|A Place for Freedom By Oren the Otter
by Oren the Otter
© Oren the Otter -- all rights reserved
"There is just no way that this can be right." I said shakily as I waved the piece of paper around. "I lost my apartment, and I'm living in a mound of dirt. Now I'm being thrown out of my mound of dirt?"
Phil gently took the piece of paper and looked it over. "I'm not a lawyer." he said. "But at first glance, this looks legal."
"No way! I mean, that's my home we're talking about! It's the Jacksons' home, too!"
"I sympathize with you, Oren." said the rabbit. "I think that this is deplorable. However, it also looks like this fellow may be well within his rights. My advice to you is to get yourself a lawyer."
"Lawyers are expensive." I muttered.
"Then you might try talking to this person. You never know. He might just be willing to listen to reason."
I nodded. This was not going to be fun.
"Mister Oren Verden to see you, Sir." said the overweight butler as he ushered me into the office of one Harry Renstom.
"Mister Verden, what can I do for you?"
I was scared. In the past, I've faced down men with guns, but firearms, for all their lethal power, are nowhere near as intimidating as a rich man on his home turf. Renstom seemed to be a man who knew how to use that kind of intimidation. I had to fight my body's urging to type-shift into something more aggressive.
"Good afternoon." I said, hoping that I sounded cheerful. I got no reply. "I'm here to talk about this notice I found on my door."
"Is there a problem?"
"Well, yes, there's a problem. You're kicking me out of my home."
Harry leaned forward. "I beg to differ. That never was your home. You were trespassing on that land when you moved in."
"But the Sleepers bought that land."
"No, the Sleepers own the land just to the East of you. I own the land you're sitting on. The dirt your home is built on belongs to me. I plan to build a lakeside resort and there is no room for your little burrow."
"But you can't build that close to the water. Surely you can build around me."
"... I grow tired of this. I want you off my property and that's final. If you have nothing more of value to discuss, I will have to ask you to leave."
The fat butler came up behind me to escort me out.
"I'll be back soon." I said as I made my way to the door.
Blueknight's pool was clean. I have to give it that. It was so clean, in fact, that it was sterile. There was absolutely nothing to see in it, nor any fish to catch. Of course, it was still water, and that was enough to keep an otter like me entertained.
As I climbed out of the pool that morning, I shook myself off and grabbed a towel. "If there's one thing I miss about my apartment" I said to myself. "It's the walk-in blow-drier."
I lay for a moment on the towel, letting the warm sun dry my fur, when he heard Blueknight come out into the yard. Someone else was with him. I opened my eyes to see the enormous smile of a human piranha. "ORMO!" I exclaimed.
"Oren!" the fish answered back in a decidedly eastern accent. "Is that you? You changed considerably."
"It's me. I've traded in my zappers for a set of flippers."
"Looks good on you."
"How are you doing these days?"
"Not bad at all." He fished out his wallet and opened it up to show a shiny police badge. "I'm detective Ormo these days."
"No way!" I was so excited that I got up and gave the fish a hug. "Blueknight, have you met my old friend Ormo?"
"I let him in here."
"Oh yeah, right."
Ormo sat down on a patio chair. "I suppose I should get down to business. I got a call from Karen this morning. She said that she went to your burrow yesterday to talk to you about Tom Sapacroli. She said the entire place had been cleaned out."
"That's right. I'd been evicted. The land I was on changed hands and the new owner didn't want me there."
"Isn't there something he can do?" asked Blueknight.
Ormo shook his head. "Not unless this guy has done something illegal in evicting Oren. From what I can determine, he is within his rights. I am hoping, however, that I may find something out which will prove me wrong. What do you know about this man?"
"All I know is his name. Harry Renstom."
"I see. I'll see what I can turn up on this. You can be assured that Karen will, too."
