|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 those effects have lifelong consequences...
Go here for more information on the setting.
'Tis the Season
by Jon Sleeper
©1997 Jon Sleeper -- all rights reserved
Brian stood before me, shivering. "I t-t-thought you were a meteorologist! Why didn't you predict this s-s-storm?!"
He was referring to the snowstorm that had blown in the first night we'd slept in the woods. I'd woken up covered in snow, with Brian looking at me sourly (for a raccoon) from inside the log that he'd slept in. I, myself, had not even been woken up by the light dusting of flakes. Snow insulates, and my thick fur is hollow-shafted so if anything I was even more comfortable. It had not even melted off my back by morning. I must have been a rather funny sight buried like that.
*Brian, I've never claimed that my forecasts were exact. I checked all the info before we left, put it into the computer, and then looked out the window. I did not even smell this coming! Give me a break!* I'd gotten a software upgrade for my subvocal voder. It could now express emotion, and used a print of my own voice. So for the first time I sounded like me in my fullmorph shape.
Fortunately, I'd been wearing some saddlebags with Brian's clothes inside . They weren't nearly warm enough, though. And he'd had to get into them fast in the cold as he'd changed back. He'd had to do that several times a day since the snowfall. A few more flurries had left the ground solidly covered in snow. I was not very familiar with this part of the forest. I'd spent most of the last twenty years much further south. "Well, we're lost. What do we do now?" he continued.
I shifted to my humanoid form. "We have something to eat while I figure out where the hell we are." I said. No clothes necessary for me in this form, which is not all that human anyway. I had some emergency supplies in my pack. Power Bars and such. Brian munched on one while I walked around and sniffed things out. The two of us had spent our first day eating things our respective species ate... no big deal for me, but it had made him rather nervous. He'd actually found acorns quite tasty.
But I found nothing. Like the past couple days. The snow had damped out most of the really distinctive scents. I smelled some other whitetail signs... possibly a few days old. There were bird-smells (crow, mostly, with a bit of robin mixed in), small animal smells (ever-present squirrel and raccoon, even if Brian weren't here), and a bit of bear smell. Very old. A month past, maybe. It still made me nervous, though. Any predator scent does that.
But other than being lost the scene around was pure magic! A sea of gray trees with white snow barely contrasting the bark, with a few leaves still hanging on the branches. Almost monochromatic, but still beautiful. The snow was untouched but for my hoofprints and Brian's footprints. I drunk in the air like wine.
And almost choked. There was a bitter scent to mar the serene forest scene. The smell of fear and loneliness, sprinkled with abject fear. My ears perked up at a wail of a child, on the very edge of even my hearing so Brian could not detect it. It sounded very human, but had a bleating quality to it. And the scent... a mix of deer and human. "What's wrong, Jon?" asked Brian.
I shifted back to full morph. *Wait here,* I said, and galloped off.
It was not far. I saw the child near a brook, apparently staring into a bit of calm water at her (females have a distinctive scent to them) reflection. Her crying had stopped, and she was just staring at the crystal water. She had the spotted coat of a fawn, and her body shape was close to what my humanoid shape was, though her head seemed almost human, only with the large ears like mine. I stopped just out of sight.
But then the wind shifted and I could see her perk up with her nose. I go to great lengths to hide myself from predators, but other deer are another matter. Now that she scented me I decided there was nothing else I could do but show myself. Her reaction, surprisingly, was not to run.
As I moved closer she looked at her reflection again. Brian came huffing and puffing behind me a moment or so later. The girl almost sprinted into the woods, but on a hunch I said, *Brian! Quick! Change to raccoon!*
"What? What's going on? Who's..."
*Don't argue just do it! She's about to bolt!* She had indeed bunched herself up, ready to run. Then Brian must have seen what I'd felt and almost immediately had begun to change. But not all the way. He stopped partway through, and seemed rather smug with himself. The fawn/girl seemed to accept Brian now, and went back to looking at her reflection, only to carefully look back at me with an intensity that seemed to cut me to my core.
*Can you talk like that?* I asked Brian quietly. In response he let out a light trill. Well, he did have a human-sized raccoon's head. *Drat. But you can tell she's a SCAB, right? Good. But why's she out here? Where'd she come from? And whatinell do we do about it?* Brian shrugged, but apparently changing to a part morph had cured his shivers. Fur helps in many ways.
The girl suddenly seemed to realize something, she sniffed herself on her left arm, looked at her reflection. Sniffed the air in my direction, looked at me carefully, looked her reflection. Then looked at me again. She then with a speed that astonished the both of us she ran up and grabbed me around my long neck with hands that were rather hooflike and said, loudly, "Daddy!" with love and relief.
Her hug had dislodged my subvocal, if she hadn't my response would of been a bewildered, *Ummm... Uhh...* I mean, what else could I think? Then I seriously considered that she just might be right. The question of the SCABS virus being able to affect animals has not really been answered very well. And I'd spent a lot of years with a lot of does. And to top it off this fawn/girl was about the right age to be of my last progeny before that hunter had almost killed me. This trip was not turning out how I'd expected!
Brian was looking at me with wide eyes, his expression one of shock. His scent about as confused as I was. I could see his nostrils pulsing, apparently he could smell her relief, too. He concentrated for a moment, and changed back to his normal fuzzy-eared self. The child almost ran again, then sniffed the air, and saw Brian's ears.
At the sight of those she ceased being afraid of him, and went back to hugging me around the neck. "So what do we do now?" asked Brian.
I could not answer. But I was getting rather unsteady on my feet. This was too much! So I gently put myself down on the snowy ground, almost dizzy. The fawn/girl then proceeded to nestle against my warm side, and seemed to fall asleep. Brian replaced my voder. *I don't believe this!* I whispered.
"No kidding. Could she... he? Be your fawn?"
*She, and it's a possibility. She's old enough to be of my last... um... tryst. And deer tend to move around a lot to find food, though I never have come up this way. The mother could have. Maybe the herd moved on? But the thing is, she's at least partially human. She seems rather new to her form, so maybe it's a recent change and the mother abandoned her? I don't know.*
"So what do we do?" he asked.
*The only thing we can, of course. We've got to find our way out of here and go talk to Dr. Derksen and Dr. Bob. They'll know if she's mine or not. But we've still got to find a way out of here.* She did not seem to be as unconscious as she looked, since she pointed across the brook with confidence.
Brian shrugged. "I'll check it out, I just hope I don't get lost..." The brook was small, and he jumped across easily. A few minutes later, he came back. "There's a main road I recognize back there. Along with some odd skid marks and what seem to be small hoofprints in the snow near that spot. I wonder if she was almost hit by a car or something. But I don't know."
I remembered the arrow that had brought back my humanity (sort of). Almost getting hit by a car could have done the same for her. "I think we're only a few miles from the van, too. So I'll leave you two here and go get it. Then we can start on getting this mystery solved." He trod off.
The fawngirl sighed contentedly against my side, remaining as silent as, well, a deer. So she was not telling us anything. I sighed myself and kept a careful lookout for predators. The two-legged kind as well as the four.
