© Wanderer -- all rights reserved
Anxiously, I pull out my watch and check the time. Still running over, I fume as I watch the Christmas-themed skit playing out in rehearsal, and still incredibly saccharine. Good gravy, doesn't anyone write something new?
Playing a theater's Christmas opening is never easy. Take the usual backstage insanity, cover it with a hard sugar crust, then mix briskly with the built-in expectation that 'Hey, 'tis the season to be jolly!'. If the anxiety doesn't get you, the letdown will.
It's even harder for entertainers, no matter what sort. We're a terminally insecure lot to begin with. Put us on a stage anytime between November and January, and the Martyr in us comes out. Suddenly, we start feeling like we're responsible for every single Christmas in the world being Merry... or at least all the ones we know about.
Sighing, I try to calm down. Not this year, I remind myself. Not this time. I have had enough martyrdom. Enough to win sainthood for half of Bangladesh. I am going to calm down, ignore that sugar-coated sappiness I have to follow, and do a good job. As the last scene of the child-insulting... I correct myself... delightful holiday presentation draws to a close, I straighten my suit, revive the memory of my lyrics...
... and remember. Warm fur against my cold skin... Christmas presents... hugs... My influx of joy turns slightly melancholy as my memory insists on bringing up the happiest moment I've ever known. Calm, incredible calm floods me as I stand there in the waiting room. Mother's frantic, Phil is frantic, but somehow... somehow I know. I somehow know that everything will be all right. And just before that glorious cry splits the air... I feel... I feel like somebody just turned on the light inside me.
Lord, it's been so long... When Mother and I moved, the one great sacrifice was contact with my sister and her family. Especially that first one... Sarah. Sweet Sarah. Silly Sarah. My niece. I can still bring to mind what she looked like when last I could see her, that adorable 13-year-old with the long blonde hair...
I snap myself from a trance of memory, prompted by the sound of applause as the skit breaks up. I bounce twice on my toes as the cast files off under cover of darkness, then jog to my place behind the curtain. I arrive just as the tech finishes setting the microphone stand in place, and try to favor him with a smile. Try to, at least... techs have the most unforgiving time schedule of anyone, and I should know. Not that I could work tech now, I chuckle to myself. These claws would ruin the whole 'swift and silent' part of the job.
Outside the curtain, the emcee begins to wrap things up. "... and now, the Anachron Theater is proud to present one of our fine local talents..."
Local, I roll my eyes. Gee, maybe I can move up to summer stock... you'd think that whole multi-city tour never happened.
I take a deep breath as the music starts and the curtain opens. With a gentle, no-teeth-bared smile to the audience, I hold my ears upright through the opening bell chorus... after all, it has to be loud for the audience to hear it... and, as the applause settles down, I let out the music.
Angels from the realms of glory,
Not bad, I sigh as I ease my way into the next verse. And at least I've got some good sound behind me... not like my first Christmas premiere. Yeesh, one synthesizer and... I decide not to think about what else happened that night, in hopes that it won't happen now. Quickly reviewing the lyrics, I launch into the next verse, adding a little to my sound.
Shepherds in the fields abiding,
Barely keeping my smile in place, I try to ignore the churning in my stomach. Oh, I hope they didn't notice that hesitation on 'infant light'. You'd think, after so many years... Finally, I just resign myself to past being past, and move on.
Sages, leave your contemplations,
One verse to go, I comfort myself. Just one more verse. Forgetting myself a little, I decide to give the last verse Everything. I open the floodgates on all my remembered joy and let fly...
Saints, be-fore the al-tar bending,
I gasp after my high note, regretfully remembering the higher voice of my past, but still keeping my smile intact. Bowing to the three points... left, right, center... I gratefully accept my applause.
"Okay, people," the stage manager calls out, "that was great. Wan, I need you to try holding that finisher a little longer. Jim, we need to pick up the pace on that last scene. The skit's okay, but it really drags there. Music's okay, guys, but keep those notes crisp! We don't need any flats on stage that aren't part of the scenery, okay?"
We all chuckle obediently... I may have been the one who told him that joke, but I know better than to remind him. "I shall endeavour to provide, good master," I reply with a smile and a deep bow. "For the nonce, however, I recommend a brave luncheon, ere my stomach o'erwhelms the orchestra."