It was scarcely any later when two more friends came to call; a pair of inanimorphs by the names of Gornul and Mack. Gornul, I was not surprised to see. Mack, however, I had not seen in ages. He still looked good in his human form. I suspected, though, that his truck form might be showing signs of wear. Both Mack and his clay companion were wearing friendly smiles as they approached.
"Hi, guys." I said brightly.
"Mornin', Oren." replied Mack, even though it was afternoon. "What's up?"
Gornul sat down beside me, one eye carefully monitoring his distance from the water. "Oren," he said. "We'd like to do a story about you."
Both nodded. "We think that your eviction from your burrow is a horrible thing, and that the public should be informed of what's going on."
Mack leaned close. "Oren, I'm not a P.I. like Karen. I'm not a policeman like Ormo. But I DO want to help you. Let Gornul and I do what we can as reporters."
As loathe as I was to try a case in the public forum, I agreed. Gornul asked me dozens of dizzying questions while Mack scribbled madly on a notepad. Two days later, the story appeared in the paper.
"NO PLACE FOR FREEDOM"
Late in the autumn of last year, an otter-morph by the name of Eric Oren Verden was evicted from his apartment for being unable to pay back rent. The solution seemed simple enough at the time. Oren would take up residence on the shore of a nearby lake and live the wild and free life. Sadly, this was not to last. In a sad turn of chance, the land upon which the otter dug his burrow had been purchased by a developer who would not tolerate squatters. As a result, poor Oren has lost his last vestige of freedom.
The article went on, but I didn't finish reading. I wanted to puke.
Jon held the check up with both hands for all the bar to see. "Five hundred thousand dollars." he repeated aloud. "Half a million dollars for a worthless chunk of ground and a rickety old summer cabin that Maxine and I paid all of fifty dollars for last year."
"Fifty?" Brad echoed.
"No one figured it was worth anything. Now Renstom wants the land so he can build his great big resort.
"It don't make no sense." said Barney as he put a tentacle around Brad's shoulder. "This guy can't possibly make up a loss like that with such a teensy piece o' land."
"I don't even think it's money," piped Jefferson "It's power."
"I think you's right." said Barney, nodding slowly. "Rich guy... used to havin' whatever he wants. He gets a kick out of shovin' otters and fishes around. If he can't bully, he buys."
"So what are you going to do?" asked Brad.
"I'm going to have this framed, I think, but never cashed. I don't need the money, and I don't like the idea of helping the man who's shoving my friends around." With that, he folded the check and put it back into his pocket.
Richie tried his best to divide his attention between the inventory forms on the computer and the baby dragon who was crawling up his leg. It wasn't easy trying to hold down a job and raise eight kids at the same time, especially when those kids were assorted plush toys with a propensity for mischief.
His attention was further divided when Millie entered the room and said "Honey, you won't believe this."
"What is it?"
"I just got a letter from our boss."
"Oh, what does he say?"
"He says we need to move and our cabin is going to get bulldozed."
Theo floated with his eyes just above the water and looked out at the woods with a deep longing in his heart. He wished that he and his wife could take a walk through those woods, but both of them had been confined
by their bodies to the water since SCABS had turned them both into trout.
At least they had this beautiful pond, but that would not last long. Soon, they would be herded away and would spend the rest of their lives in an aquarium.
Even as he pondered this, a stranger approached. It was a leopard with a newspaper in his mouth. Theo backed away, slowly.
"No worry." said the cat in a growly voice. "I not eat you. Got question."
"This lake where otter live?"
"Yes. That's his house over there in that hillock."
The leopard put the paper down, making his speech a little clearer. "Name Ramen. I read in paper where otter is made go away. Want help."
"Ramen got no home. Live in slums. Is good at handling landlords who say "You no live here".
"And this nice place." said Ramen, looking around. "Me think me live here for while, too."
Theo managed a smile on his fishy face.
Cynthia made her way through the woods, whistling as she went. Things had been tough for her since becoming a little boy, but one of the things that made life more bearable was her visits to the woods, where she could see her friends Pongo and Perdie, a pair of giant rats.
