by Sly Rabbit
© Sly Rabbit -- all rights reserved
Link whistled a happy little ditty as he pulled into the cul-de-sac. It was a quirk of his; rarely anyone had time to whistle anymore, they were so busy with their businesses and flashy entertainment to learn the craft for themselves. A good whistler sounds like the purest birdsong, and given time can warble anything, from toe-tapping ragtime to Bach's complex movements.
He found some way to fit it in. Always. There was always time to whistle.
The door on the poor, beat-up Mercedes-Benz squeaked with neglect; the note created a rub in the biologist's ragtime tune. _I'll have to get that fixed sometime_, thought Link, _when I can find the time, that is._ In reality the whole car needed to be scrapped, but with his limited funds it would have to run until the transmission dropped out the bottom.
Still whistling, he jingled the keys in an offbeat rhythm while he ambled up to the front door. It was a quarter-million dollar house - nothing to balk at - but the outer face showed signs of disrepair. Reddening stucco. Dusty windows. Uncut lawn. _When I have the time,_ Link excused himself from the chores.
They'd all have to wait, anyway. His wife was waiting on the other side of the door, waiting for him to come in with open arms, waiting with her warm smile, her beautiful, beady eyes, her warm love...
It was a struggle to get the keys into the door while the happy thoughts pounded in his head. The perfect couple's home! Ten years of happy marriage, and still going strong! All the rough roads, all the adversity, and they were still together!
The door nearly flew off its hinges, Link was so excited to see her again. "Honey, I'm home!" he bellowed into the giant foyer, "Miss me?"
Silence. He called again, and no one came. "Oh yes! The bedroom." Janet was always in the bedroom when he came home; Link was just too absentminded to remember. From time to time he would even forget that he was wearing shoes, and sneak a peek just to make sure.
An eager husband always takes the stairs two at a time, when going to see his blushing bride. Link tried to run up the stairs, but the pounds he had put on over the years reared their ugly collective head. The bedroom was at the end of a long hall, which required the biologist to cross a walkway that towered over the living room below.
The door was shut; he eased the thing open and tiptoed into the dark room. There was no reason to spook Janet, after all; she was probably catching a nap. He eased himself into the king size bed, the overwhelming smell not bothering him a bit. After six months of it, he had learned to ignore the odor.
"Janet," he whispered, "Janet, I'm home! Wake up!" A chitter came in response; the covers began to shiver, and before he could ask again a pair of beady eyes stared at him from a black-and-white striped ball of fur.
"I'm so happy to see you, Janet," Link said, carefully giving the animal a hug, "You look wonderful today." The animal didn't react, and begrudgingly Link gave it a small treat. The skunk squealed in glee, and began to munch on the pile of birdseed.
He pulled a small envelope from his pocket and talked to the skunk while it ate. "Janet, I have something for you." With nimble hands only a trained microbiologist could claim he pulled out a tiny picture. It was a snapshot of him with a lovely tall blonde, smiling, arm around Link. "You see that girl? That's you before I let SCABS destroy your body! Do you remember that day?"
The skunk just continued to chomp on birdseed.
"We had a great time," Link continued, "That was Paramount's King's Island. Remember that name? Tell me if you remember the name." No response. "You remember it; we rode The Beast five times in a row; you bought that airbrushed T-shirt; just before the park closed we embarrassed ourselves at the karaoke mike..."
Still no response. The skunk was polishing off the last bits of seed.
"Janet, please remember for me. Please... I know you're still in there. Show me some sign!" Nothing. "I thought Serum 203 would work!" Hopelessness ate away at the last of his reserves, but before he could give in to the soft, comfortable bed he whistled a happy tune and picked up the tiny skunk.
"Come on, then. We've got more work to do."
Located in the basement, the computer room was an absolute pig sty. Most of the can lights in the ceiling had burnt out long ago; Link told himself that he'd fix them if he had the time. On top of the dark oak paneling, the walls bathed in a coat of red ribbons. A picture of Link standing on the second-place podium was the only other decoration in the room.
The computer terminal was even worse. Takeout cartons covered every square inch of open space; when he sat down some of the rancid containers shook free and fell to the ground. It took him a moment to get comfortable; wires of all shapes and sizes littered the floor, most going to the copier-sized synthesizer at the edge of the table.
