You're back! I'm so glad!"

Slowly, and perhaps a bit hesitantly, the blue clay took it's familiar dragon shape, albeit half-sized, and spoke. "Oren?" It asked. "What... I mean where... How..."

But regardless of how Gornul might phrase the question, no one was ever able to answer it. And despite our greatest efforts, we could never get Oren to remember those few minutes when he seemingly called a soul back from the dead.

Or if he does, he won't admit it.


It's a bizarre thing, but I've always liked hospitals. I probably shouldn't, I know. It was the doctors who worked in places like this who had filled me up with almost random medicines as a kid and screwed up my body chemistry so badly that only SCABS could make me normal again. (Isn't that an oxymoron?)

And yet I have never felt anything but comfortable in hospitals. Hospitals are where you go when you have a problem with your body. There, the doctors and nurses feed you and take care of you. They put you in a nice warm bed and talk to you in nice, soothing tones. They fix whatever's wrong with you, doing their best to insure as little pain as possible.

Hospitals are happy places for me, like a mother's lap.

But this was different.

I had no right to be here. For one thing, this was not a free stay as with the army hospitals in my youth. I was draining money out of somebody's pocket by being here.

I had hoped to wait out my final days in the privacy of my own den. There, I would not be a bother to anyone. Now, despite the clean, well lit room with the comfy bed that exuded the smell of clean linen, despite the kindly ministrations of the staff, despite all the comforts I could ask for, I was miserable.

I shouldn't even be alive. Had Phil left me where I was, I would be dead already. It was wrong for me to go on living.

Of course, because he had come, Gornul was alive. I laughed for joy at that. My friend was alive!

But because of me, he was the size of a child. He was also here in the hospital. The doctors were busily analyzing "tissue" samples to see if they could re-create his chemical composition artificially and give him "food" that he could assimilate in order to resume his natural size.

I hadn't killed Gornul, but I had cost him a lot. It was only one of many things which showed what a loser, failure, and a pathetic excuse for a man I was.

I noticed that I had been given an IV. Presumably, they were feeding me intravenously. In anger, I pulled the tube from my hand. Blood flowed freely from the hole which I had created. I thought for a moment about shifting forms in order to speed the wound closed, but I decided against it. Let the blood go. It was what I deserved.

I blacked out quickly.

When I awoke, I was in a clean, new bed. I was fairly comfortable, except for the fact that My paw was now encased in a rather tight plaster cast so that I would be unable to remove the new IV that snaked down through the plaster.

"That was a rather foolish thing you did, Mister Verden." said a nurse who was adjusting the drip on the nutrient solution. "Not to mention messy. The janitor nearly had a coronary when he saw all the blood that he had to clean up."

I knew that it was meant as a joke, but I did not laugh. I merely rolled away from her.

The nurse laid her hand on my side. "I understand that you're interested in unusual SCABS cases, Eric." she said softly.

"Oren." I said.

"Excuse me?"

"I never go by 'Eric'. Only my Dad calls me that."

"I'm sorry. I'll put that on your records, Oren. Anyway, there's a man on the next floor who has a most unusual case. He's perfectly normal, except that he's only three inches high."

I began to cry. The memory of what I had done to Gornul flooded my mind afresh. I couldn't take it. I cried myself into unconsciousness......

"Can he hear us?" a voice said.

"He can, I'm sure, but he hasn't acknowledged anyone for some time now."

"Oren?" said the first voice. "Oren, it's me, Phil."

I twitched the end of my tail in acknowledgment.

"Oren, the doctors are getting worried. They say that you're not getting the nutrients they're putting into your blood."

"Oh, he's getting them." said one of the doctors. "The problem is that they're getting shipped off to whatever never- never land mass goes to when SCABs morph. Oren, here, won't get any better until he wants to."

Phil went with the doctors (I think there were two) into the next room. I don't think that they knew I could overhear. "Doctors, would there be any problem with me... staying here overnight?"

"We do have a rather strict visitors policy."

"I know, but I am Oren's councilor, and besides that, he's in danger of starving to death. Surely there can't be any harm done."

"I'll clear it with the guys upstairs." said another doctor. "I'm sure that we can get them to bend the rules in this case."

