by Oren the Otter
© Oren the Otter -- all rights reserved
Fort Kwunko, Alaska can be a cold, harsh place to live for the hardiest of the natives. For the daughter of two caucasian missionaries, it was downright hostile. For a creature designed to live in the steamy South American jungles, however, it could be absolutely maddening. Victoria had always believed that whatever SCABS did to a person, it would ultimately be for the best, even if the transformation seemed tragic at the time. This belief sustained her optimism when she came down with the Martian Flu. When her body became coated with a thick, shaggy fur, she reckoned that she was being equipped to better deal with the harsh climate of rural Alaska. However, when her face extended to five times its original length, the truth became painfully apparent. Victoria had become a giant anteater, and as such, unable to survive in the cold.
Having just about the lowest body temperature in the entire Mammalian order, Victoria could not even go for a walk outside, for fear of hypothermia. Thus, the anteater spent most of her time in her room, alone, bored, and miserable.
Before much time had passed, Victoria's parents saw just how unhappy their daughter had become. Seeing only one solution, they advised her to settle and seek employment in the southern, more hospitable climes. So it was that she came to our fair city, doing whatever she could to make ends meet.
It has always been accepted as true that a person who is willing to work hard could find a job in the food service industry. Sadly, the law has made this untrue for SCABs. The bureaucrats at the health department still consider SCABS a chronic disease, even though it is not possible to contract SCABS, or even the Martian Flu, from one already transformed. Thus, it has become illegal for restaurants to employ such individuals, with the exception of a handful of specialty establishments.
Fortunately, there's Chang's. Chang's pizzeria has done its community a wonderful service by establishing a policy of hiring SCABS as delivery drivers. Technically, since they never touch the pizzas, they're not in food service. It's a rather tight loophole, to be sure, but for Victoria, it meant gainful employment.
That was how I met her. One night, when I had gotten rather bored with fresh sushi, I ordered out for a pizza. "County road 3, mile marker 12." Victoria repeated to herself as she tooled along in her modified Volkswagen. Marker 12... Marker 12..." As she was searching, she pulled up to the edge of the lake.
"There IS no mile marker 12!" she huffed. Then, looking off to the right, she spotted the old cabin. Taking the pizza box and soda in her claws, she got out and walked over to the cabin. Using her tongue, she klacked the knocker.
Becoming frustrated, she went back to the car. She was about to get in and drive away when she heard an "Over here!" behind her. That, of course, would be me.
She started and blinked in surprise as I waved at her from the window of my burrow. With a small shrug, she brought me my supper.
"I hope you didn't have too much trouble finding the place." I said, somewhat apologetically.
Victoria chuckled. "I usually like the country routes because the houses are easy to find." she said. "I've never had to deliver a pizza to a mound of dirt before.
This time, I chuckled. "It's primitive, but it's home."
The anteater looked in through the window. "Oh, hey! That does look nice and cozy in there."
"Visitors always welcome." I said.
"Is that an invitation?" asked Victoria with a laugh.
"If you like, then that's exactly what it is." I extended my paw. "Oren Verden. My friends call me "Otter" for obvious reasons."
"Victoria Preston. I'd love to visit and share your pizza, but I'm afraid I'm on the clock. Another time, perhaps?"
"Certainly. Have a good night, Ms. Preston." When she drove off, I assumed I'd never see her again.
That night, Victoria sat alone in her tiny little apartment. She stared at the wall for an hour before sheer boredom prompted her to turn on the webstation. She logged into a movie channel and downloaded a good two-hour romance. As an afterthought, she checked her E-mail. There was a letter from Bobby there. Seeing it cheered her up instantly.
Bobby was one of the local Eskimo boys who had been her friend since she was in diapers. They had been dating when Victoria left, and even now, she still hoped that they would be together again.
"Dear Victoria:" the letter began. "I have some really interesting news. Two days after you left for the lower 48 I came down with the Martian Flu. I thought that I was ready to become whatever animal SCABS would turn me into, but imagine my surprise when I changed into a shapely young lady! I am going by Barbara, now. I know you hoped that we might date again someday, but this new development does make things a little difficult. I do hope that I can still be your friend. Mom and Dad and Kenny say "Hi".
