|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. Then again, in some ways SCABS isn't the least bit unusual;
just the latest focus for bigotry, is all...
Go here for more information on the setting.
©2000 Starling -- all rights reserved
The Blind Pig had a new customer.
Jack was drunk again, to the delight of the Lupine Boys. At this moment, he was attempting to do a handstand, after one of them wagered he'd never make it with those big ears. The regular clunking as he fell down again and again punctuated the noisy atmosphere of the bar. Except for the herbivores huddled in a quiet corner, today was a loud night. Wanderer had to shout to make himself heard above the crowd.
"And then we told him that he looked a little blue!"
"He must have been surprised!"
"We said it so casually! He never suspected a thing!"
"Then what happened?!"
"He looked in a mirror, and... hold on for a second!"
Wanderer barked once, loudly. The Lupine boys all jumped, looking up. The horse-man they stood over was still trying to get up to try again, but he seemed to have confused his front feet from his back feet. They backed away from Jack, sheepishly (if that was possible for a wolf), still looking at Wanderer. Jack seemed to realize that he wasn't getting any more attention, and went to sleep under one of the chairs he knocked over. Side-bets from the crowd surrounding him died off quickly, and the bar was quiet again.
"Heh. You've still got it, Wanderer."
"It is an endless source of creative opportunity, being the master of entertainment for this establishment. They simply respect my natural leadership qualities."
"And arrogant as you were yesterday. Now, back to your story. What did good ole Mike do when he saw himself?"
"Well, he took one look and ran out. Even blue, he managed to turn red in embarassment! He came back after awhile, acting like nothing was wrong. We were laughing our heads off, but he sat down at the bar, nice and calmly, and said to me, 'I hadn't realised you were buying me a Blue Lady. I appreciate it.'"
"What did you do? I mean, you did say you would buy..."
"What could I do? I bought him a Blue Lady."
"So I guess you... blew it."
"In more ways than one."
Wanderer's ears twitched as he heard the soft sound of feet upon the front steps of the Blind Pig. "Smells like a newcomer," he lied eloquently. No reason to let everyone know that all he could smell was that shot of 'Daniels he'd imbibed a while ago. Such a small little glass to have such a strong kick...
A thicket walked into the Blind Pig. Several patrons moved out of the way. A mass of thorny spines passed beneath their noses, fully 4 feet in length. That explained to Wanderer the silent rustling he'd heard approaching the door. Here, he thought, here is a SCAB with quite a unique style! His companion looked incredulous.
"And I thought Bryan was strange."
Bryan, who was working his mandibles over something crunchy and vegetable related, pretended to take no notice.
"I'll get used to the stares," she had promised herself furiously. Back then, things still made sense. Promises were still things that kept. It seemed such a long time ago. "It wasn't my choice to be this way." she had said. "People will understand." But people never understood. Rachel learned quickly.
Everywhere she went, always people watching. Some of them didn't even attempt to hide their uncomfortable stares. Some of their eyes had shone with sorrow or pity, others burning with hatred. But they all watched, staring at her like a circus animal, a queer novelty that had been thrust unfairly into their normal, pointless lives.
They watched, and kept their distance. She still remembered the way Sam had backed up when she came back to the office. Slowly, in a panicky sort of way, he never took his eyes off of those things growing out of her back. She would have laughed when he bumped into a desk, but then he started shouting. People had come all around in a circle, peeking over cubicle walls, and around corners, at her boss confronted by a monster.
"Sam, Sam. It's okay. It's just me. You remember Rachel don't you? I work for you."
The spoken words seemed to scare him into silence. It almost seemed like the man had never heard of SCABS. He stammered a bit, then seemed to regain some of his composure.
Rachel shuddered at the strangeness of her voice, but continued. "That's me, Rachel. I've been sick for a month, but now I'm back on my... feet again. I wanted to know if..."
"Rachel," he said coldly, "has been replaced. She is no longer with us in this company. I would suggest you leave now or I will call security."
...I could come back to work again. The words died in her throat as something else died deep inside her. "B-but, why? I can still work! I mean, this isn't exactly the vinyl balloon industry. I can still type!"
With effort, she reminded herself.
He reached for the phone. "Hello, Cranston? Yes, come down here right away. There's a SCAB in here causing trouble. Yes. I know. Thank you."
"Sam, what? You can't just boot me out on the street? I get at least two weeks notice."
His voice returned to its original icy tone. "Rachel was mailed notice of removal from her position after being absent from work for two weeks. Standard company policy."
"I think I had a viable excuse!" she said, shaking the spines on her back a litte for emphasis. It was the wrong move.
"I'm sorry, but we don't hire people with your condition." a smile of condescention crept in. "You would pose a danger to me and my coworkers. Unless those spines are cosmetic?"
