|The Transformation Story Archive||The Blind Pig|
The phone call had been totally unexpected, as so many calls at the Shelter are. And already it seemed to have gone on forever. I leaned back tiredly in my specially designed seat, and sighed. The request was a reasonable one, and was even arguably within my field. But still.
"Phil, I cannot think of anyone more likely to be able to help these kids. We've never met, but you come most highly recommended."
"You're aware that I have no formal training or certifications?" I replied wearily. "A professional association sent me a letter just the other day threatening to take me to court for practicing without a license." That letter had rattled my confidence badly. Truly, I wanted not to take this particular job, though I honestly could not have told anyone quite why. "It's really only legal for me to act as a counselor because I do not charge a fee. In fact, technically I am required to have a legal guardian make my important decisions for me. And wear a leash in public."
This time it was my caller who sighed. "I knew that you were pretty highly morphed. Are you saying that you physically or psychologically can't handle working with a group of SCAB high school kids about to graduate? If that's the problem, then I would certainly understand."
And then who else would take the task on, I asked myself? And maybe screw things up? There weren't too many other counselors out there with my background or experience, I had to admit. These kids were as important as any other potential clients. So why didn't I want to take the job? It was a mystery even to me. How could I explain it to someone else? "No, it's not that I couldn't handle being out of the Shelter for a few days. If you could make a few special provisions for me..."
"Oh, I assure you that we would be willing to make any sort of reasonable accommodations!" Michael gushed.
"Then I'm certain that in theory at least we could work something out. Like I said, it's not being out of the Shelter so much as it is that generally I work with adults. Not children." I felt really bad at turning this guy down. Back in the days before I became an expert on the subject of litter boxes, the conversation would have ended much sooner. But now I had much more trouble with assertiveness.
"And why is that?"
"Well." There was the fact that kids were loud and rambunctious. Not the sort of folks I generally hung out with since the poofy-tail thing had happened to me. But that hardly applied in this case; the clients in question here were all non-threatening SCABS types just like me. So what exactly was it that was really, truly keeping me from taking on this job? Finally, painfully, I saw the true answer. "It's like this. How can I help these kids when I cannot help myself? I mean, look at me. I live in the West Street Shelter because I have proven to myself and to others that the real world is simply too tough for me. I work for free; my clients generally are too desperate and broke to find someone that really knows what they're doing. Mike, these kids are simply too much like I am! Are you really, really sure that you want them to see me and my personal failures as their best possible future?"
There was silence on the line for a bit. Then the head guidance councilor for all the City's public schools spoke firmly and with conviction. "Phil. Listen to me. Yes, I want you. Yes, I want you to serve as a role model. Do you have any idea who gave me your name?"
"No." I replied.
"You wouldn't believe me, if I told you, then. We've never met, but your reputation is spreading fast. And I need you. These kids need you."
Who can argue with kids in need? I took the job. Of course. Almost immediately, I regretted it. There were scheduling difficulties, transportation difficulties, and a date with Clover that simply had to be cancelled. But the regret proved to be only skin deep, and did not compare with the warm sense of busyness that set in just as I really got down to work. I may not be a genuine counselor, but I do enjoy experiencing the illusion that I can help people in need.
There were twenty-eight really tough SCAB cases due to graduate from City high schools on June 4. Eighteen were animal-types, of which thirteen were strict herbivores and one was an insect-eating bat; he was lumped in with the herbivores since he seemed to fit in better there. Though of various species and degrees of morph, all of them had problems with animalistic issues and or instincts. Because of these special problems, they had been schooled together in a separate program designed around their common needs. Of the fourteen students there, eight had shown interest in attending either college or a technical school. They were not my concern, though of course I wished them well. It was the other six who truly needed help. They had no plans beyond school, no career goals, no futures laid out. In the past, there had not been special interest taken in kids like these, and the resulting outcomes were generally bad. Some had found menial work, more had been institutionalized or ended up at the Shelter. But almost none could have been said to have "succeeded" in life. It was my job to try and turn those statistics around. At least for these six kids, if no others.
I got to work as soon as possible, since graduation was only three weeks away. These kids had major hurdles to overcome, and I didn't have the slightest intention of merely handing out optimistic-looking brochures or something so inane as that. I wanted to help these kids get real, productive lives started, lives of dignity and humanity. That meant I had lots of homework to do before ever even meeting them for the first time.
Once the appropriate permission slips were signed, copies of the school records for my six newest clients appeared on my desk early one morning and, thanks to a cancelled cage call, I was able to spend most of that day looking them over. As expected, the news was not good. They would have been a fairly ordinary group of typical non-college bound kids, really, had it not been for the red-jacketed "SCABS" folder the records came in and the special instructions and files included to aid the staff in dealing with the morphed adolescents. But such SCABS cases these were! Bobby Rieser's folder, for example, carried a special notation warning of uncontrollable biting when in a feral state. He was therefore required to wear a muzzle at all times while on school property. This must have done wonders for his self-image, I noted. It was rough enough just trying to grow up while wearing the body of a full-morph woodchuck, wasn't it, without a muzzle continually reminding you and others that sometimes you were just another biting animal? Bobby was in danger of flunking out, frankly. It was doubtful that he could graduate with his class. Even if he did, institutionalization seemed very likely for him. Up until SCABS, he had been a decent if not outstanding student, but all that had ended with the big change. Part of his troubles had been traced to an incompletely repressed hibernation reflex, and he had performed a bit better after his medications were increased. But the continuing bad marks were considered to be primarily due to ordinary depression.
