The Harness of Society
by Erastus Centaur
©2004 Erastus Centaur -- all rights reserved
Kyle stared out the bus window as the desert rolled by. Jet and Dougie were sleeping or pretending quite well. Kyle was too wired to sleep, like always when he was being transferred to a new Juvie. His fingers drummed on the seat in front of him.
Besides Kyle and his buddies, there was just the driver and three guards. Even with such little opposition, Kyle didn't see much hope of starting anything, especially since he was chained to his seat.
It didn't look like he'd be breaking out of this new place any time soon -- there was a whole lot of desert between here and any place worth being. Juvies weren't allowed to have watches but Kyle figured the bus had been going for a couple of hours, putting them maybe sixty miles from the main road. And they had passed nobody on this road.
Finally the bus slowed, circled around a cactus, and stopped at a small log building with a sign that said 'Camp Pegasus'. Cute name, Kyle sneered. He looked around. No fence. Anywhere. Not a good sign. This place was definitely east of boonieville. The choice was stark -- stay here or be vulture food.
Jet and Dougie pulled themselves upright, rubbed their eyes, and looked around. Kyle could tell when each of them figured out what the situation was.
The guards unlocked them from their seats, though the handcuffs stayed on. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be.
As Kyle got off the bus, the door of the building opened and three dudes -- Kyle guessed seventeen for one and sixteen for the other two -- came out with an old guy. Kyle heard Jet and Dougie stumble off the bus behind him and all three plopped their backpacks in the dust.
Kyle first thought the three dudes were part of the welcoming committee, but greeters wouldn't have backpacks and wouldn't be shaking hands with the old guy. As the dudes passed, the older one whispered, "Welcome to hell, suckers. Good luck getting out of this place."
Kyle watched them board the bus. Why a line like that? They were getting out -- they weren't even in handcuffs!
The guards urged the newcomers forward and inside. Kyle didn't fight it -- too much desert. He'd have plenty of time to learn the angles. Kyle smiled at Dougie and Jet who were pretending they didn't know him.
Inside was a large room with a door to a porch and an exercise yard opposite from where they came in. The yard was empty. There was a large desk at one end of the room with a padded chair behind it and a couple doors behind that. In front of the desk were three metal folding chairs. Juvies, of course, got plain chairs.
And on the desk was a metal pitcher. From the way outside was fogged, the inside was cold and wet. Beside the pitcher was four glasses.
Kyle practically ran to the desk as fast as his chained legs would let him. Jet took three steps and stopped. "Kyle, that water's not ours."
"Like I care," sneered Kyle between gulps, holding up a middle finger. "They can't do nuthin' to us. We're still minors. And we're already in the system."
"Drink up, boys," said the old man behind them. "Don't want to get dehydrated out here."
"Told ya," said Kyle.
He turned around to see the guards walk out the door as the old man waved. Good. The odds just improved.
The old guy came over to the desk, filled a glass, took a big gulp, and sat in the comfortable chair. "Sit!" They sat. The old guy filled glasses for each of them, then reached into the desk and pulled out three folders. He laid them open so he could glance from the top page to the boys.
Kyle could recognize his own mug shot even when it was upside down.
The old guy spoke. "I'm Darius Brown, the owner of this fine establishment." Even Dougie sniggered, which made the old guy grin.
Kyle studied this Mister Brown has he glanced from the mug shots to the actual faces. Brown had a lined face with white hair and beard. Kyle got the impression -- and where Kyle grew up, you don't last long without learning to judge strangers quickly and accurately -- that while Brown might own this place, he didn't project a whole lot of power. This could be easy, thought Kyle. Won't be long 'til I own this joker. Sure make my stay here a lot less boring.
"Arlan Sanders." Brown studied the gangly youth with coal black skin.
Jet grimaced at the sound of his real name. "Name's Jet," he snarled.
So Jet sensed it too.
"Whatever," said Brown. "Douglas O'Brien." Brown turned to the short, pale skinned, blond kid.
"Present," was all Dougie said.
"Kyle Johnson." Kyle could practically see Brown cataloging his own milk-coffee skin and sassy 'tude and making a mental checkmark beside the category of 'trouble'. That suited Kyle just fine.
Much to Kyle's surprise, Brown didn't look at the rest of the pages in their folders. Previous wardens had flaunted that they knew about every arrest and every lockup. Not Brown. He swept the folders into a drawer.
"I believe in honesty," said Brown, "so I'll tell you everything right up front. Some of it will be hard to believe, but you'll see proof soon enough.
"The State has sent you here because they can't send you to the big house but they want nothing more to do with you. If you have families, they are no doubt glad you're out of their hair. This is your last chance."
"Yeah, yeah," said Kyle. "That's what every warden says."
Brown leaned forward. "This time it's true."
Kyle waved a hand. Whatever, dude.
"I own this place," said Brown. "I'm an independent service provider for the state. I don't take many kids, but I have pretty good success rate with those I take."
Kyle smirked. We'll see who owns what. Brown ignored him.
"I don't take money from the Feds and very little from the State. Which means one thing to you -- you've got no rights and no lawyers. The State doesn't check up on you. You won't exist for them until I call them to pick you up."
"Wait a minute!" yelled Kyle. "You can't cut me off from my lawyer!"
"I do believe your lawyer was paid by the State? No doubt my success rate convinced him to drop your case. Not to mention the State refusing to pay any more bills related to your case."
Kyle looked to Dougie and Jet for support. They were carefully ignoring him.
"There are three paths into the future. You can choose the path."
"What's with this spiritual crap?" growled Kyle.
Brown ignored him again. Kyle didn't like to be ignored. Brown went on. "The first path is to take advantage of all that we have to offer for rehabilitation. You can then take the bus out of here ready to take up the harness of society and be a productive citizen."
"'Harness of society'? Man, that's rich. Who's your writer? I don't get harnessed to nuthin'."
"Oh, you'll get harnessed one way or another. When you hear about the second method you'll think I'm crazy, but you will see enough evidence to remove all doubt soon enough." Brown stood and leaned over the desk in an attempt -- a sorry attempt, as far as Kyle was concerned -- to look imposing. "If you disobey the rules or do not take advantage of the means to be rehabilitated, you will slowly become a horse."
All three of the kids let out a guffaw. "Man, that's a good one!" said Kyle, once he caught his breath.
Brown was not deterred. "Go ahead, get it out of your system." He waited until they quieted. "And if you become a horse, you will be harnessed in an entirely different manner."
"You tell such good stories," said Kyle. "Do you know the one about the three bears? That's my favorite."
Brown forged on. "The third path to the future is to decide you like a hybrid human-horse body and stay on as part of my staff."
"Does that mean I can keep my tail?" Kyle jumped up, stuck one hand over his butt with fingers sticking out behind him, and wiggled his fingers as he began to dance. Dougie sniggered. Jet began to clap in rhythm.
Brown leaned back and knocked on one of the doors behind him. "Posti?"
A moment later, the door opened and a figure stepped into the room. Kyle's dance froze. All three jaws dropped.
"Boys, I'd like you to meet Posti, our scientist and counselor."
