by Jon Sleeper
© Jon Sleeper -- all rights reserved
As the music played, we danced.
And for once I didn't trip over my hooves. Quite a trick, actually. I might be nimble on four hooves, but two was another matter! We flowed to the beat of an old song by Sting ("When We Dance" of course). One of my favorites for years before I caught the Flu, and even after my subsequent two decades in the forest. Two decades I didn't regret any more.
The music swelled, and I held Maxine closer to me, and at the proper moment, we kissed, to the cheering of those wedding guests around us.
When we finished kissing, Grace ran up and hugged the both of us. She had a sly look on her face and in her scent. I knelt down and hugged her soundly. "Mommy's got something to tell you," she said.
"Grace!" Maxine said with mock sternness. "I was going to say that. Oh well."
"Tell me what?" I asked, perplexed. My life had finally stabilized. We were moving out of Brian's house next week, out to a place in the 'burbs near the EPONA ranch. A community built with Scabs in mind. The house was a gift from Maxine's entire family.
"Come closer," she said. "I want to whisper it."
"Okay..." I put my right ear right at the end of her muzzle. But nothing could've prepared me for what she said, not ever.
Now, I don't remember my years in the wilderness with much detail, really. Just impressions, images that stand out. Fights with other bucks. That sort of thing. That's what was on my mind at work that day two months earlier, when the whole thing (well, this thing) began. Like any other day, really.
I was dividing my time equally between putting out the evening forecast and staring in a mirror on my desk. My antlers were growing so fast on that early June morning I could feel it! Hard to describe, really. A sort of odd stretching sensation in a location that no human has. Nothing in the animal world other than bacteria grows faster than antlers. I was hoping for a bigger set than last year, though they were only half done at the moment. Especially since the wedding was planned for the week after the velvet came off sometime in early September...
That's why I was thinking of my years in the forest, really. I always tried to focus on the images I remember seeing in brooks, lakes and streams, trying to remember past racks. Of course I could tell how big they were at the moment, one of those instincts I suppose, but somehow seeing them in a mirror made them look at the more majestic, even in their half-grown state. Hmm... maybe even a twelve-pointer this year! I thought, hopeful. Then my thoughts took an unexpected turn. To my time before my deer-hood.
"Deep thoughts, Buck?" Lisa said.
I've always wondered how she manages to sneak in on me like that. Normally I'm so hypersensitive I know when someone's at the door before they've gotten within twenty feet of it. Usually by the scent wafting on the air down the hall, or the sound of footsteps. I was kinda used to her surprise visits, though. "Yeah. A little." I looked back in the mirror again. "Just hoping for a good rack, mainly."
"Don't worry. I'm sure they'll turn out fine," she said. "I wanted to tell you, though, that I saw Maxine trotting up from my office window. She should be here in a minute. She was moving rather fast..."
The moment she finished Maxine trotted up in her full deer shape, by her scent she was clearly disturbed by something. I got up and hugged her as she came in. "What's wrong, love?" I asked.
Lisa had slipped out as quietly as she came in, and closed the door behind her leaving us in private.
She looked at the ground a moment, ears drooping a bit, then came right out and said, I don't want to get married without your family present.
I was quite taken aback for a moment. My ears went against my neck in surprise, then came back forward. "Any reason for the change of heart?" She'd never been adamant about my old family being there before, and had actually never said anything. I guessed she thought it was my problem to deal with as I saw fit. But she didn't need to say anything...
Since Maxine is a therapist for SCABs she encounters many different emotional problems. From dealing with a change of sex, to a change of species (or in Webmaster's case, Phylum). But those are just surface problems. Looking like an animal in a human world can cause a LOT of emotional trauma where such things are looked down upon. And on a deeper level how one's family deals with things is one of the hardest things of all...
Maxine never really talks about her clients too much, and never by name. Nevertheless, I have gotten to know those she councils. By scent rather than by name, since she can't help but pick up their scents since she's in the same room with them.
I sighed. "Are you serious?" I said. Wondering why she doesn't change back into a more human form.
Yes, Jon. I really am. I'm sure you can smell my client on me. All I can say is I just had a very disturbing session. And I now know just what can happen if things don't change between you and your original family. I'm sorry.
"It's okay, love. I was kinda thinking about it myself today. I'll have to think about it a while longer..."
Do that. I've got to get back to my office. I'll see you later?
"Yes, dear." I "smiled." "I'll give it some thought. See you later." With that, she trotted back out the door and out of the building.
I sat there a few moments, drumming the end of my pen against my desk, wondering just what to do next. I brought up some cud to chew on, and I thought hard. I guess she's right... I thought. I've been delaying it for months. Then I looked at the clock. But maybe later... I'm ten minutes over deadline! With that, I finished the evening forecast and went to lunch.
The job at the Paper was the third best thing that ever happened to me. The first being Maxine (and Grace), and the second Brian helping me regain my humanity. The Big Boss was a very understanding person. And after seeing me come in once too often panting and gasping in that hot business suit she said that I could dress how I pleased, as long as I wore clothes when out of my office. She knew I had a time limit, so told me that my office was my domain. She in fact had "Buck's Domain" put on the door to my office (and the silhouette of a jumping deer, too). So it wasn't uncommon for someone to walk in on me in my full deer shape.
I met Jared and Inan for lunch, the two people under me who work on other aspects of weather forecasting. Inan was also a SCAB, though it was limited to having the eyes of an eagle. Which meant he had this piercing glare that tends to scare people. Including me at the beginning. I got a little bit of salad, but otherwise I sat and chewed my cud between talking with my coworkers. "Is something bothering you, Buck?" Inan asked.
"How can you tell?" I returned.
He gestured at his eyes. "The way your ears are moving. The way you're breathing. Body language, really. Anything you want to talk about?"
"Not really. Just something personal." To change the subject, I looked at the other people eating around me. A good ten percent were Scabs. The paper seems to have this need to hire us, it seemed. Not to mention people who have at least some tolerance of us. It certainly makes for interesting lunchtime conversation.
I was saved from having to talk to Inan anymore by a young intern who appeared behind me and asked nervously, "um... no offense or anything. But how to you walk through doorways without snagging those things?" she asked.
One of the things the Scabs on staff have to tolerate are people asking questions. Though it's not any kind of rule, the Big Boss made her feelings known that if people are brave enough to ask questions, they will not be SCAB haters in the future. So we generally try to answer them out of courtesy. I turned an ear towards her, and turned my chair around. "Well now," I began. "Good question..."
Maxine picked me up in the van we'd bought in the parking garage. Once I was inside, I gratefully resumed my otherwise normal four-legged form. Though hands were nice, I much prefer the ability to jump up to thirty feet in a single bound. And since I'd spent nearly half my life that way anyway; it's actually more comfortable for me. Besides, with my vodor I can easily communicate. Maxine turned around in the driver seat and asked me, "have you been thinking about it?"
I put myself down on the pad in the back and replied, Only occasionally, love. I'm afraid this isn't something one decides in an afternoon. I don't even know where to start anyway... nor am I anxious to.
"I understand. But wouldn't the paper be the best place to start anyway? Didn't Brian once say that Lisa brought him some things about your family? That might be a good place to start."
I'll do it, love. Just not now. Not yet... I said uncomfortably, the voice from the vodor's speaker sounding as tinny as my obvious procrastination.
"We'll talk more when we get home," Maxine replied, ears back a little. She always gets that determined expression when she wants me to do something... Which meant I'd have no luck swaying her from her decision. Damn... oh well. I thought. She pushed on the gas.
Brian normally gets home before either of us, and closes early enough to pick up Grace from her babysitter's after school. School. It took us months to find a place that would take her. As luck would have it, the school was funded by EPONA so SCABs were common in the classroom. She was adored by her teachers. They tested her... and immediately put her one grade ahead of every other kid her age. We parked the van on the street, and I hurriedly trotted up to the door for my daily "You're home!" greeting, which she also gave her mother.
Never think a deer girl can't give a big, slobbering kiss. I don't know how Grace does it, but she does it.
Thanks, Spotty. I said after her hug-and-lick. I needed that. "Spotty" or "Bigears" were my favorite nicknames for her, though the former really didn't apply any more. Over the past month or so she'd started to lose her spots rapidly. A sign of growing up... I sighed inwardly at the thought.
I went straight to Brian's seemingly perpetually overgrown back lawn (he must use some special fertilizer or something) and grazed a little. Grace and Maxine joined me a few minutes later. I perked up at a rustling in a tree above me, and looked up to find Brian in his raccoon form trying to use a pair of special clippers to prune off some of the diseased branches. Careful uncle Brian! Grace said. Brian chittered reassuringly.
I watched as Grace acted as a step ladder for him to get out of the tree. But he didn't change back immediately. Grace had finished grazing, so as Brian clung to her back she ferried him up to his room. Maxine and I followed them inside a moment later.
The three of us usually spend the evening in full morphic in front of the TV, and as Maxine and I curled up next to each other Grace snuggled between us. Brian came down a moment later. So, any interesting things happen at work today? I asked him.
"Nah. Just your normal day, really. Though I think I'm going to have to replace my retinascope. The bulb keeps on burning out... funny. How's the weather biz? I see it's cloudy tonight."
Cold front moving in. But don't hold your breath. Heat wave by the end of the week.
"Really?" The light from the TV flickered off and on. We all sat there watching for maybe an hour. We were watching PBS. A documentary about bald eagles. He looked at the screen, thinking. "You know... I've often hoped that I'd gotten wings or something."
I don't know, Brian. Maxine said. Wings are all well and good, I suppose. But personally I'm happy with hooves. She gave me a look that plainly said, "now is the time to ask" then curled her head around and started to groom Grace like any natural whitetail doe would.
She sometimes scared me when she did things like that, it reminded me that we were always on a teeter between humanity and animal-hood. I'm sure she does whitetail behaviors like that without even thinking. But considering I often did scrapes and other territorial-type stuff I really wasn't one to talk. And frankly, sometimes the three of us would rather be sentient deer than human.
I gave both Grace and Maxine a loving lick and went to my humanoid form, I'd managed to conserve some time. But the shift was painful and I wouldn't be able to hold it long. "Brian, do you happen to have that info on my old family?"
He looked surprised. "Um... sure. I think. I kept it thinking you might want to use it. But tonight?"
"I've been informed that it's suddenly become more important..." I flicked an ear in Maxine's direction.
"Oh." He said. Maxine suddenly nudged a sleepy-looking Grace, and they both went to her room. It was Grace's bedtime anyway, and Maxi always told her a bedtime story. Though what she told her to make that little ball of energy fall asleep was beyond me. For all I knew she could be reciting the National Tax Code...
