|This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims -- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for short. Some people see SCABs as a problem -- and some have exceptionally radical solutions for this perceived problem...
Go here for more information on the setting.
The Downward Spiral
by the TBP Round-Robin Collective
©2005 the TBP Round-Robin Collective -- all rights reserved
Christmas Nightmare (Chapter 2, part i)
It was Christmas at the ol' homestead, as they say.
Even at this late hour -- almost 11 pm already? -- the various adult relations who were staying overnight were keeping the Christmas cheer going, getting things ready for all the nephews and nieces in the morning.
A familiar shape swished by heading to the kitchen. I still chuckled at the sight of the stripes on Mom's skunk tail; she'd dyed them green and red. I'm still not sure who decided to set up family gatherings here after Grandma's health had gotten too bad a couple years ago, but I've never seen her complaining. Grandma certainly doesn't miss the extra headaches.
Still chuckling, I turned back to my laptop and checked my email. I was sure of the test results, but I still couldn't wait to see if my friend got around to posting it before things shut down. He promised me I'd see the results before the docs did on Monday or Tuesday.
There, in the inbox, was the email I was waiting for.
After typing in the encryption key, it opened immediately. Skimming through the Latinized polysyllables, I found the relevant test results;
"Martian FLU type A through jJ: Negative. SCABS: Negative."
Ah well, just as I thought. I still don't know why they have mandatory tests like this when anyone at a workplace comes down with SCABS. That's like locking the door after the horses have flown, so to speak. In the greater scheme of things, I needed a break from work anyway. A few extra days off from work didn't hurt, and gave me more than just a weekend to visit my parents. Maybe I could go home early and celebrate the holiday a little late with my friends. Don't get me wrong, I love my parents, but I felt a closer kinship to the regulars at the Pig.
Somehow I feel like I belong, surrounded by people where 'normal' is the exception, not the rule. Of course, the animorph SCABs also match what feels right to my... condition. It was a little touchy at first, but many of them recognized my sincerity, even delight, in accepting them as sentients. You cannot lie to someone with a working animal nose.
The first sign I was truly one of them came when I dozed off for some suspicious reason, and I woke up with horseshoes glued to my sneakers and a feedbag with my name on it around my neck. Too bad I couldn't keep the tail...
I leaned back after closing the mail, and thought about the reason for this round of tests. At least my boss is in a position to keep control of his company; his SCAB-friendly attitude let him hire the best that other studios had thrown out on their butts, and the pay scale for all of us jumped with each success. Anyone trying to force him out would have to deal with all of us -- the SCABs for obvious reasons, and us non-SCABs because we love the pay and perks too much to let some bean-counter take over.
Since customer contact with us animators was rare, not many outside the studio were aware that the quality entertainment and commercials we made were partly done by SCABs.
As touchy as things were of late, what with that Councilman Barnes scandal and Human Firsters stirring up trouble, James might have to advance one of us Norms as a VP for our customers to deal with. Not that he's going to cry a river over missing that part of his job.
He's taking being a morph-locked Friesian stud pretty well.
There must be something to the idea that the Flu sometimes picks up on subconscious cues. Our logo is a stylized black horse, by James' choice. I think he even has a small stable of Friesians upstate.
Sighing, I squelched a bout of envy before it could ruin my mood. Being a Species Dysphoric is bad enough at the best of times. Watching SCABS hit people I know get struck time and again while missing me is a cruel twist. Either someone's got terrible aim, or has a sick sense of humor...
Dammit, just be happy for him! He's actually pleased with how handsome he looks. That's one of the reasons you chose to work for someone who is a furry fan. He wouldn't go ape if you got your wish. It may have been his as well...
Just as I finally got back in a cheerful mood, my message icon flashed red. An emergency? Now? I clicked it, bringing up a note from a co-worker, Jack Haas.
>Hoss? Bad news! Attacks on SCABS here. The PIG's been hit! GoTo INN.
Clicking open InstantNews Network came in on the middle of a report. The reporter was IDed by text as 'Ms. Nancy Yordan'.
"...No numbers have been confirmed. Reports are filtering in of an attack on a nationally known nightspot as well as several residences and shelters in the same district. It is unclear at this time who started the conflict. There are conflicting reports of some copycat crimes elsewhere as our cable network associates broadcast these scenes."
The whole time she spoke, grainy flash-cut scenes were looping: A burned-out van, snow stained pink with blood, holes in a wall, a Norm corpse being zipped up, neck dangling at an unnatural angle, other shots of corpses going by, and a kangaroo SCAB body-slammed into a patrol car trunk, then a shot of his terrified face through the window as the car sped off.
My heart dropped in horror at the sheer unadulterated bias of whoever edited that footage. It would be like showing the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto as the aggressors.
That cop didn't do himself any favors -- I mean, brutalizing SCABs in front of a known SCAB hangout? Real bad move. And doing it on camera for all the world to see, well, that's just gilding the lily. Hope for his sake that he loses his badge before his next patrol, or his body might never be found...
I watched the news until the laptop chimed 1 AM, but it was just the same report over and over, as that was all they had so far. Sighing, I shut down the connection, then the laptop itself.
When I went to my old bedroom, I prayed everyone I knew was safe, and had the restraint to not dish out payback.
I drifted off knowing that was a vain hope.
Suddenly, I'm awake -- it's quiet! Too quiet! We're not moving! Where's Amanda? I burst out of my 'den' and look out the windows. My alarm subsides: We're parked at the 128-mile-marker interstate highway rest area. Judging from the night sky, I've slept for three, maybe four hours.
Amanda must be taking a bathroom break. Hmmm... not a bad idea, actually. As they say in the military, 'Never miss an opportunity to sleep or urinate.' Even though there are only four vehicles parked here, I decide to wear my collar; no sense in frightening people by looking exactly like a wild puma walking into the Rest Area Men's Room. It takes me only a minute to hook my collar out of the glove box with a claw and pull it over my head in position around my neck. The miracle of stretchable fabrics. If the matted fur didn't itch so badly, wearing it would almost be comfortable...
Once outside the van, I can properly stretch. I yawn as I extend my forelegs, then my hind legs, arch my back up, arch my back down, arch my tail. Ah -- that feels so good! The leafless shrubs lining the inside edge of the sidewalk are loaded with odors; each one tells a story. I stop and investigate the more interesting scents before moving. Wait -- did I just spray that last shrub as I walked past it? Sheesh. I need to get a better grip on these urges... Well, at least nobody else is outside.
Once entering the building's lobby, I hear two voices -- Amanda's and a man's -- coming from the Women's Room. There is no good reason I can think of for a man to be in there.
I recognize her tone of voice. Poor guy! He don't know her very well, do he? Padding silently up behind him, then rearing up on my hind legs and stretching to my full length vertically, I quietly growl, "Excuse me, sir! I really think you should listen to her!"
He spins around and sees the state officer badge hanging from my collar. Then I show him my 'special' carnivore smile -- the one which gives him a totally unobstructed view of my inch-and-a-half-long canine teeth a mere 12 inches from his face. His face turns a pale ashen color. "Sir, somehow I doubt you are a custodial technician for this facility. You could be charged with a class three misdemeanor for just being in this part of the Rest Area."
"Michael! You don't have to rescue me!"
I reply without losing my focus on the man. "I know. I've seen your workouts. You're not the person I'm worried about. Did he do anything chargeable?"
"No -- nothing a prosecutor could use."
"Well then, sir, this is your lucky night! May God speed you on your journey during this Holy Night." Not a total moron, he takes this as his cue to scurry out the lobby door headed for his car. He doesn't appear to hear my closing remark, "And Merry Christmas to you!"
I drop back down on all four feet and say, "I'm glad we didn't need to write and file an arrest report." Then, sniffing the air: "Besides, he won't be bothering anyone for a while. At least not until he changes his skivvies."
"You're awful," Amanda says with a giggle, "scaring him that badly."
"Who? Me?" I say with my best innocent feline expression. "I originally came in here intending to use the Men's Facility, and I still need to void." With that, I zip through the Men's Room doorway.
Five minutes later I'm standing at a sink, washing my forepaw pads. Infrared-sensing controls on the faucets and towel dispensers make everything 'No Touch'. This activity doesn't make any sense, considering I now walk on all fours, but some habits never die.
I see Amanda waiting for me in the lobby; she's inspecting the selections in the vending machines. "Do you want anything?"