In fact, the cleanest place in the room was a tiny straw-filled clearing in a single corner. Water and food laid in one corner, and a small litterbox sat across from those. Immediately when Janet was released from her husband's grip she flocked over to the tiny pile of straw and nuzzled in.
"Another late night," he said aloud, stifling a yawn. Before he could complain he looked over at his wife turned skunk and added, "I owe it to her. It's my fault."
The CDC didn't complain when Link asked for the equipment; he was their hardest worker, and if he wanted to do more on the side more power to him. The more time put in, the better chance of finding the cure. No amount of research seemed to be enough, and the microbiologist was their greatest chance of making headway.
Besides, after the disaster with Janet they didn't want to deny him the chance to bring her back.
And to thank it was all his fault... That was enough to get him started for the day, along with the Mr. Coffee sputtering a fresh brew. As his computer buzzed to life he opened the only file on his desktop: anti-viral synthesizer 2-Z. The file opened to a gigantic page of A's, C's, T's, and G's. With a heavy heart he pulled a legal pad from the desk drawer and started writing a few permutations.
She was waiting for him, he knew. Every day Janet lived an agonizing torture, stuck in a body she could never escape. All her experiences, all her memories, all her love... locked away in a black-and-white furred cell.
And it was all his fault!
The calculation came up snake eyes. He scratched it out with his worn-out mechanical pencil, flipped the page, and started again. Janet watched him with curious eyes, between naps and water breaks.
Link's chat program beeped suddenly; he clicked the new window and read the message: "Turn on your voice." It was from Kevin, one of the few lab techs he actually liked to be around. Namely, the only one who refused to coddle him all the time.
Lord knew Link hated coddling.
He complied, of course, and within seconds the college kid's warm, jovial voice filled the computer speakers. "Still up, I see?"
"Just working out a few scenarios." Link tapped his pencil on the old legal pad, counted the three remaining sheets in the book. He'd have to go hound the 24-hour Citgo clerk for more soon.
"Put that down for the night! You're going to work yourself to exhaustion."
"I'm fine. I have a lot of work to catch up on."
"Linkous William Clark, you're going to catch your death working this hard! Just give it up for one night! Get some sleep! Get out of the house! Something other than Martian Flu research."
"In your dreams. Janet's counting on me."
A pause, then the college boy countered with "Well, at least put it down for a few minutes. You deserve a break." He considered breaking the chat right then and there, if that was how Kevin was going to be, but went along with the plan. It _did_ feel good to talk to another human being, even if their voice was digitized and sent over a wire. It reminded him of late night chats with Janet, about every little thing...
Guilt racked his body for a moment, then subsided. With the legal pad laid on top of a rotting pile of takeout cartons, he opened his mail program and let the messages download. Fifty, in total.
"Look, I know you love what you do." It was shaping up to be one of those conversations again, Link thought. He zoned out and looked at the long list of messages: spam, spam, spam, request letters from Colony 34-S... "You can't keep up like this forever. I know you can't get more than a few minutes' sleep each night, burning the midnight oil, and it's starting to show in the lab. You don't talk as much as you used to."
"Yeah. Uh-huh. Right. I understand. Yes." The words came out of his mouth subconsciously - a talent he developed years ago. He opened one of the letters marked "DELETING THIS MESSAGE WOULD BE IN VIOLATION OF FEDERAL LAW." It was another request for him to turn Janet over to the colonies. She'd be cared for there, given psychological treatment, a stress-free environment to live in from there on, specialized diet and neighbors...
What did Link do with the letter? Deleted it, of course.
"...What I'm trying to say is that you have to learn to let go! She's been in that form for six months; what makes you think you can fix her, when the rest of the scientific community is bashing their heads against a brick wall?"
Link got testy with that comment. "Let go? She wouldn't be in this situation, ifida just checked my suit..."
"You and your 'ifidas,' " the tech grumbled through Link's speakers, "She's gone, man. Has been gone for six months now. Face it; she's stuck in a skunk's body, and you can't do a damned thing about it."
"That's why I have to try. I did it to her." Another e-mail warning; Link considered doing a mass deletion of his mailbox.
"She could have caught the Martian Flu walking in the supermarket, for all we know! You're no guiltier than any other man. Why can't you just accept that and go on with your life?"