"I won't have the test results back for a few days, but I think we can safely assume that she isn't your daughter. That much I can tell," said Dr. Derksen with that cockroach head of his. He was a very scary sight to the uninitiated. But the fawngirl seemed to like him, and I'd seen him enough since his unfortunate... accident, that now I only saw another SCAB. A SCAB who was also a good friend.
But in the past few hours on the drive back I'd actually gotten used to the idea that she could be my kid. She was the most darling thing, with big blue eyes. She'd never left my side since we'd found her. *Are you sure, Bryan? Isn't there at least a possibility?* For some reason the prospect that she was not my kid made me feel upset.
I'd even resisted shifting to my humanoid shape for fear she might run off. "I'm afraid not. Because, frankly, she is in the final stages of the Martian Flu, she must have been one of the few who'd not been exposed to it. Which is rare. I doubt she's looked like this more than a few days. She's not done yet, either. Though she seems to have a minor case, more like a cold than a flu. Where did you say you found her?" I told him. "And there were skid marks along the side of the road? Well that settles it then, at least in my insectoid mind. She was abandoned." The big Shire morph who was Dr. Bob was using a stethoscope (making her giggle at the cold instrument) started at that word.
Dr. Bob nickered in a friendly way at the fawngirl, who giggled again. Then he tapped Bryan on his chitonous shoulder and they went into another room.
Brian was just behind me, she was looking at me with loving eyes in a still fairly human face and head. Which worried me. She had been human, and Bryan said she was in the final stages of the flu. As if in response to my thoughts she sneezed, then coughed a few times, then rubbed her nose. When she took her hand away it had changed to be blackened and wider, with a more pronounced muzzle. So she was still going to change more, that was clear. Just how much she might change scared me.
After my own experience with the flu, I knew what could happen potentially. She could change completely, she could lose herself and only the animal could be left. Damned if I was going to let that happen! "Jon..." Brian tapped me on the shoulder and I nearly hit the ceiling!
The one major disadvantage of being basically a whitetail with human intelligence is what I call "space out." If I spend a long time thinking about something, and focus on it completely, my instincts overcompensate when something unexpected happens. His surprise had the net result of making my change to my humanoid shape. Again surprisingly, the fawngirl did not panic, she just giggled. Then coughed again. Fur had started to appear on her face now.
"She's starting to go fast, isn't she?" I said to Brian, dismayed. I'd been afraid that she'd run if I was in a different shape, but the only look she gave me could melt ice in a subzero freezer.
"I'd hate to say this, Jon. But she is a little dear, isn't she?" He smirked, and tweaked his furry ears once or twice. I stared at him.
"Ha, ha. Laugh riot," I replied sarcastically.
Bryan slipped into the room carefully, as if hiding something. He walked up to the fawngirl, and said, "How would you like to go play for a while? I know someone who really wants to meet you in that room." She looked at me for a moment, as if saying "please?" I nodded, and she hopped off the table in her hospital gown, her tail flipping in excitement. "Okay, my little fawn. Shall we go in?" She put her hand in Bryan's lower left one without a trace of fear.
Whatever he was doing, I could smell his sincerity. She could, too. Bryan returned a moment later carrying a bunch of charts in his left lower hand, and a lapcomp in the lower right. "You know the one thing I like about being stuck like this is the extra pair of arms. I can do a lot of things at once." He grinned, or something, with his mandibles. I could smell his good humor. "But first things first. Your little fawn in there is going to finish up soon. I needed to tell you a few things out of earshot from her. Oh, and Brian? Would you mind stopping tapping your foot like that? I'm really sensitive to the vibration it's making."
He did. "Thanks. From what I can tell, Jon, this little problem you've brought in is one of those things that sometimes happens. From what I gather, the child got sick, the parents got scared, and so 'put her in her natural environment like the animal she is' or something like that. Happens way too often when a child contracts SCABS. You seem to have found her only a few minutes after she'd been abandoned. I doubt she'd lasted a day in those woods."
"Oh, my God..." said Brian. "I thought I had it tough!"
"You and me both..." I replied. "Is there anything else we should know?"
"She's in perfect health otherwise, if a little sick from the Flu. Strangest thing, though. For the most of us it's like having a really bad normal flu, but with her it's more like a cold. She must have some immunity to those effects of the virus, or it's a weak strain that still gave her SCABS. I don't know. We don't know hardly a thing about that bug... um. Well, you know." He sometimes made slips like that.
"There is something else, though. Did you notice me tickling her with my antennae? No? Well, it's a bit of the way I smell. I smelled something very disturbing on her. I'd like to show it to you later when my friend in there is finished. Or maybe if..."
The door opened, and a nurse said nervously, "Doctor Derksen? Um, there's something on the mic you might like to hear."
"Thank you. Gentlemen, I think you'd like to hear this."
There were two young voices on the speaker. One seemed to have a more mature ring to it, but still talked in a way that she could understand. "I got really sick," said the female voice. "Then I woke up all fuzzy."
"And your daddy?" said the male one, "has he always been your daddy?"
"Nah. He's my new Daddy. My old Daddy doesn't like my feet. He says my feet are something like 'the devil's work' or something like that. He took me for a car ride, he said not to tell Mommy we were going. We were in the woods, then I told him I had to pee and I got out, then he said he had to go get Mommy and..." Bryan turned it off.
"So you see I was right. But here is where the scent comes in. We just have to wait a while until she takes a nap. I do want to keep her here for observation until her Flu runs its course. From what I could tell she should look a lot like you when she's done. But do you realize? That was an amazing leap of logic for her to recognize you as the same species! What a mind she must have!"
A couple hours later Dr. Bob appeared out of the room, and handed Bryan some papers. Then he nickered as if affirming something and left the room. Bryan looked over test results. "So?" I said anxiously. "What's the verdict?" Well, she wasn't my child, but she was someone's. Someone who'd left her to die in the woods, alone and afraid. I had the sudden urge to shove an antler up an unsightly place in that person's anatomy.
"We can go in now," Bryan said. We went in. She was sleeping on a mattress, as small as she could make herself. All curled up in that hospital gown, with her fluffy white underneath tail flipping in contentment. "She's a quiet one," he finished.
"She... um. We have to be quiet, Bryan. If she even makes one noise a coyote might get her or some other predator. It's a built in defense mechanism. Which is also why she doesn't really smell like much."
"But that's the thing, you see," Bryan said. "There's a very peculiar scent on her. Or rather two scents. If you'll come over here you'll see what I mean."
My nose is a bit more sensitive in fullmorph, so I fell to all fours and shifted. Then I quietly sniffed her. In the time she'd been in here her head had fully changed, now it was like mine. She had a humanoid body upon which rested a fawn's head, not really much different from the natural deer's but for a slightly larger braincase. I sighed, wondering if she could still talk, and sniffed her fur some more.