The vending machines have nuts, chips, candy, cupcakes, and trail mixes -- no meat. Nothing smells appetizing. "No thanks. I think I'll wait until we stop for real food. But I could use something to drink. Any cola without sugar and caffeine will be fine."
Once we're outside, I walk alongside Amanda on the sidewalk. I'm exploring the snowdrifts in the picnic area. There's something about perambulating in snow with these large paws which is exhilarating. No wearing boots which get clotted with snow; no foundering; it feels like floating on a cloud! Sometimes, this new body does have its good points...
I hear Amanda sniff. "Something smells pungent along the sidewalk."
"Really? I don't smell anything unusual." It wasn't a lie, technically. I really didn't smell anything, since I was purposely remaining upwind of a certain shrub.
"Come over here where you can get a whiff of it."
Groaning inwardly, I leap out of the picnic area; it's a bounce over a table and a bound over the shrubs, topping it off with a perfect four-point landing next to Amanda. Sniffing the air, I say, "Yes, it's piquantly scented all right."
I change the subject as we walk back to the van: "I couldn't help noticing we've only traveled 80 miles. How bad are the highway conditions?"
"Slow going. Some parts are very treacherous -- I had trouble controlling the van over 20 MPH! This stretch of highway hasn't been plowed yet."
We certainly didn't want to go much further tonight, then... "How about this? At the next exit, there's a truck stop with a good dinner buffet. I frequented it a lot before contracting SCABS, and a few times since. We could get some real food while we wait for the highway department to finish. Might even catch the broadcast news from their TV lounge. You could get some sleep while I drive."
"Dinner sounds good, but I don't think I could relax enough to sleep."
"Come on, my driving isn't that bad!"
"I am a light sleeper."
I pop open the driver's door and press a switch on the seat. Motors shift the butt- and back-supports around so I can sit in it cat-style. In a way, it's too bad my anatomy isn't human anymore. Seatbelts won't work on me now, and no effective restraint system has been developed for my puma body shape yet. They've tried various kinds of breastcollar-harness arrangements, but so far, not one has been found to be safe.
I settle in with my chest on the seat cushion. Once I free my forelegs, a few precise jabs at the combination pad is all that's needed to unlock the ignition and start the engine. A move of the controls places the van in reverse. Once clear of the parking space, I flick another switch and the van is in forward. Soon we are accelerating down the entrance ramp.
"Would you mind using the headlights?"
"Oh... right. Sorry," I mumble as I switch on the headlamps. What can I say? With my kind of night-vision, it's easy to forget to switch the things on...
The cop talked all the way to the station. I had to hear just about every derogatory remark ever directed at SCABs come out of his mouth. Freak, abomination, animal, furface, and a few more I'll leave to your imagination. It's funny, but I never really paid much attention to such things before. It's human nature to disregard insults when they're slung at others, I suppose. But now, for the first time, I finally understood what a SCAB felt like when he heard someone say these things.
The big jerk wasn't any easier on me when we arrived, either. He treated me like a dangerous criminal all the way, shoving me through the door and slamming me into the front desk. For God's sake, I'm just a kid!
But I just killed somebody. Should I really expect anything less after what I've done?
No -- I don't deserve this! It was an accident, and not one that I plan on repeating! And it's not like I'm a dangerous psychopath. I'm not going to turn around and rip someone's head off.
But trying telling that to this guy...
"Book 'im!" the cop said to the duty sergeant.
"What's the charge?" he asked, wide-eyed, probably surprised to see a police officer with a kangaroo in his custody.
"Murder and non-compliance with an officer," he answered.
My heart sank at hearing those words. "I didn't murder anybody!" I cried. "It was self-defense!"
"We'll see about that," he sneered. Then he shoved me down a hallway and through a door into what looked like an interrogation room. I'd seen enough movies to know what one looked like, but it was still a shock for me to be in one. A small table with two chairs in the center of the room; nothing on the cracked white walls except a long mirror, probably one-way.
He left the room and locked the door behind him, leaving me to my own devices. Rubbing my hands together, I began to pace around the room, frightened to do anything else. The walls all seemed to close in on me, caging me like an animal. I wanted to cry out, but I knew it would be futile. This place was a prison in and of itself, and the only way I was getting out was if someone let me out. And it didn't look like that would happen any time soon.
The full reality of what was occurring was beginning to dawn on me. I didn't want to believe, tried to deny it, but it was nothing if not self-evident now. I'd been charged with murder -- what if it stuck? What if no one believed me because of what I was?
I walked over to the door, staring at it. Longing for it to open. Wishing for someone to walk through and tell me I was free to go. That a terrible mistake had been made. I begged for something to happen. Anything.
It didn't budge.
Lowering my head, I stepped back, wiping some dirt off what remained of my clothes. God, this room stunk of desperation! It smelled of broken spirits, of smashed lives. I felt unclean just breathing the air.
As I traversed the room, I had to seriously ask myself: Am I a ruthless killer? Of course my first response was no -- but does any murderer ever really think that they are one? Maybe this is what murder is -- a stupid decision made on the spur of the moment that results in the loss of someone's life.
I shook my head. No, that can't be all it takes. I would never just do something like that to a fellow human being. Callously steal another man's life? No, it was an accident. I know that. I didn't want to kill that man, and I only attacked him because he was trying to kill a fellow SCAB. I'm not a hero, and I'm not a monster. I just saw injustice, and I refused to be a victim.
Justice, I guess that's the word I'm looking for. Deep down, I wanted to believe that justice would prevail, but I felt I was kidding myself. Lots of innocent people have gone to prison or worse throughout history; why should I be any different?
It seemed like an eternity before the door opened again. My spirit sank at the sight of the same officer stepping back inside.
He pushed me down into the seat, and I landed directly on my bruised tail. Biting my lip to restrain the pain, I felt acid eat through my nerves as my tail crumpled behind me in the seat, the pain only ceasing once my tail slid through the hole in the chair between the seat and the backrest.
What have I done to deserve this treatment? Killed somebody, I bitterly reminded myself. But even killers have to be treated a certain way, and I sure as hell wasn't any mad-dog murderer! Don't I have rights? Don't I deserve to be regarded with care when in custody? Would somebody normal be treated this same way? Aren't there procedures to prevent this type of cruelty? What's the matter with this man?
He was on edge since I first saw him, and I sure didn't want to do anything to further agitate him. While he could be held accountable for anything that he does to me, that wouldn't help me any if he's already torn me apart.
Okay: This man obviously doesn't like SCABs, so he probably wouldn't even think twice about doing any serious damage to me. He doesn't even think I deserve to be treated like a human being, so it's possible he might even kill me and not think anything about it...
"All right, you mutated bastard," he spat, his words slicing my ears. "I want to know everything that happened at that bar tonight. But first, I want to know your name!"
He doesn't need to know my name! I'm innocent! I thought those words over and over as I shook in my seat, his cold stare weighing on me like a boulder.
"You're going to tell me your name, you understand me?" he snarled. "If you want your precious phone call, you're giving me your name. Otherwise, I may just throw you in a holding tank right now. Remember, it's Christmas Eve, and the judge may not be in for a few days."
Every bit of me was fighting the temptation to give up my name. Right now my anonymity was the only thing keeping me safe. But at the same time, if I didn't tell him my name, it might jeopardize my chances of getting out of the station.
"Steve," I , said. "Steve Carson."
He smiled. "Well, Mister Carson, my name is Officer MacPherson. Now, would you mind telling me what happened at the Blind Pig tonight?"
I let out a short breath, trying to remain as calm as possible. "I don't know. I wasn't inside the bar."
"What do you mean, 'you weren't in the bar'?"
"I was walking down the street. I heard gunshots," I said. "I saw some people opening fire on a group of SCABs. I rushed over to stop them, kicked one of them. And then a whole bunch of other SCABs showed up and help me disarm them."
He shook his head. "You expect me to believe that!? You're just some good Samaritan, minding your own business, and you decide out of the blue to help some strangers? No, sir. I don't buy it. You were in that bar, weren't you?"
I grunted. "I was heading there. I'd never been to the Blind Pig, and I decided to go and socialize just once."
He took a step back and kicked over the chair in front of him. "Don't lie to me, you furry freak! It's one of the few SCAB-friendly businesses in town, and you want me to believe you've never been in there before? You and your SCAB buddies have been planning to attack humans for some time now, haven't you?"