That clued me in to the fact that I was not in my regular hospital. This was not the one where Bob and Bryan worked.

"I understand that you're a rather busy ...man, Mr. Geusz. It's unlikely that he'll become any better overnight. Unless you're planning to move your office in here, I just don't see the point."

A bit of emotion leaked into Phil's voice as he said "Oren is more than just my client. He's my friend. I have to at least try something."

"As you wish. I'll arrange for meals to be brought to you. If you can get him to eat something, we'll be indebted to you."

"Thank you, Doctor Phillip."

There were no more voices for awhile. The next thing I knew, there was a warm, furry mass next to me.

"Oren?" he whispered. "I'm going to stay the night with you, okay?"

"Okay." I replied, weakly.

"Oh, Oren, it tears me up to see you doing this to yourself. Please pull through, Otter!"

Phil didn't sound like himself. He wasn't acting like himself. I realized then what was happening. He couldn't hide his emotions behind his professional demeanor any longer. He was as torn up inside as he claimed.

He really did care if I lived or died. If I died, I would hurt him. I would hurt him terribly, causing him the same kind of grief I felt when I lost Gornul. If I lived, he would be happy.

All right, then. This one thing I could do right. I would live. For Phil.

Slowly, I turned over, embracing my friend softly with my body.

"Phil?" I said, weakly.

"Yes, Oren?"

"I'm gonna live."

Phil smiled with his ears. "That's wonderful." he whispered.

"So..."

"Yes?"

"Can you make them take this cast off my hand?"


I sighed and rolled over. "Snuggle" work with a non-lapine or rodent male is usually a bit awkward for me, though I try to hide it. Snuggling is a social function among we big-front-teeth types, not a sexual one. Getting so close to someone outside the family, so to speak, is a bit of a strain. Call me old-fashioned, but I was always afraid people wouldn't understand. But success is success. The otter was talking again, which was good. He had said he wanted to live, which was wonderful. And now he expected people to take his cast off right away, which was just SO Oren...

But what to say? That was always the question for a counselor, and for a friend. You could only listen sympathetically so long, and then you must offer advice, take a stand, risk the trust you had built over months or even years. And no matter how long I stayed in this business, I knew that I would never get over my fear of saying the wrong thing and destroying someone.

Would it happen this evening? Ice gripped my belly, but I licked my lips, took a moment to scratch behind my left ear, then bravely plunged in right up to my neck.

"Oren," I said carefully, "That cast is not coming off anytime soon. And deep down, you know why."

He just looked at me.

"You're not stupid," I continued. "Think things through a bit. Use your brain. How many weeks have you been seriously depressed? Clinically depressed?"

"I..." the otter began to sputter in denial, but he cut himself off.

"You DO understand then, I see. But how long has it been?"

There was a lengthy silence. "I don't know," my friend finally whispered. "I covered it with joy and jollity and fun-making, but the pain has always been waiting underneath, just below the surface."

"Umm-hmm," I agreed. "Things could never have gone South so quickly for you unless the basic problems were already in place. Right?"

"I guess," he agreed reluctantly.

"And they will go South again unless you deal with the underlying serious issues of your life. Oren, fun and games are GREAT distractions, but in the end you have to look in the mirror in the morning and like who you see, regardless of whether the reflection has fur or not. This is a truth that goes beyond SCABS. And so do your problems. Don't they?"

In response, Oren curled up into a little ball and began whimpering. I'd hit paydirt, all right. For a time we just laid there while I stroked Oren's fur as if he were a fellow lapine. Eventually he relaxed some, and I began again.

"What makes a man a failure, Oren?" I asked.

Instantly he tensed back up again, and whimpered. But I went on, as if I hadn't noticed. "There's a lot more ways to fail than to succeed, I suppose. Maybe we should look at things from the positive side instead.

"Let's see, the first thing most folks think of is money. Does money all by itself make a man successful, Oren? Deep-down successful?"

He ignored the question. It was rhetorical, of course. Many rich men lived miserable lives.

"How about fame, then, if not fortune? Are Hollywood stars successful? Does being famous make them happy?"

Oren snorted at that. The suicide rate in Tinsel Town was legendary.

"Well, then. The two things that most of the human race spends most of it's time and energy chasing do not make one successful. That being the case, we're right back to our original question. What makes a man successful? Respected? Admired? At peace with himself?"

