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Hard Times
by Doug Linger
Doug Linger -- all rights reserved

By Doug Linger

It started in the middle of class.

I didn't notice anything wrong at first. The kids were whispering a little more than usual, and if they kept it up I might have to do something. But I was writing on the board, and so let them whisper. I looked back to check what I had written, and couldn't. Strange. Usually my handwriting was better.

That's when I noticed I was standing on my toes. I hadn't intended to, and when I tried to return to flat-footedness I fell on my ass. It hurt more than it should have; feeling through (not into, this is in class!) my pants, I could feel a tail beginning to grow.

The children were laughing now, at my fall. It's not every day your teacher puts on such a fun show.

Meanwhile, my hand was beginning to alter. I watched as the fingers shortened and my fingernails became claws. Red and gray fur was sprouting all over, uncomfortable under my clothing. I tried to speak to the class, to tell them to calm down, to get help, but found I couldn't as my face began to distort. My nose merged with my mouth and pushed out, out, out, until I could focus on its end, which had become wet and black.

I could speak again, but it was just yips and barks. The kids were calling me Wiley or for the less educated Pooch. I had to find help!

I ran -- on all fours -- to the door. Just as I got there the principal walked in. The kids got much quieter. "What's all this noise? Where's Mr. Linger?" He noticed me try to get past him and into the hall. "What the...? What did you do to the mascot?" he demanded of the class.

He didn't even wait for an answer. He pulled a leash from a pocket and deftly got it around my neck. "We'll do something about this later," he told the class. Then he dragged me out to the hall. "Now, let's get those stupid clothes off you and get you back to the kennel. It's feeding time. You love your Alpo, right boy?"


I awoke with a scream. A yowl, really. It was my usual type of waking from nightmares. I'd been having more of those lately.

And no wonder. I looked at myself in the midmorning light. I was about the size of a large dog. I was covered in red and gray fur. I had a snout. I had paws and claws. I had a tail.

I was a coyote.

I was a Scab.

SCABS: Stein's something-something Syndrome. The result, for some people, of contracting the Martian Flu. I got it five months ago. The transformation in my dream was the result.

Oh, there were differences between nightmare and reality; that's what makes them nightmares, after all. The transformation had taken days, not minutes, and had occurred in the safe semi-anonymity of a hospital instead of in front of a crowd of leering pubescents. And of course I hadn't been taken away to be fed Alpo.

Given my current finances, though, I'd be eating dog food soon enough.

My financial problems had begun the day I got back from the hospital. No, wait, before that. Understand, I had transformed all the way to animal form. Most people retain some semblance of humanity; I hadn't. Coyote mouths weren't designed for speech, so neither was I. I had to buy a voder. I bought a new model, didn't need typing at all, which was good since I couldn't type anymore. It had a sensor that rested against the neck; I could subvocalize (read: yip and bark really really softly) and it would translate. One type of true sound for each labial sound, all forty or so. Took me a month to learn how to use it right, and it still gives me trouble if I get too emotional. It had cost five grand, but I had gladly paid it; it was better than being mute. This was before I found out my insurance wouldn't cover it.

But it was as I came home from the hospital that events truly started their spiral downwards. My landlord rounded the corner, tripping over me as I tried to open my apartment's door (it wasn't working; my teeth couldn't get a grip on the metal knob). He quickly got up a little ways away from me. I got a bad feeling as I noticed he was further away than mere politeness would need.

"Doug! Glad I found you!" He didn't smell glad. He smelled disgusted. And eager.

"I?"

He squinted suspiciously at me. "What?"

I struggled to make the proper sounds (The month of learning was hardly over). "Why?"

"Oh. Well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to raise your rent."

The bad feeling intensified. "How much?"

He looked smug. He ~i~smelled~i~ smug. "About fifty percent."

"Ut! I?" I shouted through my voder, losing control again.

