|Man in the Mirror
by Sly Rabbit
© Sly Rabbit -- all rights reserved
I’ve been a victim of...
Ka-thump, ka-thump go the rails...
If someone told me I’d be on a one-way train to the end of the line, I’d probably laugh in their face. Just another rimshot in my suddenly catskills-esque tragedy of a life; they’re a dime a dozen nowadays...
A man came to my seat and proceeded to sit down, paying no attention to the tiny squirrel situated on the cushion. With a tinny, angered chitter I scramble up the upholstered seat backing as his portly back hit the seat, fearing for my own safety. Enraged as a squirrel can possibly be, I jump up on his shoulder and pull on a few whiskers
If I were still human this guy would have a mouthful of knuckle a la Hulk Hogan, but SCABS changes your perspective a little.
I put on my best ear-sneer - my facial muscles are too badly transformed to be of any use - and put on my pathetic tone of indignation. “Excuse me?” I kindly ask in my squeaky, barely-human voice, “Why are you sitting in my chair?” Even with the snobby emphasis, I still sounded like Dale the chipmunk. Besides, what good is a threatening tone when it comes from something that tips the scales at a menacing one pound?
The portly man brushed me off his shoulder with a gigantic hand and brushed his beard out. “I bought this seat at reduced fare because they said a tiny SCABS patient had half of it.”
Damned hidden discount clauses...
“So I don’t count as a full person?” With a voice like mine, why would I?
I watched with satisfaction as the gentlemen frowned, his wrinkled face showing a twinge of guilt. “Nothing against you, of course; I’m just on a tight budget.”
You and me both, brother. “SCABS isn’t to light on the wallet, either.” It came off cold, callous, and completely alien to my normal personality. But what’s normal anyhow?
My seatmate smiled. “Looks like you save a lot of cash on grocery bills, Mr. Squirrel.”
I ignore the rimshot in my head. “Ever been to life insurance hell?” I asked acidly, “Well, I live there.” I leave out the hidden clauses (much like the bitch that sold me this damned ticket) involved in my insurance flop: like how my girlfriend threw me into a hospital I couldn’t afford, how she sapped my savings as I slipped in and out of medicine-induced coma...
My live-in ironic drummer Mr. Skins is going crazy with that one.
As harsh as the retort came off, my aged seatmate ignored it. Instead, he groaned, resituated in the seat, and yawned. Silence fell over the two of us, letting the ka-thump of the tracks fill the compartment...
“You know,” he lit up, “maybe you could move up into the baggage compartment. There’s not much in the hole, and you’re small enough to be comfortable there...”
My tail flicks in anticipation as I see the joke unfold. I tried to put on a ear-face of helplessness and innocence as I look into the man’s eyes. “Could you help me up?” The man replied by reaching for my body with his fat, grubby, monstrous hands. Together, they’re bigger than me.
With my best emulation of a human smile I let out a loud chitter and clamber up the upholstered wall into the luggage compartment. Sucker.
Okay, so not every joke is on me. If I couldn’t pull that prank every once in a blue moon I’d probably go insane.
Away from the giant, I recollect my thoughts. The edges are worn from the activity; I’ve been over it with a fine-toothed comb so many times already. Just like beating a dead horse. A really dead horse.
With a tired sigh I reached into my small suitcase and pulled out an almond, shell and all. Might as well grind down these rodent teeth while I muse...
I tried looking out the window only to find a nice wall. Drat! No window in a luggage compartment? What about these ill-regarded suitcases and whipped squirrel SCABS?
A year ago I would have missed the view. The squirrel transformation not only allowed me to live in high, cramped, dark spaces, I actually enjoyed them. Go figure.
I hate the Martian Flu. I hate SCABS. One in twelve odds, and I manage to get lucky. Maye I should hit the Strip sometime...
Sure, it beats the hell out of the alternative. I’ve seen the piles of burning bodies in the street, sizzling like ribeye on the grill. Flaming white moths fluttered around their bodies in a sort of twisted pathetic fallacy...
Sometimes, just sometimes I wish I were dead. Would be much easier... and cheaper.
Looking into my kids’ eyes - my wrestling prodigies, the reason I lived and worked where I did - was the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do. Before them I stood, a squirrel broken by medical debt and punishing psychological pain, only a hollow shell of what he once was. It was hard for them to see past the fur and bushy tail, to see the last shred of their fun-loving, respectful, strong wrestling coach.
My one true love suddenly torn from my heart. Damn SCABS...
I was pretty big on the coaching circuit pre-SCABS; I kid you not! Team Indiana head coach, consistent showings at IHSAA semi-state (and one beautiful run at team state), kids that would run through a brick wall for me if I asked. I taught them dedication, grit, and determination. God bless every one of ‘em.
And my body! Damn proud of what I had. Ever since I won the sate championship in high school, I’ve was committed to keeping myself in good shape. Right up to the day SCABS took my humanity, I was in the weight room in one way or another. In fact, I had just finished putting up 300 lbs. on my bench press before it all slipped away...
Something like that never leaves your blood. Never.
It poisons me even now. Hard to teach a grappling move when you have no hands and can’t stand on two feet for more than a few seconds... Which leaves me without a coaching job and a mind full of finely-tuned information I can’t put to use. Great situation, eh?
Sure, I had my teaching job in school. Math was just a way to make money so I could keep coaching. Algebra was easy, and I enjoyed teaching it to kids while recruiting for the team. I couldn’t stay there, though; sticking around and trying to fill my old shoes would have been absolutely traumatic.
I could see my kids now: “Mr. Hart... So why aren’t you coaching again? Oh, can I scratch your ears?” Oy vey.
Which leaves me on a one way train, choked with knowledge I can’t use, gnawing on a hard almond shell, trying hard to accept the rodent behavior as normal.
Who was I trying to kid?
No goodbyes, no Casablanca-esque “Another place, another time” monologue; I just hopped on a train and went where the wind took me. It hurt to split like that, but it beat the alternative by a longshot.
All about the quintessential Catch-22.
The ultimate punchline - my form - eats away at the last shred of my dignity. Outside and in, I’m a completely morphed squirrel. For some reason my brain survived, though flight reflexes poison my brain every day.
And if you’re wondering how I kept the human intellect, I don’t ask. The second I wonder about something it seems to get worse.
I’m still adjusting to the new habits. Due to the lack of clothes in my sizes, I go around Au Naturale most of the time. The new diet completely isolates me from the meat I once loved. On top of that, my teeth continuously grow, so I have to chew something for at least an hour a day.
Hell, my dog even turned on me! I came home, and he chased me down like a Sunday night dinner. When my girlfriend captured me in a tree, she knew the leverage she had, so she tossed me into the hospital while she sucked away at my savings.
True love indeed.
One month of therapy and sedatives later, I was released back into the world on probation. They wanted to send me to a colony; $5000 in lawyer’s fees later and they dropped the subject. If I would have been human, I would have given them a piece of my mind...
But back then I was confident that I could defend myself against anybody. Lately I’m lucky if I can push away a Yorkshire Terrier.
Lucky me I had enough money to float my expenses; unfortuanately that didn’t leave me much to live on. Specifically, A Benjamin with change and my bag of stuff. I couldn’t hock off my possesions for much money; they were mostly pictures, notes, reminders of my human life. Though the classic Gables would still catch a hefty price...
Not the shoes. Anything but the shoes. They were all I physically had left of my past life, a painful but necessary reminder.
The train sighs as the brakes settle in; I follow its lead and push my baggage onto the floor. Portly man (I never did get his name) tried to offer his help, but I ignored him as I righted my bag and attached it to a small harness I could pull it with.
My name is Nick Hart. I am a fucking squirrel. I am a living punchline.
As I pull my luggage down the handicap ramp, an itch gnaws at the back of my ear. Damned fleas... My doctor suggested I wear a flea collar, but I absolutely refused. To me, the collar was a sign of submission, of a final loss of humanity.
Too late, friend.
I just hope all the fleas on my body have mites. That’ll teach them...
Speaking of vermin, the train platform opens up to an anti-Utopia. Dense cigarette smoke closes my world to the small wood patio. Through the smoke I can see a shadow of the privacy fence erected around the area, isolating the desolate platform even further. The only exit is manned by a middle-aged clerk, his biker-look foreshadowing what I’d see beyond the door.
With a sigh I get my luggage rolling again. I feared the worst case scenario, but there was no turning back now. Nothing to it but to do it... The story of my life -- my so-called life.
Cue the rimshot!
The biker-clerk poignantly looks down and nods as I pass through the gate, wearing a sadistic smile that communicates “I’ll give you a day tops.”
I’ll show him... He’ll have a bite he’ll never forget!
I’m sure you know what goes here.
The rimshot fades away as the barren landscape unfolds before me. This is an urban desert – a real Black Hole of Calcutta. All the storefronts had a welcoming steel siding pulled over them, the material plastered with graffiti. Their signs ranged from new-age health shops to nickel smut shows, in varying degrees of disrepair.
Off in an alley, four bums gathered around a drum fire, passing around a bagged bottle as they sulked. A bag lady gingerly picked through a dumpster on the next street; with a gasp of elation she pulled out a rotten apple core that tied my stomach in a knot. I turned away as she bit in to see two poorly-dressed partygoers sleeping peacefully in their own vomit. The pool under the drunks shimmered in the dim streetlight.
Winos and bag ladies and bums, oh my!
Squirrel perspective really changes the way you look at cities. Going from five feet to six inches does wonders for relative size. Imagine a football field of asphalt, surrounded on each side by 15-story skyscrapers; that’s pretty close to how I feel now.
Prey instincts set off loud warning bells in my head. This is too open; must be hidden/confined/higher up...
Imagine that: big bad wrestler scared of a little vulnerability. Well, big bad wrestler turned tantalizing squirrel prey...
Do your stuff, Mr. Skins!
I try my best to stifle the primal urge to sprint up the nearest pole. I’ve seen squirrelcides before; logically speaking, running on wires means fried Nick Hart.
Okay, so maybe I was exaggerating on the whole squirrelcide thing. Call me paranoid For a feral squirrel, ignorance is truly a bliss.
One step at a time... that’s it.. No problem! I can do this. All I have to do is keep walking...
Can clatters on the ground... smells like a predator DANGERTHREATRUN! I take off like a bolt as I hear the soft mrowr of a cat behind me. For the first time in my life, I’m the prey.
Take 5, Mr. Skins; this is serious life-or-death stuff.
Of course, a lot of this comes with afterthought. While that cat was on my bushy tail, the only thing on my mind was escape. I completely ignored the suitcase strapped to me; it toppled as I took the first corner and I dragged it loudly through the streets.
I turn a corner into a blind alley, desperately hoping for some sort of escape route. The cat was still behind me, still breathing down my back...
I shudder at the thought.
A chipboard window cover! With a sigh of relief I book it for the refuge. The relief was so great I managed enough human thought to unhook myself from the luggage so I could climb.
One, two, three bounds and I was out of harm’s way.
The cat stayed close to my suitcase, acting like he had all day. My will (and terror) held fast, though, and the kitty went other pursuits. As I watched the cat swagger off, I gradually regained my normal human thought-patterns. The heavy, rapid-fire breathing began to settle down, giving my mind a tiny bit of relaxation.
How incredibly embarrassing! A month ago, I would have given that kitty one good boot to the ribs and sent it running. Here I am, though, suddenly a dinner entrée on its menu.
Great; every time I start feeling the least bit human something happens and I go completely feral. Let’s hear it, Mr. Skins!
SCABS patients have many charity options... all I have to do is ask.
Never! I can beat this disease without help. A little work, and I’ll be on the road to recovery. Once I settle into an apartment and find a job, then I can start putting things back together.
Things will settle down, I’m sure of it; it’s the question of when that scares me.
With a sigh I scramble back down the rotting chipboard and recollect my stuff, thinking of where I could possibly lay my head down for the night.
