© Xepher -- all rights reserved
A wise book once surmised that no language has ever invented the euphemism "As pretty as an airport". I think this is true for a reason. I sat in the lobby of the Denver international airport awaiting the plane that would take me on the next leg of my journey. It was a long wait. Eventually I tired of sitting and decided to walk around. It was about 3pm in the morning and my next flight wasn't until 9 or so. The only carry-on I had was my backpack so it was easy enough to go exploring. I left the Delta terminal and began cruising the concourse.
I passed a plethora of of little touristy shops. All devoted to the single task of separating bored and beleaguered individuals from their hard earned cash. I was just about bored enough to let them too. I kept wandering around looking for something "interesting". I don't really know what I was looking for, but I was sure I'd know when I found it. Well, in the end, I didn't know, but my stomach did.
I stopped to grab a bite to eat at this little (even by airport standards) bar and grill. It wasn't exactly the nicest place in the airport, but it seemed to be on the SCABS friendly side of things. Don't get me wrong, none of the other establishments banned or forbid SCABS, but you could just tell when you weren't welcome. This place wasn't exactly beckoning them either, but it wasn't overtly hostile.
I entered the place and looked around. I instantly missed "The Blind Pig". I'd only stopped there briefly the week before, but it had been the kind of place you don't soon forget. This bar, on the other hand, was best left forgotten. It was one of those places that could only exist inside an airport. There was a bar off to one side of the thing, running about half the length of the place. There was apparently a small kitchen through a door behind the bar. The rest of the room was filled with small tables and chairs. This place would've liked to think it was some sort of English pub or something. Everything was done in wood (or fake wood) and there was even a neon Union Jack behind the bar. I somehow doubt any real Englishman would've been caught dead in the place. On the other hand I seriously doubt anyone would like to be caught dead in such a place.
I waited for moment to be seated, but figured out, thanks to some pseudo-rustic signs saying "Place order here", that this was a self-service type of establishment. I went up to the bar and found a menu. Usual bar and grill fare. A few sandwiches, some burgers, and a bunch of appetizers. Nothing was particularly enticing, but I eventually settled on a Bacon Cheeseburger. I went to place my order and waited a few minutes at the spot designated by the sign for such purposes. Eventually a barmaid/waitress/whatever came and took my order.
"I'll have the Pig and Cheddar Combo." Sheesh, I really hate "clever" names.
"I suppose you'll be wanting that rare?"
"No, medium-well actually, and can I get some honey-mustard on the side?"
"Sure, that'll be $12.45"
We completed the exchange and I went to find a table. I was still a bit thrown by the encounter. Just because you have inch-long canines people assume you want to kill your food yourself or something. I mean, I know I look like a (sometimes) bipedal Snow Leopard, but really! Anyhow, I eventually found a table along the far wall and sat down. I noticed that the table next to mine was occupied by a couple of SCABS. Upon closer inspection, I found them both to be female Snow Leopard morphs. That was odd indeed. Due to the sheer number of morphic forms SCABS has created, it's unusual to see more than one of any but the most common forms. Add to that the oddity of seeing 2 females and they were my species also.... Well I never did like statistics and probability.
They were both engaged in a conversation with each other about their current trip. I was debating the idea of introducing myself. The first one was a bit older than the second and seemed to be quite a bit louder too. She was also a much higher degree morph than the 2nd, although both were quite a ways lower than me. I was listening to their conversation for a minute, a little embarrassed that I was doing so, and caught the name of the second one. Her name was "Angel" I discovered. I just about caught the name of the 1st one when my order was called. I went up and retrieved my cheeseburger.
I returned a minute later with food and drink in paw. As I sat down, the older of the women turned to me. "Hi," she introduced herself. "I couldn't help but notice, well, you're one of the few Snow Leopards I've ever seen." You could tell she was a bit shy, and was overcompensating.
"Hi." I extended my paw "I'm Xepher."
"Oh, sorry, I forgot... anyhow, I'm Titania"
"Nice to meet you."
We shook paws and I offered her a seat at my table. She took it and we sat down. I noticed that her friend was now engrossed in a book. Titania noticed my noticing.
"Oh, don't mind her, she's always like that. I can't drag her away from those things for anything. She'll be happy for hours now."
"That's good I suppose. I always loved reading myself, though I forgot to bring much with me on this trip."
"That's too bad, there's always the bookstore though."
"Yeah, but they usually don't have much that I like. Besides, I'm trying to clear my mind on this trip anyway."
"Oh yeah? Where are you headed to?"
"Not sure actually. I decided to take a vacation and "get away" so to speak. So I, quite literally, hopped on the first plane out of town. Now I'm sitting here waiting for a plane to Australia."
"Wow. What's in Australia?"
"Well, kangaroos for one. And you can't forget the platypus!" I smirked with the last one. "But if you mean "why am I going?" well then I don't know. Partially because I've always wanted to, but mostly because it's the first international flight I could get a seat on. How about you, where are you off to?"
"Well, we, me and my friend over there," She nodded towards her friend and her book. "are headed to Michigan for a SCABS relief effort. You've heard about the marches planned in Detroit?"
"Not much. All I basically heard was that a bunch of SCABS rights protesters were gonna march on the auto industries, demanding they stop charging so much for SCABS modified vehicles."
"Well, that's pretty much the just of it. We're with the Worldwide SCABS Civil Rights Society, WSCRS for short." She pronounced the acronym like "Whiskers".
"So you're lawyers or something?"
