|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. And people, and entire families, are left to cope as best
Go here for more information on the setting.
A Man's Touch
by Phil Geusz
©2003 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
"Mmm," I mumbled as Phlox's hands worked their way up and down my back. "That's heavenly!"
"I knew you'd like it," she replied, a smile in her voice. "It's just the thing for unwinding after a tough day." Her fingers were reaching deep down under my fur, seeking out and massaging the overly-taut muscles one by one. "Maybe you'll sleep tonight."
"Maybe," I agreed absently. For three nights now, I'd not been able to keep my eyes closed more than a few minutes at a time. Last Tuesday evening a Humans First thug had suddenly stood up from among the group I'd been addressing and pelted me with rotten tomatoes. The outraged members of the audience had treated her roughly, and the law had solemnly promised me that they were going to treat her more roughly still. I hadn't been able to finish my speech, however, nor even begin the next scheduled one after. I'd been having nightmares continually, and even the very thought of stepping up to another microphone and looking out on another sea of threatening, meat-eating eyes made me, made me, made me...
"Damnit!" Phlox complained angrily, her delightful hands stopping in mid-motion. "All of a sudden you're as tense as a racehorse again! All my work is wasted; every single muscle in your body is quivering, you're so uptight. By Frith, whatever are we going to do with you?"
Sighing, I closed my eyes. Phlox and her parents were letting me use their farm near Cedar Rapids as a home base while I spoke all over the state. Things were working out well, especially right in the immediate area. Originally only three weeks worth of appearances had been scheduled, but once I'd begun my talks word had seemingly gotten around and one group after another had sought me out. It is a basic maxim of military strategy that the best way to win a battle is to reinforce success, so I'd not complained at all about being kept from the Shelter as long as was needful. The Ferguson home, already well set-up for Phlox's convenience, was nearly as good a place to be as home. To be honest, I'd discovered rather to my surprise that I actually liked staying with Phlox and her parents. We'd added first one week to the schedule, and then another and another and another, with no end in sight. Though some of the groups that I was addressing were rather small, they had truly seemed to want to hear my message. For a speaker like me, a surplus of sincerity is always an adequate counterbalance for lack of numbers. A good friend of Congressman Carmike's was in a nip-and tuck fight for re-election right here in this district, and while he was already firmly aboard on our big Colony Reform Bill, it was my profound hope that I could raise enough of a ruckus to persuade his opponent to openly declare for our side as well. That way our cause would be advanced no matter who won. Therefore, I'd been making one speech after another, mostly within just a few miles of the Ferguson farm. Phlox was apparently something of a local celebrity as well, what with her having appeared in the Olympics as a gymnast and all of that. We were making the most of the fact that she was also now a rabbit who had nearly been committed, and by working together we had scored heavily. The newspapers had moved us up to page two; many had also run editorials backing what we were doing. I'd even been on local television twice, once as a guest for a half-hour news program. We had really felt that we were making a difference together, Phlox and I...
...right up until the moment that I'd taken a rotten tomato square in the muzzle, and run off the platform in terror. It had been terrible! I'd made a total fool of myself, dodging blindly back and forth for cover while projectile after projectile struck all around me. "Look at the animal!" the Humans First activist had cried out belligerently into the shocked silence. "Look at the rabbit run! It's not human, people! Don't you get it?" The hurtful words had made no direct impact on me at the time; as much as I hated to admit it, for that one moment at least the Humans Firster had been dead-on right. I had become a frightened animal right in front of everyone, nothing more. First the sheer impact of the heavy fruit had knocked me silly, and then suddenly my whole head was soaked in rotten tomato juice, totally drowning out my sense of smell. The burning stuff had also gotten into my eyes and dripped down my ears. The experience had been totally disorienting on top of painful. It was no wonder that I'd lost it for a few minutes, and had ended up cowering under the stage itself, where everyone could watch as I was coaxed and teased out of my hidey-hole in exactly the same manner that a normal bunny would be. They'd even had to leash me in public for the first time in ages. It had all been so very awful...
Phil!" Phlox growled threateningly, pausing in her massage once more. "You're tensing up again. Just quit thinking about it, will you? It's done and over with. And it really wasn't your fault in the first place. Everyone knows that."
Guiltily I sighed and tried to relax a little, as ordered. Things had been going rather well, I tried to remind myself dutifully as Phlox kneaded and plied at my back. I'd been doing a good job, and I knew it. People had actually been writing their legislators, I reminded myself drowsily. Slowly my eyes began to close. They had been visiting SCAB relatives and quietly applauding me and...
Just then the doorbell rang, and I leapt to my feet reflexively. "What?" I demanded, literally quivering with frightened alertness. My ears stood up tall, searching for danger, and my eyes were wide open. "Who? Where?"
"Damnit!" Phlox cried out again, this time slamming her towel to the table in defeat. "God damn it to hell!"
The doorbell rang again, and I heard heavy, ponderous footsteps crossing the kitchen downstairs. "I've got it!" Mr. Ferguson called out. He was Phlox's father, a grand old man of about sixty with broad shoulders and a voice like an old Diesel tractor. Henry had suffered several heart attacks and no longer worked the farm, preferring instead to lease the land out to a neighbor of many years friendship. He still hunted and fished avidly, however, and took a deep interest in the growth of the corn and the turn of the seasons. A long, long time ago he'd been a star offensive lineman at a major Southern college until an unfortunate knee injury had brought his career to an end. It was mostly from him, I figured, that Phlox had inherited her athletic prowess.
"Grandpa!" a soprano voice cried out in delight as the door swung open.
"Toni!" Mr. Ferguson replied. "Marjorie! Justin! And Jennifer! How are you all? We weren't expecting you!"
"Grandpa!" an even smaller voice screamed out. "Grandpa! Grandpa! Grandpa! Lookit Miriam!" Miriam was the farm's pet donkey, I already knew, an exceptionally companionable old greymuzzle that was spoiled rotten.
"I'm sorry I didn't call ahead," an adult female voice answered. "I got the kids all loaded up, and then was partway here when I realized that I'd left my phone at home."
"Well!" Phlox's dad replied. "Well!" I could almost see the big grin on his face; there were pictures of smiling grandchildren all over the Ferguson home. "Miriam's fine, kids; why don't you all go run out and see her?" There was a brief stampede, and then the children were gone. Mr. Ferguson lowered his voice a bit. "Come on in, Jenn, and make yourself at home. I'm just glad you're here; don't worry about not having called. You and the kids are welcome anytime, call or no. You know that by now. Would you like some coffee?"
I turned to face Phlox, whose own ears were fully erect now as well. "Excuse me," she said politely. "I need to go see Jenn."
"Of course," I agreed, and then Phlox was off like a shot, bounding downstairs on all fours. I followed far more sedately, suppressing a yawn.
"Hi, Jenn!" Phlox was just saying as I entered the living room. "This is Phil. He's staying here with us for a while."
Jenn turned to face me, then nodded and smiled. She was a middle-aged woman, I judged, with red hair and very pretty jade-green eyes. "Of course," she responded. "Grace told me all about him." She turned back to Phlox. "I'm glad that you're helping to fight back against the Colonies, you know. I never liked the way that they tried to commit you. You never deserved to be locked away, not at all."
Phlox's ears reddened, then she looked down at the floor. "You've always been so understanding, Jennifer."
Jenn smiled, then threw her arms open. "Come on, Phlox," she urged. "Come on and hug me." For just a moment the doe hesitated, then she practically flew across the floor and embraced Jenn.
"You're still very beautiful," Phlox whispered into Jenn's ear, well below the threshold of human hearing.
"As are you," Jenn replied. "God, but you're a beautiful rabbit!"
"A beautiful rabbit doe," Phlox answered, as if there was some shared hidden meaning to the phrase. Then they pulled apart, and rather self-consciously Phlox released Jenn's hand. "Is everything okay?" my friend asked after a time. "Are you and the kids all right?"
"Right as rain," Jenn replied with a smile. Then she turned back to Mr. Ferguson. "Henry, I've come to ask a favor."
"Name it," the older man replied. He was still smiling approvingly.
"I got an emergency call at work this afternoon. It seems that I've got to fly down to Quito for a few weeks."
"How many, and for how long?" Mr. Ferguson asked.
Jenn smiled. "How long, I'm not exactly sure yet. I've promised my sister Emma that she could have the girls; she's been after me to leave them with her for ages now." Then she looked at Phlox. "Justin, however..."
Phlox's face sobered. "Right," she agreed. "He wouldn't enjoy being there surrounded by so many females all of the time. And they'll be wanting to go shopping and such." Then the doe turned to her father. "We were planning on having him here in August anyway."
He nodded. "I remember. Of course. You don't even need to ask, I keep telling you." He turned back to Jenn. "Is his stuff out in the car?"
"Yes." Suddenly she was smiling again. "Thank you so very much!"
"Don't mention it," Henry replied brusquely, stepping towards the still-open door. "I'll go carry it in."
After Mr. Ferguson left, for a long moment Phlox and Jenn stood smiling gently at each other. Then, rather awkwardly, Phlox tried to work me into things. "Phil's staying in Justin's usual room," she explained to Jenn. "We'll put him in where the girls usually are."
"Phil's upstairs?" Jenn raised her eyebrows inquiringly. "And you're down?"
"Jenn!" Phlox replied angrily, and both of us ear-blushed. "It's not like that at all! Phil is a gentleman, a perfect gentleman, here on business..."
Then suddenly Jenn was laughing, and so was Phlox, and even the corners of my own mouth were twitching upwards in the beginning of a smile. The Ferguson family was a very happy one, I'd long since come to understand, and a little friendly teasing between sisters was simply in the nature of things. "Tell me," I asked, trying to join in. "When you two were little girls, did you make fun of each other's boyfriends? Or try to steal them from each other instead?"
Suddenly there was dead silence in the room, save for the distant happy shrieking of the little girls playing with the donkey. Even Mr. Ferguson had stopped dead halfway through the doorway, locked in mid-stride. His eyes, suddenly clouded, swung from Phlox to me, and then back again. Meanwhile, Jenn's face was frozen, and Phlox's jaw hung agape.
My ears reddened once more, this time deeply. "I... I'm sorry. I mean..."
"You don't know?" Phlox replied, once she had recovered enough to speak. "My God, Phil! I mean, I'll admit that it's not exactly something that I broadcast over the radio, but it's hardly a secret. I've told all my warren-mates." She paused for a moment then, and looked thoughtful. "But you're Dandelion Warren, aren't you? And I'm Sunflower." Her face twisted up in anguish. "Oh, no!" she whispered quietly.
"Oh no what?" I asked, searching my friend's faces one by one for an answer and finding none.
"Well," Mr. Ferguson said slowly. "I... Uh..."
Jenn frowned and looked angry for just a fleeting second, then her features softened. "No, Phlox," she said, not turning away from me. "He really, honestly didn't know. I can tell by looking. And I guess that's a good sign, really. It means that your other friends are respecting your privacy and behaving like civilized beings instead of hopeless gossips. I think that maybe I envy you your warren-mates. Norms are not nearly so considerate, as a rule." She walked the few steps over to Phlox and placed her hand on my friend's shoulder. "Phil," she said slowly. "Phlox is a Scab, you know."
"Yes," I replied. Perhaps it was lack of sleep, or too much stress. In any event, my mind was moving very slowly. "Of course she is. So am I. We're both lapiforms, moderately to highly morphed."
"Right," Jenn agreed, slipping her hand around Phlox's waist. "She's a lapiform Scab all right. But she's also something more."
"Jenn..." Phlox said warningly, scenting my mounting distress. "He's been through an awful lot lately that you don't know about. Maybe now is not the right --"
But the middle-aged woman plowed right on. "She used to be a he, Phil. Every bit as much a wonderful human male as she is now a lapine female." Jenn paused for effect. "She was my husband, Phil, not my sister. In many ways we still love each other very much, though we're divorced for obvious reasons that are no one's fault at all. We're not married or even living together any more, but Phlox and the in-laws and I are making the very best that we can out of a bad situation." She paused for just a moment before finishing, her eyes still boring deeply into my own. "And the kids playing outside are hers and mine, all three of them."
Perhaps Jenn expected me to be shocked; I'll never know for sure. I do know that Phlox's posture was suddenly very rigid and her expression wooden, as if she were about to flee from danger. I had been spending each and every day of my working life in close association with many of the worst effects of Scabs for the last several years, however. Almost nothing could shock me any longer. "Indeed?" I replied politely. "No wonder that I've never been able to figure out exactly where you fit in on the Olympics squad, then." Then I paused and tried once more to smile, feeling the corners of my mouth tremble slightly. Phlox would pick up on that and appreciate the effort, I was certain; after all, she was doing physical therapy on my face every day. "You've adapted remarkably well," I continued. "Probably because so many people around you love you so very much."
The tension drained from the room as if someone had thrown a switch; suddenly Henry was smiling again, as was Jenn, and Phlox's eyes were glittering with tears of relief. I went out to help Henry unload the luggage, even though my 'help' could consist merely of standing and watching, granting Phlox and Jenn a few seconds of discreet privacy together. When Grace arrived home with the fresh groceries it was old home week all over again, and then Henry put all the leaves into the dining room table so that everyone could eat together in one room. The kids were remarkably well-behaved, I noted, though Justin seemed to have little appetite for the vegetarian feast that his grandmother had prepared for us. "Haven't you got any ham?" he asked at one point. "Can we go out for hamburgers?"
Jenn and the girls left right after the meal, so that the younger children might get to bed at a decent hour. Then Justin excused himself to his room, from which only the sounds of video games emerged for the rest of the evening. Finally, about ten, Phlox and I went to bed.
Jenn's teasing comments notwithstanding, in point of fact my bedroom upstairs was in practice more an office than a sleeping space. Phlox and I were spending every single night together. We were lapine Scabs, after all; it was the most natural thing in the world that we would want to snuggle. Both Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson well understood what was going on and had openly blessed these proceedings. Like most sentient lapiform does, Phlox was taking hormone shots that prevented her from coming into heat, and in the absence of the proper pheromones my own rabbity body would not respond sexually to her presence. I was attracted to her, yes. I was very aware that she was a doe, and felt a vague instinctual protectiveness towards her. Sex, however, was simply not in the cards under the circumstances, not in the cards at all. I really wasn't sure if that disappointed me or not; the human part of me was not quite so pheromone-limited, after all. However, it was very nice indeed to be able to squeeze up close against soft, fragrant Phlox and hug her tight, tight, tight all night long. That was plenty enough for me.
"Phil?" she asked dreamily, not long after we had laid down.
"Thank you for being so understanding. I just... I mean, I really thought..."
"Hush, now," I answered, a little roughly. "No, I honestly didn't know. I didn't suspect, even. But it doesn't matter to me, not at all."
There was a long silence before Phlox spoke again. "I didn't know what to do at first. I mean, well... I thought for a long time about trying to pass as a male. About having surgery, even."
I nodded. Many if not most transgendered Scabs did exactly that. Especially rabbits. It was very hard for a Norm to distinguish between a male and female lapiform Scab, if the morphing was extreme enough. I myself had been mistaken for a female enough times to know from personal experience.
"But... It didn't seem right, somehow. In fact, at first everything seemed wrong. I don't know if it was the new hormones, or the new brain structures, or what." Her voice trailed off into silence.
I nodded again.
"Anyway," she continued after a long pause. "Anyway, for a few weeks I went into denial. I bought new male clothing to fit my new body, worked out like a mad thing, even thought about trying to stay married. But... But..."
Once again I held my peace, letting Phlox tell this in the manner of her own choosing.
"But... I talked to a doctor about surgery, Phil. About halfway through our talk, I went into a panic. It was so bad that I stayed non-sentient for three days. Three whole days!"
I shuddered, then rubbed my cheek up against Phlox's reassuringly. Three whole days! I'd never gone half that long!
"It was only then that I realized that I could never really be male again, Phil. Never! The surgery is just a patchwork; it's not the real thing. The male-to-female stuff seems to work pretty well, but the technology just isn't there yet to do it in reverse, especially for non-human bodies. If I wanted to have anything like a normal life, I'd have to do it as a doe."
"You're very brave," I pointed out. "Not everyone can face up their fears like that."