Brian went up into his room, and brought down a small stack of paper. "Lisa gave this to me while we were getting 'reacquainted.' I was kinda hoping you would ask me for it at some point..."
I looked at the stack a bit apprehensively. Suddenly not knowing what to do next. I took the papers from him with shaking hands... and that's when the my form gave out on me. I fell onto all fours in a flash of pain, Brian smelling concerned while I regained my senses. My nearly explosive return to full deer shape made my vodor fall off, too. I could only snort-wheeze in apparent frustration (though what I really felt was relief.) Brian replaced my vodor. Damn! Guess I'll have to do this tomorrow...
Brian looked down at the scattered papers, his raccoon ears twitching a little in thought. I also noticed a bit of movement under the back of his robe. I didn't normally notice his tail, but sometimes it gives him away. "I guess so," he said. "But you really need to do this, Jon. If you don't then you'll regret it..."
Probably so, but it can wait another day, Maxine came down a moment later in morphic. I looked up at her, and "shrugged" with a flip of my ears and tail. Sorry, love. I'm out of time today. Tomorrow, maybe.
Another tinny excuse, and I knew it. "Just take it to work with you tomorrow. I don't expect you to call anybody, but at least read what Lisa gave Brian. It'll at least give you a starting point."
This info is two years old... I read that much. But I guess it wouldn't take much to ask Lisa to update it. I'll take care of it tomorrow...
"Do that. I've had a rough day, so I'll go to bed early, I think..."
I'll be up in a few minutes myself, love. I want to watch a bit more of this new raccoon documentary with Brian. With that, she ascended the stairs.
"What is it?" Brian asked.
She's really serious about this isn't she? I replied.
At that moment the TV started to talk about the raccoon's distinctive fur coloring on the face, and how it's sometimes been a symbol of persistence or something. I'm not sure if Brian knew it, but his face chose that moment to fur out. "Well, I agree with her," he said. "So don't try to convince me otherwise."
You know me, Brian. But I'm going to bed... G'Night.
I didn't have to go into work the next morning. Instead I was due for a complete physical exam. I had to have one a year. Lucky thing I could choose my own doctors... "What do you think I should do, Bryan?" I asked my insectoid friend.
"You're asking me? Jon, this isn't something that I think I should give you advice on."
I was sort of expecting that answer from him. I was on the treadmill in humanoid form at the moment. Jogging quite fast. One of those endurance tests, and passing five miles or so on the odometer. I thought a moment. "Well, hypothetically..." That sounded like a good place to start. "Hypothetically, Bryan. If I wanted to go about reestablishing my old identity what could I do first? I mean, 'Jonathan D. Sleeper' is dead. The only person the Law knows is 'Buck Forrest Staghorn.'"
"Well, you're not the first to have a problem like this, Jon. Many SCABs have similar problems. The Martian Flu hit us hard..." He wiggled his antennae.
"It's been twenty years, though. And I wasn't even me for those twenty years! I was an animal! Nothing more..." I said.
"Don't be so sure of that. Your case of SCABS is very unique, Jon. I can prove you are who you say you are with your human DNA, but I'll have problems filtering out your whitetail parts. You have an interesting dual genome, you know. There's only a few others I know that have a similar case..."
"Really, who?" His tone made me curious.
"Sorry, confidential. But to reiterate, identifying you with your DNA won't be any problem. Assuming I can find your old DNA on record somewhere..."
"Check out the University of Oklahoma records. I had a physical there before each chasing season. It helps to know if you can handle chasing tornadoes!"
Bryan tapped his "chin" with one hand while doing something complicated with the other three. "That'll simplify things. Hypothetically, of course."
"Now, if you could change to full deer form, we'll do the next battery of tests. I need to know if both your forms are in tiptop shape... But first if I could take a scraping of your velvet... for that blood sample..."
That stopped me short. "Bryan, since when did this hypothetical conversation become real? Besides nobody touches the velvet except me, and maybe Maxine." I said it with perhaps a bit more vehemence than I intended, but any damage might result in an imperfect rack. So I'm naturally protective of it.
He was taken aback a moment, "Oh... um... I think I understand. Okay. How about a taking it from a finger?"
Of course, Brian did my eye check. "Well, from the data I've got your eyes are about normal for a whitetail."
"Well, good..." I'd been thinking about it all morning. And now seemed a good enough time for asking. "Brian, I've been rolling around a hypothetical situation in my head."
"Yeah... but I wanted to ask a question first. It's rather personal, so I don't expect an answer. But..." I took a deep breath, smelling Brian's own curiosity, and my own anxiety, along with the antiseptic smell in his office. He nodded. "How did your family react when you told them that... that you... um..." I lost the words, and pointed at his raccoon ears instead.
He closed his eyes and sighed. "I guess it was only a matter of time that you asked me that. I'd prepared an answer, but I really can't think of it right now."
"If you don't want to answer..." I began.
"No, I think I need to." He sat down on a stool, clasped his hands below his chin. He took a deep breath. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done. My family was hit hard, you understand. That's why it was so important to me that you were Jon and not Buck."
He took another deep breath, and I saw the black mask spread across his face. "But I suppose that it was better for me than it was for others for just that reason. They were happy I wasn't dead. But to have one's parents show up on one's door step only hours later... I hadn't even started dealing with it. These 'coon ears..." They twitched. He sighed. His nose blackened. "They were shocked, of course. But they didn't run away in fear. Like I said, they were happy that I was alive. And I... and..." He lost his voice for a moment. "Sorry, can we talk more at home?"
"Yeah... sure." I said simply. It was nearly closing time anyway. And there was time enough before the wedding that I didn't have to rush...
A day passed. A week, a month. I had other things on my mind as Maxine drove me to work on that mid August morning. It was my birthday today! Or rather, the birthday I'd had when I was human. The date was August 15, 2026, and I was fifty human years old (five deer years because of the way my body ages). It had been nearly three years since I'd been shot in the shoulder, and nearly two years since Brian had brought me back to my senses.
It was also only a month or so before the wedding, Maxine finally said, "Jon, you've been putting it off for two months. You do it in the next week, or I'm going to have to get tough." She said it with a finality...
That, interestingly enough, made me think of a song that Sting wrote. It started, "'Seven days was all she wrote / a kind of ultimatum note. / She gave to me, she gave to me." This was my ultimatum note.
She smelled so insistent, how could I refuse? "Okay, fine. I'll do it tomorrow..."
"Tonight." She said, crossing her arms across her chest.
"But we're going to the Pig tonight!" Donnie finally opened the restraunt portion of the Pig that he'd been building. Now little kids like Grace could come in with the adults. The Pig was the most successful Scabs-run establishment in the city.
Maxine sighed. "I know. Trust me." She put a hand on my right shoulder.
"You know I do. But it's such a private thing..."
"Not among Scabs, it isn't. I know from experience that it helps to be around others that have had the same problems. Remember when you first met my family?"
I rolled my eyes. "Gawd, do I! Your father wanted my last year's set of antlers so he could mount it for me! Nice man... nice family."
"You've said so many times. But I want your family there, too. Have you talked to Lisa?"
"She gave me an update without me asking, I can tell you. It's in my briefcase." I was getting dressed in the van. Even though I could wear what I pleased, I still attempted to keep an air of formality. Mostly wearing button collar shirts, a tie, and a pair of nice shorts. The last thing I did was spray some stuff called "HoofGrip" on my feet so I wouldn't slip and slide on the slick tile floors of the paper's office building.
We arrived out front of the building, I made sure that I didn't bump my nearly complete antlers (looked like I was a ten pointer like last year, which was fine with me!) when getting out of the car, and went up to work.
It was one of those boring days that sometimes happens. At this time of year the weather gets pretty predictable. The prognostication (prog) programs did all the work, and for once they agreed with my instincts. So I had nothing to do. Nothing but the papers in my briefcase... I looked down at it, focusing on the scent of old leather that it often emitted. I guess it's now or never... I picked up my briefcase with shaking hands, and took out the sheets...
Apparently Lisa is very shrewd. The first page had the number and home address of my kid brother Gary. But I did a double take when I saw where he lived. A suburb outside the city.
Twenty miles away.
I couldn't read anymore! My eyes filled with tears, and I had to go lie down. I put out a small "Deer Xing" sign on my doorknob to let people know I wasn't going to be in humanoid form, and then took off my clothes and lay down on my resting pad, changing forms as I did so. I didn't bother with my vodor.
I lay there, frozen, motionless. My mind in an endless loop of what-ifs. And for the first time in years I wished that hunter had been a little more accurate in her shooting. Being a head on a wall would almost be preferable to what Maxine was making me do. It's a good thing deer don't cry, else the floor would be all wet.
I was vaguely aware of Lisa coming in for a moment, then leaving. I was so out of it I doubted I'd hear Wanderer if he howled right in my ears. But the door opened again a little while later. But I didn't notice who it was until...
...I felt a pair of little arms hugging me around my neck. "It's okay, Daddy." Grace said lovingly.
I didn't have my vodor on, so I couldn't respond verbally. I licked her on the cheek instead. She giggled. For a few more minutes she hugged me, putting my big head in her small lap, then stroking me on my muzzle and between my pedicles. Then she did something so underhanded (underhoofed?) that shocked me to the core. She tickled me on my sensitive velvet.
A deer's laugh not a pretty sound. But it had the effect of breaking me out of my near-catatonia. Grace put my vodor on me. Thanks, Bigears. I needed that. I said, giving her another lick-kiss.
"Feeling better?" Maxine said from the open door.
Not really... I sighed, another odd sound coming from a deer. I got up, lifting my hindquarters first, then my forepart. Then I went up onto my hind legs and shifted to humanoid. I put my ears back against my neck (it can be either an expression of anger or unsureness.) "He thinks I'm dead, you know." I said meekly. "And I don't know what to do about it."
"This is your little brother you've told me about, right? You two were very close, weren't you?"
"My whole family was close! They must have been torn them apart by my apparent death! So what am I supposed to do? Just call him?!" It came out in a yell, unfortunately.
Maxine just crossed her arms across her dark gray blouse (she always has trouble finding clothes that'll go with her fur color), and I saw her tail bob up and down in an expression of hers that replaced tapping one's foot. She tended to wear informal clothing to her clients, and wore shorts instead of skirts or dresses. She told me once: "I'm a whitetail, so naturally I've gotta show this thing off." Who am I to argue? She has a very pretty tail.
Her expressive ears tilted this way and that, and she smirked at me. "You know, that might be just the thing."
I swallowed. "Here, now? We've got reservations at the Pig!"