Well, damn. After spending the night in a shoebox I found on the street, I tried finding an appropriate apartment. Nobody had lodgings for my price range.
Okay, so I drove a hard bargain. A really hard bargain. Five bucks a month hard. When it’s all you can afford, it seems like so much more... I gave my price maximum to all the local realtors, who stifled chuckles as they gave me a shake. Nothing. Zip. Nada.
Mr. Skins speaks up even as I think about it now.
Trying to keep a no-worries attitude, I continued walking through the town right up to sunset. The general quality of neighborhood never rose above a low-rent district, sometimes going as low as Hell’s Kitchen. Quite charming, when you think about it...
An hour before twilight, I stumbled upon a large park. The street sign toted a 20-acre public forest, open to anyone and everyone.
That’s when I put two and two together. I’m a red squirrel. This is a park. A park has trees. Red squirrels live in trees. So, logically couldn’t I just hole up in a tree for as long as I needed to?
Bingo. With a chitter of excitement I unharnessed my bag in a bush and went house shopping.
After going through a few trees I finally found a unoccupied full oak, a true dream piece of real estate. The hole itself was just large enough to house me and a few stores, big enough to make my human side feel less cramped, yet small enough to keep my squirrel instincts happy. There was a homely smell to the tree, something like oak.
Okay, so it is oak. Badda boom.
Once I had tried out my home for comfort, my mind turned back to the luggage. I still had to get it up here... Thankfully I had a length of rope in my bag, so getting the luggage out of harm’s way was as easy as running rope over a branch and hoisting the luggage up. A quick knot later and my luggage was on the same level as my home.
Sure it’s only a Jerry-rigged job, but it’ll have to do for now. Squirrels don’t usually have carry-on luggage...
Next stop on my list is food. Sure, I could probably live off the nuts in this tree, but there’s a feeling of humanity when I go to the market. Like I’m not as much of an animal as SCABS makes me out to be. If worse comes to worse, I’ll always have the option of living off the land; as long as money holds out, though, I’m still a consumer.
A quick zip (carefully, to avoid losing everything in the bag) and my wallet is out of the case. I strap it to my back with the harness I used for my luggage; obviously I don’t have pockets in my fur. One more check on the Jerry-rigged closet and I was springing to the ground. On the tarmac, I could see a strip mall across the street featuring a grocery.
One hundred yards to the store, and somehow I manage to get there without going nuts. My instincts tried, though, every step was plagued with a command to run up the nearest telephone pole.
Smart squirrel as I was, though, I managed to refuse the urge to take the high (voltage) road.
The automatic door wouldn’t open for me; the motion sensor was made to tolerate small animals like me without opening. Go figure. I sneaked in as another shopper left with her shopping bag. Good thing she couldn’t see me; otherwise we’d have a situation on our hands.
Mr. Skins, if you would be so kind...
Big, open, sterile places like the supermarket make me nervous. My claws click on the marbled white linoleum floor, shining in the fluorescent glow from above. Shelf upon colossal shelf tower over me, toting piles of foodstuffs bigger than I am.
I know what I really want. If this market had rotisserie chicken... I haven’t had it in so long!
I remember I place I went to when I was human that had the best chicken I’ve ever tasted. Meat so tender you could pinch it off the bone with no trouble at all. And it was so tender and juicy...
This time I’ll stomach it. This time I’ll have the hunger for it...
But as I pass by the butcher stand, my nose wrinkles at the disgusting smell of searing meat. Damn! What’s happened to me?
Stay out of this, Mr. Skins.
The stench slowly ate at my already dwindling appetite, leading me down a more fitting aisle. Bags of shelled mixed nuts lined the walls; I scrambled up to the third shelf and paraded down the landing, eventually finding a small bag of tasty macadamias. I would buy bulk, but I do have to get my booty home somehow. With a little modification, the harness was able to grab onto the bag so I could drag it to the counter.
The clerk was of course skeptical of a squirrel tugging on her shirt with a wallet on his back, but when I muttered “SCABS” she nodded her head in understanding. She removed the bag from my harness, scanned it, and asked for my money. I paid in disgusted silence, making the clerk bend down with a grumble to take my pay.
Feel the pain, woman!
Once she had the parcel bagged for me, I stepped into the plastic straps so I could drag the bag home. It crackled as I walked out the door; fortunately the bag was just big enough to trigger the sensor so I didn’t have to ask for help. Things were uneventful on that 100 yard walk to my tree.
My tree. Who knew?
Once I had my bounty up in the small knothole I called home, I sliced open the plastic bag with my incisors. The first macadamia was out almost as soon as the bag ripped open, the shell ripped open immediately afterwards. Macadamias taste so good...
Never thought I’d say that in my lifetime.
The edges of the knothole are sticky with sap. Maybe I should buy some cotton balls to line it with, you know, to help keep the place nice and tidy? This will do for now, though; it’s late, and I’ve had a long day. I could probably fall asleep in a vat of crazy glue right now and not know the difference.
Tomorrow I’ll fix everything. Yes, tomorrow I’ll go for a run and sort my thoughts out. Until then, I’ll give in to my reflexes and sleep, semi-happy to be alive.
I shake off a little morning dew and start towards the densely wooded 10 acre reserve inside the park with a shiver of anticipation. A small drip of adrenaline surges through my body, and I find myself actually looking forward to the run.
Am I going crazy? A few years ago I loathed running. Terrible memories from my senior year of high school ruined the activity for me, waking up at dawn every morning in two layers of sweatsuit running sprints up and down my park. The things I did for that sport...
No pressure here, just a perfect amble through the park. Maybe that competitive pressure is what I’m missing...
Not now. This is supposed to be a relaxing jog, after all.
The aromas of a forest full of life assault my sensitive nostrils: fresh wild herbs greeting the day, earthy topsoil aerating in the morning dew, the smell of moisture everywhere, a lot like the air just before a rainstorm. I remember how I used to look forward to a downpour just so I could get a lungful of the air.
Yeah, I had a soft side too. Go figure.
The morning was incredibly relaxing, and suddenly I found myself doing that ear-smile thing again. It’s so different from a typical smile; it comes from a different place entirely. In fact, it’s almost enough to make me actually appreciate the form... The sudden waft of a wild cat’s musty territory marking stood my hair on end, though, so I bolted up a large cypress tree.
Once up the tree, I found my body arguing with itself. My squirrel side wanted to simply start hopping from tree to tree, while my human side was afraid of falling. Years of training in a human body taught me a thing or two about climbing trees, how careful I had to be, how to keep my balance, which branches wouldn’t hold my weight...
But that was when I weighed more than a few ounces. And I didn’t have a tail to balance myself.
Without thinking about it, I picked out a line to take across five trees. One deep breath later, I started out across the tiny branch, halfway expecting it to crack below my weight. It swayed a little, but my tail moved autonomously to counterbalance me.
I reached the end of the branch with a nervous intake of breath. The gap ahead of me was only six inches, but it was a long way down from here. Trying to visualize myself making the jump, I went through how I would do it in my mind, letting my new squirrel instincts guide me. Three times I hunched back like I was going to jump, but dropped away at the last second.
On the fourth squat, I leapt and prayed that my instincts would pull through.
I didn’t notice that I had landed until I was five steps into the branch. My blood was pumping with energy, suddenly infused with the new event. The ear-smile grew wider as I set up for the next jump. This time I didn’t hesitate, taking a running start and getting a heady rush of weightlessness before I landed.
Three jumps later, I was going at full tilt. It was such an incredible and heady feeling; the jumps were at the back of my mind as I planned the next part of my line in human portion of my mind. Every aspect of my brain was dedicated to getting from point A to point B.
After a good ten jumps, I gradually slowed to a stop. The heady feeling slowly died away, leaving me warm and fulfilled. This was such a great way to get around! If there’s a crowd, I could just leap over them all...
Wait a second... I have trouble with large streets and sidewalks, but who said I couldn’t jump from building to building? Reduced traffic, and a whole hell of a lot easier on my nerves.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!
I started chuckling in my strange high-pitched voice as I start up again. So this is what it’s like to be a squirrel, eh? Count me in.
A pop, a splinter out of the tree, and my shocking jolt of terror.
The event registered while my squirrel body scrambled into deep cover. As I turned to look back to the ground, I found a pair of orange vested kids toting guns. I never understood orange vests; I can’t believe animals ignore the color...
Why was I thinking that? God, I was just inches away from being on the wrong end of a gun!
The human side of my brain thinks about the hunting trips I used to take with my dad. We’d go to a forest one of his friends owned for a weekend. During the day, we’d strap on rifles and go hunting. He usually sat up in a deer stand, but I preferred tracking down prey. So I followed squirrels all day. I was good, too; an average weekend bagged me ten or more squirrels...
Mr. Skins, meet Lady Irony. Mr. Skins, you’ve been a great guy, but the Lady’s got this one covered. O lady who wears her feather boa like a bandoleer! Dance your seductive dance of comical tragedy! Clack your castanets of calamity! Tap your toes to the terrific beat! Dance, Irony, Dance!
As the terror instinct dies down, my human brain replaces it with rage. How dare they fire upon another human! Without any consideration for my form, I picked a line and bolted towards the two kids, screaming human expletives that would make a sailor blush as I went. Needless to say, they were flabbergasted that a squirrel they had just fired upon was chasing them down. One tried to run, but gave up as I ate the gap between us with massive leaps.
“Damn kids!” I screamed, “I was running there. Do you know what happens to boys that shoot at other people?” I stayed in the tree boughs; the height advantage gave me the psychological edge I needed to keep this tone of voice.
“W-w-w-e’re sorry, misther,” the smaller one said, “our dad told us this woods was SCABS-free. We never wanted to hurt nobody...”
Why didn’t someone tell me that?
The teenager tried to wave me down, but I stayed put. With a sigh he shrugged his shoulders and stated in a harsh tone of voice, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
I shook my head, knowing that if I were to open my mouth I’d probably cuss the kid out again.
“We have rules and regulations here that protect SCABS,” he continued, “but there are areas where the rules fall away. Public parks that allow petty hunting...”
Oh, so now I’m a petty squirrel. Just make me feel that much better, will you?
“...protect SCABS only if they wear an orange vest.”
Great; so now I’m going to be a fashionable woodland creature? Images of Bambi in a bikini come to mind.
The small one lit up, and pulled out a pocketknife. “I can fix you up, misther! I’ll give you part of my vest!” He was suddenly enveloped in concentration, humming as he cut out the arm-holes in a small square of heavy orange nylon.
“Dad’s gonna kill you for ripping his vest,” the teenager mumbled, his warning falling upon deaf ears.
“Here you go, misther squirrel,” the boy held out a tiny-size jacket, frayed at the corners, “This should do you just fine.”
The teacher in me surfaced as I accepted the gift graciously. “Why thank you, kind sir! It’s a wonderful jacket.” You gotta treat the little ones this way. He beamed with pride, making my effort worthwhile. I felt my jitters melt away as I tried on the jacket, suddenly thankful for good Samaritans.
“You should really visit The Blind Pig Gin Mill,” the older one cut in, “They know more about this stuff than we do.”
I was moving around while he talked, breaking the new jacket in. “The blind what?”
“The Pig for short. It’s a bar for all the SCABS. When our uncle came down for the weekend, he was adamant on going there.”
“Why was that?”
“SCABS turned him into a five-foot rock golem.”
Oh, That’s why. Open foot, insert footpaw.
“Anyway... I can tell you where it is, if you want.”
Hell, why not? I nodded, and he pulled out a convenient pen and paper. Must be a writer... In an instant he handed me a very small note with the address scrawled upon it; amazing that this kid had some consideration for my size. I slid it into the sleeve of one of my pockets and said a cordial thank you.
As I slipped the note away, the boy frowned and spoke candidly. “And for what it’s worth, we’re both really sorry about this. Right?”