"So I ordered myself a dress," Phlox continued, as if I'd not even spoken. "A very frilly party-type dress, with a tailhole. God, I felt like I was making such a spectacle of myself! I took a bus down to Cedar Rapids where no one knew the new me and wore it around town for a few days." She squirmed a little and turned around to face me. "It's bad enough to be a Scab rabbit out on the streets, you know. You think that everyone is out to get you, and the worst part is that sometimes you're right. But to be a doe rabbit walking around all alone..." She shuddered slightly, and so did I.
"Anyway, a funny thing happened, and that was that nothing happened at all. No one stared, no one laughed, no one treated me any differently than they would any other overdressed Scab woman. There was an excellent reason for this, of course, and that was because I was a Scab woman, a healthy, normal Scab woman. While I could never, ever again become the functional man that I had once been."
"So," I mused. "You chose to become the normal doe."
Phlox nodded. "Uh-huh. Or at least as normal a doe as an ex-man can be. It's not been as hard as you might think; like I said, the hormones and new brain structures help a lot. My parents were supportive from the very start, and even Jenn has been wonderful, as you can see. A lot of my fellow gymnasts were openly gay; it's almost an unspoken tradition of the sport on the men's side. Over the years, I think that being around that sort of openness so much has helped things along a lot for them. And probably for me, as well."
I nodded, and then hugged Phlox extra-tight for a moment. "You're doing wonderfully well," I whispered into her ear. "You're doing far better at dealing with the real world than I am, under far more difficult circumstances."
Phlox shrugged slightly. "You're more heavily morphed than I am, Phil," she countered. "Who knows whose brain has been affected more? You can't compare one Scab's problems with those of another, except on a very crass level. We're all individuals, and need to be dealt with individually. The only thing that really matters is that you're still a very decent person inside. And you still try, just as hard as you can. After SCABS, that's all that anyone can ask."
For a very long time we hugged each other in silence, until I spoke again. "How about the kids?" I asked. "How did that go?"
Phlox sighed. "The girls don't know," she explained. "Jenn and I agreed that there's no compelling reason to tell them just yet. In a few years, yes. But until then, why make things more difficult for them than they need to be? Growing up is hard enough." Phlox smiled in the darkness. "Toni is taking balance-beam classes already; she's got a major talent. And Marj is heavily into ballet."
"Hmm," I agreed, noting a major omission. "And Justin?"
Suddenly Phlox's smile disappeared. "Justin knows," she said after a very long time. "He was old enough to remember. We didn't have kids for almost ten years after he was born; Jenn had problems with the birth, and we thought that it would be impossible for us to have any more kids at all. Then they came up with this new technique, and we had Marj and Toni. They were still babies, and Justin was almost eleven when I Changed."
"Uh-huh," I agreed.
"He still doesn't know what to make of it, I think," Phlox said slowly. "God knows, I'd never have done anything like this to him on purpose. In his heart he realizes that I still love him. Or at least I think that he does. He's never been cruel or anything like that."
Nor had he said one word to Phlox all of the previous evening that I could recall, though she had smiled invitingly at him several times. "Not being cruel isn't exactly the same as being warm and affectionate," I pointed out.
"No," she agreed sadly. "It isn't. We were very close, he and I, until... until..."
"Yeah," I agreed softly. "Until."
"It's hard growing up as a boy," Phlox replied, defending her child. "Very hard indeed. We both know that, you and I. He was only ten, for God's sake. Don't be so judgmental."
"Whoa!" I answered back, pulling away a little. "Peace, woman! I didn't mean to attack Justin; I don't even know him. I'm just trying to understand, is all. We're going to be living together under the same roof for a few weeks. This situation is sort of... complicated."
"Heh!" Phlox laughed aloud, pulling me closer. "Complicated doesn't even begin to describe it." For a long time we simply hugged, reaffirming our affection for one another before Phlox spoke again. "Of course you're not attacking Justin. I know that. It's just that I feel so badly over what's happened here. He's not doing very well in school; in fact, he just barely passed last year. He doesn't have any friends, and never plays outside. All he ever does is sit in his room with those damned video games of his..." She sighed. "You know, I often believe that humanity might have been far better served if the cathode ray tube had never been invented."
I nodded in agreement. "Me too." I paused for a moment to rub cheeks once more, then went on. "I guess that Jenn worries about him too?"
"Of course," Phlox agreed. "Probably even more than I do. I try to spend time with him, but between my job and Sunflower Warren and now helping you, well... And even worse, we don't get along at all anymore. He never says a word to me, never even acknowledges my existence unless he has to in order to be polite." She sighed. "It doesn't exactly take a Sigmund Freud to understand the problem here, now does it?"
"Not hardly," I agreed sadly. "You know, Phlox, in my job I've seen a lot of families torn apart by SCABS. You probably can't even imagine how many."
"I know, Phil," she replied soberly. "It must be very painful for you."
I pressed my lips together for a moment, then went on. "The SCABS counselor in me wants to commend you for the truly excellent adjustment that you and yours have made, you know. I've watched person after person after person fold up and die inside after going through far less demanding changes than you have, and have seen families disown more transgendered Scabs in particular than I care to remember. You've managed to begin a new life without entirely losing the old, a rare and precious thing. Your parents and ex-wife and even this whole community could serve as virtual role-models for how to deal with this thing, as could you yourself. Part of me wants to sit up right here and now and literally applaud what you have achieved together."
"Thank you," Phlox said after a time. "Really, thank you. And the other part?"
I pressed my lips together again. "The other part of me," I said very slowly, "is bleeding for poor Justin. He's received counseling, I presume?"
"The very best that we could get him," Phlox affirmed. "The doctors never seem to agree on anything, though. Sometimes they tell me that I need to take a bigger part in Justin's life, while others say that I need to butt out entirely until he's ready to accept me on my own terms. None of them have really seemed to do any good for him. They try, I'll give them that. But they just don't seem to do him any good. "
Or do any good for you either, I didn't say aloud. "Scabs is hard," I said for the ten-thousandth time in my life. "It is so very hard for every last one of us."
"Yes," Phlox agreed, her muscles tensing angrily under the soft, white fur. "Yes, Scabs is the hardest thing that there is. Especially for the children."
Phlox's long, hard massage work must have finally paid off; I finally slept soundly that night and got some decent rest. When I woke up it was almost noon, and I was very hungry. Phlox and her mother had long since gone to work, and while I could tell that Justin was up in his room from the various video-game beeps and buzzes that I could hear from behind his closed door, Henry was nowhere to be seen. The refrigerator door was too heavy for me to easily open, but Mrs. Ferguson had thoughtfully left a bowl of kibble out on the counter where I could easily get to it. A pitcher full of what I knew to be highly-sweetened decaffeinated tea sat next to it, along with a clean paw cup and a note. [Don't forget,] it read in Grace's cheery handwriting. [You can get ice cubes right through the freezer door.] Suddenly I was salivating, almost drooling. I was as behind on food as I had been sleep, not having had much of an appetite of late. Very carefully I carried my kibble to the table, and then pressed my paw-cup up against the little lever-thingie that dispensed ice from the freezer. Being rather clumsy with my forepaws, I spilled several cubes onto the floor and had to pick them up. Except for this minor delay, however, things went well. Mrs. Ferguson's forethought and kindness was much appreciated.
It wasn't until I carefully placed the paw-cup down on the counter next to the tea pitcher that I realized that I was totally stymied. The pitcher was about three-quarters full, and far too heavy for me to manipulate with my forepaws. I truly loved sweet tea; it was one of the few drinks I'd enjoyed as a human that I could still stomach after SCABS, provided that it was thoroughly decaffeinated. For a long moment I stood considering whether or not to try leaping up onto the counter and using my whole body to tip the heavy pitcher over. Then I sighed and decided that ice-water would have to do instead; there was no sense in taking a chance on making a terrible mess that I could never clean up on my own.
The upstairs bathroom sink had originally been installed with the needs of children in mind, and therefore was the easiest one in the house for me to use. Carefully I clutched my paw-cup to my chest and hopped up the steps, loosing only two or three ice cubes in the process. Then I turned on the water and let it run, so that it would be nice and cold. It was late June in Iowa, and while the summer was not yet especially hot it clearly would become so very soon.
"Hello," a young voice said from behind me.
"Ack!" I cried out in surprise, leaping high into the air and spraying ice-water all over the tiled floor. "What? I mean..." It was only Justin, of course; and though my heart pounded and my lungs heaved, I didn't quite go into a panic.
"Oh, no!" he exclaimed, suddenly looking concerned. Justin was younger looking than his chronological age, I noted. He was very plump and out of shape, and his voice had not yet even begun to change. I imagined that he was probably one of the smaller members of his class. Which was just as well right then and there; had someone as large as Henry Ferguson startled me, they would have had to have peeled me off of the ceiling. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to scare you!"
Very deliberately I looked away from the young man and concentrated on a simple breathing exercise. Inhale, exhale, I thought to myself. Inhale, exhale. After a few seconds I was calm enough to be able to face Justin once more. "It's my fault," I replied, at last able to speak. "I'm very nervous these days, even worse than usual."
He nodded. "Phlox wouldn't have jumped like that."
"Probably not," I agreed. There was a long, awkward silence.
"Were you getting a glass of water?" Justin asked. "I could help."
"Well..." I answered, gazing down at the single ice cube that was now floating in the commode. "I have to admit that I don't seem to be having much luck. Your grandmother left a pitcher of tea down on the counter. If you would be willing to help me out, that's what I'd like most of all."
The boy shrugged. "Sure thing. I'm supposed to help you any time you need it."
I lifted my paw cup, and Justin slid the special adaptors off of my forefeet. "Tea," he repeated. "With ice. No problem."
Once he had my drink poured, Justin went into the living room and turned on the television. He was watching cartoons of some kind, I could tell from the soundtrack, which was punctuated with lots of silly-sounding crashes and booms and comically-overstated cries of surprise. Grace had left me at least a double portion of kibble, and the food received my total attention until I'd wolfed more than half of it down. My heavens, but I'd been hungry!
It was getting late in the day and I had a speech scheduled for the evening; while I wanted to finish my bowl of kibble, I also had work to do. The new laptop that Scallion and the rest of Dandelion Warren had bought me was up in my bedroom, and there wasn't a reason in the world that I could see why I couldn't read e-mail and eat at the same time. Justin was still in the living room watching his show. I went quietly up and down the back stairs so as not to disturb him.
I still experienced a little thrill of excitement every time that I booted up my new holographic machine; in all of my life, it was the only real state-of-the-art electronics equipment that I'd ever owned. The machine whirred and chirped, and then quite suddenly my start-up image of a three-dimensional dandelion came to life, hovering in the air over the Fergusons' battered old kitchen table. The corners of my mouth twitched in satisfaction as the yellow flower solidified and began to slowly rotate in place, and once again I took a moment to silently thank my fellow lapine Scabs for such a wonderfully thoughtful gift. The ghostlike keyboard first flickered into existence and then expanded to several times the size of an ordinary unit, which made it possible for the first time in years for me to type without a pencil in my teeth. Just a few months ago I'd resigned myself to never being caught up on my e-mail again; now I was getting my work done in a fraction of the time that it had once taken.
"Beep!" the machine said as it established a link to the phone line in my bedroom and began downloading my mail as I sipped at icy-cold tea and waited patiently.
Then I heard footsteps behind me. It was Justin, who was clearly being considerate enough to make an effort to be heard despite his stocking feet as he approached. "Wow!" he said in envious tones, looking at my machine through eyes the size of golf balls. "I've never seen such a cool computer before! Not ever!"
"It was a Christmas gift," I replied, feeling the corners of my mouth tugging upwards again. "From the Watership Downers. I use it so that I can type with my forepaws. It's the virtual keyboard that's really important to me, not the display. But it is kinda cool, isn't it?"
Justin's eyes flicked to meet mine for just a fraction of a second, then returned to the still-spinning dandelion. "Yeah," he replied. "I've never even seen anything like that in the stores, though Gary at school says that he's gonna get one for Christmas. Gary's rich," he explained unnecessarily.
The dandelion ceased its spinning and vanished, then my inbox appeared in mid-air. I had only thirteen messages, seven of them generated by a career-counselor mailing list that I was on and two by fellow Watership Downers. Of the remaining four, I could see at a glance, only one was truly urgent. It was from Congressman Carmike's office, and with the simple effortless motion of a forepaw over the virtual trackball I opened it. This was so much better than using a pencil in my mouth!
"Phil," the letter read, "A little bird tells me that you're having some trouble out on the speaking circuit. We've heard about the tomato thing up here, and I just wanted to encourage you to take all the time that you need to get over it. You've been doing a great job! In fact, Pete Mayberton has asked me to keep you in the area right up until election day. He's also very politely asked me to speak to you about endorsing him publicly, which I really do wish that you could find it in your heart to do."
I gulped; Pete Mayberton was the friend of Congressman Carmike who was locked up in the re-election race. While I had nothing personal against the man, about the only thing that he and I agreed on was the Colony Reform Bill. I could never publicly endorse him, but the fact that my support had been considered important enough to ask for made my overfull stomach suddenly feel a bit uneasy.
"I've made a lot of speeches," the letter continued. "An awful lot of them, in fact. In all of my years, I've never had to face rotten tomatoes, and I've certainly never had to do so while also dealing with your personal situation. It's hard enough for a man just to get up and speak his mind; I oughta know! And for you, well... My hat's been off to you all along, Phil. A lot of folks, including you yourself, were not sure that you could do this thing at all, much less be as successful as you have at it.
"Anyway, here's what I want you to do. The home office has cancelled your appearances for the next two weeks, starting tonight. You haven't taken a real vacation in years, or so I hear, and now is your chance. You've only drawn a small fraction of your expense money; go to the airport and buy a ticket to anywhere you please. We'll claim it as a research trip. Get some rest, and try not to think about tomatoes. While you're gone, we're going to rethink your arrangements a little. Maybe we need to work out a way for you to feel safer when you speak. But that's our problem, Phil, not yours. You don't have to worry about anything for two weeks. Or more, if you need it. Write your own ticket, my friend. Just get better; we need you!"
I stared at the note for a very long time after reading it, then went back and looked it over again. "Wow!" Justin interrupted me about halfway through, finishing his own reading of my mail. "You got a letter from a Congressman!"
"Yes," I answered him. One of the disadvantages of a holographic display was that it allowed no privacy whatsoever. "It doesn't happen very often, though. I'm surprised that he wrote me personally, to be honest with you. He's only ever contacted me once before, and that was to sort of 'shake hands' formally after his aide worked out this whole speaking-deal with me. Normally I just deal with the staff."
"He must be worried about you," Justin observed. "Someone from Carmike's office called this morning. Phlox took the call before she and Grandma left for work."
Well, I thought to myself. That certainly explained a few things.
"So, where are you going to go?" Justin asked. "I'd go to Tokyo; there's a big video-game convention there next week. All the new stuff is gonna be out on display; I bet that there will be holographic displays even better than this one!"
I nodded absently, thinking things through. Two weeks, I had. I could go back and catch up on Shelter work, but somehow for the first time in my life since SCABS the idea didn't seem particularly appealing. Thinking about the Shelter tasted like rotten tomatoes, though for the life of me I couldn't explain quite why.
"Or you could go to New York! There's a big anime convention there!"
"I'll take that into consideration," I answered. "I'm a rabbit, you know. I don't really enjoy getting out."
The boy's face fell. "Yeah," he replied. "I know. Phlox never goes anywhere either, unless it's to go where there's going to be other rabbits. She never has any fun."
I pressed my lips together. In point of fact, Phlox was far more adventurous than the vast majority of lapiform Scabs, and certainly more self-confident and able than I was. But from the point of view of a teen-aged boy, I supposed that she would indeed appear to be rather a stay-at-home. "It sort of goes with the ears and tail," I explained politely. "Lapiform Scabs can be a very life-changing condition."
Justin looked away. "Yeah," he replied softly. "It sure can." For a long moment unspoken, taboo words floated menacingly over our heads, then the boy changed the subject. "I've got a game that supports a three-dee screen," he said at last. "It's designed for a tank-type display, not a free-air hologram. But maybe..."
"Right," I agreed, brightening a little. I wasn't at all interested in video games, but somehow I was beginning to become very interested indeed in Justin. "Go upstairs and get it. We'll never know unless we try!"