What stood before them had to be some type of high tech projection, or at least a damn good costume. It had to. The -- thing -- was over seven feet tall, at least compared to Kyle's own six-three, though Kyle couldn't be sure his mind was working correctly at the moment. He -- there was no doubt the thing was male -- was covered in chocolate fur with long white hairs hanging from the lower leg. His head had upright ears and a horse-like muzzle with a white stripe from the forehead to the nose. The arms and hands looked human, but were also covered in fur -- brown down to the middle of the forearm and white from there across the back of the hand. The fur covered chest was broad. Muscles bulged everywhere. If this guy wanted to, he could cause some serious damage, thought Kyle.
Posti stood there a moment to let the boys get a good look, then he came around the desk. Kyle took a step back. Dougie and Jet cowered.
Kyle's brain started clamoring for attention. Human legs don't bend like that! This dude's for real! Kyle told his brain to shut up.
"Posti," said Brown, "I'd like you to meet Jet, Doug, and Kyle. They'll be with us for a while."
Posti held out a hand to Jet. It took Jet a half minute to get up the courage to shake it. Dougie managed to shake it in ten seconds. By the time the hand was offered to Kyle, he had already gathered his courage and even offered a faint smile.
"I do believe they are ready to listen to the rest of what you have to say," said Posti in a deep, rich voice. Posti turned around and walked over to the wall. It was then that the boys got a good look at Posti's mane and the tail that stuck out from the back of his shorts. Posti leaned one shoulder against the wall and picked up one foot to cross his ankles and set his toes on the floor -- only the legs didn't seem to cross at the ankle and the toes weren't toes, the leg clearly ended in a hoof.
"That's a costume," said Kyle. "Isn't it?" His agitation was quite visible. "It's gotta be. Mondo work. Almost had me fooled. But let's see the real Posti."
"That is the real Posti," said Brown.
"I don't care if you believe it's a costume or not. You will find evidence of the truth on your own body in the morning."
Kyle backed up, knocking over his chair. "Man, you ain't messing with me!"
All three boys looked alarmed. "Th-the water?" stammered Dougie.
Kyle stuck a finger in his mouth to try to induce vomiting. He didn't get far. For such a big dude, Posti moved mighty fast; he grabbed Kyle's cuffs and pulled him with one hand into the chair he was righting with the other.
"Ow! managed Kyle, though Brown suspected it was more from outrage than pain.
Dougie and Jet were frozen in place with horrified expressions.
"Here's the deal, said Brown.. "The only source of water here contains an agent that will slowly turn you into a horse --"
"Natural? Or something you added?" Kyle's eyes blazed at Brown.
"So you do have a brain in that head. Very good, Kyle. And the answer is -- I'm not going to tell you."
"How's it work?"
"Only Posti knows, and he assured me I wouldn't understand without advanced degrees in science." And you, kid, certainly don't have that.
"So why don't you look like Posti. You drank the same water we did."
"It's a shame you don't harness that brilliant brain of yours for the good of society."
"Stuff it, you --" but Posti slid a large hand over Kyle's mouth. Kyle attempted to bite it, but the horse-man just clamped Kyle's jaws shut with his powerful hand.
"Swear words are against the rules here, Kyle," said Posti before he let go of Kyle's face.
"You can release him," said Brown. "I'm pretty sure he's absorbed the agent by now. He was surely dehydrated from his bus ride."
Posti not only let go of the cuffs, he removed them. Kyle rubbed his chin and nose. Surely there was a bruise there somewhere.
"Posti has developed an antidote," said Brown, "and I take it every day. If you obey the rules and make progress towards your rehabilitation, it will be given to you. One dose will undo a one-day step towards horsehood. Be a good boy and you stay human. Screw up and you'll be a horse in about thirty days."
"We can't screw up at all?" asked Jet.
Brown smiled. "No, this isn't a one-shot deal. Each day that you progress towards returning to society, you will be given some of the antidote and you will be one step closer to getting out of here. Keep fur off your ears for twenty-seven days out of thirty and I'll call for a ride out. You can be -- what is it, Posti, three days?"
"Two days from full horse, and continued good behavior will get you back to human. You can also go back and forth between more and less human for many years and still get back to full human. So you can screw up a lot and still leave here as human -- you just can't only screw up. Balance that with progress, and you can eventually leave."
"If Posti developed this antidote stuff, why isn't he human? He been bad?" asked Dougie.
Posti chuckled, a deep and rich rumbling. "I actually prefer this body. I take the antidote every other day to maintain it. One day slightly more horse, the next day slightly more human."
Brown could see that Kyle was trying to look bored but he still hung on every word being said.
"What's so special about two days before full horse that stops it working?" asked Jet.
"I knew you were all smart," said Brown. "At that point, your hands have become hooves. Your sense of smell and hearing improve, overwhelming you with sounds and scents hard to understand. Your color vision fades, distressing you with its loss. Your mind thinks the last bit of your humanity has gone and it snaps." He snapped his fingers to demonstrate. "Your mind shuts itself off and retreats into the background. Horse instincts take over."
Posti didn't see much reaction from the boys, so he elaborated. "What that means is, for all practical purposes, you die. You cease to exist as a rational, thinking being. What remains is a horse as far as anyone can determine -- a horse that will fetch a very good price on the open market."
Kyle finally found his tongue. "That's murder! My lawyer's gonna hear about this!"
"You don't have a lawyer," Brown reminded him. "Not any more. As far as the State is concerned, you no longer exist. If you should reappear in two months or two years, that's great. If you never reappear, oh well."
Posti said, "You are fully in control of whether that happens. It takes a whole month of screwing up to get that far. I'm sure we can help you avoid that fate."
Kyle didn't look convinced. Wardens had always told him he was in control of his future. So why was he here and not out on the street?
Since none of the boys had any questions, Posti stepped back through the door and reappeared with three steel boxes. As each was set down behind one of the boys, Brown slipped a card with the boy's name into a holder. When Posti carried out the third box, he was followed by another man carrying a stack of clothing. This man plopped white briefs, socks, undershirt, a bright red jumpsuit, a red cap and tan work boots on the desk in front of each boy. The new man glanced at them and said, "I hope your former residence sent accurate clothing sizes."
"Okay, boys," said Brown, "Everything you own -- and I do mean everything except your body -- goes into the box. Don't bother opening your backpack, just put it in the box."
"Even my CD player?" interrupted Jet.
"Even that. Then take off all of your clothing, watches, jewelry, wallets, and body piercing devices. All but the clothing goes in the box. The clothing will follow once it has been cleaned."
"I get it all back, don't I?" asked Dougie.
"If you leave as human, of course you do. Every bit of it. Now get busy."
The boys grumbled, but complied. They had seen what Posti could do.
As a naked Jet was about to reach for the prison clothes, the third man stepped up to them. "I'm Doctor Clark. I must do a physical examination before you dress."
The boys paid attention to him then and noticed that he had pale blond horse ears and tail that matched his hair and beard quite well.
"If we're allergic to the horse stuff, you let us go?" asked Kyle.
"Nope. That's never been a problem. I'm checking for things that might infect the camp. And for hidden weapons."
"One last thing before you are taken to the dorm," said Brown. "Instead of any antidote this evening -- as I said, your own body needs to show evidence of what I've told you -- you will get something that will guide the agent towards a particular breed of horse, if you so desire. As you become a horse, what kind of horse do you want to be?"
"I want what he's got," said Kyle pointing to Posti.
"I'll warn you now," said Brown, "having big muscles is one thing. Using them responsibly in society is quite another."
"You said I get to choose. I'm choosing."
"That I did," said Brown wearily. He made a notation and looked at Jet.