Victoria felt her heart sink down into her tail as she stared at the screen. She had only known one love her whole life, and now he was gone. She didn't cry. She didn't complain. She just picked up her purse and went for a nice, long drive.
I couldn't sleep that night. I chatted on the Internet for a while, but that didn't last long. Rover, (my computer,) tends to drain the juice from the solar batteries once the sun has gone down. When my faithful computer shut down, I decided to amuse myself by going for a moonlight swim. After a few dives and a midnight snack of minnow, I lay on my back and looked up at the stars.
I almost didn't hear the quiet, repeating "pip-pip-pip-pip- pip"
I howled in pain as a rock ricocheted off my eye.
"Who's there?" demanded someone on shore.
"Who's here? Who's out THERE throwing rocks at me?"
"Mister Otter? Is that you?"
Swimming up to shore, I noticed Victoria sitting there with a flat rock between her claws. "I'm so sorry!" she exclaimed. "I was skipping stones and didn't see you out there!"
"It's all right." I assured her, rubbing my black eye. "I've had worse."
"Sorry." she said again.
I waddled up onto the shore and sat down next to the anteater. "So what are you doing all the way up here at this time of night?" I asked.
"Can't sleep." she replied. I knew there was more.
"Wanna talk about it?"
She dipped her head and scratched her nose with a foot. "Things are bad right now." she said. "I'm alone in this big city, I've got a promising career in pizza delivery, and my boyfriend back home is now a girl and probably dating one of the other Eskimo boys."
"I'm sorry to hear that. If it helps, I can sympathize."
I managed a weak smile that I wasn't sure if she could see. "I lost everything recently. My home, my work, my computer... That's when I decided to come out here. I thought I would try living wild."
"My girlfriend was upset that I didn't tell her. The fact is, I didn't tell anybody. I had planned to try and settle in before I sent the word out about my move. She took it personally."
"That is sad."
"It sure is... but you didn't come up here to listen to my regrets."
"I don't mind." said Victoria as she put her claws on my shoulder. "Did you explain things to her?"
"Yes, but we decided to stay broken up... for other reasons. Age difference... species difference... the fact that she used to be my councilor..."
I skipped a rock of my own over the lake. Victoria clutched herself and shivered. "Cold?" I asked.
"Yeah. You wouldn't think so with all this fur, but this body gets cold real easily. That's why I had to leave Alaska."
"Don't move." I said, darting off and returning a moment later with an armload of firewood and a box of matches. It wasn't that long at all before both of us were warming ourselves before a nice, roaring bonfire.
"Can I ask you something?" asked Victoria.
"Do you hate your body? You know... being stuck as an otter?"
I felt embarrassed at the answer I had to give. "I'm not stuck. I can become human if I concentrate really hard."
"I can also take features from other mustelid species, but it's all involuntary."
I wanted to slip under the water and stay there. You know how it feels when you see pictures of starving children on a web commercial when you've got a fridge full of food? That's how I felt. Idly, I poked at the fire with a stick.
A piece of wood fell outward onto the back of my paw. Grimacing in pain, I ran and dunked my arm in the lake.
"Are you all right? Let me look..."
The skin was already furless and blistering. I know I must have looked a sight with one eye swelling shut and my paw clutched to my chest in pain.
"Do you have a first aid kit?"
"There's one in my car. We'd better get something on that."
"And some ice. Why don't you get the first aid kit out of my glove box while I put the fire out?"
"Because I don't know where you're parked."
About a half hour's drive later, we were at a convenience store buying a bag of ice and a bottle of aloe. We sat down at an undersized table while she bandaged me up and made an icepack. We sat at the table for a bit, just talking. I didn't think it had been that long until I began to look out the window and see the sun coming up.
"You hungry?" I asked.
"I could eat."
"I know a great place that'll just be opening for breakfast. What do you say?"
"What sort of place is it?"
"Ever heard of Sinclair's?"
We walked into the restaurant and were greeted from the kitchen window by Ellen. I was surprised to see her here this morning. She usually worked afternoons. I was doubly surprised that I could actually see her through the window. "Ellen?" I said. "You're standing up?"
She smiled and came through the kitchen door. She was indeed out of her wheelchair and on her feet, supporting the weight of her front half on two very long arm braces. "When did you get those?" I asked.