It took only a moment for Justin to come back and start loading up his software. "It's a mechie game," he explained excitedly as the files loaded up.
"A mechie game?" I asked. "What's that?"
The young man nodded and smiled, his face lighting up with enthusiasm. "Mechies are something really different! They're really, really cool. You've got to build this big machine to perform certain tasks. Every component costs points, you have to pay for power, there's friction to consider..." His voice trailed off as my display went blank. Then, suddenly, it exploded in a virtual riot of color as spinning gears of various colors appeared in mid-air. "Yes!" he exclaimed, punching the air with his fist. "Yes, yes, yes! It works!"
"Hurray!" I agreed with a bit more restraint, though I felt the corners of my mouth twitching upwards. Justin was a pretty ordinary kid, it seemed to me, and very pleasant to be around. Slowly the gears assembled themselves into what looked to me rather like an automotive transmission, and then the game's title appeared. "Synchromesh Challenge IV" the glowing letters declared proudly. "The Ultimate Mind-Boggler".
Apparently Justin had transferred his saved game files as well as the basic program itself; before I knew it he was staring intently at an incredibly complex network of spinning gears and shafts interlaced with little boxes of various colors that carried captions like "Cold Fusion- 100HP" and "Work Load B". "Warning!" read a flashing message in the upper-left hand corner of my display. "Warning! Torque overload imminent on shaft 36!"
"I've never gotten past this," Justin mumbled in explanation as he struck a key and caused the whole intricate works to begin rotating slowly. "See the parts glowing red? That's the shaft thirty-six complex. It's powered by thirteen and from seven as well on every sixth rotation. I've got more power on it than it can handle. But I can't meet the demands of Load D unless --"
Just then Justin's machine failed catastrophically. Shaft thirty-six sheared dramatically in half and ran amok, smashing various virtual components all around it. A chain reaction ensued, and within five seconds his intricate, incredibly complex machine was a junkpile. The score display in the upper right-hand corner of the display now read zero, where once it had shown a six-figure display. "Oh!" I said aloud in sympathy. "I'm sorry."
Justin's attention remained focused on the game; he didn't turn to face me. "It's all right," he explained. "It happens every time. That's why I've got the save where it is." He sighed. "I've been stuck here for weeks. I'm starting to think that I'll have to try a fundamentally different design." He paused. "Maybe the problem is that I'm using too much power, and not spending enough on lubricants and bearings. Maybe I ought to..."
His voice trailed off again as he blanked the screen and started over, buying two cold-fusion units and an old-fashioned steam turbine. In seconds Justin had seemingly entered another world; when I quietly got up and went outside he did not even notice my absence.
The Fergusons' farm was located well out of town on a picturesque two-lane blacktop. One side of the property backed up against a small to medium-sized river, and the others against understanding neighbors who, understanding Phlox's problems, did a remarkably good job of keeping their dogs fenced in. I hadn't seen a single stray anywhere near the Fergusons since I'd arrived, though Henry habitually carried a rifle in the truck with him to deal with any who might just be passing through. Neither Phlox nor I hated dogs, of course. It was very sad that they had to be treated with in such a fashion in order to preserve our safety. But that was how things were, and that was all there was to it. The net effect was that I actually felt far safer outside on the Ferguson farm than I did in the parking lot of the Shelter back home. Indeed, much to my own surprise I was actually calm enough to enjoy the sights and smells of country life.
The corn was only a foot or so high, it still being early in the growing season and the spring rains having been extra long and heavy. According to Henry the plants were about a week behind schedule due to the inclement weather. He wasn't worried, however, as the flip side of the sunlight shortage was that the ground was fully saturated with water against the coming dry months of July and August. Given such a bounty of moisture and a little favorable summer weather, he explained, the crop would catch up to where it ought to be and then some. He smiled a lot when talking about this year's expected harvest, and that was all I needed to know.
Phlox had told me that you could actually hear the corn growing once it got into full swing in July. She said that the plants' joints popped and crackled day and night from rapid growth. I'd believed her right up until she explained that you could hear it even with human ears, that many nights she had sat and listened to the corn snapping and popping even before SCABS. At that point I'd not quite labeled her a liar. On the other hand, it was something that I would have to hear for myself before accepting as gospel. Listening to plants grow? It seemed positively unnatural!
The dark Iowa soil was soft and forgiving under my hindpaws as I wandered aimlessly around the area of the farmhouse. Only now that I was off by myself was the real import of my e-mail from Congreeman Carmike striking home. Two weeks, he'd virtually ordered me to take off. Two whole weeks! There was so much work that might be accomplished in two weeks time, I knew. A fair portion of my clients went from their first consultation to full employment in less than fourteen days. I'd been considering touching up Colonies of Shame once I found the time, or even trying to transfer the site into a normal book-type format and finding an agent to sell it. Two weeks could be an eternity to a truly task-oriented and productive person like myself; in two weeks I often got so much done that by the end of the second week the start of the first felt like ancient history. How could I possibly waste two whole weeks doing nothing of importance?
I also wasn't particularly happy about being told to take time off instead of being politely asked, I admitted to myself. I hadn't had a supervisor over me since working for Universal Motors, and one of the few things about SCABS that I'd welcomed even on my worst day was that I'd never have to work for another of their kind ever again. Ever since my disease I'd been setting my own goals and working to my own schedule; it was ironic that in many ways I was far freer as a cowardly little rabbit than I'd ever been as a bold, aggressive man. But now, here I was answering Congressman Carmike's every beck and call, and meekly allowing him to tell me when to take time off. It rankled, and it rankled badly.
Worst of all, however, was the fact that I knew that in this case, at least, he was probably right.
Slowly I stepped back to the very end of the yard and came up against the beginning of the corn field. Standing on the grass, I spread my forelimbs just as I had right before the tomato struck home, and gave exactly the same speech to the corn stalks. "We are all of a common species," I began. "All of us share common roots and weaknesses and perceptions. SCABS has not destroyed our basic sense of brotherhood. Indeed, the virus has enhanced it by making possible a thousand million new variations in what it means to be human. The Flu is an inalterable fact, part and parcel of our reality. Why can we not accept its blessings even as we decry the pain and suffering that it equally brings us? Why can't we all be peace-loving humans together in fact and in law, where a little reasonable adaptation can allow us all to work and live together?"
"Because you're just an animal!" the young girl had cried out in a shrill, aggressive, frightening voice. Then, before I understood what was going on she pegged me square in the forehead with a rotten tomato, half blinding and deafening me both with the stinging, reeking juices of her weapon. "See?" she asked the rest of the crowd as I turned to run and find a safe place. "See? He talks pretty; I'll grant him that. But he's still just a damned rabbit inside, sure enough."
"Our deep-down sense of brotherhood," my speech should have gone on, "is the bedrock upon which everything that defines civilization is based." Instead of continuing my lecture to the corn, however, I merely stood for a time and trembled.
"Maybe you ought to rewrite that part," a deep voice suggested from behind me. For just a millisecond my ears and tail pulled themselves erect in instinctive fear, and then my brain recognized the sound as the voice of my host. "It might help you to forget what happened."
"Maybe I ought to, Henry," I agreed sadly without turning around. Henry had driven me to the meeting where the tomato incident had taken place, and had watched the whole sorry episode. He'd said nothing negative, of course, either at the time or later. Still, however, I'd much rather that he had not seen me at my worst. For some reason that I could not quite understand, it was becoming very important to my sense of personal pride that Henry Ferguson think well of me. "I'm having a very hard time getting past this."
The gray-haired man sighed, then walked across the grass until he was standing alongside me, gazing out over the corn. "And maybe you shouldn't change anything after all," he said, placing a hand on my shoulder. "That's a damned fine speech that you give, Phil, one of the better ones that I've ever heard. Maybe you should just keep right on giving it and not change a word. Mind you, I'm not saying so just because my daughter damned near got committed; at my age I've been around the block a few times. Your speech is damned good by any standard, and I think that you need to keep right on giving it like nothing ever happened at all."
I looked down at the ground and let my ears droop. "That woman was right, you know. Part of me is a rabbit now, Henry. Really and truly! No matter how I try to run and hide from it, the world keeps reminding me."
For a very long time Henry and I stood in silence, looking out over the sea of young corn. "So you're a rabbit," my companion said at last in his low gruff voice. "Well, big deal! You're still more of a man than a lot of the folks whom I deal with every day. You're honest, so far as I can tell, and good-hearted. In your speeches, you say that this is all that really matters, that these qualities are the essence of humanity."
I nodded, trapped by my own words. "Well," I agreed. "Yes, that is all that matters in a way. But --"
"But nothing!" Henry replied loudly, emphasizing his words by shaking his fist that looked to be half the size of a ham. "But nothing! You're honest and you're decent, and that's all that matters in the end."
"Maybe," I agreed hollowly. "Maybe, in some ways. But..."
The big man lifted his hand from my shoulder and placed it right between my ears. It was a very intimate sort of gesture, one that conveyed a sense of comfort and reassurance between lapines. He had to have picked it up from Phlox, the rational part of me knew. Still, the gentle pressure made me feel much better. "But what?" he asked gently.
I sighed again, then gave in to my impulses and rubbed up against Henry as if he were another rabbit. "I... I feel so inadequate," I explained haltingly. "Like I'm some kind of fraud. They took me out on a leash the other day, you know. You saw. You were there."
Henry nodded solemnly. "Yes, I saw."
"Well... Normal people don't wear leashes, Henry. They don't ever need to. But I did. I genuinely needed to be leashed, for my own safety and for the safety of others." I sighed. "All this time, I've fought off the Colonies tooth and nail. Yet deep down, I've also always known that I really am a borderline case, that maybe I really should be confined for my own good." I turned to face the old farmer. "I had a legal guardian, you know, up until a few weeks ago. Congressman Carmike fixed it so that I wouldn't need one anymore. But he couldn't fix it so that I didn't need a leash, now did he? No one can fix that!"
Henry pressed his lips together and turned his eyes back to the corn. There really wasn't much for him to say; due to his long association with Phlox, he knew that I was merely being honest. So diplomatically he changed the subject. "Justin is really enjoying your computer," he said after a decent interval. "I must say that I find it rather impressive myself. May I ask, just out of curiosity, how much it cost you?"
It took a moment to shift mental gears before I answered. "I honestly don't know. It was a gift, a most generous Christmas gift, from the Watership Downers. Phlox may have contributed, for all I know. In fact, she probably did. I've never made an effort to find out how much my friends paid. It's not polite."
"Right," Henry agreed, nodding approvingly. "I was just considering maybe buying one for Justin, since he's so taken with it. But if it's that expensive..."
"It is," I said, nodding for emphasis. "Trust me; it is." Then it was my turn to be curious. "I've never seen anything like that game he's playing. That simulated machine he's created; it's fantastic!"
"He asks for 'mechie' games every Christmas," Henry observed. "I hate that he wastes all of his time staring into a screen, but at least he's chosen games that require a little thinking. Some of the stuff I see at the store when I pick out his gifts..." He shuddered. "It makes me glad that I grew up with parents who refused to buy me one of the damned things. They're mind-candy."
I nodded in agreement. "Maybe he'll become a mechanical engineer someday."
"Not with his grades," Henry observed darkly. "He's plenty intelligent, but he honestly doesn't care about school. Jenn says he doesn't have any friends at all. She stays after him all of the time, but he won't pick up his room or dress neatly or even keep himself well-groomed. You have to literally drag him in for a haircut."
I nodded; my nose had already told me that Justin did not bathe as frequently as he might have, either. At his stage of physical development this was not yet much of a problem, but in a year or so... "He doesn't seem to have much self-respect," I observed. "I get a lot of clients who don't groom themselves properly, and that's an even bigger problem for someone with fur. Almost invariably, it's a sign of self-esteem troubles. Of course, in my business, everyone seems to have self-esteem problems."
Henry snorted in agreement. "I've always believed that Hank -- that was Phlox before she changed, you know."
I nodded, even though I hadn't known. Like most transgendered Scabs who had accepted their change, Phlox had very assiduously wiped out almost every trace of her past. I still wasn't sure if it was healthy or not, but it happened almost every time. Somehow, changing sexes was far less socially acceptable than changing species.
"Anyway, I've always believed that if Hank had been able to live a normal life, Justin would have been all right. They were inseparable, those two, and now they hardly speak to each other. They used to go fishing together, work on cars together, ride bikes all weekend long..." Henry sighed wistfully. "What a filthy damned disease," he said at last.
"Hmm," I answered. "Have you tried stepping in? I mean, have you tried taking Justin fishing, for example?"
Henry smiled darkly. "Of course. How could I not? Somehow the chemistry's never been right, though. I think I'm just too old." The elderly man sighed. "I don't care what the shrinks say. I don't care what's politically correct, and what isn't. I don't care if people think I'm old-fashioned and out of touch with the times. The fact of the matter is that what Justin needs is a father, and he needs one more than anything in the world. Even more, he needs one before it's too late. And time is running out for him, fast."
I nodded slowly. "Teenagers need a lot of parenting. Tell me, is Jenn dating?"
The old man shook his head sadly. "Not very much. The kids take up what little time that her job doesn't; she's an electrical engineer, you know. Specializes in hydro-electric projects."
I nodded again. "It must be rough on the poor kid, having nothing but girls around all of the time."
"Jenn's not stupid," Henry pointed out. "She's tried to get him interested in sports and youth organizations and things like that. She even tried joining a group that provides surrogate parents in cases like his. But nothing gelled. Justin can be as stubborn as his father."
"Heh!" I laughed aloud. Phlox could be the most obstinate woman on the face of the earth at times, when she was after something that she really wanted. You didn't make it all the way to the Olympic Games without a remarkably strong sense of determination, after all. "If he's as tough a nut to crack as she is, then heaven help anyone who does ever marry Jenn."
Henry smiled, and then grew serious once more. "Phlox has told me," he said slowly, "that you are a professional counselor. A rather successful and unorthodox one, in fact."
Suddenly I was looking at the ground again. "That's partly true," I allowed, tearing absently at the grass with my right toe-claws. "But only partly. I am a sort of counselor, but not a professional one. I've been working with Scabs for several years now, mostly at helping them find jobs. I also consult from time to time about prey-species specific problems. I have a certain insight into that sort of thing, you see."
Henry smiled again, and I continued. "However, I've never worked for pay; the most I ever take is expense money. A charitable organization back home provides me with an office and a small apartment in exchange for my services; otherwise I live off of my pension and the interest from the proceeds of the sales of my possessions by the court when I was committed. I did recently earn a certificate in career counseling, but mostly only so that I could obtain professional liability insurance and work with Scab kids in the local school system."
"So you have worked with kids," Henry observed.
I sighed and looked away. "On career choices, yes. But not on personal problems, or at least no more on personal problems than one can help under the circumstances. SCABS is a highly personal disease, after all."
"Right," my companion agreed. Then it was his turn to look out over the corn. "I can see where you're unorthodox, all right. But are you successful?"
"Not so often as people give me credit for," I answered truthfully. "My friends and peers tend to forget that all that they see are the cases where I've been able to help my clients. The failures get locked away in the Colonies, to be forgotten about by everyone except their families." And except me, late at night when sleep simply would not come, I didn't add. "It makes my record look better than it really is."
For a long moment we stood side-by-side in silence. A breeze began to blow from behind us, and the young plants swayed back and forth gently in waves that seemed to stretch out forever. "You're older than you look," Henry said after a long time. "Aren't you?"
"Oh, yes!" I agreed. "Probably older than you are. As much as I hate to admit, sometimes SCABS does do some of us favors."
"I thought so," he answered, smiling again. "You see, I find myself wanting to trust you, and it's damned rare for me to ever feel that way about anyone more than a few years younger than me." Then he turned and faced me. "Phil, will you please take on my grandson Justin as a client? Unofficially, I mean, since I understand that he's not exactly in your usual line. Maybe you could try and get him interested in something outside of that damned game? He needs a man's touch in his life, and needs it quite badly. I won't insult you by offering money, though heaven knows that I'd pay."
I pressed my lips together and narrowed my eyes. "We just agreed," I said slowly, "that what he really needs is a father."