“No problem!” Like hell it wasn’t a problem. I almost died. No reason to push my luck, though... “Have a nice day!”
“You too.” And they were gone, mumbling amongst themselves as they trailed off.
I let out a massive sigh, feeling like a great weight had been lifted from my chest. Okay, so now I’m potential petty game for hunters. Big hairy deal, right? The sun is high in the sky now; I must have spent three hours out here in the forest. With a shrug I started picking a line out of the forest en route my tree.
My, how time flies when you’re having fun!
Okay, so after being shot at I thought I could spare a few bucks for entertainment. An arcade I passed during my grocery escapade advertised an insane token deal, so I thought it would be nice to play some good ol’ violent video games. If it weren’t for the virtual bodies I put away in arcades, I’d probably go nuts!
I never took off the hunting jacket; a few modifications with my incisors and a length of rope let me carry my wallet on my back. Oh, didn’t you know? Wallets are all the rage in backpack fashion. All the squirrels in Europe are sporting it. Hit it, Mr. Skins!
The arcade would be a pleasant diversion from my hectic life. Besides, I didn’t want to give in to the Pig just yet. I still had a chance to squeak through on my own, without charity or help. The address was in my wallet, there just in case I fell.
But I wasn’t going to fall.
The door conundrum faced me again, suddenly faced with a wall I didn’t have the strength to push open. Armed with my newest squirrel instincts, though, I was able to climb up a drainage pipe and get in through a small open window near the ceiling of the place. I used the wooden trim molding to slither down to the redemption desk, nearly giving the young clerk a heart attack.
“Hello, miss,” I said in my high-pitched voice, “I’d like a 50 for 5 deal, please.” She chuckled at my voice, puled out a bag of tokens, and took my fivespot without a word.
Oh well. At least she didn’t take a shot at me...
I looked over to the line of pinball machines with a sniffle of regret. When I was human, I had a passion for those gigantic physics demonstrations, but with this body I couldn’t fathom playing the games. All the old tricks come back as I look at an old favorite, eating at my soul like acid.
Mr. Skins takes a moment of silence as I try to put the past behind me.
Shrugging off the pain, I scrambled onto the counter of a football game. I had played the game before: no-rules football with massive tackles and high-speed play. It was gratuitously violent, allowing players to body slam and perform unnecessary roughness.
And you know what? I absolutely love the game.
The problem overcame me as I looked at the joystick and button configuration. How was I going to reach all the buttons? I tried different positions, but eventually settled for using my forepaws to move the joystick while smashing the buttons with my footpaws. Silly, yes, but sometimes you have to work with what you got.
I asked a passerby to put in my money. He stared for a second, but eventually complied. I hit the start button and fell into video game trance.
Those who play video games know the feeling. For a moment, you’re not moving a joystick and smashing buttons in time with a flickering screen. Instead, you’re enveloped in the action, watching the game unfold as you pick the plays in livid color. All your focus falls in on that small square of light, conducting the ballet as you see fit.
An hour passed, and I started to get the hang of the strange joystick handling. Two hours passed, and I was starting a season with my team. Incoming challengers added tokens for me when I needed it. Two hours stretched into three hours. Three to four.
Hard to believe when you only have 50 tokens, right? Free game for every win. Let’s hear it for honest and fair arcade owners!
I was on my last game when it happened. The clock was right at six – five hours of work on this machine – and I was pumped to get my record in the book. In fact, I was so pumped I didn’t notice her sneaking up behind me. Usually I see the glare of a watcher in the glass on the screen, but the new angle makes it hard to see an eight-year-old who can barely see over the cabinet herself.
No, my only warning came from a squeal of elation.
“Mommy! Mommy! A real squirrel!” The surprise caused me to whip around, suddenly face to face with the tiny Shirley Temple-esque cutie. She was close enough to grab me and squeeze me to a pulp...
I was so terrorized I froze. For a moment a tense silence filled the air, intermingled with the sound of my game behind me. Damn, turnover on downs...
Okay, now I’m a little angry. No problem...
Mommy came over, and she backed away enough for me to come back to my senses. “Mommy! It’s a squirrelly-whirlley! Can I pet the squirrelly-whirrley?”
“Why don’t you ask squirrelly-whirrley?”
Oh no, don’t peg this one on me!
“Awwww... doesm’s Mr. Squirrelly-whirrley want his lil’ head scritched? Does’e? Does’e?” Her finger dangled just above my head, coming ever closer. I instinctually slithered out of the way as she came close, trying to come up with a tact response.
Come on, now, she’s just an eight-year-old. She can’t possibly know this is the image I loathe, that I never wanted to be cute in the first place. She can’t understand that being treated like a lower being is as demeaning as being called a slave...
“Listen, little girl...”
“Yous’a got the cutest lil’ voice!” she interrupted, “Isn’t Mr. Squirrelly-whirrley cute? I could love him for-ever-and-ever...”
I completely lost it. With my most sarcastic cute voice, I cooed to the girl, “Would you excuse Mr. Squirrelly-whirlley while he takes a barfy-warfy in the grassy-wassy?” Crass, yes, but effective in getting the scary girl to back away.
Mommy gave me the look of death, and I knew I had made a mistake. I booked it before she could bring her purse to swing at me. I always prided myself on being able to keep my cool with kids...
Wow! I didn’t know a drum solo could be that fast.
What was happening? These damn flight reflexes were destroying every shred of self-control I had, from how I walked to how I reacted. Suddenly my reflex was on a “me first” basis.
Once I was up and out through the window, I high-tailed it up onto the roof. In the blazing sun I angrily whipped out the instructions to the Pig, smirking as I read the directions.
The Pig means SCABS patients. SCABS patients mean predator morphs. I’ll whip this flight reflex yet...
...a selfish kind of love...
By the time I found The Blind Pig Gin Mill, twilight had been and gone. So squirrels aren’t made to grab up ground; not much I can do about it...
I’m tired of punch lines; it’s safe to assume that I’ve made my point. Just consider my life a never-ending joke; can’t go wrong with that...
I just hoped The Pig was one of those hole-in-the-walls that really shined on the inside. Gritty establishments were hit-and-miss affairs; sometimes they were pretty terrible, but a few bordered on absolutely mind-blowing. My experience usually sides with the former, unfortunately.
Yet here I am, standing in front of a bleak wood building, staring at a ramshackle aluminum sign lit by a single dim halogen floodlight, wondering what awaits me within. The door was a jumble of different handles, the likes of which I had never seen in my life. A small handle near the bottom fit my muzzle perfectly; a little push and the door opened wide, releasing a musty waft from within, so thick with predator scent I nearly bolted.
So far, not so good...
I rearranged the wallet on my hunting jacket harness and stepped across the threshold, belittled by all the action going on inside. A light smoke filled the air, creating cones of diffused light where the stained glass lamps shone down upon the plain floor. Dim tables lined every corner, their seats filled with faceless silhouettes chattering idly amongst themselves. In the center of the room, a large mahogany wet bar manned by a bull-headed human.
My kind of place.
A man at the piano picked at an unfamiliar melody, fleshing out the song as he saw fit. The dismal Dorian mode of the tune set a somber mood, like something Tennessee Williams would recommend in his scripts. Real nice place, though; a “streetcar named despair” from all appearances. Fitting for my needs... All they needed was a drummer to pound out the harsh rhythm of my life.
Yeah! Then I’d be set for life!
I walked up to a barstool and stared up at the bull-man tending to his customers in silence. The stool was at least four feet high, a seemingly impossible distance to cover in my small form. Opportunity...
A kind female wolf passed by and gave a piteous yip; she wasn’t my target of choice but something was better than nothing. Her claws honestly scared me as she reached down, and before she could come close I sprang up onto the barstool. I chuckled lightly as she tromped off in frustration.
From the stool I hopped up onto the bar itself, my claws scraping for some semblance of grip on the polished wood. I looked deep into it’s heavy, dark grain, homely yet melancholy, perfect for every patron.
It takes all kinds, you know.
As my eyes adjusted, I began to realize why the place was so highly recommended. It was full of changelings! In one corner a large rabbit drank what looked like carrot juice from a specil-made paw cup. The back of the establishment belonged to a pack of wolves, whooping and hollering and having a good time. A plant – a lycra-encased plant! – sat in a small booth, drinking from a large tinted glass.
I watched one of the wolves nearly sit down on a chair; he fell when the seat melted into a human form. It takes all kinds indeed.
The bull-headed man walked over to where I was standing, a wry smile on his face. He offered a cordial hello in the form of a simple, silent nod.
“How’s things?” I asked kindly, putting on an ear-smile myself. No use in acting cold to everybody when I’m the one that’s so screwed up...
To my surprise the minotaur pulled out a pen and paper to write a reply. Why didn’t he just say something?
Apparently the rabbit in the corner saw my distress, and found it prudent to chime in. “Donnie’s dumb,” he said matter-of-factly, “Usually he uses ASL; you’d do good to pick it up sometime.” His voice was high-pitched and hyper-cute, a lot like Chip the chipmunk.
He’s Chip, and I’m Dale. We should hit the Vaudeville circuit sometime...
I hesitated, caught up in my own frustration. “Ummm... Thank you, sir.”
“We don’t get many squirrels here,” the rabbit continued, “don’t think I’ve seen you around here before. Name’s Phil.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Phil. They call me Nick Hart.”
“Welcome to The Pig, Nick,” Phil said cordially, “so what’s your story?”
That went over like a lead balloon. “It’s a long one.” It came out acidly, like so many other things that have happened in the past few days.
Phil didn’t skip a beat, to my pleasant surprise. “’Kay. Some other time, then?”
“Yeah.” Silence. The piano player started into a beautiful ragtime tune. I wanted to compliment his skill (always been a sucker for good piano) but I didn’t want to ask his name. Then I’d talk with Phil again, and I’d start actually enjoying myself...
Lady Irony knows I wasn’t here to have fun.
A tap on the bar brought me back to Donnie pointing to his scrawled message. :Welcome to the Pig. What can I get ‘ya?:
“Do you have coke?” He nodded. “Great; I’ll have that then.” Never been one for drinking; ever since I went to a busted party I’ve avoided the stuff. Yep, this dysfunctional life is all-natural...
As the minotaur walked off to fix my drink, I suddenly realized the mistake I had made. Forgot to order a tiny size! Whenever I don’t ask for a special cup, I always end up with a drink I could swim in. Of course my mom always taught me to finish what I ordered... and squirrels have tiny bladders.
Donnie returned with a light plastic cup about the size of a shot glass and another message. :I assumed you wouldn’t need a normal sized drink. If this isn’t enough, I can always get you a normal cup...:
This guy had to read minds! “Thank you; this is perfect. What do I owe you?” I tore the wallet off my back and looked up to Donnie, who was shaking his head in disappointment.
He pointed to the wallet on my back as he added to the message. “You shouldn’t carry that thing around; it makes you a target. Amazed you haven’t been mugged yet. We run on an honor system here; I’ll start a tab for you. Would you like me to get someone to take you home so you don’t have to walk with a big prize on your back?:
“That sounds great!” And I barely knew this guy... Five minutes in the bar, and already it felt like home.
Miraculously, Mr. Skins didn’t perk up on the development.
:Unfortunately, I have to charge you half price for a quarter of a drink. Gotta keep the place running, you know...:
“For a place like this, I’d pay any price...” I cut the phrase short and buried my face in the drink, suddenly realizing I had work to do. The only way I could drink it was to bury my face in the fizzy liquid; my paws weren’t strong enough to lift the cup.
Okay, there’s Mr. Skins popping up again. Phew! started to think I lost him at the door...
I looked over the lip of my glass for an appropriate target, my eyes adapted to the dim light. The wolves were too rowdy; one slip-up there and I’d end up with a serious injury. The plant wasn’t threatening at all, and the rabbit would probably befriend me.