"Because I love her." He said it with an icy edge, full of determination and gall.
"Please reconsider," the digitized voice pleaded, "You're just not the same anymore. I worry, frankly. Janet's gone; you have to accept that…"
And with that Link slammed the close button on the window, cutting off the chat altogether. Determination set his mind as he set the legal pad back in front of him and scribbled down another combination.
Janet always stood stone still when Link called her. It was antidote time again; after he was finished injecting the compound he would always give her a treat for being so good. Was she standing for the chance of a cure, or the chance of a treat? He could never know for sure.
He prepared the tiny hypodermic needle carefully, making sure that each microliter was measured out with greatest care. Any mistake would void the chance of a recovery. He owed more to Janet, after all. Much more.
"That's a good girl," he said while poking the needle into his skunk's back. Realizing that he just referred to his wife as a pet, he apologized. There wasn't much to plunge into her body; the green fluid shimmered in the desk light before disappearing into her skin.
The waiting game began. Janet convulsed when the enzymes took hold; Link tried to hold her steady. The more she shook, the tighter he gripped her. She never reacted this severely to the medicine, he observed...
And suddenly the fur he was gripping came out in large tufts. A smile came to his face; she had the same creamy, baby-smooth skin he loved so long ago. It was finally going to happen. All that work and she was going to be back at his side.
Janet was going to be human!
The transformation continued to rankle Janet's rapidly growing body. Her tail slithered back into her body like a hose on a reel. A blanket of black and white fur covered the desk below her. Bubbles of flesh protruded from her back, slowly forming into soft, womanly curves. The grunts from her throat gradually took shape, going from beastial to raw to human moans to words.
"Whaaaat's haaapening?" she groaned, her once skunk muzzle reshaping to fit each word. Link could barely hold himself back while watching her face slowly form again. She slowly poured into a mask, starting with the soft chin, the sexy cheekbones, the deep blue eyes...
The eyes captivated him. They were the very eyes he fell in love with so long ago, the ones that went on into infinity, like two twilight skies aglow with stars. They were the only thing missing in his life, the hole in his heart, the one thing he had yearned for all along. She was finally back.
Finally back, he thought again and again.
Slowly her body bubbled into solid shape, her beautiful curves filling the desk, raw, untouchable, beautiful human flesh covering every square inch of her human body. No fur! No tail! She was finally back!
They embraced, losing themselves in a flurry of tears, "I love you"s, and absolute bliss. After all those months, they were finally back to the love they had in the years past, before the Martian Flu swept the globe, before all hell broke loose in the world.
They had their love again!
"I missed talking to you," Janet said, her soft voice resonating off each wall, striking deep within Link's lovesick heart, "I'm glad you stayed with the research."
"So am I," Link replied, too shaken to reply with more. He wanted to tell her everything: all his apologies, all his regrets...
"Wait a second," she yipped, "Look at your glove!" Link complied, looking at the pristine white latex glove he was suddenly wearing, "There's a tear in it..."
And like a rubber band snapping back into place Janet reverted, leaving Link in a state of absolute terror. His fear transferred to Janet, who turned, raised her tail, and sprayed her protective spray on him. The fluid burned like sulfuric acid on his skin; opening his eyes he saw himself shrinking, leaning over his new paws, cursing himself for being so weak...
The computer beeped; opening his eyes he saw the trail of saliva that leaked onto his last three legal pad pages. A cold bead of sweat trickled down his cheek. "Sleeping on the job, Link. Figures. And Janet still waits..." He chuckled, shook out the cobwebs, and started plugging numbers into the computer's simulator. Dawn was peeking through the tiny frosted windows; in a few minutes he'd have to feed Janet and go to work.
Three different security guards checked and rechecked Link's ID; beyond them it was lysol shower after lysol shower as he walked from containment biome to containment biome. Airlocks that hissed closed behind him, people bent over futuristic instruments, poking at a microscope slide with a computerized probe. Just another day at the office for Link.
His walk through the metallic tunnels ended in the Level 2 containment locker room. Kevin was already there, bright eyed, literally bushy-tailed. Initial close work with the Martian Flu left him with a squirrel's tail. He was lucky; other than that appendage he was completely normal. "How's things?"
Link was mesmerized with that slithering, brown, furry snake coming from Kevin's pants. If only Janet had been so lucky, to end up with little more than inconvenience. _Ifida just checked my suit..._ he thought to himself.