"Ya got zebra?" asked Jet. "I want something proper for a son of Africa." His smile and raised eyebrows showed he was hoping that wasn't possible and since they couldn't honor his request, he would get out of it completely.
Kyle laughed. "You ain't never been anywhere near Africa! The closest you got was when you visited your cousin in Dallas."
Jet just glared back.
No chance of getting an out. "Posti?" said Brown.
"No problem," answered the horseman. "The various equine species are close enough that zebra will be easy."
Jet's smile faded.
Brown prompted, "Doug?"
"Paint? Piebald? Something like that."
Again, Posti said, "No problem."
Brown tapped a few keys on his phone, then said, "Maria, some new residents are ready for you." He turned to the boys. "Maria will take you to the dormitory and to supper. You are to be in your rooms at 9:30. Roll call and breakfast is at 8:00 and the three of you are to report to Laundry at 8:30."
Dougie tapped his naked wrist. "How do you expect us to be on time when you take away our watches?"
"What watch?" chided Kyle. "A Juvie with a watch?"
"There are clocks in every room and bells for wakeup, mealtime, at the start and end of exercise time, work time, class time, and at lights out," said Brown. "Knowing the time isn't a problem."
The door to the exercise yard opened and in stepped a horse-woman. Kyle was a little better at hiding his surprise, but not much. She was very similar to Posti -- same imposing height and strong build, same brown and white coloring, same strangely shaped legs, yet as obviously female as Posti was male.
"Boys, this is Maria," said Brown. "She is Posti's wife. Mess with her and she'll deck you as easily as Posti can. Maria, I'd like you to meet Kyle, Doug, and Jet."
"Come along, children." She herded them across the exercise yard to the dorm and said, "Since nobody has any personal items, it doesn't matter which room you use. For all we care you can use a different room every night, though if you fight over a room you lose your antidote for the day." She opened a door, which Kyle saw wasn't locked. "Each room has a bed large enough for you no matter what your current form is and a full size mirror to allow you to keep track of your physical progress one direction or the other. Showers and toilets are down the hall."
"I wouldn't want a different bed each night if it had some kid's dirty sheets," said Dougie.
"That's where Laundry crew comes in," said Maria. "Every day, at least to start, your job will be to change the sheets of every bed. You will also wash all of the sheets and towels as well as all the jumpsuits and other clothing."
"Aw, man, that's woman's work," said Kyle.
"No, Kyle, that is simple work. You can easily be trained to do it which will make you a productive member of our little society. Once you show you are responsible and dependable with this, we'll trust you with other, more interesting, tasks."
The bells sounded. Maria said, "Time for supper. And time to meet your fellow residents." The boys followed Maria down the hall and into the Dining Hall. Maria indicated a man -- a full human -- on the far side of the room. "That is Mister Riley. He's in charge of food."
Maria then held out her arms to keep the newcomers in place as boys began streaming in from the outside heading for the chow line. Kyle was about to object to being stuck in the back of the line -- but then he began to look at who was moving past his face. It was such an amazing sight he didn't dare glance to see if Dougie's or Jet's jaws had dropped as much as his own.
All of the boys had red jumpsuits and red caps, but that was the end of their uniformity.
Only one boy was completely human. He almost looked out of place.
All the rest of the thirty boys had hair on their ears -- two or three with reddish or brown fur on the upper curl, a few more with pointy ears well covered with fur. The rest had ears on top of their heads poking through holes in their caps.
Some boys with ears sticking through their caps also had a horse tail sticking through a hole in the back of their jumpsuits that was usually swishing a bit. Some tails were rather short, some brushed the ground. Kyle hadn't realized horse tails came in so many colors.
There were many boys with ears, tail, and hair on their faces and on the backs of their hands. On a few boys the hair was sparse, just a few wisps of brown, red, black, or white. On many more boys it could properly be called fur, completely obscuring the skin.
A handful of boys had noses and mouths that pushed out into varying degrees of a muzzle and had the oddly shaped legs that ended in round shoes instead of the standard work boots.
Kyle could only gape as the boys filed past. He could only mumble when one of the boys realized Maria was standing with newcomers and stuck out his hand in greeting.
Kyle, Dougie, and Jet stepped up to the end of the line as Maria left them. They were soon served water, bread, and stew by a crew that was also quite varied in the shape of the ears and amount of fur.
Kyle said, "Hey, there's no meat in this stew!"
Riley spoke up beside him. "That's right, Camp Pegasus is vegetarian."
"Well, I'm not. I'm a growing boy. I need meat!"
"You'll grow just fine on veggies and you will soon have a stomach that is part horse and horses can't digest meat."
"But I don't have one now. Not yet." Kyle was feeling anxious about what lay ahead. "I want some meat."
"Well, then, I suggest you go outside and catch a lizard with your bare hands. If you succeed, I'll personally cook it for you. And do watch out for the rattlesnakes, though I've heard even those taste like chicken."
Kyle was flustered for only a moment. "But I don't like veggies."
"Aw, let me feel sorry for you." Riley pretended to rub his eyes. "You do have some options." He tapped fingers as he spoke. "You can go hungry. You can pick out the parts you do like and come back for more of that. Or," he gestured to the table behind him, "you can have a ketchup bottle of your very own and use as much as you want."
Reluctantly, Kyle sat and poked through the stew.
Once the meal was over Kyle watched as the boys filed out past a table manned by Posti, Maria, and Brown. Each boy was given an armload of fresh clothing as Maria checked her laptop. Some of the boys were also given a paper cup; the sugar cubes inside were quickly chewed and swallowed. That must be the stuff to keep you human, thought Kyle.
When the three newbies approached the table, Maria said, "Since you just got here, there is no need for clean clothes for tomorrow. But I do have your breed selectors." She reached to a separate tray where three paper cups with sugar cubes were carefully labeled with their names.
After leaving the Dining Hall, Kyle, Dougie, and Jet wandered the grounds. They tested many doors. Some of them were locked, others opened up to such mundane things as a laundry room (at least they knew where to go in the morning), wood and metal shop, and library (mostly textbooks, though there were several boys studying or reading). They also found the stables (which were empty) and the garden. By the time the lights out bell sounded, they had each chosen a room out of sheer boredom.
Bells rang at 7:30, jolting Kyle out of sleep. He confirmed the time with the clock on the wall -- a clock with bars over it. As Kyle reached for the jumpsuit he had dropped in front of the mirror, he glanced at his reflection. Hmm. His ears seemed to have a brown smudge on them, noticeably darker than his milk-coffee skin. He left the clothes where they were and stepped up to the mirror for a closer look.
It wasn't dirt. The tops of both ears were covered in short brown hairs, like he had seen on a couple boys the evening before. The hairs weren't very long and were soft to the touch. He could run a finger through them and feel them with his fingertip and also feel the way the hairs wiggled inside their follicles on his ears.
Kyle felt like he had been kicked by a horse. Posti and Maria could have been wearing tricked-up costumes; the doctor could have easily worn a fake tail and hairy Vulcan ears from a store. The kids at supper last night could have been in on an elaborate scam for the new guys. All this talk of agent and antidote could have been a hoax.
But this was his own body. These hairs were on his own ears -- he felt them with his own fingers and felt them respond inside his own skin. These hairs were a part of him and they weren't there yesterday.