There were two scents on her. The first, male human, was clear in its intent. She had been physically abused by him. Even this much time after her abandonment it was still intense. It was a bitter smell of sweat and anger. I wrinkled my nose at it. It was centered around her torso, and underneath were faint bruises. Even more did I want to shove my antlers somewhere... preferably somewhere vital. Then there was the other smell.
It was that of love, caring, and genuine concern. It can only be described as sweet, like nothing else. It was mostly on her back, neck, and head. As if she had been cradled in her sickness. That smell was also quite intense, but it was a bit more faint than the other one. It smelled human female... with a strange, familiar overtone. Very strange.
"You smell it too? Good. We have to find the mother, I'm sure she's out there and worried about her. Do you know anyone who can help us start?"
Brian spoke up. "What about Lisa? She's always been sympathetic to SCABS."
I just looked at him. "You know, that's not a bad idea."
"Daddy? Wake up, Daddy!" The little voice and a shake of my shoulders awoke me from a deep sleep. After a long interview with Lisa I'd gratefully fallen asleep next to the fawngirl's mattress.
I opened my eyes; she was sitting next to me with another one of those heart-melting looks. Now even moreso with that fawn's head... *What... what is it my dear?*
She giggled. "My name's Grace, Daddy." I was very relived that she could still talk, and that she was even talking to me! She'd been so silent otherwise. Bryan had filled in some of the details concerning her. She was about six years old, and had an IQ of about 160. Sharp as a tack. She hugged me again, "You're my new Daddy," she said. Her face became glum. "My old Daddy hit me, see?"
She pulled up her blouse just enough to reveal her stomach, then spread her fur around a little to reveal a bruise. I started to get angry again, but put a clamp on it. *What about your Mommy?* I said carefully.
"Mommy loves me. Mommy held me and stroked me while I was getting all fuzzy and felt really hot. My nose feels funny." She rubbed her new muzzle, she twitched her nose experimentally and her nostrils pulsed as she breathed. "I c'n smell you! You smell nice!"
I had to get her back on the subject of her parents. I got up and changed to humanoid, then sat myself on the bed, careful of my tail. She was on hands and knees and I could see her tail flipping all over like last night. She looked back at it for a moment in fascination, moving it herself experimentally. She giggled. "What about your old daddy? You don't like him any more? Why am I your new daddy?"
She did not take her gaze from her tail, but tweaked her large ears. "Olddaddy had itty bitty ears. I've got bigears, and you've got bigears. And ya smell like me, too. So what else can you be? Mommy's sick, too. Olddaddy said I made 'er sick." There was no arguing with a child's logic. I could hardly understand what she was saying. I was not sure I'd heard everything right, so I missed the last part.
Bryan came in a moment later. "She's talking to you now? Good. The physicians say she's over the Flu, now. But she can't stay here. So Lisa has something to say about that." She walked in.
"Hello, Buck," she still calls me that. I don't mind. "I got the paper's lawyers on it and they got the court's permission for you to care for her until we find the mother. And if we don't find the mother, well, you'd be free to adopt her."
"I think she's adopted me already, Lisa," I said, ruffling her furry forehead. She giggled. "But that is good news." I had one more question. "Bryan, out of curiosity, do you think she has any morphic abilities?"
Bryan's antennae moved once or twice in thought. "I can't really say. If she does she'll have to discover them on her own. We still don't know how the virus enables us to do that. But why do you ask?"
"Let's just say I like running." I'd been musing over what it might be like to have her prancing happily along beside me as I ran... She was quite a girl, and I was sure she'd love to run like only a natural deer could.
During the night I'd had a dream. A dream of memory. Not unusual since that night when I'd remembered everything. But my dream had been of when I was still stuck as a deer in the forest. Bryan had said my case of SCABS was rather extreme. I had both human and whitetail DNA. So that accounted for my ability to um... have children during those years.
In this dream I felt things that no other deer felt. Something called "love". I always tried to help raise my fawns for some reason. But the mother always chased me away. So I felt another emotion that no other buck felt: guilt. Guilt in not being able to raise my fawns. I'd watch them from a distance, but never close enough to reveal their presence to predators. The guilt swelled.
I looked at the little furry face before me. "Do you want to find your Mommy?" I said, almost afraid.
"Yeah. But you and Mommy will like each other. I just know it!" She smiled (her ears getting into it too), then said, "look at my bigears Daddy! Aren't they funny? I like 'em!" She flipped them a few times and giggled.
I sighed a big sigh, then attempted to grin. "Well, let's find your mother, then. Maybe you're right and I will like her." There was one thing that was apparent from all this. That was that her mother loved her no matter what she looked like. But another fawn lost... but a kid should be with her mother. Everybody knows that.
It was the happiest Thanksgiving holiday I'd had in years. Grace ate her veggies with gusto. Which was a very good thing considering her age. The only thing I'd had to teach her to do was chew cud. She did not like it much at first, but she got used to it soon, and even enjoyed it (there are certain foods that taste better the second time around, after all). I don't know what I would have done if she'd complained.
She had not shown any morphic abilities at all. Not yet at least. Which might of been a good thing. I did let her ride on my back throughout the ZB warehouse, as she still had trouble walking on her new hoofed feet. Everyone there absolutely loved her. When I was off on a delivery some of the other ZB'ers would look after her, and she would always run up to me with a big hug when I returned. In a way I wished we wouldn't find her mother. I felt like I had to atone for all those "kids" of mine I'd never had a hand... er... hoof in raising.
Brian would baby-sit as much as he could. I was very grateful that he would help me like that. Once, without their noticing, I peeked over his fence when he was taking care of her on his day off. What I saw confused me, but almost made me laugh aloud. No mean feat for a normally silent animal. She was carrying him around, cradled in her arms in his fully raccoon shape like a stuffed animal. With Brian chattering happily. I decided not to mention it when I saw him later that day... But I'd get other baby-sitters, very willing ones too. But not before I'd introduced her to those at the Blind Pig.
She could not come inside, of course. So Brian went inside and made the announcement.
It was chilly, but we still wore clothes in order to be "decent folks". She was wearing a lose blouse and a pair of loose knee length (pretty short on her) pants with a tail hole, both the same color as her natural fur coat. One of the ZB'ers had made it for her. (I was wearing a pair of jeans shorts and a button flannel shirt, gives me that back country look) I'd asked them to come out one at a time. Which tonight, because it was Thanksgiving, was only Wanderer and Jack and a few others. Wanderer came out first. He seemed a bit nervous, but she didn't. He opened with a florid bow and a sweep of his cape, "Pleased to make your acquaintance, milady."
Grace, of course, giggled. Then proceeded to curtsy. She didn't succeed very well, and almost tripped on her hoofed feet. We'd had a devil of a time just teaching her to walk again, but she caught on quick. "Whoops!" she yelled. I would of caught her, but Wanderer beat me to it. "Thank ye, milord!" She said in her piping voice, affecting an English accent.
Wanderer looked at me with shiny eyes, "She's one of a kind, isn't she? But then you already knew that, didn't you?" I nodded.