"HA! I wish I got paid that much. Actually Angel over there is, but I'm just a nurse. We're basically headed up there for damage control. We've got a bunch of SCABS, a hated minority, marching on the automotive industry, a very powerful group, demanding lower "equal" prices for a product that, in all actuality, does cost significantly more to produce. On top of all that, these people are coming from across the country, and world for that matter, and they're doing it in February for Pete's sake. Angel is going to help get the more idiotic ones out of jail, and I'm gonna try and keep the rest from starving to death or dying of frostbite. I also get the fun job of cleaning up after the hate groups get through."
"I certainly don't envy you. I imagine it's gonna be very hard to help people that are so intent on being angry."
"To say the least. I've seen some bad stuff in my time, injury wise, but at least I haven't had to deal with the people that cause those injuries. Angel, on the other hand, has to deal with some of the meanest and worst society has to offer. Thankfully her job is to put them in jail though."
I smiled briefly as I finished one of my remaining fries.
"What are you grinning about?"
"Well, and I seem to be saying this a lot lately, that reminds me of something that happened to me a long time ago."
"Well, I was just remembering the first time I ever had to deal with anti-SCABS "sentiments.""
"Oh yeah? What happened?"
"Well it's a bit of a long story, if I'm to tell it right."
"I've been sitting in this bar for the past 2 hours with another 4 to go. I could use a long story."
"Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you." I grinned, and with that I dug into my minds basement and began to ruffle around.
It was about 2 years after I first got SCABS. I had been in Las Vegas for a convention and was headed back home. Back then I was in college and, subsequently, cheap. My ticket home said "Greyhound" and I was too tired to argue. I went to the bus station at about 10pm, my ride leaving at 11. Back then there weren't many SCABS around. I was the only one in the station. I got odd looks from a bunch of people, but no one really stared long. This was Vegas after all, and there were much stranger sights than a talking Snow Leopard. I checked my bag and went to find myself a seat on the bus.
I learned, fairly quickly, why people despise travel by public bus. It was old to start with. The seats were almost benches. Thankfully they had padded backs and seats, but there was very little in the way of personal space. Luckily, for me anyway, the backs of the seats were bench style too, with an open slot between the bottom and back, just enough to get my tail through. Other than that small convince though, I was in for one heck of a trip. The entire vehicle smelled. Not a smell mind you, but gazillions, all merged into a single, foul olfactory sensation that can only be called "bus". I'd smelled worse before, but then again, I had branded cattle before.
I took a seat near the back of the bus and waited for this little joyride to get underway. It wasn't long before other passengers started boarding. Most were simply the standard fare for a bus out of Vegas. They were broke, hungover, and getting home on the bus, courtesy of a money order from a loved one. A few stood out. There was a guy near the front who's look basically said "My Harley's in the shop, deal with it!". Then there was the couple that sat a few rows behind "Harley Dude". They had probably just eloped and gotten married and they were, quite obviously, as giddy as could be. No others really caught my attention until this little girl and her mom stepped aboard.
I guess they stood out because they just didn't "belong". They looked to be middle class, nice, and fairly suburban. I couldn't imagine what they were doing on the same bus with the rest of this refuge. They sat a few rows in front of me on the opposite side of the aisle. The little girl seemed to have practically dragged her mother on board. The poor woman looked positively exhausted. The girl on the other hand, would probably have been bouncing off the ceiling if her mom hadn't been holding her hand.
Eventually the girl got the hint and settled down into the seat beside her mother. She didn't seem to be one of those uncontrolled children you always see. The ones that knock down displays in stores and make old ladies hate children. No, this girl seemed to be fairly well behaved, just excited. She reminded me a lot of two of my cousins. They were sisters and they were always getting "involved" in everything. They both had long, blond hair and the cutest faces. This little girl seemed very similar indeed.
I leaned back in the chair and decided to try and get some shut-eye. This drive was gonna be more or less non-stop, and the less I remembered of it, the better. It was probably 10 or 15 minutes later when I was startled out of my attempted slumber by a loud "thud" followed by a "thunk" noise. I opened my eyes and looked towards the door. I was rather startled to see a morphic Elk removing the tines of his antlers from the newly punctured upholstery. He had apparently slipped on the stairs and gotten his antlers stuck when he fell. I looked around and noticed that everyone was now staring at him. Granted, he was a hard thing to miss, but these people were looking rather uneasy as they stared. I too had gotten a few stares when people had entered, but not like this. As I thought about that, I realized that the little girl and her mom were the only people even sitting in my half of the bus. The Elk-man went and took a seat at the very back of the bus. That way it was really hard for someone to stare without being obvious, and he knew it.
I noticed that the little girl cringed in fear as the Elk lumbered past her and her mother. She was deeply afraid of this huge thing moving past her. After the Elk had taken his seat, I noticed she kept turning around, looking at him, and I soon noticed, me. The fear was obvious in her eyes. Apparently she hadn't seen me when she first got on the bus. Eventually one more SCABS victim got on the bus. This time a small mouse morph of some sort. She too took a seat in the very back, on the opposite side of the aisle from the Elk. The little girl cringed at her too, despite the non-imposing nature of the mouse lady. I closed my eyes again and eventually the bus got under way.
There is a time when it's a good thing to have people fearing you, and that's when you want room. I took advantage of this and used the entire bench/seat for my leisure. I lay down and stretched out across 4 seats. Despite it being nighttime, the rocking of the bus quickly put me to sleep. I awoke an indeterminate amount of time later to the sound of several conversations. The newlyweds were discussing all their future plans, a pair of drinking buddies were telling "war stories" and the Elk and Mouse in the back had apparently started a dialog. The one that caught my attention though, was between the little girl and her mother.
"Why do they have to let them on the bus?" The little girl intoned.
"Who's "them" honey?" The mother responded good naturedly, if a bit tiredly.