"I can take a hint," he laughs. "Okay, people, let's meet back here tonight at 5:00. Have your costumes ready!"
My stomach rumbling, I trip-trap back up the aisle and grab my cloak. Affectation though it is, it still had a shot at the show until tonight. With the weather lately, though, carrying it is much nicer than wearing it. Waving goodbye to a few laggard friends, I step outside, landing in air that smells... I sniff deeply... like cold and water. Possibilities there...
I stretch as I look around at my temporary 'home'. It's not much to look at, is the Anachron, but it doesn't need to be. She was put together by a group of semi-wealthy theatrical enthusiasts, and it shows. The stage has everything... trapdoors, a double curtain, and box seats. "Ev'rything old is new again," I smile to myself as a few of the others file past me. To think they'd go to all this trouble to rebuild what was torn down so long ago.
Suddenly, I have the odd sensation of being watched. Turning, I discover a blonde-haired young woman behind me, looking anxious. An awfully familiar-looking blonde... Before I can say anything, she looks up at me and says:
For a moment, just a moment, it all stops. Time. Space. My heart. For just a moment, everything freezes as my mind puts her face and those words together to make...
"Sarah?" She smiles and nods. "Sa- ... oh, my goodness gracious, Sarah!?" I take her in my arms and lift her halfway off the ground before my canine feet threaten to collapse. "Oh, it's so good to see you! How have you... oh, let's eat while we catch up, shall we? I know a great little place down the street..."
"That'd be great," she smiles up at me, her voice sweet music after so long a silence.
"Oh," I add with a smile, "and you have just got to meet my friends..."
With Sarah safely installed in the passenger seat, our burger bags on the floorboard between her legs, I pilot my little buzz-wagon to the Pig. Between holiday traffic and an electric motor past its prime, we don't get in a lot of conversation before I pull in at one of the closer spaces. I'm almost walking on air as I take the bags from her and lead the way to the Pig's front door.
About halfway there, I notice she's been checking her six like crazy. After maybe the third time, I stop and turn around. "Something the matter?"
"Um," she hesitates, looking extremely uncertain, "are you sure this is a good idea?"
I shake my head and smile. "Sarah, sweet and silly Sarah. This is one of the finest bars in town, bar none..." I rock my ears with embarrassment as she giggles at the accidental pun "...and I have a lot of good friends that come here. Think of it as Cheers."
I half-smirk. "Go ahead, make me feel old," I chuckle. "Think of it as a social club that lets in Uncle Puppies. Okay?"
"Okay," she smiles at last. "I guess if you like it, it can't be all bad." I bow as she continues. "I thought Mom said you didn't drink, though."
I shrug and smile. "I still don't. I just come here for the company." I regret the words almost as I say them... neither of us really needs to be reminded that I haven't seen her in over ten years. "Come on," I grin to change the subject. "Time to meet the pack. So to speak," I add with a wink. Her giggles send shivers of happiness through my whole furry body.
"I still can't believe," she says as we enter, "that you still remember that name."
"How could I forget?" I ask in mock-exasperation. "Mother was the one who hung it on me. You just happened to like having an uncle with such an easy-to-remember moniker." As I put down our food, I turn and see most of the early crowd already in place; Donnie looking with obvious curiosity at my guest, while Jack just smiles -- he knows I'll tell him everything later -- from behind the piano. The Lupine Boys haven't shown up yet, of course, since they're going to be attending the performance tonight and need their money for tickets. (Not that I'd ever have anything to say against my wonderful-if-stingy employers, you understand.) And there at the bar...
I almost let my ears drop. Jubatus. Oh, joy. Of course. I try not to bristle at the musically-refined cheetahmorph sitting on a stool. No way around, might as well go through. "I'll go get us something to drink," I offer. "Donnie's great with sodas." I suddenly remember I'm not dealing with a thirteen-year-old Sarah anymore. "Unless, of course, you'd prefer something else?" I stammer, my tail reaching for the floor.
"Not me," she answers, though how much is out of compassion for my embarrassment I may never know. "If they have Sprite, I'm set."
