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The Best Medicine
by Bob Stein
Bob Stein -- all rights reserved
 

"Dr. Derksen?" Bryan swiveled his head around to fix a multi-facted eye on the nurse who was speaking from the doorway. He'd gotten used to long-distance conversations. Half the nursing staff wouldn't even come into this wing. And that was saying something in a hospital that dealt primarily with Scabs. The various petty fears and prejudices that most Scabs faced were nothing compared with the universal loathing that a giant cockroach endured.

"Uh, I'm sorry to bother you, but you have a visitor downstairs who insists on seeing you."

Bryan was surprised. Not too many people even knew he was in the hospital, and only a handful knew why. "Well, send him or her up! After staring at the walls for three days, I'll even talk to a reporter."

She gave him a funny look. "It's not a reporter, Dr. Derksen. He's a little boy, and he says he's family. Normally, we wouldn't allow a child in the wards, especially unaccompanied. But since you're a doctor..." her voice trailed off. Basically, they would ignore the rules for him if he wanted. Privilege of staff, even if he was a bug. The only problem was, he didn't have any family.

"Oh, I almost forgot." The nurse dug in her pocket and pulled out a wooden disk about the size of a quarter. It had 'TUIT' printed on both sides. "He said to tell you Robert was fine, and to give you this." The woman came closer reluctantly, just long enough to drop the disk onto the bedside table and retreat.

Bryan stared at the coin. A round 'tuit'. He'd given a couple of those out as gags, but there was only one 'Robert' he knew of who'd have one. He'd heard about Bob's new 'family.' But if it was his friend's son, where the hell was Bob? "Please send him on up. And, thanks."

A few minutes later, there was a rap on the door. He could hear the nurse outside trying to make the kid understand that 'Dr. Derksen looked very scary, but he was really a nice man.' Then the door was pushed open and the kid came in. His eyes widened as he saw Bryan, and then he shook his head. "Holy Moses! I thought I'd seen everything."

"Nice to meet you, too, kid." Bryan focused his eyes as best he could. The nurse hadn't been lying when she said the boy was little. Maybe 5 or 6 years old, he had a mop of copper-red hair and ears that might allow for flight if they could flap. The kid sure didn't look anything like Bob's old human form, but there was no telling. "So, who are you supposed to be? Any relation to a certain associate of mine who ran off a few months ago?"

The boy shook his head. "Sorry about that, Bryan. Gladys told me about the backlog you'd been stuck with. It's just that things got out of hand, and I didn't know what to do. Still, I'm back now and ready to return the favor."

A little bewildered, Bryan stared at the kid as realization bloomed. "Oh, shit! Bob?"

"You shouldn't use language like that in front of impressionable children. You know the old saying, little pitchers have big ears?" Bob grinned and flicked one of his ears. "I must be a damned punchbowl with these!"

"But how? You don't even look like...." Bryan stopped in mid-sentence. "That thing with Barnes! The kid that disappeared. It was you, wasn't it?"

Bob sighed. "That's quite a leap, Bryan. Damn! I was hoping it wouldn't be so obvious. Looks like I turned myself into Opie Taylor for nothing." At Bryan's blank look, he shrugged. "An inside joke. The red-haired kid from the old 'Andy Griffith' show? Anyway, yeah, it was me. Though I'd like to try keeping that a secret from anybody else."

Bryan snorted. "And you think nobody else will guess? Sorry to burst your bubble, kiddo. When a refugee from the playpen suddenly shows up claiming to be Dr. Bob Stein, Barnes' leading opposition, I think a couple of people will make the connection. Like, just about anyone with a brain?"

The boy stuck out his tongue. "And I guess even those without one, since you figured it out. I wasn't exactly planning on letting anyone else see me like this. But I'll need your help to pull this off. You aren't the only one who's had some, er, unusual problems with the Martian Flu." At that, he began to strip.

"Whoa, buddy!" Bryan flailed a couple of arms. "I've got enough strikes against me. If one of the nurses comes in here and sees a naked kid, I'm gonna get in some real trouble!"

"Sorry, Bryan. But I didn't bring a change of clothes, and I didn't want to split these out." Bob's voice deepened as his body suddenly darkened, and then almost exploded into the more familiar shape of a humanoid horse.

"And I thought I had a variety act!" Bryan stared at the massive black equine. "What's with the kid routine, then? Most of the staff here would recognize you right off." He paused. "Something doesn't look quite right, though."

There was a long silence as he waited for Bob to reply. The bristled lips worked a bit, and then a low whicker emerged. Bob looked down at his animal legs and then moved closer to the bed using a motion that was part goose-step and part hop.

Bryan managed to overcome his surprise long enough to offer the tablet and pen he kept by the bed. It was obvious that his friend's hands were thicker and larger, and he seemed to be missing a couple of fingers. Bob managed to grip the pencil, but then stood there looking at the pad. After a moment, the Shire form collapsed into itself, leaving the homely little boy in its place.

Bob sighed. "Like I said, you aren't the only one who's had some complications. When I got regressed, the virus in my system went dormant. I figured I'd have to at least hit puberty before I got Scabs again. That's why I set up that elaborate cover. I wasn't in Montana a week before it flared up. I guess the regression confused it for a while. You know, there are aspects of the virus that hadn't occurred to me before. I'm starting to wonder if it has some sort of intelligence...."

He shook his head. "We can talk about that later. Anyway, I woke up one morning as the horse morph. Thought I was back to normal again, at least until I tried to stand up. The Shire form is a lot more bestial, both physically and mentally. I have a sort of mental link with equines now. Not exactly mind-reading, but I can communicate using images. The flip side is that I lose all concept of written language. Which means no 'voder. And since my two shapes are so different, I can't even try surgical implants."

"Maybe when you get older? The size difference won't be as bad."

Shaking his head, Bob pointed to the obvious gap where his upper front teeth should be. "That's the other bad news. My teeth were missing when I got regressed. The adult teeth are in place, but they just haven't come in. And it's not just teeth. My hair and fingernails haven't grown out any, either. I'm not aging."

Bryan started to laugh, softly at first, but building quickly into near-hysteria. It was an odd sound, but recognizable for what it was. Bob frowned, looking like a pre-schooler pouting. "What the Hell is so funny? I'm stuck sucking my thumb, or dealing with the same bowel and bladder control as the average nag. I'm gonna have to wear one of those equine diapers the mounted Police use on their horses. Won't the Humans First gang have a field day with that one!"

The giant cockroach only laughed harder, arms waving helplessly. Disgusted, Bob pulled on his clothes again. He was almost done when Bryan finally regained enough control to speak.

"I'm sorry, Bob. But don't you think it's funny? Look at us! Most of the world considers me to be the foremost researcher in Scabs, the leading expert on how to handle things. And you're not only one of the top Scabs doctors, you're the damned representative for the entire Scabs population! A giant cockroach and a thumb-sucking horse!" He struggled to fight more laughter. "And we thought Barnes was the 'neigh'-sayer!"

Bob stared at Bryan for a moment and then giggled. The more he thought about it, the harder he laughed, until both of them were grasping thier sides. Bob collapsed on the floor, gasping for breath. Despite an aching stomach, he felt better than he had in months. Somehow, things didn't seem quite so bad when you could laugh about them.

The nurse came bursting into the room and gaped at them. "What's going on here? Is something wrong?"

Wiping watering eyes, Bob looked up at the nurse. "Yeah, something's wrong. You need a bigger roach motel in this place. " He grinned at Bryan. "'Neigh-sayer', indeed."

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