Then there was Johni Redmund, formerly John Redmund. Her file jacket stated in big letters that she was permitted to present herself as a member of either sex at school on any given day as she wished. This was of course due to her SCABS induced gender dysphoria. The record before me was studded with entries for all sorts of misconduct. Johni had been a troublemaker even while still John, and things had gone south considerably since then. An attached report from a school psychologist noted that Johni had experienced one of the worst possible SCABS situations in that she had been an aggressive "macho" type before her change, but was now too small and frail to be able to physically intimidate others. Her entire psyche had been built around dominance and bullying, but now she had no outlets at all for her anger. I looked more closely at the disciplinary file; sure enough in the months since her bout with SCABS the infractions had gone from fighting and shoving in the hallways to less physical offences like badmouthing teachers and smoking in the bathroom. But the frequency of her misbehaviors had increased more than enough to compensate. Her psychologist had recommended committing Johni to a SCABS institution for a period of adaptation and rehabilitation. She and her family, however, had flatly refused. Johni was a low-degree sheep-morph, and physically structured in such a way as to make a satisfactory sex-change back to male for her very unlikely in the foreseeable future. She was also quite attractive, which made things all the harder for her. In fact, the report noted, Johni could not convincingly pass as male, though she tried very hard.
Unless I was terribly mistaken, Johni was probably headed for the street at warp speed.
Then there was Billy Winecrest. He had been dead-set on going into the Marines, his counselor noted, until SCABS had made him into a lapine like me. Though he was a jackrabbit instead of a domestic breed of bunny like I was, Billy and I had a lot in common. He could shift to a much more human state than my everyday morphlocked form, but the price was that he had to later revert to feral full-morph form for a long period of time as a tradeoff whenever he did so. The boy was terrified of existing in a feral state, which was natural enough, so he tended to remain physically as much a rabbit as any given situation allowed. That way, at least, he only had to become mentally an animal if frightened or startled. Over the months, his counselor noted, Billy was becoming more and more withdrawn from society. He spent a lot of time grazing in the back yard when he could, and often socialized for hours with true bunnies of various sorts when he thought no one was watching. His parents, who were fairly wealthy, were fighting off the Lapine Colonies successfully for now, but in my heart I knew it was only a matter of time.
No matter what we did, I feared that we were going to lose this one. I'd seen it before, too many times. Damnit.
Rudie Moorhouse was a horse of a different color. Two colors, in fact, since he was a zebra-morph, and near as I could tell from his folder a quite attractive and outgoing one. His file was nearly pristine; there were no notations of disciplinary problems or of serious difficulties with animalistic behavior. Rudie was just an ordinary, kid, pretty much.
.except that he had this terrible fear of predator-types. Even common domestic dogs terrified him to no end. It was purely psychological, his doctor had reported; even true zebras were not nearly so pathologically afraid of being eaten. But poor Rudie simply could not go near anything (except normal humans) that ate meat. If he did, the result was an uncontrollable terror reaction, complete with hoofprints in anything and everything around him. And just to make Rudie more of a challenge for me, he was borderline academically. Always had been, too. Even before SCABS.
Sandy Blankenship had a special sort of problem. As an elephant full-morph, she required customized fixtures and appliances to accomplish even the most basic tasks. Her dietary requirements kept a cook busy almost full-time, and a special janitor was employed specifically to deal with Sandy's waste. The burden on the Blankenship's family life was incredible. Though Sandy was generally cheerful about her situation, sometimes she became severely depressed. Her boyfriend had died of the Flu while she was Changing, her psychologist noted, and she had shown no interest in any sort of companionship since. Vision is not an elephant's strong point, and Sandy's was even worse than usual for the species. On top of everything else, the poor girl was nearly blind. Sandy had attempted suicide twice, the school record noted baldly. A special watch was to be kept.
Last on my list was the group's sole non-herbivore, a bat morph named George Poltava. He was nearly blind, too, even worse off than Sandy was. Which was doubly ironic; contrary to the popular mythos, bats usually have excellent eyesight. George could not abide sunlight, and was kept artificially in the dark at all times so that his day-night cycle could be kept in sync with that of the rest of the students. Though there were some concerns about the effect this unnatural state of affairs might have on his health, it was considered that the socialization this schedule provided was more important than any possible negative consequences. His sonar was fully functional, but caused disturbing psychological side effects. The boy had long been interested in drawing and painting. Now, he crafted grotesque death's head monstrosities out of clay at every opportunity, identifying them as likenesses of his father or mother, or sometimes a girl he fancied. It was obvious, of course, that what he was shaping was the boney structure his sonar "saw" most clearly, and that to George these were indeed probably good likenesses. Still, it was very spooky and helped demonstrate just how alien this poor kid's everyday world had become. Even I, heavily altered in many ways myself, shuddered at the same time as I sympathized.
George was becoming increasingly emotionally and socially isolated over time, his unique perceptions and nocturnal nature steadily driving him into a universe of his own. There were few other bat-morphs around to appreciate his art, and George considered them to be every bit as physically revolting as he believed that he himself had become. His sexual standards, according to his doctor, were still entirely human. But he could never, ever truly see a human girl's delicious smile again. Instead, he was condemned only to "echo-sense" a strangely warped skull-thing in place of her face. That was, if he could ever find a woman willing to let him "look" her in the eye without turning away in disgust.
In short, George really, really worried me. What possible hope could I offer a kid in a situation like his?