"Yes," Henry answered. "That's true." He paused for a moment, anticipating where my next words were going to go. "What's going on between you and Phlox is none of my business, sir. All I have to say on the subject is that my daughter seems to me to be showing impeccably good taste, and that I'd be honored to have you as a son-in-law if things go that way. I'd even be willing to play the traditional role of the father-in-law and offer you sage advice and bits of wisdom on demand despite the fact that you probably are older than I am. However, like I said, what's between you and Phlox is in fact none of my business at all, and if she chooses to drop you tomorrow I'll defend my daughter's interests to the hilt." He paused a moment and looked directly into my eyes. "But I am the patriarch of a deeply broken family, sir, and I'm smart enough to know it. Justin is a victim of SCABS every bit as much as your more conventional patients, and as his grandfather I'm entitled to seek out help for him wherever I can find it."
There wasn't much to say to that, of course. I looked away and sighed. "I've just been urged to take two weeks off. By my backers in Washington, for the sake of my mental health. They're afraid that I'm on the brink of a nervous breakdown."
Henry frowned. "I didn't know that," he replied. He looked away. "You've got your own problems, of course. I wouldn't have asked if --"
I cut him off in mid-sentence, something that I only very rarely have done since the ears-and-tail thing. "I did not say that I wouldn't try to help with Justin. I didn't say that at all. What I was trying to explain is that I have rather been on edge lately, as you are well aware."
"Right," Henry agreed, looking a bit baffled. "Though I understand your difficulties, of course. We all do."
"Anyway," I continued. "As it happens I rather like Justin. For all of his problems, he's a very polite, kind, and well-mannered young man. He's got a good heart." I turned and looked up at Henry. "I've only got two weeks that I can devote to him full-time, and then probably just two or three more after that where I can spend a few hours with him between speeches. Even worse, how much of a father figure, how much of a positive role-model can I possibly manage to be? I'm an easily-frightened, cowardly..." My words died off.
"I believe that you'll do just fine," Henry said softly. "If I didn't think so, I wouldn't have asked you."
"He's already lost one father," I continued, "and the scars may never heal. Do you really want me to try and bond with him, and then just up and leave when it's time for me to go? Even worse, he's got excellent reason to associate his father's loss with lapiform Scabs. My heavens, I can't even begin to imagine..."
"It'll either work or it won't," Henry assured me once more. "If it doesn't, no one will think the less of you. We all know the odds, Phil. We know that others have failed, good men all. And we all know that you'll do your best. That's all we ask."
I sighed and turned towards the field one last time. The breeze was still blowing, and all the young, immature cornstalks were nodding hopefully in the sunshine. I had no choice, really. Nor was I sure that I really wanted a choice; I had come to care about the Fergusons very deeply in my short time in Iowa. All of the cornstalks were nodding, each and every one of them.
So I turned to Henry and nodded too.
There was a definite feeling of tension in the air at dinner that night, though fortunately Justin seemed oblivious to it. Henry had already talked to Phlox and Grace, I knew, and presumably had gotten them to agree to aid and abet us in a little bit of well-intentioned skullduggery. I was well into my third plate of wonderful black-eyed peas when Grace looked up at Phlox. "Dear, I need to run into town tonight. Do you need anything?"
Phlox cocked her head to one side slightly. She hated shopping, I knew. But the fix was in. "Hmm. I've been meaning to look at some new drapes for my office."
Grace beamed. "Excellent! We can stop by the mall, then." She turned to Henry and I. "Do either of you need anything from town?" We shook our heads solemnly, and then Grace looked back at Phlox. "Leave in fifteen minutes?"
"Right, Mom!" Phlox agreed. Then the ladies were up and moving, and it was time for Henry and Justin and I to clean off the dirty dishes. They had to move all of the big ones, of course, but I was able to help a little. By the time that we were done, the ladies were well on their on the way into town and there was no left in the house but us three male-types. Justin vanished upstairs to play his games, as anticipated, and then Henry slowly made his ponderous way into the basement.
A few seconds later, the power failed.
"Hey!" Justin cried out in anger. "What's wrong? I had a great game going!"
The hardest part for me was to pretend surprise; I've never been a very gifted actor. "Damn!" I exclaimed, trying not to sound too far out of character. "The power's out. I had work to do, too! And the battery on my laptop is dead; I hadn't gotten around to recharging it yet."
Justin came galloping down the stairs, just as his grandfather emerged from the basement. There was a full moon out, which provided just enough light for us to make each other out in the living room. For a long moment we just sort of stared at each other, then Justin spoke. "How long do you think it'll be?" he asked his grandfather.
"Well," the old man answered slowly, "that depends. If the problem is down at the transformers or even further up the system, they usually get on it right away." Slowly, moving very carefully in the darkness, he stepped across the floor to a closet, and removed a large battery-powered lantern from the top shelf. "If it's just the local line," he continued, switching the light on, "then it'll probably be all night. Maybe well into tomorrow. There's no big rush just for a few of us."
"Aw!" Justin cried out, literally dancing with frustration. "What are we going to do?"
"Hmm," Henry said thoughtfully. "That's a mighty pretty moon out tonight. We could go out and watch it. Maybe we'll see a falling star."
"That'd be nice," I agreed. "I don't get out in the country where it's really dark very often. In fact, I rather miss looking at the stars."
Justin bounced up and down again. "Don't you and Grandma have a generator?" he asked, an unpleasant whine in his voice. "Or even a battery-powered TV?"
"Yep," Henry replied cheerfully. "We've got a generator. A real nice one. But it's broken. I've been meaning to get around to working on it." He smiled. "It's not especially urgent." He was lying through his teeth, I knew. In point of fact, Henry had disconnected it at my suggestion earlier that afternoon. "We don't need one, really. It's not so hard to get by for a few hours without power.
Justin stamped his foot angrily, and reflexively I came to full alert. "What are we going to do?" he asked again, the whine in his voice growing nastier. "There's no TV, no nothing!"
I lowered my ears and tail and turned to Henry. "Do you play poker?" I asked him.
His eyes lit up. "A little," he allowed. "Though only with good friends. And with a quarter limit."
I nodded. "Quarter-limit is fine with me. I play cards for fun, not for profit. Which is probably just as well." Then I turned to Justin. "Do you know how to play?" I asked him.
For a long moment Justin looked as if he was about to explode. There was a hunger in his eyes, the same kind of hunger that I'd encountered a few times before in the eyes of crackheads and heroin addicts. "No power," he murmured. "No power."
"That's right," I agreed cheerfully.
Then the young man's face lit up again. "Hey!" he said brightly. "We could go meet Grandma and Phlox down at the mall! There's a big arcade there!"
Neither Henry nor I had thought of this one; fortunately he decided to field it for me. "No," he replied sadly. "I've taken my special heart medicine already. I can't drive when I'm taking that; it's not safe. And Phil doesn't drive either."
Justin's face fell as if someone had turned off a switch. "No power," he murmured once more.
"No," I agreed cheerfully. "No power at all, except what there is in this lantern. So, do you play poker?"
He rolled his eyes dramatically. "No, I don't play poker."
"Would you like to learn?" I tried to keep my voice bright and optimistic. "It's not a very complicated game. Lots of fun, though."
"We can play for just chips," Henry agreed, "Until you learn. Then we play for real." He drew an imaginary line across his neck and made a throat-cutting sound. "K-k-k-k!"
"Card games are dumb!" Justin objected. "I wanna play a mechie game!"
Henry and I looked at each other; things were developing exactly along the lines that we'd foreseen. "All right," he answered agreeably. "Phil and I will play then. The chips and such are down in the basement." He turned to me. "Care to lead the way?"
Rabbit feet are not meant for stairways, particularly the narrow and steep kind of stairs that led down to the Fergusons' basement. I managed, however, though it took me twice as long to descend as it did even the infirm Henry. There was a nice little table down in Henry's workshop area that was just perfect for games like poker or chess; even in the dark it was the work of only a moment to set a chair up on blocks for me so that I could sit comfortably.
"Seven-card stud," Henry announced as he shuffled. He passed me a stack of chips, which I rather laboriously divided into subunits of red, white, and blue. "Ante two." Then he dealt, and clumsily I pushed two white chips into the center of the table.
Henry won the first pot with three of a kind, and I took the second with a mere pair of eights. Justin was stomping back and forth above our heads angrily; from time to time we smiled conspiratorially at each other as he made his rounds from room to room. Nothing electronic was working in the whole house. In fact, there wasn't any canned entertainment to be found anywhere, save the battery powered weather radio. Neither of us figured that a mere radio would prove to be much of a temptation for a kid like Justin, and eventually we were proven correct. By then, Henry and I were engaged in a classic battle over a hand of five-card stud. Each of us had an ace up, and we'd each raised the other twice in an effort to drive our opponent off of the pot. I had an ace in the hole, and was not bluffing. Henry probably was, I reasoned; after all, there were only four aces in the deck.
If he did have the fourth, however, I was sunk. He had me high-carded.
"I'm raising again," my opponent replied confidently, and I might have given the matter deeper consideration had I not been distracted by Justin's stocking feet on the staircase. As things stood, however, I was determined to put on a good show. "A quarter back at you," I replied with what I hoped was an equal sense of certainty. Maybe I was the one bluffing after all?
"Call," Henry answered. Then, with Justin hovering in the background, he slowly turned over...
...his ace in the hole.
"Damn!" I spluttered, turning over my own ace so the farmer could see that I was not a complete lunatic. "Damn!"
"You had to play it like you did," he replied charitably as he reached out with his long bearlike arms and dragged the mound of chips his way. It was very easy to be charitable when you had a big pot to rake in. "I'd have done the same."
"Your Grandpa snookered me," I said, turning to Justin. He didn't say anything, however, so I didn't press the issue. "This time, make the game 'Night Baseball'. Nickel ante."
Henry looked at me as if I'd gone mad. 'Night Baseball' is the wildest of wild-card games, utterly unpredictable and anathema to serious poker players everywhere. Then I winked at him with my right eye, the one that was not facing Justin, and inclined my head slightly towards the boy. 'Night Baseball' might be a game for amateurs, but it was also flashy and interesting to watch -- hopefully as flashy and interesting as a video game. "Oh," his expression seemed say, though he pursed his lips together in disgust as he prepared to deal for me. "Would you like a beer?" he asked after dealing us each seven cards face-down.
"Yes," I agreed. "That would be very nice."
"I'll go and get your paw cup!" Justin exclaimed, running off up the stairs. He was back down in a flash, and placed the cup in front of me just as Henry got the bottle open. "Turn up a card for me, will you?" the older man directed as he poured. "I'm busy."
I looked at Justin, but he didn't seem to know which card to turn. In truth it didn't matter, though he had no way of knowing that. So I reached across the table with my nose and used it to drag one of Henry's cards back towards me. Once I got it partway over the table's edge, I was able to use my clumsy forepaws to turn it over. "A four," I declared, pushing the card back towards its owner's hand. "Free card."
Henry nodded and smiled, then turned to Justin. "Four balls is a walk in real baseball," he explained. "A walk is a free base. So in this game, a four gets you a free card." He dealt himself one, face down. "My four checks," he declared.
"Check," I agreed. Then it was my turn. I turned over a four as well, then Henry dealt me my free card face up, since under the rules I had to either beat the last player's hand or lose. It was a nine. "Wild card!" Henry announced.
"Nines and threes are wild," I told Justin, who by now had pulled up a chair. His face was still revealing no interest, I noted, but his behavior declared otherwise. "But on a three, you have to pay a quarter into the pot. That's because --"
"--three strikes and you're out," Justin finished for me. "All right."
"My pair of fours bets a nickel," I declared proudly, determined to change my luck. Henry turned over a three, then an ace. I turned over a second nine. By the time that he turned over his last card, he had four aces, only two of them natural, and I had a high-ranking heart flush showing, with one card left to play.
"I bet a quarter," he declared, tossing his wager into the pot. "Call, raise or fold."
I swallowed, hard. Between the terrible drubbing I'd taken at five-card stud earlier and the outrageous stakes that this hand had somehow absorbed, I was nearly broke. Rabbits feet were highly overrated as good-luck charms, I knew from long experience. And losing everything I had in four hands was not a good way to impress Justin.
On the other hand, a three or nine would give me a royal flush, the highest possible hand in all of poker.
Henry was right, I knew. My three options were to call, raise or fold and thereby let him have the pot. There was no way that I was going to raise; the odds were too heavily against me for that and my opponent was surely sharp enough to know it. If I raised, not only would he happily raise me back, but he'd lose a lot of respect for me as a poker player in the process. That left "call" and "fold".
I sipped at my beer. Then I made my decision. "Call," I replied quietly, pushing my last blue chip towards the center of the table. Very slowly, I nosed my last card to the edge of the table until I could get a paw under it, then flipped it over.
It was a three.
This time it was Henry's turn to curse. "Shit!" he exclaimed, employing far stronger language than he customarily did around the grandkids. "Goddamn wild cards!"
I felt the corners of my mouth tugging upwards, very strongly this time. Perhaps I was actually smiling! "Them is the breaks," I replied sympathetically as I raked in my pot, enough chips to compensate me for the five-card fiasco and more. "Them is the breaks."
"Wait a minute," Justin protested. "Grandpa had four aces!"
"Phil had a royal flush," Henry explained smoothly. "That's the highest hand of all. It beats four aces. So, for that matter, does any straight flush. A royal flush is merely the highest of all straight flushes."
"Huh?" Justin asked.
Henry and I were very thorough. In ten minutes, Justin had a working knowledge of poker hands. In fifteen, he was dealing five card stud. By midnight, when the girls arrived back home and quietly went to bed, he had ceased trying to draw to inside straights, was beating the pants off of his elders at 'Night Baseball', and had consumed his very first half-glass of beer.
By three in the morning, Henry and I were teaching him the lyrics to mildly obscene drinking songs and finishing off our third six-pack. We would have had a lot of explaining to do to our womenfolk, the three of us would have, if we hadn't set things up well in advance. As it was, however, our biggest problem was staggering up the basement stairs. Justin was the only one of us still legally sober.
Phlox even rolled over and hugged me as I snuggled up beside her, despite the fact that I reeked of soon-to-be-stale beer. "Thank you," she whispered softly. "Thank you for doing what very badly needs to be done, but which I no longer can."
Justin woke up bright-eyed and happy the next day, though I couldn't exactly say the same. Usually my chronomorphism protects me from ever getting seriously hung over, but in my case at least the condition is not one-hundred percent consistent. I woke up red-eyed and droopy-eared, with a pounding headache and a bad taste in my mouth.
"Hello!" Justin greeted me cheerfully as I dragged myself down the stairs and sat down at the kitchen table.
"Hello!" I tried to answer him, but the word came instead as a kind of half-groan. There was a bowl of kibble waiting for me, I noted distantly, though the thought of eating it was utterly revolting. Far more appealing was the tea, heavily sweetened the way that I liked it and this time parceled out into several smaller containers that I could easily handle on my own. It was at least five or six steps to the countertop, however, and then there was the ice to get and my paw cup to find and... I sighed and laid my head down on the table. A little cold tea wasn't worth so much effort. Nothing on earth could possibly be.
"Here," Justin said after a thousand years had dragged by, each individual second stretching out into an eternity. "You look like you could use this."
"Gahr!" I replied, thanking him as best I was able. Grace made some of the best iced tea I'd ever drunk, and Justin had laid on the ice thick and heavy, just the way that I liked it. I took a single sip, clearing the evilness out of my mouth, and then put the cup down on the table and pressed my aching head up against. "You're a nice kid, Justin," I was able to say at long last, once some of the pounding had gone away. "That was damned decent of you. In fact, I think you saved my life."
"Are you sick?" he asked, all innocence.
"Hung-over," I replied blearily. My chronomorphism would kick in soon; it had to! "That's the usual follow-up to a night of poker-playing and beer-drinking."
"Oh," he said quietly. "Grandpa went into town. He was really grumpy this morning too."
"I can imagine," I replied. Hangovers grew worse as one got older. Though in proportion to his weight, he had drunk considerably less than I had. Carefully I sipped at my tea again. "Nectar," I declared. "Nectar of the gods." Then, once more, I pressed the cool cup to my aching forehead. The condensation was creating an unattractive damp spot in my fur, but I didn't care in the least.
"Have you decided what you're going to do on your vacation yet?" Justin asked.