"Sprite coming up," I call as I head to the bar. "Back in a bit."
"Got any Mr. -- I mean, Pibb Extra?" I ask as I reach the bar. Donnie obligingly reaches down and pulls out one of the small bottles from the miniature refrigerator under the bar... they're not really a common enough order to be on tap. "Oh, and a Sprite for Sarah."
"Sarah?" twits Jubatus from nearby. "Ms. May meets Mr. December, huh? You sly dog! I wouldn't have thought --"
I stiffen, visibly I know, before making myself relax. "If you must know, Jubatus," I answer in a firmly-controlled voice, "she's my niece, and I..." But he's gone, already heading off to my table. Donnie, understanding gent he is, draws her drink as fast as he can, though certain felines make catching up impossible anyway. "It's been ten years," I whisper to Donnie. "I'll explain later." He nods and makes a shooing motion, knowing better than to try and make me understand any but the most basic sign language. I dogtrot back to the table, just as Jubatus gives his head an odd cant and says:
He looks at me, an almost-disbelieving half-smirk on his face. "'Uncle Puppy'?"
Sarah's blushing enough for both of us. "Sorry, Uncle."
"It's quite all right, Sarah," I smile, forcing my tail back up almost bodily. "I am your Uncle Puppy, and proud of it." Though I could've lived without him finding out, I worry.
"Just how long have you been a wolf, Wanderer?" he asks me, almost grinning at the situation as I wince.
"Wanderer?" Sarah asks. "Why do you call him that?"
A prolonged throat-clearing moves Jubatus enough for me to sit down, while simultaneously grabbing an opening in the conversation. "Back when you were little, Sarah, 'Wanderer' was the name I used on the Internet. Since a lot of people took different names when they changed, and since," I add wryly, "the family name was seven syllables long, I decided to use my old nick... screen name, I mean... in public." I shrug. "I like it."
Sarah shrugs in return. "Okay, Uncle Ed. Makes as much sense as anything, I guess."
"'Ed'?" Jubatus interrupts, jumping back in with his renowned speed, "I thought he was 'Uncle Puppy'!" He visibly stifles a guffaw and raises his hands as if to frame a picture. "I can see it now: Wanderer, starring as host of a kid's show on a local UHF channel -- Uncle Puppy's Doghouse."
I turn to Jubatus, a triumphant smile on my face, and say, "Actually, my mother gave me that name. Thank you for the acting endorsement, though."
That stops him almost cold. "Your... mother. Your... mother gave you that name? Heiliger Christus!" He starts to grin again. "Oh man, this is rich... So. 'Uncle Puppy'. How'd that happen?"
My ears rock with another blush, and Sarah jumps in. "And you are..?"
"Jubatus," he answers before I can, "troubleshooter and all-around pain in the butt. But I think Uncle Puppy was saying something..?"
I grimace up at him. "If you must know, Jubatus, I was letting my hair and beard grow long back then, before a certain medical problem gave me an all-over fur coat. Mother, when Sarah was introduced to me, announced me as 'Uncle Puppy', and the name stuck." I frown at him, not expecting it to have much effect. "Now would you please butt out, you nit-witted twit?"
As I talked, Jubatus had started watching my face intently. "As soon as you answer me one question," he states as soon as I finish.
I roll my eyes. "What?"
"Why no accent?"
"Accent?" comes the answering question from Sarah's side of the table. "This is getting interesting. What kind of accent?"
"Nothing compared to your mother," I grump. "Only person I ever knew who could yell in New York and New England at the same time."
"Awdinarily," comes a rough voice from the cat, "youah uncle pehforms for us with a paharticular accent of the far-off Bhritish Aisles."
At once, I snap erect. His mispronunciations can only mean he's attempting an impression, and given the content and context of his words -- "Jubatus. Ignoring for the moment that you are being, as is thy wont, an undesired pest, I most certainly do not sound like Winston Churchill played at half-speed!" A giggle from across the table draws me out of my high dudgeon. "Oh, brother. Look, Jube, I'll explain everything at a later time, but would you mind not annoying the pee-diddle and poodle out of me while I'm..."
"'Pee-diddle and poodle'?"