They all worried me, in fact. And privately Michael had informed me that each had pretty much given up even hoping for a "real" future, near as he could tell. That lack of hope might prove to be the hardest thing of all to overcome. None of my little group had even bothered to fill out any of the standardized vocational surveys. But what could a career counselor do except try, I asked myself. Even if he was really a non-certified phony? So I got to work, and started making phone calls. The very first was to Michael, of course, to make arrangements to meet my little brood in person.
The regular school counselors were all very nice and easy to work with; one loaned me her office and another even drove me to and from the Shelter. Johni Redmund happened to be absent that day, but I was able to spend all the time I wanted with the rest. First up was my zebra boy, Rudie Moorhouse. He was a lot like I had expected, all smiles and stripes on the surface. When he shook my forepaw I noted that his hands were flexible and well-developed, unlike those of so many hoofed SCABs. After we introduced ourselves to each other and sat down, I commented on this to him.
"Yeah," he replied. "The doctors keep telling me I'm pretty lucky."
"There's a lot of people like you living very normal lives." I replied by way of agreement.
"There's a horse-girl in the normal classes who's a bit more morphed than I am. But she isn't so afraid all the time."
"Afraid?" I asked, already knowing what the substance of the reply would be. But I wanted Rudie to explain for himself.
"Well. you're a rabbit, right?"
"And you've gotta know that there's all sorts of things out there that would like to eat you."
Too, too true. "Of course. I've even had something try, once."
"Really? Wow! What was it like? What kind of animal?"
My gorge rose in my throat. Eventually I had intended to share this story with Rudie, but not so soon. I wasn't really ready yet. But my chance had clearly come. "A Bengal tiger. Full morph."
His eyes widened, and I caught a whiff of terror. "Feral?"
"I thought so at the time. So did everyone else. But no, not feral. A murderer."
"Jeez," Rudie replied. "What happened?"
"He's dead. I'm not. That's the short version."
Rudie cocked his head, and looked at me strangely. "He's dead? You killed him?"
"More or less. A cop finished him off. Otherwise we'd both be dead."
"But. This was a tiger, right?"
"Full-morph, you said. A full morph tiger?"
"At the time he was, yes." The old memory had me trembling slightly in fear. As long as I lived, I would never, ever get over having been hunted. Being seen as mere food.
"You killed a tiger. A rabbit killed a tiger." Rudie's mouth was agape in wonder.
"Being a herbivore does not automatically make you helpless, son. It makes you a target, yes. Some of us more so than others. But helpless, no. Have you ever seen films of lions in the act of hunting?"
"Yeah. They eat, eat."
"Zebras." I finished for him. "Lions often eat zebras."
Rudie sat silently for a moment, then a tear began tracing its way down his cheek. "I don't want to be eaten!" The words were anguished, torn from the boy's heart.
You won't be, I wanted to say reassuringly. Probably many normal humans, who simply could not understand, had actually said these very words to him. But in our herbivore hearts we would both knew that it was merely a reassuring lie. So instead, I offered him truth. "In the films the lions always win, don't they?"
"Yes. Of course." Rudie's shoulders were shuddering, now.
"You know, that's simply not the way it is in real life. Most of the time the zebras get away. Sometimes a lion is even killed by its intended victim. But the nature films usually only show the successful stalks. In point of fact, if we use our minds and behave intelligently we prey species can almost always get away."
My client put his head down on the table and wailed. "But I don't want to be a prey animal at all! I don't want to have to always know where the door is! I don't want to have to worry about being killed and eaten!"
The desk was too wide for me to reach Rudie, so I hopped up on top of it and, scattering papers all the way, crossed over to him. Once there, I gently pawed at his head. "Son," I said. "Son. Look up at me a minute."
He did, tears streaming.
"Son, almost no one wants what SCABS does to them. Almost no one. Do you hear me?"
"We look like animals, some of us SCABS. And some of us have animal-type problems. But we are not animals. We are human beings. Do you know how it is that we can tell we're still really humans?"
"How?" The reply was fierce and almost mocking, bitter as only words coming from a seventeen-year-old boy in tears can be. "How can we tell?"
"Because animals run away from their problems. They let events control their lives. But human beings confront things, and use their minds to their advantage. Humans take charge."
The boy stared at me a moment, then flopped his Virus-elongated head back down onto the desk. His whole body was wracked with sobs. I just sat there for a time, holding my forepaw on his shoulder. And eventually, the tempest passed. When I thought the time was right, I spoke again.
"Rudie, I'm going to leave you alone a bit to pull yourself together. Take your time; there's nothing to be ashamed of. SCABS is hard, son, and well worth crying over. But hear one more thing before I go, OK?"
The boy nodded, head still nestled in his striped arms. His fur looked oddly like an old-fashioned prisoner's uniform, I realized suddenly. "I am a career counselor, not a specialist in dealing with terrible fears. But I have the same basic problem as you, only worse. Agreed?"
"Your fear is rational and reasonable, to one like me. I do understand it, as few others can. Don't ever let anyone tell you that it is wrong for you to be afraid. But, on the other hand you cannot let it run your life. You need to put it into perspective. "
I paused a bit to let my words sink in before continuing. "Son, I can find you a good job in the real world. A place where you can be accepted, earn good money, make your dreams come true, even support a family if you wish. That is, I can do these things if you can at least partly master your fear. But if you cannot, than I have to look down a far more limited path. There are jobs for SCABS with behavioral problems out there, but they are few and far between. And the pay is generally very, very bad. Some of your classmates are likely to be able to do no better, frankly. But I think that you can."