Everything he had been told, everything he had seen was true. There really was something in the water that turned humans into horses. Posti and Maria really were a blend of human and horse. The doctor really did have a tail and the other kids really did struggle with the agent with varying degrees of success.
He -- Kyle -- had been violated in the very core of his being.
And he was mad.
Just to make sure, he carefully inspected the rest of his body. Good. Nothing else was different.
The only thing for which he had no proof yet was the antidote. The kids could have been given simple sugar cubes yesterday for all he could tell.
It might be good to savor that anger until he could trust the antidote. The anger would be useful if the antidote was a sham.
The bells rang for breakfast and roll call. That was enough to remind Kyle that he was hungry. Might as well eat while there was chow available. He sauntered to the toilet and used it before continuing down the hall.
Riley was standing in the Dining Hall near the doorway. As Kyle stepped into the room he could see all of the boys lined up along the wall, responding when Riley called out their names. Riley would then make a quick mark in his datapad.
Kyle soon spotted Dougie and Jet in the line. The white fuzz on Dougie's visible ear stood out against his red cap. Jet's fuzz was a little harder to see as it was as black as his skin. Both boys had a shell-shocked look about them. Dougie in particular looked like he had sold out to The Man already, ready and willing to jump through whatever hoops were placed before him. He saw Dougie glance at him and sneered in reply.
"You're late," said Riley, staring at Kyle. "Employers do not put up with late employees. No juice for you tonight."
Kyle caught on that he was referring to the antidote, not something made from oranges or grapes.
"Fine with me," said Kyle. "You ain't convinced me it's real."
Riley told the rest of the room, "You may eat," and watched as a few of them sprinted to their serving positions and the rest of the line surged forward. He then turned to Kyle and put his hands on his hips. "Not convinced, you say? Then I suggest you study your friend's faces carefully. They are likely to be fuzz free tomorrow."
"Not if I can help it," muttered Kyle.
Riley made a notation in his datapad, then looked at Kyle again. This time, his expression wasn't one of anger or of righteous indignation, but of something Kyle saw as scarier. He saw pity. And regret. And resignation. With sadness thrown in.
"Get some breakfast," said Riley.
Kyle sat next to Jet and Dougie with his bowl of oatmeal, peach, and banana. "So, boys, what shall we do today?"
"Laundry," said Jet.
"Yup," said Dougie.
Kyle sneered. "Sold out. Din'tcha?"
"The Man's got me by the short hairs, Kyle," said Jet.
"And it's the short hairs on my ears," said Dougie.
Kyle looked at Dougie for a long moment. Dougie stared back, then looked away. That's when Kyle noticed. "Hey, dude, this ear's got red fuzz. The other one's got white."
"Paint," said Dougie. "Just like I asked for. But now that I've got it I don't want it." He glanced at the clock. "Gotta go. I'm not gonna be late because of you." Both Dougie and Jet hurried out.
By the time Kyle finished his oatmeal, Brown was sitting across from him, saying, "Mister Riley says you got off on the wrong foot today. He says you don't believe the antidote exists."
"That's right. I don't." Kyle certainly wasn't going to change his story now.
Brown sighed. "Very well. Now that you've studied the fuzz on your ears, I'm sure I can convince you by giving you some juice right now." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a pill box with a sugar cube and handed it to Kyle, who quickly ate it. "Take the day off. Do whatever you want as long as you stay out of everyone else's way. You might find some good books in the library. Come to my office at five, just before the supper bell and we'll check for fuzz on your ears. I certainly hope you've figured out this trick will only work once."
Kyle had never seen a warden cave so easily. A day off! Mondo!
So Kyle wandered around the camp and a ways into the surrounding desert. He poked into the Laundry and saw the big washers at work. He checked every room of the dorm until he found Jet and Dougie making beds, then made a big show of laughing at them until he was chased away. He watched the other residents in the shop, garden, and classroom. He bothered the kids who were making lunch until Riley chased him away and was first in line -- only to be disappointed when Jet and Dougie sat elsewhere.
He finally settled in the Library, first pulling out books at random and setting them on a table, and finally settling down with a novel. It had been a long time since he had read for pleasure and it was tough going. He found himself staring at the same page for several minutes.
About the time he realized he should at least turn the page, or maybe give up entirely and scan the book for pictures, he noticed there were several small brown hairs on the page. He almost shook them out of the book when he realized where they must have come from. He jerked his fingers to his ears and watched several more hairs fall into the book. After a moment of vigorous rubbing he felt smooth skin along the upper edge of his ears and saw a large number of hairs on the open pages.
He again felt his stomach clench, the same feeling he felt when he looked in the mirror that morning. It was all true. The agent and the juice. They had him. The Man had latched on to the short hairs and wasn't going to let go. No matter what he did, The Man was out to destroy him and had concocted this cosmic prank to seriously mess with his mind along the way.
Kyle grabbed the edge of the open book and flung it against the wall, watching the pages flutter as it spun like a frisbee. He knocked his chair over as he lunged for the shelves where he grabbed book after book and tossed them at the wall. He felt he couldn't throw them hard enough.
It seemed only moments -- though there was a sizable pile of books on the floor by the wall -- when a massive, furry arm wrapped around Kyle's chest from behind, lifted him off the floor and hauled him through the nearest exit. Kyle shouted, cursed, and beat against the arm that bound him and the body that carried him. His yelling caught many eyes on the trip across the exercise yard, but no one interfered.
Mister Brown was waiting at another door, which Kyle had found locked during his wanderings. Kyle was carried into what was very familiar -- a regular ten-by-ten prison cell. He was shoved inside and heard the door slam behind him. He bounced himself off the bed and threw himself against the bars in an attempt to grab Brown and Posti, who stood there watching him. The two men watched his tantrum for only a few seconds before walking out.
It was a good ten minutes before Kyle tired himself out and slumped on the bed. After a few moments to reflect, he decided his situation wasn't so bad. Prison cells were something he understood. There was a certain routine to life in lockup, even the Juvie kind. At least here he wouldn't have to deal with all that horse crap.
Kyle stretched and opened his eyes. As prison beds went, it was actually pretty good. He felt like he had gotten a decent night's sleep. He was hungry, though, having missed out on supper. He sat up.
A voice said, "Ah. You're awake." It was Brown sitting on a folding chair outside his cell. "You slept through breakfast, but something can be sent over. Would you like some water now?" Brown wiggled the glass of water in his hand, causing the ice to clink against the side. He took a sip, then picked up another glass from the floor. A pitcher of cold water was beside his foot.
Water would taste so good right about now... Kyle said, "No, not if it's got that horse stuff in it."
"It does." Brown sighed. "So does everything else we eat or drink around here. Everything we cook has at least some water in it. Everything grown in the garden was watered with local water." Brown set the one glass down and filled the other from the pitcher. He held it out to Kyle. "You can't get it away from it here."
"Fine! I'll starve."
"You can go maybe fifty days without food, but you can only go a few days without water. And death is too permanent of a solution to your problems."
Kyle launched himself at Brown, slamming into the bars. "What gives you the right to turn all of us into horses! Why do you get to play God!" He pounded a fist against the bars, causing them to rattle. "I'm sick of your little games!" Rattle. "I'm sick of your holy 'tude where you got it made and I got nuthin'!" Kyle pounded a few more times then slumped onto the bed.