"Daddy bought them for me a couple of days ago. Who's your friend, Oren?"
"This is Victoria. Victoria, this is Ellen."
"Nice to meet you." said Ellen, extending her hand, making the brace dangle awkwardly from her arm. Victoria shook it politely. "So whatcha feel like having this morning?"
"I'll just have a couple of scrambled eggs." said Victoria.
"Biscuits and gravy." I added. "But how come you're out here taking our orders?"
"Eddie called in sick today. The rest of us are kind of switching jobs around to fill in."
"I'll have those for you in a minute!"
"So..." said Victoria once Ellen had gone back to the kitchen. "Do you come here a lot?"
"Not here. I usually go over to the bar side. The Blind Pig Gin Mill."
"I wouldn't have figured you for a drinker."
"And you'd be right. I drink milk, mostly. You'd be surprised, though. The Blind Pig is nothing like a normal bar. It's clean, well lit... Come on... I'll show you what I mean."
I took my anteater friend around the partition between the restaurant and the bar to show her what it looked like. It was pretty much empty, of course. Donnie was there, doing some ordering, and Scratch was sweeping the floor.
Just then, a stranger burst through the door. "I'M CURED!" he shouted.
'I'M CURED! Donnie, look! Oren, Oren, I'm cured!"
He grabbed my shoulders and smiled toothily. "Do I know you?" I asked.
"Oh, of course. You don't recognize me. How can you? It's me, Kieth!"
"Lupine Boy Kieth?"
"That's right! And you won't believe this. There's a CURE for SCABS!"
Kieth's head was totally in a spin as he babbled incoherently about how he had become human once again. We sat him down at the table and calmed him down enough to get the whole story. He was just wrapping up when someone else came in the door. It was Doug, better known to his friends as "Wiley". A fully morphed coyote, he was a recent addition to the Lupine Boys, and possibly Kieth's greatest friend.
::Hey, Donnie.:: He said. ::Hiya Scratch. Hey, Oren.::
"Hi, Wiley." I responded. "Did you hear about Kieth?"
He smiled and said ::Why do you think I'm here at this time of morning. I came with him.::
"That's right!" said Kieth. "Me and Wiley here have been to see the wizard."
::His name is Tom Sapacroli, and he's not a wizard.:: said The Coyote.
::But he CAN cure SCABS.::
"By faith, Oren." Kieth replied. "That's all it took."
Wiley Chuckled. ::I doubt that's all there is to it, but it seems to work.::
"It would work on you if you'd just believe." said the wolf. "Five years I was stuck in a full morph and in five minutes he cured me!"
I shook my head. "This sounds too good to be true." I said. Donnie nodded in agreement.
"But what if it is?" asked Victoria. "I want to check it out."
"It's probably a scam." said I. "I still remember that 'Unstuctane' deal a few years ago. My sister blew a fortune, but her husband is still a tiger."
"But this works!" Kieth insisted. "Look at me! I'm human!"
Victoria's eyes were starting to sparkle. I could tell she was hooked.
"How do we find this guy?" I asked.
"He's set up a great big tent just outside of Potsborough."
"That's right on the other side of the lake."
::He doesn't see anybody until after nightfall, though.::
"I see." I said, not really seeing at all."
"Donnie, you ought to go." said Kieth. "You can be human again... and you'd be able to talk!"
I could see Donnie, the one who was normally dignified and above it all, shiver excitedly at the thought. "After bar close." he signed.
"Great idea!" said Kieth. We'll meet back here at closing time and I'll take you to see him!"
I was going along to see this for myself. I for one didn't need my SCABS cured, but if this turned out to be fake, which it probably was, someone would need to be there for damage control.
There was quite an assembly by the time we got around to going. Theo and Annette, my next-door neighbors, had insisted on coming in hopes of finding a way out of being fish. Dozens more from the bar came, for whatever reason, to see this Tom Sapacroli fellow. There was a large crowd gathered, and we could hear Sapacroli's voice booming over the speaker system.
"Do you believe?" asked the voice. "Do you believe that you can become human again and stop being an antelope? Well then my friend, be healed!"