"What the hell are you talking about!?" I said, wide-eyed at his accusations.
"You know exactly what I'm talking about! I can throw you in jail right now and let you rot there until Monday."
This infuriated me. "I have rights, damn it! You can't treat me like this!"
"Animals don't have rights," he snapped. "If you don't start telling me the truth, I'll make you pay. When I'm finished, you'll beg me to go back to treating you like I did earlier."
That outburst left me completely speechless. Part of me wanted to jump across the table and rip his throat out; the other part wanted to curl up into a ball and seek protection. I decided to try and reason my out of this.
"I'm not going to say another word without a lawyer," I said, crossing my arms.
He grabbed the table and flipped it over, a loud crack filling the room, and got right in my face. "I'm not playing with you, SCAB! You murdered a human being tonight, and you get nothing until you confess!"
"I didn't murder anyone!" I screamed, my eyes beginning to moisten. "He was trying to kill people! I just wanted to stop him!"
"You're full of shit!" he shot back. "All you had to do was disarm him. You wanted to kill him! You better start telling the truth or I'm going to make your life miserable, you understand?"
"MacPherson!" a voice boomed from the now-open doorway; a plain-clothed officer stood there, his eyes shooting daggers at my antagonist. "What the hell are you doing? You were told not to come back in here."
"Stay the hell out of this, Lieutenant!" Officer MacPherson said. "This piece of shit is my collar!"
The lieutenant stormed into the room and grabbed MacPherson by his shirt, yanking him out of the room and into the hallway. I could hear them shouting at one another, their angry shadows cast on the wall like a deranged puppet show. Little sound bites came into the room, each trying to one-up the previous one. Conflicting reports. SCAB. Female officer. Brutality.
The shouting match eventually ended with MacPherson's shadow pointing his finger at the lieutenant's. "You just watch yourself. Sir. Time's going to come when you'll have to decide whose side you're on, ours or theirs. And don't forget that there's a chance someone might not be there for you on the street when you need them."
All of a sudden, there was a loud "Oof!" followed by the unmistakable sound of something hitting the floor. I heard someone gasping for breath, and the sound of footsteps slowly walking away.
I sat slack-jawed in the chair, unable to believe what had just occurred. There was a deadly silence, and then a rattling sound followed by a clunk. After a moment, the lieutenant walked into the room with a can of Sprite. He walked over, handed me the soda, and then set the table back up properly.
I tried to open the can, but my claws kept me from getting a grip on the pull tab.
The officer took the can from me and popped the top before handing it back. "There you go," he said.
"Th-thank you," I said meekly, taking a quick sip.
The officer walked over and stood next to me, giving me a quick and professional once-over. "That bastard roughed you up pretty bad, didn't he?" He pointed at my tail, which was by now quite swollen where it had been caught in the car door.
I didn't respond to that; I just looked at the table as I set down my drink.
After a moment's awkward silence, he sighed. "Okay. My name is Lt. Hallsworth," he said, "and I'm here to let you know a few things." he said. His tone was straightforward, but with a hint of compassion. "We've talked to several witnesses, and all of them say you weren't in the Pig tonight. So that part of your story checks out. Now, have you ever seen any of those shooters before tonight?"
I shook my head. "No, sir. I didn't know any of them."
He nodded and then walked over to the other side of the table, picking up the chair and then taking a seat in it. "You told a SCAB named Mike Carson that you attacked the shooters after witnessing them open fire on some other SCABs, correct?"
I shuddered; I didn't want to be reminded of what had happened. "Y-yes. I came in when they were chasing a wounded SCAB down an alleyway, shooting at him. I missed the beginning of the attack, but common sense told me what was going on."
"And you killed one man in the alleyway when he tried to shoot you?"
I lifted my hands, my lips trembling. "I swear to you officer, I never wanted to kill that man! If I could undo what I've done, I would. Please believe me."
Hallsworth waved me to silence. "It's okay, son. Based on testimony from several witnesses, plus some of the shooters, they attacked the bar and intended to kill every SCAB they could and burn the place to the ground. If you hadn't acted, they might have actually killed someone tonight."
"You mean, no SCABs were killed?" I interrupted.
He shook his head. "There's two in the hospital -- animorphs, a leopard and a lion. But they're in stable condition and should pull through. I have to commend you, son. What you did took guts."
I looked down at the table again. "It was stupidity. Plain stupidity. I reacted without thinking, and could have gotten killed." I exhaled and then looked him in the face. "Am I... am I charged with something? I'd like to know right now, if I am."
He shook his head again. "Based on our initial investigation, no. Your actions were justified. And let me assure you, Internal Affairs will look into Officer MacPherson's actions, which went far beyond any kind of justifiable procedure. His authority never extended to handcuffing you without reading you your rights, which were further violated by how he treated you after you were in his custody. And to put the cherry on the sundae, the idiot booked you on trumped-up charges! Even if you actually were guilty of something, any D.A. who tried to prosecute you would have an absolute legal nightmare on his hands. Frankly, you could sue the department right now if you wanted to."
"I don't want money. I just want to know I'm safe. I told that, uh, MacPherson my name."
"Don't worry, I'll take care of him if he starts any trouble. But what he did will probably cost him his badge anyway."
I smiled, half-heartedly but a smile nonetheless. He smiled too, and stood up. "Good news: Your parents will be at the station in a few moments. When they heard on the radio that a kangaroo SCAB had been arrested, they knew it was you. Steve Carson is your name, correct?"
"Any relation to the orangutan SCAB from tonight?"
I shook my head. "No relation. Just a coincidence."
He nodded. "Had to ask. Listen, Steve, you can leave right now, but can you do me a favor? Could you please stick around for a few more minutes? The department would like someone to come down here and speak to you."
My eyes slid sideways in disbelief. More interviews? How many cops are going to want to talk to me?
He must have read my expression because he quickly reassured me.
"Don't worry, she's not a police officer. She just wants to get some more details from you."
I thought about it for a second. I really wanted to leave... but if I could help the police find the people responsible, I might as well stay for a few more moments.
"Okay," I answered. He started to walk out the door, but I called to him. "Lieutenant? Thank you."
He gave me a weary smile. "You're welcome. Us cops are like SCABs: Not all of us are monsters."
I matched his smile. If nothing else, maybe something good can come out of this night. I wanted to know what it's like to be a SCAB, alright.
And now that I do know... maybe I can work up the nerve to change some things.
Was it good to be back? Did I feel better being able to see the place where I spent five years of my life helping to destroy the gangs of this city?
The answers were 'no' and 'no'. I hate being here; not because of any bad experiences in this building, though. I've never had anything but good memories of the precinct, and although some of the people in it were less than savory, I'd never have wanted anything more than to keep working here.
The reason I hate being here is because I can never again be a part of it. I can only visit, and then only at the request of someone in the organized crime task force. And even when I'm asked to come here, it isn't like it was before. When I come here now, there's only two people who see me as anything more than an outside advisor; not a friend, not a comrade, and (in the eyes of certain people) probably not even human.
Well, screw them all. I'm not here for them. I'm here because Terry wants my help, and Terry is probably the last human friend I have.
I walked down the hallway, trying to keep my fairly long tail from swinging and thus hitting anyone I walked by in the hall.
While the Martian Flu cost me my job, it could have hit me a lot worse. SCABS left me with the characteristics of a species of dinosaur known as parasaurolophus, a very large bipedal herbivore from the upper Cretacious. Not being a paleontologist before my change, I didn't used to know what a parasaurolophus was, or what one even looked like. So seeing myself in the mirror for the first time was a little... weird, I guess would be the word.
At first I hadn't even recognized that that... face... belonged to a dinosaur. Parasaurolophus has a large tubular extension out the back of its duck-billed reptilian head, a fairly unique arrangement among even the hadrosaurs who all have some type of bony crest coming out of their skulls. And, of course, finding out that I had this damn tuba -- made of bone, not brass -- permanently attached to the back of my head hadn't made that first experience any less weird.
They say SCABS works everyone over differently, and I guess that's true. I may be cold-blooded and have the head and tail of a dinosaur, but overall, my body's anatomy stayed pretty much the same. Which was (again) weird, seeing as how most female reptile-morphs lose the mammary glands -- that is, they get flat chested. Not this lizard! Externally speaking, I'm pretty much a thirty-year-old human female -- except for my clawed, three-toed feet; my tail; the musical instrument I call my head; and the dark-green leathery stuff I got in place of soft pink skin.