"Since when do we need reservations? And besides, not here."
Grace giggled, like she knew something, then hugged me again. "Then where, love?"
She ear-smirked again, then I remembered her morning comments.
So far the most depressing day of my life.
We arrived at the Pig, and to the small party that we'd arranged. The "BPGM" as the restraunt was known, had been added on to one side. A wall had been knocked out, but the opening was hidden so those in the bar couldn't see into the restraunt, and vice versa.
There was a larger number of norms than one would expect in this part of town, but even in its first week of business the place was pretty crowded. Partially because Donnie's daughter ran the restraunt (while he ran the bar, splitting the work), and partially because the federal government had finally relaxed it's restrictions on Scabs working in restraunts. Though in special cases only.
One such case was the chef that had been hired. A former French Master Chef, he now had the bearing of a ferret. But only his head. Which made him a better cook than he ever was (when one can smell every little nuance, it helps).
The three of use walked up to the door of the restraunt. Edwina arrived to take us to our seats. "Ah! The Birthday Buck is here!" she said with a smile. "Everybody is waiting!"
As usual, the bombardment of scents had taken me a while to sort out, so I saw those seated at two long tables before I smelled them.
I guess I should've expected it. Brian, Jack, Dr. Bob, Bryan, Wanderer, and others were all there. "Happy birthday Buck!" was a sign held up by Bob.
You know there was still something odd about him, but he and Grace seemed to get on really well for some reason. So I let it go.
"Maxi! I wanted this to be a small dinner!"
"I'm sorry, I just couldn't resist. It's not everyday a person turns fifty, after all." Maxine said, smirking. "Besides, I thought you'd like to have friends around for what you have to do."
I sighed. "You're probably right..." We sat down, and had a nice party. I got all kinds of great gifts. The best one was from Grace. "A hoof scubber!" I said, delighted. Damn these things are hard to keep clean sometimes.
Things started to wind down a bit around nine o'clock. I glanced at my timer watch. The timer tells me how much time I have left in humanoid form. A full two hours! So with my current happy mindset I figured now was the best time to do it. "Guys, I have to go make a phone call." I said simply. Maxine looked at me, and nodded approvingly.
I got up and went into the bar portion of the Pig, right to Donnie's green phone. Inside one of my pockets was Gary's number, which I'd found written in Grace's handwriting on a piece of paper. She can be as shrewd as her mother sometimes. Upon it was written in a barely legible scrawl (since she had to re-learn writing with her new hands) "Brother Gary, 684-9715".
As sometimes happens when I do things of such importance, I didn't think as I picked up the phone and dialed. I just did it. One ring, two rings, there rings... "Hello?" said a child's voice.
I was suddenly stopped short! I'd prepared all sorts of things to say to him, but they all dissolved at the sound of that voice. I'd never read that far in the info sheet. "Helloooo?" the young male voice said.
"If no one's there, hang up!" said a hauntingly familiar voice in the background. That filled me with new resolve.
"Is your daddy there?" I said carefully, keeping myself contained by the skin of my teeth.
"Um, yeah," the young voice said. "Justa minute. DAAAAD! PHOOONE!" His yelling hurt my ears, and around me at the bar people had started to become really quiet. I smelled Maxine and Grace standing and looking at me near the partition between establishments. Their expressions were hopeful, their faces, smiling. They gave me confidence.
The voice that came onto the phone had an air of maturity to it that I didn't remember it having before. But then, he was 47 years old. He obviously had a family, too. "What can I do for you?" He said tiredly. "And be quick about it, I have to put my kids to bed."
That reminded me, we'd have to get Grace home to bed soon... "Hello, Gary. Do you recognize my voice?"
"Umm... no. Why should I? Who's calling?" He was already becoming suspicious. Damn. The bar was quiet as quiet could be...
"Did you ever have a brother, Gary?" I said it as contained as I could, but it wasn't easy. Little bits of emotion leaked through.
"Well... I... yeah. Yeah, an older brother. But he died of the Flu twenty years ago... Who are you?!" his voice became more insistent.
"You and your brother were really close, weren't you?"
"And today is that brother's birthday."
"Yes." He seemed almost frozen now, I heard a near sob in his voice.
"What if I told you that your brother didn't die of the Flu all those years ago? What if I told you that he was merely lost for a while? What if I..."
"Stop! My brother's dead, damn it! He disappeared!" He was yelling now, but my voice remained in a near-calm.
"Disappeared, but they never found a body, did they? That's because there wasn't one to be found..." Simple, short sentences were all I could handle. But I put as much into them as I could.
"Are you implying my brother had mob ties?!"
I almost laughed, and couldn't resist my next words. Gary always one to jump to odd conclusions... and I said as much. "Gary, you've never learned, have you? Always impetuous, independent, and very stubborn. But at the same time very open minded."
"Look, you're calling from the... Blind Pig Gin Mill!" Caller ID, damn. "I'll send the police over there if you don't stop tormenting me!" He meant it, too. Which meant it was time to pull out all the stops. But there was a pause. "Come to think of it, your voice does sound familiar. I'm going to ask this one last time, man. Who are you?"
I took a deep breath. "All I'll say, Gary, is Rouge River. Rouge River. Rouge River."
Another pause. Like eternity, this time. Maxine came and put her right arm around my waist, and leaned into me, nuzzling her head against mine, eyes closed. I put my free arm around her shoulders, and kiss-licked her on the cheek. Grace took the other side. I was sitting on a bar stool, and Grace got in below the arm that had the receiver. The pause ended.
"What do you want?" There was resignation in the voice. As well as shock and disbelief. And, oddly, hope.
I took another breath. "I don't want anything but to meet you, Gary. Nothing but that. You and I need to talk. Talk for a long, long time."
Another thoughtful pause. "I'll be there in a half hour. I know where that bar is. It's a Scabs hangout, right?"
"Are you a..."
"Oh... is there anything else?"
My voice was starting to shake. "Just two more things. Yes, I'm a SCAB, so look for the guy with antlers. And second, I'd very much like to meet your family."
Another pause. "Okay... sure. I'll be there as soon as I can... You'll be there, right? You won't leave?" His voice was hopeful again.
"No, I'm not leaving. See you soon?" I wouldn't be able to keep from breaking down much longer...
"See you soon..." He hung up.
If not for Maxine and Grace supporting me I would've fallen off the stool! Instead I put my head in my hands and cried...
But the whole bar was applauding. Everyone. I took several deep breaths (a mistake, really, with my enhanced senses) and eventually regained my composure. Then sadness was replaced by a sudden euphoria! "I did it! I can't believe I did it! Wow!" I felt like a fawn again for some reason, as if I great weight had been lifted from my shoulders! But it wasn't over yet...
Donnie was throwing everybody out of the bar for some reason. At my unspoken question (we ruminants understand each other) he signed "I'm doing this for you, Jon. I don't want your brother to be confused. I had a hankering to close early tonight anyway. There's some things that I need to take care of for the restraunt."
"Okay, okay. You'll get no argument from me!" I turned to Maxi, and gave her a full-on-the-lips kiss. "I'd like you here, though." Grace giggled tiredly.
Maxine replied, "Grace and I will be just out of sight, love. I think that one surprise at a time would be good for your brother." I nodded. "How much time do you have left?"
I checked my watch. "Long enough..." But we worked out a lookout system anyway. So I spent my time in fullmorph, nervous as hell to conserve my humanoid time.. And I'm not talking about predator-nervousness!
At the word that Gary's minivan had showed up (it could only be him). I sat myself in a booth and waited. The next few moments might very well be the deciding factor on this whole thing... The door opened.
I sat in a booth, nursing a glass of orange juice (I don't normally drink alcohol, it burns my stomachs) as the door opened and a hauntingly familiar man stormed in, a dark look on his face.
Gary was my younger by just under three years. We had our good times, and our bad times. More of the former, actually. The man who walked in had inherited my mother's blond hair, though I was sure he was starting to gray at the temples. He had short sideburns, the square Lutz jaw, and a nose much like my original one. If not for his hair he'd look almost like a forty-seven year old version of my human self. It was just plain eerie.
Do you know how hard it is not to watch somebody when your vision is motion sensitive, and you've got a 270 degree field of view? Impossible. The scent wafting from his direction was 100% confusion and anger. In one hand he was carrying a crumpled newspaper clipping. In the other, his car keys.
He saw me sitting at the table, and his expression grew even more angered. He stomped (to my hearing) over to the table, and slammed a fist down, "how dare you claim to be my brother! I had the presence of mind before I left the house to grab this. You're him, aren't you?"
He handed me the clipping, it was Lisa's original "The Buck Stops Here" article on me when I didn't remember who I was. "How could you tell?" I said. "There's more than one deer SCAB, you know."
"I took a chance. So that is you, isn't it?"
"Why don't you have a seat, Gary? Yes, that's me. Or it was me nearly three years ago. I've remembered a few things since then."
"I'm sure you have," he said sarcastically. "And I'm not sitting. I'm leaving just as soon as I set things straight! I don't know who you think you are but you are NOT my brother." He looked at my features searchingly. But didn't seem to find what he was looking for. There was, after all, not a hint of humanity in my face. Bryan was amazed I could talk at all. "You're a deer!"
"Yes. I'm a deer morph. Whitetail, to be exact. I've been this way for over twenty years, Gary. I can't imagine being any other way." I replied. It was apparent that he didn't believe I was him, but he also didn't seem to care that I was a SCAB. Well, not much anyway. I took a sip of my orange juice, feeling its acidity as it went down my throat. "Please, sit down."
"I'm not sitting!" He said vehemently. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't call the police!"
"Well, for one. If you'd wanted to call them you would have done it before you left. And two, your brother is most assuredly not dead. I'd tell you more, but I don't think you're ready to believe it yet." I sighed, "what do you know about your brother's disappearance?" My tone was calm, unemotional. Just the way I've always acted in tense situations all my life. Gary should know that.
The question caught him off guard, so he answered it. "Well, it was late October of 2004. He had just finished his doctorate a few months earlier, and had been living in Oklahoma as an assistant with his professors until he was to start a new job in Illinois with the weather service." He thought a moment, and lost a bit of anger from his expression. He even sat down on the edge of the seat across from me.
"Springfield," I said suddenly.
"Nothing," I said, flipping my ears dismissively in a shrug. Springfield, Illinois. An intern in the local NWS office. My dream job... until the one at the paper showed up.
"Anyway, he told me he was going for a short vacation around the eastern seaboard, that we was going up to see an old friend of his. He sent me a postcard from Disneyworld, then the last I heard he was in Virginia before he... um... vanished. Vanished..." He said the word as if he's never considered the possibility. He stared at me a moment, then averted his eyes, mumbling to himself.