"The scary animal people! Why are they on the bus?"
"Because they're people too, just like you and me. They just look different, that's all."
"But why do they have to be on the bus?"
"Because it wouldn't be fair to not let them on. They don't like walking anymore than you do. What's so wrong with letting them on the bus?"
"Because..." The little girl didn't quite have an answer. "Because they scare me."
"What's so scary about them?"
"Well, they have big teeth and claws and stuff. And they're mean!"
"True, some of them have claws and big teeth, but how do you know they're mean? Have you talked to them?"
"Well..." The girl stalled by playing with her hair. "Some of the kids at school said that the animal people will eat you when you're not looking"
"What have I told you about the kids at school? They make stuff up and you know it. The "animal people" won't eat you. That's just made up to scare you. As I said, they're people just like you and me, but they just look different."
"Why do they look different?" The girl nodded. "Because they got sick. They got a really bad flu that can sometimes make people look like that."
"Why would God let them get so sick then, if they aren't mean people?"
"We don't always know why God does stuff. You've gotten sick before, but are you a mean person?"
"No, I guess not." The girl's reply was more than a little hesitant.
"Well it's the same with them. God has a reason for everything, it's just sometimes we can't see it."
"So they're not mean? They're not gonna eat us if we fall asleep?"
"No, they're not gonna eat you!" Her mom put some definite emphasis on that one. "They're probably very nice people if you talk to them." The girl seemed satisfied with that and let the conversation drop. Her mom leaned back and dozed off.
I, on the other hand, was now quite awake. I checked my pocket watch and found I'd gotten almost 4 hours of sleep. I was really wishing I'd brought more reading material. I'd finished what little I had on the way to Vegas. I decided I really needed to buy myself a palmtop of some sort next time I had the chance. You always think of something after you could really use it. I sat up in one of the seats and decided to close my eyes and do some day dreaming. In reality, I'm never really starved for entertainment. My imagination more than makes up for the lack of video games and books. I was just in the middle of practicing my long sword maneuvers when I was interrupted.
"Hi." I looked over and saw the little girl standing in the aisle. "I'm Molly." And with that, she plopped herself down in the seat next to mine. I looked up and saw that her mother had fallen asleep sometime ago.
"Hi." I replied, grinning. "My name's Xepher." I noticed that, despite her brashness in talking to me, she was still quite a bit nervous. So I added "And don't worry, I'm not gonna eat you." Her fear was visibly lessened at that, but it was replaced with another sort of nervousness.
"You...umm.. heard that?" She sounded embarrassed.
"Yup, and by the way, you forgot to mention that we have big ears too!" I said in my kid-voice (not baby talk, but similar) as I pointed to my ear.
"Well, I didn't really think you'd eat me. It's just something I heard at school."
"I heard you tell that to your mom. She's right you know, we really are just people that look different. And just like other people, some of us are nice and some aren't. I, however, am nice." I smiled my most innocent smile on that one. It took her a second to realize that I was smiling, and not planning on eating her again, but once she did, she relaxed quite a bit. She sat for a minute, soaking it all in, then continued her inquiry.
"So what's it like?"
"Being a Snow Leopard?" She looked puzzled, so I explained. "That's what I am, or what part of me is. When I got sick, I turned into a Snow Leopard. It's a big cat that lives in the mountains in Asia."
"Okaaay, but what's it like?" She was insistent.
"Well, it was strange at first. I had to learn how to walk on these new feet." I pulled up a paw to show her. "And I had to learn to use these new paws instead of my old hands." I held out a paw for her to examine. She took it and, cautiously, looked it over. "I even got these." I said, as I flex my paw and extended my claws. Her eyes opened wide for that. She was getting excited. "What about your tail?" She inquired farther.
"Heh, that really took some getting used to. It took me a while to learn how to balance with it. It's almost as long as I am."
"Can I see it?"
I brought it around for her to see. "In the mountains, the real Snow Leopards use their tails like scarves, to help keep their faces warm when they sleep. That's why it's so fluffy."
"Cool." She replied, and rightly so. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was "Cool."
"So," I asked her "do you have any pets at home?"
"Well, we used to have a cat, but we gave him away when we moved."
"Were you scared of your cat?"
"No! I loved my kitty!"
"Can I ask you why you were scared of me then?"
"Well...." She looked like someone about to impart ancient knowledge or something. "It's because of what people said."
"What did they say?"
"The kids at school said that you all eat people."
"But you didn't believe them, right?"
"No, I know they were just trying to scare me!"
"So what else did people say?"
"Well..." She was getting nervous again, like she was saying something she wasn't supposed to. "Mrs. Rizer said that...She was my Sunday school teacher....and she said that "All those animal people are nothing but demon and devil worshipers."" She did the last part in what I surmise was her best "big person" voice.
That made me angry. Hate mongering is one thing, but in a church and to little kids, no less! It's a good thing I never met this "Mrs. Rizer" face to face or well, I don't know, but she would've gotten a piece of my mind at the very least. I turned my attention back to Molly.
"That's not true." I told her adamantly. "Mrs. Rizer doesn't know what she's talking about. The Martian Flu is what turns people into animal people, and that has nothing to do with worshiping the devil."
"But she said that's why it happens. She said the animal people are all mean people and God is punishing them by turning them into animals."
"She's wrong. I'm not a bad person, and I got changed. I'm Christian and I go to church even. Besides, look at all the mean people who are still people. If God decided to punish the mean people, why didn't he punish all of them?"
"I didn't like what she said, but she said it was in the Bible and that it said God was doing this to punish people for being mean."
"Did she tell you where the Bible said that?"