"...You in there, Link? I'm talking to you."
"Yeah. Just thinking about some things, that's all." The reply was flat, devoid of emotion, reflexive.
Kevin ambled over to Link, put a small hand on his friend's shoulder and gave a little rub. The touch - the SCABS-infested touch - made Link's skin crawl. "You were thinking about Janet's cure again, weren't you." There was no doubt in his mind; the question came out as a declaration, like he would announce that Link had just eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The pale man smiled weakly, his deeply-set eye sockets flashing for an instant. "You know me too well." There wasn't a chance for replies; Link started whistling right then and there. This time a minor, high-pitched, tear-jerking tone came from his mouth. Like a virtuoso at the violin, he was with his instrument.
The locker came open with a large clap; it the sound always reminded him of his wife slamming the cabinet shut for the last time. She didn't scream, or choke, or pound the ground; when Link came to see what was the matter she stared right into his eyes and uttered one malformed word: "help."
In that one stare she sent all her love, her commitment, her last wishes. Somehow she knew that the end was near, Link realized. The gaze was broken by her convulsions, and the sharp sound of bones popping and resetting. The microbiologist ran downstairs and came back with bottles upon bottles of antidotes, and a big hypodermic needle.
"It hurts!" she screamed into his memory, the sound clear and sharp like a knife, "It hurts! Help me!" In his vision she began to shrink, screaming madly, her cries changing from human to beastial, leaving him stupefied and helpless.
Another needle entered her skin. No effect. Two more. Three more. Nothing could stop it. His wife slipped away inch by inch, toeclaw by toeclaw. "Forgive me, Janet!" he screamed, "forgive me!" He hugged the skunk tightly, let her go, tried to look into her eyes for some understanding. Just when he was at his weakest, she turned, lifted her new tail...
The aroma still lingered in his nostrils. She had every right to do it, of course. It was Link's fault. _Ifida just taken that extra second to run the checklist! She's paying for my mistake!_
"Listen, Link, I was talking with Marvin about you yesterday." Marvin! What did his supervisor have to do with this? He stifled the urge to shout, and started to root through his locker. Somewhere, hidden in a back corner, it was waiting for him...
"Do you hear me? You still there?" His fingers touched the cool rubber glove; pulling it out he ran his fingers over the shiny surface, down to the inch-long tear that left his wife forever trapped in her menial body. Inside one of the fingers was a small probe. The Flu was right there; all he had to do was prick a single finger, make a little sacrifice, and his sins would be abolished! He'd honor Janet, and end his problems! They'd be together in the end!
There was only a 25% chance of dying from the flu - a risk he was willing to take. A risk he imposed on Janet only a half-year ago...
Kevin pulled the wooden probe from the sad man's pale fingers, and tossed into the biohazard bin. "Link! What are you doing? That's a containment breach! What was on that thing, anyhow?"
Link didn't respond; instead he followed the needle's gentle arc all the way to the trash can. "I need it! I need it!" he screamed, trying to fish out the needle.
"Stop it!" The kid, considerably younger and healthier than Link, grabbed the crazed man around the waist. The probe glinted from the rim of the biohazard bin, begging for him to reach out, to touch the very point that yearned for attention. It was right there! Ten feet away from him was the answer. They could still live in harmony! Him and Janet! Forever in beastial bliss!
He begged to be let alone, to finish what job he had brought himself to do, but Kevin persisted until the old man's breathing and heartbeat returned to normal.
"Why are you trying to stop me?" Link asked indignantly, "Here I am, spending my days in this metal cage, my nights staring deep into my..." he paused, looked to the needle again, "wife's eyes, wondering if I'm going to be capable of bringing her back. My one true love is gone! I want to join her! _Let me go!_"
Kevin ignored the pleas; pulling the man back into the airlock entrance before slamming the "sterilize" button. The door hissed to a close; the lysol sprayed reflexively in response to a closed door. "Listen Link, I talked to Marvin yesterday about you."
"So I heard." He spat. The needle still filled his thoughts.
"Why don't you take a day off? Get out of the house for a while. You're here day in, day out; it's getting you nowhere."
"What about Janet?"