"I've decided what I'm not going to do," I said after a long hesitation.
"Not drink too much beer again?" the boy asked with a grin.
"Right," I agreed. "And something else, too."
Justin cocked his head to one side. "What's that?"
I reached out and tousled his ash-colored hair. "I've decided that I'm not going to play any more 'Night Baseball' with you, either. I can't afford to lose that much money again!"
Justin laughed in delight. His eyes sparkled when he laughed, I noted, and his whole face seemed to come alive. He never laughed when he played video games, or at least I'd never heard him do so.
Maybe there was hope after all?
By the time an hour had passed, I'd eaten half a bowl of kibble, drunk most of a pitcher of sweet tea, and was feeling a whole world better. The sunlight no longer hurt my eyes, and the very idea of doing something constructive no longer made me sick at my stomach. Everything seemed so clean and pure out on the Ferguson farm, I noted as I stood and looked out the kitchen window. Minerva the donkey was placidly grazing outside the old abandoned henhouse, nibbling at what I was quite sure was one of the sweetest patches of clover on the whole spread. I rather liked Minerva; she was as wholesome and as pure as the Fergusons themselves. Impulsively, I decided to go out and visit with her for a while. Justin was watching television in the next room; I decided to see if we were making any progress. "Hey!" I called out, raising my voice so as to make myself heard over the canned laughter. "I'm going to go outside for a bit and see if there's any trouble waiting out there to be stirred up. You want to come along?"
There was a long, considering silence. "What'cha going to do?" Justin finally asked.
"I don't know," I answered honestly. "Minerva's up by the henhouse; I figured I'd get started by yanking on her tail."
Justin giggled at the outrageous idea. Minerva was a very dignified personage indeed, and the idea of deliberately teasing her in any way was almost unthinkable. You'd as soon place a thumbtack upon the throne of a reigning British Sovereign. With a loud click he turned off the rerun he was watching. "Just let me put on my shoes!" he cried as he ran upstairs; the boy never wore footwear when he could help it, I'd already learned. Which was just fine by me; there would be plenty of time and more for adult dignity later in life.
In a flash he was by my side, panting just a little from his mad dashes up and down the stairway. I took a moment to examine him clinically; he seemed eager and excited, not at all the dull young man who only last night had been more than a little panicked at the prospect of enduring an entire evening without electronic baby-sitting. He was still far too pale for an Iowa boy in summer, of course, and the faint ghosts of blue-black shadows stained the flesh under his eyes from far too many hours of staring at flickering screens. I was under no illusions about my relationship with Justin; he would return to his video games in a flash if I bored him even slightly. But at least the poker-game strategy had earned me a chance with him.
Minerva continued to graze in peace as Justin and I walked past her; she'd been watching the boy grow up for years, and I smelled like a friendly rabbit. Then Justin clicked his tongue in what was clearly a well-understood signal, and the aged donkey raised her head hopefully. "I've got a sugar cube, Minerva!" he said, holding the treat out on his palm. She whickered in gratitude, lipped the morsel delicately from her friend's hand, and returned to grazing as Justin gently stroked her neck.
"You two seem to be the best of friends," I observed.
"Minerva is everyone's friend," Justin answered. "Back when I was still just a kid I used to ride on her, but she's too old for that now. Even after that, she used to follow me everywhere and take care of me like I was hers or something."
I nodded. "She seems very gentle and motherly."
"Until something gets her mad," Justin agreed. "When I was eight, I was playing down by the creek. The water's not very deep there, but you can go wading. Anyway, when I climbed out I actually put my hand on a snake." He smiled. "I screamed, I guess. Anyway, Minerva came and stomped it to death. Grandpa said that it was a copperhead, and that she might maybe have even saved my life."
"Wow!" I said, looking the old donkey in the eye. No wonder she was treated so well! "I guess you two are pretty close then, eh?"
"Not anymore," Justin answered, looking down at the grass. "I don't come outside and see her very much. Mostly my sisters spend time with her when we visit."
The donkey whickered and flicked her tail, then raised her head to rub her nose against Justin's chest. It was a very possessive and protective gesture. He grinned in pleasure, then scratched the equine gently between the eyes. "Are there any fish in the creek?" I asked.
"Some. Mostly little ones." He shrugged. "But fishing's boring, so I don't really know."
Well, that was one good plan shot down. It was too bad; I would have rather enjoyed spending most of my vacation taking a kid fishing. But Justin was the client, not me. "I haven't been out around the farm very much," I continued, not missing a beat. "Not in the barns or anything. I haven't seen the river yet, either."
"You haven't missed much," he grumbled. "The river is just a big muddy brown pool; it hardly flows at all, and it's too dirty to swim in. The barns are just full of old junk. Grandpa sold almost all of the equipment when he got sick." He sounded a bit disappointed at the last.
I cocked my head to one side. "Did he have lots of cool stuff?"
Suddenly the boy was enthusiastic again. "Oh, yeah! He had a hay baler, and a combine, and a tractor that had caterpillar treads on it instead of wheels!"
"Really?" I asked.
"Yeah!" he replied. "Grandpa said that he needed it because the ground is so boggy down near the river sometimes, even though it was really expensive and broke down a lot." He pressed his lips together. "Grandma didn't like it."
"Sometimes ladies just don't understand," I agreed, mentally picturing Henry driving around the farm in his expensive toy with a big grin on his face. The image seemed to fit him perfectly.
"Yeah," Justin agreed sadly. "Sometimes they don't understand at all." He frowned for a moment, before becoming animated again. "His stuff was so incredibly cool! I did a report once in fifth grade on how his seed drill worked, and I got an 'A'. But he had to sell that with the tractor."
"Hmm," I said. "Did he ever let you drive his equipment?"
"No, Mom and Grandma said that it was too dangerous. Grandpa wanted me to come and help out one year during the harvest. He got mad and told everyone that he'd driven much more powerful equipment when he was even younger. Phlox got mad too, and they made Mom and Grandma go along with it. Then he had a heart attack right before I was supposed to come, and they had to get the neighbors to help or else the whole crop would have been lost." He looked very sad. "No one had time to teach me anything after that happened. And then the equipment was gone, and I never got another chance."
"That really is too bad," I answered sincerely. So Grandpa really and truly had tried, just as I'd imagined all along. It wasn't his fault that his health had failed, nor was it his fault that Justin didn't care to hunt or fish or play physical sports, which were the only other activities that he'd thought to try. "Tell me, how many barns are there on this farm?"
"Five," Justin answered. "Counting the two that are leased out to the Hendersons. We can't go in those anymore. Though it's okay if we want to go and walk on the land. Grandpa still owns it."
"Right," I agreed. "So, your grandpa still has three barns, right? Are they big ones?"
He shrugged. "Medium-size, I guess. One of them is rotten and about to fall over. It's too dangerous to use. I'm supposed to stay out of it."
"Two barns, then. Two medium-sized barns." I paused. "Barns tend to collect a lot of junk. Even if your grandfather sold all of the equipment, he probably kept a lot of his tools and stuff. How much do you want to bet that we can find something interesting in one of them?"
Justin considered for a minute. "There's a really good cartoon on in about half an hour..."
"Come on!" I said, stepping out into the corn. "You can watch cartoons at home with your sisters any time that you like. Let's have an adventure!"
"An adventure?" He rolled his eyes.
Clearly, I was pushing things a bit too hard. But, one might as well be hung for sheep as for lamb. "Sure," I replied boldly, turning around to face him while still walking backwards. "It's amazing what kind of stuff happens to you when you head out looking for trouble. If we can't find an adventure, we'll make some!"
For a moment Justin cocked his head to one side and screwed up his face in doubt. Then, rather reluctantly, he began walking after me. "All right," he said simply.
"All right!" I agreed, my voice expressing quite a bit more confidence than I felt. "All right, all right, all right!" I hopped high once in joy, and kicked my feet together in mid air, eliciting a delighted laugh from my young companion.
"Phlox never does that!" he said.
"That's because she's too serious all of the time," I replied. "Or at least around here, she is. Have you ever by chance seen her play 'Acorn'?"
"No, I've never even heard of it. Is it a video game?"
It was my turn to laugh. "Not hardly," I answered. "She and I will have to show you sometime before I leave. But take my word for it -- she's a mean competitor."
"Wow!" he said. Then he turned around and looked over his shoulder. Minerva was still standing by the henhouse, looking at us uncertainly. Justin sighed, then rolled his eyes again. "All right," he said. "Come on!" He clicked his tongue encouragingly, and then the donkey was trailing contentedly just behind us. "I'm getting too old for her to treat me like I'm still just a little kid," Justin complained. "It's embarrassing."
"There's no one here to see," I comforted him. "And, besides."
"Besides what?" he asked.
"Besides, it makes her happy. And no one is ever too old to need a little mothering now and again. No one!"
An hour later, I was growing seriously worried. The first barn that we had explored together had come up totally empty. Not partially empty, as I'd anticipated, but totally empty. I was hardly a farm boy, but it seemed positively unnatural that such an imposing farm structure should be completely bereft of junk. I'd found one old broken pitchfork tine leaning up against a wooden wall, and there were a few stray stalks of straw lying here and there. Otherwise, the place looked as if it had been picked over by professional scavengers. "Grandpa was going to rent this barn out too," Justin explained. "But no one wanted it. I guess he got it all cleaned up nice to try and get more money for it." Even Miranda had looked disappointed.
"What about the other barn?" I asked.
"That one wasn't ever for rent," my companion replied, beginning to look bored. "It's the one that Grandpa used the most. He still parks his truck there sometimes, when it's going to snow. I haven't been in there since I was little."
"Great!" I replied, trying to sound hopeful. In point of fact, I knew that Henry's tools were stored in the second barn. My fallback plan was to try and find some kind of project that Justin and I could work on together, even if it really only amounted to simply cutting up scraps to teach the boy how to run the machines. That, however, was likely to hold a young man's attention only just so long. If the second barn didn't turn up something interesting, then it appeared very likely to me that I would be spending my entire vacation playing mechie games with Justin for lack of anything else that we might do together.
It was almost a mile's hike to the second barn, which was close to the main highway. Unlike Henry's other barns, this one was made of steel. There was a power line running to it, I noted, and a gravel driveway connected it to the road. "I hope it's not locked," I said worriedly.
"It won't be," Justin assured me. "Nothing ever is, out here."
Sure enough, he was right. The small side door opened up easily. Justin stepped inside and went fumbling for a light switch.
"It's over here," I said, reaching up and flipping the toggle it with a forepaw. Overhead literally dozens of fluorescent bulbs lit up, and the inside of the building suddenly became bright as day.
"Wow!" Justin said. "This place sure is a lot bigger than I remembered."
I nodded soberly; the barn was indeed huge, big enough to house all the various machinery once required to run the Fergusons' very large farm. I actually felt more exposed inside the vast expanse than I had out under the clear blue sky. It was just as well that I'd be able to stay close to the walls without it being too obvious. "I bet it wasn't so empty when you were in here before. When a building is empty, it seems a lot larger."
"Yeah," he agreed. "It was really crowded." The boy began to wander around aimlessly, picking his way carefully around the many grease spots on the rough cement floor. "Look!" he exclaimed after a while. "See the caterpillar tracks? That's where Grandpa parked his big tractor."
I nodded in agreement, then yielded to an overwhelming impulse to sniff at the marks.
Justin stared at me curiously for a moment. "Why are you doing that?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Because I need to," I answered. "Part of me really is a rabbit, you know. It's a lot easier for me to just accept some of my new instincts rather than to fight them all of the time. If I never let myself act like a bunny, I'd probably go insane before very long. " I paused. "When we rabbits are curious about something, we sniff at it. It's just how things are."
"I've never seen Phlox do that," he replied doubtfully.
Once again I shrugged. "She's probably wired a little differently than I am, is all. Every SCAB is pretty much unique. The changes never happen exactly the same way twice. The more you divide us up into neat little boxes, the more contradictions you encounter."
Justin looked away. "Yeah," he said sadly. "She doesn't sniff at things. But she has to be a girl now."
I stepped up beside Justin and laid a paw on his shoulder. "Yes," I agreed. "She does. She's a woman through and through now, a woman who used to be a man. Because of the ways that she's changed in both her mind and her body, it would be every bit as hard for her to live as a man as it would be for you to live as a girl." I sighed. "You know, I may sniff at things sometimes, and do other rabbity things. But I wouldn't trade places with her for anything. In a very real way, she's trapped between two worlds. She never wanted to become female. It just happened, and now she's doing her best to live with it."
He nodded slowly. "I know all of that. Really, I do. And I feel sorry for her. Everyone does." He frowned angrily, then sighed and let his face return to normal. "I don't want to talk about this, all right?"
"Sure!" I agreed. Justin would talk about whatever he wanted to talk about, and any efforts on my part to make things otherwise would simply be time wasted. I raised my ears and peered around the inside of the barn, exploring. "Look!" I said. All of the tools and everything are still in the back, just like I thought they'd be. Let's go look!"
Every active farmer has to be able to do at least basic machine repairs on their own complex equipment, or else go bankrupt paying someone else to do it for them. Most farmers, in fact, are up to far more than just the basics. Henry, it seemed, had been of the latter persuasion. Not only was his shop equipped with a metal lathe and drill press and the like, he also had a table saw for woodworking, and an air compressor setup complete with powered ratchets and spray-paining gear. The art of making something out of nothing using tools had been bonding humans together for millennia, especially fathers and sons. Justin and I had plenty to work with; if my attempt at getting through to him failed, it would not be for lack of equipment.
"Wow!" Justin exclaimed as he walked up and down the back of the barn. "This stuff is so incredibly cool! How could I have forgotten about this?"
"The tractor and combine and such probably distracted you," I suggested. "You were a lot younger back then, too."
"Yeah," he agreed. "All I wanted was to take rides and stuff." We walked slowly up and down the two rows of stationary machines, picking our way past an arc welder that someone had left sitting in the aisle. "No one's used this stuff in a long time," Justin observed, drawing a line in the dust that had accumulated atop the metal lathe. "Probably not since Grandpa's been sick."
I sniffed at the air. "He's cut lumber here fairly recently," I observed. "I can still smell it." Sure enough, when we checked there was no dust on the table saw.
"He must have used it when he put in the new shelves downstairs." Justin was losing interest quickly, I could see, wandering aimlessly around and not taking the sort of deep interest in any one machine that I'd hoped he would. I looked around hopefully.
"What's that in the back?" I asked, my ears involuntarily raising themselves. "Under the tarp?"
Justin turned to look. "I'm not sure," he answered. "Probably just another tool."
"Probably," I agreed, even though the shape didn't really seem right for that. "Let's take a look, anyway."
"There's nothing else to do," Justin grumbled. "Might as well."
If the mysterious object was indeed a tool, I decided as we approached, it certainly must be a seldom-used one. The tarp that covered it looked to have half an inch of dust on it, and it smelled so strongly of mouse-droppings that my eyes watered. Even Justin screwed up his nose as we approached. "Eww!" he declared sincerely. "That really stinks!"
I nodded soberly, then walked around and examined the object from all sides. It was narrower at one end than the other, by a very considerable margin, and stood perhaps a foot too high too high to be a workbench. "It might be a portable sawmill," I said at last. "Except that there isn't much in the way of trees to feed it."
"Not on this farm," Justin agreed. "Let's look and see!"
In truth, I was rapidly losing interest in barn-exploring myself -- even mechie games seemed preferable to taking that foul-smelling tarp into my mouth and looking underneath. But I'd made a promise, and Justin was a client. Reluctantly, I dropped to all fours and began sniffing around the thing.
"What do you smell?" Justin asked excitedly, his shock at my lack of decorum forgotten.
"Oil," I replied. "Oil, rubber and gasoline. Whatever's under here, it has an internal-combustion engine in it."
"Cool!" Justin said with a little hop of excitement. "Pull the tarp off."
My lip wrinkled in disgust at the idea. "How about if you pull it off?" I asked, stepping back. "You have better hands than I do."
His eyes went wide. "But... But..."
"Watch out for the mice," I encouraged him. "I can hear at least two or three running around in there."
"But..." Then he swallowed his squeamishness, and stepped up close alongside me. "Do they bite?"