I stuck my head inside the tent in time to see a fully morphed antelope slowly become human. He was being gripped at the shoulders by a thin, timid looking man with dark eyes and a wispy beard wearing a jet black suit. People were constantly entering and exiting, so no one really noticed when the lot of us took our places in the crowd.
"There's an inanimorph here." said Sapacroli. "I sense that there is an inanimorph... a stone man... who is reluctant to come up and be healed. Son, I urge you to come and let me help you to be set free."
Obediently, a man who looked like a granite statue made his way slowly to the stage.
"Son, do you believe?"
"Well... I don't know..."
"You've got to believe, my boy. Tell me, do you BELIEVE?"
"Well then come out of that stone body! Come out and be free!"
Slowly, the white stone began to transform into soft pink flesh. The statue-man took a deep breath, and suddenly, he was completely human. "I'm alive!" he proclaimed. "Good word, my heart is beating! Oh, thank you, Sir!"
"It was your faith that healed you, my lad. Now then, who is next?"
There was a chorus of "Me!"'s.
"I sense that there is a fish... a trout... No, two trout."
"That's us!" Cried Annette.
"Like that's so hard to see." I said. "You're in a fishbowl. It's obvious that you're stuck." Nevertheless, I carried the two of them up on stage.
"What are your names?" he asked.
"I'm Theo, and this is my wife, Annette."
"And do you wish to be healed, Theo?"
"Do you have the faith to become human once again?"
"Then come out of that bowl, Theo." Sapacroli placed his hand on the fish, who began to grow into the shape of a burly brown man. An assistant quickly covered him with a plastic robe as Sapacroli reached down to put his hand on Annette.
That was when I really started getting suspicious. If it was faith that was curing SCABS, why did he need to keep making physical contact?
Sapacroli seemed to look dismayed. "Annette, I sense that there is doubt in your heart. I'm sorry Annette. I cannot help you if you do not believe."
"But I want to believe!"
"And so you shall, Annette. I want you to stay and watch what we do here the rest of the night, and tomorrow, I'm confident your faith will be made perfect."
Sadly, Annette asked me to take her down.
Victoria followed the Jacksons. When he was done with her, she had become a mildly plump, though astonishingly cute, human girl. Many, many people who had come from the Pig went up to be healed that night. Donnie went up, though as one might expect, he was one of those whose doubts were too great to permit healing. Gornul went forward. When he came back, he was a smiling human man. Curiously, his smell did not change a lot. Vincent the mink went up. He was wiggling his fingers and saying "a piano! Somebody get me a piano!" To his dismay, he was another one who was asked to return tomorrow.
My thoughts turned momentarily to one who was most conspicuously absent: Phil. He was an intelligent hare. What would he think of all this? Would he rush up to shed his fur, or would he, like me, have too many doubts? Then came the moment that cinched it for me.
Once all the transformations were done for the night, Sapacroli, tired and sweaty, turned to the crowd and said "Friends, it was indeed a privilege for me to be here with you all and to help you discover the hidden healing power you all have inside of you. It is my goal to help as many people as I can in this way, but I will need your help. My staff and I have devoted ourselves full-time to this work. Because of this, we depend on contributions both for our livelihood and our traveling expenses. There are several of my assistants scattered about the tent with small coffers. They are ready to take whatever generous contributions you may have to give to further this work.
"It's a scheme." I said. "This whole thing is about getting people to part with their money!" Even as I said this, Victoria happily dropped a fifty dollar bill into one of the coffers.
The very next morning, I went to talk to Phil. I told him everything that I had witnessed, and of my concerns. He listened carefully, and nodded his head slowly. "I've heard of scams like this before." he said. "Usually, it's just a polymorph trying to make a quick buck."
"That's what I thought, too. What throws me off though, is that a polymorph's change lasts... what, twenty four hours? I called up Kieth this morning and he's still human and just as happy as fudge with it."
"I'm going to ask my friend in the department to run a background check on this guy." said Phil.
"Good idea." I said. "I'll see if there's anything on him on the web."
"Also a good idea." He seemed to study my face for a moment. "And don't worry. I'm not going to go begging this guy to change me too."
I breathed a sigh of relief mixed with a chuckle at myself for being so transparent.