The small tech sighed, and the tail behind him went limp. "Janet can care for herself for a day. If you don't like that idea, I'm sure one of us could take care of her. You need the break more than she needs you."
_People worry too much_, Link suddenly thought.
"Listen, Marvin's not going to let you in the lab, anyway. If he needs to he'll bring down security to escort you to a good time. Take advantage of it; if it's pay you're worried about he's willing to pay overtime to get you out of here for a day."
"That's a day wasted," he spat.
"Wasted?" Kevin caught his anger growing, then put it into check. "Listen, Link. You may not believe it, but I worry about you. How long has it been since you've slept?"
"A few hours ago?"
"Voluntarily? In your own bed?"
"You're killing yourself, Link. Go have a good time today. I'll catch up with you later; maybe we can go barhopping, like old times. You and me. Sound like fun?
_Where was Janet in that picture?_ Link thought to himself. "If you insist, I'll go. But I'm coming back tomorrow, early to make up for lost time."
"You do what you do," the young lab tech replied, "Just overdo it. Likely to come down with something that way."
He just chuckled acridly and walked out the opposite end of the airlock, ID badge of shame in hand.
Link saw it coming, really. It was only a matter of time before someone decided what his best interests were. After all, he was spending all day and all night working, ignoring everyone else, letting his soul hollow with each passing day...
They were all wrong, though. He _had_ planned a vacation; a one-day trip both he and Janet could enjoy together. A place where people just like her gathered every day in a sort of communion, so he heard in the reports. There she could be with her own kind, feel a little more at home with the body Link forced her into.
"You ready to have a good time, Janet?" She was on a purple lead she had originally bought for their long-dead puppy; it was the only way to take her out on the town. _People didn't understand us_, Link thought, _Janet's my wife, and I have to carry her around by a collar. Ifida just been more careful…_
Walking into The Blind Pig Gin Mill was always a nerve-wracking experience. It was like walking into a still frame; carrying her in on her pretty little lead, human in every facet of the word, a grain of salt in the pepper shaker. The group congregated around the bar entered a tense silence as they turned to stare. The full-morph squirrel they were watching stood prone, hands to his mouth, his breath held with the anxiety of the moment.
He ignored the attention, of course, and went to whistling a happy ragtime tune. Kevin did say to relax, after all. The entire bar watched him settle down into a booth, pull out a very thin pad of yellow legal paaper, and start into his calculations. The skunk he was toting along nosed up to his free hand, and he absentmindedly scratched the creature between the ears. It began to lean into the stretch.
In that second between settling down and watching the bar come back to life, Link turned to look at the squirrel on the table. Another prisoner of a SCABS body! He wondered what poor sap was responsible for that poor man's demise...
But before he could feel any better about himself the squirrel cheerily went back to the story he was telling. _Damn! Janet really did get the shaft,_ Link thought. The little squirrel danced this way and that, lifting his body from the quadrupedal stance to throw his arms a bit, then continued pacing. Most of the people in the bar were trained on his every move, and the rest watched through the corner of their eye.
"So there we were; the score on Austin's match was tied 7-7, you see. I was screaming at him from the corner, trying to get him pumped up for that last overtime period. I didn't have to work too hard, though; I could tell by his determined face that he was ready for anything. And his eyes! You should have seen his eyes! They were wide open, filled with raw energy, eager to get that last takedown and get his revenge. The guy beat him earlier in the year, see…"
A wrestling story. Link always loved wrestling stories; they reminded him of the goals he could never quite reach. He put down the pencil and last sheet of legal paper to listen. His other free hand went to stroking an insistent Janet.
"So they square off for overtime, and the ref blows his whistle…" an intense quite swept through the room as the squirrel continued. Captivating storyteller, he was. "And off that whistle Austin crowded Arik with a quick arm tie, and set up this beautiful high crotch…" Jim tried the move and flopped on his face; the lupine boys howled in laughter. "Oh, but his was so much better. The ref called the takedown, and he jumped up, threw his hands in the air, let out a primal scream… He didn't have any ifidas after that match, let me tell you!"
Link felt a distant buzz in his bones; the story hit a far-off, dulled nerve in his body. Pursuing it, he found he did remember some exciting matches of his career. Almost subconsciously he found himself shadowing the moves in his seat, going over that barn-burning semifinal match at Conseco...
He didn't deserve plesantries, though. Janet didn't have them, so why should he?