Those weren't their real names, of course, but since they were no longer capable of speech, they couldn't tell her who they really were. Pongo and Perdie were entirely animal in mind, but they were also very friendly indeed. They wouldn't even step on an ant, she knew. They were two wonderful creatures, and they were her friends.
Today, however, Pongo and Perdie were nowhere to be found. Instead, Cynthia heard the buzzing of saws and the hammering of nails. Stepping into a clearing, she discovered a construction crew busily digging away at the ground and filling it with wood and concrete.
Her heart constricted in her chest. Her pristine forest was being invaded, and her friends might be scared away forever.
Harry Renstom was livid. "I want those people OFF!" he shouted at his team of lawyers.
"We're doing everything we can, but there are certain laws that must be..." The lawyer ducked just in time to avoid a flying paperweight.
"I didn't hire you to tell me what to do. I hired you to tell me HOW I can do it!"
Another, braver lawyer spoke up. "In this case, Mr. Renstom, 'HOW' involves thirty days notice."
"Find a LOOPHOLE!" Renstom hissed. "This is my first solo venture and I will not have it ruined by a bunch of SCAB squatters!"
"But your resort is not even due to open until summer. Surely there is time."
Renstom made a motion to smack the man, but instead, put a hand to his forehead. A wave of nausea swept over him, and he had to sit down. "Get out." he said. "All of you."
Once the last of his legal bloodsuckers was out the door, Renstom took a small bottle out of his desk drawer and quickly swilled the contents. Seconds later, the dizziness and sickness were gone.
"You won't have me." he whispered to the air. He then sat down and got back to work.
Blueknight and I had arrived at the Blind Pig expecting to see the same sedate crowd as usual. Tonight, though, everyone was crowding around Rich, the teddy bear, who held Theo in an oversized fishbowl.
"That's right." said Rich. "A leopard. Made himself at home in a tree next to the house. He's not the only one, either. Homeless and/or high degree animal morphs are coming out of the woodwork. They're moving in next to the lake and refusing to move."
"Think about it." said Matt, the Rat. "One day you contract SCABS and your world falls apart. You have no hope, or so you think. Then you hear this story about how someone a lot like you, fully morphed and homeless, has made a life for himself, but now is having that life taken away."
"They're clinging to hope." said Phil. A ray of hope has come shining through, and they're fighting to keep it from being extinguished."
"I don't get it." I confessed. "It's happening to me, not to them."
"Not true." replied Matt. "They see themselves in your situation. You've become a rallying point for them."
I just stood there, speechless for a moment.
It was Barney who said the words that would change my life. "You's become a revolutionary, kiddo."
"Don't be scared of it. You can do two things here. You can sit back and let things happen, or you can get out there and give them people somethin' ta hope for!"
Brad shivered. "Ooh, it gives me goosebumps when you talk like that, Barney!"
I didn't respond, but bought myself a glass of Coke and took it to an empty table.
"So, what's it going to be?" asked Blueknight as he sat down, uninvited.
"I want to do the right thing... but what can one little otter do?"
Blue began counting points off on his long, slender fingers.
One little otter can help a recluse of twenty years have a happy marriage. One little otter can help a fish regain his life. One little otter can unmask a fraudulent SCABS cure. One little otter can help deliver eight baby plushies."
"But those are all small things. Even that thing with Sapacroli was dumb luck."
"One little otter also managed to change the face of medicine for an entire continent."
I froze. "You heard about that?"
"What, that you were responsible for Australia employing cute and fluffy animal SCABs to help patients feel better? Do you think that you could really keep that a secret?"
"Oren, you have a chance to do a lot of good, I think. What are you going to do?"
I stared at Blueknight for a few minutes. I'd never seen him this serious before. At last, I knew what I had to do. "Take me home, Blue." I said. "MY home."
The lizard smiled and held up his hand. He was already holding his van keys.