No, what I needed was a lone predator, enveloped in a seal of harshness, crass beyond reason; someone that would scare the piss out of me. The image floated through my head as I turned to a corner table, where a lone cheetah was watching the world unfold, drink in hand.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!
With a nervous cough I called to Phil. “Who’s that in the corner?”
“That’s Jubatus,” Phil replied, “he’s kind of a loner and a little twitchy, though; wouldn’t suggest trying to befriend him on the first day, especially with your form...”
Before he could utter another word, I was on the ground scampering over to the cheetah’s table.
I composed myself as I walked over to Jubatus’s table, mainly to help my confidence. If I could have made a clean impression, this may not have been so bad... I nibbled off the remaining strands of cotton stuffing hanging out the sides of the vest, and made sure to get every thread out of my mouth before I stepped up to the table. I had cottonmouth without requiring the stuffing’s help...
Mr. Skins must be taking a bathroom break, much like I’d like to do right about now.
My focus intensified as I started up the side of the booth. For a fleeting moment I felt like I was back in the wrestling groove, mind focused on a single goal, body ready to strike at any time with everything I had. The nervous energy surged through my body, making my tail twitch.
I was as ready as I’d ever be.
There still was a chance to turn back, to call the whole thing off. All I had to do was say “I was getting a closer look at what he was drinking, that’s all...” But running brought me back to my torturous life, to my embarrassing flight reflex, to the harsh Mr. Skins and his never-ending punch line.
With a single bound I jumped from the seat up onto the cheetah’s table; I blinked and Jubatus was in a completely different position. The motion was so swift, so effortless that I was left stunned.
Okay... so that’s what Phil tried to warn me about. No problem. I swallowed an overpowering urge to turn tail and run and nodded to the feline. “Nice jacket,” Jubatus commented, “Looks like you cut it out of a hunting vest with a Swiss Army Knife.”
I would have explained myself, but I was still dumbfounded by his moves. When I did find my voice, it was a canned response you’d expect out of someone who just learned English.
“S-s-s-s-so h-h-how areyou? I’mNickandI’mnewhere...” Goodbye, first impression! In a less stressful time, that could have passed for a commendable impression of Dale...
Jube laughed, the tone deep, scratchy, inhuman. “Okay, so we’ve established that you’re scared shitless. Nobody comes over to start a friendly conversation with a hesitant and stuttered ‘mynameisnickandi’mnewhere.’ What brings you to the big, bad predator in the corner?”
Damn. Does everyone here carry a Tarot with them? I consciously slowed my speech down so it wouldn’t spill over itself. “I’m. Trying. To. Overcome. A. Flight. Reflex.”
“Okay, so you’re complaining that you run whenever a situation may be deadly? So what?” His cheetah muzzle was lined with irritation, seemingly indignant that this little runt would interrupt his quiet time.
“I’m. Not. One. To. Run.” If I didn’t have my dignity, I would have soiled myself as Jubatus’s sneer deepened.
“Of course you are!” Jubatus said with false grandeur, “And so am I!”
I was stricken dumb by the sarcasm.
Jubatus sighed at the silence. “You’ve got quite a gift there, treerat.”
“Bets on that?” And suddenly his claws were fully exposed, faster than my eye could blink. If he weren’t so far away, I would have ran for my petty little life. Terrorized, I could only stand in a paralyzed stupor, enchanted by those talons. My heart pounded against my ribcage, trying to escape without my body.
The cheetah went on without pity: “You little guys break real easy. When the wepaons come out, you damn well better run, or you’re dead meat.”
He made a logical point, but what use did I have with that? Passion took control of my voice. “I would kill to be able to stand and fight...”
“So you only want to kill things; been there, done that, don’t recommend it.” He sighed. “Okay, so now we’ve established that you’re going crazy. What the hell, I got time to kill, so I’ll just pick your brain.” It came out with a malicious edge, sending a chill down my spine and rousing up my flight reflex again. Another hard swallow.
“So you’re an uptight little rodent that wants to act like a badass, but doesn’t have the body for it. Something’s gotta be behind this. What’s your story?”
I tried to skirt the subject; the treatment was a success so far, but if he got under my skin I may still crack... “I wrestled.”
“A grappler, eh?” Jubatus smiled and flicked his tail, “And now you can’t find a suitable opponent. So what?”
Jubatus sighed. “A tough shell to crack; I like that. So what you’re saying is that you used to be something respectful, but now you’re at the bottom of the ladder.”
The words poured forth from my mouth, paying no heed to my situation. “I used to be somebody! Back in the day I was a respectful man!” Did I just use “back in the day”? Just a year into this escapade, and I’m already getting nostalgic.
“So your problem is that SCABS took you away from what you love. Ripped a jagged hole in your heart.” He snorted an unnerving laugh. “Well, guess what? You're not the first, and you damn sure won't be the last. Take a number and join the fucking club, friend.”
All this time he had slowly moved closer to me; during the short pause I caught a whiff of his ground beef breath. “I guess I have this to say to you: deal with it, treerat.” He flashed his teeth, and I ran up the wall screaming like a little girl. The piano stopped in the background; once I was out of harm’s way I turned to see the entire bar staring at me.
I did it again, damn it! Another wonderful opportunity to fix what ails me, and I choke like a wimpy little rodent.
Go ahead, Mr. Skins; I know you’re dying to dig in.
What’s the point of going on? My life is shattered beyond repair. All the knowledge I’ve gathered on my sport is absolutely useless, collecting dust in my terrorized mind. Anything and everything scares me. I wrap my arms around my head and squeeze, trying to squeeze the frustration out of my skull.
It’s just so painful...
A whimsical thought pops in my head; only a year ago I was counseling kids who came into my wrestling room trying to escape the exact same emotion. Back then I was the pillar of strength!
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I screamed out a cold request for a deck of cards; one of the wolves in back tossed me a pack. As the deck slid to my feet, I started pushing it towards the door.
“Where you going, Nick?” Phil shattered the silence.
“Out,” I snapped, “I need to vent.”
“What’s the deck for?”
I spat a reply as the door closed behind me. “Special recipe for stress relief.” As the door slammed shut I felt a furious energy coursing through my veins, bringing me on the verge of tears.
Yep, it would be a good workout indeed.
What a wonderful night... the moon was out and the stars were shining brightly, setting an almost romantic mood. Too bad I had to ruin it with a hellish workout. I needed the pain, though; I needed the slap on the face now more than ever.
My sweaty palms made it hard to open the card deck, but a few wipes on my fur and I had the problem solved. The vest and wallet were off to one corner of the tiny alley, hidden under the corner flap of a trash bag. I found a place on a high sill; even with frustration, the prey side of my mind still managed to maneuver me out of harm’s way.
Thanks a lot, squirrel instincts! Don’t know what I’d do without you.
Once I had the cards up on the platform (a warm-up in itself), the problem hit me. Squirrels weren’t exactly built for push-ups and sit-ups; I’d have to change the workout to account for the new body. Just what I need: another wrench in the works courtesy of SCABS.
With a little thought I decided on squat thrusts and candlesticks for my two exercises, painfully draining yet squirrel-friendly. I found a good grip under a jamb, slipped my forepaws under it, and began lifting my lower body up, trying to get used to doing candlesticks in this new body. Each lift sent a fire through my abs - just the feeling I was looking for. I repeated the same proceedure with squat thrusts; sit back on my haunches, then leap up for a target on the wall. Each time I jumped my mind drew a line to touch, always taking it higher.
I was caught up in flashback as I flipped the first card on my blue deck of cards, memories of my middle school coach who recommended this exercise as a quick fix while travelling. One deck of cards, aces are worth 15, face cards are worth 10, and twos through nines are worth face value. Flip the first card, do exercise one as many times as the card says. Flip the second card, repeat with exercise two. Continue until deck is exhumed. Repetitive, yes, but highly effective.
Besides, I could let my body go on autopilot while I sorted out this mess.
While I flipped the first card my sensitive ears picked up sounds of laughter and merriment inside the pig. Why were they in there having fun while I was out here ready to work my ass off? I did an aggressive set of ten squat thrusts as the thought burned in my head like a potent acid, eating at my dignity, my willpower, feeding my desire, my rage.
Jump up, squat down. Jump up squat down jumpupsquatdown...
As I finished the last thrust I landed by the cards, ready to flip the top one over so I wouldn’t have to stop. An ace popped up; instantly I had myself locked down and ready for candlesticks. Fifteen lifts later, I struggled to stand back up.
Yeah, it’s been a while.
Five cards later, I was developing my rhythm and able to go over what happened only a few minutes ago. Squirrel instincts struck again, all right; I tried to talk to a predator and choked on my instinct. The more I think about it, the less I believe Jubatus wanted me as a dinner. If that were the case, he would have sliced me to ribbons right off the bat.
But hindsight is always 20/20.
I shouldn’t have treated Jubatus like Jack the ripper; he didn’t deserve that. He’s just trying to be a human, after all. With reflexes like mine, he’d be able to talk to people without feeling a hidden urge to kill them off like petty thieves...
Man, you should see it now! Lady Irony is cutting a rug to Mr. Skins’s crazy drum solo. Yes, I do believe the shirt is coming off -- and would you get a load of that tattoo! Amazingly blatant!
The dance spurred me into another hard set of candlesticks, making my lower torso light up with absolute agony. I’d feel this workout in the morning, that’s for sure!
Fifteen cards into the deck, and already I’m exhausted. Endorphins are kicking in, though, so I don’t feel any pain. My body adjusts to a constant rhythm, an up-and-down, even pace that keeps my energy up to speed.
At card 25, I realized something was wrong. Terribly wrong. There was no sweat! My paws were dripping with the salty liquid, but my fur was bone dry. I started bouncing on the balls of my feet, trying to work up a quick sweat. Back when I wrestled, it was guaranteed to get you dripping in a minute flat. Nothing came.
No sweat? What’s a workout without sweat? That’s like toast without butter! Sweat cleanses the body during a workout, lets you know you’re working hard! The reason I work out was suddenly out of my reach.
Go ahead, Mr. Skins; get it out of your system.
Disgusted, I left the pile of cards where it was, collected my jacket, and walked back into The Pig. Thankfully, someone had propped the door open; I wasn’t going to ask why. I walked into a sea of staring eyes; I ignored the silence and hopped back up onto the bar. “Your cards are outside,” I calmly said over the silence, “I didn’t have the strength to bring them back in.”
“I can see why,” one of the wolves replied, “Where’d you learn that insane stress reliever?”
I ear-smiled in reply. “I was a wrestler.” And I left it at that. The bar slowly returned to normal, like a phonograph spinning up to speed. As I lost the center of attention, I turned my attention to Donnie.
“I don’t know what to order,” I admitted, “never drank a drop of alcohol in my life. Just blitz me.”
Donnie nodded in silent understanding, going back to the paper tablet. Seconds later I was reading his concerned message. :Your choice, but I’m not giving you anything until I know where you live. You’re definitely not walking home if I’m going to blitz you.:
I chuckled. “Fair enough; give me that tablet and I’ll give you directions.” Donnie slid the tablet to me, and I drew a map. Okay, so I’m not civil enough to have an address; what can I do? Satisfied with my doodle, the minotaur turned to his bottles and began pouring.
He put a bucket in front of me, filled with a sharp-smelling liquor. Okay, so it was a normal shot glass; work with me here! I stared at the amber liquid sitting in the large shot glass in front of me. I know what you’re all thinking: wasn’t this the Nick that said he never drank? Besides, I need a little escape right about now.
Phil rasied his glass from the corner of the bar. “Salud,” he said across the bar.
Not what I expected, but I’ll drink to it. I nodded my head and dove into the drink; moments later my mind was too foggy to be worried with such trifles as humanity and submission.
For those next few hours I was myself; not the me I knew a year ago, but the squirrelly me that arose from the ashes of SCABdom.