"Okay, okay," he sighed... as theatrically as I might, I notice. "Keep your secrets. Ve haff vays of findink things out."
"He's not kidding, either," I murmur as Jubatus finds his way back across the room. "That boy knows more about a computer than I do about acting."
"To hear Mom talk," Sarah breaks in, "that's quite a compliment."
I let my ears rock back. "Hmph. Nice compliment, coming from the girl who got cast during both years of Drama." I let the smile burst forth in full bloom. "How is your mother these days?"
"Same as always," she answers with that twist of the mouth so often found in young women talking about their parents. "I swear, if I hear one more word about the problems she had when she was my age, I'll just scream!"
I smile helplessly and tilt my head. "I know," I sigh. "It's like I told your mother, back when we were little; she just doesn't want you to make the same mistakes she did."
"I know," she groans, "but does she have to be so... so..."
"Motherly?" I suggest, smiling a little. Sarah puts her head in her hand.
"I know she means well," she goes on, "but does she have to be on my back all the time?"
I shrug. "Hey, if it'd do any good, I'd talk to her. Let her know you need to make your own decisions." I shrug again. "But you know your mother."
The conversation dies away into silence for a few moments. "Well," I say at last, "let's eat! How'd you get here, anyway?" I ask as I unwrap my double cheeseburger.
"I took the bus," she replies. "Mom was against it, of course."
I swallow quickly. "Let me guess; It's too far, it's too expensive, and he's busy. Right?"
She laughs before she swallows. "Right. I made this my Christmas present, so she'd pay for it."
I smile and put my hand on hers. "It's a pretty good present for me, too. Thank you, Sarah."
She takes her hand from under mine, putting it on top. "You're welcome, Uncle Puppy."
Both food and time seem to race by, even faster than Jubatus' reputed rate. A few short hours (and more than a few 'Uncle Puppy' questions) later, my pocketwatch chimes. "Oh, phoo."
"You should come around more often," jokes Jubatus. "You make him say the damnedest things."
Ignoring him, I turn back to Sarah. "It's time for the show. Please say you can stay?"
"I'd love to," she answers, though she looks a little boxed in, "but Mom said she wanted me on tonight's bus."
I snap erect for the second time that night. "Well, now," I grin, feeling my eyes start to sparkle. "I think we can handle that... I'll be right back." Dodging questions, I head straight outside, where the wind has picked up, combining with a dropping temperature to provide a threat of ice. It doesn't take me long to find a pay phone and drop some change. "The number may be long distance," I grumble, "but there's no way on Earth I'm going to..."
"Hello?" The voice is as familiar as ever.
"Hi, Phil?" I can't help comparing him, a little, to the rabbity Phil I know. I love my sister, but her marriage is a proof of that old Arthurian judgement that what women really want is their own way.
I sigh. "That's the problem with ten years of silence. Nobody recognizes your voice anymore."
I roll my eyes before answering. "It's Mary's brother."
"Oh, Ed! Is Sarah okay?"
"Sarah's fine. Could I talk to Mary, though?"
"Um, sure. Just a minute..."
I tap my foot against the cold concrete as I wait. Come on, come on, we need to hurry this up...
"Mary!" The familiar voice is music to my ears after so long. "Thanks for letting Sarah come here! It's great!"
"Well," she answers with a smile in her voice, "you know how she feels about her Uncle Puppy..."
I grin in reply. "That secret's well and truly out. Look, I have a question..."
I sigh at the sisterly concern. "It got mentioned. No problem," I hasten to reassure her. "I'm weird enough to take a little ribbing. I have a question, though."
"Yeah?" She has some ideas... I can hear it in her voice. She's just waiting to say 'no'.
"Well, I have a show tonight, and I was hoping Sarah could come."
"Uh-huh. What kinda show? Not that I mind the whole thing, but... y'know."
I nod, though I know she can't see me. "New theater opening. Nice little Christmas-y premiere, sugar-coated morality plays, you know the stuff."
"Sounds good. What's your part?"
I sigh. "Just a little hymn-singing. Not even any her-singing, I promise," I add to grab a laugh. "She spends the night with me, then grabs the first bus back home tomorrow."
"You sure the ticket's good?"