My words were met only with silence. He was still listening though, I hoped. "I know someone who might be able to help you out a bit. Give you some confidence. He's a SCAB too-- full-morph, in fact. If I leave his name with Mrs. Abraham, will you call him?"
A faint nod.
"Good." And with that I left the room, to grant Rudie the dignity of solitude for his tears. Every SCAB deserves at least to be able to weep in private.
I always need a bit of time to recover from a very emotional session, so I took the opportunity to call my friend Ken Bronski from a phone just down the hall. Luckily he was at his desk.
"Bronski," he answered in that gruff voice of his. It sounded more like what you'd expect from a cave bear than from an ostrich.
"Ken, this is Phil," I replied. "Need a favor."
"What can I do for you?" he asked. Ken is a cop first, foremost and always, but he is a member of the SCAB community too. And as such, he feels strongly obligated to help out when called upon.
I briefed him on Rudie's situation. "I think he just needs a boost in confidence, Ken. You've studied self-defense as an ostrich, right?"
"The Department required it, Phil. Had to go all the way to England to find a qualified instructor for me."
"I'm not surprised. Rudie here is no ostrich, I realize. But I figure the theory will be at least partly the same."
"Mostly the same, in fact. A kick is a kick. Sure, I'll show him a few tricks-- hey!"
"I just thought of something. Our regular hand-to-hand instructor at the Academy is a Norm, but carries a certificate in SCAB techniques as well. He needed to get it for training SCAB recruits. My problems were beyond him, but I bet he'd be glad to spend some time with Rudie."
A warm glow spread through me. Good old Ken! "Just be sure and show him what you yourself can do. Part of my goal is to make him see that even those more heavily morphed than himself can make it in life without too awfully much reason to be afraid."
"Sure thing. Give him my pager number, willya? I'm not going to be at my desk very much the next few days. But for a SCAB kid, I'll make time."
"Right. By the way, he's especially afraid of lions, I think. He's been watching nature films."
"Those will shake you up every time, won't they? I'll try to show him how to deal with big cats, then, first thing."
"Thanks so very much, Ken!" And I hung up, feeling quite irrationally that somehow everything was going to be all right. Detective Bronski just has that effect on me, every time.
It was fortunate that my next appointment was with Sandy Blankenship. She could not possibly fit into the borrowed office anyway, so I was able to leave Rudie in peace there while talking to Sandy outside. It was a warm and clear April day, and Sandy's exercise area was fully fenced in. I felt very safe there. Sandy herself, though, looked rather cramped. She was an African elephant, full-morph, with a set of powerful glasses strapped onto her head. Her face was unreadable, of course, but somehow her very posture communicated a sense of resignation that I did not like at all.
"Hello," I introduced myself from the far side of the pen. Her teachers had made it clear that for safety's sake I had to make certain that Sandy knew where I was all the time. Otherwise there might be a terrible accident. "I'm Phil, here to talk with you about career options."
"Oh, yes. Mrs. Abraham told me to expect you. I'm on a feeding break, but that's OK. I'm done eating."
She seemed like a sweet girl; though the high-pitched voder-voice sounded very out of place at first coming from a pachyderm's body. My guess was that her original voice had been reconstructed from recordings or memories. Someone had spent a good deal of money on that. Clearly, Sandy had a family that cared.
"Do you sit down, or." I asked hesitantly. This was my first experience with an elephant.
The voder giggled nervously. "No, it's too much effort to get up again when I do. Sometimes I need to shift my feet around though. Keep clear!"
I only weigh about a hundred pounds these days; Sandy made me feel absolutely tiny. Staying out from under her feet seemed like very good advice indeed. "Oh, I will, I assure you. Tell me, can you see me at all?"
"You're sort of a white blur. Are you wearing white coveralls, perhaps?"
"No, I'm not wearing anything. Take a sniff."
She giggled nervously again, and reached out with her trunk. It tickled, reminding me of a groomer's vacuum as she took in my scent. "You're a rabbit!" Sandy said wonderingly.
"Yes, about _ morphed. I wanted you to know that I understand some of your problems."
"None of our teachers here are SCABS," Sandy commented. "Except Mr. Dawson. And he's a chronomorph. That doesn't help much."
"No," I replied. "I guess it wouldn't."
"Not that I think you'll be able to do a lot for us either. I'll never be able to hold a real job. Or raise a family. Or be normal in any way."
I sighed, very quietly. Elephant ears might be even better than mine. "To a degree you're right, you know. I'm not here to give you false hopes."
"Well, that's a relief, I suppose. Are all rabbits as honest as you?"
Despite myself, I chuckled. "The ones I've met are. You see, we have a great deal of difficulty lying to each other. Our scents do not match our words when we lie, if you know how to read them. The habit of being truthful spills over into our everyday lives."
"How very. sweet. No such luck with elephants."
"Have you met others?" I was curious.
"Oh, yes. There's a group home for us in Kentucky. I've visited twice; they have to ship me by rail, you know, so I don't get out much. They have a place reserved for me. It's a very nice little stall."
"And is this what you want?"
"It's what I have to want, I think. I can't stay at home. I'm destroying my family."
"How so?" I asked.
"Mom used to be an advertising exec. Now she just takes care of me. Dad has to work hours and hours of overtime to take up the financial slack, though he can never quite manage to catch up. I have two younger brothers that my parents virtually ignore. I take up all the time, all the money, all the attention. And I can never amount to anything, no matter what. I can't even be a big sister to my kid brothers! It's such a terrible waste, really."