God, I remembered it all too clearly! At the time, the Martian Flu had not reached its peak. There were places that were quarantined, but not too many. I'd started to get sick myself even as I went up the coast. I then decided to go inland to see the Appalachians, and some whitetails in the process. I now had clear memories of the hair on my arms thickening, and turning deep rusty red. But I didn't think anything of it for some odd reason, and had continued driving. Drawn onward by the beauty of the scenery. "Is that all, Gary?"
His anger was fading as he seemed to seriously consider the possibility. "No... no. A couple years later they found his car in a streambed. I spent the next few months searching the area for some signs..." his expression became distant, remembering.
"Did you ever find any?" I said. Wow! The fact that he even searched was amazing! I guess he never really told me how much I meant to him... Nor I, him.
"Yes I did, in fact. I found some of the camping equipment I'd given him lodged in a few trees at an old abandoned camp ground near a river! At some point there had been a flood..."
"You were always the outdoorsy type, Gary." I said, hoping he would notice the clearly personal comment.
He actually smiled. "Yeah. I still am, you know." The smile suddenly dropped from his face. "But how would you know that?"
But I continued, ignoring his question. "You were even an Eagle Scout. You continued where I... ahem, your brother quit. You did quite well, in fact. And it doesn't surprise me in the least that you were able to track down the spot. You did get a national Scouting award for it!"
He drummed his fingers on the table, frowning, but not actually angry. "How would you know that?! Only my brother..."
"...only your brother would know that? Well, that's not exactly true, I have to admit. Things like that are a matter of public record." I was probably defusing my own chance to convince him, but I'd rather nip certain doubts in the bud now rather then have them remain seeds of doubt later. "But there are things that only your brother would know, right?"
"Yes... you said that my brother was probably not dead. Well, it's been twenty years. If he isn't dead, why hasn't he contacted his family at all?" That was a step in the right direction!
Another evasion, but one that would in part answer his question, was in order. "What do you know about SCABS, Gary?" I said carefully. I was getting into the beat of it now, keeping my mind off what was actually happening.
I hoped that this would hint to Gary just who was sitting in front of him. He always had terrible anxiety attacks when he was in High School if he knew a test was coming. The school had put him in special education because of them. The solution was pretty simple. Don't give him any warning. It was found he had an incredible memory for most everything if you just asked him out of the blue. Something I'd always liked doing.
Gary scratched his head. "Well, you're a SCAB, that's for sure. It was first diagnosed by Dr. Robert Stein in 2005. It's an amazing thing, I think. It changes the body in unpredictable ways. Giving humans animal features..."
I nodded. "Yes, yes. We all know that part. Some of us all too well. But do you know how the disease affects the mind?" This was the important question.
He looked at me suspiciously, but his scent lost a bit of skepticism. "According to the articles my students have brought in, it's nearly as bad. Some, like this one named 'Webmaster' I've heard about. Someone who's stuck as a giant spider, it can be very traumatic. With some like yourself, it seems, losing their human minds for a time."
"I know," I said, breaking in. "God do I know! What does that tell you about me? Or about what may have happened to your brother?" I barreled ahead.
"Are you implying that my brother is a SCAB?" I nodded. "Do you know my brother? Are.. are you my brother?" Almost there... If he was willing to ask that question a second time, then perhaps it was time.
I decided that to evade that question would be a mistake. His scent was now more skeptical than anything, but had nuances of hope and hopelessness that tugged at my currently buried emotions. I looked at my drink for a moment longer, then leaned forward, resting my elbows on the table clasping my hands in front of my muzzle. "Rogue River." I said simply.
He frowned. again "What would you know about that?! My brother and I swore never to say anything!"
My voice stayed calm and reserved, but I knew it wouldn't last. "Well, there's a very simple reason for that, Gary. At the risk of sounding like Obi Wan Kenobi, of course I know your brother." I tapped myself on the chest, and looked him right in the eye. "He's me."
Gary just leaned back against the hard, wooden seat back. "Right," he said, skeptical, smiling. Then he started to get angry. "Look, I'll admit that you sound a lot like he did. You even have his mannerisms, and you seem to know things that seem like only Jon would know them..." He slammed a fist down on the table, making me jump a bit. "BUT THERE'S NO WAY YOU CAN CONVINCE ME THAT YOU'RE HIM! My brother is dead! And no... no inhu..."
"Can't say it, can you?" I said accusingly, steel in my voice. "You can't say I'm 'inhuman' or anything like that, can you? You're not the type to hate me for what I am, Gary. I might look like an animal, but I don't act or sound like one, do I? I, and not to mention mom, would be very disappointed in you if you did feel that way! Mother didn't raise any racists!"
Another fist slam against the table. "Damn you're right! But anybody could've figured that out!"
My voice went hard again. "I'm not just anybody. I'm your brother, Gary. We grew up together. But perhaps you need a bit more convincing."
"Perhaps I do," he replied. Then he smiled as if very sure of himself. "Personally, I'm wondering why you mention that river if you don't know something of what it means. If not the truth, I'm sure you've made up a very interesting story. I'd be interested to know what you think happened. My brother would just as soon die as tell anybody about that trip!"
"Well, I'd like to tell it, actually. And besides, you're not just 'anybody.'" I kind of felt like saying something aloud anyway. It was an event that only my brother and I knew about. A secret between us. Nothing horrible, nothing grotesque. Just a bad choice we'd both made.
"And if I don't like what I hear I'll leave and this'll be the end of it."
At that moment I prayed my memory was a good as I hoped. "Okay, fine. Here goes. I'll recap the main points." I briefly noted seeing Maxine's muzzle around the corner, and I checked my timer watch. Not much time left... So I'd have to hurry.
"The whole thing really started in 1992. We were on the way up into Oregon to where Stephanie was going to college. She was just starting, and we were with dad at the time.
"We stopped in Gold Beach, a small town at the mouth of the Rouge River. We went up the river on a long trip that was probably the most fun we'd ever had with dad. On one of those waterjet-powered boats that are so much fun. We resolved to revisit the river by ourselves when we got older. After all, I'd only just turned sixteen and didn't have my driver license yet. And you were about to start Junior High.
"It had to wait until you got out of High School, though. The year we decided on was 1999. You wanted to do it before the century was out. We spent months planning the trip! But we weren't planning on using any jet boat. You wanted to go rafting down that river!" Gary gasped. His scent changed a bit from anger and skepticism, to hope. But not much. But I hadn't reached the climax of the story yet.
"You told mom and dad you were going to come visit me for a while up at UC Davis. It was spring break. You were going to a junior college, so were living at home. At a friend's house you'd stashed all the rafting equipment. You spent weeks studying maps of the entire river. Because what you hadn't told me was that you planned on just you and I to go down the river. Just you and I. After all, you'd been rafting all of twice on scouting trips, so why shouldn't you try it? At least you weren't dumb enough to do it by yourself.
"But I was dumb enough to agree when you told me that there wouldn't be a guide." Gary audibly gasped again, and went white as a sheet. I looked at my watch, few minutes remained. I could already feel my body start to shift around in the seat. My pelvic area was slowly growing in pain. Damn it! Four hooves, here I come! I thought. But when I looked for my vodor I realized with dismay that I'd left it in the car.
I continued quickly. "We nearly got ourselves killed! Because you thought you could handle it! But no, not even a day intho..." Damn, I was starting to lisp. A sign that I'd change back explosively if I didn't do it myself. But I had to continue! "Into the trip, we were overturned and lost most of our supplies. We were lucky! We ended up on opposite banks of the river! Alive, but shaken."
Strangely, Gary started to laugh. "You know you... um... my brother was useless? He didn't know a thing about the outdoors!" He was loosening up!
Gary's scent suddenly had a flicker of recognition in it! I had to feed that! "I know I was! You thaved my life!"
"You saved mine, too!" That was it!
"I know. You got distracted by something, fell in, and were pulled downstream about a half mile and were hanging onto a rock. I went and got some rope that we'd thaved.. th... ack!" My voice was starting to disappear fast, and my hands were starting to lengthen and fuse into forehooves. My pelvis was starting to rotate, making it more and more uncomfortable to sit in the booth.
Gary started to breathe harder, and as I forced myself out of the booth before my body did what it always did when my time was up. Hope-scent intensified. And he finished for me, "You tied the rope to a tree, and waded as far into the river as you could. Then you let the current take you as close to me as it could. When you finally got a hold of me we were both shivering, and it took us forever to get to the bank. We should have frozen to death, but we didn't..." He was looking at the table, not really looking at me. Deep in thought, and rubbing his face up and down with his hands. Eyes shiny with held back tears.
I regained my voice for a brief moment. "We never thold anybody abouth it? Did we? Juthed thomthing... be...thween... uth." Then, so it wouldn't hurt so much, I changed back to full morphic. I hate pushing my time limit. The closer I get to it, the more pain I experience changing back. I had to lay down because of the pain, every pore, every muscle was screaming! My clothes ripped on the seams (like they were supposed to) and fell off. Gary wasn't looking at me. I was mildly surprised that neither Grace nor Maxine had come rushing in yet.
Gary continued to look at the table top for a few minutes, thinking. A hand covered his mouth. I was still reeling in pain, this time had been a bit more painful than usual. So I was too preoccupied when he finally looked up and said, "Jon? It's you, isn't it?" in quavering, hopeful voice. Tears flowed freely.
I lifted my head, opened my eyes and looked at him, and nodded emphatically. He was staring at me as it he'd never really looked at me very closely. It was like he'd seen me, really seen me, for the first time. He stood up out of the booth. "But, you're a... a..." his voice froze.
"Deer?" Maxine said from behind the partition. Then she stepped into view. Gary swallowed hard. "Is it such a hard thing to say? Or believe?"
He swallowed again. "And you are?"
"Maxine Duran. Jon's fiancée. And..." she motioned to one side, and Grace appeared. "This is Grace. My daughter. But not Jon's biological daughter."
Gary seemed to be having trouble with words. Which was understandable. "But he is... and you are..."
"It's a long story," Maxine said flatly.
Brian chose that moment to burst in the front door, "I've got your vodor!" he said. Then he quickly put it around my neck.
Thanks Brian, I needed that... I looked at Gary. You know if you don't close that mouth you're going to swallow a fly. I said to him jokingly.
"Um, yeah," he said. Then he suddenly seemed to regain some of his composure. "Jon... God... I... I think we need to talk."
"We need to talk," he says. Boy, that was an understatement.
"Just... just a moment," Gary said, eyes still shiny. "Let me look at you."