I’m pretty sure I fainted at about two bells; it was a big blur after that.
I regained consciousness back in my knothole, immediately aware of a massive headache and a painful tightness in my stomach. Gauging by the sun, it was two o’clock; I managed to sleep through the best hours of the day!
Let me tell you I was so crushed...
My wallet! I panicked when I discovered it wasn’t on my back, but my tail brushed up against it as I whipped around. I let out a big sigh and tossed the wallet into my “closet” bag, heeding Donnie’s advice. I walked out onto my “front porch” and took in a lungful of the park air, a mixture of smog and summer lilies.
My orange vest was hanging on a small nail someone had driven into my tree. Pulling it off revealed the note behind: “Hope you enjoy the housewarming gift.” It was unsigned. What in the world...
Oh yeah, last night. The Pig. The drink. The embarrassment. It’s all coming back to me now...
Shaking the cobwebs out of my groggy mind with a quick jaunt out to the limb’s edge, the events started to come back into focus. First the kind wolf, then the dumb barkeep, then that cordial rabbit, then Jubatus...
For some reason my mind drew a blank as I tried to remember that conversation.
The workout - oh the disappointing workout! - the one time I’ve pushed myself without breaking a sweat. I remember that as being a put-down somewhere, something to the effect of not having to work that hard for something...
Don’t believe me? I remember talking to Russ Hellickson at a camp I went to years ago, and how he wore layers of sweatsuits while he coached just to get a sweat going. No joke; this guy was like a walking Michelin Man. Years of wrestling had crippled him, and still he wanted to feel the slimy skin and dry mouth one gets when they wrestle.
A sucker for punishment; a lot like me. Badda boom.
Out on the limb, I slipped my vest on and got ready for a run. When I hunched down to leap, though, a crinkle came from my jacket. Investigating led me to a note in my inside pocket, penned in Donnie’s handwriting. I read the note carefully, trying to remember when I told him to write it down for me.
Goal for Nick Hart: break a sweat.
A respectable goal indeed! I must have told the bull-man to write that down for me in the wee hours of the night. One thing’s true about the barkeep: he can connect with anybody.
Well, there’s no time like the present... I toss the note to the ground and set off on a sprint, leaping from tree to tree with the sole purpose of wearing myself out. My abdominal muscles screamed in protest, but after the first few trees they started to adapt and stopped hurting. Maybe I just have to reach a certain point before I start dripping with the stuff...
My grip began to fail around the five-minute mark; every step left a small puddle on the tree. Still no sweat in my fur. What did I have to do to get this to work? As I my mind graced the negative thought the excited energy left me, leaving me frustrated and stuck on a lame branch.
This wasn’t working at all. What I needed was a new approach, a tool to help me along. I needed to stay hot for a long period of time, to give my body time to break into the act.
I remember the homemade “solar suit” I used in my college years to shave off pounds. That thing raised my body temperature a few degrees; just walking around made me drip with sweat...
A sandwich bag discarded on the ground sets off a light bulb in my head. I chittered happily as I scrambled down to pick it up, running from there straight to the water fountain to wash it off. Once it was clean, I used my incisors to snip limb-holes in the bag and stepped into it, suddenly feeling considerably warmer and constricted.
Perfect. A jog to The Pig should get me dripping in the stuff. Nick, you’re a genius!
I sprinted the last hundred yards to The Pig, and I was still as dry as a bone. My leg muscles were beyond tired; when I slowed down to open the door I nearly collapsed. Years of pushing through the pain kept me from falling, though, and I managed to stumble through the door when a concerned window-watcher opened it for me. I would put my arms over my head to let more air in, but when you walk on four legs those forepaws are rather important...
Silence from the drum set. I think I outlasted Mr. Skins! Yes, he’s doubled over in a corner trying to catch his breath. How’s that for endurance?
A wave of soft chuckles filled the air as I walked into the bar in my sandwich bag. I ignore the laughter, finding it hard enough to concentrate on walking forward. One foot in front of the other, that’s it... You can do this, Nick! A few more steps and you can hop right up onto the bar...
Yeah right. The kind wolf lady I pranked yesterday walked over to pick me up; I was too tired to even flinch. When she set me onto the table my legs gave out from under me, and I lay flat on the cool bar. The cool wood feels heavenly on my skin, but within moments it was steaming hot, offering no solace to me.
Donnie eyed my heaving body with absolute concern, and immediately turned to his bar. He returned with a shot glass of water and a note: :You will drink this water, even if I have to force it down your throat. You look like hell.:
I wanted to say something strong, but I only had the energy to whisper. “I feel like it too, Donnie; I’ve spent the past two hours trying to get a sweat going.” It was a long run here, I wanted to add, but I was too tired to continue.
“So, what’s with the new fashion?” Phil asked from his corner, “I thought the bag look went out years ago.” I would ask why he was here in the middle of the day, but I was too tired to ask. Maybe he was taking a break from the daily grind...
I’ve never been one for breaks.
“It’s a solar suit,” I replied. When I tried to gulp down the water, I choked. “I’m okay,” I replied before anyone could ask. When a throat’s that dry, you have to take things slowly... I proceeded to take smaller sips; I was so dry I could feel the water going throughout my body.
“A solar what?”
“Solar suit. It brings up my body temperature so I can sweat easier.” On my fourth sip my body felt full, so I pushed the glass over to one side.
The rabbit blanched. “Why in the world would you do that?”
“I just...” a hacking cough cut into my conversation, “I just want to break a sweat. It’s been so long since I’ve had a good sweat going... I just miss it. Wrestlers have used them for years to shave off the extra few pounds, and nothing bad happened to them...” I left out the dead wrestlers; this rabbit was already worried, and there was no reason to egg that on.
“Nick, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but...”
I’ve talked for too long! If I don’t start back up soon, I’ll lose all the work I’ve done today! “Sorry to cut you short, Phil, but I have to get going. I’ll lose my rhythm if I rest for too long.”
“But Nick...” I rallied all my energy and sprang to the floor as he tried to stall me.
“Are the cards still outside?” I asked, holding the door open as I asked.
Phil yelled at me, passionately, harshly. “Nick, you’re gonna kill yourself if you keep this up!”
“Never mind, I don’t need them. Be back in a bit!” As the door closed behind me, I could hear Phil swear and slam his paw cup to the ground. I afforded myself a small chuckle, but as I approached the sill I refocused on the task at hand.
I have to do this. I have to get back to where I was before. I have to prove my worth to everybody.
Every time I sneak a peek into the window, I see their staring faces. They doubt me. They mock me! Not that I blame them...
With a grunt I start the workout off with a punishing set of candlesticks. My stiff muscles refuse to work for the first few reps, but by the end of the set I was getting back into the groove. I went right from one exercise to another, starting squat jumps as soon as my feet hit the ground.
So far, so good... was this going to be the one? It felt so right, somehow. I was ready.
Back and forth, up and down, a smooth, unbreakable rhythm of planned pain. Endorphins flowed through my body, nullifying all the pain. The sandwich bag I wore crinkled with each motion, spurring me on, mocking my situation. The pads on my paws were dripping wet.
And still they stared.
Can’t they find something else to look at? All the time I’m the main attraction. Half a seat this, squirrelly-whirlley that... I’m a human being, God damn it! The workout sped up tenfold as the words bounced around in my head, forming a veil of hatred over my twisted mind.
Lady Irony spat in my eye as I continued to push through the hellish workout, yelling hypocrisies I’ve based my life upon. The socialite athlete turned antisocial wimp. Fearless leader turned into terrified prey. Guilty on all charges!
Guilty! My mouth dried up, and my blood ran cold. I took off in a sprint, up a gutter pipe and onto the roof of The Pig. I was guilty of losing my discipline. All those years of training, of pushing through everything, and I can’t even break a sweat. A God-be-damned sweat!
I pull back a flap of the bag, unleashing a wave of hot air. Still bone dry. With a grunt of frustration I returned to the sill for another plyometric workout.
Maybe a change in exercise would help... I picked a wood grain line and started a set of line jumps. Left side to right side, never stopping my motion, never giving my body a chance to give up. I’ll beat it yet! I’ll prove I’m innocent!
The world around me becomes darker, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters now except for the bounce of the workout. Left, right, leftright...
I scream and close my eyes to block out the last of my pain, determined to finish the next set of line jumps. Every minute jostle on my frame sends jolts of pain up and down my spine, but I have my goal. The ever-important goal! I wasn’t sure if my eyes were opened or closed anymore. My entire body was one big pincushion, numb to everything but the jostling pain.
And all of a sudden, like Gallahad touching the Holy Grail, it came! Moisture on my face! I laughed with joy as the salty solution diffused across my fur, bringing cool relief as it evaporated into the dim summer night.
Suddenly, my celebration was racked with a sniffle, sacking me with anticlimax as I collapsed onto the sill. The gruesome realization weighed like lead on my shoulders as my mind began to clam up, depressed and beaten beyond salvation.
As I lost consciousness, my mind filled in the blanks. Whaddaya know? It was only a tear.
I awoke abruptly, my instincts immediately aware of the strange scent of latex and disinfectant. When I tried to run, though, I found myself strapped down to a gigantic bed. Instinct thrashed against the holds, but they held fast. My body eventually calmed down, beaten once again.
With my instinct subdued, I opened my eyes to a hospital room. The sun was shining into the room, making me squint from the brightness. As soon as my eyes opened, the blinds were mercifully drawn. When I sighed, I realized my solar suit had been removed.
I screamed out for help. “Where am I? Where’s my suit?”
A high-pitched greetings came from the side of the bed; I turned my head to find the rabbit Phil sitting bedside. After I acknowledged his presence, he moved around to the front of the bed so I could face him straight on.
“Sorry for the restraints,” Phil started, “I’ve seen you spooked before; let’s just say if you were to freak now it wouldn’t be pretty.
“Well, do you want the sugar-coated or all-natural version?” Phil chuckled lightly; not enough to be malicious, but effective in lifting my spirit.
“Can I get the hard truth with those little marshmallows?”
He chuckled. “You worked yourself to exhaustion yesterday,” Phil said gravely, “the solar suit you concocted caused you to suffer severe dehydration, and the sheer mass of the exercise completely drained your energy reserves.”
That was the point, bimbo. “And...?”
“You ignored all the signs and pushed on,” Phil added acridly, “and your body finally broke. If you didn’t figure it out by now, squirrels aren’t capable of sweat anywhere but their paws.”
I sighed deeply. Thank you, Dr. Stupid...
“You’re damn lucky everyone took an interest in your antics,” he continued, “if it weren’t for Wanderer, you probably would have baked in your own body heat on that sill.” The name rang a bell in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t attach a face.
That would have to wait, though.
“So what do the docs have me on?” And how much is it going to cost?
“We brought you to the hospital as soon as we could; the docs put you on IV nutrients and water; pretty routine, really. Luckily we got you here in time; squirrels have a fast metabolism, and every minute counted.” I shifted a little in my brace and felt the needle in my back.
Phil lifted a paw. “Oh, and before you ask, the shelter is covering this. It’s not that bad of a hospital bill, but I’m sure it would have been hell for a jobless rodent.”
My jaw dropped. “How did you know?”
He replied with a chuckle. “How was I not supposed to know? Come on - no human on this earth would choose to live in a tree in the middle of a petty game park... You’d have to be pretty desperate to do that.”
I sighed and shook my head as I listened. “So I guess a breakdown like this dooms me to a Colony...”
“Not today,” he said happily, “They wanted to drag you there in a pen, but I sprang you.”
He ear-smiled. “Let’s just say I have connections. I’ve been there, and I can honestly say nobody deserves that fate. The directors want me in a colony, too... fat chance.” A high pitched chuckle followed.
“But why me? Why save a pathetic little squirrel? You don’t know me from Adam.”
“Call me curious. First time I see you you’re the most antisocial little rodent I’ve ever seen, the next day you walk in sealed in a sandwich bag hell-bent on killing yourself.”