"Is that why you do not wish to live?" I asked very quietly.
She looked startled for a second, then nodded her huge head slowly. "Yes. I would rather die than destroy my family. There's no reason for me to go on. Not like this."
"I see. Or at least I think I see."
Sandy bristled, her anger finally showing through. "No one can see! Have you ever been a blind elephant?"
"Have you ever been committed and institutionalized?" I retorted, willing myself not to back down, just this once. "I have."
"You. You were committed?" She seemed shocked. It was rare for SCABS to discuss the matter. It was too close to our hearts.
"Yes, for almost a year. And they'd have me back, if they could."
"But. That means you have, well, instincts. Strong ones."
"Right. Just like some of your fellow students here. My basic personality has changed. I am no longer entirely human in my soul."
"And you can come right out and tell me this? You can admit it freely?"
"Of course. It is just the simple truth, the reality I live with every day. Frankly, I think I just might rather be a near-blind elephant, given the choice. Not that either of us have one."
"So would I," she admitted sheepishly. "So would I."
"You are very lucky, to still be basically the same person you once were. When you think about it, I mean. You never need question that you are still a human being, deep down."
Her trunk came snaking back over, this time to caress my ears gently. "I'm so sorry for you," she said gently.
"I'm not," I replied seriously. "Honestly. I stay too busy to feel sorry for myself. And rabbits are happy creatures, fundamentally. Easy to please. Most of the time I'm fine."
"I wish I could stay busy," Sandy replied sadly. "But there's nothing worthwhile for me to do. I'm just a burden, is all."
And finally she had spoken the words I was waiting for. "Sandy, you do not have to be a burden anymore. I can promise you that much."
"What do you mean?" she asked cautiously.
"I can do some checking around, talk to some old friends. And I don't have anything lined up just yet. But one thing I have learned in this business is that there is a future out there for everyone. Including an elephant full-morph. My challenge for you is this. If I find it, will you try it?"
She pondered for a moment. "I'll not perform in some kind of circus. Or be part of a freak show."
"Of course not. But if the work were meaningful? And you could really do it?"
"Then I promise to try it. Cross my heart."
"Great! I'm sure I'll be able to come up with something, then." The enthusiasm in my words was genuine. The world is a big place, after all. There's all sorts of odd little nooks and crannies out there to look in.
"I won't be holding my breath, Mr. Bunny Rabbit. I don't think you will find a thing."
"Hmm. Do you like carrots?" My nose had already told me the answer. She had eaten them quite recently, in fact.
"Yes. And I know that you must."
"All right then. I'll bet you one bushel basket of carrots that I can find you a job which you'll like doing more than you would living in that home in Kentucky."
"Just one bushel? That's hardly a snack!"
"For you maybe, little lady. Is it a bet?"
Sandy snickered. "Yeah. I guess."
"Good." And solemnly we shook forelimbs on it. The sight would have been ridiculous, had anyone been looking. But neither of us cared.
Next on my list was the woodchuck, Bobby Reiser. I was worried about not having enough time to spend with him before lunch, but our appointment was relatively brief. His father was a barber, he explained. Dad was going to try and train Bobby to take over his shop someday. They'd just begun planning this recently, and had not thought to inform the school system. Grooming was very pleasurable for him since the Flu, he said, and I nodded rather enviously. I could think of worse ways to spend my own days; grooming seems to be a common passion among all of us small and furry types. When I asked about special tools, Bobby told me that his father was already working on obtaining both tools and a special suspended platform that he could work from. I rocked my ears in pleasure at this; not only did Bobby now seem to have a future but it seemed that he had some all-important family support going for him as well. Mentally, I checked him off of my list. It looked as if all would be well with him in any case. Even if he graduated late, his father would still be waiting.
Lunch was something of an ordeal. I had been told that the school cafeteria could provide salads, and this was true. But all of them were chef's salads, and the cook had placed ham and bologna on top of the good parts. Sure, the revolting stuff could be picked off. The smell remained, however, and turned my stomach utterly. Were I starving, I could have choked the greens down regardless. I was not starving, though. I was merely very, very hungry. Which was not incentive enough to eat something stinking of dead flesh. Not nearly incentive enough! Never, ever expect too much from a school lunch, I reminded myself. Otherwise you are certain to be disappointed.
I ate at the faculty table, of course, and was the only obvious SCAB there. The teachers were not too put off by my eating habits, though I got the idea that having a rabbit eat right at their table with them was something of a novelty. Mr. Nogle, a music teacher, was kind enough to carry my tray for me, and Mrs. Ramirez of the Mathematics department was extremely polite. She offered me the parsley from her salisbury steak- it had not gotten any gravy on it. The powerful flavor killed the scent of the meat, and I ate it greedily. Then I downed all the other garnishes at the table as well. When I explained what was wrong with my salad everyone was highly sympathetic. They even offered to go out and pick up something for me. But it was too late by then; I was scheduled to see Billy Winecrest, my jackrabbit client, in just a few moments. Still, it was nice to be treated as a fellow professional. Even if I really wasn't.
I've been around many, many lapine clients, and around even more lapines who were not my clients. Something sort of clicks between we rabbits right away; being social creatures we have the ability to "read" each other emotionally without too much difficulty. Billy was no exception. There was not the slightest doubt in my mind that Billy Winecrest was not feeling very happy as he lounged fullmorph in his litterbox.