After visiting with Phil, I went to see Victoria. She was feeling jolly and light, dancing around her apartment wearing a brand new dress that must have cost a fortune.
"Oren, it's so wonderful!" she was saying. "Now that I'm human, there are so many possibilities! I can go home if I want to. I can get a real job. I can do just about anything."
"How many cups of coffee have you had this morning?"
"Oren, you're so funny! I'm just so happy!"
Victoria... Listen, I've got my doubts about this whole thing, and I don't want to see you hurt."
At that point, she picked me up and held me like one would hold a baby
"I appreciate your concern, Oren, but I don't think there's anything to worry about."
Gads... If this Tom Sapacroli did turn out to be bunko, and if he hurt Victoria, I'd personally wring his neck.
Over the next few days, it became almost impossible to find someone who had not gone to see this man. People all over the city, from two counties even, were going to either watch or be healed by this guy. Thus far, no transformees that I knew of had turned back, which leant some small amount of credence to the faith healer. Phil's and my searches, as well as those of the police, turned up nothing. No one had ever even HEARD of Tom Sapacroli. Of course, that was only using what electronic means were available. When those failed, I decided it was time for some old-fashioned sleuthing. After swimming across the lake to the outskirts of Potsborough, I tried to figure out how best to sneak around unseen. My body was one step ahead of me, though, as it began shrinking to the form of a least weasel. Now the size of a rat and the color of the dry grass, I could sneak about almost freely. I found the tent again with ease. It was deserted, naturally. Stopping to listen, I could detect voices coming from a nearby trailer. Cautiously, I ran over to listen.
"...not dry yet. These people are willing to give a fortune."
"I don't care!" said the familiar voice of Sapacroli. "This is our last night on the east coast, period. Two of the people have already changed back. More are going to follow, and we can only convince them that they've lost faith for so long."
"Where do we go next, then?"
"We disappear for a while. Things are getting too dangerous. Someone has been doing some investigation on us."
"Have they found out?"
"I don't think so, or we'd be in jail by now. I think, however, that they're beginning to suspect a connection with Frank Willet and John Buzcado."
"Well that's just..."
My heart stopped. I froze in place. The door of the trailer opened and out stepped Sapacroli. He stared straight at me with fearsome, penetrating green eyes. "Well well." he said. "I recognize you. You're the little otter who brought those fish to me last night, aren't you?"
What? How could he possibly know who I was? I growled at him and tried to act like a weasel. "Don't play games with me, boy." he said as he reached down to grab me. I wasn't about to get caught, though. I bit him on the hand and ran like mad. That was a mistake. As he stood there cursing, he began to change. His teeth became monstrous, and his fingernails turned into enormous claws. Changing back into an otter, I got back into the lake as fast as I possibly could. Sapacroli stood on the shore, swearing indignantly for several minutes before he turned back and shouted "Lars, we're leaving NOW!"
The second I got back to the burrow, I dialed the cell phone. "West Street Shelter. Phil Geusz speaking."
"Phil, it's Oren. Listen, I think I've pieced together what's going on. Meet me at the Pig in thirty minutes."
"He's a polymorph." I explained to the assembled patrons of the Blind Pig. "Extremely powerful. Quite possibly the most powerful in the world. What's more, he's got a platypus sense."
"At least I think that's what it is. It's a highly developed electromagnetic sense so sharp that he can read a living body like a book. He uses this to determine who's a unimorph and who's got a psychosomatic morphlock or just has very limited morphing powers. If he can change you, he does. If he can't, he tells you to come back tomorrow."
::But I saw several people get healed on their second day.:: said Wiley.
"Of course. He saves some for the next day to make it look convincing."
"But then there should be a much larger number of people who can't be healed." Phil noted.
"You're right. He balances the numbers by having selected helpers pose as unimorphs."
"That still leaves one question." said Kieth. "A polymorph's changes aren't permanent."
"And neither are his. After about a week, the transformations start to wear off. He then takes whatever donations he's raked in, runs off to a different town, and changes his name and his face. Thus far, ours is the third state he's hit, at least that we know of."
"You mean we're all going to change back?" said Theo, sadly.
I only nodded. "Two people have already. Maybe more."