I paused a bit for effect, then went on. "Do you want to know who the most successful person I know is?"

Otters are naturally curious. "Who? Dr. Stein?"

"Nope. Care to try again?"

"Well then... Bix, perhaps. Or Chef Anton."

"Wrong on both counts. Though both ARE successful, the person I have in mind eclipses them both quite handily."

"Well... Who?"

"Donnie, of course."

"Donnie? Barkeep Donnie?"

"The very one."

Oren waited a long time for me to speak again, but I would not. Eventually, he did. "I just don't understand your definition of success, I guess."

"Sure you do. Everyone does, but few admit it. And even fewer base their lives on it. Donnie is the wealthiest man I have ever met, in the only currency that counts. Which is friendship. And he came by those friendships through the only road to success that can ever really matter. He earned them."

Oren stayed silent, so I went on.

"I mean, look at Donnie the man and what do you see? Someone who is unselfish, caring, and genuinely concerned about others. He's not rich, and outside his own little circle he is not well-known at all. But those who DO know him respect Donnie above all others."

Oren chirred a bit in thought.

"And make no mistake, Donnie cannot help but know this and take quiet pride in it. He would not be human if he didn't. This healthy pride makes him more unselfish, caring, and concerned still. It's one of the little miracles of life that true greatness feeds back upon itself to reach greater heights still."

I sighed. "Oren, you really ARE a decent sort, you know. Whether you'll admit it to yourself or not. But you have no self-confidence, no healthy self-love. How can I get across to you that WHO you are is far more important than how rich you are, or how famous, or how many comic books you write? And how can I make you realize that you ought to be proud, not ashamed, to be Oren?'

My friend was silent, and I knew I was in for a long night's work...


I hadn't been entirely serious when I asked for the cast off, even though I would have been glad of it. Still, the fact that Phil answered me seriously, leading into his speech on the measures of success, was fortuitous. It had gotten me thinking.

I suppose I had always known these things to be true, but I had forgotten them at the most important juncture.

There were friends in my life. There were lots of friends in my life. Did I have their respect and admiration, though? No. They liked me, surely enough, but to them, I was exactly what I projected: a naive child who can't get serious about anything. I'd done nothing to earn their respect.

This would change....

Phil and I were both up before dawn. For him, it was because it was natural. For me, it was because I was eager to start my new resolution. The first thing I did was to continue the philosophy discussion from last night. We discussed the pursuit of happiness, the nature of mankind, the secrets of dealing with pain and a gaggle of other issues, all at my own initiation. I knew I was showing myself to be ignorant and naive, but at the same time, I was showing myself willing to learn. That would be step number one.

When breakfast came for Phil, I asked the orderly to bring me one as well. "A big one!" I told him. "I'm really hungry!"

"Sure thing." said the orderly. Anything in particular?"

"Would you happen to have any mooneye? Or sucker? Gar? Red-horse?"

Both the orderly and Phil stared at me. I turned to Phil and said "I'm still gonna learn to eat those things."

"I'll see what I can find." said the orderly.

"You are incorrigible." said the rabbit as he tousled my head fur.

"You mean encourageable." I responded with equal playfulness. "I'm gonna be a can-do otter from now on."

Phil smiled apprehensively, as though the suddenness of my change in attitude caused him to doubt my truthfulness.

Breakfast arrived soon: a tray of hot biscuits and gravy with fish sticks on the side. It smelled delicious! Gornul arrived shortly afterward. He was still extremely small, and clutched a bag in one hand.

"Hey there Otter!" he beamed.

"Hi, Gorn." I responded, a little melancholy at seeing him so small once again. "How you feeling?"

"I feel great! Wait 'til you hear what the doctors told me..."

"What?"

"My body is only absorbing new materials from organic matter, and from that, only about ten percent gets absorbed."

"Gee, I'm sorry. Gorn..."

"Don't be! Because you know what? I can eat! From the bag he took a donut and popped it into his mouth. "As long as I don't mold myself into anything within six hours of gnoshing goodies, I'm good to go!"

I smiled. Gornul had always wanted to be able to eat. Perhaps some good had come out of this, after all.

The three of us sat and just talked for hours, until eleven o'clock came around and visiting hours began.