I'd had to go and hunt for him; Mrs. Abraham had warned me that Billy honestly could not read clocks much of the time. The staff had set up a nice little studying retreat for him off in the corner of an unused classroom; litterbox, reading lamp, a few chew toys, a nice "safe" area free from prying eyes. In fact, it looked so inviting that once I got there I decided to join him inside.
"May I come in?" I asked formally, and he nodded graciously. We sniffed each other a bit and became comfortable together. Then after a decent interval had passed I spoke again. "I'm Phil, your career counselor. Can you speak in that form?"
Billy seemed to concentrate a second, and the proportions of his skull and neck shifted slightly. After a couple of false attempts, he managed to reply in a voice very much like my own. "I can now. Pleased to meet you. Sorry I'm late. They didn't tell me you were a rabbit too."
"They didn't tell anyone," I observed. "It's not polite to label someone as a SCAB unless there is a good reason."
Billy nodded. "I hate it when people go out of their way so much for us. It's almost better when they hate me."
It was my turn to nod. I understood exactly what he meant. "Not that too many people actually fear or hate us rabbits. It's one of the few advantages of the form."
"Actually," Billy corrected me, "I am a hare. The biologists are still arguing about whether we belong in separate genuses or not. But your point is well taken. Why don't you go and explain it to that Christiasson kid?"
I shuddered. Everyone had heard about that particular hate crime. "You can find hate in the world, if you look for it. But I have found mostly acceptance."
"Acceptance? Tell me, how are you keeping out of the Colonies? My folks are doing it by spending tons of money."
The question hit me like a blow, though it was a subject I had eventually intended to address. "Mostly by good luck. And the fact that I have a pension. A means of support. I'm only a volunteer counselor, you know."
"No, I didn't. Not that it matters, particularly. I'll never hold a job."
"Never say never, Billy. At least, not around me."
Billy rocked his ears. "I can lie to the doctors. I can lie to my teachers. But I can't lie to you. You know that."
"Don't waste your time on me. It's getting harder and harder for me to change shape. And I am going feral for longer and longer periods of time afterwards. My default form seems to be fullmorph. Though not feral fullmorph, at least."
Damn, that must hurt. "I'm sorry. I cannot tell you how sorry I am."
"So, that's kinda the final straw, I figure. Once I graduate, I'm gonna tell the folks. Let them quit spending their retirement money to save me. I'm for the Colonies. No way around it if I'm fullmorph."
I sighed, then snuggled up to Billy. "You're gonna quit that easy, eh?"
He raised his head, startled. "What do you mean, easy? My folks and I have fought them off for months! It's been absolutely vicious; they even had me loaded on the truck once before a court order arrived. We've fought hard!"
"So far you have indeed. And I can't lie to you either; I don't think your chances of winning are all that good. But are you going to go down fighting like a man, or give up like a warm, fuzzy, dumb bunny rabbit?"
This time it was Billy who looked like he'd been hit. "I, I." He was silent for a time, then he rolled onto his side. I did the same, and we snuggled back to back.
"Look," he began again. "We're snuggling like a pair of lovers. And we've only just met! It's all wrong! Doesn't that bother you?"
"It used to," I admitted. "Before I realized that human perceptions no longer apply in this case."
"But everyone knows what we are, just by looking! Prey animals, for God's sake! Cute, fuzzy harmless creatures!"
"Right," I replied, as if what he had said was self-explanatory.
"This is crazy!" he replied.
"But you like it, don't you? You feel a need to snuggle now, Billy. It's how we rabbits interact."
There was more silence. "Then you are saying we really are just rabbits."
"Of course not. We are human. But we are rabbits too. And when we behave as such, no one should be surprised. Least of all us."
"But. " Billy hesitated, and I began to wonder if he had received any worthwhile counseling at all. "Do you make friends with wild rabbits?" he asked me. "Ordinary animal-type bunnies? Get to know them? Make friends? Even feel lust for them sometimes?"
"Yes. Of course. It's quite natural."
"Then you belong in the Colonies every bit as much as I do, you freak!" he wailed.
Rabbits do not cry in the same manner as humans, and Billy my client was very nearly in fullmorph form. He shuddered violently, and made sad little sounds that would have been undetectable to a Norm. There was nothing for me to do but wait until it was over and ponder upon the fact that it surely did seem that I was making a lot of people cry today. Eventually he stopped, and I sat up in quadrupedal fashion to face my client. "Listen. There are SCABs who belong in the Colonies. The ones who are feral, mostly feral, or even those that go feral unpredictably all arguably belong there for their own good. I can even understand why they want you and me there, though I do not agree. I go feral when frightened myself, sometimes. But the reason they want us there is not simply because we enjoy lapine company, or have lapine tendencies sometimes. Do you understand?"
He cocked an ear. Clearly, he did not.
I sighed. "You are ashamed of something that is not your fault. It is simply the way you are made now. If you had had your sex changed by SCABS, would you be ashamed if you began to be attracted to men?"
"Well, no. Of course not. But."
"No buts. You are physically part jackrabbit. Mostly one, in fact. Why should you be ashamed when you act like one?"
He remained silent, so I reached over and nudged him in the ribs with a forepaw. "You sure look like a jackrabbit to me, Billy. Feel like one, too. " I nudged him again. "This. This is your body, son. It is part of you, it has its own wants and needs. Like snuggling. Now, do you want to physically socialize some more? Or are you going to spend the rest of your life suffering and denying the obvious?"
He lay still then, and I thought I had lost him. But eventually he spoke again. "What kind of a job do you think you could find for me?"