Then Grace said, with a wink "He's a cute doggy, Daddy."
"My girl, I'm a wolf; not a dog."
"Wolf," He sighed in resignation.
I turned on my English accent. "So sorry, old boy. She is ever so stubborn about this sort of thing. But I believe Jack is next?" Wanderer just looked at me with feigned arrogance (and a smirk, he knew she was just playing with him) and went back into the bar.
When he came out, Jack bent down to say "Hi," but Grace surprised the both of us by grabbing one of his ears. "Hay! Stop that! It tickles!" She won him over with record speed. As she did everyone that night.
She also taught us something. Though it was not immediately apparent for a while. Grace herself didn't seem to care about what she looked like, and reveled in it in fact. As if a deer was what she always wanted to be. She gave many of those at the bar that felt sorry for themselves new perspective. Many would try to salvage their lives after that night and others because or her, though none of us really knew it.
After the introductions at the Pig; the three of us, Grace, Brian and I, then went back to Brian's house for a terrific Thanksgiving dinner. "You've learned how to cook in the last thirty years, it seems," I said with a smirk (or what passed for one on this inexpressive face of mine). "Pass the stuffing?"
We had a lot to be thankful for this year, after all. But only time would tell if the article, to be printed in today's paper (electronically as well on the Internet), would pan out. Lisa thought that it might be a good idea to wait a while so Grace could get used to things. It had been almost a week since we'd found her.
We'd set up a five stage interview process. (what Wanderer called "The Wringer") First, one of the norms in the bar had volunteered to filter out any of the blatant attempts to just take her away because they thought she was "so cute". Next was Brian. A logical next step with his raccoon ears. Next, Wanderer and Bryan would give them a once-over with a very intense question session. Those two looked scary enough to filter out the worst of them that managed to pass the first two. I was next in the process, and after looking at the frightening faces of a cockroach and a wolf, my 'serene forest creature' countenance was rather deceptive. But I'd give them a flaming often worse than what Wanderer and Bryan had given!
Lastly, if they'd managed to get past me, we'd take them to see Grace. She was normally with a baby-sitter (one of the ZB'ers or sometimes Brian, or one I trusted from the Blind Pig). Never the same twice. There were a lot of uncouth people out there who'd like to get their grubby paws on her for other reasons.
One day, on a hunch, I asked her. "Grace, would you know who your mother was if you smelled her?" I knew from experience that fawns knew their mothers by scent. She got a serious expression on her little face... and nodded. Unfortunately because of her SCABS she'd actually forgotten some things, including how her mother looked. So other than smell Grace might not know her.
That solved more problems than it caused. We'd actually had brought out a couple of prospects to see her, and she'd shaken her head. One of them had frightened her so much (must of been that sixth sense we've got... I'd actually felt uneasy around that person too, but couldn't place the feeling because I'm not as instinct driven as I used to be). That she'd not go to sleep that night unless I laid next to her. I had to do that several nights running until I found some music that would calm her down. I should have known. Enya calms me down, too.
Time blurred into a single moment as we dismissed hundreds of prospects. Most never made it past the norm psychologist in the first stage. There were all kinds of stories: "I went camping and I lost my daughter, I'd always thought of her as a little dear, and now it's true." One woman said. But her story was so obviously an act she walked out without another word.
There were other, better stories. Some genuine and plausible with what we knew where we found her, and the look of disappointment on the parent's face was heartbreaking. Grace knew, and she always said "I'm so sorry, lady. But I'm not your little girl." After that first big scare with that one woman, Webmaster volunteered to look up references on the 'net for people who'd reached level three. More phonies were filtered out that way.
Many of those people were damned lucky the Rut was really over. November is the worst month, when my temper is thinnest. But what that woman said... She only had to say the words "oh, my kids would love her. We'd give her such a good home." And I had to be physically restrained by Stan. I still managed to yell at her: "Lady, if I ever see your vapid face again I will give you a most pointed lesson about what these antlers are used for!!"
We found out later that she moved out of town the following week.
The paper called me two days before Christmas and said they wanted to have one more interview with me for the forecasting job, and I wondered if I'd gotten it. Grace had woken me up at the urgent summons from my computer. The one good thing that had happened to me lately! Other than Grace, of course. "Are we gonna hafta move now, Daddy?"
I'd never really given it much thought. The job actually paid very well, and I'd no longer have to work for ZB. But there really weren't any places for us to live. Not like there were houses for SCABS who had to be in a completely nonhuman shape anyway. My space at ZB had actually started to be a bit crowded with her around. At one end of the space was my bedding pad, at the other Grace's (she liked to imitate me, very flattering). Then there were her toys and my sparring dummy (that is built with last year's antlers. I've gotta keep my edge, after all). This place was big, but not that big.
"I don't know, Angel. But we'll see." The message said I had to make one more appearance at the main office, and I dreaded going there. It's uptown among all those tall office buildings, and all the norms. Zach would take my place at the fourth stage in the Wringer (Grace liked him a lot, too. She likes almost everyone, and he looks the most like me). I thanked him and proceeded to get into my business suit and tie.
I really hated that thing. Sure, it was tailored to my humanoid body shape, but over my thick winter fur coat it felt hot and oppressive, and on top of that my neck was still swollen from the Rut. So I looked like a whitetail linebacker in a business suit. I don't sweat (which is probably just as well), so I was panting like crazy before I even put on the bow tie that was so much in fashion. I combed and cleaned my facial and neck hair, cleaned my ears (trust me, with ears this big it's a must), scrubbed my antlers, and finished by buffing my hooves so I was clean from tip to tail.
When I was finished, I looked in the mirror and struck a pose, looking off to the right dramatically showing off my antlers. "James Bond, eat your heart out," I said with a grin. The tail hole in the ankle-length (pretty high on me) pants was rather constrictive, though. The slit is wide, but has black elastic for comfort and modesty. It annoyed me anyway.
I really wished that the style had not gone back to this formalism. But if I wanted to fit in I really had no choice.
As I finished up I checked the baby-sitter list. Bryan, on the day off from Wringer duties, had her the whole day. Grace liked him, and he doesn't get out much so he loved the company. Before I went out the door as a final touch, because it was Christmas, I put a small reindeer pin on my left lapel. Rudolph, of course.
I always hated what I had to do next. Take the bus. There was no way I could shapechange in this getup. Riding the bus for a SCAB can be pure torture. Rather less so for me than others, though. Unlike say, Bryan, people don't run away when I show my face. If anything, I get more stares of curiosity rather than fear. Once while I was waiting for a connecting bus a man even asked me, "Out of curiosity, how do you ever get used to those things that stick out of your head?"
I really could not resist what I said next, and spent the rest of the day beating myself over the head for the bad pun. "They just sort of grow on you," I said blandly. The guy rolled his eyes and groaned. "Sorry," I apologized. But the guy seemed to accept me even if I looked like I should be doing the remake of "Bambi." We actually exchanged business cards.