"No!" said Victoria. "I don't want to go back! I don't want to go back!" She began to curl into a ball and whimper as though she were in physical pain.
I shook with anger at what I was seeing. Dropping from my chair, I stormed toward the door.
"Oren, where are you going?"
"I'm going to kill him. I'm gonna choke the life out of him with my bare paws!
I felt a hand grab my shoulder. I turned around to see Matt, who was even now growing his whiskers once again. "You just told us that this guy is the most powerful polymorph ever seen. If you tried to take him on alone, he'd tear you apart. Leave it to the police."
I sighed and nodded. He was right, of course, but that didn't change the rage I felt inside.
I took Victoria home. Neither of us said anything the whole way. We both just thought a lot about what was happening. I thought so hard, in fact, that by the time we finally arrived at her home, I had changed most of the way into a human. As she took her keys out of her purse, she asked me "Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?"
I thought it would be polite to decline, but before I spoke, I saw the look in her eyes. She did not want to be alone. "Sure. I'd love one."
She was already starting to regress into an anteater by the time she reached the kitchen. Already, her nails were darkening. I scanned the apartment to take stock of her interests and come up with a topic of conversation which would distract her.
"Hey," I said, eyeing her video disk collection. "You like action movies?"
"I sure do." she replied. "But mostly, I'm just a Schwarzenegger fan."
"Really? Me too."
"Cool! Did you ever see 'Hercules in New York'?"
"Yes! I love that one! I can't believe they actually dubbed his voice."
"They're planning a sequel to that one now. 'Hercules in Vegas'."
"You're kidding. Arnie is playing Hercules again at his age?"
"Hey, he looks good. Did you see him in 'Turboman 3'?"
Our movie-related banter was cut short as Victoria dropped the coffee pot. It hit the floor with a 'thunk' and cracked. The girl stood at the counter, staring sadly at her claws. I did all that I could. I came up behind her, put my arms around her and made comforting noises, telling her that everything would be all right. She let loose a few small sobs as her face stretched forward.
"Come on." I whispered. "We'd better get your clothes off before they go on their own." I picked up the coffee pot and placed it back on the counter. It was still in one piece, but would never hold coffee again.
I stayed with Victoria that night. We put on a romantic comedy and shared some tea as we snuggled on the couch. She fell asleep near the end of the movie, and I followed soon afterward. I awoke to the sensation of being poked in the side and hearing my name repeated.
"Oren? Oren? Wake up, Oren! Look what happened!"
I obediently opened my eyes. There stood Victoria, in full morphic form. Aside from the face, the tail, and the fur which covered everything, she looked human. She even had her human hair on her head.
"I woke up and I looked like this. I can change, Oren! I guess Sapacroli's morphing me must have unstuck something. I can go from this form to full anteater."
"That's great, Vic." Of course, it made sense. Since she was one of the lucky ones, she had to have an inherent shifting ability to some degree.
She kissed me on the nose. "Thank you for staying with me. That was really sweet of you to do."
I glanced at the clock on the microwave. It was already morning. "Glad to be of service." I said. A pause. "Are you going to be all right?"
"I'll be fine, thanks."
"Good, because I have some work I have to get done this morning."
And I did. The first thing I did was to find a pay phone and dial up an old friend.
"Hi there, Scarecrow."
"Oren? Oren is that you? I haven't heard from you in ages! How are you?"
"Oh, I'm doing well enough. How are you doing, Karen?"
"I can't complain. The PI business hasn't been too bad to me."
"Been keeping you busy?"
There was a pause and the sound of rustling straw. "Not really, things have slowed down this past month."
"Have you heard of a guy named 'Tom Sapacroli'?"
I heard a snort. "Have I? I've had ten dozen calls this week asking me to find out if this guy is for real."
"Well, he's not. I found out that he's actually a polymorph running a scam. One very POWERFUL polymorph."
"But if that were true, wouldn't his changes reverse in twenty-four hours?"
"Not necessarily. From what I've seen, his last for about a week."
"Karen, this guy has hurt a lot of my friends this past week. I want to take him down."
"Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"
"I am. I think it's time to round up the old gang."