The pain had subsided, and I got up slowly. As you can see, I've changed a bit.
"Um, yeah. How are you talking? I'm not seeing your mouth moving."
I turned my flexible neck enough so he could see my vodor. There are only three like this in the world. It changes nerve impulses into spoken speech. Even though I can't talk like this my brain still sends signals to my larynx. Without it I couldn't communicate for most of the day.
He stared at it a moment. "What do you mean?"
I sighed. As I am now I have to be for two-thirds of every day. My case of SCABS is very severe, brother mine. I spent nearly twenty years like this, with hardly more mind than a deer.
Gary slumped into the booth again. "'Brother mine,' you say. I'm still not sure I believe it. I feel like I'm in some sort of corny TV drama!" Then he looked at Brian. "You know, you look familiar somehow."
Brian smiled, "Brian Coe, Gary. It's nice to see you again!" He extended a hand.
Gary's jaw dropped open again. "You were the one he was going to visit! You've changed too!" He looked at Brian's ears.
"The world works in mysterious ways, Gary. Do you believe him now?" Maxine said.
Gary nodded numbly. "What happened, Jon? I don't get it. And who are these two ravishing does?" He grinned. It was nice to see. Grace giggled.
To make a long story short, I stopped that campground you found. Now, even before I'd stopped I was getting sick. But I really wanted to see some whitetails. They were--are--my favorite, you remember. Things started happening rapidly. I got very sick, didn't leave my tent for days. The next thing I remember is my face stretching out in front of me, my whole body wracked with pain, and then scenting a doe in heat...
Gary looked at Maxine and Grace, "Don't tell me you..."
No! No. Don't jump to conclusions. They were both originally human like myself. How I met them is a long story for another time. And besides, there was another buck around that doe. I lost bigtime, and spent the next twenty years among fellow deer, not remembering that I wasn't really one of them.
Gary shook his head. "This... this is so unreal. I'm sorry." He reached towards my antlers. "Can I, uh... touch you? I have to be sure I'm not dreaming."
I ear-smirked, and walked up to him. Go ahead, but be careful. They're not quite hardened yet.
Gary smiled weakly. When he touched the velvet I laughed once. "You can feel that?" He said.
I nodded, It's growing bone covered with skin, you know. But they're about done... urk!
Without warning he'd suddenly hugged me tightly around the neck, blubbering incoherently for a few minutes. Then he said, "God! I was afraid this was a nightmare!" He held me tighter.
..ary.. please ..et ..o! He was going to crush my vodor! I heard an ominous cracking noise, but it didn't break. Besides, he was choking me!
He slowly let go, and he looked at me both smiling and with fresh tears streaming down his face, he snuffed once and Grace handed him a tissue. (I would be crying myself, but deer can't do that... my legs were a bit wobbly, though.) Gary looked at her, and back at me. "So she's one of yours, huh?" he said, rubbing the top of her head.
Something like that. She introduced me to Maxine, here. Though I wished the circumstances around my meeting those two had been less than life threatening, I wouldn't trade the experience for all the world. And speaking of family...
Gary suddenly smelled very apologetic. "I'm sorry, Jon. They didn't come with me. I wasn't sure, and it was bedtime for my smaller one. And you know teenagers..."
I snorted in understanding, because Grace was yawning the biggest yawn I'd ever seen an eight-year old do. I think it's time to get home, too... I sighed. I wanted to talk the night away, catching up. But...
"Why don't you three come over to my place? I think I can call in sick tomorrow... And besides, I want my wife to meet you."
Do you really mean that? I asked.
"Would I lie to my brother?"
We arrived at his house about a half hour later. Reluctantly we had to awaken Grace from where she was sleeping against my side in full deer form. Maxine was as happy as happy could be. "I'm really proud of you, Jon." She said with genuine feeling. "Few Scabs do what you just did. I've only seen it a couple times, and I've been privileged each time. But this one... I'm so happy for you!"
Thanks, I said back. We had just arrived at Gary's house, having parked the van just in front. Gary had gone inside to announce us. But I had worries. But what's his family going to think? That he's gone nuts?
Looking out of the right side window, Maxine said, "It looks like we're about to find out. He's waving at us to come in. His wife looks pensive... hmm..."
"Nothing," she looked at Grace. "Get up, Bigears. You've got some cousins to meet!"
Grace's scent-smile was incredible. She got up and tiredly and shifted back to humanoid. I wished I could do the same. We then heard Gary's voice, "okay, you can come out now!"
Maxine got out of the driver side and opened the back. I carefully stood up (keeping my head down) and put my hooves down onto the pavement. I smelled freshly cut grass from other lawns on the street, cooling asphalt, the love that came from both Grace and Maxine, then there was the faint scent of Gary and his wife. Gary was still a bit confused, but his wife was skeptical. I flicked my ears to her voice, "Gary, how can you be sure? He could just be..."
Gary interrupted. "Amanda, love, I'm quite sure. He knows things that only Jon would know. Don't be startled at their appearance. You know as much about SCABS as I do."
"Well, if you're sure..."
My family and I chose that moment to appear out from behind the van. Amanda looked at us disbelievingly. Then she smiled, if a bit shocked. "Well, I guess I won't be showing 'Bambi' in this house any more..."
I couldn't help but laugh. Actually, ma'am, it's Grace's favorite movie, I said, gesturing at her with my muzzle. Grace nodded tiredly, then yawned hugely. But if we could go inside? My daughter needs her sleep.
As we went in I couldn't help but notice Gary's overgrown lawn. At least I wouldn't lack for breakfast...
The first thing we did was find a place for Grace to sleep. Amanda was gracious enough to take her into a guestroom. She walked with a disturbed look on her face... "Does she do that often?" she said, her voice reflecting that mood.
"Do what?" Maxine replied.
"Well, uh... I thought she had tripped on something, but I was quite, quite wrong..." I realized she must be referring to Grace's propensity to go on all fours at every opportunity.
"All of us have that ability," Maxine comforted. "Though Jon has a time limit."
"Oh." Amanda turned to Gary, "are you sure this... animal is your brother?" she whispered. With our ears, Maxine and I heard her clearly.
Gary whispered back, "Dear, it's him. Trust me. And please, he's most certainly not an animal. Why would you say that?"
"De... love." She stopped herself from saying the homonym. "Love, I'm no Scabs-hater!" she said a bit more loudly.
"I know, I know... but I don't know. I didn't know myself until I saw him. Love, we might say that we don't hate Scabs, but we don't normally associate with them..."
Maxine chose that moment to cough once to get their attention. She touched her ears once, they flicked out of reflex. "I don't mean to be rude, but I can hear every word you're saying." Amanda gulped. "Don't worry, Mrs. Sleeper, I'm a therapist. I think the four of us need to get to know each other. Jon, I think you and Gary should first recount that Rouge River story for Amanda... Then we can move on to how you and I met."
We talked for many hours, and quietly enough that we never woke his kids. Maxine and I told our stories, Amanda cried, and Gary was nearly there, too. "My God, Jon. Twenty years? How did you endure it?" Gary asked.
Gary, for all intensive purposes I was a deer. In mind as well as body.
"You survived twenty years, though. That says something for your smarts."
True, but the only reason I'm here is because of that arrow... I shuddered at the memory. One moment, I'm just running from danger, the next, screaming a human's scream of pain. My whole world view changed in an instant. I was nearly a trophy on a wall, brother mine.
"So the next thing that happened was Brian helping your regain your memory?" Amanda said.
Well, before that I was an employee of 'Zoo'm'in Beings', that special delivery and moving company. I did rough country stuff. I replied.
Gary smiled, "You always liked forests, Jon. On the way to Oregon I had to almost literally carry you off from that spot in the Redwood Preserve!"
I laughed, remembering. Yeah. Then last year just before Thanksgiving Grace came along... Maxine and I shuddered a bit in the memory. Though they had pretty much gotten over what SCABS had done to them, it sometimes gave them fits of grief over their lost humanity. No Scab (including myself) is without those.
One of the prices of what we are.
I started to lose the thread of the conversation at about three in the morning. Maxine, Gary, and Amanda were in the same position. "Much as I hate to say it, why don't we call it a night?" My brother said. I couldn't agree more.
Imagine my brother's surprise when Maxine and I had said that we would sleep on the (overgrown) back lawn. Grass is quite comfy, and Gary and his wife had left us there to ourselves.
The one thing I loved about Maxine being able to shift fully was that it enabled us to sleep together as only two deer in love can. She undressed, then shifted. We pressed our furry sides together after laying down, then I put my head on the grass, and she put her head on my back like a pillow.
If it's one thing that deer always crave its someplace safe. A safe spot from predators. A "Haven". This night I felt I had discovered this mythical place that all deer dream of, whether they know it or not.
I fell into a deep, calm sleep such as I'd not had in over twenty years.
What awoke me was the laughter of children.
At dawn, no less.
I cracked open one eye to find Grace (in morphic form) and a young child who looked a lot like Gary did when he was little. "And this is my Mommy and my daddy," Grace was saying cheerfully.
"Wow!" came the reply. A young, male voice and scent.
I ear-grinned weakly, still tired, Good morning, m'dear! I said. Maxine was stirring.
"We were playing 'Bambi and Faline' daddy!" Grace said happily. I looked at the two of them, seeing the boy a bit dirty in his pajamas. They must have discovered each other right away...
Maxine raised her head off of my back, That's nice, dear. she said. Those two went right back to their play after that. Maxine and I watched them for a few minutes. I'd never seen two kids more happy. Gary's son jumped around all over the place, following Grace through the grass as best he could.
At one point he fell down, and then Grace licked him on the cheek. If Gary's son had been a deer it would've been straight out of Bambi! After Grace's lick, he wiped his cheek and his expression seemed to say, "Ewww! Cooties!" in the midst of Grace's laughter.
My stomachs were growling, so Maxine and I started to graze on Gary's overgrown back lawn. We did so for maybe a half hour until I heard a teenage, female voice say "Like, no way!" then say, louder, "Daaaaad! There's some deer eating our lawn!"
In that moment I somehow started to dread Grace's teenage years.
"Well, go out and thank them for me!" I heard my brother reply casually, "I've not had time to mow in it about two months! Besides, you need to meet your uncle! Remember what I was telling you this morning..."
"D'oh! I forgot!" Was her surprising reply. Then she saw Grace and Gary's son playing. Unafraid, she opened the sliding glass door and walked right out to Maxine and I. "Hiya uncle Jon! I'm Megan, and that's Steve," she extended her hand, then pulled back. "Oops, sorry I..."
In response I pushed myself up on my hind legs and shifted, then I extended my hand. "Glad to meet you, Megan."