"Kyle," said Brown, softly, "it doesn't matter that you have the agent in you with me controlling the antidote; you still have choices. You can choose to rebel or to cooperate. Even in whatever slum you came from, you had choices. You can choose to let your circumstances defeat you or you can choose to work to rise above them. It is the job of the staff of Camp Pegasus to explore those choices."
"How we gonna do that with this horse thing hanging over me?"
"It's no different here than on the outside," said Brown. Kyle shook his head. "All I am doing is making the consequences of your choices more dramatic." Kyle rolled his eyes. "If you would spend as much effort doing the work as you do trying to get out of the work, your life would be much more enjoyable and productive."
Brown looked kindly at Kyle. Kyle glared back.
Brown said, "There's an intercom on the wall by the bars that connects to my office. If you want me to bring something, let me know. If you want out, just say the word. Just remember, you don't get any antidote while you're in here."
Brown set the full glass and the pitcher just outside the bars where Kyle could reach them. He picked up his own glass to head out.
Before he turned, he watched Kyle deliberately tip over the pitcher so the water sloshed over Brown's shoes. Brown sighed and walked to the door. At the door, he paused and looked back. In the middle of the spreading puddle the glass remained upright.
Just before lunch, Kyle used the intercom, "I want to come out now."
"Certainly, Kyle," replied Brown.
As Brown stepped into the prison a few minutes later, Kyle reached down, picked up the glass of water, and drank it.
"Glad to see you decided to take advantage of our resources," said Brown.
Amazing, thought Kyle. I'm up against a patsy and he's won every battle.
Kyle tried. He tried real hard. But he was sure someone was out to get him.
That afternoon during the tutoring session, a kid with fur on his face said Kyle's mother must have -- and that's as far as he got before Kyle socked him in the jaw. Kyle's ears were fuzzy on top again the next morning. The other kid's nose had pushed out a bit.
The next day while making beds, another kid with a full muzzle made a similar crack about Kyle's father. Never mind that Kyle had never known his father, that punk needed a beating anyway. Kyle's ears were completely covered with fuzz the next morning.
After a third fight -- this one a slugfest in the exercise yard -- Kyle's ears had definite points and Brown had a long talk with him about the effectiveness of fighting and the possible alternatives.
Then Kyle lost a day's juice when he traded so many insults that the other kid started the fight. His ears were noticeably longer the next morning.
Instead of carrying his dishes to the wash line, Kyle convinced Jet and Dougie to be innovative and toss the plastic plates like a frisbee. The tomato sauce still on the plate hit Riley on his bald spot. That night, Kyle got a clean cap styled to allow for higher ears.
He got mad at Posti in a counseling session because he felt Posti was prying into personal matters, though Posti claimed that all of his past should be examined to help him to leave. His next cap had ear holes.
The morning after instigating another fight, Kyle found he had a tail. It was only an inch long but already had stubbly hair. Good thing his jumpsuit covered it.
During his garden chores that afternoon, he was picking tomatoes. He got some juice and gunk on his fingers when he grabbed a tomato that was rotting on the vine. Just then a kid with a white tail and his back towards Kyle bent over. The target was just too tempting and his aim was accurate. Too bad the kid was a damn wimp -- all he did was attract Posti with his yelp. When Kyle put on his jumpsuit the next morning, his tail tended to catch on the seam as it twitched.
Maria was tutoring him in math and got to an algebra problem that made absolutely no sense. He bitched about how dumb the problem was and didn't listen to her yap about how she'd guide him every step of the way if necessary, but he had to at least try.
When he picked up the next day's jumpsuit that evening, Posti made a point of saying, "Time for one with a tail hole, I see."
Kyle almost denied it, but instead asked, "How did you know?"
"We keep track where you are in your changes. Everyone follows the same pattern, so it is easy to do. Add one day for each day without juice, subtract a day for each one with. It has been several days since you've had juice and your tail will be uncomfortable tomorrow if you confine it. Besides, men are too embarrassed to say they have a small tail. So we just give you the right jumpsuit." Kyle examined the 'suit that evening just before lights out. The butt seam had a reinforced hole big enough to avoid chafing and snaps above and below to make it easy to get a tail into it. The briefs were made the same way.
Though the hair on his tail obscured the skin the next morning, it was still short and wimpy. Kyle started a stupid argument over something pointless with Posti in his counseling session that afternoon. When Posti said, "Let me guess: You're mad at me for being right about the tail hole, and you're embarrassed because your tail looks so puny." Kyle started another argument the next day simply because Posti had been right on target.
At least his tail looked respectable the next morning.
The last straw was when he was caught cheating on an algebra quiz -- he had made his hatred of the subject quite clear, but no one listened. For ten days he'd tried to be a good little boy, and all it got him was ten days older and ten days further from having his sentence lifted. He hadn't received any juice in all that time. Brown, Posti, Maria, Riley, the other residents of the camp -- they all were out to get him, to make sure he got as freaky as the worst of them. Dougie and Jet tried to avoid him. It didn't go any good to play by the rules if they were going to keep the juice from him anyway. Why bother working for a goal when The Man was never gonna let him anywhere near the goalposts?
So he quit.
Except for two things.
The first was the exercise program.
About the same time that emerging fur revealed a white stripe from the bridge of his nose to his hairline, Kyle noticed the daily exercise program was easier to get through, made him feel more invigorated, and seemed to more readily build better muscle tone than any exercise program ever had in the past.
Since Kyle didn't show up for work assignments, tutoring, and counseling sessions, he had a lot of time for body-building. There was no weight room and no personal trainer, so he scoured the Library for books on general fitness, body-building, kinesthetics, and general health.
In the morning when he examined himself in the mirror, he looked less at the thickening fur and the extending muzzle then he did at the bulging muscles. In the evening, when picking up his jumpsuit for the next day, he mentally compared his muscles to Posti's.
By the time his heels no longer rested on the floor and his middle toes began to lengthen, he had studied enough articles on isometric exercise that could continue exercising in a dorm room, only hobbling to the Dining Hall for meals. He would simply move to the floor when the laundry crew came to change the sheets. His presence in the room allowed him to keep the same one for several days.
The second thing Kyle kept doing was trying to get Dougie and Jet into trouble. When Kyle had been serious about playing by the rules, his attempts at troublemaking were half-hearted and even Dougie could resist them. But Kyle became as serious about making trouble as he had been about doing things by the rules and usually succeeded in acquiring collaborators.
Kyle convinced his buddies to short-sheet several beds, keeping them at it long enough that they were noticeably late for supper. When several boys complained the next morning, it wasn't hard to figure out who had done it.
Kyle then used his arts of persuasion to get his friends to skip their work shift one day and their class sessions the next for forays into the surrounding desert to try to catch -- and bash -- lizards. Dougie was relieved to see how quick the lizards were and that none were actually captured.
Emotional abuse -- insults about mothers and claims of not being a man -- were necessary and effective in Kyle getting his partners to antagonize Bailey, who was the most advanced towards full horse. Kyle wanted to see if they could get Bailey's mind to snap, even though the dumb kid was still four days away from such a fate. Kyle was angry when Bailey refused to fight back; the wimp simply stood there and took the beating. Kyle was sufficiently furious when he heard that Posti approved of how Bailey handled himself that Kyle got his friends to taunt Posti and earned all three yet another day without juice.
Jet was pleased when his stripes became visible, but Dougie nearly panicked when he got a jumpsuit with a tail hole.