"No," I reassured him gently. "They'll be a lot more scared of you than you are of them. You'll be fine. I promise."
Justin nodded uncertainly, and then began searching for an exposed corner of the tarp. It was not an easy task, everything had sat undisturbed for so long. "Over here!" I said, waving a paw. He nodded and took the heavy cloth in his hand, then began peeling it off of the unfinished concrete floor.
There was more than just mice living under the tarp, I noted dourly as Justin folded it and over. A damp spot on the ground marked where it had been, a spot that almost literally crawled with beetles and millipedes and other muck-loving bugs. "Watch out for snakes," I said, almost as an afterthought.
Justin froze. "Snakes?" he asked doubtfully.
I shrugged, putting a brave face on one of my own deepest fears. "Better safe than sorry," I pointed out. "Not that a little garter snake or something like that ought to present much of a problem, mind you. They'll be just as scared as the mice." If a snake popped out, in point of fact I'd probably go into a blind panic. That, however, was not something that I cared at all to admit to Justin. Better to risk bluffing it out.
The boy shook his head slowly in distaste, then returned to the task at hand, a little more slowly and carefully now. He'd begun on the narrow end of the object, whatever it was, and eventually he came to the point where he had to throw back a big flap of tarp up and over in order to proceed.
"Wait a minute, there" I said cautiously. Then I sniffed all around the edges one last time, listening cautiously all the while. "I think it's safe," I said at last, stepping away.
"Good," Justin agreed. Then, with a mighty heave, he lifted the roll of filthy canvas up and over...
...to reveal a tall, narrow radiator grille, with the single word 'Ford' proudly emblazoned over it.
"Wow!" Justin crowed. "It's an old tractor!"
"A very old tractor," I agreed. It had already been old when I'd been Justin's age, at a guess.
"Wow!" Justin said again, his jaw dropping. Then, much more eagerly, he pulled the rest of the tarp back, inch by inch.
The tractor was a beautiful and elegant old machine, I could see, though it clearly had not been used in many years. The bodylines and fenders were designed with easy-to-manufacture curves that, via the inspired efforts of a long-deceased artist, nonetheless subtly conveyed a sense of power and grace and style. It was a magnificent old machine, the Ford was, far less utilitarian in aspect than more modern equipment. Clearly, it had been intended to inspire a sense of pride and satisfaction in its owner, who presumably had probably never owned a tractor before. Even after a century or so, most of it clearly spent under hard service, the thing still conveyed an indefinable air of charisma. "My heavens," I whispered at long last. "That's amazing."
"It is so cool!" Justin agreed excitedly. He walked up alongside the engine compartment and peered in.
"That's the exhaust manifold that you're touching," I explained. "It channels the hot gasses from the exhaust valves and sends them down through the muffler and out the pipe."
"Then that's the muffler?" he asked tentatively, indicating a rusted-out widening in the exhaust pipe.
"It used to be," I agreed. Then I waved a forepaw. "That's the alternator, there. Or generator, more likely; I'm really not sure on something this old. And there's the engine block, and--"
"Where does the gas go?" Justin demanded. "And how does it get burned, anyway? In my mechie games, they never really explain this part. The power just comes from boxes."
I felt the corners of my mouth tugging upwards. We had hit paydirt after all! "It's a very long story, Justin," I began. "Or at least it will be if I take the time to explain things properly. Are you really sure that you want to hear it all?"
"Yes!" he answered urgently, still staring into the side of the engine compartment. "This is so cool!"
"All right, then," I began, finding a clean spot on the floor to sit on. "Internal combustion, Justin, is the closest thing there is in the world to magic. Or at least it was it was until SCABS; since then, I'm not nearly so sure. But anyway, the whole thing is based on tapping the power of burning gasoline and making it do work. This particular type of gasoline engine operates on a four-stroke principle..."
It was nearly dark by the time that Justin and Minerva and I found our way back to the house. "Geez!" Justin was saying as we approached the back door. "So a turbocharger and a supercharger are really basically the same thing."
"Right," I agreed. "Both of them drag down the main engine, then give back more horsepower than they draw." My throat was a little ragged by then; I'd been talking nonstop almost all afternoon. "They make the engine think that it's operating at a lower altitude."
"I see," my companion agreed thoughtfully. He was learning about engines so rapidly that it was almost frightening, though of course all of his knowledge was theoretical. I was, frankly, very impressed. I'd met more than a few adults who had never quite been able to grasp the basic operating principles of a gasoline engine, much less advanced refinements such as supercharging. Then Henry's truck pulled into the drive, and Justin was off like a shot to greet him. I'd never seen him run before; his gait was slow and awkward, but full of excitement. "Grandpa!" he called out. "Grandpa! Guess what Phil and I found back in the machinery barn?"
"It belonged to my grandfather," Henry explained slowly as we all sat down and enjoyed dinner together. "When I was a kid, it was the first tractor that I learned to operate. Back then we were still working it."
I nodded soberly as Phlox kindly dished me out more broccoli; it had been cooked with lemon and then allowed to dry off so that it was easy to handle with no utensils. The dish been made especially for me, I rather suspected, and I acknowledged Phlox gratefully in appreciation.
"It's a Ford 9-N. Part of the famous 'N' series. Not quite as old as you thought, though. They quit making N's in the nineteen-sixties."
"It looks really old," Justin said. He was eating plate after plate of boiled and buttered potatoes. I sensed a major growth spurt coming on.
"That's because the design dates back to the thirties," Henry explained. "Between them, the N's were just about the most popular tractors in the world. They were the first really reliable ones, you see, and they were sized just right for a small farmer's acreage and budget. Later on, as farms grew bigger so did the tractors. It was only then that the old Fords finally died."
I nodded. "So you've actually seen it run."
"Oh, yes!" he replied, beaming. "The Ford was too small to use as a main tractor on this big spread, but it was just right for the kind of jobs that a farm boy had to do all of the time. I used it to stretch fences, dig postholes, all of that kind of thing. There's still a plow out there for it, though I've never seen it used, and a seed-drill. A straw-baler, too, but that's broken." He frowned slightly. "To be honest with you, even as beat-up as it is it's probably worth quite a bit as an antique, for parts if nothing else. But I'd never sell it."
Of course not, I agreed silently. A tractor like that would become part of a family, as much a legacy as the land itself.
"Do you think it would start?" Justin asked excitedly.
"Not easily," Henry replied. "It's been sitting there for what?" He looked at Phlox. "Twenty years?"
"More," she replied. Then she turned to her son and smiled. "Dad used to take me for rides in a little cart behind it, when I was about four." Then she turned back to her father. "But by the time I was helping out, it was already laid up."
Henry nodded sadly. "My brother, God keep him, decided to take the transmission apart to fix a nasty whine. Somehow he never quite got around to putting it back together. Nor have I, really. Between having a family, and the farm work, well..." The old man sighed and grew misty-eyed for a moment; clearly, he missed his brother terribly. "I've looked it over once or twice. He didn't number any of the parts or anything like that. It was a real mess. So I just tossed the whole works in a pan of oil, shot some lubricant in the cylinders and threw a tarp over her." He blinked. "That must have been about thirty years ago."
"Yeah," Phlox agreed. "About."
Henry shook his head again. "How time flies! It feels like only yesterday..."
"It looks to be in pretty good shape," I opined. "Everything's still there, obviously. The tires are split, and I wouldn't trust the belts or hoses. But otherwise, it looks pretty good."
"Can we start it?" Justin asked again.
I looked at Henry. Henry looked at Phlox. Phlox looked at me. Then I shrugged and looked at Justin. "I don't see a reason in the world why not."
The next morning I found myself "up and at 'em" after much too short a night. Rabbits need more sleep than do humans, and in nature they keep a very different schedule. Lapines are generally most active around dusk and dawn, and obtain their typical twelve hours a day of sleep around noontime and midnight. My own body was deeply conflicted as to what its circadian rhythm ought to be; both my rabbit and human sides made sure that their needs were echoed in my being. Sometimes I woke up all full of energy around four in the morning and then absolutely required a long noontime nap, while at others a more human schedule worked adequately so long as I go at least ten good hours of rest every night. In truth, a rabbit's daily schedule fit me better than anything, and back in the Colonies I'd had no physical troubles whatsoever living on one. The realities of human society dictated otherwise, however, and in order to be functional I'd been forced to make do.
So, even though I'd only had six hours of sleep, I blearily participated in Henry and Justin's attempt to revive the old Ford. Henry had shaken his head sadly at sight of all the old mouse-nests built higgledy-piggledy wherever the rodents had chosen. Our first job, in fact, was to clean the tractor out as thoroughly as we could and assess the ravages of time. "Well," Henry grumbled after we were done, "one thing's for sure. We're not going to get it running this morning."
"Aw!" Justin cried out. "Why not?"
Henry motioned him closer, and pointed. "Do you see those wires?" he asked.
"Look closely at them, Justin. What do you see?"
There was a long pause. "The mice. They've been chewing on them."
The older man nodded sadly again. "Right." Then he looked at the boy speculatively; I'd let him know that Justin seemed to be absorbing the mechanical arts awfully quickly. "Where do those wires run?" he asked after a moment. "What do they do?"
"Well..." Justin pursed his lips in thought. "Those are the spark plugs. Right?"
"Right," Henry replied, a little surprised.
"And that's the dis... dis..."
"Distributor," Henry supplied.
"Uh-huh. Distributor. And that's the ignition coil just behind it." Justin paused again, clearly thinking hard. Then he pointed confidently. "These are the spark plug wires, then. And those other chewed-up ones behind them, they must be what powers the coil." He turned around excitedly. "Did I get it right?"
"Yes!" Henry replied, smiling wider than I'd ever seen before. "Exactly right!" Then he tousled Justin's hair. "That was very, very good!" The boy beamed proudly.
"The carb's probably sludged up, too," I offered. "Unless you thought to drain it?"
Henry shook his head. "Nope. It was probably already sludged when Nate left it sitting so long, I figured. So I just oiled her up and threw the tarp over her." He paused. "I never thought that it would be so long. Never even dreamed it."
I nodded; it probably happened that way a lot to old machinery. "Well," I said at last. "We need to make a list."
Henry frowned. "I don't know, Phil," he said. "This is turning into a bigger job than I thought it would. Maybe we ought to just repaint the thing and put it out front as a lawn ornament or something." He paused. "I agree that it shouldn't be sitting in here moldering, though. Such a fine tractor deserves better than that."
"Aw!" Justin cried out, his face falling. "You can't do that! We need to get it running!"
I looked up at Henry and narrowed my eyes. "It'll cost a few dollars to fix this thing up," I said at last. "Probably more than a little tractor like this will ever be worth to a practical farmer like you. But unless I miss my guess, you can spare a few dollars for something like this. Can't you?" I looked significantly at Justin's downcast features, then back to Henry. "This tractor has been important in the lives of four generations of Ferguson men. Don't you think that it deserves to be important in the life of another?"
Henry's frown deepened, then his features melted almost imperceptibly into a smile. "I suppose I really don't have anything else to do with my time except to hang around the co-op and complain," he said eventually. "It actually sounds like fun. And I can square the money with Grace. She'll understand. She always has."
The list, when we were finished with it, was extensive. Though the basic motor turned over all right when cranked by hand, practically all of the rest of the subsystems were a mess. The wiring harness needed total replacement, the radiator was rusted nearly solid, the seat crumbled into dust when Justin climbed up into it. "Let's just concentrate on getting it running first," I suggested after we had started on our third page of vitally important repairs. "Let's get it running, and then worry about the rest later."
"Fair enough," Henry agreed. "That means that we just need a basic electrical harness, some work done on the cooling system, the gas tank flushed, and the carb cleaned."
I blinked. 'Some work' on the cooling system seemed like a very optimistic estimate indeed. "I don't think that radiator is salvageable," I said, shaking my head doubtfully.
"Bobby Lee Morris down in town can fix it," Henry declared with conviction. "I've seen him take on worse. He's older than I am, and has been doing radiators all of that time. Mostly on tractors." He paused. "It's the wiring harness that worries me. Installing a new one on a tractor this simple is a snap, but if we have to cobble one together out of bits and pieces..." His voice trailed away.
"Right," I agreed, bristling my whiskers in annoyance. I thought for a moment before speaking. "I'll tell you what," I answered at last. "In truth, I'm not going to be able to help you guys very much with the actual work on this thing." I held up my forepaws. "Even though I'd really like to."
"I know," Justin said into the silence. "It's all right, Phil. We understand."
I bristled my whiskers again. I didn't want understanding. I wanted to help, to be useful, to bark the skin off of my knuckles on rusty old parts and curse loudly alongside my fellow males. But that couldn't happen for me, not ever again. I didn't even have knuckles anymore. So instead, I tried the next best thing. "Henry," I said. "How about if we split this up a little? You work on the radiator. I'll try and find us a harness; never mind how. And you," I said, nodding at Justin. "You will flush the fuel system and clean the carburetor."
Justin gulped. "Me?"
"You," I repeated. "It's a very simple old design. Isn't it, Henry?"
For a moment the old man stared at me in astonishment. Then he remembered Justin naming off the various wires. "We'll figure it out together," he said at last, turning to his grandson. "If you get into something you don't understand, I'll explain it to you."
"Right," he agreed doubtfully, after a long moment of consideration.
"Right," I echoed. "But I bet you'll be surprised at how easy it is." I turned back to the old tractor, and its swooping, appealing lines. "It wants to run," I said. "You can tell that just by looking at it."
Then Henry stepped up alongside me and placed his hand right between my ears. "You know," he said after a long moment, "I do believe that it does!"
Three days later, I was no longer nearly so certain that the old Ford would ever sputter to life again. Bobby Lee Morris, Henry had informed me, was busily working on the radiator. It needed two new tanks and all of the tubes replaced, Henry had explained, but was salvageable. A radiator mostly consisted of an upper and lower tank, I knew, connected by tubes. If all of these needed to be replaced, I wondered to myself, what exactly was the difference between fixing the old radiator and making a new one from scratch? But I held my peace.
Justin and his Grandfather were still busily working on the fuel system, though they were nearly done. My host had found an old fuel filter still hanging on his spare parts rack, covered with dust. He and Justin had also not only replaced the fuel line in its entirety from metal tube stock and rubber hosing, but had also pulled the gas tank and washed it thoroughly. "It still holds gas!" Justin had exclaimed excitedly when I'd checked in on them the previous afternoon. "Look! It still holds gas."
"It's probably rusted," Henry had added, a bit more realistically. "That'll work loose and plug up the fuel filter. We'll only put in a half-gallon or so at a time, until I can get it reworked. Bobby Lee does gas tanks, too."
The corners of my mouth had twitched upwards a little at that; what was it going to be this time, I wondered. "I fixed your gas tank, Henry," I could picture the old codger saying. "All it needed was a whole new tank..."
Unfortunately, Bobby Lee did not do wiring harnesses. My search was not going well at all; despite having spent countless hours searching on the 'net, I was still coming up empty. "Damn!" I mumbled to myself for the thousandth time as I came hard up against yet another dead-end. "I just don't get it. There are Ford tractors all over the internet, but not a harness to be found anywhere!"
"That doesn't seem right," Phlox observed from the far side of the room. She had no appointments scheduled, and had therefore taken the day off.
"I know," I agreed. "They run these things in parades and everything else. Hell, I wouldn't doubt it if every Ford tractor ever made was still running; near as I can tell the things simply won't die. They don't get involved in wrecks like cars do, and just about everything that can possibly go wrong with them is easily fixable."
"Mmm," Phlox agreed, sitting down close beside me.
"So where are all the parts coming from?" I nearly exploded. "I've found parts on auction for old International Harvesters, John Deeres, you name it. But never any damned Fords! Or at least not anything that I need. You can buy fenders and such all day long! But things like spark plugs? Forget it!"
"Have you asked the collector's groups?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered. "Of course I have. And maybe someday one of them will get around to answering me." I stamped a hindfoot in frustration, then sighed as Phlox began massaging my neck. "I've also searched 'Ford Tractor' about twenty million times, hit the antique tractor sites, you name it. Somehow people are keeping these things running; hell, some diehards even still use them to plow every year!"
"There's a way," she said softly. "You just need to find it."