Not everyone fears us, and when someone was afraid of me I could smell it. The problem with having heightened senses is that you're constantly aware of the moods of the people around you. The smell of fear is something I hate. But the smell of actual hatred is even worse. It can only be described as an acrid stink that can drive one with a very sensitive nose (like myself) out of a room. Suffice to say I smelled it way too often when I had to walk a ways to the next bus.
But a SCAB, even if he's dressed in an expensive business suit, still gets no respect. Where's a Rosa Parks when you need her? I was forced into the back of the bus with a few other SCABS who looked at me like I was betraying them or something. I had to duck until I sat down. My antlers were just a bit tall for the bus.
The ride was long. And when there were SCABS on the bus most norms tended to stay as far forward as they could. I was panting like crazy even though it was rather cold outside. The combination of suit and fur was not going over well. But I eventually got off at the right stop an walked up to the paper's ultramodern building, gathering many stares from the straight-laced business people around me.
I stumbled off the bus about five hours later, approaching my time limit for my current shape. All my concentration was on keeping myself from ripping my expensive suit. I stumbled down the street, hardly conscious of my surroundings. It's a lucky thing I never got this way in the forest, several of Wanderer's cousins may of had me for dinner if it had happened. A fact of life if you're a prey animal, though. You either act smartly or you're dinner.
On the way back I passed the storefront, closed of course at this time of day, that we'd rented for interviewing prospects. I barely noticed the woman covered from head to toe in rags, leaning against the fence about a hundred yards down the street where the line normally ended. I couldn't smell her very well, the rags were very dirty. Nor could I see her face as it was covered in a sort of hood. She did smell familiar somehow... but I dismissed it to fatigue. All I wanted to do was get home and go to sleep. Bryan would be bringing Grace home by nightfall. Which was getting close.
I paused once when she had a racking fit of coughing, and looked back. I couldn't just let her sit there and get even sicker, possibly die. I walked over, my body beginning to strain against my suit. I'd not be able to stay humanoid much longer... I extended a hoof-like hand. "Come on, I'll take you to a shelter. You sound like you're sick."
I could still tell it was a she under that mishmash of rags. But there was that strange scent again... I attributed it to something in the rags. She extended a hand, still hidden in rags. She looked up at me, her face still invisible, seemgly incredulous. "Thank you," she said in an almost inaudible voice, she seemed to be thanking me for more than taking her to the shelter. I helped her even though I thought at any moment I might burst out of my clothes. My fingers were beginning to pulse from cloven hoof to hand every once in a while. My muscles were twitching. But it was Christmas, how could I not help this woman?
I saw her into the good paw-like hands of Mrs. Ursal, the humanoid bear SCAB who worked at the shelter. The ragwoman attempted to say "Thank you" again, but only had another fit of coughing. I left her in Mrs. Ursal's capable care and jogged back to ZB.
Grace was waiting for me. But I rushed to get out of my suit. I didn't quite succeed. I managed to pretty much kill my pants. Oh, well. I'd been meaning to get a new pair anyway. She did not say a word, knowing just how dead tired I was. I nuzzled her a little in a whitetail "kiss" I'd made up, and maybe licked her around the ears and neck in a grooming behavior I'd seen a lot of the does do with their fawns. She seemed to like it, and actually returned the lick, then sniffed me very carefully. I should have taken a shower before touching her. I still smelled like that ragwoman. Then she hugged me like she always does if I end up going to bed before she does, but this time with a bit more joy than usual. Funny thing.
What a long day... the next night was Christmas Eve.
I was awoken by some lights flashing above my head. I opened my eyes, but still couldn't figure out quite where they were coming from... Then I glanced up at the tip of my antlers just visible in my peripheral vision. I sighed. Someone had strung a bunch of battery powered Christmas lights in them. I sniffed a little and discovered just who had done it.
*Hah, hah, Zach. Very funny,* I said. Then I looked at him.
He'd actually strung up a similar arrangement on his long spiraled horns. Complete with lights, and a tiny Santa sleigh on a wire right at the top between them. When he goes all out for the holidays, he goes all out for the holidays. *Just spreading the Christmas cheer around, Buck... Jon. Sorry, I'm still confused. What should I call you?* he said with the unemotional voice of his voder. He's going to love what I got him for Christmas this year.
*Your choice. I don't care. Where's Grace? And what time is it anyway?*
*Almost one in the afternoon. You really must of exhausted yourself yesterday. I've never seen you sleep longer. I only got you up so you can help us put up decor for tonight's party. Spots was getting a bit peeved at you, I think she's jealous that you're sleeping when she'd rather be.* He grinned.
*So where's Grace anyway?*
*Oh! Sorry. She's helping put up decorations. She's a helpful little thing, isn't she? And both Wanderer and Brian should be here soon. They wanted to put through one last group through the Wringer.*
One last group. The last ones who we would actively search for. If Grace's mother was not found this time than the adoption process could begin. Which the paper assured me would not take long since we were both SCABs and both of the same 'species' at it were. Grace remained optimistic. "Mommy will come. She always comes," she'd said.
I hoped, but didn't hope. One more day. One more.
We spent the rest of the day putting up decor for the party. The party was supposed to start at the Pig, then Donnie would close up early and it would continue here. I wanted to save my the time I had for my 'noid shape for this evening, so I mostly helped by hauling stuff around in a pair of saddlebags.
"So Buck, what's the weather word for tonight?" Asked Spots, who was busily taking tree ornaments out of one of my saddlebags.
*I've run the sim five times and then used my own instincts. And I only have two words: cold and wind! * There was no question about it. The wind was already picking up outside. Grace was helping out with the tree. Every once in a while, though, she would look at the door as if expecting someone. We'd gotten absolutely no calls from the site, but there was still... I looked at the clock... twenty minutes left.
I should have felt happy. I should have been glad that she was surely going to be my own daughter... but I wasn't. I felt like I was stealing her. As to my own family, I'd not tried to contact them; I'd remembered, I was too scared. I was still legally dead, after all. The name I was going by legally was "Buck Forrest Runner." Punny, but appropriate.
Guests started to arrive a few minutes later. My buggy pal Bryan arrived first. He was dressed in some kind of heated suit that kept him from getting too cold, he was sort of warm blooded, but not enough for subfreezing weather. Grace of course went up and gave him a little kiss next to his right antenna (a lick actually; deer lips aren't really built for kissing).
After Bryan they arrived in twos and threes. The next group was Copernicus (who immediately converted to his favorite lizard-man form once he entered the warm warehouse), Rydia (Grace's "favorite kitty"), and Jack, who went right to the keyboard and started to play Christmas music.
A group of norms from the bar showed up with their kids, who immediately started to play with Grace. They were wonderful together. They would play hide-and-seek and no one could find Grace until she showed herself. No one had ever beat her at that game, her favorite.
At one point at around eight in the evening no one could find her. I didn't worry, though. She'd never leave the warehouse. She'd probably found a cozy place to hide and fallen asleep. It'd happened before.