Like I said, the 'Flu went easy on me. As a herbivore, I don't need to worry about the kind of instincts that drive some predator-type SCABs to munch on anything that moves; as a real big herbivore, thirty-odd feet in length from head to tail, I never feel panicky around predators like most other prey species do. Hell, I can even change into a full-size parasaurolophus -- and when I do, I could squish any of those so-called 'kings of the jungle' under my left foot and not even notice! When I go totally dino, the only species I really have to fear are carnisaurs, with their big teeth (overcompensation for small brains), and humans, with their big guns (overcompensation for being small and squishy... among other things). Too bad it takes me five hours to make the change, either direction. That's mostly why I don't spend a lot of time wearing that form.
As I turned a corner I saw Terry standing beside a door -- marked 'Interrogation' -- obviously waiting for me. He looked up and I pretended to flinch at the sight of his face. I was all set to make with a 'that face is so ugly it should be a crime for it to be in public' remark, but he beat me to the punch. "Wow, Elizabeth! Is it just me, or are you still as beautiful as you were the day I fired you?" Terry asked, with feigned awe in his voice. He had his hands in his pockets; expensive pockets, in an even more expensive suit, whose owner drove a car only a little less expensive than his three-bedroom apartment.
"Speaking of overcompensation..." I muttered, under my breath but still loud enough that he could hear me. He smiled and put one hand to his chest as if to say who, me? Of all the things I missed about the precinct, not having an excuse to see Terry every day was what hurt the most.
The pleasantries were over -- time for business. "There's someone I want you to meet," Terry said, aiming his pointed chin at the door he was next to. Or maybe he was looking down his nose at something. Sometimes it's hard to tell, the way Terry's face is built.
Someone the police were already questioning. And considering what was headlining the news of late, odds were it was a Scab or a terrorist. "Who is he?" I asked.
"He's one of the Scabs from the bar. His name would be Steve." I turned to look back at Terry, saw he was looking at me as well.
"Fine. What do you need me here for, then? Do you want me to see what I can find out from him? Hoping he might open up better to a fellow Scab then he would to a human?" I asked. Terry shook his head. So what is his game? I thought.
"We already have a fairly good picture of what happened. As soon as we get done with the kid here, I'm going to let all the Scabs go." Terry said. "But this one's got some problems right now. I was thinking you could help him with that." Then he waited for me to say what he knew I was going to say.
"I'm not a damn therapist, Terry! It doesn't put food on the table to help people with their feelings." I don't know why I even bothered saying it. If it was anyone else asking I would have just left, but it was Terry asking and he knew I would go along with him if he asked me to.
"I know, I know. But still, I think you could do some good here, what with your earthly wisdom and all." When I didn't talk, he turned again to look into the room.
"Kid's got one major problem going against him right now. See, tonight is the first time he's ever killed any living being." The silence following that statement didn't stretch on too long, but it was plenty uncomfortable for its length.
"Self-defense?" I asked, starting to feel a little uneasy.
"Damn right it was self-defense. If it wasn't, I wouldn't give a damn about him. But he didn't ask to be there tonight. He was just an innocent who had to protect himself when the shit hit the fan. And unlike the other two Scabs we have here who were directly involved in the conflict, he's got no previous experience in this kind of thing to build on."
Terry sighed. In a more somber tone, he went on: "Look. If I just cut him loose, either his family and friends give him the support he needs to get over it ... or he gets nothing. Being strong enough to look yourself in the mirror is one thing; being strong enough to see the way people look at you when they hear you've killed, and they're not as understanding as God would wish, that's another thing entirely."
"Especially when you already feel like you have SCABS going against you."
"Not to mention if, on top of it all, your friends didn't already know about your being a Scab, and they find out because of... something like this mess." 'Didn't already know'? Great, the kid's a polymorph -- lucky bastard.
"Yeah, that sucks. Still doesn't explain why you want me here. I mean, fine, he kid needs somebody to reassure him. Why can't you do it? What's the problem, you asked him if he'd like some kibble or something?" I asked in a chiding tone, crossing my arms across my chest.
"No, no, I didn't do that. He's a kangaroo morph. I'll admit I've made that kind of mistake in the past, but that's not what happened here. When they brought Steve in, the kid was a little confused about what was going on; the officer in charge didn't explain the situation all that well, he just cuffed the kid and threw him in the car. Then, for an encore, 'Officer Friendly' tried to beat a murder confession out of him -- after the chief told him to stay the hell away from the Scab," Terry said.
I snorted in disgust -- it sounded more useful for orchestra than it did for showing disgust, thanks to my crest, but it was all I had. "Let me guess: This was MacPherson, right?" I asked, naming the single most bigoted officer I could recall from my time on the force.
"You got it," Terry confirmed. "Fortunately, Officer Hallsworth -- you wouldn't know him, he joined about six months after your change -- Hallsworth got in his face about it. And then, believe it or not, ol' Mac had the gall to bitch at Hallsworth for 'sticking up for Scabs'!" He shook his head.
"Real bad move on Mac's part. The thing is, Hallworth's an Army vet with post traumatic stress disorder up to the eyebrows -- and a Scab daughter. So Hallsworth whaled on Mac, but good. Asshole bitched to Chief Bronson as soon as he came to, but by that time, Hallsworth'd already filed a report on Mac's brutality. When Mac got there, he got snarky about 'conduct unbecoming an officer'. Know what the Chief did? He suspended Hallsworth, with pay. He made a real production of it, considering it was only for the rest of the day... and then, for an encore, Bronson fired Mac's ass. Took his badge, ordered him to clean out his office, the whole enchilada." And people say there are no good cops anymore -- shame on them.
Somewhere in this monologue, I got the picture. "So what you're saying is, Steve might find it easier to open up to another Scab than to someone who looks more like Mac."
"Bingo," Terry said with a nod. "How about it?"
"Well... all right. I'll see what I can do for him. No guarantees -- I'm no professional -- but at least I can try." I let out a low trilling sigh through my crest and tried to figure out how I was going to do this.
"Are you kidding me? With a body like yours, just show him some cleavage and he'll be putty in your hands," said Terry. I tried to kill him by glaring at him, but the smug bastard just kept on grinning.
"I'd call you a pig, but that would be an insult to all pig-morphs around the planet."
Steve looked up when I walked in. Poor kid's shirt was pretty thrashed up -- that bastard, MacPherson, must have done a number on him. Judging from the kid's reaction, I don't think my being a Scab was a problem; he was just confused by my form.
I closed the door behind me and walked over to the table that he was sitting at. I didn't sit down or talk to him, I just stood there and gave him an eyeful. After a while, he finally realized I was just standing there, waiting for him to give up trying to figure out what I was.
"Do you have a camera on you, Mr. Carson?" I asked in a slightly bored voice. The deadpan tone was one I'd often used, back when I was still interrogating perps and suspects.
The kid just stared at me in utter bewilderment and eventually muttered, "What?"
I leaned forward a little bit, then put my hands on my knees and looked him right in the eye. "Do you have a camera, Mr. Carson?" I repeated, slower this time and with more emphasis on each word. I think maybe I scared him a little; he obviously didn't know what was going on.
"Wh-why..?" He was trembling now under my unflinching gaze.
"Because if you do, you should take a picture. It would last longer." The kid just sat there and blinked for a couple seconds... then, when it hit him, he blushed furiously (or at least I assumed he was, under the fur). He spent a few seconds babbling, then stopped and looked down at the table in front of him, to embarrassed to trust himself to speak.
I stepped back and leaned on the table, hands crossed over my chest, and laughed a little bit; a loud, resonant sound that echoed off the interrogation room wall a couple times and shook the mirror before I cut myself off. Maybe if I hadn't shunned band class during my youth, I could at least describe what it sounded like.
I shifted my tail around so I could sit properly on the table. "Oh, quit your blushing," I said, my voice now taking on an amused tone. "I don't mind being ogled every once in a while; just try and be a little more discreet about it, okay?"
"No!! No, I... I, uh, that... that's not why I was looking, I was just... " He was staring me in the eye now, getting quite flustered trying to justify himself, but I cut him off in mid-sentence when I leaned forward again.