"Right!" I barked sarcastically, feeling myself tense up again and for once not feeling guilty over it. "Watch this!" I leaned forward and typed 'Ford tractor parts' in the inquiry box of a major search engine. A list of two hundred and eleven items came up. Each and every one save for some gibberish in Cyrillic letters was colored red, meaning that I'd already looked at the web page. "See?" I demanded, half-hysterically. "I've been to every last one of these sites. Every last one! And where has it gotten me? Nowhere! How am I ever going to look Justin in the eye again? Or your Dad?"
Gently Phlox continued to rub my neck. "Scroll back a minute," she asked after a long moment. "I want to look at one of those sites again."
"Sure," I replied exhaustedly. "Which one?"
"That Russian one." She paused for a moment. "Did you know that a lot of Soviet tractors were copies of American designs?"
"No," I said tiredly as I scrolled back up. "I didn't."
"Hmm," she replied. "Then you probably also didn't know that Ford invested heavily there. They probably did a lot of exporting, I'd imagine." She paused. "Right about the same time that the 9-N was built."
Now she had my interest. "Indeed?"
"Moskva Tractor Works," Phlox said slowly when I had scrolled to back to the proper place. "I can't read Russian all that well, but I think the rest says 'specializing in parts for obsolete small tractors'."
My mouth dropped open. "You know Russian?"
She shrugged. "The Olympic Games were held in St. Petersburg. It seemed the thing to do. In my spare time, of course. Like I actually had any." She rolled her eyes at the memory.
For a long time I stared at her, then almost of its own accord my forepaw clicked on the link. "This bargain of the month," the headline stated in bad English, once the page was fully loaded. "Sparking plugs for the Ford 2-N and 9-N! Only one dollar apiece! Buy three and get the fourth free!" Underneath was a complete catalog that listed for sale, in both English and Russian, virtually every component of a Ford tractor. I blinked. My heavens! You could even order a brand new original-style plow!
"I bet that their English-language search link is down," Phlox said in her usual calm tones as I sat and sputtered helplessly. "You might want to let them know. It's no wonder that you can't get parts anywhere else, what with that place being so cheap. No American company could possibly compete."
"I've got Dad's credit card number here somewhere," she muttered, digging into her purse. "Why don't you go ahead and place your order, while I find it?"
Fifteen minutes later I'd ordered us a complete new wiring harness, plus a set of four 'sparking plugs' since they were so cheap. Additionally I'd ordered a new distributor cap and rotor. I'd even gotten us a brand-new set of plug wires, because it was cheaper to buy them in Russia and have them shipped than it was to find bulk wire locally and tailor our own. The bill was incredibly low when we were done, even after I'd specified overnight shipping to prevent Justin from losing interest. Not that I considered such an outcome particularly likely; he was working from dawn to dusk and had only played video games once that I'd noticed since we'd discovered the old tractor together. There wasn't any point in taking the chance, however, and in the end my bill for what amounted to almost an entirely new electrical system came to far less than Henry had spent on the radiator alone. Feeling satisfied at long last, I sat back on the couch and cuddled up close to Phlox. "Thanks," I said, turning to face her. "I think that you saved my life."
"Don't mention it," she replied in a whisper. "I've never seen Justin so engaged in anything real since he was ten."
I nodded. "Your father tried to do things with Justin that he himself liked to do when he was a boy," I said. "The secret in reaching a kid is that you have to meet them on the ground of their own choosing. And the real challenge is that when a kid's really gone astray, a lot of the time even they don't know what they like and what they don't like anymore. You have to find out what they like for them. Not that Justin was all that seriously astray, mind you," I added hurriedly. "He wasn't into drugs or violence or anything like that. But still, the same principle applies. He didn't know what he liked, and there was no one showing him how to grow up. A lot of people who loved him were trying, and trying hard. They just didn't know the right buttons to push."
For a long time Phlox continued to look deep into my eyes. I began to become a little uncomfortable. "He may well yet fall back into his old behavior pattern, you know," I added, looking away. "Your father is going to have to take an active approach to keep the boy's attention away from those damn games; I intend to take him aside and talk to him about that some night soon, when Justin is asleep or something." I sighed. "He's bonding with your father, Phlox, not me. That's the better approach, and you know it." I raised a forepaw and regarded it sadly. "Under the circumstances."
"Perhaps," she agreed softly. "And perhaps not."
I sighed, then squeezed up a little closer. We snuggled silently for a bit before I spoke again. "Phlox," I said. "He cares for you. He really, truly does. It hurts him to talk about you. That's the surest clue of all."
"I know," she answered simply. "But I stay away, because it does hurt him so very much." She looked away. "I can't imagine what it's like to grow up like that. I don't want to make him have to tell his friends. He gets enough teasing as it is. When I visit Jenn's place, I'm his aunt."
"And to your daughters you're an aunt as well?"
"Yes," she replied simply. "Even now, after all this time, it still feels very odd to be called an 'aunt'. It's much harder than wearing high heels and being looked at 'that way' by males, to tell the honest truth."
"I can imagine that it would be," I agreed.
"It's for the best," Phlox continued, hugging me tightly. "I know in my heart that it is. Half the therapists I've seen think that I need to stay away because I'm a woman now, and half of them say that it's as much for my own good as much as the it is for the kids." She shook her head. "They're right, in a sense. The ones that think I ought to try and still be a fully active parent aren't worth a damn, I don't think. They're more interested in fulfilling some kind of social agenda then they are in what's good for my son and I. It would be incredibly selfish of me to inflict myself on Justin's life simply in order to fulfill my own needs. But..." Her shoulders began to shudder. "God, how I miss him!"
"He's not a total child anymore," I pointed out gently. "He's fifteen, even if he does look a good bit younger."
She nodded. "Puberty comes late in my family," she explained. "It's hereditary."
"Right," I agreed. "So don't let looks be deceiving. He's a teenager, Phlox, and has been one for a good little while now. He understands more than you think. In my opinion, you're right not to intrude into his life too much, and you're very right not to embarrass him in front of his friends. But..." I paused for a moment. "That doesn't mean that he doesn't need any contact at all. There's a middle road available here, Phlox. Justin needs terribly to resolve his relationship with you. That's going to take time and effort on your part. When he talks about you, he gets all confused and trips over his words. The kid loves you, without a doubt. He's very, very angry that you've come and stolen his father away from him, but he's got enough on the ball to be able to keep his anger focused in the direction where it belongs. On the disease, that is. Not you."
Phlox was weeping openly now. I let her sob for a little while, then spoke again. "You really want to be out there fixing that tractor with us, don't you? Down in your heart of hearts."
She nodded wordlessly, her perfectly-sculpted head rubbing against my chest.
"So come on out and help!" I encouraged her. "Heck, you can do more than I can. You're probably a better mechanic, too. Certainly you've got more experience with tractors than I do. After all, any experience is more than none."
"But..." she wailed. "But... This was supposed to be a father-and-son project!"
"And you're Justin's real father!" I countered. "Aren't you? No one denies that, not even the boy himself. It's good that your Dad is helping out, but the real father has a role to play here as well. Hell, bring milk and cookies if that's all you're comfortable with. Or swing a wrench. I don't care, and your father won't care either. We accept you as you are. Justin will too, once he gets to know you again. He can't resolve his feelings towards someone who's afraid to do more then say 'Hi' to him across a dinner table, now can he? Bring cookies or swing a wrench, either one, but do something, reach out in one way or another, whatever your comfort zone indicates." I looked down at the floor. "Lots of naturally-born women swing wrenches, you know. It's not a defining sexual characteristic. If it was, I'd have become female when I grew these damned ears and forepaws. I'm the one who can't jump in and help out with projects anymore. I'm the one that can't function in the face of even the slightest hint of danger. And don't think that I don't know it, down inside where it counts! You're much more of a man than I can ever hope to be again!"
Phlox looked up at me. She was a true albino, and her pink eyes were even redder than usual. "I do help out around the farm when Justin isn't here, you know," she said defensively. "I haven't turned into a hothouse plant just because my gender changed."
"I don't doubt that a bit," I replied, a bit chastened by my own outburst. Fortunately, it appeared to have gone right over Phlox's head. I'd let a lot more slip about my own personal problems than I'd intended, and I was resolved not to let it happen again. "It would be out of character if you didn't help out Henry and Grace both." I leaned forward, and placed my mouth close to Phlox's ear. "Anyone who knows you at all knows that. So, why do you feel like you have to live the female stereotype around Justin?"
For just a moment she stared blankly at me, not moving at all. Then, with great suddenness, she was on all fours and leaping down the hallway to her bedroom. The door slammed behind her with a terrible crash, and the only sound to be heard was her sobbing her lungs out. I sighed and shook my head; it had not been my intention to cause my friend pain, though clearly that was exactly what I'd done. For a long moment I hesitated outside her door with my paw on the latch, ready to let myself in so that we could snuggle and cuddle and work our way through the hurt together. Then I realized that, try though I might, I could never quite understand Phlox's situation, could never totally put myself in her shoes. Probably nobody could.
She'd just run away from me a moment ago, I reminded myself. What right did I have to inflict myself upon her once more?
So, I let my forepaw fall to my side and walked back to the living room. There I picked up my computer and crept upstairs to my own room. Once safely inside I closed the door, and locked it tight. There was Shelter business to be caught up on, and more e-mail to read and answer than I cared to think about. When dinnertime came neither Phlox nor I felt like coming out and eating; Grace and Henry both sounded very worried about us. Justin knocked on my door, too. I told him to look for a package tomorrow, but didn't open up even for him. Eventually everyone gave up and left us both alone.
About ten I finally fell asleep.
Eventually I was awakened by a knock at my door. "Phil?" a young voice asked.
"Yes?" I answered, fairly politely considering the hour. "What is it?"
"There's a package here for you. You need to sign for it."
A package for me? The tractor parts had been ordered entirely in Henry's name; Moskva Tractor had never heard of me. "Does the box look like tractor parts?" I asked, leaping out of bed.
"No!" Justin replied joyously. "Those are here too! But this is something else, for you."
For me? But I didn't even live at this address. Only a handful of friends and associates even knew that I was in Iowa!
The parcel deliveryman didn't look too startled when he saw me, which I credited to the fact that Phlox often mail-ordered athletic gear. What was one more white rabbit, after all? He was a bit discomfited by my lack of hands, though he didn't hesitate at all to let me take his special electronic pen into my mouth in order to sign for the package. The courier carefully wiped the pen off before returning it to its little socket, but that was only to be expected. Though I was as careful as I knew how to be, it was a bit saliva-damp when I was done. No one, especially not a paying customer, could be expected to handle something that had been in somebody's mouth without it being cleaned off first.
I let Justin accept the package for me, as there are few things more difficult for me to manipulate than paper-wrapped boxes beyond a certain size. Even though his much-anticipated tractor parts were sitting on the table waiting for him, he took the time to open my package for me first. My box had been labeled by hand, I noted, though there was no return address. Suddenly my ears went up. "Justin!" I snapped just as he was ready to slice the paper open. "Wait a minute. Shake that thing before you open it, will you?"
His eyes widened. "Why?" he asked, even as he vigorously jiggled my parcel up and down. There was something very dense, hard, and heavy inside, my sensitive ears told me, packed in paper. I exhaled, realizing for the first time that I'd been holding my breath. "It's all right, I think. It sounds innocent enough."
Justin started to roll his eyes, then looked thoughtful. "Do you really think that someone might send you a bomb?" he asked.
"No, to be honest. Then again, I never figured that anyone would want to throw a rotten tomato at me, either."
The boy nodded. "I guess. But I think you're being a little paranoid."
I shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. Rabbits excel in paranoia."
"Right," he agreed, turning back to his task. Justin used a kitchen knife to slit the plain brown wrapping paper, exposing a box that had once contained fifths of vodka. Then he slit the packaging tape that held the box closed, and reached inside. "What in the world?" he asked as he removed a can of peeled, whole tomatoes.
I cocked my head to one side, becoming a little alarmed again. "Is there anything else in there?"
"Yeah," Justin replied. Next he pulled out a copy of NewsFront magazine, and then what looked like a greeting card. The envelope was addressed to me.
"Go ahead and open it, please," I directed Justin. He used the knife to slit the envelope open quite expertly, and then plucked out a card and laid it on the table.
I nosed it open. [Dear Phil,] it read. [We read that you've run into a bit of trouble on your speaking circuit. We have some advice for you. Next time, throw back! Please, accept the enclosed ammunition as our gift.] The card was virtually covered with signatures; my Blind Pig friends had literally run out of room while scrawling their names all over, including even the reverse side.
"Can I see?" Justin asked.
"Sure," I replied, nosing the card in his direction and opening the magazine. A page near the back was folded over, and someone had thoughtfully circled a minor item for my attention. My jaw dropped; there was my name, right there in print in a national magazine! My tomato incident had actually been reported! I'd made page seventy-three of NewsFront, and my friends had noticed!
"Wow!" Justin said when he was finished reading. "Your friends are cool!"
"Yeah," I agreed after a long moment. Unobtrusively I folded up the magazine and returned it to the box. It was fortunate that Justin did not seem to be able to detect the fact that I was blushing heavily beneath my fur. Such friends I had! "About the coolest people there ever were."
"Are they all Scabs?" he asked.
"Most of them," I answered honestly. "Not all."
"Scabs are about the most interesting people I've met," Justin mused. "I mean, it's really sad that such a bad thing happened to them. And some of them..." He shook his head in revulsion. "But the ones like you and Phlox, the ones that can still get around and do things, you guys are really cool. Everyone else is all exactly the same, only worried about money and business and stuff like that. It's like Scabs made you different, somehow." He paused thoughtfully. "One of my teachers in fifth grade was a chronomorph. She looked like she was exactly our age. She was the best teacher I ever had! Some of the parents wanted to make her retire, but they were just being dumb. It was like she was more grown up inside than all the rest, even though she looked like a kid."
I looked at Justin and cocked my head to one side appraisingly. "Maybe she learned something about herself because of her condition," I suggested. "Maybe having to overcome obstacles helped to make her wiser."
"Maybe," Justin replied with an easy shrug. "It could just be that I notice Scabs more because of Phlox. Or like them better, anyway."
"Maybe," I agreed.
He looked down at the ground. "When Phlox was my Dad, he was so cool. She still is cool, kinda. I really like you, too." There was a long, long silence. Then Justin changed the subject abruptly. "I'm gonna open up the tractor parts! Is that okay?"
"Sure!" I agreed. "Where's your grandfather?"
"He had to go into town and do some business with the County Clerk, he said. He won't be back until about noon."
"Well," I answered, looking at the clock. It was only nine. "I bet that if you go and get dressed, we can have the plugs in and some other stuff done by the time he gets home. If things go really well, we just might start that engine tomorrow."
"Cool!" Justin answered, picking up his knife again. "That would be so incredibly cool!"
By noon, I was already very impressed at how well Justin could handle a wrench, even though so far as I knew he'd never held one in his hand in his life before we'd begun the tractor project. I had to caution him not to over-tighten the spark plugs, and I was afraid that if we tried to change out the breaker points we might get in over our head. Still, by the time that Henry arrived out at the barn Justin had, with very little supervision, done most of a tuneup on the old Ford.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Henry said with a chuckle. We were outside taking a break while Justin busied himself with a wiring schematic. If all went well, we'd supervise his installation of the new harness that very afternoon. "The boy has a real gift. Who'd have ever guessed?"
"Not me," I replied honestly. "I knew that he enjoyed mechie games, yes. But this..."
Henry nodded soberly. "Grace and I have been putting college money aside for him, you know. Now I wonder if he's going to need it. I'll bet he gets a scholarship in mechanical engineering. Though I'd be pleased if he just became an honest mechanic. That's a lot better future than I was seeing for him before."
"Make sure to get him involved in watts and ohms while we're into this wiring project," I suggested. "That ought to spark an interest in math. And from there..."
The old man nodded soberly. "From there, the sky is the limit." He looked away. "Thank you, Phil. Thank you very, very much."
"For what?" I asked. "All I did was try and find something for you two to do together. The rest was all Justin's doing."
Just then our conversation was interrupted by Grace's car crunching its way slowly and cautiously down the driveway. Phlox was behind the wheel, I could see when it came close enough. She didn't have a driver's license, I knew, but felt able to handle driving around the farm property itself, where there weren't any other cars. "Hi, Hon!" Henry greeted her with a smile. "Home from work already?"