"No, she just said" For the next part she shook her fist in the air and used her "big person" voice again "God has brought his raft on the evil animal people." I knew she meant "wrath" and not "raft", but didn't see any reason to point it out.
"Like I said before, she was wrong. The Bible doesn't say that. That's why she didn't tell you where it was in the Bible. God does let people get punished, but not by turning them into animals, and certainly not when they don't deserve it. Look at me, do you think I'm a bad person?"
"No, I guess not."
"But I'm a big fluffy cat anyway. I'm not being punished. God has a reason for letting this happen, he just hasn't told me yet."
"When's he gonna tell you?" I chuckled at that.
"I wish I knew. I don't though, and I guess it doesn't really matter. I just have to try and do the best I can with what I have." She seemed to sense the depth of that statement and we both sat in silence for a moment.
"So where are you goin'?" She started a new line of questioning.
"I'm actually going to visit my old home in Colorado. What about you?"
"Well, mommy and I are going to move in with my aunt in Denver."
"Why are you moving?"
"We used to live in Las Vegas, but then daddy got killed last year and mommy said we should move someplace new." I blinked a couple of times at that. She just revealed to me something that would count as more trauma then I'd probably experienced in my life, including SCABS. I can only imagine how a young child would take something like that. I figured that she might want to talk about it, being as she'd brought it up.
"How did that happen?" I inquired, hoping I wouldn't start her on a crying binge or something.
"Daddy used to drive a truck for the gas company. One night he had to go fix something real late. Mommy says that when he was driving back, that two big guys took him out of the truck and killed him. They took the truck and all his stuff too." She was surprisingly calm about all this, but she continued. "Why doesn't God punish them? He should turn them into turtles or roaches!"
"Did they get caught by the police?"
"No, the police said they didn't know who did it. It's not fair, daddy was nice and always went to church and worked real hard."
"I know it's not fair. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. It's the way life is sometimes."
"I still want those bad men to get hurt. I want them to be killed." The pain and anger were visible in her eyes.
"That's not a very nice thing to wish. You should never want people to be killed."
"I don't care. They deserve it. I want them to die!"
"Why? What good would it do? It wouldn't bring you daddy back. All that would happen is that their mommies or daddies would be sad."
"I don't care!"
"Is that fair? All those people, the mommies, daddies, brothers, and sisters, would be sad because of what you want. They didn't do anything mean, but you'd want them to get hurt too?"
"No. I... I just want the mean men to get hurt."
"But you can't do that. If they get hurt then the people that love them get hurt too." I noticed that the bus was pulling into a convince store parking lot. That meant I could get a snack and a much needed restroom. The one on the bus was, to say the least "cramped".
"Hmmph. I still say I want them to get hurt."
"Well, think about it from their mommies point of view. Pretend you were them, and some little girl wants to hurt your son. I'm going to go get something to eat. I'll be back in a few minutes." And with that, I got up and exited the bus. Molly was still looking frumpy as I went down the stairs.
The air was brisk, to say the least. I was glad I had a built-in fur coat. It felt really good to stretch my legs after the cramped bus ride. I savored the early morning (or is it late night?) air for a few minutes and then went inside. I took my queue at the facilities, then bought some Gatorade and a bag of cookies. Almost as an afterthought, I snagged a bottle of juice and a candy bar for Molly.
As I returned to my seat, I noticed that Molly's mother was still out cold. I approached my seat and saw Molly. She was sitting there, looking a bit more cheerful then when I'd left, and idly swinging her legs. She really did remind me of my cousins. She was all bundled up in winter wear and looked like she was ready to go skiing. I took my seat next to her and pulled out my snacks. When I offered her the juice and candy her eyes lit up like, well, like a kid in a candy store. The bus eventually got moving again, and so did our conversation.
"So, if you're a Snow Leopard, does that mean you like snow?"
"You could say that." I grinned. (I love snow) "I used to live in Colorado, and I went skiing all the time. I miss it a lot. How about you, you like playing in the snow?"
"I love snow. Mommy took us to Mt. Charleston one day and let us...me and my friend...she let us go sledding on this hill we found. It was kinda steep but Amy...she was my friend...but Amy said she would go down it if I did. So we both got on the sled and went down it. It was so much fun." She was nearly ecstatic. Her joy was simply radiating from her eyes, I couldn't help but smile as she continued. "After we got to the bottom, we both fell out. We were laughing so much. It was so much fun!"
"Sounds like it was a really fun day."
"Oh it was! We went up and down the hill all day. At first mommy would help us pull the sled back up but she started getting tired and we had to do it ourselves but we didn't care because we got to slide down again and again. Sometimes we'd fall out halfway down and slide the rest of the way on our snow pants and we'd end up in the bottom and we were all covered in snow and laughing and stuff. Sometimes when we fell in deep snow we'd just lay there and make snow angels. I love making snow angels. You can just lay in the snow and it feels all cold on your back and you move your arms and legs around a lot and if you're not careful you get snow in your gloves and boots and neck, but it's so much fun you don't care."
"You make it sound like so much fun." I was chuckling as I continued, "I'd forgotten how much I really miss snow and skiing and stuff. Did you and Amy ever go skiing?"
"No." She had that dejected look on her face. "Mommy thinks I'm too small, she says I'd fall out of the ski-lift. I really want to go skiing someday though. Maybe now that we're gonna live in Colorado she'll let me go skiing." Her eyes lit up a little as she found a new thing to hope for. "What's it like? You said you used to go skiing all the time, how fun is it?"