Instead, he started whistling a tune filled with yearning and went over the last matchup of his career. Right under the lights of posh Conseco Fieldhouse, with only a few seconds to go in double overtime. He remembered looking to the clock, watching the final seconds ticking away, feeling suddenly like he was watching himself from the outside, watching himself giving up all over again, dropping to the ground in defeat...
"Howdy, partner," the squirrel surprised him by suddenly dropping into his hair, "Haven't seen you around these parts before. Name's Jim Hart." Link tried to ignore the squirrel, tried to ignore the sickening feeling forming in the pit of his stomach. This guy was probably his mistake, too. If he forgot one tear in his suit, why not another? All he had to do was bump into the guy, anyhow.
He did what he did best; whistle and work on permutations. Jim looked quizzically at the numbers, hummed, and looked into Link's eyes. "You know, I could get you a program to do these for you. Still have connections with my school's math department. Trying to get me to teach it or something." The guy had a high-pitched voice, grating like a kid's cartoony record running at 80 RPM.
"I prefer doing it by hand," he mumbled. The squirrel tentatively walked up, put a paw on the withering man's arm, and when there was no resistance he clambered to the man's shoulder.
"You look like a wrestler," the little furry man stated, his tail twitching. _Always twitching,_ Link thought to himself, _Always twitching. Like they're taking a grade on everything I do._
"Used to be, yes. Back in my high school days." No one ever noticed that, especially in his depilated state. Muscles didn't give way to flab; they just ceased to exist. Eating was too time-consuming, at times. Exercise was absolutely out of the question, unless it was running to the store to buy more treats for Janet.
"I can always tell a wrestler by the eyes," Jim commented, "There's an air of determination about them. Always focused."
"Do tell." Link continued to hack away at his permutations.
"So... you want me to get you a drink? Donnie'll let me get one on the house, 'specially for a new face. You look like you could use one."
Link let out a long whistle, considered the offer, then turned to Janet. "What do you want, Janet? A Shirley Temple? You always loved Shirley Temples! Remember that? Remember that time, Janet? Please?" Jim looked on quizzically at the exchange, opened his mouth to speak, but let out a sigh instead.
He turned to the squirrel and said, "Shirley temple, and make it stiff." As the words left his mouth he started whistling again, this time improvising in time with the raggedy piano that suddenly flared up in a corner. The thing was playing itself; by the closed doors on the front face Link assumed it was a player piano. Jim went scurrying off to put in the order.
Never in his life did he think a place like this would come into existence. Wolves played cards in one corner. A rabbit sat sipping from his paw cup. The large bull of a man poured the mixed drink. They were all living in bodily prisons.
_And they're all my fault. I brought the virus out of the containment cell. Poor, tortured souls!_
They said that the thing was under control! He was one of the few who had a handle on that thing. And one cut in his latex glove...
"They're bringing it out right now," Jim said as he walked back. Link's eyes went from the squirrel's big, beady eyes to Janet's sad globes, traced the contours of her striped fur, and just started to cry. He was extremely careful not to leak on the legal pad; the permutation was looking very promising.
Jim tried to lay a paw on the man's arm, but only managed to make things worse. "What's wrong?" the squirrel asked in a tiny falsetto.
"I did this to all of you," Link confessed quietly, found himself not happy with the penance, then screamed, "All of you are this way because of me! I was the one who wasn't careful of the containment!"
"You opened the Beagle?" one of the wolves said from the back of the room.
"No. But I did walk out of the containment lab with a ripped glove! Look at my wife; she paid the price for my stupidity!" He lifted Janet for all of them to see; she lifted her tail in agitation.
There was mumbling all around, but Jim was the only one to speak up. "What are you talking about?"
"I was the one who gave Janet the Martian Flu," the guy spat, "It's my fault she's this way. I didn't follow decontamination procedures properly, let my suit tear, and brought the virus to her. She's in a prison. A damned prison!"
"It's not that bad," Jim tried to comfort him, "We just live a little differently, that's all. I used to be a big, strong wrestling coach, until SCABS turned me into a squirrel. Just a change in perspective, really."
"But why did Janet have to suffer? Ifida just checked my suit. Ifida----"
"And the bad word comes out," Jim interrupted. Link let out a breath he didn't even know he was holding. "If you only knew how many times I've heard that one..."