"You piece of... So that's it. You're just going to dump me right here, right now! Just 'cause of your stupid bigotry. And I thought I was sick! You think these spines are dangerous? Or is it the SCABS? Unless you never watch TV, you've probably seen the good doctor Stein patiently explaining that the Martian Flu cannot be contracted from a SCAB. He's practically devoted his life to telling people like you exactly how un-dangerous SCABS is. You really oughta show the man proper respect! There is nothing wrong or dangerous about me!" He was looking at the spines again. She went on, ignoring him. "Well, regardless, I want to work here and if--."
He exploded in rage, causing several office mates to cringe. "You will not work here!" he shouted emphatically. "This is a place for good, hard working people, not animals! We don't put up with your type, invading and destroying our lives like this! Do you think I asked for my boy to get taken by the Martian Flu?! What about my wife? Is she with us today? That doctor on TV is so full of himself, plus he's a SCAB! He's as much of a liar as the rest of you, you... monsters."
Cranston, the security officer, appeared in the doorway, mistaking Rachel for a new potted plant in the corner. "Something wrong, Sam?"
"Yes, I--." he struggled to get a hold of himself.
"Never mind." Rachel said, not giving him a chance. "I was leaving anyway."
Cranston jumped when he heard her speak. He literally jumped when she came towards him, 100 pounds of be-quilled fury, landing on a desk nearby, absolutely flustered.
"W-who? What? Why--?"
"Fullmorph. SCABS. Pleased to meet you again, Cranston. You want to know why, ask my former boss over there why he fired Rachel. Goodbye." The door slammed loudly with the help of one of her feet. Rachel stormed out as best as a waddly porcupine could storm. She almost made it back to her apartment before she began crying.
The bar, the SCABS bar. That's why she went there. She'd wanted so much to forget. To forget the waiting in lines, the unemployment agency. The stares. They wouldn't let her be normal again. Everywhere she turned, there was an unsurmountable obstacle before her. "We regret to inform you..." was the header to every piece of nonjunk mail she got these days.
Rachel remembered one potential employer, a Mr. Vrech. He'd specifically asked for a SCAB secretary. She had been so sure of getting the job. She hadn't made it past the door.
"Mr. Vrech doesn't waste his time with the likes of you." the entrance guard had gloated, patting his gun holster. "No way you're qualified!"
"I'm qualified! I'll show you my papers. I know they're back here somewhere (rustle rustle)"
He smiled a tight lipped smile. "Mr. Vrech told me the qualifications, and he said not to let any of the butt ugly ones come in. Now, I sees it this way. Either you don't leave and I get to make you, or you leave by yourself and spoil my fun. Your choice, animal."
"Butt ugl-." (images of his eyes bugging out, lips turning blue) "Why would Mr. Vrech care about my appearance? He did ask for a SCAB."
"He only wants the cute ones. SCABS are good for more than just shitting on, you know." he seemed nervous at this point, and pulled the gun out, pointing it directly at her. "Get outta here, sister. We don't need --"
She turned in disgust, accidentally knocking the gun out of his hand, with her tail. He screamed, scratching at the long quills sticking out of his limb. "How am I supposed to get these things out, you bitch!"
"Try alcohol." she muttered, trudging away.
Alcohol. That was what she needed now, not rubbing alcohol, but a real stiff drink. She remembered some good times back at her old bar. But she also remembered the sign which hung above the door of that bar, and dampened everyone's mood. "No SCABS establishment," it said. Clear as day, she would never be able to go there again, to see her friends. Most of them wouldn't speak to her anyway. Her friends hadn't been helpful at all lately, except for one.
When Rachel had collapsed, burning with fever, Tony had come to help. He was always there to give a hand to a newbie at the office, and he was close by when she got sick. He'd driven her to the hospital, practically carried her inside. There was only one hospital that took charity SCABS cases, on the outskirts of the industrial area. He'd come every few days, or so, to check on how she was doing. She had talked to him, when she wasn't so tired, told him about the doctors taking care of her, about how they'd only been able to give her some pain killers. "Not much else we can do." they said. "The best thing is to let the disease run its course."
Tony had been there when she got her quills. She'd already shredded the hospital gown, and two pairs of bedsheets. The spines grew out slowly at first, but then at a speed that she would have sworn was supernatural, if the doctor hadn't told her about the growth rate of normal porcupine quills.
Tony had been there when the change began progressing rapidly. He just sat there talking to her, consoling her, while she shook and shuddered, feeling the bones moving around inside her. Rachel had woken up with a soot black, rabbit's muzzle. When Tony came that day, however, he'd stopped at the sight of her, pain shining clearly from his eyes.