"Oh, it's very fun, but it can be kinda dangerous too. Sometimes you start going faster than you want to and it's hard to stop. As long as you learn how to do it right though, it's one of the most fun things in the world!" I went on to explain some of my earlier and more memorable skiing "trips", no pun intended. I related a few of the stories I'd collected over my years spent on the mountains, most of which involved near death experiences for some odd reason. I even told her about my then recent experiences trying to ski since I'd gotten SCABS. She was mesmerized, she kept asking questions and begging for more stories. She seemed to especially enjoy the tales where I ended up making human or Leopard shaped impressions in various local landscapes and flora.
We continued trading stories for what must have been several hours. Her with the incredibly happy tales of snowball fights, forts, sledding, etc. and me with my humorous accounts of gravity and snow induced mishaps. While it was by no means intellectual conversation, it was enjoyable to no end. I was having fun and that was a nice surprise for a bus trip that I'd earlier figured to be purgatory. The conversation eventually wound down and Molly ended up falling asleep in the seat next to me. I didn't mind except for the fact that I could no longer stretch out and sleep cat style. I spent the next hour or so sitting and just thinking. It was rather peaceful, even if I didn't get to actually sleep.
We ended up pulling into another connivence store around 5am or so. We were somewhere in Utah and, being winter, the sun was not gonna be making an appearance for another few hours yet. I decided I'd get off the bus and stretch a little. I wasn't hungry yet, but I decided to buy something while I had the chance, same logic for the restroom break. Since most of the bus was sleeping through this stop, the store wasn't as crowded and I got my stuff quickly. I decided to make good use of the remainder of our 20-minute stop. I figured a little exercise would help wake me up, so I decided to jog a few laps around the store. I did a couple bipedal, but then decided to stick my newly acquired food in my backpack and go full out. After putting my pack back on, I dropped to all fours and started a few sprints. I ran about 20 laps around between the parking lot and the small alley behind the store. I finally winded myself and chose to head back to the bus.
I stood back up onto two legs and headed towards the bus. I was in the alley behind the store and went around the side. On the side of the store is where they keep the dumpsters and a small fence to keep the dumpsters from being seen from the next lot. As I came around the side of the store I noticed that there were several large men in the shadows. (Yes, this is the "impending doom" portion of the story.) I knew this meant trouble, but decided to just get through and back on the bus. They would, of course, have none of this. As I attempted to pass they all moved into my path. There wasn't much anti-SCABS hate back then, but these guys must've been what the demographics people call "early adopters". I didn't know what they had planned, but I knew it wasn't good, especially for me.
I had been bullied a lot in grade school and even high school. I knew the drill. They would get in my way, say a bunch of stupid things and insults, then they'd try to get me to attack them. In the end, most bullies are too lazy to actually do anything to you. I decided this was gonna run the same way, so I proceeded with my part. I approached and one of them stepped directly in front of me. Phase one: complete.
He was a big smelly fellow. By big I mean he was about 7 feet tall, by smelly I mean he'd probably been rolling in manure and turpentine then scraped it off with some yak bladders and pig hooves. Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but he honestly reeked. Anyhow, he decided to open the conversation with "What are you doing here you cat...." He continued with various words relating to reproduction. Phase two: initiated.
I was in no mood for this. It was early morning, I'd had very little sleep, and I'd just worn myself out exercising. I tried to push on through, but was blocked by other equally smelly, but thankfully smaller brutes. The "leader" continued the verbal assault while the toadies basically prevented me from leaving and added the occasional "yeah!" to the fray. Phase three: initiated.
The big guy got right in my face. "I'm gonna teach you a lesson you explicative deleted Lion!" His mouth smelled worse than the rest of him. I swear, this guy must've made a regular habit of dining on fried goat cheese or something.
"I'm not a Lion, I'm actually a Snow Leopard." I informed him. Lesson one kiddies, never expose the ignorance of the "faculty". I ended up with a fist in my gut, and some cursing in my ears, for that one. These guys were serious, they were planning to pound me. I decided to make a run for the bus. It failed. I was still winded from my exercise, never mind the fist I'd taken in the gut. Needless to say, I didn't get the lightning start I'd hoped for, and was caught in the chest by a flunky's foot as I dove to all fours. As I keeled over in pain I looked towards the bus. I could only see the back half of it around the store, but I could see a few people in the windows. With a little luck I might have been able to get some attention, but the only ones I saw were sound asleep.
I started planning for a fight, knowing that even if I did make it near the bus that still didn't assure my safety. As I lay on the ground, I looked at my opponents. There were four of them total. The big guy I had described earlier, 2 middleweights, and a small guy. All were wearing heavy coats and 2 had hoods on. That would give me slight advantage, I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, being as my fur-coat was built in. They on the other hand, would certainly be encumbered by all the winter wear. I thought it would be easiest to dispatch the small guy first, but as I looked closer, I saw he was carrying something. He had what appeared to be a formidable sized piece of firewood. "Dang", I thought, I had claws, but one club to the head and it was gonna be game over. I still figured I had a good chance though. I didn't have to incapacitate them all, I just had to do enough damage to cover my escape. I prepared mentally.
The big guy came up and kicked me in the gut. That hurt. It knocked the wind out of me again. As I was gasping for air, he grabbed me by my shirt and hoisted me up to his face. I flexed my claws and had an idea. I could claw him right across the face, he'd be out of the fight, and it would take a few seconds for his flunkies to know what to do without orders. I couldn't decide. If I did this, that was it, it was on and I was in a real pickle if I failed. On the other hand, they were most likely going to just beat me up a little and then I'd be on my way to Denver. If I clawed him in the face, enough to give me my chance, it was quite likely that he'd never see again. Moral dilemmas are not fun.