Dougie finally stiffened his spine and refused when Kyle proposed skipping class. Dougie thankfully drew on Jet's quiet resistance when Kyle accused them of betraying their friendship and selling out to The Man.
When Kyle used the same tactic the next day, Dougie fought back, not yet having been able to learn from Bailey's example. Kyle taunted some more that evening, "Missed out on the juice, didja? And you didn't have any fun to make it worthwhile."
Posti, especially, noticed Kyle's exercise program and was impressed by his drive. Posti knew how much effort it took to build muscles like his own as he did exercises himself to maintain his imposing appearance. His choice of breed might have the potential for great strength, but 'potential' didn't become real muscle without a lot of work.
So Posti tried to harness Kyle's drive.
Posti found Kyle jogging around the perimeter of the camp, trying out hooves now fully formed, and easily fell in beside him. "Good morning, Kyle."
Kyle grunted in return.
Posti could see that Kyle was now almost his twin -- same chocolate fur, same white hoof feathering (though Kyle's wasn't very long yet), same strong build, and nearly the same height. Now that Kyle's fur was thick, he had even stopped wearing the jumpsuit. He would have worn shorts similar to what Posti wore every day, but the camp didn't seem to think such shorts were necessary. His white briefs would have to do.
"It looks like physical training has become your passion," said Posti.
"Well, Sherlock, whatever gave you that idea?"
Posti ignored the barb. "A physical trainer could make good money on the outside. You could put all your knowledge to work."
"Put up with vain movie stars or fat businessmen and get treated like scum all day? Been there. Done that. Got the tee-shirt. Not interested."
"You could work for a professional sports team --"
"They're just as stuck-up."
"-- or a university --"
"They'd want to see a degree."
"-- or a high school."
"And put up with teenagers all day? Oh, please!"
"If you're fond of the body you have now, we could have you lead physical training around here. Assist Mr. Klein."
"The only thing worse than your typical teenager is a teenager that is doing Juvie time. I should know."
"Kyle, I must warn you that you have not had any antidote in so long that your mind is about a week from snapping. There is still time, Kyle. You don't have to die."
Kyle thought about this for only a few steps. "If I'm about a week from snapping, you gotta be even closer. You stop takin' the juice, I bet your brain gets fried in, what? Six days? Five? You must really like your body to live that close to the edge."
Kyle put on some speed and was gone.
Kyle could keep up the cocky, tough-guy 'tude while jogging with Posti. But that evening, while admiring his own physique, Kyle's thoughts were in a turmoil...
Seven days 'til I'm brain-dead.
What have I got to live for? I'm never going to get out of here.
I finally got power. Nobody's gonna mess with me! I can beat the snot outta anyone!
Anywhere outside this camp, I show up looking like this and they shoot the freak on sight.
I don't want to die!
My life sucks. How'd I end up with so much stacked against me?
If my brain shuts itself up in a horse body, am I really dead? Or do I get to live in my own little world where nothing can bother me?
I've really got it made here. I can do whatever I want. Piss 'em off, all they do is withhold the juice and I end up with a body like this! What could be sweeter?
Why don't humans have fur? Hell, it looks better than bare skin.
If they won't give me the juice, maybe I can take it.
Too bad I just can't walk out of here and keep this body.
How does that stuff get in the water? What are they gonna do to me if I try to find out?
'Motivation', Brown calls the juice. I'd love to 'motivate' his sorry ass into an ambulance!
I want out of this place!
Does the mind really snap? Or did Brown just make that up as part of his 'motivation'?
If I picked a fight with Posti, I wonder who would win?
Oh man, if I could just talk to my lawyer, this place would be so history.
If I walked out of here, how much water would I need until I got back to the main road? How heavy is that? What would I carry it in?
Brown hasn't lied yet. He was right about the water and the juice. He was even right about the breed.
Hooves are cool, once you get used to them.
It's gotta be illegal for these guys to set it up so I die if I don't follow their stupid rules. Posti didn't argue about his brain's only got six days till it fries.
I'm sick of this stinkin' desert!
Who's gonna believe a Juvie kid who says, "That camp almost turned me into a horse. You better investigate them"?
How does Brown know what's going on in someone else's head?
What have I got to live for?
I bet I could take on every kid in this place. Maybe all the wardens too.
Seven days to brain-death.
Picking a fight with Posti would be... would be...
I don't want to die!
It hadn't taken any snooping at all for Kyle to figure out what building the juice came out of. It was just a matter of being late for supper and watching where Posti came from when he showed up with his box of paper cups.
Kyle lurked around the corner and waited for Posti to come to the same building the next evening. Once Posti had worked the lock's keypad and opened the door, Kyle was on him. A quick blow to the top of the neck and Posti went sprawling, unconscious. It was easy.
Kyle stepped over the fallen body then pulled it into the room, letting the door swing shut and lock. He then used his strength to pull a cabinet in front of the door. It didn't take long for Kyle to eat all of the sugar cubes with the entire camp's rations of juice for the day, check the refrigerator for more stock -- there seemed to be plenty -- and to trash the equipment in the room. It felt so good to feel the weight of all those things that mocked his lack of understanding as he hurled them and to hear the shattering as they broke.
It didn't take very long before there was banging on the door. "Posti?" shouted Brown. He knew something was wrong when Posti didn't show up with the juice at his customary time. Kyle shattered one more piece of glass equipment to emphasize that it wasn't Posti in charge inside.
Brown's voice was softer, not directed at the door. "Who's missing?" A moment later, Kyle heard another voice speak, probably Maria. Then Brown spoke again, "Kyle! You in there?"
"Come on out. You have no business in there. Where's Posti?"
Kyle heard the lock click and the door open. He heard Brown grunt when the cabinet blocked his way. Kyle was sure that Brown wasn't strong enough to shove the cabinet aside. There was a gap between the doorframe and the cabinet, enough for Kyle to see Brown's eyeball.
"Posti's on the floor. At my feet."
"What do you want, Kyle?"
"Safe passage out of this zoo. I've eaten everybody's juice, which should be enough to get me back to human."
"It doesn't work that way."
"Yeah, well, Posti's unconscious. You got two days before his mind is fried and he's just a dumb horse. Get me out of here before then, and you can save his butt. In two days I dump the juice and nobody gets any!"
"Kyle, it won't work. Give it up."
"Sure it will, I'm on my way back to human."
"Kyle, no matter how much juice you take, it will only work for one day. It will not take you all the way back to human. And Posti isn't two days from his mind snapping, he is at least six. You, on the other hand, in spite of all the juice you've just taken have only six days as well."
"That so? Then how 'bout I dump all the juice down the drain, right now, and nobody gets any? You'll have to evacuate the camp. Take all of us away from the horse stuff."
"Kyle, for something as important as the antidote, don't you think we would have backup facilities? Riley is on his way right now to give everyone else a free dose."
"Bastards!" shouted Kyle. He threw another piece of glass so that it shattered beside the door, sending shards through the gap. "You're all a bunch of fucking killers! You should get the chair!" The hit was low enough that Brown shook the fragments from his shirt.
"Kyle, I am not a murderer because this state does permit capital punishment. It is legal for me to let your mind die."
"For blowing off your stupid rules? Yeah, right! You're killing me, you bastard!"