“I wanted to break a sweat.”
That ear-smile again. “Same difference. Anyway, an explanation is well worth my effort. Care to enlighten me?” I couldn’t run from the fact that this man had just saved my life, so I did the right thing.
I opened the floodgates onto his big, floppy ears.
“It’s everything, Phil,” I started, “A year ago I was big man on campus. School wrestling coach who could get kids to run through a wall for him. Freestyle coach with national champions under my belt. Indiana’s coach of the year. I loved my sport more than anything. Do you know how that feels?”
Phil shakes his head.
“Now look at me. In the past three days I’ve been shot at, treated like some sick pet, chased by cats, scared off by another human being... And then when I try to turn my life around I end up in the hospital!”
“I’m poisoned, Phil. Poisoned with knowledge I can’t use. A mind full of wrestling moves my body can’t perform. I’ve spent all my life honing the techniques and now I’m up shit creek without a paddle.”
“I see.” Phil kept interjecting to let me know he was paying attention. Like I couldn’t tell by his concentrated stare.
“I was a high school state champion. State champion! Best in the state of Indiana. People looked up to me for that. I’ve had the joy of giving that feeling back to five kids. They loved the sport more than I did.
“I guess... What I’m trying to say is that I miss wrestling, Phil. I miss every little detail: the barn-burner dual meets, the state finals, the wrestling rooms that always smell like bleach and body odor, to kids who love the sport with all their heart.
“And when this happened, I denied that it changed anything. SCABS changes everything, Phil. Everything.” As the last word left my mouth, I started to cry. The act immediately brought shame; men weren’t supposed to cry...
Phil made a soft, cooing noise and put a paw on my back. A long silence followed; I emptied my tear ducts onto the sheets, and the rabbit sat at the foot of my bed, supporting me. For the first time since SCABS hit me, I felt completely comfortable. I was finally facing up to the facts, facing up to the grim reality.
My name is Nick Hart. I’m a human-turned-squirrel, and getting along with it.
My face came away from the bed. “I’m done.”
“I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” Phil said softly, “Good news is that I think you can still float a career in wrestling.”
“Bad news: it’s going to take some patience on your part. You have to take things gradually.”
“That sounds great!” I would have jumped with excitement, but the harness held me down.
Phil suddenly lit up. “Say, isn’t there a summer wrestling program?”
“Freestyle! How could I forget? That’s my specialty.” This was the first time in ten years that I’ve missed a season...
“I have a few connections,” Phil continued, “What would you say to learning how to referee? It would be a great way to get back into the sport...”
“You mean get my certification? My whiteshirting license doesn’t expire for another year.”
Phil ear-smiled. “So that’s what they call it...”
“In wrestling, yes. After SCABS hit, we became a pretty select group. The rulebook doubled in size after the Martian Flu!”
“That settles that, then! Bone up on the rules, and I’ll set up a test for you. Let’s see if I can’t get the nurses to release you...” he leapt from his spot and headed towards the door. As he pushed the door open, I knew that there was one thing left to do...
“Phil!” He turned and blocked the door with his paw.
“Phil, I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done.”
“No problem,” he said nonchalantly, “I’ll see you ‘round the pig.”
“Goodbye!” The door slammed behind him, and I was left alone in my harness, a kindling fire burning in my gut.
That fire, friends, was hope.
It’s time that I realize...
I’m tired. I’m sick and tired of trying so hard only to fail.
Phil had the desired effect; when I tried to talk to Jubatus the second time, I took things one step at a time. Instead of flying into the conversation, I eased into the chat, introducing myself at a safe distance before moving closer. He was amazingly patient; last time he came off impatient and indignant.
Ten to one odds say Phil had something to do with that...
But I had things under control! We were at opposite ends of the table; I was outside of his reach, a feeling of confidence gradually overcoming the twitchy flight response. We were chatting, believe it or not; communication without the urge to run!
One sudden flick of his wrist and I took off, scared for my petty life. Back to square one... Too embarrassed to apologize, I immediately sprinted for the bathroom, a tear touching the corner of my eye.
Why me? I’m supposed to be the ever-successful young flair of a man, always going off in the sunset with whatever he wanted. Never have I failed at anything so important as my own life, never have I been so dejected.
Never have I been so alone.
And what did the damned Martian Flu leave me? A squirrel body that jumps at anything. I can get back to my dream, but it won’t ever be the same.
The tears started falling as I came to the realization. I’m stuck here with that man in the mirror, a hollow shell of what it used to be. With a scream, I wrap my arms around my muzzle, trying to squeeze the pain out of my life, to push away all the humiliation and suffering I had incurred.
I pushed my paws into my eyes, rubbing hard in hope that this was all a dream.
The same cute face stared back at me.
I can’t live like this! I have get back to where I was before...
No, I’ve tried that road. Death isn’t the answer.
But what is...? I pounded against the mirror, the tears flowing freely now. An inhuman wail came from my gullet, but I was beyond embarrassment. God damn them all, for what I cared. The face staring back at me only transcended into a more cute being with every tear, mocking every attempt of reconciliation.
I pulled away from the mirror, too disgusted by the squirrel body to look anymore. I was tired of being small, of being a twitchy squirrel SCAB, of a living hell I swam in everyday. Why couldn’t it all just go away?
As much as I wanted to clam up and wallow in self-pity, a small portion of my mind brought me back to reason. There was no running and hiding from this; that face in the mirror was mine, whether I liked it or not. Sometime I had to accept it...
With a heavy sigh I turned back to the glassy wall and took in every detail of my body. I’m starting with that man in the mirror; I’m asking him to change his ways. I may not like the situation, but it was my baby to deal with. It’s about time that I realize that.
Toweling off my face, I put on my best ear-smile and went back out into The Pig, filled with a warm sense of purpose, a will to triumph.
A will to make that change.
I’m starting with that man in the mirror...
Feeling the spongy green mat under my paws chokes me up; I realize it has been a long six months as I bounce from side to side, the pad below me gripping at my paws as I move. While I bounce, I rearrange the red and blue wristbands on my arms while staring back at my curious audience. How strange it must be to see a squirrel bouncing around in a white vest!
If only they knew...
They don’t matter. I haven’t had my fix of bleach-and-body-odor scent in ages, so standing on this mat brings me into a heady euphoria. My mind starts subconsciously calling up my favorite moves like I’m preparing for a match: arm drag, double leg, fireman’s carry... The train of thought is rusted with neglect, but as I go back over the moves I realize what I’ve been missing.
This sport is my livelihood; Martian Flu, self-destructive depression, a brush with death... even after all that, I came back to the same sport, a sport older than civilization, one that every human knows how to play, but few know how to win.
Just thinking about it makes my paws break out into a cold sweat.
Phil was good to his word; a week after my release he had me in contact with the USAW district coordinator in the area. I showed him my license, and he immediately recognized the name. “Nick Hart? Well I’ll be damned! I reffed one of your kid’s matches at Nationals. You’re an awesome coach...”
“So I have a legacy, eh?” We shot the breeze for a while; I knew then that he would honor my whiteshirting certification.
So here I am, finally back where I belong, back to what I dedicated my life to so long ago. Suddenly the burden of SCABS seems a little lighter, a little more manageable. As the feeling came over me, I realized the true joy of this place. My prey instincts were almost nonexistent! Sure, there was still a feeling of uneasiness in the crowd, but my happiness was drowning the doubt out.
I could learn to live with the squirrel form if this keeps up; finding this will let me find my heart. Things are looking up! I’m finally bouncing back!
The announcer bellowed into my thoughts. “If we can get Cadet 145, 150, and 165 to report to staging, we can get this tournament started.” That’s my cue...
Today was my field test. Greco-Roman tournaments usually took place the day before an open tournament; the turnout was usually quartered in the Greco division, letting inexperienced or rusty referees have a quick refresher.
Not that I need it; this sport runs in my blood. I could work a match in my sleep.
I’ve noticed that Mr. Skins isn’t around as often anymore. Granted, he gets a word in every once in a while, but nowadays he usually pouts in his corner. Too bad his material had to dry up...
The first match comes over to the table with a clock-worker and scorekeeper; I take the sheet from them and begin the pre-match ritual. Call out names, check for blood rags and singlet color, get someone to check for lubricants (kind of hard to do when you can’t reach their arms). I pick up the tiny, special order whistle (courtesy of Phil, I guess) from the table and call the two to the center of the mat, suddenly stricken dumb with nervous energy.
As the two square off, I pinch myself. No, this isn’t a dream. With a smile on my face, I check the timer and scorekeeper, then get the two wrestlers to shake hands. I paused as they got into stance and took in the gym one more time, lined door-to-door with wrestling mats, filled with hopes and dreams.
The sound of my whistle rang clear above all the noise, bringing an ear-smile to my face.
Ten minutes stretched into an hour, an hour to two hours. Refereeing the Greco tournament was more fun than I could ever imagine. Match after match came across my mat, some nail-bitingly close, others so fast you’d blink and the bout was over. Teenagers, preschoolers, adults – all sorts of competitors came through my mat, and I loved every minute of it.
As the third hour rolled around, though, I saw a sight that tore down my lovely euphoria. The tournament was winding down, and I had a finals match on my mat. Most of the local wrestlers crowded around my mat; apparently the next two wrestlers were really good.
My kind of match.
The bout went back and forth, neither wrestler wanting to give an inch. A few times I had to tell them to keep their pummels under control, but as they continued to pound I let them have their way. As long as the pummel was for position, I allowed it. As second period rolled around, the pummels turned into masked punches. I didn’t care in the slightest. The crowd loved the action coming from the mat, creating an undeniable energy in the gym.
The second period buzzer went off, and the score remained tied. “We have overtime!” I screamed over the crowd, bringing another loud cheer. I walked over to the scorer’s table to wait out the thirty-second break.
I’m not sure why my eyes wandered over to the red corner, but I found myself staring in envy as the coach wiped off his athlete and screamed a pep-talk. “Don’t give up! You have him in the palm of your hand. Just keep tight and this guy’s yours!” Immediately my mind flashed to last year’s high school state meet. I said those same words to one of my athletes...
It was the finals; A.J. was going into overtime for all the marbles. Ten thousand screaming people were keeping his adrenaline up, but the pace of the match was starting to wear on him. The last period ended with a tie, and the crowd went berserk.
When A.J. returned to our corner, I tossed him a bottle of water and rubbed his shoulders. I gave him “the speech” as he drank. His eyes met mine, and I had the moment of my coaching career.
His eyes - his weary, bloodshot eyes were alight with a rabid fire, fueled by grit and determination. Instantly I knew my speech was redundant; A.J. was going to leave everything on the mat no matter what I said. Willpower like that takes heart. True heart.
And the best part: even though you can’t coach something like that, I opened his eyes to it.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I didn’t care what Phil said; I needed to get back to coaching, and I needed to get back now. I can’t sit on the sidelines and officiate; my place is with the kids, sweating in the wrestling room and running drills, helping them push for that next level, sharing my passion with them.
Fed up, I thought of the one test I had avoided for so long, the one test that would make or break my coaching career. There was one way to know for sure... I asked for another whiteshirt to finish up my match as I ran out the propped door, telling the guy I’d be back in a second.
I have to know...
The chill night air struck hard as I left the gym, but it didn’t phase me. I had one goal in mind; nothing - and I mean nothing - would keep me from finding the truth now.
All this time, I’ve loathed this very moment. It could very well be the deciding moment of my life! One simple test makes the difference in a matter greater than life and death! Instead of facing up to the task at hand, my mind convinced itself that I would fail any way.
That won’t cut it anymore. I have to know for sure.
Phil told me to take things slowly, but the suspense is killing me. What if I were to spend all that time working towards my ultimate goal, fighting for every inch of ground I gain, only to find that the grand “light at the end of the tunnel” was only a LED attached to a nine-volt?