Thankfully my decision was made for me. I extended my claws and, as he hoisted me higher, I brought my paw up to my side, preparing to strike. It was then that my decision was made. He hoisted me high enough that I could see over his head, and I saw the bus. In the bus window was Molly. Her face was pressed against the glass as she stared in horror at what was happening. I froze. I knew I couldn't do this with her watching. It would be messy, the guy would be picking up pieces of his face and would probably lose several pints of blood. I couldn't do that in view of little Molly. The gang leader noticed that my claws were extended and, as he obviously had no idea what they were capable of, taunted me.
"What are you gonna do? Scratch me? Is the little kitty-cat gonna scratch me?"
"No." I said, resigned. I lowered my paw and looked him in the face. "Why don't you just let me go and this'll be over." I knew he wouldn't go for that, but if I was gonna get a beating, at least I could be a genuine pacifist about it.
"What's a matter? You too scared to fight? You a fraidycat? Huh?" He continued. After a few more sentences in baby talk, he struck upon a term he seemed to think quite clever. It was a term that can refer to both being a wimp and being feline (amongst other things). His toadies obviously thought this was fairly clever too, as they started taunting me with it. "If this is all they're gonna do," I thought "then I'm fine." I was on the whole "sticks and stones" thing.
Of course that was not all they were gonna do, as their leader demonstrated by dropping me onto his knee. This was quickly followed by a blow to the head and other trauma ending with me being thrown against the wall between the dumpsters. He had made his point and decided to let the flunkies have their fun. They pounded me something awful. I was winded and bruised by the time they finished, but nothing seemed broken. That was when the leader came back.
"You know boys, I could use a new rug for my cabin..." He said this while twirling a newly drawn knife. He had been watching too many movies, and I was in serious trouble. He was going to use this knife. You could see it in his eyes. Most racists, and their like, are satisfied with harassment and are too cowardly to actually go as far as murder. This guy was not "most" however. He was going to kill me. In his mind I wasn't human, he was just killing an animal. The word "murder" probably never even entered his mind. The two middleweight guys also brought out knives and managed to both have the exact same grin as their leader.
I was really wishing I had made my move when I had the chance. Now they all had weapons drawn and I was beat up bad. I could barely breath, much less make a run for it. I have never been so scared in my life, before or since. I thought I might be able to make a jump for the roof. One of the benefits of my SCABS visage is a 20 foot vertical. I tried to go for it, but only got as far as learning that I couldn't even raise my leg. Jumping was out of the question. In my mind I was planning for my own death. I started praying, first for forgiveness, then for salvation from my current situation. As the guy with the knife moved in, I closed my eyes and prepared to accept my fate.
"NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!" A shrill voice rang out, it had a slight Doppler to it. "You can't hurt him, he's my friend." It was Molly. She came screaming around the corner, literally. I opened my eyes and saw that my would-be killers were looking at the cause of all this noise. She ran right into the midst of the whole thing, right up between the dumpsters to where I was. She threw her self onto me and held on for dear life. She squeezed so hard it hurt.
"You can't hurt him! He's my friend! I won't let you hurt him! You can't hurt him!" She screamed at the top of her lungs. She was already beginning to cry and her proclamations were interrupted by sobs and sniffles. The gang members were stunned, they didn't know what to make of this. Molly continued.
"I'm not gonna let you hurt him! Go away! He's my friend! Stop hurting him! I'm not gonna let you hurt him!"
The two guys flanking Mr. Big both lowered their knives. "Man, we can't do this." One of them intoned. The other nodded. "Come on Gabe, let's get out of here." He had addressed the big guy. It takes a skewed mind to so genuinely hate as these men did, but to harm a little girl takes a truly dark soul. These men still had at least part of their souls intact. Gabe, on the other hand...
"No way, I'm not gonna let this little explicative deleted stop me from gettin' my rug!" Gabe was determined to skin me.
"Come on! I mean, it's one thing to be gettin' these freaks," The toady continued, indicating me, "but I'm not gonna be hurting little girls!" Gabe gave no response. "That's it, I'm outta here man!" and with that, he took off into the night. The other flunky hesitated for a moment, then followed.
"Fine, I'll do this myself, you explicatives deleted!" Gabe yelled at his retreating comrades. This whole time Molly had been continuing her proclamations. She was not gonna give up either. As Gabe again approached me, she stood up turned toward him him. She managed to stifle her tears and looked straight at him. She gulped her tears and said, in the most calm voice I could I ever imagine, "I won't let you hurt him." Her jaw was quivering and she looked like she might collapse at any moment. Gabe approached her, and she showed no sign of backing down.
"If you don't get out of here you little really foul word deleted, I'm gonna slit your throat open. Now, go run home to mommy before I decide to have some fun with you." Gabe grinned like a sadist on the word "fun". I knew what he meant, he was already imagining many perverted things. He moved in closer and tossed his knife between his hands a few times.
"I won't let you hurt him." Molly said in her calm, little voice. Her body betrayed her though. She was quivering all over now. I tried to move to place myself between her and Gabe, but I could just barely drag myself. I couldn't maneuver around her at all. I tried to tell Molly to leave, and I pleaded with Gabe to let her go. I don't know if they even heard me, I was so weak I could hardly speak.
Gabe moved in with the knife and pressed the point of it up against Molly's throat. She flinched, ever so slightly. "I won't let you hurt him!" she said in the most angelic voice. She was going to die and it was all my fault. I had tried to spare her from witnessing carnage and it was gonna get her killed. By this time I was all-out crying. I could barely move, but every little sob hurt like Hades, both from the injuries and from the guilt.
Gabe drew the tip of his knife along her skin, toying with her. She just stood there. "I'm not...going to let you...hurt him!" She was sobbing and she had to grit her teeth to get the last part out. "Then you're going to die!" Gabe said as he grabbed her head and tilted it back. He placed the knife against her throat.