"Lighten up, kid! Nothing wrong with trying to figure out what species I am. Just having a little fun with you." I winked at him to let him know I wasn't upset. I would've rather smiled, but that wasn't about to happen -- you try wrapping a smile around a duckbill, okay?
He sank back into his chair with an evil look after I said this. Apparently he hadn't appreciated the joke. I laughed again, although I kept it a little lower this time so that it wouldn't be heard outside of the room. Another spot I really could have used the ability to smile in... I put my right hand forward.
"My name's Elizabeth Ash -- call me Elizabeth." He looked at the proffered hand for a second, then grinned despite himself and put his hand forward to shake mine.
"Parasaurolophus," I stated, as if he should know exactly what I was talking about.
He looked confused again. "What?"
"That's my species: Parasaurolophus. A member of the hadrosaur family of dinosaurs that existed in the late Cretacious period, Bipedal herbivores. About the size of an elephant, but a lot better off in the looks department, in my opinion." He looked at me again and realization dawned on his face.
Most people have no clue what I am; the few exceptions, they're mostly fans of the Jurassic Park movies, or people who never outgrew a childhood love of dinosaurs. It wouldn't matter so much, if it wasn't for this damnable crest of mine that made me look like something out of the Alien series. Then again, having no known species wasn't so bad sometimes, compared to the alternative. Once I worked for a pair of paleontologists who knew more about me than I did, and were still more concerned with asking me questions than they were in getting back the equipment that was stolen from their dig site...
"What about you, Mr. Carson? Is there any specific species of kangaroo that you hail from?" I asked. "I, uh, I'm not sure what exactly the species is... all I know is, I'm a kangaroo morph," he said. "I don't spend much time in this form. And you don't have to be so formal, my friends usually just call me Steve or Equestrian."
"It doesn't sound like you talk about your SCABS very often, Equestrian... wait a second. 'Equestrian'?" I asked, head cocked to one side wondering what was up with that.
He sighed. "Yes, I do realize that 'Equestrian' is a weird name for a kangaroo. I just happen to like horses -- but as you can see, I didn't have the good fortune to change into one. I mean, not that changing is such a great thing to begin with, but at least, you know, it would have been a form more to my liking," he said dejectedly.
I perked up when I heard this; an idea sprang out of the hole called my mind. "How often do you ride horses?" I asked.
He seemed puzzled by this comment. "I, uh, I don't, really. I've only spent a little time around them in my whole life. I've had one horseback ride before, and I did enjoy it, but living in the city makes it kind of hard, you know?" He paused for a moment. "How come you asked?" he said, suspicion tinting his voice again. I had a feeling he'd been using that tone of voice quite a bit this night. "Well, I just wondered if you'd like to do something that gets your mind off of the shit that went down tonight. See, me and some horse-morph friends of mine head out to the mountains, at least once a month when the weather's good, and just stretch our legs for a few days. There's about twenty of us, and the mares usually bring along friends who like riding while they're at it. I'm sure more than a few of them would love to give you a good long ride, show you the trails and stuff. Especially if you love horses," I said, with not just a little bit of enthusiasm, then I waited hopefully as he thought the idea over.
"Well, I'm not so sure... I mean... I wouldn't mind the riding, if your friends don't mind being ridden that is. It's just... I'm not sure how well I would fit in, you know?" His tone became more serious. "I, uh... you see, I usually hide all this. I don't normally use my kangaroo form very often, and, well, tonight's the first time I've ever really tried to hang out with any other SCABs before, and that didn't -- um. I, I don't know how well I'd fit in with with people who actually have no problem living with their, um, condition."
Revealing this little secret obviously cost him a little, maybe self-respect. He probably thought I'd sneer at him for choosing to live in safety instead of flaunting his SCABS in a world with Humans First. I'd have liked to defuse that concern, but he didn't let me get a word in: "I'm sorry -- I didn't mean for it come out that way. It's just, I'm not used to behaving like a, well, like a SCAB. I've been ashamed of my, condition, from the very beginning. Since I first became a SCAB, all I've tried to do is hide what I am from anyone. Avoid dealing with other SCABs, avoid dealing with the persecution. Avoid dealing with myself, really.
"In fact, I've never socialized with anyone else with SCABS. That's why I was going to the bar tonight. Hoping I could change that." The poor kid obviously didn't think too highly of who he was. Did he even realize he was doing better than a lot of other Scabs in his position?
I dismissed every concern he had brought up as unimportant with just two words and a shrug: "So what?"
He looked up at me in confusion. "So... don't you think I'm a coward? For trying to hide what I --" I cut him off again in mid sentence. It was beginning to become a habit.
"No, Steve, I don't think you're a coward. You are very far from being the only Scab who has ever tried to hide his identity from his peers for fear of being shunned. It wouldn't matter with this group, anyway," I said, speaking a little faster as I warmed to the idea myself.
"We're not a group of Scabs who go out and do strictly animal stuff; in fact, the only real prerequisite for coming with us is that you're an outdoorsy type who likes the feel of the wind in your face. We even have four norms besides those who come out for horseback riding, who like to come out with their dirt bikes. Kind of interesting in the summer, when they race the mares and some of the other faster quadrupeds through the hills. Forget SCABS; we're just people trying to have a good time, who..." I paused for a second as I considered my words. "Let's just say we have a few more options than most people."
"That's an interesting way to put it," Steve observed. He was right. There weren't too many Scabs who would put it that way, but in my opinion it's their own damn fault for not trying to do something with their life despite the disease.
I shrugged. "Well, you were already planning to socialize with some other people like yourself, anyway. But you know what? You don't have to decide right this instant. I don't think anyone's going anywhere, not until the current mess calms down. So just think about it for now, and you can call me whenever you feel like, okay?" I said. He paused for a second in thought before he nodded his head. I pulled my business card out of a pocket in my vest and handed it to him.
"Yeah, I guess I could think about it," he said and allowed himself to smile a little bit. I would've smiled with him, except for the damn duckbill.
It was close to half an hour later until I let Steve go. After getting him to at least think about coming out with me and my friends, I grilled him as hard as I could about the recent incident. I tried not to remind him about the guy he'd killed, but anything else he could remember was fair game.
I queried him heavily on little details about the attackers. I wasn't so much looking for data that might be of use, as I was trying to make sure it didn't seem to the kid like I was only here for moral support. Even so, it hadn't been a complete waste of time; he wound up giving me a very pleasant surprise.
I recognized something in that one perp's comment to Steve: "Get out of here, boy, this place is dangerous! These damn SCAB vermin don't seem to know their place!" I wasn't absolutely certain about that person's identity, but after Steve left to meet up with his parents, I checked out the reports on the attackers. No surprise; the man was indeed the same biker thug I remembered from my time on the force.
Harlie Davidson, obviously an alias and an idiotic one at that, but it was the only name we'd ever been able to put on the man. He used to be a member of the Citizens For Anarchy gang, a mercenary group that used the biker gang front to hide their true nature from any law enforcement unit not personally familiar with them. I'd been part of the task force which drove the CFA out of town a while back, and good riddance to them.
Harlie, however, had left the gang a few years ago to pursue his own violent vendetta against the Scab population in our city. We'd never been able to find any hard evidence, but we suspected him of two murders. Considering his penchant for patience and ability to silence witnesses, it was possible there were more.
When I saw that Harlie was the one that had gotten plastered to the wall I would have been lying if I'd said the news didn't give me a warm feeling.
"Hope you rot in hell, bastard," I muttered as I put the documents pertaining to Harlie's demise back into their folder.
"How did you know I was in the room?" I nearly fell out of my seat before I got a hold of myself. I spun around angrily and saw Terry had managed to sneak into the Records Room without me hearing him. I felt like telling him to go jump off a high building when I remembered what I had just been looking over.
"Hello, bastard. Remember our old friend Harlie Davidson?" I asked in a cheerier mood than I'd realized I was in. I held up the file for Terry to see.
"Don't I just! He was part of the attack, I take it?" He grabbed the folder and opened it up.
"Uh huh. And not just any part -- he's among the two casualties the attackers suffered," I said, confirming his guess. He looked at the documents for a few seconds then threw them across the room in disgust. I looked at them in bemusement and then looked back at a thoroughly pissed-off Terry. "Uh, okay... not quite the reaction I had been expecting..."