Besides, if I can’t do it now, there’s no hope for me.
And it’s only a heel-toe-knee penetration! I’ve been doing this move every day for the past 25 years; by now it’s more natural than walking. Heel-toe-knee: I could do it in my sleep.
But that was when I was human. Human moves may not translate to a squirrel body...
Be still, Mr. Skins! I thought I ditched you back at the hospital.
Squirrel instincts were insistent, and subconsciously I found myself bounding up a tree en route to the roof. My claws clack on the tin as I run towards a flat corner, keeping the tree close by as an escape route.
The magnitude of the situation hits me as I stop; I take a few deep breaths to prepare. Okay, so this is the moment. Whether I succeed or not depends on this step, this heel-toe-knee that I’ve known for years. If I can’t do this, I can’t do anything. The penetration step is one of the most basic wrestling skills; anyone with a good stance and a good heel-toe-knee is bound to do well. The only way to learn these, though, is to see it done and repeat the motion hundreds of times. Thousands of times. I try for at least 70 repetitions in any practice.
One more sigh; I stretch out my joints, shake my body, flick my tail this way and that. Anything to relieve the anxiety...
Enough stalling. There’s no time like the present.
With a final roll of my neck, I push off my forepaws and sit back on my haunches, taking a second to balance on my toes. Years of walking help a little, but the body is so badly transformed even keeping myself on two feet is extremely difficult.
Fixable with time. Now to see if my joints can do the move...
My hip joint resists the split, but I force my foot down, discovering my heel as I roll onto my toe. I’m about ready to topple over, but my balance holds firm. All that’s left is to drop down to my knee...
It sounds so simple when I say it that way.
I tried to take it slowly, leaning back as I pushed my hip forward, refusing to give in to my body’s yearn to fall down. The exertion was taking its toll as I inched closer to the tin, whipping my head back in a futile attempt to keep my balance.
Just as I thought I had it, I fell flat on my face. Failure. Determined, I pushed back up onto my haunches and tried again.
Heel, toe, flop. Patience gave way to rage as I repeated the move; each time I came closer to the realization.
This move is anatomically impossible. Maybe if I give it time, adapt the move a little...
Then it struck me. Even if I give it time, I would have to change the move to fit my body. I would have to do it the wrong way. What good is a heel-toe-knee when it’s done wrong? I damn well can’t show someone a move that will get them trouble; that just eliminates the point.
It was over. All this optimism and painful work and the dream was over. All the “It’ll be great in the end” gobbledygook, the picturesque Disney ending training I had received in my life was just a bunch of nonsense. No, now I’m doomed to forever live my life as a cute little squirrel afraid to cross the street in the morning for fear of a rouge kitten taking me as lunch.
Mr. Skins blasts out a painful tom roll, the accents hitting each time one of my tears taps the tin roof. Damn SCABS! Close isn’t good enough anymore! I’m back where I started, this time with enough knowledge to know how not to kill myself.
Phil, you tried. I’m beyond your help. I’m beyond anyone’s help. I’m a fucking squirrel carrying a shredded banner standing for a lost cause.
My fight is over, so why is my mind holding on? It’s like I’m afraid to die.
Fear seems to play a predominant role in my life nowadays...
Before I began contemplating suicide, I scrambled down the tree and headed for The Pig at a dead run, subconsciously hoping that someone could possibly talk me out of what I was planning to do.
Lady Irony knows I don’t want to die today...
I never went back to the tournament. Lady Irony is still tap-dancing on my face, kicking in the afterburners to make up for lost time. Mr. Skins is laughing gaily behind his set, pounding out a constant, mocking pattern of despair and comical tragedy.
He’s back with a vengeance. Damn!
Sometimes I wish things happened just like they did in the movies. If that were the case, movie-me would have pulled out the Winchester movie-me always kept in his belt, pointed the barrel at his head, and pulled the trigger.
But it’s not that easy. It’s not that easy at all.
I could hear the gentle roar of the pig as I pushed the door open. A few people said hello as I sped towards the bar. The piano player started into “Coney Island Baby” in the background, with a few of the regulars singing along:
Goodbye, my Coney Island baby,
Farewell my one true love...
I’m gonna go away and leave you,
Never to see you any...
Blocking out the song, I screamed an order for a shot of straight vodka to Donnie. He had the glass (bucket, whatever) ready for me before I scampered up the stool, a note pinned under the glass. :Rough day at the office?:
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” I grumbled before burying my head in the clear liquid. Before I could get a mouthful, Phil had his nose in my business. I shouldn’t come at this same time every day...
“What happened?” Phil asked emphatically.
The drink called my name, so I tried to buzz him off. “You want to know? You really want to know? Okay, suit yourself. You’d call it a relapse; I call it memory.”
“What did you see?”
“I saw what I’ve been missing, Phil,” I replied, “and it hurt. Bad.”
Phil ear-smiled and chuckled. “Did you think it was gonna be easy?”
“Don’t patronize me!” That wiped the grin off that silly rabbit’s face... “I would have been fine with it if I wouldn’t have tried to work a move. It was just a simple penetration step! Heel-toe-knee! I’ve been doing them since I was five!”
“I failed, Phil. Everything I’ve worked for is for naught.”
“Just because you can’t do a stupid little heel-go-knee step?”
“It’s heel-toe-knee, Phil. The most important step in wrestling. You don’t know that, you can’t wrestle.”
“I think you’re giving up too early,” Phil warned, “These things take time.”
My drink demands attention; I have to shut this rabbit up... “Phil, do you believe in fate?”
“This has to be fate, Phil,” I continued, “sick, twisted, sadistic fate.” I found myself pulled towards the past, and I gave in. “God, I remember the good ‘ol days. Back when I was 160 pounds of muscle and might. Wrestling was life, and life was wrestling.
“Did I ever tell you about the letter my middle school coach gave me?” His ears fall flat to his head. “Back when I was in seventh grade, my coach gave me a workout plan for the offseason. Attached to the plan was a note, one I’d never forget.”
Apparently a cold fire was burning in my eyes, for Phil stared with sanguine intent.
“I can recite it word for word, but the last paragraph was the clincher: ‘Nick, whenever you don’t want to work just remember your opponent is working harder. If you keep improving at the rate you are. (Not being a big guy on the written arts, he did put a period there.) There’s no reason you can’t be IHSAA state champion.’ It was written in 12 point bold Times New Roman font, colored red for accent.”
Phil set his jaw as I continued. Good, I think I’m getting it through his skull...
“When I was a sophomore, we went to a wrestling camp together. During one of the lunches I asked if he really meant what he wrote down all those years ago. He gave me such a stare...” I chuckled dryly, “Like he couldn’t believe I’d ask such a stupid question.
“And you know what? He was right. That next year I worked my ass off and got to the finals. I won 7-5 in overtime. Do you know how that feels?”
Phil shook his head silently.
“It was the most incredible sensation on this planet, Phil. For the next minute I was the center of attention. Ten thousand people leapt to their feet and cheered for me. Exhausted, I couldn’t find the strength to do much except walk back to the center of the mat and shake my opponent’s hand.”
I noticed that once again I had the bar’s full attention; even the piano player stopped to listen.
“But when I had my hand raised, a powerful vibration shot through me. I was the best of the best! No kid in the state was better than me! I raised both my hands in triumph, and the crowd went into a frenzy.
“It was so enchanting, so powerful that it was all I could talk about for the next two weeks. That was the most important moment of my life, Phil; it shaped my future. I had to share it with every wrestler I could!
“That man never lost faith in me. And here I am, losing faith in myself...”
I heard a sniffle in the background, accented by the tense silence.
“You wanna know what happened at the tournament today?”
Phil continued to stare. I let the pause stretch out, playing the crowd for all they were worth.
“I saw the overtime-face, Phil. There were two kids who traded blow for blow the entire match, never letting up for a second. When they knew they were going into overtime, their resolve callused over; suddenly they knew what they had to do. Seeing the kids’ eyes, their hardened, determined eyes...”
“It brought you back.”
“Damn straight it brought me back! A.J. Perkins, 2015 IHSAA state finals. His opponent beat him earlier in the year, but he worked his ass off to get ready for the final match. The two went toe to toe, eventually leading into overtime.
“When I went to give him ‘the speech,’ he was in another world. A fire burned in his eyes that told me he was going to leave every last shred of his being on the mat.
“And he won; damn all the odds, he won. When he stood up, he immediately ran over and gave me a bear of a hug...” I was too teary eyed to continue, and I began to lean towards the drink.
Phil pulled me back with empathy. “You miss those days, don’t you?”
Can’t you let me get drunk in peace? “You think?”
“Pain like that could really eat away at the soul...”
I reached the frayed ends of my patience. “Phil, I know you want to help me, but right now all I want to do is get lost in this gigantic shot glass of vodka.”
Okay, so apparently now I don’t know how to drink. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Fine by me...” I brought my lips to the glass, eagerly awaiting the relief that would come from that tiny glass, when Phil lifted a paw and started back up again. “Before you get drunk off your ass, can I ask you a favor?”
The sudden action made me jump face-first into the drink; I groomed while turning around with an ear-sneer. “A favor?”
“I think you owe it to me...” He was right, of course.
Damn the luck!
“Okay.” I sighed and put on my best happy-go-lucky face. “What can I do for you, oh rabbit who saved my poor little life?”
“It’s like this...” he started, and instantly I knew I was in for a long ride. His story ran around in circles, tied together with “just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse...” I’ll do you a favor and give you the Cliff’s Notes version: Phil was attacked by a patient during a therapy session, and he wanted to be able to defend himself.
“So can you show me a few wrestling moves to keep me alive on the job?”
I eyed the rabbit up and down, suddenly a little uneasy with the request. “Oh... well... your body isn’t exactly the right build...” What did I have to lose, though? It would get him out of my hair, that’s for sure.
“Oh, what the hell. We’ll make things up if we have to.” The rabbit cheered under his breath.
Phil dragged his hindpaw on the ground and added, “You don’t mind if we have the first lesson here and now, do you? I’ve been anxious to ask for your help.”
I ear-smiled. “Sure thing! I think I can teach you a little wrist control for starters.”
“Yeah,” I continued, “Let me show you...” Whoops, almost forgot I was too small to do a lot of these moves. I had to improvise... “Think of it this way; each limb on your body is a weapon. Having wrist control lets you control one of the most powerful weapons. My first line of defense is to grab a hold of my opponent’s wrists...”
“Problem,” Phil interjected, “no hands.”
Time to rethink my strategy. “Okay, so let’s say you’re being attacked and someone grabs your arm. Can you get out of it?”
“There’s a technique to that?”
Bingo! “Yes. Donnie, could you grab Phil’s wrist for me?” The minotaur silently replies by cinching down on Phil’s paw. “Okay, now roll your wrist towards Donnie’s thumb.”
Phil struggles with the motion for a few seconds, but when he gets it right Donnie can’t keep his grip. An ear-smile graces his face, and I applaud him.
“Good. Rule number one: never let someone get wrist control. Now you’re ready to learn a double leg takedown...”
When I did get back to my vodka, I found The Lesson expunged my craving for an escape. I was still stone-cold sober; instead of getting lost in the bottle, I was stuck in a never-ending cycle of introspection.
Who’s great idea was this, anyhow?
Phil was an amazingly fast learner; he sopped up the knowledge almost as quickly as I could get it to him. In an hour’s time I taught him a reliable takedown and good riding technique, so he could hold someone down until help arrived. Next time I’ll show him some submission holds...
Yeah, I was coming up with a lesson plan for the next few sessions. Truth be told, I actually enjoyed giving Phil the information. He was so attentive, giving me the respect I deserved for the knowledge I had to offer. That’s not to say I didn’t want to jump in and get my hands dirty...
It just didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would.