"Hello, Dad!" she answered brightly. "Yeah, Mom and I both finished up a couple hours earlier than usual. So we came home and baked." Still smiling, she produced a tray of chocolate chip cookies, warm from the oven. My mouth began watering instantly.
"Way cool!" Henry said, gently mocking Justin's habitual teenspeak, and Phlox smiled in reply.
"Come on into the barn," she directed. "I'll set up the tray in there, and then come back for the milk." Then she turned to me, her smile growing even wider. "I've got orange juice for us two."
"Thank you," I replied. While I could eat a cookie or two without too much in the way of digestive problems, drinking milk was absolutely out of the question. Phlox's stomach was not quite as lapine as my own; she liked milk. Bringing the orange juice had been very thoughtful of her. Drinking it with me was even more so.
"No problem," she answered, dimpling.
When we got inside it didn't take much persuading at all to get Justin to lay down his tools for a few minutes; the cookies' wonderful aroma pretty much took care of that difficulty for us. He'd laid out the harness on the barn floor, I noted approvingly, and had oriented his schematic in the same direction. "Got it pretty much figured out?" I asked between nibbles.
"Kind of," the young man replied. "I still can't quite figure out how the voltage regulator works. Or the coil."
Henry smiled. "You've only been at it for a couple hours," he said. "The regulator is one of the most complicated parts in the entire tractor. And as for the coil..." He paused. "Well, as for the coil, I'm damned if I really know how it works, either. I know what it does, but not exactly how it works. Tell you what, Justin. How about if we wire it up for now like the schematic says, and then we'll get on the internet tonight and figure those two parts out together."
"Cool," Justin agreed happily. I looked him over carefully. He still wasn't getting any sun, working in the barn all day, but he seemed a lot solider than he had been when I'd first met him. Even more important, he seemed less whiny and a lot more self-confident. Best of all, he seemed to smile every few seconds.
I hadn't seen him playing video games in days.
Phlox and I watched for a time as Justin installed the new wiring under his grandfather's watchful eye. An old tractor's harness, I noted, was a much simpler job than a car's would have been; there were far fewer circuits to worry about, and almost everything was right out in the open where it was easy to get at. The job took under two hours, even though Justin was a bit clumsy as of yet with a pair of wire strippers. Still, in surprisingly short order, the task was complete.
"Well," Justin said as he rubbed his greasy hands on a red shop rag. "What do we have to do now?"
"We need a battery," Henry declared. "Tomorrow morning, I'll bring the pickup and a pair of jumper cables. That ought to do it."
"Tomorrow?" I asked. "Why wait until tomorrow? There's still plenty of daylight left."
"Yeah!" Justin declared. "Why wait?"
"Grace will have dinner on soon," Henry protested.
"No she won't," Phlox contradicted him. "We were just baking, remember? A working woman only does just so much cooking in one day. Mom planned on us going out tonight. And I know for fact that she was going to take a nap first anyway."
There was a long silence while Henry weighed her words. "Hmm," he said at last.
"And there are jumper cables in the car," Phlox added.
"Well," Henry said after for considering for another long moment. "I don't see any reason why not, then."
"Yay!" Justin cried, doing a little dance. "Yay!"
"I'll get the door," Henry said to his daughter. "You go get the car."
In two shakes we were all set up and ready. Henry had hooked the cables up to both car and tractor, Phlox was seated in the car's driver seat ready to race the engine, and Justin was seated on the tractor, waiting expectantly.
"All right," Henry commanded. "Gun it, Phlox!"
At the command Phlox depressed the gas pedal, creating the maximum possible voltage for the tractor to draw on.
"Justin!" Henry cried out over the uproar. "Turn it over!"
"Hruuu-rrru-rrru," the tractor said as it turned over ever so slowly. "Hrruu- rruu-rruu-rruu." But it would not catch.
"Damn!" Henry muttered after Justin had tried several times. "All right, Phlox! Let off of it!"
Instantly the engine dropped to idle speed, and then Phlox killed the motor entirely. "Did it start?" she asked.
"No," Justin replied sadly.
"It didn't even fire at all," I added. "Are you sure that we're getting a spark?"
"Absolutely," Henry replied.
There was a long silence. "If it's not spark," Phlox observed," then it must be a fuel problem."
"Right," Henry agreed, stroking his chin contemplatively. "We rebuilt the carb. The question is, did we do it right?"
There was a long silence as we stood and contemplated. Finally, Phlox stepped over and disconnected the jumper cables from Grace's car. "Don't move," she commanded. "I'll be right back." Then she leapt into the driver's seat and went roaring off, much more quickly than she had arrived.
"What in the world?" Henry asked, looking at me.
I shrugged, then looked over at Justin. He shrugged as well, completing the circle. "Women," we were saying to one another in speech far more ancient and eloquent than words. "Who can possibly understand them?"
Phlox was back in less than five minutes, by which time Henry and Justin had removed the air filter and begin fooling with the carburetor. "Wait!" Phlox cried out as she leapt from the car. "Don't take anything apart! I want to try something."
Henry's eyes narrowed. "I suppose," he grunted. "Damn thing doesn't want to work anyway."
"Right," Phlox agreed cheerily, ignoring the implied rebuke. "I need to stand by the tractor, Phil. Can you do the honors in Mom's car?"
"Sure," I agreed. Just because I couldn't drive anymore didn't mean that I was totally incompetent. Or at least I hoped not. Still, it felt very odd to climb in behind a steering wheel for the first time in years. "Ready!" I declared.
"Just a minute!" Phlox directed as she and Henry hooked up the cables. It took only a moment, and then Phlox pulled something out of her purse; I couldn't quite tell what. "All right!" she cried. "Gun it!"
I pressed my right foot to the floor, smiling inwardly as the big six-cylinder engine roared and howled at my command. Magic, it was, sheer magic. Internal combustion was simply wondrous! Then I heard the tractor turning over again. "Hrruu-rruu-rruu. Hruu-rruu-ruu..."
Suddenly there came a terrible clatter and roar, starting me out of my reverie. "Dududududu!" the tractor bellowed out as it fired and began to run, my sensitive ears assaulted by each and every semi-tamed explosion. It was the tractor, I realized after a terrible half-second of panic. The tractor had started!
Instantly I backed my foot off the accelerator and hopped out. Sure enough, the old Ford was hammering away uncertainly, with Justin and Henry and Phlox all three clustered worriedly together around the instrument panel. "More choke!" Henry was crying. "More choke!" Justin's hand moved, and instantly the tractor was running better. "Good boy!" Henry declared, slapping Justin on the back. "Now, as it warms up..."
I didn't need to hear the choke lecture, having been initiated by my father, who in turn had been initiated by his father before him. The barn was beginning to fill up with a thick blue haze as the tractor's long-idle motor burned up the sludge that had accumulated inside of it. While once upon a time I would have considered the smell to be a sweet perfume, these days I was far too much a rabbit to appreciate the subtleties of hot oil and antifreeze. Miriam greeted me outside, nosing my chest and slobbering liberally on me; I reciprocated by reaching up on my tiptoes and scratching her behind the ears with my foreclaws. Such a sweet old donk she was! Phlox wasn't able to hold out much longer than me; she was actually covering her ears against the bedlam when she emerged from the side door. "For Frith's sake!" she complained. "You should have ordered a muffler too!"
"Yeah," I agreed sadly. "But until we were sure the thing would actually start, it might have been a waste of money."
"True," she agreed, wincing from the noise that was still echoing inside her head. Then suddenly she was all smiles again. "Did you see his face?" she asked, wrapping an arm tightly around me. "Oh, Phil! Did you see his face? He hasn't looked like that since Christmas Day when he was nine!"
I hugged her back. "He did look happy," I agreed.
"Happy?" she demanded. "Happy isn't the right word, not at all. He looked proud, Phil! Thank you so very, very much!" Then, for the very first time ever, she leaned over and kissed me.
I blinked in surprise. It felt good to be kissed by Phlox, I decided, very good indeed. It felt even better to kiss her, I discovered a moment later. Not that this was unexpected, not at all.
The sound was like a gunshot behind me; reflexively I released Phlox and stood up straight. It was too late, however; Justin and Henry were standing side-by-side in the barn door grinning like idiots. "Well," Henry said at last, taking mercy on us both. "I've got to ask, Phlox. What in the world did you do to get that thing started?"
She smiled, then reached once more into her purse. "I used this," she explained, displaying an aerosol can. "It's for a Scab patient of mine. You honestly don't want to know what I need it for."
I reached out and took the can between my paws. "Ether," I said aloud. "I'll be damned." Ether was both more volatile and more explosive than gasoline, and back in the days of carburetors had routinely been used to start cold and balky engines. My own father had kept a can on his shelf long after the real need for it had disappeared.
"Works every time," Phlox answered. "Or at least it did for the taxi-drivers in St. Petersburg."
Henry laughed out loud. "So it did," he answered, remembering. "So it did."
Then Justin was hugging Phlox just as tight as he could, "That was so cool!" he cried out. "So incredibly cool!" And, the next thing I knew, he was hugging me as well. Both of us, together.
That night we went out to Lolita's Italian Ristaurante for dinner, the only place in town with a separate room available where the smell of seared meat didn't penetrate very well. I let Henry and Grace buy me my very favorite Eggplant Parmesan sans cheese, and shared wine with Phlox until I felt a bit silly. Henry took me aside a little later to thank me again, and once more I explained truthfully that I'd done nothing much at all. "He's a got a gift," I explained one last time, perhaps a little bit ponderously due to the alcohol in my bloodstream. "He's got a special and wonderful gift, Henry. Most people do, you know. The key is making the effort to recognize it."
The old farmer snorted. "Well, I certainly couldn't find it. I was looking in all the wrong places, able to see only what I wanted to see." There was a long pause. "Phil," he said at long last. "I have a heart condition, you know."
"I could die at any time, to be quite honest. It may be a week, it may be a year, it may be a decade. Knowing this has made me a little more prone to speak my mind on certain things, to make a habit of not putting off important business until tomorrow."
Once again, I nodded.
"Phil..." He sighed. "Phil, you've been good for Phlox and good for Justin and good for us all. I think that you'd be good for Jenn and the girls, too. Even more, I approve of what you're doing with your life, finding Scabs jobs and fighting the damned Colony men. I want you to know that. And..." He paused again, searching for words.
"It's all right," I finally said for him. "I understand."
"Phlox is my only child." A tear was crawling down Henry's cheek now. "He was once my only son, and now she's my only daughter. I always was and still am very, very proud of her. Someday my farm will go to her, and then she will pass it on to her children as she sees fit. My ancestors have been doing that for over two hundred years, now."
"Mr. Ferguson," I interrupted. I --"
But Henry was having nothing of interruptions. Waving me to silence, he pressed on. "The farm provides a fairly decent income," he continued, "even with the land let out to be worked by others. You and Phlox feel safe there, and the neighbors aren't any more likely to sell their land to strangers than we are. Most of them have almost as much of a history as we do." He paused for a long moment, and I was just about to interrupt him again when he spoke once more. " Phil," he said at last. "What I'm trying to say is that you fit in well with us here. You're good people. And I wanted you to hear me say from my own lips, just in case something were to happen to me, that I'd be pleased if Phlox were to see a lot more of you."
Twice I'd almost interrupted Henry while he was speaking, yet now that he was finished suddenly I didn't seem to have anything to say at all. "I... I..."
"No," Henry said, placing his gnarled old hand on top of my head. "Don't say anything, not anything at all. It's way too early in the game, really, and I'd not have said nearly so much as I have if it weren't for my bad heart."
Finally I found my tongue. "I... I've got commitments back East, sir. I hardly know Phlox in some ways. And, I'm just getting over a broken relationship that still hurts pretty badly."
"I know," he replied in quietly confident tones. "I know. And I also know my daughter. Did you know that she pointed out your web page to me over a year back?"
"No." It should have been a surprise, but somehow it wasn't. "She did seem kind of interested in me when we first met, though. I'll admit that."
Henry smiled and barked one single syllable of laughter. "Heh! That convention is the only one on the East Coast that she's ever gone to. She signed up right after you appeared on the guest list." His smile widened. "She's an Olympian, Phil. Don't ever forget that my daughter is an Olympian. She's used to getting what she wants, never mind the obstacles. And this time I find myself hoping even more than usual that she wins her medal. As always, Grace and I will be pulling for her from the grandstands."
Just then Justin's head popped around the corner. "Are you two done yet?" he asked in impatient tones. "Grandma says that we can't order dessert until you come back to the table."
"Well," Henry said conversationally as he tousled the top of my head as if I were a boy. "Dessert's a very important thing, now isn't it? It'd be a sin to delay ice cream sundaes over a little jawboning."
Still speechless, I reached up and touched Henry gently on his upper arm and nodded gently, trying as best I could to express the feelings that I usually tried so hard to keep hidden behind my nearly immobile furred face. Then I turned to face Justin. "You can have your ice cream!" I declared. "I'll take a bowl of fresh strawberries! With sugar!"
"Done!" Henry declared. Then somehow I was seated next to Phlox at a happy, love-filled table, eating one of my favorite treats. Something about these particular strawberries was divine, I noted, absolutely divine. I took a moment to sniff at one of them curiously...
...and then realized that what smelled so very delicious had little to do with the food that I was eating. For just a guilty second I froze as my body reacted to the realization, and then I met Phlox's eyes. She smiled gently, and then leaned and whispered in my ear. "I've been skipping my medication for almost a week now. I'm going into heat! I've never done this before. Isn't it wonderful?"
For a long moment the world spun round and round and round, until it seemed to center itself on Henry, Grace and Justin, all smiling approvingly at me with knowing looks in their eyes. "I've taken all of next week off," Phlox announced. "Phil and I are going to enjoy the second week of his vacation together. Aren't we?" she asked me.
I nodded dreamily. At least she'd been polite enough to ask...
"There's more to do than you'd think in Cedar Rapids," she said to the world at large. "There's movies to see, a couple of museums... Sunflower Warren is meeting this Tuesday night there as well, and that's always fun. We could also take Justin to ride the roller coaster." She smiled at her son. "Would you like that, Justin?"
"Way cool!" he declared, shaking a delighted fist. "He can tell me about how a jet engine works."
Phlox smiled. "We can both explain to you how a jet engine works," she affirmed. Then she turned back to me. "I know that you've got to go home eventually, Phil," she said, looking deep into my eyes until suddenly her pink orbs seemed to fill my whole world to overflowing. "I know that you've got things to do and obligations to meet. But we do have a week that we can spend together. I think that we ought to make the most of it, no commitments and no strings attached. When it's over, then you can go face your tomatoes and I can go back to massaging Scabs. How about it?"
How about it, I asked myself dreamily. How about it indeed? Love was a very dangerous thing, I'd learned recently to my sorrow, perhaps the most dangerous thing that there was in all the wide world. And yet, and yet... Suddenly I though of Justin and his tractor and of the wonderful card from my friends back at the Pig and of what Henry had just said to me. And I thought of Phlox, beautiful, sensuous, graceful Phlox, whose every motion was subtle poetry. Suddenly I felt myself filled with courage and confidence for the first time since I could remember. To hell with the danger! To hell with the rotten tomatoes! To hell with the leashes and the meat-eating eyes and the more subtle dangers of a broken heart! For I was a man underneath it all, and I would either live like a man or die trying. Such was my heritage, such was my birthright, and above all else such was my duty to myself. Certainly, I would continue to have bad days, and sometimes my fears would indeed win out. On those bad days, I would indeed end up huddling once more in a dark corner, trembling in terror amidst the broken shards of my self-confidence. It was utterly certain that this would happen from time to time; this was the price that a man paid for his dignity. I would know failure, and my nose would be rubbed in my limitations again and again and again. I would be humiliated, humbled and hurt over and over without end.
The absolute, undoubted certainty of such an outcome, however, did not excuse me in any way from making the attempt at living a free, proud life. One owes oneself what one owes oneself, and that is that. Costs are not things to be counted when considering matters of honor.
"That sounds like a plan," I said mildly, reaching around Phlox's back and hugging her close to me. "It sounds like a plan indeed. Why not vacation in Cedar Rapids? I can hardly wait to get started!"