Carefully, she took my hand and we shook. She didn't let my hand go right away, though. Instead she chose to look closely at the palms and my fingers. "You have kind of a fuzz on there, don't you?" she said, rubbing my palms. Her fingers ticked me a bit. Then she looked closely at my own fingers. "How much feeling do you have in those thick things?"
"Enough to get the job done."
She smiled, her scent genuinely happy and amazed. "Well, I gotta go get breakfast. See ya after school, Unc?"
I nodded happily, if a bit confused. Then, I gave her a big hug. "Sure thing, Meg. I'm very happy to meet you!" I said. She was surprise at first, but I guess anybody can get used to a deer hugging you...
"Thanks, Unc!" Then she practically sprinted back into the house, "This is like, so cool! I've got a SCAB for an uncle! Mitze will be totally jealous!" I heard her say as he closed the door.
I looked back at Maxine, who seemed as puzzled by her reaction as I felt. "Never can tell how a teenager is going to react, can you?" she said. I couldn't help but chuckle. But there was another happy ending...
Until a kind of music such as I rarely heard erupted from an upstairs bedroom. I didn't hear it much. Both Maxine and I liked the same music. Grace hadn't really started listening, and I was a bit out of what the young crowd likes. "What is that noise?!" I said aloud, clapping my hands to my ears.
Gary came outside a moment or so later, noticed what we were looking at, and looked back at me, "That's called 'Jaago', Jon. It's kind of replaced rock-and-roll as the 'voice of a new generation' as it were." He looked at the rather large area Maxine and I had managed to crop. Grace was looking a bit hungry herself, but I knew that grass was the last thing on her mind.
The music sounded like Rock, Rap, Blues, and 40's Big Band music all rolled into one. It was as alien-sounding to me as I'm sure Rock had been originally been nearly seventy years ago to adults then.
Now I saw their point.
Gary watched as Steve and Grace romped around on the grass. Amanda came out at that moment when the three of us were just standing there, watching them play. "Steve! Come here please!" she said sternly.
"What, Mommy?" Steve said, pausing in his attempt at a four-footed leap.
Gary turned to Amanda, and plainly said, "I thought we'd gone through all this last night?"
Amanda sighed, "I know, I'm sorry. This is really difficult for me, you know." She looked at me a moment, "shouldn't you two put some clothes on?" she said curtly.
I was confused at what she meant a moment, then I realized, "oh, yes. Sorry."
A few minutes later I was in my favorite denim shorts and loose shirt, and sitting on the couch while Grace, Gary, and his family had their meal. I was chewing cud myself. Maxine sat next to me, and I put my right arm around her shoulders as we watched the morning news. I turned an ear towards the conversation from the kitchen.
"What cha eatin'?" I heard Steve say.
"Cud," was Grace's reply.
"Want ta see it?"
I would've burst aloud in laughter, but managed to clamp my muzzle shut with my fingers. Gary brought out a couple cups of coffee (mocha flavor) a minute or so later. The very smell of it woke me up a enormously! For all I knew I was absorbing the caffeine right into my brain through the smell.
"I'm sorry, Gary," Maxine apologized. "Grace has been acting her age lately. She's normally so mature..."
"Oh, don't worry about it," he replied. "I've called in sick for work. I think I can get leave if you really want to spend some time together."
I'd called in to work myself, only to be directed to the Big Boss herself. "Take as much time off as you need," she'd said.
Then I realized something. "Just what do you do for a living, Gary?" Somehow it had never come up.
"I'm a high school history teacher."
My jaw dropped. "You? A history teacher? When I got my Ph.D. you were well on your way to getting your Masters in Sociology!"
He shrugged, "I know, I know. But it's my calling, Jon. I love it. Amanda is between jobs at the moment. She works in electronics, and you know what that's like."
I nodded, and looked around the living room. Standard middle-class. Couch in front of a TV/Webstation hung on the wall. Blue carpet, white walls. A picture window to out front, where I saw Gary's minivan pulling away with Amanda and their kids inside, taking them to school. Strange, I hadn't heard them leave.
Grace came in a moment later, dressed in some special clothing we'd found that could change with her forms and not seem ridiculous-looking (in actuality, Maxine had made it herself, with the help of one of her female clients she still refused to name, but whose scent was suspiciously doe-like). We had to make sure we met the human decency laws for children.
I shook myself out of that line of thought immediately, recognizing the "sentient deer" portents. Thinking of myself as a non-human too often gave me a sour view of humanity in general. When I knew I was a part of it...
"So..." Gary started. "What do you want to talk about?" he finished as Grace sat herself on a cushion (always amazes me that she doesn't sit on her tail) and flipped the channel to "Sesame Street". They had a couple Scab children characters on that show that she liked (a mouse morph and a lion morph).
I thought a moment. "Well, lets just see where things take us. I have eight hours like this, and I'd like to show you a few things anyway."
We ended up talking. Talking and talking and talking! We talked ourselves nearly hoarse! I tried my best to describe what having hooves, antlers, and a tail felt like, how deer instincts were such a part of me that I don't really notice them (he pointed out several, though.) Eventually the conversation came around to the subject of my old life before my disease. "I wish I had something of it..." I said sadly.
Gary's eyes lit up, "Just wait here a second," he said. Then he sprinted up his stairs into his bedroom. A moment or so later he brought down an oddly familiar looking gray bag that looked a bit the worse for wear...
Then it hit me. "My camera!" I nearly yelled. "Gimme, gimme, gimme!" I said impatiently, reaching out with both hands.
It was a bit scuffed up and brassing in places. It has seen a lot of use before I'd gotten sick, after all. My Ricoh KR-5 Super II, fully manual, no-frills SLR camera! My favorite hobby besides writing.
I fooled with it a moment, then realized that it still worked, "I really don't know what to say, Gary. Thanks."
"Don't mention it, brother." He replied. Then his eyes became tearful all of a sudden, "It was the one thing of you that I kept all these years other than photos. I can't tell you how happy I am to give it back."
I felt my body give me a twinge, a warning. I looked at my timer-watch to see how much I had left. Two minutes. I was pushing it... Then I realized something. "Gary, how are we going to break this to mom and dad? And Steph and Geoff?"
When I get close to having to change back, more than my body strains. My mind also gets pummeled by deer instincts, and it's often confusing for me.
The past twenty four hours had been very eventful. I was feeling the strain like anyone would. But not "anyone" has to deal with the instincts of an animal along with human things.
Gary had paused a long time. His scent was of hesitation and reluctance. My time ran out, but I tried to hold onto my form as long as I could. Gary sighed. "Well, I hate to tell you this, Jon. But mom and dad are dead. They... died in a car accident in 2018. I'm sorry."
Coming as it did on the very tail-end of my humanoid time, and with my mind straining under the mental effort to keep me as I was, something quite understandable happened to my human mind when I heard those words.
...Smellfawn. Smell my (???) fawn? Fawnsmellsad. Doe(mate?) close! Back away! Keepfawn hidden!
Can't run! Trapped! Graywalls! Smell twolegs!!! Runrun! Trapped! Panic!!!
Smell twolegs. Twolegs smell like... brother? Brother? Not deer! Twolegs! But.. but...
Strange sounds. Meaningless. Don't want them to make sense. Run away!
Smell doe. Doesmell sad? Why doesmell sad? No! Don'tthinkwhy! Pain! Run away!
Light, dark, light, dark... Manytimes. Many twolegs? Twolegs? Smell raccoon, smell cockroach, smell horse, smell mule, smell wolf... WOLF!! Runtrappedrun!
Meaningless sounds. But I.... I? I? I? I?! I?!! I!!!
Bits and pieces... remember.
Remember driving through forest. Remember stopping for the night. I remember being sick. I remember not being able to get up. I remembered my hands... they weren't working right. My fingers seemed stiff, stuck together. In my cloudy vision my fingernails looked just as strange. Thick, blackened. An odd twitch under my pants. My feet feeling elongated. Seeing more nose than I should be...
Delirious. Scents too strong. Mind muddled. Sweet scent.... like the sweetest perfume I'd ever smelled. I dragged myself towards it. There was no resistance to it. My body wanted, so I went. Mind muddled with odd thoughts. Simple thoughts. Too much face... Hands... I looked. Not hands. Hooves.
Doesmellready! But smell buck! Fightbuck! Lose... ouch. Pain!
Wakeup. Hearwords. "Come back, Jon!" WhatJon? What mean? I don't want to know!
Bits and pieces... All falling together.
Fawnsmellsad. Doe(mate?) smellsad. Coonsmellsad. Brother(???)smell sad. Brother? Brothersay, "Come back, Jon! Please!"
Doe... Mate MateMaxinesay "Please!"
Fawn(Grace?). FawnGracesay "Please Daddy!"
Allsay, "We miss you."
Miss you. Miss you...
Not want to come... pain. Loss. Do anything! ANYTHING!!
FawnGracesay "Please, Daddy!" Cry. Tears.
Deep breath. Pieces, memories, falling together. No choice. Hate that.
Newsmell. Smellsister. Sister? Sister! Sniffsister... Yes! Sistersmellsad? She smelled... she...
They all stand around me now. Losing hope. I notice that I am in a cell of some kind. Large, with an open ceiling, with soft dirt underhoof. The pieces are now together, mostly. But there was on more step.
Two legs, or not two legs? That was the question.
And I knew my choice either way would have some sort of permanence.
I walked up to my mate... Maxine. She had a name now, I knew it. I lick-kissed her once on the cheek. I did the same for my fawn, Grace.
My mind was on a teeter. On the two-legs side, there was the pain of loss. On the four-legs, blissful ignorance. But also on two-legs was the depth of love, and on four-legs, the curse of no memory. The loss of self.
I couldn't bear to go through that again.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes. There was only one choice.
"I... I didn't even get to say goodbye," I said to no one in particular, and then, I fell to the floor and I cried.
I was immediately surrounded by friends and family, all thankful for my "return". I hugged Grace and Maxine for an extended time. I needed it. There was no questioning that. We sat there, tears running down our faces. "I was afraid I'd lost you," Maxine said shakily, tears in her eyes.
"You have no idea..." Gone. My parents were gone. Yes, they'd both had long lives. But for all I was fifty years old, my state of mind was still mostly of a twenty-seven year old. Even after knowing just who I was for over a year, I had always expected my parents would be alive.
I also knew that if I'd read a little deeper into that info Lisa had given me I probably would've found out a less pleasant way.
Eventually I had to let them go, and I looked up at Brian, "Jon, you scared me there. Don't make me have to bring back your memory a second time!" He said with a humorless smile.