More smugsmell. "Well, think about it. You're going to need to refit your apartment. I'll have to change it back when you leave." Not ~i~if~i~ I leave, I noticed, ~i~when.~i~ I didn't bother asking who would pay for the first conversion; the answer was too obvious. "And being a Scab, well, some people are understandably nervous about getting it. They might move, and I'd lose their rent."

This was utter bull, very badly disguised. I felt sick. You hear about SCABS discrimination, but if you're not a SCAB and not discriminating you generally ignore it. Or at least I had. Now a big basketful had landed right on my doorstep and had come home to roost. Or some such.

I tried to ask him if anyone had actually left, or even threatened to, but it came out something like, "Disk benny fuh say day were gumma cheeb?" I was still trying to remember which sound went to which sound, and combined with poor enunciation due to being so angry, well...

After a few back-and-forths in the "conversation", my landlord said before leaving, "You're doing this on purpose. You're rent is up. Period."

That night my boss called. He was real nice sounding, but what he told me, essentially, was that I was fired. Can't have a Scab around our kiddies, what would people ~i~do?~i~ Right. Not that I could have worked anyway, when I couldn't hold book or chalk. But still...

Those were the big things. Over the intervening time there was lots of little ones: car insurance (which I actually was stupid enough to pay, before I remembered I could no longer drive), credit cards, food. Modifications to the apartment so I could live there, but only minor ones so that bastard landlord wouldn't kick me out.

Since I was fired I had been trying to get a new job. I quickly found there wasn't much for someone like myself. I got chased out of a lot of places, once with things being thrown at me as I left. This wasn't the most Scabs-friendly town there is. But it wasn't just deiscrimination. There were places that would tolerate a Scab employee, some that even welcomed them. But a Scab with no voice, no hands, walking quadrupedally, there weren't very many openings for. No openings, actually, not in any job I'd want to work in.

So now it was down to this.

I got up from my bed: a pile of blankets. I had sold my real bed to help pay rent, and besides, my claws were threatening to make the mattress tear. I walked over to the refrigerator; it was one of the few pieces of furniture left in the apartment, the others being sold for reasons similar to that of my bed. The fridge opened when I stepped on a pedal. Inside was exactly what I remembered putting in there last night: nothing.

I was dead broke and hungry. A bad combination.

One or both would have to be fixed. Preferably both. The latter was more important though. I had to get some food. Options rolled quickly through my mind. Rooting through the garbage was almost the only one that wasn't illegal, though, and that just didn't have much appeal. There was begging, of course, but it was well known that Scabs get next to nothing as beggars.

I sighed. There was a third legal option. I wasn't looking forward to it, but it was more appetizing, literally, than garbage or begging. There was a homeless shelter not to far from here, where they gave out free meals. I wasn't homeless, yet, but I could sure use the meal.

A short while later I was looking at the sign above the door. "West Street Shelter Always open Everyone welcome". Someone should teach these guys about capitalization. I hoped "everyone" was what it sounded like. A lot of shelters don't like Scabs any more than my landlord.

Apparently I was in luck, this once. Despite the crappy neighborhood, this place looked clean. And it obviously did take Scabs, since there were half a dozen eating lunch. I got in line and got myself soup and what smelled like a BLT; one of the other guys there bought it to my table for me.

I was halfway through the soup when I heard a voice nearby. "You're new here, right?"

I raised my muzzle from the bowl -- I can't use silverware, which is damned annoying -- and looked at the speaker. It was a medium-large middle-aged man, wearing glasses and carrying a large bag. With the exception of his hair, which looked odd in a way I couldn't place, he looked all right, although he smelled strange (That's the one thing I like about SCABS, the new senses).

"Yes," I said noncommittally. The voder can convey tone and even a little emotion, with practice. It's nowhere near as good as actual speech, but it's better than writing, in most cases.

"I see. Well, I'm Dr. Coe." He held out a hand, which I placed my paw in automatically. He did a quick, loosely-gripped shake, like with a dog, and continued. "And it's time to get your eyes checked."

"Excuse me?" I retrieved my paw.

"I'm an optometrist. Once or twice a week I come here and do free eye checks. Most people here can't afford a real appointment. And if Mohammed won't come to the mountain..."