"Sorry for not telling you this, Elizabeth, but we know for a fact that Harlie rejoined the Citizens for Anarchy a couple months back when they were stopped in New York. Him being in town means that merc group moved back into the city without our knowing it -- just like our attackers' supplier."
"The supplier is a mystery?" I asked. That wasn't good; usually, we at least knew who was moving contraband in and out, even if we didn't always have evidence that would stand up in court.
"Yeah. According to word on the street, the weapons and ammunitions used in the attacks came from an out-of-town seller who we now know moved into the area sometime in the last month. My guess is that he was hired to supply these hate groups with material, by someone who wants to use them to stir up trouble between the SCABs and the norms of this city."
"Hold on," I said. Something sounded fishy to me. "Tonight's perps were a bunch of morons. Harlie hates Scabs, fine, but since when is he gonna hang out with incompetents?" I asked, The answer shouldn't have been all that surprising, really, but it was. "Think about it," Terry said as he sat down in a chair facing me. "The man is -- was -- a cold, calculating, Scab-hating SOB. To Harlie, those clowns weren't friends; they were tools he could manipulate. The relationship wasn't social, it was strictly business. And he's not gonna cry if a few idiots get themselves hurt or killed in the process, right?"
"Yeah..." I thought about it. And I didn't like the picture I was getting. "Whoever's in charge, Harlie or whoever, they're smart -- they're not just going for the immediate payoff. They got a plan, they're working for some kind of long-term goal."
Terry nodded. "That's my take, too. If our perps had been real soldiers, mercs instead of just a bunch of idiot hatemongers, they might have done more serious damage to the people at the bar. As it stands, them losing has actually done more damage to the Scabs than if they'd burned the bar right down with everyone in it." Crap! Terry's right -- they could leave the mercenary groups for later, when the situation had escalated beyond what the civil authorities could possibly control.
If they'd brought in mercs earlier, sure, they'd get a hellacious body count real fast. But even the public would clue in that these attacks were part of an orchestrated plan, not just a bunch of idiots trying to take out their anger on every Scab in sight.
"If this gets out of hand, life is going to suck for a very large amount of people in the near and foreseeable future." Terry said simply. I gave him my patented gee, you don't say? look. After a few moments of silence Terry tried steering the conversation over to a different topic, seeing as the current one was pretty much wrung dry.
"Well I guess I should thank you for coming out and reassuring Steve about how what he did the right thing tonight. Except you didn't actually do that... which is weird because I do recall asking you if you could help him, Elizabeth." God damnit, I thought to myself. I'm even starting to miss Terry's sarcastic remarks!
"Get real, Terry. The kid's never killed before. What the hell did you expect me to say? 'Wow, it was so heroic the way you splattered that guy's brains on the pavement!' Wait, don't tell me, I should've said, 'It was so brave, the way you shot that man in the windpipe so that he could slowly suffocate to death and thus spend his last minute on planet earth in searing pain while still being able to think clearly enough to wish he could see his family and friends one last time.' It doesn't matter how you phrase it, that's how I've always heard it. And I bet that's how Steve's been hearing it too, tonight." I stood up and gathered my things together. "Face it, I couldn't have said a damn thing to help him come to terms with what he's done. If I could, I'd be a shrink -- not a private investigator. There's only one thing I could do for him, and I did it: Get him thinking about something other than tonight."
"Hmm... all right, I guess you've got a point. So: You think the girls will like the kid?"
I really, really wished I could still grin. "Are you kidding me? Steve's so cute I'll be surprised if they can keep themselves from fighting over him."
"Ah; God bless gorgeous single women, beer and camping trips. Especially when you find all three in combination. So how is Lisa, anyway?"
"She's more or less over your little prank now, so she only hates you as much as she would a skin rash. If you wanted, you could probably join us for our next trip out west without fear for your life."
"Sounds good to me -- I'll bring the RV."
"You have an RV?"
"I can go buy one." Christ! With the money Terry makes off the stock market, you'd figure he could afford a good plastic surgeon or polymorph.
I sat in silence as Liz left the room, the thick air having dissipated quite a bit since she had come in. Horseback riding? Sure, it would be fun, but it's not the type of thing I want to think about right now... I picked up my sore tail and began to slowly stroke my wound. The police had been kind enough to give me a bandanna to keep the swelling down. Well, kind enough to do so after one of their officers caused the damage in the first place. But he's gone now -- for good, thankfully.
Talking with a dinosaur morph had certainly been interesting. She seemed nice, and it was good to have another SCAB come in and talk with me. But the way she acted, so confident and seemingly uncaring about how the world viewed her... I still couldn't believe it. I couldn't quite latch onto that mindset yet.
Speaking of being latched, how much longer am I going to have to stay here? It was well after midnight, and I should be home. Home with my family, home with those who care about me. Home with those who won't judge me.
No sooner had I thought that when Lt. Hallsworth came back inside the room.
"Okay, Mr. Carson. You're free to go," he said bluntly. "Your parents are waiting for you in the main lobby."
I looked down at my hands, swallowing nervously as I examined my claws. I hadn't thought about it until now, but what will my parents think when they see me like this? When they see what I have become? The kangaroo SCAB who killed someone...
I looked up at the police officer who was holding the door for me. It might as well have been a mile away. I began to wring my hands together as I slowly got up, walking nervously toward the room's exit, my tail twitching slightly behind me.
I felt cold eyes fixed on me as I walked the labyrinth of desks and hallways in the office, my waddling gait making me feel even more out of place in this environment. It felt like many officers in here had already judged me and found me guilty based on what I did. I bit my lower lip gently, my ears flattened on the top of my head as I continued my awkward trek toward the lobby.
I caught sight of the female officer from in front of the Blind Pig. She was standing at a desk with papers in her hands when she stopped dead in place. Her jaw dropped slightly as I paused in front of her. Her nervous partner, who was seated at the desk, just reflexively scooted back in his roller chair, trying to avoid eye contact with me.
My God... they're afraid of me.
Why? I'm not going to jump over and attack them! Why must they hate me so? But then I subconsciously kicked myself. I don't even like what I've become, so why would normal humans be any different? I'm an animal, a diseased social outcast who just killed somebody. I'm a monster to them.
I tried to say something. Something proper, something to show I had no hard feelings against her or her partner. I tried to say anything. There were no words. I dropped my head slowly, and continued on my way.
"Wait!" a voice said from behind, my body instantly coming to a halt at the sound. The entire office went dead quiet as I turned around to face the nervous officer, who had since stood up, still noticeably trembling but fighting to keep a straight face.
The other officers were dumbstruck at his interjection, including his partner who kept looking back and forth from me to him. The room felt like as small as a closet.
"Are... is your tail all right?" he asked.
My eyes shifted back and forth in confusion at this question. My brain wondered why he was asking, but my heart told it to shut up.
"Um, yeah," I responded meekly. "It still hurts, but not as much as earlier."
I could smell the fear on him as he slowly walked out from behind his desk into the center walkway, facing me less then ten feet away. He gripped the sides of his pants to try to hide how hard his hands were shaking, and then swallowed.
"Are you going to be okay?" he muttered. His partner fixed her eyes on me, as did all the other officers in the room.
"Yeah," I said, forcing a slight smile, even if it wasn't an honest one. "I... I think I am."
The office might as well have been a museum exhibit for a still as the room was for the next ten seconds. No noise, no disruption. Just the uneasy silence of a room full of people waiting for something to happen. The man looked down at his gun holster, and then back up at me.
"I'm not a bad person," the officer said. "Neither is my partner. I just didn't know what else to do in the situation."
The smile on my face disappeared. "Me, neither. Let's just be thankful that this was all that happened."
He seemed to nod in agreement. My head scanned the entire office, the uncomfortable silence becoming unbearable.
"Merry Christmas," I offered.
After a moment, I got a few "Merry Christmases" in response, including one from the female officer. Most sounded robotic; a few might have been sincere. It was hard to tell in this atmosphere.
I turned around and continued on my way, leaving the still-life painting you might call an office behind me.
I walked out into the lobby and froze. There they were, my family, all standing in the center of the room, all staring right at me. My mother was shocked for a moment to see me in my kangaroo form. Only for a moment.
She and the others burst forth and before I could even raise my arms I was engulfed with various hugs. I felt tears begin to well up in my eyes as I was squeezed and tugged on from different angles. I tried to return the gestures as quickly and evenly as I could, but there were too many of them. I just couldn't repay the love they were all giving me. This moment was the first time I had been happy all night.