Renstom had locked himself in his room for the night. He was downing vial after vial of his strange blue medicine, but it was having less and less effect. He lay on his bed, sweating profusely and clutching his stomach.
He tried to tell himself that it was only a bad case of ordinary flu, but that proved to be incorrect when he looked down at his hand and saw the fingers merging together into a flipper.
As soon as the van pulled up to the lake, I knew trouble was brewing. Not far down the shore, there was a bonfire going, with animal SCABs gathered all around. I ran down the beach and discovered several of the animals walking toward the construction site carrying torches.
"What are you doing?" I demanded.
"Look! It's him!" someone shouted.
"We're going to torch this place!"
To no one in particular, I said "This has already gone way beyond healthy."
"Come on!" said someone, handing me a torch. "Join the fun!"
"What are you people thinking?" I asked with no effort to hide the distress. "Renstom is a rich man who writes checks for half a mil like he was passing out Halloween candy! If you torch this framework, he'll start the building again, but this time he'll have ammunition to use against us, and in all likelihood, the lot of us will be in jail or worse."
This speech was not going over well. People in the back were grumbling loudly. I had to change tactics. "Friends, what is it we want?"
"Rich boy dead!" someone yelled.
"No, we don't. We want freedom! Freedom to live where we choose." That got a small cheer. "Freedom to live our lives without having to pay wealthy man for their permission." That got a big cheer. Emboldened, I continued. "We want a world where money doesn't talk! Where PEOPLE talk, and money listens!" Big BIG cheer. "And how are we going to obtain our freedom?"
"NO! My friends, this is a fight in which we are hopelessly overpowered, but we CAN win! It's going to be much MUCH harder than using force, but in the end, it will be better for everyone."
"What do we do?" someone shouted.
"We play nice."
"Nice?" murmured the crowd in confusion.
"Nice." I repeated as I began to explain my plan. All the while, I was trembling inwardly, praying that I was right.
William Yatsume was a loyal man. When his employer had taken ill, he'd personally kept all of the master's business running smoothly. This one single matter, however, was proving difficult.
"I represent Mister Harry Renstom." he said to the building manager. It is for him that I am seeking permanent housing in one of your penthouses."
"I see." replied the manager, opening a portfolio and searching for some papers. Has something happened to his own home?"
Mister Renstom's house was left to him by his parents, the late Gates and Mirco Renstom. In their will, it was stipulated that the house was only his if it was not used to house victims of SCABS."
The manager paused. "And has he?"
Mister Renstom has, I am sad to say, contracted the disease himself."
And what is he? A little boy? A woman?"
"If you must know, he is in the process of becoming an eared seal."
The manager closed the portfolio. "I'm very sorry. There is nothing available right now."
"That is a lie."
"Good day, Mister Yamane."
"Yatsume. Mister Renstom will not be pleased."
"And what is he going to do, take out his wrath upon me? I fear I'll have to get in line, because there's no self-respecting member of the upper classes that would... have anything available."
William walked quietly out, defeated yet determined.
When the sun rose in the morning, I rose with it. Before I'd moved in with Blueknight, I made a habit out of sleeping late. These days, I found myself eager to greet the day and get out into the community.
That's exactly what we had, too. What had been four homes in a row, including a pond, a burrow and a cabin that mostly sat unused had become a thriving community of animal morphs, a few inanimorphs, and even a fellow who'd become seventy-five percent sycamore tree.
A fox was sweeping out the entrance to her den beneath a large oak tree with a willow broom. I'd spoken with this fox a few days ago. Her name was Emanie. She'd been a runaway in her teen years, shacking up with whoever would feed her. She'd always dreamed of having a quiet, cozy little house of her own where she could settle down to a peaceful life.
Near the shore floated Jake the iceberg. I'd no idea how it was possible, but he maintained a constant body temperature of thirty-two degrees farenheit, and so constantly had to keep on the move, lest he freeze any one portion of the lake. He liked it here, though. Back when he first changed, so he told me, he'd been placed in a large insulated room where he sat doing nothing and seeing no one. After finally convincing his keepers to rent a truck and bring him out here, he hadn't stopped floating about and chattering with anyone in earshot.