Then something occurred to me. She was actually using her whitetail instincts to hide herself intelligently! I knew that fawns could stay hidden for hours, unmoving, until their mothers came and got them. So she seemed to be expecting someone.
But before that game every time there was a knock on the door she would stop whatever she was doing and look. Then it would be someone like Dr. Bob, who had actually come dressed in a Santa suit... A pretty strange sight, he would take out a sign that said: MERRY CHRISTMAS! And parents would set kids on his huge lap: "Tell Santa Shire what you want for Christmas." Jack would break out into laughter at that phrase.
Much later, when Bob seemed to have left for some reason, I saw Grace playing with a homely redheaded boy that seemed rather familiar. His voice was the one I'd heard on the speaker when this had stared. He seemed to smell related to Dr. Bob. But for some reason that did not seen quite right. I really had no time for mysteries, though. Zach and I were the natural greeters at the door. With our lighted headgear we made the place easy to find. Eventually we had to move inside as it started to become cold enough to make my Virginia Whitetail butt feel chilly!
But what a party! Brian and Wanderer arrived at the same time. I looked at them with anxiety for a moment but they shook their heads sadly. No one had made it past the first stage. Looked like Grace and I were going to spend a lot of time together. I started to feel guilty.
The place was pretty crowded now. There were an amazing number of norms about, speaking of which at about nine the door opened to blowing wind and the whole crowd shouted "Norm!" Lisa was here. She walked over to me. "Boy, Buck. You were right, it's damn freezing out there!"
I'd predicted record cold. It seemed like we were going to get it, much to the dismay to those in the building who were cold blooded. Lucky thing I had my thick winter coat! Which had really made yesterday's trip uptown even more of a torture than it had seemed...
Other than Bryan there were a few of other arthropod-morphs around. The whole party had an incredible feeling of absolute acceptance for one another, no matter what they looked like. Even Webmaster and Frank (that ZB'er stuck as a fullmorph peregrine falcon) joined in the fun! Webmaster and Bryan really seemed to hit it off, as far as I could tell. They seemed to be in similar situations.
Wanderer treated us to a quick, solo rendition of A Christmas Carol that got a standing ovation. Then Jack started to play more Christmas music with which everyone would sing along. Well, most everyone. Those who could not speak often joined in, in their own unique way. Donnie had brought his daughter and he was signing along with the music, ::Oh, Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree...::
The party started to wind down a little around midnight for the singing. There were a few passed out for various reasons around the large space that had been cleared in the secondary warehouse. I was sitting with Brian and Wanderer (what a performance!) near to the door, probably as far away from a space heater as we could get. All the cold-blooded got priority around those. Jack had broken into his own version of Jinglebell Rock when there was a knock on the door. I opened it up to a blast of wind and Mrs. Ursal stumbled inside in tears. "She's gone! She's gone!" she said in anguish. I had to muscle the door shut to loud shouts of "close the door!" from the herpamorphs.
"What? Who's gone?" I asked.
"That woman you brought in last night. She slipped away from us with nary a word..."
Slipped away? Dead? "You mean?"
"No, no. Silly. She up and left without telling us, out into this cold and windy night. We need help to look for her before she freezes! You were right to bring her to us, by the way. She's really sick. But I don't quite know with what..."
"What does she look like?"
"I don't know. She wouldn't show us her face."
I thought hard a moment. "Okay... we need to get a search party together. Wanderer, you go left among the party-goers, I'll go right, Brian up the middle. We need volunteers..." I did not get a chance to finish my thought. The door burst open with another blast of wind that ruffled fur and feathers alike. The lights inside the warehouse had been dimmed to the point of being very dark, with a spotlight on Jack. It was as moonless night, but the starlight was very bright. This part of town has few streetlights but I could clearly see the ragwoman, looking very unsteady on her feet, outlined by the stars.
We all just stood there gaping. She coughed once, but in a voice that was still beautiful and vibrant in its anguish, yelled, "Grace!" And collapsed in the doorway.
The room was silent. We pulled her inside as quickly as we could. "Quick!" yelled Wanderer. "Get a heater over here! This woman will freeze!" She was not shivering, which was a bad sign. One was brought with record speed.
"Grace..." said the woman in a much weaker voice. Then I heard a scrabbling sound, and a little voice say, "Mommy!"
Grace appeared out of nowhere, and scrambled to the ragwoman's side, repeating "Mommy!" again and again. I was dumbfounded. Bryan rushed up from the front of the room with incredible speed. "Jon! Don't just stand there looking like you've been caught in some headlights! Take off those rags so we can get her warm!"
I nodded, rather shocked, and complied. They were in a tangle, but I took off the hood first. That face... that beautiful face! My heart was in my throat. When the rags were off Grace adhered herself to the woman's side like she did with me, her little nostrils pulsing.
The woman had the Martian Flu, that was clear. "Relapse," Bryan said simply. She was also contracting SCABS. Her body was covered with a light coating of rusty red fur, more white on her stomach and in her growing ears. Her feet were also somewhat elongated. Her scent was familiar, now that the smelly rags had been removed. "Mommy," Grace said quietly. Then it hit me.
Her scent. It was the same I'd smelled on her when I'd first sniffed Grace over a month ago. This was the source of that one-of-a-kind scent-of-love that I scented on Grace. The only love-scent I'd ever really smelled. But I still had some doubts. Doubts that I would have to assuage later. "We need to get her to a hospital." I said matter-of-factly.
"We need to get her warm first. Where are those blankets??!" Bryan yelled. She was quickly covered in thick jackets and clothing, donated from those in the room. It was still deathly silent. Grace cuddled against her, her head near the beautiful face. A face which now looked a bit swollen and distorted.
"Mommy," Grace said once more, very lovingly. I could see under the covers, a hand moved. Moved up to caress the fawn's head that was Grace's. The woman was again completely covered so I could hardly see her face. But she seemed just a little stronger. She looked up at me, then at Grace, and smiled.
I heard two words escape her tired lips before she passed out again. "Thank you."
What could I say?
Hypothermia, they said. Combined with a severe relapse of the Martian Flu. Brian, Grace, and I followed the ambulance in the ZB van. "Are you sure she's your Mommy?" I asked her.
"Yeah, you'll see," she said confidently.
Brian drove, his face covered with his "bandit's mask." He was as worried as I was. "God," he said. "Please don't let her die on Christmas Day." It was 12:00 a.m..
They had her in ICU. Grace and I were quite the pair with the still weakly flashing lights in my antlers. I could not see the woman she was so covered up. Bryan was giving orders left and right. The staff was so dedicated they did not care what the doctor looked like! A rare occurrence these days. He'd ridden with the woman in the ambulance.
Grace, Brian and I stood looking into the ICU room through a Plexiglas window. I could not see the woman's... Grace's mother's... face as it was under an oxygen tent with a translucent plastic cover. The one hand I could see looked odd. Two of her fingers had fused and the nails on the hand were rapidly thickening and darkening. I did not have all that much time to really look at it anyway as an orderly took us away from the window. He seemed rather nervous around me, what with my sharp antlers. Few people seem to realize what they're actually meant for, as this man obviously did.