The first bunch of visitors was a most pleasant surprise. It was my family. My happiness quickly gave way to fear, though, as I began to wonder what they must think of me.

They never mentioned my going wild, strangely enough. The biggest question was whether I was coming home for Thanksgiving. At last, I had to bring it up.

"Dad... Mom... I'm sorry I let you down by going wild."

My parents exchanged glances. "Who said you let us down?" Mom asked.

"Well..."

"Son," said Dad, putting his wingtip on my shoulder. "There's nothing wrong with living in a burrow if that's what you want to do. The rent is certainly cheaper. Our only concern is that you not give up the things you love, like your writing."

"You are a GOOD writer." said Felice.

My head went down at that. "I haven't sold anything in seven months." I said.

"Not true!" said a voice from the doorway. It was Jesse! "It just so happens" said the kangaroo. "That while you were on your camping trip, two of your works sold! Zimmerman Publishing is going to do "Venus Blue" and "In Real Life".

"In Real Life?" Elvin echoed. "The one about the computer nerd who wants to be a SCAB?"

"That's the one!"

"Jesse?" I said. "How did you happen to know about that?"

"I've been monitoring your E-mail. Just the commercial stuff, of course, nothing personal. I used the passwords on Rover."

"You fixed Rover?"

"Sort of. More like rebuilt. I put in a GPP card."

"You didn't."

"Hey, he's way smarter now! No more illegal operation shutdowns! Only how he's got a weird sense of humor.'

I never expected the person who came in next. It was a certain bear with whom I had been forced to work on certain comics. To say that we didn't get along would be understating things. Fact is, we couldn't stand each other. What was he doing here?

"Hey, ya little water rat." the bear jibed. "I heard you were here in the hospital, so I came to tell ya to get better." He handed me a bouquet of flowers with a sour look on his face. "Thanks, Bear." I said. "That's the least nauseous thing you've ever done for me.

"You, well don't go spreading it around. Oh, and you might want to know that Reliant Comics is planning to ask you to take over 'Street Weasels' again."

"Street weasels? The one that got canceled?"

"Seems like it was pretty popular with the mustie crowd. They raised a ruckus when it got canceled, especially since it was being written by an otter."

"Wow."

The next person in was a face I knew to be more friendly. "S... Mr. Batran!"

"Hey, Kiddo. How are you feeling?"

"Better."

"I brought you a bottle of Clamato. Thought it might cheer you up."

"Thanks!"

And by the way... Jesse gave me a copy of one of your books to read. It was the one about the Salem Witch Trials and the animal people."

"Did you like it?"

"Like it? I feel like I should be bowing and saying 'I'm not worthy!' Let me tell you something. Don't ever give up your writing career again."

"Yes, Sir."

The rest of the day went like that. People arrived left and right to wish me well.

So many people... so many lives that would have been diminished had I let myself slip away.

When eight O'clock came around, Phil excused himself with the others. I'd be lonely tonight, but not depressed. I could survive the night alone.

On the nightstand beside me were dozens of tangible symbols of just how successful I really was. Balloons, flowers, cards, pictures, care packages, plush toys... This was, as Phil had said, what true success was.

In fact, the least important thing to me was the two-thousand dollar check for my two novels....

When I finally got out of the hospital, I did a fair amount of shopping with that check. The first thing I did was to but a small but fast motor scooter. With my scooter full of my recent purchases, I returned to the lake. The first thing I did was to install lights on my "no trapping" signs. I placed a mailbox next to my den. The surface of it was actually a solar panel, which I hooked up to an outlet inside the burrow. It would be enough to run rover, which was really all I needed. A small glass window I installed facing the cabin. It would be nice to look out and see my neighbors when they came out this way in the summer. Or perhaps they would rent it to someone else like they did to me this previous summer? I hoped so. I'd like having neighbors.

For the patch of scarred Earth where Gornul had been buried, a flower garden seemed just the thing. I placed an assortment of seeds and bulbs in the ground, which are doing very nicely today. I also planted a few simple vegetables, like peppers and onions. After all, eating nothing but fish all day every day can get a little boring.