Right now he was debating philosophy with a fully morphed woodpecker who replied to him using morse code, stopping occasionally for a tasty bug.
Steph and Leo, a low degree hippo and polar bear, respectively, were splashing about in the water, arguing over whether it was too hot or too cold.
Looking about, I wondered whether we could adhere to the plans that we made.
The first test came soon enough.
Yatsume watched in the rearview mirror with apparent unconcern as his boss swilled another vial of his strange drug. Already, Renstom's legs had become to weak for him to walk, and his hands were enormous and ungainly. Still, he was determined to keep fighting this disease. Yatsume sighed inwardly. He knew that the fight would be lost. There was no stopping SCABS.
As Harry shook his head from the bitter taste of the fluid, he looked out the window at the lawyer he'd sent to confront the squatters. Hidden just out of sight was a news crew, and he kept his eyes on their positions as well.
"Know your enemies' weaknesses, William." said the man who was slowly becoming a seal. "These people have a single common weak point. Their emotions are strong and easily manipulated."
"Regina is the nastiest man on our team. It's his job to get the squatters so riled up that they attack him. When they do, our film crew gets the whole thing on camera. We air the scene on television and the public turns against our little neighborhood. With public opinion on our side, the courts will follow suit."
"Trying a case in the press, Sir?"
"If I may voice an opinion, Sir, it is highly unethical, and does not become a man of your standing."
Harry threw the empty vial forward, shattering it against the limo's windshield. "Dangit, William! Don't you understand? This project is the only thing I have that is truly mine. Once this transformation finishes, I lose everything Mummy and Dad left me. The only things I'll have to my name are my hidden accounts and the resort. NOTHING must interfere with this project!"
"Now then. Let's see how Regina is fairing."
Regina had been an eighty-three year-old woman, gristled as beef jerky and nasty as a fight between a skunk and a porcupine. SCABS, however, had placed her in the body of a fifteen-year old boy who would never age.
Regina was a horrible person, and he knew it. To date, it had been his greatest asset. Now he would be using that asset to it's utmost, provoking animal morphs to try to kill him. They wouldn't of course. He'd made sure of that by coating his skin and clothes with a neural toxin that would paralyze upon contact with the mouth.
"Hey, you!" he called to a chipmunk in a t-shirt.
"Tell me where the otter is or I'm going to put your tail on my car antenna."
"I don't know, Sir."
Regina brought his foot up to kick the chipmunk, but stopped himself. He couldn't let the cameras catch him making the first hostile move. "Tell me where he is!" he demanded, his foot poised.
"Please don't hurt our friend, mister." said a deer who approached, carrying a rabbit on his back.
"Oh, how touching! Bambi and thumper come to rescue flower!"
"Flower's a skunk." said the chipmunk.
Regina felt a paw on his shoulder and whirled around to see a polar bear standing behind him.
"Welcome, newcomer!" said the bear. "Anything we can do for you?"
"Where is OREN?" the man demanded.
"I'm right here." I answered.
Regina turned to face me. "You're the one I want!"
"What can I do for you?"
Regina became very aware of the cameras. Smiling a mile wide, he squatted down and said "I'm going to peel your skin off and make it into a fur coat."
A skunk came up beside me and said "Please don't do that."
"Oh, yes. I'm going to do horrible things to you. I'm going to make sure that you die the most humiliating death anybody could ever imagine, and then I'm going to have a ton of fun with the rest of these fuzzy little vermin."
Steph was now waddling ashore and saying ::I really don't think you ought to do that.::
Regina was getting anxious. What did it take to get these people mad? He decided on a different tack.
"You're not even people. You're just a bunch of sick, disease-twisted freaks! At least I'm human. You scum-suckers are vermin! Not fit to crawl in the dirt."