"No, Kyle. You are killing you. Everything that's happened to you at this camp has been your own choice. If you die here, it will be suicide. But holding Posti hostage until his mind snaps -- that, Kyle, is murder. And if you commit murder, that, too, will be your choice, and you will die from your decision."
There was silence for a moment, then the sound of more breaking glass.
"Kyle," said Brown, "I'll make a deal with you. Come out now and I'll make sure you get antidote for a week. I'll personally help you through your issues. We can get you back into society."
"Not interested. I ain't got no use for society."
"But you said you want out of here."
"I want some nice safe prison someplace where I can live out my life in peace. I know I don't deserve to live on the outside and I don't really want to anymore. I just want out of this freaky place."
"Sorry, Kyle, I can't do that."
"No prison is safe. You should know that by now. In a few years you will be sent into an adult prison and your prospects of safety drop even more. I doubt you would last long."
This time Kyle's voice was full of emotion. "Can't you just lock me in your prison here?"
Brown sighed. "No, Kyle, I can't afford to have an unproductive person on the grounds. If you stay, you have to work. You have to do something to earn your keep and so far, you haven't shown that you will do that."
There was silence inside.
"Kyle, if you give up now, if you walk out outside with your hands up, my offer of a week of antidote still holds. In ten minutes, I'm coming in after you. If I do, you can say goodbye to your mind."
"I don't believe you."
"What is it you don't believe?" asked Brown.
"You ain't got the balls to let my brain fry. You're too much of a wimp! It's Posti who's your muscle. Well, Posti's in here!"
"Are you willing to die for that belief, Kyle? Underestimating me can kill you. You knew what would happen from the day you got here. I'm fully capable of letting trash like you kill yourself. I've got twenty receipts for sale of horses to prove it. You will make a very nice Shire horse, quite big and strong. I'm very glad you've been exercising so much. It makes you so much more valuable. Oh, yes! I'll make quite a lot of money off of you."
Brown paused for a moment.
"One minute has passed, Kyle. You have 9 minutes left."
There was silence, which stretched.
Through the gap Kyle watched Riley pass out juice to the other boys.
With one quick motion, Kyle sent the cabinet crashing to the floor, leaped over it, and tackled Brown. "If I'm gonna go, you're goin' with me, you bastard!" The two went sprawling in the dust.
With such a large and strong horse-man on top of him, Brown couldn't do much fighting back -- but Maria could and she had a very large target. She quickly pulled the trigger on her tranq gun.
Kyle still got two good punches in before the tranquilizer took effect.
With sharp commands, Maria directed kids to roll Kyle off Brown as she dashed into the lab to Posti. Riley took over, directing kids to haul Kyle off to the cell and Brown and Posti to the infirmary where Dr. Clark was waiting.
Maria was standing outside Kyle's cell when he came to the next morning. When she saw he was awake, she said, "Impressive." Her cold eyes bored into the large kid. "Not many punks can take out both Posti and Brown." Kyle merely gazed back at her. "Posti has a pretty large lump at the base of his skull. With a day's rest, he will be back to his duties.
"As for Brown --" she looked off in the distance, " -- let's see. Cracked ribs and collarbone, broken nose, and a black eye." She focused again on Kyle. "It might take him a while, but he'll recover.
"All that means is that you've signed your own death warrant. You'll have plenty of time over the next four days to contemplate how you contributed to this fate or to rail against society about how it's all so unfair -- your choice.
"Once you've lost your hands, we'll slip a halter over your head and stake you to the middle of the exercise field so all of our inmates can be reminded of what they are working to avoid.
"And then Mister Brown gets to sell your sorry ass."
Kyle was merely intrigued when his middle fingers began to grow. All the better for giving a particular gesture. He was concerned when the other fingers were noticeably smaller and downright alarmed when he lost range of motion in his arms. He even panicked when Posti delivered a meal and instead of actual words, his attempt to curse came out as a whinny. It took a great deal of effort to calm himself as Posti watched dispassionately.
Kyle tried another tack. He would be different. He wouldn't lose his mind, no matter what else happened. He would be the one that kept an alert human mind in a horse's body. The mind snapped because of panic, didn't it? Well, then. He would keep his cool.
He kept his cool when Maria no longer issued clean briefs, saying, "We won't have anything to fit you come morning. Besides, animals don't wear clothes." He kept his cool when he had to stand on four legs and again when he had to stick his muzzle into a pail to eat. He kept his cool when Brown, moving gingerly and with Posti as backup, came into his cell and fastened a halter around his head.
No problem, thought Kyle. I can beat this.
Posti examine Kyle nose to tail. "You'll be a fine horse! Ribs need to fill out some more and the neck and the front legs are still a bit short. Other than that, all you need to do is grow." Posti patted a scrawny flank. "You're much too small for a Shire as you are now. For someone who insisted he needed meat to grow, you'll find that a diet of oats will do the job nicely."
Kyle even kept his cool when Posti fastened a fat chain to his halter, led him to the center of the exercise yard, and fastened the chain to a stake. He considered giving Posti a swift kick someplace tender, but Maria standing nearby with a tranq gun changed his mind. He told himself that he wasn't used to his body yet and might've missed.
Once staked, Kyle tried pulling up the stake, but found the halter cut into his head. So he stood there on his four hooves. I will be calm, he told himself, I'll get through this.
Kyle was annoyed when the other boys came out to sit around the sides of the exercise yard. Just great! I'm on display!
That's when he noticed his eyes wouldn't focus on any one boy very well. He tried turning his head and looking at a boy with just one eye, but the image still wasn't very clear. Weren't the jumpsuits red? They looked gray. Did they get new 'suits or did someone screw up in the laundry?
Wasn't Dougie's ear sort of a reddish color? Maybe that wasn't Dougie. It was hard to tell. At least Jet's stripes were obvious.
What's that smell? Did someone not shower this morning? There's another one. Like the first smell, but not quite. I wish I could see well enough to match smell to thing. I want to get close enough to smell one at a time.
This stink smells like horse. Kyle ducked his head down to get his nose close to his forelegs. That smell is me. But there's another horse here. He smells dangerous.
Kyle could now pick snatches of words out of the general murmuring of conversation amongst the boys. "Quit pulling on my..." "Its getting hot. Couldn't they..." "Yo, man, you're on the supper crew today, aren't..." But words didn't sound the way they should. Kyle couldn't tell who said what. The words blended into a never-ending roar, a confusing babble.
Odors flooded Kyle's nose. Each scent demanded to be known. Each one carried information about food, comfort, danger, or something safe to ignore. He couldn't tell one from the next fast enough to decide what to do before another one filled his mind. Fight? Flee? Eat? Nuzzle? Ignore?
Stallions! was the thought that came out on top more and more. This place is full of stallions! They challenge my place in the herd. I need to protect my rank! Where is my enemy? Which one do I fight?
Posti saw Kyle's eyes get big and knew it was time. The horse-man had been purposely standing upwind of Kyle's head and took his cue to back away.
Kyle began to kick, buck, and yank on the chain. The urges to fight and to flee had become strong. His gyrations became wilder. But his form wasn't well balanced yet and he wasn't used to forelegs so his kicking and bucking caused him to lose balance and fall heavily. Even the ground attacks! He scrambled clumsily to his feet to renew his battle.
Come on you coward! Show yourself! Come and fight! I'll take you on! I'm strong and can whup anyone here! Where are you? I can't see you. I know you're close. I can hear you and smell you! I'm the stallion around here! Come! Fight!