"Bring the mountain to Mohammed," I finished. "Even to Scabs?"

"Scabs have eyes too. Most of them, anyway. And don't look so shocked, I don't mind Scabs. Heck, I am one." With that he pointed to his ears, and I noticed for the first time that they were furry and a little higher on the head than a human's. "Raccoon," he said, answering my unspoken question.

"That explains the smell." I filed it away in my mind; never know when I might need to know what raccoon smells like. "Go ahead."

"Great." He pulled an instrument out of the bag. "Now open wide...your ~i~eyes,~i~ stupid..."

A few minutes later he put his stuff back in the bag. "Well, your eyes are pretty good, for your species, and there's no disease."

"Thanks. I wish I could pay you for this." It was true, too. While I never turn down free stuff when it's offered, it was somehow different when you ~i~needed~i~ free stuff.

"Don't worry about it." My face must have betrayed something, because he reached into a pocket and withdrew a business card. "If you really feel that strongly though, come to my shop when you get back on your feet."

I looked intently on the card, trying to memorize the phone number and address. Dr. Coe, though, thought I was doing something else. "You don't want my card?"

A wave of anger washed over me suddenly. "Yes, I want your card! But how the fuck am I supposed to hold it, you moron?!" Conversation in the shelter stopped. I knew even as I was yelling that this was wrong, but didn't care. I was remembering all the crap that I'd taken the last few months. This was the straw that broke the coyote's back. Dr. Coe had a stunned expression as I hurriedly left the shelter.

The fresh air outside restored some measure of sanity. I didn't go back in, I just started thinking again. ~i~Nice going, Doug. You probably just got yourself banned from the nearest food source.~i~ And I knew Dr. Coe certainly hadn't deserved what I'd given him.

I was half a block away, mentally kicking myself as I walked, when I heard footseteps behind me, running. I looked back to see Dr. Coe. His face was a little more animalistic than before, now bearing the characteristic bandit's mask. "Wait!" he yelled.

"Look," I said, once he had caught up, "I'm sorry about that."

"Do you want to come back inside and talk about it?"

"You give out free psychological exams as well?"

He smiled. "Now there's an idea. But no. You look like someone who needs to talk is all. I've got time; you were my last patient there."

I considered. Going back in there would mean facing all those people who I'd just embarrassed myself in front of. On the other hand, I'd already swallowed my pride and went there once, and I really did want to talk. "All right."

We went back to the shelter and sat at the table I had vacated earlier. His medical bag was still on the table, as was my half-eaten lunch. "So what's on your mind?" I asked.

"I was more interested in what's on yours."

I sighed. "I guess it's just, you know, this." I indicated my body.

"SCABS."

"Yeah. I mean, how do people live like this? How can I live like this?"

His expression quickly went from one of listening neutrality to one of immense concern. "Are you thinking of suicide?" he asked bluntly.

"Not really." He visibly relaxed at that. "But really, what can I do with myself now?"

"Lots of places are willing to employ Scabs--"

"You're not getting it. Look at me. What do you see?"

"A coyote, I think. You are a coyote right?"

"Yes. A coyote. Not a Scab with coyote features. Not an anthropomorphised coyote. No, you see a coyote. Tell, me, what do coyotes do for income? Do you know anyone willing to hire someone who can't handle merchandise?"

"You can't make yourself any more human at all?"

"No. What you see is what you get. I can't do any of the thousands of things you take for granted. Typing, driving, writing, eating with a fork...opening doors is a major problem for chrissakes." He nodded; he'd had to open the door to the shelter to let me in.

"I...see." He sat there thinking for a while. Several minutes. "I'll see what I can do about this."

"Don't bother." Despite my efforts it came out of the voder sounding bitter. "I've thought about it a lot longer than you just did. I can't think of a single occupation that doesn't need hands, or a believable sounding voice, or both."

"There's always the police."

"As what? The dog in the K-9 units? No thanks. I have a mind, and I refuse to pretend otherwise. Same thing goes for loved pet, dog food commercials," my dream flashed into my mind for an instant, and I shuddered, "and other stuff like that."