Gary was busy talking to someone, but he was standing in front of the person so I couldn't see who it was. Someone who smelled hauntingly familiar. "Stephanie?" I said aloud, Maxine helped me up on to wobbly legs. Two legs.
Then I saw her. She looked... older. A bit gray here and there. There were some lines on her face, not too many. She was over fifty, after all. From the slightly skeptical look on her face and scent, she was probably a bit like Gary had been on my birthday. She looked back at Gary, "If you're lying to me I'll never forgive you." she said to him, serious to the hilt.
"Trust me, Steph, it's Jon. I know," Gary replied with obvious relief.
Stephanie walked up to me, then looked me straight in the eye. "He said you'd been in a coma for twenty years," she said. She looked at me even more carefully. Then something about me suddenly caused her to change her mind. I'll never know what it was, exactly. "Now I see that that's not too far from the truth. Jon... I..." Another long hug. "Thank God!"
"I didn't even get to say goodbye..." I repeated. I let go of her, more tears streaming down my face. My mind was still unsteady, only the presence of others, human others was keeping me from losing it again. Maxine walked over, and I held on to her again, and lovingly kissed her on the lips.
My brother and sister looked at each other a moment. They nodded in silent agreement. "Well," Gary said. "I wouldn't be too sure about that, Jon."
"What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled.
Gary took a deep breath. "The memorial service was held in the same spot where you'd vanished all those years ago. I'd had a plaque affixed to a tree with your name on it when I found the spot in 2006. That day..." Gary couldn't continue.
My sister continued, "...At the end of the memorial service both of us saw something odd. We were the last ones to leave. I saw a deer sniffing around the spot, near your plaque. It was very odd. He looked at us like he knew us... I felt it, too. Then he must've sensed something wrong and ran off before I could reload my camera."
I really wished I could remember that. But I couldn't. I said as much. "How long was I out?" I asked, changing the subject.
"Two weeks," Maxine said, kissing me for a long time on the cheek, then hugging me. "You smashed up Gary's house pretty bad. They had to tranquilize you."
I swallowed, "Just one of those days... um, lives, I guess." I smiled weakly.
I was released a day later, but I still had problems keeping myself all together. Just because I'd made a choice didn't mean I was any less out of danger. I spent a lot of time talking with my family. Steph, her husband Geoff and their kids (teenage boys); and Gary, Amanda and their kids.
The eleven of us got to know each other all over again. Then I re-introduced Brian, and my other friends from the Pig. Amanda was only marginally frightened when she saw Bryan. Steph and Geoff just gaped, and their kids all went "Cool!" at once that broke them out of their near-stupor.
Dr. Bob surprised me by walking in, and actually talking in his shire morph form! "What happened?!" I said, both happy for him and shocked.
He explained it. He'd been "reset". "This disease is very odd," Dr. Bob said. I could only nod.
I was very careful when I had to shift back to full deer form. I did mental exercises that seemed to help. But what really helped wasn't Gary or Stephanie. But Maxine and Grace. One whiff of either of their scents, and I was brought back to my senses. Maxine never left my side. Not once. I'd lay in bed with her next to me, just holding her as we watched the hospital's TV, or websurfed.
When I was released, by mutual consent, we all decided to go to the spot where this had all began. That abandoned campground in West Virginia.
On the way there, every time I felt like I was slipping away again I would hug Maxine a little tighter, bury my nose in her warm, furry shoulder a little deeper, focus completely on her scent. It brought me back from the brink several times.
We stopped for the night as a motel, Grace stayed with Brian (who had been driving our van) two rooms over, with Steph, Gary, and their families to either side of us. They all thought Maxine and I could use some time alone.
They were right.
All that mattered was that I needed her and she needed me.
The route was suddenly eerie. I remembered coming this way so many years ago, already sick, I'd arrived at the campground barely able to put the tent up.
Gary smelled disturbed, "I found most of your camping stuff lodged in that tree over there," he said, pointing at a large oak tree about fifty feet towards a small river. "There was a flood here in 2005, your car was found about ten miles downstream. I backtracked from there and found this campground."
Brian looked impressed, "If it was one thing I always liked about you Gary is that you and I could always talk scouting."
"Heh, yeah," he said, smiling. His look became serious again, "That plaque is right at the bottom of that tree, Jon."
I was in four-footed mode. Every scent was familiar to me. From the look of the trees, to the rustle of the leaves in the warm summer breeze, to the ripening acorns in the trees. "Jon, are you okay?" Maxine asked, anxiety in her voice and her scent. Grace was looking around, amazed. Clearly affected by the amazing scenery.
Oddly enough, here I felt peace. Right here, in this wonderful, ideal place. I took a deep, sighing breath. Somehow, this place had healed me. I was in no danger of losing it any more. I'm fine, love. More than fine. The forest called to me. I could feel... something. Something that welcomed me. It was as if I'd come home. Maxine and Grace felt it. A very simple sense of peace and safety.
I think Brian felt it too, a little. Everyone else was giving us odd looks. I hoofed it over to the tree.
It was then that my velvet started to itch.
It was such an intense itching I lunged for the nearest sapling! The itching got, if possible, even worse and I rubbed the tree vigorously. It started to come off in sheets, stinging only slightly. I didn't--couldn't--pay attention to anything else! I panted, I pawed at the forest loam, I rubbed and rubbed until it subsided enough for me to at least look back the others, Whoa... I almost forgot how bad it can get! I said with an ear-grin.
"That's... really gross!" Megan said.
Through my panting, I replied, Well, I only do it once year. Thank God! The velvet was hanging off my antlers in strips. A bit of it flopped into my right eye. I shook my head violently, and it fell off.
Driven by an instinct that I didn't think to question, and since I was just so hungry, I started to eat my velvet. There was a disgusted grumble. What? I said.
"Jon, are you sure you're okay?" Brian said, a bit nauseated.
Never better now that the velvet is off! Yahoo! A ten pointer! And a better set than last year, too. Not that there were more points, but they were a bit bulkier. Now, where's that plaque? I said soberly.
I stood there and stared at it a moment. It said: In Memorial of Jonathan D. Sleeper. b. August 15, 1976 d. November 2004. I assumed it was in brass or something, as I couldn't see that color. I stared... and then I got angry.
Here was the source of all my troubles. This plaque. It had to go. Now.
I got up on two legs and shifted. Seeing more colors now, it was brass. It was also affixed to the tree with four bolts. "Anybody got a wrench or something?" I said abruptly. But I didn't wait for a response. I started to tug at the edges of the plaque. But I couldn't get a grip! The tree had grown in around it.
But then, this is some of what antlers were for, wasn't it?
I got down on all fours to get better leverage, and I put all my might into the scraping around the edges with my brow tines. But I couldn't do it alone... I knew that.
I didn't have to say a word. Maxine took one end, scraping with her sharp hoof-like fingernails. I carefully took the other. It was amazing I didn't skewer her, but I didn't. Just how deep are these bolts, Gary?!
"Um... six inches? I wasn't expecting this, you know..." he said defensively.
Who cares! Just help me!
All of us took turns at it. Though we'd probably end up killing the branch that it was bolted to, I didn't care. It started coming loose, eventually. I grabbed it and pulled. It moved. But not enough. "Help me!" I said again.
I pulled, Maxine pulled. Not enough. Gary joined in. Brian. Steph. Her sons, Megan. Even Grace and little Steve! But it just would not budge any more! I was panting, we were crowded around the plaque. "Okay, just stop." I said frustratedly. We all let go, and spread out. "Jammed tight..."
Brian's face had furred out, and he had a short raccoon's snout. "What did you use, Gary? Sheesh!" he said in nearly chittering voice.
I stood there in front of it, staring at it. "I really don't know why you're doing that," I said with steel in my voice. I've always tended to talk to inanimate objects when I'm frustrated. I panted a bit, "I don't know why you're doing that, but stop. I'm not in the mood! Hear me? You're going to come out of that tree. Because I am most assuredly NOT dead! HEAR ME?! NOW COME OUT OF THAT DAMNED TREE!"
It was probably just a testosterone charge from the Rut, with had only just begun a few hours ago, really. I grabbed the edges of the plaque again, and pulled. It moved a little, I felt my neck throb once with deer hormones. I'm sure I was a bit wild-eyed, Gary and Steph backed away a bit when I let a frustrated snort-wheeze that sounded very animal-like. "Don't worry, I'm not losing it." I reassured.
Maxine suddenly walked up and took hold of the sign, top and bottom, right next to me. Her scent was determined. "Maybe two can prevail this time," she said.
I nodded once, cracked my knuckles, grabbed it right next to her. "Ready, love?" I asked. She nodded once.
"One, two, THREE!" We pulled...
...and landed flat on our backs, the plaque on our chests.
We decided to postpone the wedding for a week. Though not because of my little adventure. There were a few snags that we'd encountered, including not finding the right meadow quite yet... It was to be an outdoor wedding, and we'd spent every Sunday searching. No luck.
That morning, a Saturday, Maxine had been acting strange. All the windows in Brian's house were closed, and he didn't have an air conditioner. I was so focused on my work I didn't even notice until I started panting.
Saturdays I telecommute, putting out the forecasts from home. "Love, would you at least tell me why you don't want the windows open?" I asked.
"Oh, I want them open," she'd replied.
"Then why are they closed?"
At that moment I heard what could only be hoof-falls on blacktop and concrete. I perked up immediately. Only one species made that sound. The hoof-falls arrived at the door, and there was a knock. "Why don't you go and answer it, love?" Maxine said with a sly lilt to her voice.
I had my suspicions, so I looked through the peek-hole first. I gaped at what I saw.
Deer morphs, distorted in the convex lens. But there was no question. I opened the door. A doe just looked at me a moment, ear-smirking. "Well now," she said in a smooth voice, "This must be the groom." Then she looked into the living room at Maxine, "This is quite a stag you've caught, my friend. Does he always gape like that or is he just happy to see me?"
I managed to breathe again, swallowed, then I noticed the others. Seven doe morphs, of several different species. And four other bucks... other bucks? As for species, I noted two fallow deer, three mule deer, an elk, one sambar deer, and the rest whitetails. All with smug lilts to their scents. "Something is going on!" I said in a faux British accent.
"No there isn't!" One of the bucks replied, echoing on of my favorite Monty Python sketches.
We were going to get along just fine.
When we all sat down to talk, I found out that among ourselves we had lots of things in common.
For one, we all shared an abiding love of forests.
That realization silenced everyone for a few minutes. "Well," said Ivan, who had the head and tail of a mule deer, and a six-pointer, "I guess that Nature wanted us. Frankly, everyone, even though I'm a Scab my life couldn't be better."