To my delight, I discovered that the bedroom I could not sleep in was just the right size to hold my care packages and cards. The balloons, flowers, toys and pictures I used to decorate the main room. I discovered that things that remind you of those who love you are much more fun to stare at than dirt walls.

When I had finished all of my work, I thought of how nice it would be to snuggle down in between my seaweed blankets in front of a roaring fire, but I didn't.

Instead, I hopped on my scooter and headed down to the Blind Pig Gin Mill.


"Surprise!" I called out with the rest of the crowd as our otter friend stepped through the door. It was his first appearance at the Pig since being released from the hospital, and setting up all the decorations and such had been a true miracle of non-organization. One or the other of us had kept watch on Oren from afar for several days, both to make sure he was truly back on his feet and to phone in as soon as the musteline headed for town. The Pig, we reasoned, would be his first destination. And we were proven correct.

The look on Oren's face made all our work and patience worthwhile. For just a second, he was so shocked that he began to revert to human form. But just in time to preserve his modesty the otter caught himself and regrew his fur. Not before we saw him blush, however...

The party got noisy and rowdy pretty quickly, and became a bit uncomfortable for a quiet type like me. But fortunately Clover had intelligently saved me a seat next to her in my favorite quiet corner. From there we watched the proceedings at a safe distance, and got a good view of Oren bravely trying to swallow the whole uncleaned carp that I had specially ordered from a local fish dealer for him to try. Briefly I debated with myself whether or not to tell him about the cod liver oil Clover had soaked it in overnight, but in the end I decided to leave well enough alone. He seemed so proud of himself for getting the whole thing down without gagging. Or at least without gagging very much...

Eventually I sought out Clover's hand, and we snuggled a bit there in the back of the Pig. It was a nice snuggle, but my mind was elsewhere. I couldn't help but contrast the lively, excited and happy Oren that was eagerly bouncing about with Gornul in a healthily otterlike fashion with the poor starving, tortured creature that I had dragged out into the sunlight just a few weeks ago. Even as I watched Oren chittered and laughed at the antics of the friend he had buried and given up for dead. It was beautiful to see.

"Clover," I asked dreamily, "Did I tell you about how Oren brought Gornul back?"

"Only about a thousand times," she replied.

I laughed. "Sorry about that. But it was just so... miraculous. And he still claims not to remember anything that happened that day. To be there was so... special."

"Hmm..." Clover thought for a moment, and then went on. "That's two miracles, then."

"Two miracles?"

"Of course, Phil. Don't you consider Oren getting his soul back and becoming his happy self once again to be every bit as miraculous as what happened to Gornul?"

I thought about this a while, feeling warm and content in Clover's embrace. Then I squeezed her a bit, and nibbled teasingly at the back of her neck.

"Make that three miracles," I whispered in her ear.

Just then, Donnie walked up, diplomatically making a bit of noise so as to not to catch the two of us unawares. "That was some fish you gave Oren," he signed. "I bet it will be a long time before he goes after one of THOSE!"

Heather giggled, and I rocked my ears in silent merriment. "He IS quite the fisherman," Clover commented.

"But not as good as Donnie," I said. Both my companions looked confused.

"Come on, guys," I said. "Are both of you going to play dumb on me?"

Apparently they weren't just playing, because their expressions got blanker still. I shook my head.

"Geez! I'm not the religious sort myself, Donnie, but if you are not the greatest fisher of souls I have ever known, then I'm a stuffed splotchypine."

The barkeep just looked down at his feet for a moment, then walked quietly away.

"You embarrassed him!" Clover whispered urgently, once Donnie was out of earshot. .

"Maybe." I replied. "Or maybe not. Deep down I think he knows the truth when he hears it."

We snuggled a bit more then, both of us watching the big bovine make his rounds and ensure that each and every one of his guests was well taken care of. Always he seemed on the fringes of the crowd, never staying in any one place very long. Unless he was needed. Then he had all the time in the world for whoever was hurting or unhappy.

"You know what?" Clover asked presently.

"What, sweet and juicy?'

"I don't believe anyone's ever given a party for Donnie."

I sniffed in surprise at that. "You know, you're right! And no one deserves a party more, either. Someone's going to have to get to work on that someday..."

And then Clover smiled, and playfully tugged at one of my whiskers. "Just so long as someday is tomorrow, Someone..."

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