About ten minutes after we were taken to a waiting room the same orderly came and took us back. This time inside the room. My dread increased when I saw a defibrillator being rolled away. "Mr. Runner," said a nurse. "Dr. Derksen has asked me to leave you two with her for the night. She's stabilized now. He thought it might help her to have you two here. He highly recommends that each of you take a hand. She's in a bit of a coma, and physical contact seems to help those cases. As does just the presence of loved ones." With that, she left.
Coma? Great. But she was not dead, as least. My time limit was rapidly approaching. But I did not care. I looked for her left hand. When I found it I gasped. It looked like a smaller, more delicate version of my own. That meant she was... I took it, "kissed" it once in hope, and sat down on a stool. Grace cheerfully went to other side and took that still somewhat human hand.
The waiting began.
A tug on my antlers, and a wonderful-feeling scratching on my furry scalp between them awoke me. At some point I'd fallen to full morph, then right asleep pressed against the side of the bed. I was so tired I did not think to wonder where the wonderful scratching and rubbing was coming from. I kept my eyes closed in the utter pleasure of it! The kind hand even moved around my pedicles in an incredible massage, I leaned further towards the bed to get closer to the source. Then I stopped short. It wasn't Grace who was giving the massage. I opened my eyes and looked upward.
The hoof-like three-fingered hand that was hanging off the bed seemed to be questing for my head. "Where'd you go?" said a weak, but clear and melodious female voice. "Awake, are you?" it continued, quietly. "Get back under there! Your fur is soft and I like petting it." she said with a hint of laughter. So I did.
She continued to scratch my muzzle between my eyes and antlers. I carefully shifted to humanoid, careful not to disturb her roving hand. Frankly, after the past few hours I was loving it too much to really say anything. She spoke up first. "You saved my life, you know. And more, you saved the life of my daughter. I can't thank you enough for that. I... I know what's happened to me. I can see this muzzle in my vision. I can smell and hear all these new strange and wonderful things. You're one-of-a-kind, you know. I woke up with your forehoof in my hand."
"I am?" I said. Her scent was rather muted, they really must have cleaned her up. So I could not really tell her mood. I was rather nervous myself. I was sure she was going to just take Grace and run when she got better.
"Yes. You helped me even though you looked like you were going to ruin that suit. Grace seems to dote on you, she does not do that to everyone. Like my old husband. After he took Grace away from me, I started to get the Flu again. My body started to be covered with this rusty fur. I realized that I must of been becoming the same thing my daughter was. I was thrilled, really. But I was so weak..." Her voice became troubled.
"And your husband? What about him?"
"Well, my handsome stag. I think I finally got a bit of justice, even though I had to suffer to get it. God works in mysterious ways. He was going to throw me off a cliff, I was too weak to do anything about it. He was drunk out of his mind, though, and stopped on the wrong side of the road. He threw me into the forest. Then he put it in reverse, and backed up right over the edge. Good riddance. I never should of married him, he was a Bible-thumping fool. but I thought I could 'change his ways.' Boy was I wrong. Now I've found you."
Her voice was getting stronger. "Grace dotes on you, like I said. She just fell asleep beside me here, so be quiet. She told me a lot about you. How you stumbled upon her in the forest. You appeared like magic, she said. She said she'd wished for you. And you came. She's always had this perception about people, I don't know if she has it now. She also thinks of you as 'Daddy.' She only called my old husband 'Daddy' out of duty. Not love. Never love. But this time... I think I can smell it! Her love for you. By God it's amazing!"
I shook my head in disbelief. "I'm sorry, but in the past few weeks I've heard too many with likely stories, and I..."
"Enya puts her to sleep at night. She loves chocolate mousse, pistachio ice cream after dinner on Tuesdays, and she always hugs you when you get home from work. But I understand your skepticism. I'm glad that you are that way. Otherwise we'd be having a very different conversation now."
I was very sure about that! "If you don't mind me asking... what's your name?"
"Maxine Duran. And I really must ask, what kind of cologne are you wearing? It smells really nice."
I explained that whitetails are practically living perfume factories with about ten scent glands in various places. "It seems I had a lot to learn about myself. I'm going to need a teacher, you know. And..." there was now drowsiness in her voice, but she did not need to finish the thought. I stood up.
"Milady, I would be honored to act as teacher to you." I heard a weak laugh, and then a cough under the tent. Her scent was becoming stronger. It smelled like the finest perfume. Though the Rut was really over, I still felt a few... stirrings.
"I hope you'll be more than a teacher. At least once we get to know each other." I heard footsteps coming down the hall. "But first thing's first. Get me a mirror please? I want to see this new head of mine. I'm sure I'm quite the ravishing doe." She said with a verbal smirk of sorts.
Just then a nurse entered, who almost yelled aloud to the nurse down the hall. But Maxine said strongly, "Shhh! You'll wake the fawn!" Then she fell asleep again herself.
I'll never forget Maxine's scent expression when the oxygen tent and other equipment was removed, and we handed her a mirror, a combination of both shock and delight. I think I know where Grace gets her acceptance of others. After her initial shock she actively started to pose, and trace her new outline with her new hand. Amazed. Her coloring was the most delicate rust red, with white circles around her big eyes that highlighted them just so, a blurry oval of white just where her head and throat connected, and white around her black and moist nose. Her large-but-not-too-large ears swiveled at every sound in the room. She must have spent an hour or more just looking.
Her head was, like mine and Grace's, pretty much a whitetail doe's head on a humanoid body. The most beautiful thing I've ever seen. And I said as much. "Something tells me you might be a little bit biased, though." she said with an ear grin (how did she do that?).
"Maybe. But who's the expert here?" I then scooted up on a stool as close to her as I could and proceeded to give her a headrub like she'd given me. "Now I get to return the pleasure," I said.
"Mmmm... that feels wonderful. I guess having fur has it's advantages. I love the color of it, too." Grace was still out of it on the floor next to Maxine's hospital bed. Her ears twitched like mine sometime do when I realize something. Her hands went up to grab them. "Hmm. These are going to take some getting used to. But aren't you naked?"
When I looked down I realized I was. At least by norm standards. My winter coat was really thick enough to satisfy the demands of modesty. Behind me were my clothes that all I had to do was stick the seams back together and there I had it. "Just a sec," I put on my simple button shirt and favorite jeans shorts, careful to string my tail through the elastic slit.
Bryan walked in a moment later with a dumbfounded scent coming off of him, waving some kind of chart. "This is incredible! You're weak, but your Flu relapse is completely gone! I've never seen anything like it! I can only call it one of those Christmas miracles, I guess." I continued the massage around Maxine's flexible ears. She closed her eyes in delight, and nearly fell asleep again.
But I'd not gotten quite enough sleep the night before. My hands started to go first, changing to forehooves, then my pelvis buckled and I fell off the stool. I did not have my voder with me. Lucky thing Brian showed up a moment or so later. Maxine looked at him while I was still reeling from the painful shapeshift. "What happened to him?" Maxine said with alarm.