"But it's the truth."
"I know it is." Jim had an understanding tone to his voice; instantly Link knew that the tiny squirrel had been there before. "Ever wake up one day and just say, 'Today I'm going to try and be human?' "
"What does my humanity have to do with anything? I only care about getting Janet back. She's counting on me."
The squirrel choked on that one for a while, then countered with, "Okay, how about wrestling? I'm sure there's something you want to change there." And with that Link explained every detail of his state finals matchup, from whistle to whistle.
"You know how it is, being under the lights. I went in there feeling like I was on top of the world; thousands of people were in the stands, cheering me on! And I go out there and give up with seconds to go. Ifida just kept going for those last two seconds!"
Silence from Jim. He was having memories of his own.
"Never again. I will never give up again." He spoke it like an ultimatum, a challenge to anything life would throw at him. Sleepless nights, a loss of social contact, days without eating - nothing would distract him from the goal. The ever-important goal!
"But you have to let them go sometime," Jim finally countered, "Sometimes the pain isn't worth holding on to."
"I can't let go on Janet. Never. She's my love! I don't think your true love deserves to live with your mistake."
"I nearly killed myself with the exact same mentality." The words came out cold, callous, detached. "I didn't want to accept what I had become. There I was: successful wrestling coach, kids who would run through a brick wall for me at the snap of my fingers... and SCABS takes it all away. The big, courageous wrestling man turned into a twitchy, turn-tail squirrel.
"It couldn't be true; I had to have some of my mental toughness left!" Jim looked down at the floor as he spoke, and for an instant Link could see tears forming in his eyes. "I was determined to find it again. One day I decided I'd push to the very limits of my body, break a sweat, prove to myself that I still had it in me..."
Janet nuzzled Link's hand; it had been a while since he petted his wife. For a fleeting moment he was involved in his own thoughts, breaking into his own twisted mind. _Never give up,_ he thought solemnly to himself.
"That night Wanderer found me dehydrated and dying on the windowsill outside this very bar. Damned lucky that I survived." There was a pause as the squirrel recollected his thoughts.
"Touching," was all Link had to say.
"Different situation. Your situation was accidental; I imposed this disease upon my wife. It's my fault that she's the way she is."
"How do you know? Did you inject her with the virus?"
Silence. Jim continued to pressure. "What if she just happened to breathe it through the air? What about that? What if she's just an accident, just like the rest of us? What makes her so special?"
"That can't happen! There has to be a reason!"
"Who came up with that one?"
"Someone has to fix her! You want to try?" Link reached out to grab the little rodent; the treerat, smelling aggression on the man's breath, sprinted off to higher ground and cover. The intellect left his eyes as he went feral, and for a moment he looked exactly like Janet.
He stayed on the top rafter of the Pig for the longest time before skittering back down. "You know, I smell loneliness on her. Lots of loneliness."
"Oh God!" Link screamed, "Do I need to quit my job? I'm willing to do anything to make her happy. What else is she feeling...?"
"You can't help it, I'm afraid. She needs to be with someone."
"She is with someone," Link snapped, bordering on wringing the rodent's neck.
"With her own kind. She needs a mate. It's not something you can help; nature's calling her. You're just holding her back."
"That can't be!"
"'fraid so. You can't really detect it - human noses are pretty bad at this kind of stuff - but she reeks of it. You need to get her into a colony, or buy another skunk for her to interlope with. Take your pick; either she lives in a world made for humans with a wild partner, or lives with humans who went the same way she did. Your choice."
"But she loves me! We exchanged vows at the podium! _We're in love!_"
"And if you love her, you'll let her get on with her new life." There was a tense pause; Link swallowed bile that started to gurgle in his throat. "Listen, Phil has a lot of connections in the colony business. I heard him talking about Lei-Sek; if you're willing to send her out of the country, that's one of the best places in the world to send her to. There's plenty of feral skunks there, and she'll fit in just fine!"
"Now you listen here, treerat..." but the thought was never finished. A hacking cough broke into the conversation, blotches of fur exploding from his skin with each painful contraction.
Time ticked away slowly for Link. His Shirley Temple sloshed around inside the glass for a moment, and as time gave way it seemed to suspend itself in midair. Everyone in the bar stared at the changing man, offering their hand (or paw) in assistance. He pushed them all away and ran for the car.