"It's alright." she'd said in a strange gravelly, high voice. "I can still talk, and the doctors say that SCABS is done with my head." He'd sighed in relief, but his body remained tense, and he reeked of despair. She kept talking to him, but Tony seemed to be in another world. Later, she found out why.
Tony was not there when Sam fired her. Tony had been fired earlier, on the morning she'd woken up with a rabbit nose. He never told her, but she managed to find out. She shouldn't have been surprised. No one likes a SCAB-lover. He tried to tell her that they were careful, rational people who made careful, rational decisions. He was so trusting, but she knew the real reason. They got rid of him because he cared about her.
Toni was not there, in her apartment that one late night. She desperately needed comfort. Rachel thought about calling him on the phone, twice, but she didn't even know if he'd been evicted yet, or even if he still had a phone. She broke out crying every time she thought about him, and what she'd done to his life. Pitiful crying, at that, just a quiet snuffling and an occasional whine escaped her. More than ever before, Rachel needed a hug, but she cried in cold despair. No one could ever hug her again. No one. She was alone.
"Uhn, excuse me fellows." Phil said, looking over to the sorry bundle of sticks propped up on a bar stool, toying with an empty shotglass. He reluctantly detached himself from the knot of herbivores and began hopping across to the main bar section. "Got a hot one here." he muttered to himself.
Rachel looked up at the tall, thick bartender. He had the head of a bull, or something. "Just like out of a story book," she thought to herself. He slowly approached her, expecting her to make an order. She stopped spinning the empty shotglass, and said bitterly, "Make me a bourbon, and put salt in it." She paid him up front for the drink when he came back, from the small amount of her dwindling monetary resources. "Can't handle much more than one glass these days," she explained, waiting for him to leave her alone.
The bartender stayed where he was, looking at her solemnly. Why did he have to stare at her? Everyone stared at her, even SCABS. Rachel was a SCAB of a SCAB, even SCABbier than a SCAB! They looked at her with fearful eyes. She knew they did. Even here. She could smell it. "What's the matter, haven't you ever seen a 4 foot chia pet?" she wanted to say, but chia pets were hedgehogs anyway, and Rachel didn't want to muster the effort.
The bartender didn't walk away. He didn't move his head. He didn't say a word. Just kept staring, hand moving a cloth hypnotically around the inside of an obviously clean beer stein. Rachel felt a scream welling up inside her. She'd finally found a dive filled with freaks like her, and they still stared at her.
She wanted to shout, swear at him, bitch, anything to get him to stop staring. But she couldn't do it. Something in his eyes... and she just didn't have it in her. "What's one more person staring," she told herself. "Let him stare. They'll be staring at your grave long after you're dead. Face it Rachel, there's not one person out there who can see past these spines." She sobbed once, her anger changing to sorrow. Looking helplessly up at the bartender, she said in a calm, broken voice, "Have you ever felt like you were totally isolated from everyone else in the world?"
A voice behind her. "Miss..?"
"Who? Oh!" she turned, to see a face like hers, except this one was white, and it really did belong to a bunny. He jumped back as her tail swung past him, but then calmed down. His own white cotton-tail poked out from behind the loose vest that he wore. His nose bobbed nervously, and she found herself checking to see if he had a pocketwatch, somewhere in that vest of his. He spoke again, in a soft high tone.
"Miss, that's Donnie. He's been unable to speak a single word for 15 years."
Donnie grinned sheepishly (bullishly?). Rachel didn't notice her mouth had fallen open until the air began to dry off her tongue. "Totally isolated..." she said attempting to recover. "How can he run a bar then?"
"Donnie is rather incredible. He kept up his trade even after he lost his family and his vocal cords. You don't have to speak to give advice, you know. The bartender's trade transcends language."
"I had never thought... thank you." she said, looking at Donnie apologetically.
"I'm going back to the herbivore table again." he said, bobbing his nose. "I feel safer when I'm not so close to the carnivores. We're having a rousing game of Gin Rummy, if you're interested. Or you could go and meet Mike and the Lupine Boys over there if you feel up to it. They're playing darts now. I'm sure you would be good at it." She smiled at that, her quills rustling.
"Remember, you're never totally isolated," he said. "Like in Donnie's case, one doesn't need to speak to advise." He leaned forward, and surprised her by touching noses. It felt good, comforting. The rabbit left then, hopping back toward the circle of farm animals, gathered around cards scattered on the floor.
"And you don't need to hug to console," she said after him. Swirling the remains of her drink, she looked back at Donnie. "Excuse me, do you have a phone?" He nodded, pointing to the back wall where a pay phone lay. It had been a long time since she'd talked to her parents.