"CRACK" the sound of a club shattering Gabe's forearm. The knife slipped from Gabe's now limp hand, nicking Molly's throat and drawing one single drop of blood. I looked up and saw the small fry I'd seen earlier. He was standing there with the piece of firewood in his arm. He couldn't have been more than 14 or 15 years old. I mouthed "Thank You." He just nodded as Gabe turned to his attacker and attempted to return blow. The small guy was already off and running though. Gabe, now unarmed and injured, gave chase. Molly just collapsed right there.
A few seconds later I heard tires screeching and horns blaring. I also heard a very nasty sounding "thud". I would later learn that was the sound of Gabe making an impression in the front of a local cement truck. The flunky had run across the interstate and Gabe had followed, albeit with less success.
Molly, who had been in shock and on her knees, turned around and hugged me again. It hurt so bad, but it felt so good! We both broke down crying. After a few minutes I pulled Molly away from me, and held her at arms length so I could look her in the face. "Thank you!" I could barely get the words out between sobs. I put her forehead to my muzzle, approximating a kiss. I left a little bit of blood on her forehead. "You're a real little angel, you know that?" She just grabbed me around my neck and started sobbing again.
After a while we were found by Molly's mother. She had apparently woken up with all the commotion surrounding Gabe's demise, and was quite distraught when she couldn't find her daughter. Once she found that Molly was all right she calmed down a bit. Eventually the police arrived to take reports and such. The EMTs showed up too, but, knowing the price of a hospital visit, I declined. They gave me a once over though and warned me not to try anything drastic for the next few days. They said I was very lucky and that I had no broken bones or serious injuries, just lots of bruises and sprained leg. They cleaned up most of my wounds and then let me go.
By now the other passengers on the bus were quite upset at the delay. We still had a good 8 hours of driving in front of us and it was already 10am. The police finally allowed us to leave, saying that they'd be in touch. We all boarded the bus. As I limped to the back, I saw Molly, asleep, leaning on her mother. "That's one very special little girl you have there." I told her on my way to the back. She just smiled and said "I know." She did too. I found my bench and settled in for a long nap.
I woke to the sound of a man yelling. He was telling me to get off the bus. I had slept through the entire trip and the bus was empty. I sat up and looked around. No sign of Molly or her mom anywhere. As I stood up to disembark, something fell to the floor. I bent down to pick it up. It was piece of beige construction paper, folded into a card. I read it as I stepped off the bus. On the front it said "Get well soon." with a hand-drawn picture of a orange sun behind a squiggly cross. On the inside it stated "I hope you get better and can go skiing again soon. Love, Molly" All of it was written in 100 percent genuine crayon. I looked up and, blinking tears away, saw the most beautiful sight. The setting sun had formed a halo around the cross on the roof of a church across the street. I still have that card.
I was getting emotional just from the old memories I was digging up. I backed out of my minds storage closet.
"That was some story." Titania said. She was actually close to tears herself.
"Yeah, I'm just glad I don't have to go through things like that everyday." I said, trying to lighten the mood a bit. I noticed that Titania's friend had stopped reading while ago. I also noticed that she was approaching our table. Titania noticed too.
"Perhaps we should try this introduction thing again." She extended her paw. "Hi, I'm Janice."
I took her paw and decided to follow suit. "Hi, I'm James."
She looked to her friend. "And this is my frie...."
"Hi," Titania's friend said as she extended her paw. She had been looking down, but raised her face now. She had obviously been crying quite a bit. She wiped her face with the back of her other paw. As I shook her hand she looked straight at me and finished, "I'm Molly."
"...planning to march on the 24th of this month. Back to you, Dave. - In other news, the fireman's association had their annual polar bear swim this weekend. The participants comment that the water is "a real eye-opener" and caution that it's not for the feint of..."
Meanwhile back in reality...
"You're that Molly?" I finally managed to sputter. My brain was just returning from it's leave of absence and I was still a little confused.
"Yes," she said, still wiping her eyes, "I'm the little girl from the bus. I'm sorry I didn't mean to eves drop on you guys, but when....when you started that story..."
"It's okay," I assured her, "it's actually a good thing you did. This is amazing! I can't believe you're really her!"
"Yup, I'm really her. I can't believe I'm actually seeing you again. I never forgot that night you know."
"Neither did I. It must be what? 19, 20 years ago maybe? Oh, I'm sorry, how rude of me. Here have a seat." I pulled out a chair for her and we all sat down to continue this rather amazing reunion. "I'm really, well, I'm quite blown away by this still."
"This is really amazing, you know... You know you saved my life that night."
"And you saved my soul." I looked at her quizzically, she continued. "Do you remember how angry I was when we were talking about my father's death? How I wanted to kill the men responsible?" I nodded. "You kept telling me that it wasn't right to feel that way, but I just didn't see how you could be any other way. It was "fair", they killed him so they should die, I just couldn't see it any other way. That was, until... until I saw you getting ... beat up that night. You didn't fight back."
"I know, like I told it in the story, it really was because I saw you in the window, I didn't want you to have to see that kind of violence."
"I know, but what you don't know is... Well, when I was watching through the window, I was, in my mind, wanting you to beat them all up. I was cheering for you practically. I saw you raise your paw when you were getting ready to claw that big guy, and I was ecstatic. I was venting my rage through you. I was angry, angry at the men that killed my father, and then, angry at the men attacking you. I was actually imagining seeing you rip their heads off. It gave me some sick relief to picture that in my mind. I was grinning in the window as I saw it in my mind. In my mind there was blood everywhere, and it felt...good."