"Well, as I said, I'll see what I can do. Where can I reach you? And for that matter, what's your name?"

I told him my name, then, "You'll probably be able to find me here at food times. I have an apartment, until the next rent is due anyway, but no phone."

"Right." He made to leave, then stopped. "Uh, I just realized, I'll need to know what you did before SCABS, if I'm to help you."

"Born in '00. Have a BS in Geology and I minored in English. I have a teaching certificate, and I used to teach junior high science. Anything more?"

"I think that'll do for starters. Thanks."

"Thanks yourself."

I went back to my meal, not caring that it had long since grown cold. This had put me in a decent mood for the first time in weeks.

Over the next few days I looked for a new apartment. If I was going to get money, then I didn't intend to pay my current landlord any of it. If I didn't get any money, then I was just wearing myself out (I'd say "wasting time" except I had plenty of that). I actually found a couple places that not only would accept Scabs, but were actually cheaper!

Maybe my luck was finally turning.

Or maybe not. The days went on, with no good news from the doctor. I saw him several times at the shelter, giving exams to people he didn't recognize or knew had been without for a while. The one time I actually asked, he said he was still looking, and had told my problem to a few friends of his as well.

After two weeks I had just about given up hope of staying in an apartment at all. In another few days rent would be due, and my landlord had said, and I quote, "If you don't pay up on the first your hairy ass will be out on the street on the second." Fun guy, ain't he?

I was eating dinner one Sunday, only a few days before time ran out, when I felt someone looking at me. I looked up, and a deer morph, who had just come in, was looking at me intently. I had seen him around once or twice, as one of the people who give out food and sometimes talking to the woman who runs this place. It was weird, though, him singling me out like that. It was also ironic, the coyote being unnerved by the deer.

He walked up to my table, clopping on his hind hooves. "Hello, I'm Jon. Are you Doug?" he asked.

"Uh, yeah. Why?" His huge ears flicked a bit as I talked. I guess he could actually hear my subvocalization, with those things.

"I'm a friend of Brian's." At my blank look he added, "Dr. Coe."

"Oh!" Hope returned in a rush. "You have a job for me?"

"Well, maybe. You'll still need to apply, and show you can do the job well."

"No problem," I said cheerfully. "I'd be glad to try out. What's the job?"

"Well, there may be a position opening up at the newspaper I work at. Depends on if we can find a good enough writer to replace him."

I held up a paw for him to see. He saw. "I can't type, or hold a pencil."

"You can still have the job. But I'll need to borrow your voder for a day or two."

I stared at Jon. "Do you realize what this thing means to me? It's my link to humanity!"

The deer looked uncomfortable. Well, good, this was an awful lot he was asking for. I was having flashbacks of my days in the hospital. There were a few days between the last bits of my metamorphosis, and the arrival of my voder in the mail. Answering the doctors' questions had been a combination of charades and twenty questions. Asking questions of my own had been impossible. It was barely easier during the next month or so, as I learned how to use the device that enabled me to speak.

"Uh... yes. But it's only for a day or so, I promise. And you can stay here in the meantime. We have someone who's volunteered to get you food and such for a day. And, uh, you really need to let me borrow it if you want this job."

What he was talking about sounded an awful lot like making me someone's pet for a day. On the other hand, this might be my one chance to get a real job. It certainly looked like the only chance in the near future, at least. What it all boiled down to was, did I trust this guy?

After careful, careful consideration, I decided I did. "Not here, though. My apartment. Tell your babysitter to bring a TV and some movies."


Within an hour there was a knock on my apartment door. When I opened it (it had a latch instead of a knob), Jon was standing there with someone I didn't recall seeing at the shelter. It was another Scab, mostly human but with mulish features. They were carrying a TV, a player, and another item.

"What's that for?"

The other guy put the music synthesizer on the only table left. "I figured if you didn't have a TV you wouldn't have a piano. I brought it so I can play. Oh, I'm Jack DeMule."