They were the first words he'd ever heard from her, so he was caught off guard for a moment. "Um... well. You see ma'am, he's stuck like that for about two-thirds of the day. He sort of spent about twenty years like that with no memory of being human, and hardly smarter than a natural deer."
"Oh..." she said, dismayed. I'd tell her my full story later. The nurses were quickly removing all the life support equipment. The bed was moved so she could sit up easier. She winced a moment, and looked at my tail, which was flipping about. "Looks like I've got one of those, too. How long until he can change back? I really want to talk with him."
"Right now. I've got his voder from ZB." Brian put it on me. Just then Lisa arrived.
"Hello, Buck. I've got some good news to give you. You got the job! You start as soon as possible. Congrats. You're the first SCAB to be employed by this paper in a high level capacity. You're going to be head of the meteorology department. Your forecast accuracy was about fifty percent better than any other we interviewed." She looked at Maxine, and grinned. "Isn't she the ravishing doe?"
Maxine looked at me, and stuck out her tongue. "Told you." She laughed.
*Did I argue with you about that? No.* She laughed, and looked carefully at my voder. My "voice" comes out of a high-quality, but small, speaker on a torc around my neck.
"No," she said with a laugh, "you didn't. Look, Grace is stirring." I saw her appear from the other side of the bed, rubbing her big blue eyes. Then she smiled, and without a word Maxine brought her into her arms. Maxine absently stroked Grace's head, who liked to have it rubbed as much as we apparently did. She promptly fell asleep again right next to her. "I was afraid I'd never be able to hold you again." She looked up at me from Grace. "Thank you. What else can I say? Words don't seem to be enough. What's your name by the way? Your real name. 'Buck Runner' seems wrong for some reason."
"Jonathan Sleeper, originally." I tell few people my real name. Call it caution.
"Well, Jon. Thank you again for reuniting me with my daughter. It means more to me than I can say. But now I'd like to ask you, could you leave me alone with her for a moment? She and I need to talk just a little more."
We respectfully left the room. Now my nervousness returned in force. What if she wanted to take her and leave forever? Her scent was still muted, and the hospital has so many antiseptic scents I did not trust my nose so much. Wanderer showed up a moment later. "Is she awake? What does she look like? I hate hospitals, I can't hardly smell a thing other than this gross medicinal scent."
*What else could she look like? Bryan thinks the fact that she held Grace so much influenced her transformation. He really has no other theory.* My thin legs were shaking with anxiety. The three of us were quite a sight, and we garnered many-a-stare from norms. A deer in the corridor with a wolf morph, and a raccoon-eared man must of been a strange scene...
Wanderer left for a moment and returned with a few drinks. "Eggnog," he said. "Well, maybe it's just 'nog', I don't think it has any egg in it." He showed a lupine grin.
Bryan came in a moment later. "The lady would like do see you, Jon. Alone."
Alone? That did not sound good. I saw images of her chasing me away, like all the other does had done all those times in all those years. Over and over again, once one of the does even beat me with her hooves after I'd chased away a coyote. I saw them both in muted tones of gray, yellow, and red. I can't see any real colors in this shape. But my brain filled in the details.
"If you're nervous, and that's what I'm smelling, don't be," she said. Then looked at Grace and whispered to her so I could barely hear, "are you sure, my little fawn?" Grace nodded, she looked back at me with a wry grin. "You know, in a million years I just might get to like you. But I really can't wait that long. My daughter says we belong together. I have a feeling she just might be right. She is ever so perceptive. So what do you say, teacher? Do you want to be more?"
My jaw dropped open a moment, and I nodded vigorously. Lucky thing my subvocal is tuned not to pick up random thoughts. The way she was positioned in that bed was quite alluring. Thank God the Rut is over, though! She seemed to have a good sense of humor. *I'm game if you are.* I said with a smirk.
New Year's Day. One week since we'd brought Maxine in. And today she is well enough to be brought home. Brian, even though his house was small, had offered to let us stay with him until I got settled in my job and we could find a place of our own. "I know this great little place in the woods," Maxine would say. "We wouldn't even need to buy many groceries," with a grin. She'd taken to being a ruminant as if she'd been born to it!
While I was pushing the wheelchair with my antlers in fullmorph (she liked me just as much in either shape, but thought I looked just a touch more majestic in fullmorph. Who am I to argue with my future wife?) she was fidgeting around in the seat. Grace was on her lap, and she was again stroking her carefully. I've never seen a greater love between parent and child. And now I was a part of it. *You've gained some weight,* I said.
"Good. The doctors said I was underweight for winter. I want to live as close to a natural whitetail's life as I can, I think I've had enough of humanity for a short while. I need a vacation. Speaking of that, Grace and I have a surprise for you." She grinned slyly, or that's what her scent communicated. I could not see her as I grunted a little in my pushing them both.
I then noticed that my antlers seemed just a bit loose. Doubtless they would come off in just a day or two. A new set would be on the way soon. But I always hated losing my antlers. I remember when I lost last year's rack I'd felt very depressed, because I did not know just how good this year's was going to be. I was not looking forward to the shedding, though. They would snap off and my pedicles would hurt like hell for a while. But at least this year I had someone to talk to. An expert, in fact.
Maxine had said she'd been a SCABS therapist before this. Her old husband had thought she was 'cleansing the evil from the souls of the animal-people.' He must have gone mad with religious fanaticism when Grace had gotten sick, then Maxine. The fool. I just don't understand fanaticism of any sort...
We'd just reached the van at the front of the hospital. Maxine abruptly got out of the wheelchair. We'd been doing some physical therapy to get her used to her new hoofed legs. She then walked somewhat unsteadily over to the van and took out two voders from a bag. A bag I had not seen before. Brian had a sly grin that echoed Maxine's. *A new voder? I've already got one.*
She put one on Grace, then on herself. "No, silly stag. This is for Grace and I. So we can show you this." And promptly fell to full whitetail shape. Grace did, too. *Are you okay, my noble buck? You have that 'caught in headlights' look again. I'll race you back to Brian's house. He gave me directions.* She trotted off.
*Come on Daddy! Race ya!* Grace said, and followed her mother, who had stopped about a hundred yards down the street. They both waited there for me. Brian was laughing so hard he had a short muzzle! I walked up to him.
*You knew, didn't you?* I said accusingly, but with good humor.
"Yep. I found out Grace had the ability while I was baby-sitting her one day. I asked if she wanted to race and between one moment and the next she was way ahead of me on all fours. Never seen a fawn run faster. But you need to get going. You've been dreaming of this for weeks, I know."
*Thanks. I'll see you at the house.* I broke into my special long-endurance run, but still did not catch up with them for almost a half mile.
My life has been a mix of alternating darkness and light. Everyone has to leave the darkness sometime. For me, now seemed that time. The three of us galloped all out, side by side with Grace prancing between us, as fast as we could for the sheer joy of living.