It seemed like his car would go no faster than three miles an hour on his way home. All the time he felt the fur tickling his arms, making him guiltily giggle. He tried to whistle, but the transformation was eating at the sides of his throat. It was happening too fast - way too fast! There was still so much to do.
Janet still wasn't cured. He couldn't let the disease get the best of him yet!
When he went to pick up Janet, his thumbs gave way and she fell to the ground. When she hit Link winced, and tried to herd her downstairs to the lab. She happily went, expecting her treat, while he looked over the last combination he had scribed on the legal pad. Gauging by the fur density and new paws he had thirty minutes before the transformation finished. Enough for one last synthesized cure.
One more chance, he thought. One more chance to make things right.
His lungs were shrinking rapidly; with the reduced blood oxygen level it was a struggle to stay awake. Colors danced over everything, radiant yellows, exploding blues, streaming red, dragons of yellow and orange parading across the piles of takeout cartons.
He shook the visions off and jiggled the mouse, bringing the computer out of standby. Nothing would get in his way. Nothing!
The hunt-and-peck method turned into feel-the-key, his vision was darkening so quickly. _The lungs must be transforming,_, he thought solemnly to himself, _I deserve it, from what I put her through._ The adjustments to the serum were made, and he pressed the "Process" button on screen. Whistling proved useless, even with a menthol lyptus cough drop to ease the sore throat. It just wouldn't come out anymore.
Nick looked at the hateful page staring back at him. The pad had served well; the last piece held his wife's last hope at humanity. Fitting, it was. He shredded the last page off; ripping it from the pad was too difficult with his breathing and paws. Inside the back cover was a picture of his wife, he knew, and he wanted to look at her face one last time…
His eyes blurred the image beyond comprehension. Angered, he tossed the cardboard into the wastebasket. It had served it's purpose.
There was nothing left to do but wait. Link leaned back into his chair, reached for Janet, but found nothing. She cowered in her comfy corner; suddenly he found that he could smell her fear. Something big and new was in the room with her. He wanted to lay with her, stroke her ears, tell her everything would be all right, and close his eyes for a moment…
That thought spread his eyebrows immediately. There was no way he was going to give up on his love. Another whistle tried to escape his throat; it unleashed a series of inhuman chitters. He closed his mouth immediately.
Link watched himself in slow time, watched the fur slowly overtake his skin, thickening guard hair by vengeful guard hair. His face slowly gave way to a mangled excuse for a muzzle, exploding forth like bubbling oil. All the time he struggled for a deep breath, trying to stay alive for that extra minute.
He was going to die; he knew that. The tiny lungs he knew replaced the once-healthy ones were under severe stress. It was only a matter of minutes now.
The machine dinged, and a small hypodermic needle popped out one end. The cure! Just enough to bring her back. Struggling to cradle the thing in his arms, he brought over to the cowering Janet. She turned and sprayed him; it didn't matter. He was going to be dead in a few minutes, anyway.
All that mattered was bringing her back.
Without warning the transformation shot up into his esophagus, and with the shrinking a loud snap rang through the air. Blood began to run down the side of his malformed lip. His body fought for life, gasping to fill his tiny lungs for the last time, grasping at the ground for some sort of support.
"Nothing will stop me," he mouthed, but the larynx had no air supply to form the words with. The world was getting bright, suddenly. For a fleeting moment he the skunk flash in his vision, and before she could disappear he jabbed the needle into her. The fluid flowed into her, and suddenly everything was light.
She filled his vision; where the dull black fur was falling away beams of bright light shone through. Her tiny body bubbled up, liquefied, reformed into soft legs, to beautiful hips, to gentle curves he once loved. With her rapidly forming lips she grinned and uttered, "Thank you, love. I've been waiting for you to save me."
Janet had come back. He reached out with tired arms suddenly filled with energy. Even with the transformation, his wife snatched him up in her strong, soft arms, cradling him to her breast. "You've done more than enough," she spoke, the tone soft and sweet like honey, "It's time to take a break." With that she leaned over to peck Link's grotesque face with innocent, unmarred lips.
And with that he closed his eyes, and fell asleep in his wife's arms. He did deserve a break, after all that strife. The only ifida left on his mind dissipated into dust.
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