I could see several people tensing for a fight. Could we do it?
"You oughtn't say such mean things!" said a cat as she rubbed against Regina's leg. I could see that she'd rather be clawing his eyes out.
The tormentor's look began to twist in revulsion. "What is this, a Disney movie? Get away from me!" He kicked the cat out into the lake. Leo swam to her rescue as several large animal morphs moved closer to the enemy. Stand strong, I thought. Don't let him goad you!
"Mister, you could have seriously hurt her!" I cried.
Regina looked back at the TV cameras. He needed to salvage the situation, and so switched to a more direct approach. "You want a piece o'me, ferret face? Huh? Come on, fuzzy!"
He moved close to Ramen and whapped the leopard in the nose at an angle the cameras could not see. Ramen raised his paw, but at the last second, his eyes met my pleading gaze.
"What is wrong with you people?" Regina shouted. "Fight me! FIGHT ME!"
He began dancing around, waving his fists in front of his face. He danced backward, challenging each different morph in turn. Sadly, he did not see the little boy with his campfire behind him. He tripped backward and fell, smashing his butt into the hot embers.
"YYYOOOWWWWWW!" screamed the man as he ran toward the water, trying to pat out the fire on his butt with his hands.
He splashed down in the water, and brought his toasty palms to his lips. The realization of what he had done hit him too late, and as the toxin began working, he lost consciousness.
"The idiot." said Renstom in his car. "William, go retrieve him."
A cameraman knocked on the limo window. "Thanks for tipping us off to this, man!" he said. "The public is gonna just eat up this footage of the scumbag beating up on that poor cat!"
"Don't you DARE show ARCK!"
Renstom ignored the newsman and grabbed another vial of his medicine, intent now only on keeping at bay the transformation which was seeking to claim his voice as well as his hands.
My heart was pounding as I watched the sleeping twit be carried away. Then, slowly, I turned to Rich, the teddy bear. "We did it!" I said in realization. "We did it, and those cameras caught it all!"
Slowly but steadily, cheers began to come out of the crowd, until the beach was filled with the din of celebration.
I was smiling broadly as I, too was caught up in the spirit of the moment. Inside, however, I knew that we still had a LONG way to go.
Mack and Gornul spared not a second in capitalizing on Regina's attack. The two of them absolutely murdered him in their coverage of the incident. Detective Ormo, meanwhile, took it upon himself to insure that Regina would not be returning to the lake, nor to free society, anytime soon.
He began working with Karen to try to uncover anything on Renstom which might get the man put away. Unfortunately, the guy turned out to be squeaky clean.
"I'm sorry, Oren." said Karen as she shifted her straw around nervously. "It looks like Harry's not a criminal, just a big jerk. Ormo's informed me that he's well within his legal rights. In fact, you guys are on the edge of breaking the law just by being there."
"I know. That's why I'm trying to get all this taken care of before my thirty days are up."
"He gave you thirty days?"
"I know. I want the law on my side. That's why I've urged all the squatters to be peaceful.
"Be careful, Oren."
I heaved a sigh as I waved goodbye to my scarecrow friend. I could only hope this whole thing came to a head soon.
"I seek to purchase a house for my employer." said Yatsume.
"Certainly. What's the name?"
The real estate agent stared, aghast. "The guy who's behind that attack on the animal morphs at the lake?"
"There is no proof that Mr. Renstom is in any way..."
"Get out of my office."
"You're blowing a ready sale."
"I'll make sure to loose sleep over it. Goodbye, Mr. Yamane."
"I don't understand it myself!" I said to the rabbit as I sipped my fish juice. "I moved out to the lake to simplify my life, and now, here I am, some sort of revolutionary!"
Phil smiled with his ears. "I can see where that might make you just a tad uncomfortable."
"How did it get to be ME?" I continued. "I'm not any world- changing do-gooder..."
Phil paused to think. "Oren, you told me that you were one of the vigilantes, right?"