"I'm positive, Mary," I grouse. "I've ridden cross-country how many times? Please, just this once?"
"Well..." I hear her talking with Phil. "Okay."
"But," comes the warning, "you better have her back here tomorrow, or I'll come up there and cut your tail off. You got me?"
I roll my eyes. And they think I'm melodramatic. Not that she wouldn't do it, mind you... "Gotcha. A good breakfast and straight home. Okay?"
"Okay." She stops for a minute. "You know I love ya, Ed."
"I know," I gently smile. "She's your firstborn daughter. It's natural. Trust me."
"All right," she laughs. "Love ya, Ed."
I hang up the phone and sigh. "Thank goodness I'm her brother." Then, clutching my shirt tightly around me, I scurry back to the Pig.
"...sure," I hear Sarah say as I come in. "He's been singing for -- oh, hi!," she breaks off as I come in. "How'd it go?"
I open my arms wide. "You're spending the night!" The cheer around the Pig is loud and long... far too many people have lost family to the SCABS problem, whether directly or indirectly. "But it's first bus tomorrow, or your mother's hanging a wolf tail from her radio antenna. Capeesh?"
She laughs. "Got it. Think we have time for you to sing?"
"Well..." I look at my pocketwatch and calculate based on current traffic patterns. "One song, but a quick one. Any preferences?"
"How about that one you used to sing at church... do you still sing it?"
I grin. "Not as much as I used to, but I still know it. Jack, can you play gospel?"
"Gospel?" The way he looks at me, my first pastor would've laughed himself silly. "Sure, I guess. Anything special, or am I playing by ear?" He lifts up a long lobe for emphasis, drawing a traditional laugh.
"With those ears, you oughta beat Liberace."
"Who?" comes the question from most of the younger patrons of the Pig.
"Never mind," I mutter in mock-exasperation... well, half-mock. "I swear... anyway, just follow along and honky-tonk it, okay, Jack?"
He gives me the high sign, and I start off slow...
One night when I was lonely...
Jack strokes a few decent chords, and I feel sorry for what's coming up...
Like a mighty piece of music...
I begin to bounce as I jump up to a tempo that bounces with me, sending Jack to a short silence as he figures it out.
I heard the an-gels sing,
Jack begins to catch up as I start reaching down to my old volume, setting the piano buzzing and vibrating as I sing;
I heard a thou-sand trum-pets
By now, half the bar is clapping as Jack's piano catches up with me.
I heard a glor-ious song,
I can't resist clapping along, now... it just seems right, somehow, like a heavenly editor just dropped in a page from my earlier life. And though I know it isn't Before... After suddenly seems a whole lot better.
I fell down on my knees,
I circle my hand for the capper, and let fly at full volume, drawing a few smiling winces from the crowd;
I heard a thou-sand trum-pets
Applause comes from all over the bar as I scoop up my cloak and herd Sarah toward the exit. "More later, I promise, but I've gotta go!"
And tonight, when I stand behind that curtain and get ready to sing...
... I know I won't have to do much remembering to put Joy in my heart.
"You're sure you don't mind?"
I look into Sarah's eyes with a sad smile, a familiar feeling after so many years of being her uncle. "Positive. You've already met everyone who's coming, anyway. Besides, you need to get some rest, remember?"
She smiles as sadly as I do. "Thanks. I'm sorry, Unc, I just..."
"It's okay," I reassure her again. "You just met a bunch of strange people... only one of whom you're related to," I joke. "It's natural to feel closed in in a bar full of strangers." I blink, hoping she misses the accidental slight there. She seems to, at least.
She hesitates for a long time. "No," she says at last. "I think I've waited long enough to get to know you again. If riding here on that bus didn't stop me," she smirks, "I don't think your friends could be that much trouble."
"True," I likewise smirk. "Besides, if they haven't killed me for my puns, how dangerous could they be?"
As we re-enter the Pig that evening, it doesn't take a genius to spot the way she leans toward me, away from the boisterous crowd. Jubatus, at least, seems pleasantly distracted with that 'catatonic cocktail' he's nursing... how he can drink something that smells like that, I've decided never to ask... at least until he's in a good mood. Of course, that probably puts it back in the 'never' category...