"Mom... I did a terrible thing," I whimpered as they led me out the door. It was all that I was able to say. She just hugged me closer as we walked out the door and toward the car. She didn't say a single word, just ushered me into the back seat of our sedan as quickly as she could.
Before I could even lift my tail, my father gently picked it up and set it inside on my lap, a grin on his face as he shut the door. My sister took her place on the other side of me as my parents got in the front seats. The car roared to life, and we began our trek home.
I turned around and looked at the police station as it got smaller and smaller before finally vanishing, and then spun back around to face my family. My mother kept motioning for me to lean forward, and each time I was rewarded with a hug or a kiss on the cheek.
"We're just so happy you're safe now," she said. "We'll talk about this later, okay?"
"All right," I replied.
My home never felt more inviting in all my life. The walls a sanctuary from the rest of the world, the scented candles a smell of ambrosia. The Christmas tree filled with its bounty and various sights and sounds of the season. I felt like a child again as I walked up the stairs to my room. I felt safe.
I slowly reverted to my normal human form once I got in my room and put on a pair of pajamas, getting under the covers. After all that had occurred tonight, my body demanded this rest. I had to sleep on my stomach since the pain from my tail seemed to have been transferred to my lower back during the transformation. I'd worry about that later -- I'd worry about a lot of things later. But for now, only the bliss of slumber consumed me.
I'm not positive, but I think several times during the night my parents came in and gave me kisses while I slept. Maybe it was a dream, maybe it wasn't. Whatever the case, I must have had a big smile on my face all night, because the sides of my mouth were sore when I woke up the next morning.
The walls were normally white; now they were festooned with strings of Christmas lights and decorations. Holly leaves, mistletoe, red ribbons, wreaths, and ornaments of every kind from simple baubles to delicately crafted wicker horses and airplanes lined the walls of the hospital waiting room. Following any of the strings of blinking red, green and blue lights led inexorably towards the giant ersatz short-needled pine that stood in one corner, brightly wrapped presents nestled underneath like pups nursing from their dam.
Tree-lined rows of naugahyde seats hugged opposite walls; between the rows sat a small table covered with year-old magazines. And along one wall stood an open counter behind which sat the night watch receptionist for this wing of Mercy Medical Hospital. She was human, though wearing a pair of fake reindeer antlers and a bright red nose. She smiled faintly as he came through the swinging doors. "Can I help you, sir?" Her voice was cheerful enough. No doubt the decorations helped.
"I was told my son was being treated in this wing," he said, glancing across the room once. He'd attempted to sleep on the short flight up, but what few snatches he'd received had done him little good. "He was admitted last night."
She looked down at the computer set before her, its screen invisible to him. "Ah, your name please?"
She tapped a few keys on the computer. "And your son's?"
"And you are the father?" she asked redundantly, eyes focussed upon the screen.
He nodded slowly, hands clasped firmly before him. "Yes."
She paused for a moment while she read from the screen. He could smell a pot of coffee brewing somewhere in the office beyond her. A smile slowly began to crease her face, and then it broke out in full. "You'll be pleased to hear that your son is in stable condition."
"Does that mean he will pull through?" Ezekiel asked, a sudden harshness filling his voice. He'd heard that from doctors before.
"I..." she paused, the smile wavered, and she looked up into his eyes. "I will call Dr. Stuart. He's your son's doctor. I only know your son is in stable condition, Mr. Cavanaugh."
He nodded and turned one shoulder to her. "Very well." He looked down at the tree and the presents clustered about its base. The lights twinkled in sequence. On and off they went, as predictable as the changing of the seasons.
After listening to her pick up one of the phones and make a short call, he asked, "Ma'am, tell me, what's your name?"
"Alice," she replied, setting the phone back on its receiver.
"Tell me, Alice. Who are the presents for?'
Alice's face brightened, although he watched her only out of the corner of one eye. "We have several children here in long term conditions. Sometimes their families bring the presents for them when they can't be here. We always buy some for the kids who don't get any. Later this morning we're going to bring those kids we can here so they can see the tree and the presents."
"And those you cannot?" His face remained impassive.
"We bring the presents to the children. It's not always happy here, especially on Christmas, but we do what we can." The sound of footsteps coming down the hallway interrupted them. Ezekiel turned, even as Alice's voice rang out in seeming relief, "Ah, here's Dr. Stuart now. Dr. Stuart, this is Ezekiel Cavanaugh, Methusaleh's father."
Dr. Stuart was a canine Scab. His face was covered in dark thick fur, his muzzle short and frame stocky. A tail dangled between his otherwise human-looking legs. His hands were also covered in dark fur, but they were still hands and not paws. "Ah, Mr. Cavanaugh." There was a strange sullenness to the voice. "Come with me."
The dog-morph led him back through the swinging door at the other end of the room. They were in a long hallway with rooms along either side, each numbered. Golden streamers lined the roof, bringing some colour to the institutional atmosphere. After a few steps, the dog morph turned and stopped, eyes narrowed, ears shifting back. "I know who you are, Mr. Cavanaugh."
"Oh?" he replied disinterestedly.
"You run the Cavanaugh Group, that lobbying firm that lobbies for Humans First and other such anti-Scab groups. So what did you do when Methusaleh became a lion -- throw him out?"
Ezekiel returned the canine's foul stare, his own eyes empty. "Show me my son."
"I've seen a lot of good people get hurt by people like you, and those crazy fools you support. Your own son was shot by them!" Dr. Stuart was nearly growling now, his arms clutching his clipboard very tightly. His white coat began to shift as his tail moved in agitation.
"It's against the law to prevent a family member from visiting a patient in stable condition," Ezekiel said, nonplussed. "Show me my son."
Dr. Stuart's eyes narrowed at that, but some of the heat left them. He turned, though his body was still tense. "Very well. He's this way."
"What's his condition?"
Dr. Stuart lifted his clipboard as they resumed walking down the hallway. "He was shot once, in the upper torso. The bullet punctured his left lung, but otherwise it was a clean shot. He lost a lot of blood, and we've had to install a chest tube so his lung will reinflate. He'll be here for a few days at the very minimum, a few weeks at the worst."
"So he will live?"
Dr. Stuart glanced over at him once, his black nose wrinkling slightly. "As long as there are no other complications, yes." He pointed to the right wall. There was a small glass window set next to the door. "Your son is in here."
Ezekiel followed the clawed finger and stared for a moment, his mouth set in a thin line. On the other side of the glass lay a massive figure. A white sheet lay over most of the body, but the head and shoulders were visible above it. Both were covered in a thick heavy dark mane of fur that framed the leonine face. The eyes were closed, and the tawny features remained still. Though it had been six months, he still recognized that face.
"I would like to see him," he said, though he did not look at the doctor.
"He needs his sleep," the doctor pointed out, not without some satisfaction it seemed.
"Now." There was no doubt in his voice that the doctor would do as he was told.
"Very well." There was a slight growl to the canine physician's voice. "Do not wake him. His chest and lungs need rest to mend." He moved to the door and inserted a small key. The lock turned and he pressed the door inwards. Cavanuagh was mometarily bathed in a sterilized breeze, as well as the subtle scent of his son's feline nature.
"Now leave," Ezekiel said as he passed into the room where his son lay.
"Leave." He turned on the dog. "Now. I need to be with my son alone, Dr. Stuart."
The doctor grimaced, his ears folding back some again, but he left and closed the door behind him. Ezekiel pointedly watched him in the window until even that dark canine face was gone. Satisfied, he turned and looked at the sleeping body. He could see the power in the form, but also the frailty. All bodies look so frail when attached to hospital machines, he thought. No matter how strong or willful the person attached had been...
On the opposite side of the window, his son's arm was draped over the white blanket. He stared down the length of the tawny fur to those paw-like hands. For a moment he studied the black marks at the edge of the fingers where those retractable claws emerged, and the slightly pink nature of the thick calluses on the palms. And then he lifted his eyes once more to the muzzle and mane of the lion.
"I am glad to see you again, Methusaleh. I'm sorry things have not gone as well for you as I had hoped. I know I've been blaming you for your mother, your older brother, and your sister, but I was wrong to do so. Forgive me."