"Sounds like you were a do-gooder back then. Weren't you out to change the world?"
"I just did what I could."
"That's right. Oren, I remember a phone call I recieved fairly recently from someone who was complaining that he used to be a brave, fearless warrior, but he had become a timid little animal."
"Darn you, Rabbit, why do you always have to be right?"
Phil pulled back his lips in the approximation of a wide grin. "It's my job, Otter."
I sighed and finished my juice.
"If you want my advice, and that IS why I'm here, go find yourself a nice, quiet spot on the opposite end of the lake and spend an evening just relaxing. You've let this whole situation get you much to stressed."
"Wouldn't you be stressed?"
"That's why I say this, Oren. We rabbits know stress."
Right again. I already knew that there was no way I was ever going to argue my way out of this. The talk we'd had about success came flooding back to me.
I began to voice my realizations to Phil even as I explained them to myself. "So... the fact of the matter is... I have responsibilities both to..."
I didn't finish the sentence. Millie the stuffed mouse came through the door and ran up to the table. "Oren! You need to get up to the lake right away!"
"Why? What's going on?"
"Somebody's captured Renstom!"
"Cripes!" I dashed out the door with the mouse.
What I found when Millie and I reached the lake was not at all what I expected. A large crowd was gathered on the shore of the lake, standing in a large semicircle. In the middle of that circle lay an eared seal. That is to say that he was mostly seal. His face was still primarily human, and it was obvious from looking at him that this seal was Harry Renstom. He was alone and looked quite frightened."
"Harry Renstom?" I asked to be polite.
He only looked at me.
"We found him here like this." whispered Jake, the iceberg. "We tried to see if he was hurt, but he won't let anybody near."
Slowly I approached the man. I had no idea what the sama space of a seal was, but I was ready to stop if he showed any signs that I was getting too close.
"Harry?" I asked. "What happened?"
"What do you think happened?" he squawked. "I'm turning into a seal!"
"I can see that, but why are you lying here on the beach among people you consider your enemies?"
Renstom stared at me coldly, as if angry that he was about to tell me the answer he had to give. "Because I have no place else to go!"
A dog shouted "Yeah, how does it feel?"
I held up a paw for quiet, daring to come closer. "Why do you have no place to go?"
"I'm a ruined man. YOU ruined me! SCABS ruined me!"
"Tell me about it, Harry."
He gave me a wild look, but then something inside him seemed to give way. "I inherited my fortune." he said. "But my parents made a proviso that if I ever became an animal morph, I would get nothing."
"All I have is a few mil from investments and this half- finished cluster of buildings." He suddenly turned angry and reached out to grab me, but his flipper slid away as if I were intangable. "This was my last hope, Verden, and you ruined it! You destroyed it! You destroyed ME!"
Suddenly, I was seeing the issue from the opposite side. I had been so concerned about myself and the other squatters that I'd failed to think of Renstom's side. Then, something he said hit me. "A few mil? You have several mil in the bank and you're complaining?"
"What good does it do me when I have no place to live? When I can't even transact business? And now I don't even have my medicines, and SCABS is slowly taking me." As if to prove the point, he let out several loud seal barks.
I stood there for a moment, trembling, then suddenly, an idea hit. I motioned for Rich and Millie to step aside with me, along with several of the older, more respected members of our makeshift community.
I spoke with them about what I was thinking, and each of them in turn gave their ascent. Some reluctantly, some with enthusiasm. Returning to Renstom, I sat down on the sand and smiled reassuringly. "Harry, I think I have a solution that will leave everybody happy."
"What do you mean?"
"Live here with us!"
"IN THE WILD?"
"No... it doesn't have to be in the wild. Build your resort. Build yourself a house here."
"But all of you..."
"I'm getting to that. You let us live here at the same time."
"No one is going to want to take a vacation next to a homeless shelter."