After talking with Karen, I went to the bar to pick up my scooter. I walked in and saw an inordinate number of people there for this time of morning. I sat down on a stool between Jesse and Bryan. I hadn't figured on seeing either of them here this morning. It made sense to see the unimorphs whose dreams had just been dashed drinking and seeking comfort in the morning, but these two were full polymorphs. They hadn't lost anything. I realized of course that this was wrong. After all, I hadn't lost anything, either. If I was upset over the loss which my friends felt, why shouldn't these two be?
I looked around at the assembled patrons of the pig and said "You know what? We need a party."
"A party?" Jesse echoed.
"Well, yeah. Something to cheer these people up a little, you know?"
I just got a blank stare.
"Just a thought."
When I got back to my burrow, I turned on Rover to try to contact some old friends.
"Good afternoon, Oren." said the computer. "How are you today?"
"I'm peeved." I replied. How are you?"
"I am fine. Would you like to play a game?"
"No, Rover. I just want to open my E-mail."
"Whatever you say."
I sighed. Whoever designed those personality chips needed to be shot. When I checked the mail, I found a note from Karen. It seemed that the feds had just arrested one James Utner, A.K.A. Tom Sapacroli. Inwardly, I was upset. I wanted to be the one to get him. I was even looking forward to rounding up my old rough- and-tumble buddies to do it. Se la vie. I read on. The way she'd heard it, an undercover agent disguised as a pigeon had been watching as Sapacroli emerged from his trailer and chased a small animal away. He'd been so upset that he ordered the camp to move out, and as he did, he lost control and slipped into his normal form. Once the agent identified him, he was able to move in and arrest the guy. I smiled maliciously. I guess I had helped to bring him in, after all.
Once I was sure that she was off work, I went to see Victoria. Our visit was happier this time, and we watched another movie together; "Batman Seven: The Return of Freeze". As we were watching the credits roll by, the doorbell rang.
It was Gornul, and he had a big old smile plastered across his clay face. "I thought I might find you here." He said.
"What's up?" I asked.
"You have both been cordially invited to a private party at the Blind Pig Gin Mill. Bring Clothing."
Indeed I did. When the three of us arrived, there was a banner in the front window proclaiming "First Annual Blind Pig Normbash". The place was full of people. Surprisingly, most of them were human. It became apparent why when I looked to my left and saw Jacob, Jesse and Bryan, with several other polymorphs, sitting around a table looking tired.
"Hey, Oren!" called Jesse. I was amazed to see him human. He interpreted my quizzical gaze and said "It's true. I finally let my secret out."
"I find that if I work with the other polys, it doesn't hurt as much and they don't get tired as quickly."
"Well," I said as I climbed inside a brand new pair of shorts. "Guess it's time to get into the spirit." Running some math equations in my head, I changed into my old, human self. There were, of course, those who could not return to human form. For them, it was sort of a time to poke fun at the lot they had been dealt by fate. Phil ... serious, level-headed Phil, was parading around in a pin-striped suit and a stick-on mustache. Annette was wearing a lovely, if soaking wet evening gown as she swayed back and forth in her fishbowl while Theo held her fins. Ellen was back in her wheelchair, but she had her legs tucked up underneath her while a pair of mannequin legs peeked out from under a blanket.
I had to admire the cleverness of it. Bryan and Jesse had taken a sad situation and turned it into a party. They also, unknowingly, started a tradition. During the party, Victoria took me aside to one of the quieter corners of the bar.
"I wanted to thank you for everything you've done." she said.
"What did I do?"
"You took a poor girl from Alaska and made her feel welcome in a strange city. You gave me comfort when I was sad. You're a friend to me, Oren."
I blushed. It showed, with no fur to hide it.
Victoria just smiled. "Come on." she said, taking my hand. "I've got twenty-three and a half hours left as a human and I want to make the most of them."
Then she did the unexpected. She grabbed me and kissed me.
"What was that for?" I asked breathlessly.
"I was afraid I wouldn't be able to once my face grew back."
She and I danced the night away.
The "Normbash" had been great fun, and probably would have gone on for days if people hadn't started changing back. It was interesting to see what some of my friends had originally looked like. I had a big smile on my face as I rode home on my scooter. That smile lasted until I reached the door of my burrow. Stuck into the side of my hillock on a tent peg was a piece of paper.
It was an order to vacate.
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