"Wow, that's...ummm... Wow!"
"Yeah, I was really thinking sick thoughts, but then I saw you drop you hand. You went limp like you just gave up. I thought they'd hit you in the back or something. I waited for a minute, but then I saw them beating the snot out of you, then you got thrown behind the dumpster where I couldn't see you. I kept expecting you to leap up any moment and start ripping heads off again. You didn't appear and I suddenly realized what you were doing. I realized you weren't going to fight back. All of a sudden I felt really guilty. I remembered what you'd told me earlier. That part about imagining it from the point of view of the villain's family. I realized that this whole time that I had been rooting for you, as I was expecting you to do something violent. That whole time, I was watching it from the losing side of the game. All of a sudden I realized that pain you had been telling me about. About how it feels from the other side of the fence. Then when I saw one of the men pull out a knife, it all crystalized in my mind. You were going to die because I had been sitting there, cheering for the violence, simply because I thought I was on the winning side. The guilt I felt at not having done anything when I first saw the fight start, it was tremendous. I ran out the bus nearly at the point of tears."
I smiled a little. "Heh, I heard you coming from about a mile away. You came screaming around that corner like a banshee."
"Maybe so, but I was determined. I had already lost my father, and now I was about to see a new friend get killed because I had been selfish. I wasn't going to let that happen."
"And you didn't. And for that, I am eternally grateful."
"But it was my fault you were there in the first place, if I'd just gone and gotten help when it first started..."
"Or if I hadn't egged them on. Or if I hadn't gone to stretch my legs. Or if... Or if... Ad nauseam. It doesn't matter why, the past happened, and we could spend eternity debating "ifs". I still mean it, Thank You!"
"In that case, Thank You!"
We sat in silence for a minute, then Janice chimed in, "That really is an amazing story you guys. So tell me, does this have any thing to do with why you picked the name "Angel?" She asked Molly.
"Actually," Molly replied, "it does." She turned to me. "Do you remember what you said to me behind the dumpster, after it was over?"
"Yeah, I called you a little guardian angel."
"No, not quite anyway. That's the part I remember very clearly. You said "You must be my little guardian snow angel." And, FYI, my full name is "Snow Angel", but most people just shorten it to "Angel".
"Really?" I said in mock surprise, "So tell me, oh lucent one, what other things did I get wrong?"
"Oh, you didn't mess up too much", molly said with a grin, "but that guy you called "Gabe", he was no where near seven feet tall. He was probably 5'10" at the most and a little on the pudgy side too. Oh, and it wasn't that cold out that night."
"Okay, okay!" I held up my hands in surrender. "Can't a guy embellish a little?" Queue my lopsided smirk.
"Tell you what," Janice decided she'd had enough, "Why don't you guys stay here and debate semantics or whatever. I'm gonna go get myself a little walk and some food." She was good natured about it and left the bar for the concourse.
Molly and I talked for quite a while, a lot about that night, and a lot more about what had happened since. After that unforgettable bus ride, her mom and her had settled into Denver. She, with a little help for her aunt, had convinced her mom to let her try skiing the next winter. She had grown up in a nice neighborhood in the Denver suburbs, and she went skiing every year. After she graduated high school, she went to OU for pre-law. After that she got a scholarship and a law degree from Harvard. She'd decided to join up with several charities, providing free services whenever possible. She joined WSCRS about 10 years ago. 2 years later she contracted SCABS herself. She said, and I quote, that "I was overjoyed when they told me what I was turning into. Ever since I'd met you, I'd always prayed that, if I got SCABS, that I'd get to be a Snow Leopard." She also teased me a bit about how she got the better bargain. She informed me that she could still type fast, draw, and walk upright (plantigrade, no less!).
After a while Janice came back. Their flight was gonna be leaving in a little while and they needed to start checking in. I exchanged contact info with both of them and we started saying our goodbyes.
"It was nice to see you again Molly. And, Janice, it was a real pleasure to meet you. I hope I didn't bore you too much with my long story."
"No, I really did enjoy it, it was just all that catching up you guys did afterwards that I couldn't stand." She was obviously being sarcastic for the latter part. We all stood in silence for a moment.
"You know, I was just...thinking..." Both Molly and I said it at the exact same time, which was quite eerie. "You first." I decided.
"OK. Well, I was just thinking you know. About all that "purpose to everything" stuff you were talking about. Anyhow, I think I just realized something. You know how you were saying you didn't know when God would tell you "Why" that night?" I nodded. "Well, I know why. If you'd never gotten SCABS, the you'd never have been on the bus that night, or if you were, I wouldn't have had any reason to talk to you. Anyhow, if I'd never met you, I would still be bitter about my father's death. I would probably never have gone to law school and I certainly wouldn't be helping out WSCRS. On top of all that, I would probably never have been really happy."
I couldn't contain my laughter. It was that laughter where you're so happy, you're almost crying. "I was thinking almost the same thing. I was thinking that I know why God let you're father die. If he hadn't died, you would never have been on that bus and I never would've met you. If I hadn't met you then there would've been no one to see me beside the store that night, and I, quite probably, would be dead right now." I paused for a moment. "Then there's the simple fact that we actually ran into each other all these years later. Maybe this was just so we could get those answers." Everyone nodded a little and then stood in silence for a moment.
"I'd like to propose a toast." I said as I lifted my belogoed paper cup. "To Mysterious Ways!"
"To Mysterious Ways!" They both replied. And with that, we bumped our overpriced little cups together and drank our flat soda with the melted ice. We knew it couldn't last, we all had planes to catch and places to go. But for one, brief, shining moment, The Universe made sense.
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