I hugged Maxine to my side, in full agreement.
It was nice to have others of similar species to "talk shop" with. Discussion ranged from antler care, to what it was like to spar, to our own histories. Turns out that Erik, who was stuck as a normal whitetail all the time, had just had a similar experience as me, though it was doubtful he'd regain his memory. Scary.
One funny thing about Erik. He could talk without a vodor, but he didn't talk all that much. He also smelled faintly jealous. That worried me, considering the time of year. I wasn't going to be impolite, though...
As for the does in the other room, Maxine said she'd learned a lot from her peers about being a whitetail. Being male there were some things I just couldn't teach her. And there were certain things I didn't want to know...
Brian had come down briefly, then left for his office. He hadn't come back yet. Grace was alternating between rooms. They all doted on her, of course. She loved every minute of it.
On some pre-arranged signal it seemed the four of them stood up, and grinned. What, guys? Time go already? I said, perplexed (and in full morphic, as I had been for a lot of the afternoon).
"Time to go, yes. But you're coming with us."
"Why, for your stag party, of course," Ivan said with a smile.
I should have known.
Never think that just because one is a Scab one can't find a place to have a good time. I awoke the next morning with a headache the size of Montana. "Have a fun night, last night, dear?" Maxine said, just a little louder than usual.
Please don't... I replied. You have no idea. I feel like I've been hit by several LARGE semi-trucks. To think I thought that had never really drank any alcohol before. And after last night, I never would again.
We'd gone to the Pig, meeting us there was my brother, Geoff, Brian, and obvious others. Jack had provided the music (he's always seemed a little inebriated to me anyway). I'd even sang (badly) a little bit. Never has Paul Simon's "The Obvious Child" been more mangled... We even drove Wanderer out of the place with our bad singing. Donnie eventually threw us out, and those that could wandered around four-footedly. Amazing that animal control hadn't picked us up...
At least it was Sunday. My stomachs were rather fragile at the moment, however. But grass did wonders (though the cud tasted awful later). My newfound friends arrived midafternoon, none seemed to feel as bad as I still felt (Maxine said my breath smelled like a sewer).
"I understand you and your fiancée have been looking for the ideal meadow for your ceremony. Well, I have just the place," Perry, another whitetail morph of similar degree, said. Then he scratched at his velvet, which had just started to come off.
Oddly enough, even though it was the Rut I wasn't feeling any real animosity towards my peers. I guessed that there was something about our human intelligence overrode any overt instincts to fight one another. Though I had a few memories of sparring with Ivan and Erik. In our drunken stupor I was quite amazed we hadn't injured ourselves...
"Where is this spot? Can you describe it?" Maxine asked.
"I.. uh... really don't think I can," Perry replied, his look distant. Clearly there was something about this place. "I'd really rather show it to you..."
It wasn't too far off, and it was quite simply the most amazing meadow I'd ever seen. Disney could have used it for the model of the meadow in "Bambi". Maxine and I just stood on a hill and gaped at the surrounding landscape. It was absolutely 100% perfect! We said as much. "I knew you'd like it," Perry said, ears red in a blush.
Grace was (of course) romping around in the grass. Her laughter could be plainly heard from where she was running about around the meadow. "How far would you say it is to the other side?" Maxine asked.
I squinted and looked, "I'd say about a mile..." Maxine had shifted and was off and running bore I finished saying "about". "Hey! Wait up you sneaky little..." I lost my voice as I fell onto all fours and chased after her.
To say my wedding was one of the most exciting days of my life would be an understatement. I actually awoke before Maxine, and as a wake up call I lick-kissed her the most slobbering way that I could.
["Mmmm..."] she said in scent-speak, ["Good morning."]
We knew each other well enough that we almost didn't need vodors to talk to each other in full deer shape. Every little change in scent, every little twitch of ears, flick of the tail, meant something. She'd become more adept at communicating like that in the past few months. She was no longer a student, she'd graduated.
She was the love of my life.
I walked over and put my head into my voder. It automatically settled on my neck. Ready for the Big Day, dear? I said happily.
She got up and shifted. "More than ready, love," she said, rubbing her stomach for some reason. "Why don't you go have breakfast? I'll go wake up Grace and..."
No, love. Let me do that. I think you should have breakfast first today. I insisted.
She smiled slyly, "Well, if you feel that way..." She went outside quietly while I went into the living room where Grace slept at night on a sofa bed. Grace looked so peaceful in her sleep, though she'd lost her spots completely (And looked almost like a smaller version of her mother) there was something about the look on her face that made me reluctant to wake her.
Nevertheless, I nudged her a few times with my nose. She slept in full morphic like Maxine and I did, and lifted her head tiredly off the mattress and yawned hugely, ["Daddy..."] she said lovingly. She was as adept a student as her mother.
Get up, Bigears. Time for breakfast.
["Just a few more minutes? Please?"]
Big day today, remember?
What I said seemed to remind her, and she shifted into humanoid then and there and hugged me tightly, "Daddy..."
It was the way she'd said it that hit me. There was a significance to it that was hard to place. I lost the thread a moment, but not for long. I decided that I could spend a little time on two legs. I shifted, and sat down on the thin mattress, wincing as I sat on my tail a moment.
"Try like this, Daddy," Grace said, demonstrating how she managed to sit without killing her tail.
"I never thought of that, thanks Grace," I smiled, and took her into my arms and hugged her. Muzzle to small muzzle, I scritched her behind her twitching ears, her arms around my neck. Tears formed in my eyes, "You're the joy of my life, you know? I really don't know what I'd do without you..."
"I know." Grace replied mockingly, then she licked me on the cheek.
It was going to be a good day.
I lifted her off the bed and carried her in my arms into the kitchen.
We all left for the meadow at about seven o'clock. There were pictures to be taken, and the morning light was best. I'd forecasted just a bit of mist, and it was there as expected.
The photographer we'd hired was ecstatic about being able to take pictures of us (She'd been a nature photographer). For those with just Maxine and I we did stuff on four feet and two. The four-footed shots were the most exciting for me (And the photographer). My favorites were of she and I running side-by-side across the meadow, drinking from a small pond, standing there looking at the camera and looking like we'd been startled (not hard at all), and above all, myself standing majestically on a rock above the photographer, Maxine beside me in the growing morning light.
There were family pictures, my favorite of which was a variation on the drinking from the pond/startled theme. It was all great fun. Grace was a natural for the camera. She just wished she still had her spots.
Of course, being what we were we wore not a stitch of clothing. Neither Maxine nor I would all day, to the chagrin of several of the wedding guests.
As Best Man, Brian was a very good sport. Pics with him included him in raccoon form sitting on my back (and Maxine's Grace's back, too). Another picture was Brian, Bryan, Gary, Wanderer, and Jack. The picture of the six of us was perhaps the most fun. Gary being the only human in the picture.
Pictures... so many pictures. All over too quickly.
And then the ceremony.
I will never forget it.
The meadow was the perfect place. How the setting could have been better I couldn't even begin to speculate. Grace spread flowers as Maxine and her father marched in to the traditional wedding march. She wore some flowers around the top of her head. She smelled like sweetgrass and maple.
Maxine's family was perhaps the biggest surprise to me when I'd met them all those months ago. Open and understanding, they accepted what had happened to her with a certain attitude. They thought it was more or less fate, with me as the reward.
I couldn't argue with that.
The Priest began, "We are gathered here in the sight of God and Nature to witness the union of two special individuals. They were thrust together, as many of you know, quite by chance. Or was it chance? It does not matter..."
She went on. I spent most of my time with my eyes fixed on her wonderful face. What a ravishing doe she was... The time came to exchange vows and legbands. Since we were shapeshifters rings were out of the question. Instead we'd opted for something like a bracelet that would go around our right hind legs when in full morph.
The "ball and chain" analogy was quite absent for some reason.
With the words, "I will" our fates were entwined in one another. We turned to the friends and family. The priest said, "Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan D. Sleeper."
Clapping, tears, shouts of "congrats!" all around, then off to the reception.
Jack was ever-so-gracious as to provide a lot of the instrumental music, along with many others. Wanderer sung for us. He didn't have a bad voice. Especially when he sang a song that had been my favorite for thirty years. A little ditty by Thomas Dolby, "The Valley of the Mind's Eye." We danced...
(author's note: I'm including the lyrics for clarity. It's the most beautiful song I've ever heard. It's on the "Gate to the Mind's Eye" album. Get it.)
If I song was a road
Then came another favorite. "When We Dance" by Sting.
Bryan sighed at the image on the ultrasound became clear enough to see. There was a collective sigh. "Well, that confirms it totally, even if the genetic tests hadn't come out the way they had," Bryan said.
Dr. Bob smelled amazed (though not half so much as myself), "I think I'll need to get going on my research again. This is just too odd."
I don't think they're odd, Maxine said through her vodor. They're my children.
I agreed totally. What those three were referring to, five months after the wedding, was the image and the test results of my twin boys that Maxine was pregnant with.
But that wasn't the most amazing thing by far (healthy whitetail does usually give birth to twins). What was amazing was they shared a dual genome, like Maxine, Grace and I had.
In short they were deer morphs. They would be born never knowing what it's like to have been human. "It's an amazing thing, Jon." Bryan said. "Congrats, though."
"Thanks..." I replied, still dazed and looking at the high resolution images on the screen. Maxine's pregnancy had progressed a little bit faster than most humans. Whitetail gestation time was about seven months. Bryan was estimating they'd come to term at just about eight months. Right in between.
There were a few other odd things, of course. Not the least of which was last month Maxine had gotten up, tried to change to humanoid, and discovered that she couldn't. She was stuck in full morph. It had taken me ten minutes to calm her down.
She gave birth right on time, in a horse stable that was made for monitoring difficult births. Though Maxine would have preferred giving birth in the forest, Dr. Bob and I had convinced her differently.
I was scared for a moment after the birth. They looked like normal whitetail fawns! They even stood up right away on all fours! They also nursed from Maxine as such (since she had udders in full morph).
After the first nursing my fears were allayed. I'd been afraid to even get close until Maxine waved me in. Considering my memories of does chasing me off... I looked at my new fawn-sons, "Bryan, do you think that..." Then I looked one in the eye.
The look I got back was distinctly human, and full of love and trust. My heart when thump and I picked one up. Then I got a second surprise.
Seemingly out of instinct my son immediately assumed a humanoid form. And giggled a giggle that was a mix of human and deer sounds. I pressed my forehead against his in a mock-spar, and gave him back to Maxine, who had finally changed back to humanoid.
We would name them Adam, and James.
It was going to be a good life.
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