It took a long time for the horse to tire. He was a strong one, all right! He stumbled and fell four more times before he took his time to rise. He finally stood still, eyes wide and whuffing heavily through flared nostrils.
"Kyle?" said Posti.
"Kyle?" he repeated, coming closer. "Kyle!" He stepped up to the animal and slowly reached out to lay a hand on the creature's neck. "Kyle? Are you there? Please nod if you understand what I'm saying."
The horse just stood there, wild eyed and whuffing.
Posti caught the halter and pulled the beast's eye close to his face. The eye blinked a few times, then Posti let go.
A stream of piss splattered the exercise yard beneath the horse. The horse did not react.
"I'm sorry to report that Kyle Johnson is dead."
"Thank you, Posti. Please guide that animal to the stables."
Dougie stood in the doorway of the stables. He slowly approached the horse. "Posti said it's my turn to groom you. He said it's easy, just brush all the fur in the same direction it grows. It just takes a while.
"Jeez, Kyle. Jet said you'd grown, but I didn't think it was this much. You're huge! I'm gonna hafta use a stool to reach your back."
Dougie still had human feet, though -- thanks to the influence of Kyle -- he did have a mostly white muzzle, one russet and one white ear sticking up through his cap, and under his jumpsuit, legs and arms that were mostly white and a torso that would have been the envy of any Paint -- a large splattering of russet areas on white. Or was it white splotches on russet? Dougie couldn't decide. Even his tail was a blend of both colors.
Dougie walked around, found the stool, the brushes and combs, and set to work. He started with Kyle's flank; it seemed an obvious place to start.
"Posti also said I'm supposed to talk to ya. It's supposed to 'contribute to closure,' whatever that means. He didn't care what I said as long as I said something." Dougie found once he got a rhythm going, grooming didn't take a lot of thought.
"Me and Posti, in our sessions, we been talking about friendship, the difference between good friends and bad friends."
Dougie stroked the large flank for a moment. "Kyle, you was my best friend for years. You been a brother. You made friends with me when I had no friends. I don't know who my dad is. My mom always had two or three jobs and was always gone. When she was home, all she did was yell at me about keeping my room clean.
"But when I was with you I felt like I mattered. I was important.
"You were confident, and that's how I felt when I was with you. I never felt that anywhere else.
"Remember our first job together?" Dougie snickered. "How we totally blew it? You pretended to have a pistol in your pocket but kept pulling your hand out to balance all the beer you were holding. The old guy behind the counter didn't believe you and you threw a beer bottle at him when the police showed up and you realized the old guy was stalling until they got there. Heh." Dougie's smile faded. "Mom was royally pissed off when she picked me up at the police station and told me never to see you again. But how could she stop me when she was never around?"
He carried the stool over to Kyle and climbed onto it. He brushed a large part of the broad back before continuing.
"But me and Posti, we been talking. About how being friends with you ain't good. Posti even told me words from the Bible about friendship, though he said the original word was 'love'. Heh. Yeah. Me and the Bible. Ain't that a hoot!
"But it said friendship is for building each other up, for bringing out the best in each other.
"Our friendship didn't do that, Kyle. You didn't bring out the best in me, you brought out the worst. I may have lied before I met you, but I never stole nuthin'. You taught me how to be mean to others and to get angry and fight when they were mean to me. You kept me doing bad things through your threats. And the best threat you had was to say I couldn't come on your next heist.
"Damnit, Kyle!" He beat his fists on the broad flank. The huge head turned and stared. "You made me into an ugly person. My mom threw me out long ago and now I've only got Jet as a friend. And he wants to stay here. Even you're leaving me! I'll be alone when I get out."
The large head swung away to gaze out the front of the stall again.
Dougie worked in silence for a long time, carefully brushing the fur on each leg and taking special care with the long hairs that would soon hide each hoof. As he did the third leg, Dougie began to cry, wiping his tears on his sleeve. He straightened up and laid his head against the flank and said softly, "You really are gone, Kyle. I never seen you so quiet. You was always doing something, even if it was only bouncing a knee or wiggling a foot."
He dried his eyes and continued with the last leg, the tail, and the neck and mane.
He switched to a soft brush for the head. "Posti says I'll really make progress, now you're not dragging my ass into trouble. He figures I might be out of here in six weeks, eight at the most. I'll be glad to get out of this zoo."
Dougie finished brushing the nose, set the brush aside, and grabbed the halter on either side of the huge head. "Kyle, I know now you were the worst thing to happen to me." He pressed his own long nose against Kyle's. "I'll miss you, ya damn bastard."
"You could stay." said Jet.
"Nuh-uh," said Dougie, holding up his hands in an attempt to stop Jet's words. "I didn't work this hard to get back to human to go through it all again. I'm outta here."
"You could take a few bottles of water; that should be enough to give you furry ears."
"Nooo." Dougie crossed his index fingers as if warding off a vampire. "I'm not drinking another drop of anything until they open the water jug on the bus." He turned the comment around. "You could get yourself back to human and come find me."
"Naah," said Jet. "I like my stripes. This is the real me." Jet had spent several afternoons with Posti talking about the hybrid form and employment opportunities at Camp Pegasus. Once Brown had approved, Jet, with Posti's guidance, had worked out a juice schedule to keep his form similar to Posti's -- fur, muzzle, tail, and legs that ended in hooves.
"Yeah, you look good in stripes," agreed Dougie.
It would be seven years before Jet actually joined the staff -- he still had three years of high school and four of college. But now that he was classified as an apprentice he couldn't be threatened with a withholding of juice. His duties included tutoring some of the other kids when he wasn't studying himself.
"So did you take any of Kyle's stuff?" asked Jet.
"Naah," said Dougie. "I don't want no souvenirs from that bastard."
Posti looked across the camp's welcoming room, the first room all new residents see. It was filled with all of the camp's residents, nearly a third ready to leave on the bus that was about to arrive and the rest saying goodbye. Posti turned to Brown, "I hate it when we lose boys like Kyle. I wish we could save them all. But it is nice to know a death like that results in an extra large class of graduates two months later."
"Yep," said Brown. "Some kids are only good at being a bad example." It was an old joke, but Posti chuckled anyway.
"I'm always amazed," said Posti, "by the sense of camaraderie that fills this place in the months after we lose one -- the way the kids help rehabilitate each other." He shook his head in wonder. "Bailey even delayed his departure for a week to make sure Archie stayed fur free and could go too." Brown smiled. "I'll display that photo of Bailey's smile in my office for a long time -- the one from last night's party when we announced that Archie would be on today's bus." Brown's smile grew wider as he nodded.
Posti's ears twitched. The bus was drawing near. He raised his voice: "All right. It's time for final goodbyes! All those not leaving need to get out of sight."
Those with fuzzy ears -- and fur and tails -- said their last round of, "Take care of yourself!" while shaking hands or pounding backs then headed out the door and across the exercise yard. The rest hoisted backpacks and duffel bags they hadn't seen in months or years and headed in the other direction to the bus and the future. They would be checking their stuff over during the long bus ride and no doubt deciding a good deal of it was now useless junk.
Posti stepped through the door behind the desk and soon was back with a pitcher of ice water and five glasses, one for Brown and the rest for the new kids. He and Dr. Clark disappeared again to wait for their cue.
Several minutes later, Posti could hear Brown's voice through the door. "Drink up, boys."