So I’m still here, untouched vodka on the table - well, except for my little dip earlier - brainstorming holds I know will translate best to a rabbit form. My bladder’s full, but the bathroom’s too far away for my apathetic body. Once I get on a train of thought, I take a non-stop trip to the end of the line. Nothing happens until I have my solution.
A feminine voice perks up from behind me; spooked, I turn to see the plant-woman staring me in the face. “Mr. Hart?”
“Please don’t sneak up on me like that!” I screamed, “I’ve got twitchy nerves.”
She took a seat on the stool under my section of the bar, dropping her gigantic glass off to my right side. “Right. Anyway, I saw you working with Phil a while ago...”
“Yeah! He’s great, isn’t he? Natural. If I had a few years at the right age with him, he would have made a mean wrestler.”
The plant smiles, strangely enough. “Yeah. I was wondering, what would a rabbit want with basic self defense?”
“He told me that one of his patients attacked him yesterday...” All of a sudden, the plant burst out into laughter. “What?”
“Phil? Attacked? You don’t know him very well, do you?”
“What are you getting at?”
The plant takes a long drink before replying. “Tell you what: I’ll let you in on a little secret. Phil built a trapdoor into his office in the shelter for cases like that. Whenever the patient gets too antsy, he just flips a switch and he’s out of danger.”
I stared at the plant. She’s gotta be kidding...
“Does that sound like someone who wants to know how to single-handedly take care of his patients? That’s what orderlies are for.”
“So you’re saying I’ve been duped?” Oh no, Mr. Skins is picking up his drumsticks...
The plant stood up and started walking back to her seat, chuckling a little. “Let’s just say he didn’t have the clearest of intentions.” It’s a revival tour; Mr. Skins and Lady Irony are cutting a new single in my head.
Strangely enough, I started snickering. The snicker turned into a chuckle, then to full-out laughter. Phil had just made an ass of me! Why was I laughing at that?
Because that was what I had done all along.
“I think someone got the punchline,” Phil jumped in from his corner.
“You win, Phil,” I replied, “I get your drift.” He hopped over to the stool where the plant once stood and ear-smiled.
“What say we start back into the recovery plan; since you didn’t respond well to officiating, maybe we can get you into a coaching position...”
I shook my head. “No; I can’t.”
“That’s what you did back there, wasn’t it? I’m sure you could pick up a good assistant to help you show the moves...”
“That’s not the point,” I snapped, “I’m a hands-on coach; that’s how I’ve always been. When I can’t jump in, I go crazy. It’s like a chocoholic working quality control at the Godiva factory while giving up chocolate for Lent.” Yeah, I could probably live with a sideline job, but who would want somebody that can’t lead by example...?
“Fine by me,” he tossed me a card, “Frankly, you’re out of options. This may help the pain a little.”
I read the text of the card aloud: “Sunshine Wrestling Club. What’s this for?”
Phil ear-smiled. “They’re looking for a coach -- that is, if you’re willing...”
A small spark of joy kindled in my heart, but I didn’t let it show. “When’s the next practice?”
“Their schedule said there’s a Saturday workout from nine to noon.”
“I’ll check it out tomorrow, then.” I mumbled a thank-you and headed towards the exit.
“Where you going?” Phil called from his chair.
“It’s been a long day, and I’ll need the rest for tomorrow,” I ear-smiled, “This place isn’t far, right?”
“Just inside the city limits; about fifteen minutes from your home.”
“Great!” Phil started chuckling as I pushed the door open. “What’s so funny?”
“So will I get a lesson tomorrow?” I mumbled a swear as I walked out the door, the sound of Phil’s laughter following me all the way.
Okay, so the rabbit has done it again. We’ll see how his plan works this time...
When I saw “Ms. Decker’s Daycare” on the sign outside of the building, I checked the address on the card a second time. This was a wrestling club? What kind of patrons did they have? Would I have to change diapers?
The addresses matched.
Mitch Clark immediately comes to mind: 1998 NCAA champion. He used to take a three hour trip three times a week to work out with world-class competitors. Since the club didn’t have a large base, they cut costs by renting out a daycare center by night. In that happily-decorated room Mitch Clark had some of the most trying times in his life.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, I always say.
I couldn’t turn the handle on the door, so I found an open window to slither through. The daycare center contained two rooms, connected by a thin hall. A mat was in each room, covered in sweat and rolling bodies. Young kids screamed happily as they drilled on the green mat; they were there simply to have fun with some friends. In the other room, older teens wrestled aggressively on a blue mat, listening to their coach scream critique.
The wave of nostalgia was almost overwhelming.
Once inside, I couldn’t bring myself to talk to the head coach standing in the hall. Some inhibition kept me walled off, a leftover from my long period of denial. They were so far away from me...
Now’s not the time for that. I’m ready to take the bull by the horns.
Looking at the card, I screamed out the guy’s name. “Coach Pental!” It’s good manners to refer to peers that way; you don’t want your kids addressing you as Jerry...
Pental was a model of what wrestling could do for a body. Aging but still agile, Pental’s wrinkled countenance screamed wisdom. Kids who weren’t doing anything eyed the man with utmost respect, his light blue eyes scanning for anything amiss in his practice. In fact, he’s kinda like I was, but older.
He scans his kid wrestlers, trying to find where the high pitched sound came from. “Up here!” When he made eye contact, he made an exasperated face and walked over to the high sill where I was standing.
Pental thought to offer a hand, but retracted as he realized the faux pas. “Howdy! You must be Nick Hart.”
“Yes. I’ve heard that you need a coach for the club?”
The man offered a shoulder; I scampered on as he walked back to his hallway stand. “Both groups: ten alberties!” I ear-smiled at the jargon; 10 sprints, 10 push-ups, 10 sit-ups, 10 leg changes. Count down to one.
Oh, the memories...
“Okay Mr. Hart,” Pental began as all the wrestlers began their sprints, “I know you were a national coach years ago, but I have to see some proof before you get to teach my big boys. Let’s see how you handle the novice group.”
I nodded and rubbed my hands in anticipation. “Fair enough. What are they learning right now?”
“Takedowns, mainly double legs.” Smart man. I continue my inquiry, now aiming towards the group’s demeanor.
“Okay... you’re gonna introduce me, right?
“Never have a problem getting them to do what I want.”
“You name the drill, they’ll give 110%.”
I gulped before I asked the next question. “SCABS haters?” Don’t think I’m an idiot: there were no full-morphs in the room; in fact, the only other SCAB was an anthropomorphic fox who only had fur and a tail to give away the disease. Wrestling resists change to the end...
“Not really... the school system is pretty well-blended, believe it or not.”
“Really?” Pental nodded.
“They should be finishing soon,” he signaled me to hop off, “I’ll call the group in, introduce you, then it’s showtime.”
“I’d like you to give Mr. Hart here all the respect you give me,” Pental continued with his introduction, “He has some new takedowns he wants to teach you.”
A hushed cheer of excitement racks the crowd. Gotta love a kid’s enthusiasm... Once that dies down, I’m left in an eerie silence in the center of a ring of eager kids. In the other room, I hear the rhythmic pounding of penetration drills: heel-toe-knee-lift, heel-toe-knee-lift.
The silence drove me to look at the contrasts of the room, the alphabet carpet covered in sweaty clothes and kneepads, bloody tissues piled into a cute dinosaur trash can, stuffed animals acting as a silent audience. I racked my brain, trying to think of a good way to explain a double leg without an example. I couldn’t explain the move step-by-step to a group of elementary students; their minds would wander off...
I go with the safe bet. “Okay, so can I get someone to show their double leg for the group?” The crowd’s hands shoot up in unison. “I’ll take you and you.” Two kids no older than eight come up front; once in front they spent fifteen seconds getting each other lined up just right...
And the kid took the move step by step, like a robot. Oy vey.
Sure, technique means everything at the higher levels, but here it’s next to nothing on the ladder. If they would just be aggressive, their instincts would do the rest of the work. How to demonstrate that without lecturing, though...
“Okay, so you all like to play games?” Of course, a cheer roars from my elementary crowd. “I’m going to teach you a game you’ll all like. Anyone ever hear of Slapback?” No one speaks up. “Oh, you’re all in for a treat!”
Slapback; the game guaranteed to bring out the mean streak in anybody. In seconds I have the kids paired off and laying on the mat in a circle, each pair on their bellies and facing in towards the center. I pick the most evenly matched pair and pull them out to the center, an ear-smile creeping over my face in eager anticipation.
“Okay, you’ll be the runner, and you’ll be ‘it.’” I jumped up on the runner’s shoulder, “What’s your name?”
“Trevor here has to slap...” I pointed to the other kid, who replied with ‘Toby,’ “Toby here as hard as he can, otherwise the tag doesn’t count.”
Toby spoke up immediately: “But that’s not fair!”
“That’s what all these guys are for, Toby. At any time, you can dive down by a pile. The person on the other side of that pile has to get up and take your place. And to all of you,” I turned to the groups on the ground, “If you’re not paying attention and you become ‘it,’ you’re fair game.”
“Don’t be afraid to really let someone have it,” I added, “and if someone slaps you hard, just get the next guy that much harder. Ready?”
A chorus of screams from the group. I jumped off of Trevor’s shoulder, and everyone froze.
“Well, I’d get to steppin’, Toby.” The game shot off like a rocket.
I know what you’re thinking: does Slapback hurt? Hell yeah. I listen to the little kids scream as some of the more aggressive kids relieve themselves of “it” status; when they complain, I tell them to give some of that back.
Three minutes into the game, and I do the unthinkable. For the last two minutes, I joined a group for a little playtime. When I was the runner, I scrambled up onto “its” shoulder and made him look like a fool. When I laid down, though, I made sure I wasn’t going to be slapped.
For them, it was a welt. For me, it was a bruised rib or worse. It didn’t matter, though; we were bonding.
I called the game off on a memorable slap and reformed the half-circle. “Okay, not if you just take that aggression and put it into the double leg, it’ll be easier. If you just put your forehead in their chest as you come in for the shot...”
“Let’s see your arm drag,” I suggested to Mark when he looked at me. After the Novices went home, Mark and Jim stayed behind for a little drill session. They were both state contenders; when they heard my name they begged me to hang around.
“I don’t usually pull that move out of my toolbox,” Mark warned, “It’s a little rusty.”
“Trust me,” I ear-smirked and winked as I said it. With a shrug, Mark snatched Jim’s arm and yanked it through, but his foot post was a few inches off. When Jim fell through, he missed Mark’s foot and recovered easily.
“Okay,” I rubbed my forepaws together, “time to teach you my secret weapon.”
“I tore people to shreds in high school with this move,” I said with an ear-smile, “Do the arm-drag again, but this time slowly.” Mark complied, getting past the first two arm motions before I spoke up again. “Stop! Now from here... hmm. Do you play baseball?”
“Only in gym,” he replied.
“That’s the way to be,” I chuckled, “anyway, imagine you’re sliding into first base. Use your left leg to kick Jim’s left shin, then follow through like a baseball slide.”
He tried the move at slow speed, but stopped as he slid into Jim’s leg. “But then my hip will hit the ground!” Yep, I just broke a cardinal rule.
“Don’t worry,” I reply, “you do the move so quickly that it won’t matter. Now I wouldn’t make camp down there, but you can get away with it if you’re quick. Try it again, this time at a faster speed.”
Mark repeated the move without a complaint, and it clicked. “Wow! It’s so fast! And even if I miss...”
“Your leg shots are still there,” I say with an ear-smirk, “Good body sense.”
“Thanks coach!” Did he just way what I thought he just said? A tear welled up in my eye as the realization hit me. All that adversity, the hopeless depression, the agony... and here I was, coaching once again.
Damn all the odds I was coaching again.
“Are you okay, coach?” Mark asked, “Your eyes are watery...”
“I’m fine, Mark,” I replied with a sniffle, “Can I see that move again? This time, Jim, give 80% resistance…
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