"Frankly, I don't know yet. If you are right about becoming morphlocked, then in truth your options are going to be very limited. I'm afraid the Marines are pretty much out of the question, son."
He rocked his ears slightly. "I was just a kid when I wanted that."
For his sake, I hoped that his dream was in fact that easily dismissed. And that he had matured some since then. Not that there was anything wrong with wanting to be a Marine, not at all. But he had been totally fixated upon the single goal, according to his folder. "I needed to talk to you a bit, get to know you in person before I did any serious hunting. But I can tell you two things right off."
"First of all, having any sort of job will do more than anything else I can think of to help your parents keep you free. If that is what you wish."
"And the second thing?"
"Just a bit of information to consider before you report voluntarily for commitment. Did you know that morphlock can be entirely psychological in origin? And curable? You might want to talk to your doctor. Or, if you don't trust him, I'll refer you to one whom you can trust. He's been morphlocked himself, you see."
And leaving my client with that little tidbit to gnaw on, I shook myself off and left our safe little haven to go out and face the real world.
Just at that moment, the real world for me consisted of facing my last appointment for the day, a meeting with George Poltava. I was rather looking forward to it, as I had never met a bat-morph before. George was sitting in the dark when I came in, of course. The room had been fitted with a double-curtain arrangement to keep the sunlight out, and almost right away I had to get down on all fours and navigate by whisker and ear. Certainly it was no darker in George's room than in a typical burrow, and I was rather proud of being able to find my seat without bumping into anything or wandering aimlessly around the room.
"Not bad!" George complimented me. I could just barely make out the sharp keening ultrasonic cries by which he had tracked me; in fact, I had sort of homed in on them myself in order to locate my client. "What are you, anyway? I can't get a good echo off of you to save my life." He sounded peeved.
"I'm a rabbit morph," I replied. "My fur is soft and very thick; I'll bet that's why you can't sense me very well."
"Rabbit, eh? Well, that explains how you get around so easily in the dark. But you're just a blur to me. It's most annoying."
"I can see how it might be. Want me to get under the table or something, where you don't have to look at me? Honestly, it's no trouble. I sit in chairs just to please society; the floor is truly just as comfy." I started to climb down.
But George stopped me. "No, no, that's all right, sir. It's just that the sensation is. odd."
I chuckled. "Do many SCABs stop by?"
"No, not really. You're almost my first."
"Then you haven't even begun to see strange, son. Trust me on that one." And we laughed politely together. When we were done, I continued on. "I guess you've been told that I am a career counselor?"
"I've been looking at your file. You've never expressed any interest in a career, George. At least not that anyone's ever taken note of."
There was silence for a minute, and then my client spoke. "What kind of career would you suggest, sir-"
"Phil," I interrupted. "Call me Phil"
"Yes, sir. Phil, rather. Sorry. Anyway, what would you suggest I look into? Or echo-range into, rather. I haven't done much genuine `looking' into anything at all lately." The last words were filled with bitterness.
"Don't give up so easily. Surely you have some sorts of interests. Your records indicate that you are easily bright enough to have gone on into college."
"Sure, and major in what? Etymology, perhaps, with a focus on the flavor of night-flying insects? Most of them are pretty nasty-tasting, I can assure you."
I rolled my eyes, confident my client could not pick up on the gesture. "But what options do you have besides getting a job? Do you want to live with your parents forever? Or be institutionalized, perhaps? I find it hard to believe you'd be happy as a charity case."
My client made a sharp, nasty barking sound. It took me a moment to recognize it as laughter. "No, I would not be happy as a charity case. But then, I'm not very happy as a bat, either. What I want doesn't seem to matter very much. Does it?"
"Look, I will not pretend here. Your case is a very, very difficult one. Can you give me any kind of lead at all, any kind of direction as to what sort of job you might like? I promise to do my best."
The bat-morph shuffled in his seat. I could hear the sheets of featherless skin that made up his useless wings rustling gently in the darkness. "Close your eyes," he said simply.
"What?" I replied.
"Close your eyes, please. I need to turn on the light to show you something."
I complied, and a lamp clicked as the switch was thrown.
"Ow!" I heard George complain. "Damnit!" There were more muffled curses then as he tried to set up something for me. "All right," he finally said. "You can look now."
I opened my eyes. And there, two inches in front of my face, hung the most horrible monstrosity I had ever beheld in my life. Tiny pointed teeth, twisted lips, useless staring eyes, and the nose, the nose, the nose.
The nose belonged on no living thing.
I screamed, I fear, and went totally feral. In my panicked flight I knocked over the lamp, breaking the bulb. This only made things worse, as I could no longer see the terrible thing. Finally my little hare-brain remembered the double-curtain trick, and I flashed into the hallway at full speed, bowled over a special-ed teacher, and made straight for Billy Winecrest's little "safe" spot. And there I hid for the rest of the day, until a more then slightly embarrassed Billy finally managed to calm me enough to go home.
I came back the next day, of course, both to apologize to everyone involved and to finish my business. I'd done serious damage to George's ego already, I feared. At the least I wanted to repair as much as of it possible. The school was kind enough to let me try, and so was George. But it was clear that he was deeply hurt. "I am so sorry, Phil. Really I am. I just wanted to show you."
I brushed him off. "No, I am the one who should apologize, George. You had no way of knowing about my problems. I should have guessed what you were going to do."
Both of us sort of trailed off into silence eventually. The situation was very awkward. Eventually I broke the silence. "We are both of us SCABs, George. Both of us face very real barriers."