"No no... not a homeless shelter... a community of morphs! Harry, twenty years ago, all of THIS" I motioned to the group with my paw." Was fantasy. People payed through the nose for simulations of this at theme parks. You have the real thing."
Renstom sneered. "People don't ORK! ...don't want to associate with animal morphs. Not since SCABS hit."
"That's what most people think, but I've seen that it isn't quite true. Down in Australia, they're employing morphs in hospitals for morale. Did you know that?"
"A lot of people don't, I know. A lot of people do. They'd love to come out here and visit with friendly animals. And I know you've seen that we can do friendly."
"What happens when you get someone who's not friendly?"
"We'll make that the one requisite for living here. You let us live here as long as we're friendly, and in return, we'll not only let you build your resort, we'll help you run it. That is to say that those of us who still seek employment will be a ready source of labor for fair wages." I turned around to the squatters. "Does that sound fair to everybody?
There were nods and murmurs of ascent.
"Well, Harry? What do you say?"
"Like I have a choice." said the seal. I ORK! agree. You can stay."
There was much rejoicing.
A week later, I found myself standing in Renstom's new office. William, as I now knew him, had ushered me in, and stood by the door as Harry came out from behind his desk, undulating across the stone floor. ::So glad you could come, Oren.:: he said through his new vodor.
"Any time. What's up?"
::First of all, the reservation list is astronomical. It seems you were right. If nothing else, there are those who would like to come out and vacation among animal SCABS for no other reason than curiosity.::
"I told ya."
::So you did. I do, however, have some bad news.::
::As far as I know, this is the first time anything like this has been done. Were under legal pressure from every group ranging from the ACLU to the environmental agency. I've taken your advice and hired that gorilla friend of yours to my team of lawyers, but this does mean that I won't have the time to devote to the resort or the community directly.::
"I can see where that would happen."
::And so I need someone immediately under myself to oversee things.::
"Uh... what about William?"
::William is my personal aide. Where I go, he goes... at least as long as I pay him.::
I chuckled at that. William coughed politely.
::I want you to oversee this place.::
"ME? Oh no... I've already had my moment in the limelight.
::Exactly. You're an established authority figure here. Besides, you've already shown me what you're capable of. I want you to run the resort and community for me. And don't worry. You'll have plenty of help.::
"But... but sir..."
::Don't disappoint me, Oren. I've already named the whole thing after you.::
"What?" I said, half alarmed.
::Otter's Pond. Just like your little internet page. I thought you'd like it. Besides, you WERE the first one living there.::
"It's a lake."
::Up north where I was raised, if you can see the other shore, it's a pond.::
::Please say you'll take the job.::
I stood there for a moment, considering. As I did, some very important words came flooding back to my memory. I heard Phil telling me about the measure of success.
"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."
Unselfish... Caring... Genuinely concerned. I had promised myself that I was going to be a "can-do" otter, and that I was going to begin acting with responsibility and maturity. Here was my chance to do everything I said I was going to do.
"Mr. Renstom? I accept."
"Two giant rats." I said to my friends as I sipped my milk and tossed my poker chips into the pot. "At eleven O'clock at night, I was wandering through the woods yelling "HERE, PONGO! HERE, PERDIE! We eventually found them milling around in one of the freshly dug basements trying like mad to scramble out."
"Ah, the pressures of being a community leader." said Dan Jefferson, throwing his chips in."
"And Harry is still swamped in legal battles. You won't believe who's on his back now."
"Who?" asked Doug, pushing two chips toward the pot with his nose.
"The lapine colony authority."
"Oh, man!" muttered Brian, tossing his own ante in. "He's going to need some serious legal help to fight those guys."
Suddenly, there was a flurry of feathers and a golden eagle perched on the empty chair next to me. She clutched a handbag in one foot, from which she drew a business card with her beak. I took it and read "Linda Light, esq., attorney at law."
"I heard someone say "legal help." said Linda.
"Oh yeah." I answered. "We have a long way to go before Otter's Pond is truly a place for freedom."
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