He paused and reached out, his fingertips nearly touching the upraised hairs on the back of his son's hand. For a long moment he held them just an inch away, his own breath caught in his throat. And then, he exhaled, and drew back, clasping his hands before his waist once more. "And forgive me for what I am going to do now."
Turning, he went back to the door and stepped out into the hallway, quietly shutting the door behind him. "I'll leave you to lock up," he said to the canine who was leaning against the wall nearby. Without another word, he strode back down the hallway, leaving a stunned Dr. Stuart standing holding the keys out in his hand as if they were a dead animal.
I hung suspended in darkness, paralyzed, unable to feel my own limbs, unable to even open my eyes. Or were they open? Maybe I was blind. I opened my mouth to cry out, but nothing emerged except a dry, gasping hiss. No eyes, no voice. Where was I?
Voices echoed through the void, pale senseless mutters that refused to form words. I strained to make them out, to sense their direction and proximity, but they seemed to be all around me. I heard the sound of someone crying, and disembodied words emerged from the darkness: "...gone, he's gone, there's nothing left, he's better off dead..."
I'm not dead! my mind shouted back. I'm not dead, I'm still here!
I threw my arms out in front of me... no, wings, of course, I spread my wings out to escape, and now there were lights in the darkness below me. I was soaring over the city streets, and they were splashed with blood. Strange figures ran through the shadowed alleys below, hunched and snarling. There seemed to be no safe places to land.
Then ahead of me, on a lighted street corner below, I saw the blessedly familiar form of a completely human figure. He seemed to beckon to me, and I swooped thankfully toward the light. As I prepared to land, I suddenly realized that the gesturing hand held a pistol, he was aiming it at me, I tried to turn but the air was now thicker than molasses, I was pinned like a fly in amber as he raised the gun --
My eyes snapped open and I gripped the headboard of the bed with my claws, fighting down the reflexive urge to take wing. Only a dream... just another goddamn dream. I stretched my wings and shook my feathers out. I never used to be a morning person, but one of the characteristics of the avian brain is the ability to go from zero to wide awake in a fraction of a second. Survival instinct, you know.
Mom was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, a look of worry creasing her brow. "Terry, are you all right?" she asked.
"I'm... fine, Mom. Why, what's the problem?" I asked with what I hoped was a neutral tone of voice. Her anxious expression set off alarms in my brain; had she somehow found out about my midnight excursion? I sneaked a quick glance at the window. Closed, just as I'd made sure it was when I came back in last night. My collar, back on the dresser. Everything looked perfectly innocent.
"You were talking in your sleep," she said after a pause.
"I was?" I said, surprised. "What did I say?"
"I couldn't make it out, but you sounded upset."
I shrugged, trying to sound neutral. "Must have been a bad dream... I don't really remember any of it."
She looked at me carefully, but only asked, "Are you coming down?"
"In just a minute." I tried to put a smile into my voice. "Gotta brush my teeth."
She smiled faintly in return, but the worried look remained. Now I was downright uneasy. I'd certainly been related to her long enough to know when she had something on her mind. "Mom... is everything okay?" I asked.
She hesitated again, then said, "I'm a little tired, that's all. Everything's fine. Come on down when you're ready for breakfast." She smiled again and left; after a moment I heard her footsteps on the stairs.
Left alone with my thoughts, I tried to make sense out of the previous night's adventure. I'd finally gotten back to the apartment around three in the morning, after watching the police haul off the surviving gunmen and a few of the bar patrons for good measure. From my observation post on the rooftop above, I'd debated whether to drop down and make some sort of statement to the police. I suspected that I was legally required to, being a witness and all.
On the other hand, what would I be getting myself involved in? The bar was located in a fairly crap neighborhood -- what if the fight had been some sort of drug deal gone wrong? Then, of course, I'd have to explain what I was doing there myself. Just out for a little fly-by-night, were we, Mister Lee? In the snow, on Christmas Eve? I had to admit to myself that it didn't sound too likely. I could just imagine how Mom and Dad would react to being awakened by a call from the police, telling them that their son was being held for questioning about a gangland slaying...
Of course, the joker with the gun had heard me razzing him, but I was reasonably sure he hadn't seen me -- he hadn't taken a shot at me. Had anyone else spotted me flying around? I didn't think so. I hoped not, anyway. I had the grim feeling that I had seen something I shouldn't have, something that could only lead to trouble.
Glancing down at the bedspread, I saw a scattering of small blue contour feathers, the sort that grew on my chest and back. I'd been pulling them out reflexively while asleep.
Oh well. They'd grow back. They always did.
Happy thoughts, I scolded myself, think happy thoughts. It's Christmas, you're with family, you're alive and you're not in jail. Keep the positive energy flowing. Hello, Mister Manic! Come right in and have a seat! Excuse me, Mister Depressive, but you should be leaving now.
I swooped out into the hallway and landed at the top of the banister, then impulsively folded my wings and slid down its length, taking flight again in the nick of time as I cleared the bottom end. I swerved left into the living room, narrowly avoided colliding with the garland of mistletoe draped above the door (wups, forgot about that), and recovered myself in time to make a neat landing on the coffee table. Touchdown! The crowd goes wild!
The TV in the living room had been left on, but the sound had been muted. As a result, I could hear Mom and Dad talking in the kitchen, which only served to increase my anxiety. Normally, Dad was famous for taking full advantage of the Christmas holiday to sleep in for as long as was humanly possible. Until he finally emerged from hibernation, the opening of presents couldn't officially begin -- a detail that used to drive me to distraction as a child. How a man could remain asleep with a hyperactive 8-year old jumping on his lower legs was beyond understanding. I wondered grimly just what sort of crisis could possibly pry his ass out of bed on Christmas morning. The only thing that came to mind was a death in the family, or conceivably war with China. Damn. This is looking worse and worse...
I'd just about worked up the nerve to go into the kitchen, when my eye was caught by a familiar alleyway scene on the TV screen. In the next second I had leaped over to the remote and switched the sound on in the middle of a local news broadcast.
"-- attack occurred at the 'Blind Pig Gin Mill,' a SCAB-owned establishment that has long been a fixture of the local SCAB community..."
'Blind Pig'? Sounds like the name of a garage band.
"...police arrived on the scene to find three of the attackers dead and a fourth in critical condition. The gunmen have been identified as belonging to an anti-SCAB organization known as the 'Flame of Justice'..." Now, there's another great name: Flame of Justice, now opening for Blind Pig. So I had apparently witnessed an unprovoked attack on SCABs by a hate group. And on Christmas Eve, yet. Geez, ever notice how so few hate groups have any holiday spirit..?
There were a few shots of the gunmen being taken into custody, and I actually caught a quick glimpse of my pistol-packing pal from the alley as he was bundled into a squad car. I wondered momentarily if he had bothered to relate the details of our encounter to the police, and what their response might have been. I congratulated myself silently:
"Well done, Captain Mystery!"
"Think nothing of it, Commissioner; it's all in a day's work..."
The newscaster's next words jarred me out of my reverie: "-- investigators believe that the same group may have been responsible for last night's citywide string of arsonist attacks. However, local police and FBI officials state that they that they have little information at this time on the size of the group, or if more attacks can be expected."
I suddenly realized that the voices from the kitchen had stopped. Mom and Dad were standing in the doorway to the living room, their faces drawn and pale. For the first time in my life I realized just how old they both looked, old and tired. Wordlessly I followed them back into the kitchen, feeling numb with shock.
The local newspaper was lying on the kitchen table. "HOLIDAY MASSACRE," the headline screamed, then in slightly smaller type, "Attacks Leave Fifteen Dead, Five Missing." The front page main photo showed a building ablaze, with a pair of firefighters carrying a furred, bloody figure in the foreground. Below the fold, a smaller photo depicted a prone figure covered by a sheet, red stains prominently marking its smooth white surface. In the background of the photo was a crowd of bystanders, out of focus and shadowed but still plainly SCABs by their outlines. One feline-looking silhouette at the extreme right of the shot had reflected the camera's flash in its gaze, giving the narrowly slitted eyes an eerie greenish glow.
Fifteen dead. Jesus. I can't believe it... I looked up into my parents' eyes and saw their fear, and the knowledge finally hit home like a thunderbolt. They were scared for me, because of what I was. Because of what I had become, I was a target now, just like all the rest of them.
Because I was a SCAB.