"It's all right," I remind her with a pat to the shoulder. "It's only a Christmas par-"
"Ah!" she yelps, jumping almost a foot. I look behind her and quickly identify the problem.
"Wiley! Is your voder fritzed, or do you always goose people with your nose!?"
"Sorry," comes back the electronicized reply, the volume cranked to make it audible over the hubbub. "Wrong turn."
I shake my head. "Sorry, Sarah," I smile at her. "They may call me an Alpha sometimes, but all that means is I usually have good ideas."
She looks back up at me, a hint of her mother on her face. "I noticed," she drawls. "Are they always like this?"
"No, no," I answer. "Sometimes they get rowdy."
With mutual smiles, we set out for the bar, weaving our way through the crowd with a practiced eye for movement patterns... to say nothing of the fact that my canine-style feet have a very small 'footprint'. Not that that helps much --
-- when someone lands a size-9 on them. I hopped briefly on one paw before landing heavily atop my tail, my head bouncing off the wood above the bar rail. Thankfully, above the bar rail.
Not-so-thankfully, on the wood. I feel a sharp taste of copper pass through my tongue, while my brain suddenly begins shaking hands with my jawbone. I look up down back to at... I shook my head as my senses settled back into their proper order, with only a small acidic taste at the back of my mouth remaining. I roll over, coming to my feet...
Wait, I think muzzily through the haze of having my bell rung. Not... quaht... quite... right. After a few more shakes of the head, I finally pull myself back upright.
Stifled chuckles fill the room, even as I notice Sarah turning a bright red... and looked down.
Ears back, I reach down and grab my pants and briefs, pulling them back into position with one smooth move... though not nearly as smooth as I wish I could've been already. "I'm so embarrassed..." I mutter. Apparently, shifting shape while wearing clothing isn't really conducive to keeping your pants on...
"Whoa," Sarah breathes. "Neat trick." Suddenly, I manage to remember that her mother was always big on horror movies... and she's just seen a perfect werewolf shift.
I look back at her, my ears still back in embarrassment. "Not exactly planned..."
"I kinda guessed," she laughs. "Let's get something to drink and get your feet out of the way."
Two bottles of soda later, we manage to find ourselves back at the Lupine table, though I manage to put Sarah at the end of my side's bench. "I'd still like to know who landed on my foot," I grumble. "Such ill-manner'd action doth ill become this pla-" I cough. "Sorry. Force of habit."
"It does make you sound more impressive," Sarah chimes in, trying not to laugh. "So, what's up next for my actor uncle?"
I shrug, smiling. "Nothing much. Low-budget horror number, for the obvious special effects savings. At least it gets a location." I grin, actually showing a few teeth for the occasion. "You?"
Familiar with the canine expression -- we've always been animal people -- she grins in answer. "More college, for now. After that, who knows? Think they could use an actress out here?"
I shrug expressively. "Could be. You've got the looks for it." I adopt a mock-stern posture and tone. "Just try to leave room for me on the marquee, okay?"
"Okay... hey, what's that?"
I turn into the breeze of a passing form, and find... a package? Wrapped in white paper and red ribbon, a simple-looking Christmas present sits on the table. I look around, but spot nobody incriminating... except perhaps Jubatus, given that bathroom incident, and even he's a little unsteady on his feet right now. "Hm... well, if somebody's handing out presents..." Using my blunt claws, I scratch away the glued flaps -- sakes, who uses glue on a present? -- and reveal a box, inside which I find...
A smirk firmly planted upon my furry muzzle, I extract the small monstrosity from its wrappings and bring it up to the light. My... 'gift', for want of a better word... is a pair of frames, so encrusted with flashing rhinestone that they could serve as an improvised disco ball (which I shall never mention aloud in the Pig, if only to avoid admitting to being alive in the Age of Disco). And in the frames... lenses of a gentle reddish hue.
"What the..." Sarah breathes, reaching out for the tangible trophy of tackiness. I grin by response.
"Why, what else for an incurable optimist such as myself, O wondrous niece of my heart?" I put them on my face, though I have to hold the earpieces up with my hands. "What else but rose-colored glasses?"
And the laughter does resound... with my own to join it.
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