"Yes, you are at that," I said as he shook my paw.

"Well, I need to do a few things now. If I could just have your voder?"

"It'll only be for a day, right?" I was getting nervous again. Jon nodded. "Okay." They stood around, waiting, until Jack realized that I was waiting for them to take it off. He bent over my neck and released the velcro with its characteristic ~i~riiiip.~i~ Some stray velcro had hooked my hair instead of the straps, and I winced as it was removed.

"Sorry," Jon said as he took the device. "It'll only be a day, I promise. This needs to get done. I'll bring it back tomorrow." Then he left.

It was only then that I realized that I knew what he needed it for, but what he would do with it I had no idea. I guess in the excitement of a possible job I forgot.

"Well," Jack began. He straighted up from setting up the TV, which he had done while I was staring at the door. "I got lots of recordings. Which do you want first, Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons or Mr. Ed?" I began to like this guy.

We watched Mr. Ed first. Jack had a peculiar, braying laugh that a person would think would get annoying but somehow never did. He also played the soundtrack to the shows on the synthesizer as they played, lending the apartment an air reminiscent of movie houses a century ago. He was pretty good at matching the cartoon music, but he played the Mr. Ed music absolutely perfectly. Which tells you just how many times he must have watched those shows.

Eventually it came time to go to sleep. Jack, despite what protests I could give, settled under the table while I took my blankets. "It'll be just like the piano in the bar," he explained. "Although this'll be the first time in a long time I've done that ~i~sober.~i~"

The next day, as promised, Jon came back with my voder. Before I let them put in on me I examined it closely, and discovered that a small jack had been installed. "What's that for?" I asked once I could.

"You'll see once we get to the interview," was the enigmatic reply. "Which is today, so get yourself ready."

"All I need is what I'm wearing, unless you think otherwise?" They didn't. "Let's go then."

The paper was one of those big ones that sometimes seemed like everyone in the city read. As we entered I got a little nervous at the idea of working here. "Um, just what is this job that I'm applying for, anyway?" Not that it would matter to me. I'd take janitor if it was open.

"Science articles. With your education it was the natural choice."

"And how, pray tell, do you expect me to write them?"

"Like this," Jon said. We had reached a free computer, and he picked a cord off the desk. One end, I could see, was plugged into the computer. The other end he inserted in the jack of my voder. "Say something."

"Like what?" I asked. Then my eyes widened as `like what?' appeared on the screen. "You made it so what I say is what I type?" I asked, watching incredulously as the words appeared in succession on the screen.

"Yeah. One of Brian's patients is a good electrician, he modified your voder. And the programs are already on the market for similar stuff."

Even so, this was more effort expended to help a stranger than I had ever seen in my life. "You have no idea whut thz means t' me." The words came out a little blurred; emotion was distracting me. "If I could hug you I would."

"I'll just have to imagine it then. There's still a few things we want to work out, like making it so you can plug and unplug yourself. But this'll do for now. And you still have to go through the interview."

"I think," I said slowly, still watching half a conversation unroll on the screen, "that that won't be a problem. Call it a hunch."


That night, there was a victory celebration at a bar, the Blind Pig Gin Mill. Apparently this was where all my benefactors got together for socialization.

"The old guy, the one you're replacing was a jerk," Jon was telling me. "He didn't get along with anybody, especially Scabs. That's why we had to let him go. The only reason he lasted three years was because of great writing."

"Which your boss said I may be able to live up to, some year," I said happily. I had gotten the job, although I wouldn't be doing the main stories that Mr. Cavenaugh had been doing right away. Still, she had said I had promise. Eventually, perhaps...

"May I propose a toast?" The people at the table, Dr. Coe, or rather, Brian, Jon, his wife Maxine, and even Jack, who had taken a break from the piano, nodded assent. "May everyone benefit from strangers who help even stranger people." It wasn't a perfect toast, but everyone raised their glasses and clinked them together. I looked down.

"Now someone lift my bowl of beer so I can join my own toast!"

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