"Yes," George acknowledged. "I see that now. But be honest with me. Would you rather deal with your barriers, or mine?"
Almost anyone else I could make back down on that question. In fact, I had essentially done so with Sandy the elephant yesterday. But not with George. Not with the future he faced. "You win," I replied. "Your case may be beyond me. I admit it."
George took it with good humor. "And we never even got into how I can't sleep unless I hang upside down," he joked, trying to fill in an awkward moment.
I sighed, not caring if my client heard for once. He was facing his fate with dignity and courage. It hurt that I wasn't able to help him. "Just out of curiosity, can I ask a question?"
"Sure, Phil" he replied cheerfully. "Anything."
"If I could find you a job, what would you like for it to be? Your dream job, that is."
The boy sat silently. "Dream job? Hmm. I dream a lot, you know. Not much else to do. Mostly about James Bond, I guess."
My face fell. "James Bond?"
"Yeah. Old 007 himself. Always gets the bad guys, always gets the women, does truly important work. Never develops SCABS."
My heart felt like it would rip in two. Might as well dream big, if dreams were all that you could ever have. "Oh god, George. I so wish I could help you."
"I know," he answered, a sob in his voice. "I know."
Before I could even think about it we were hugging. And you know what? Bats don't feel ugly. They are really warm and soft to the touch, just like the rest of us.
While at the school, I asked about Johni, but she was still out sick. Though I wasn't really looking forward to it, it was absolutely vital that she and I sit down together soon. Mrs. Abraham frowned at me when I said so, however. Johni had been missing a lot of school lately, she explained. Most of the faculty thought she was cutting class. In fact, were it to get much worse her graduation was likely to be delayed, too. I nodded soberly at this, and made a mental note to check back in a few days. After all, I had plenty of work to do with the other cases.
Taking on six new clients at once, all of them short-deadline cases, might not have been the brightest thing I had ever done, I soon realized. But I took the bull by the horns, and settled down to a period of twelve-hour workdays. Clover was unhappy about this-- heck, I was unhappy about it-- but sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.
Bobby Reiser was easy to take care of. I caught a ride over to his father's barber shop and introduced myself. The obvious pride that Bob Sr. displayed while showing me the special haircutting tools he had commissioned and the genuine interest his customers took in the little suspended platform that Bobby Jr. would someday work from told me all I needed to know. Oftentimes, potential clients prove quite able to solve their problems without me. The best thing for a counselor to do when that happens is simply to butt out. So I did exactly that, and mentally checked the young groundhog off of my list.
The other cases took more work. I put out feelers to most of the big factories in town, hoping one or two might be hiring. If so, I could try and work out some sort of arrangement for Rudie and potentially even Johni. But times were tough in manufacturing just then, and I drew nothing but a big blank. So I looked into all sorts of non-public-contact jobs for Rudie: night watchman, telephone operator, greenhouse worker, farmhand. But no one seemed interested in a SCAB with even the slightest hint of feral tendencies. I was just sitting at my desk with my head in my paws trying to brainstorm a new approach when the phone rang one day.
It was Rudie.
"Phil!" he said excitedly. "Oh, Phil! You'll never guess what?"
"What?" I asked, hoping against hope.
"I rode the bus today. With Ken. And we sat next to a lion-morph! Isn't that just great?"
My ears dropped in relief. I'd begin to get worried. "Yes, Rudie, that is wonderful news! Do you think you have yourself under control now?"
"Ken thinks so, but he says I need to wait a few months to be sure. Besides, I've got to go back to school. All this time it hasn't really mattered much to me, but now I understand why my grades are so important. I've got to do well!"
"Why?" I asked, half-guessing the answer.
"Because Ken says he can cover the fear-thing with the Police Academy, as long as I really am better now. But the grades, well, I've got to do better with those on my own. I'll make up for them at the Community College! And I want to be a cop so bad!"
The rest of the call sort of passed in a haze. I would have to check in with Ken, of course, to verify that Rudie did indeed have a real chance of making it onto the force. But that was merely a formality. Ken would never mislead a young man about something so important.
Which meant I had two down, four to go.
Actually, I should really have had only three to go; George Poltava's situation was clearly beyond redeeming. I had even given up on him to his face. But somehow, I kept making calls on his behalf. None of them ever led to anything, though. Until something happened one night at the Pig. I was sharing a drink with Clover, who was doing her best to not hold a grudge against me over my recent work schedule. Almost against my will I found myself talking shop with her, something I rarely do.
"You should have seen this poor kid," I was explaining. "There's not a hope in the world for him, of course. God, how I hate it when there's nothing to be done!"
"But you just told me about a half-dozen or more places you've called. If George is truly such a hopeless case, then why are you spending so much time on him?"
I sighed and stared fixedly into our Jack Strafford. "I don't know, Honey. It just doesn't feel right to give up. Not this time."
"Then don't. Tell me, have you looked into any bat research groups?"
"Several. All of them require George to be able to fly. But he can't. As things stand, they can't use him."
"But that's the closest you've come, right?"
"In short, yes." I sighed again. We were silent for a time.
Then Clover spoke again. "Well, if you need to hook George up with a research establishment, then why not ask the Federal government for help? They're connected with every university in the country. Surely there's a master list somewhere of who is studying what on a Federal grant."
That very night, I e-mailed Congressman Theiu, the only acknowledged SCAB elected to Federal office, and outlined my problem. About a week later, I got a reply. In the form of two government agents waiting for me at the door to my office.
They asked me all sorts of questions about George's sonar capabilities, which I had talked up in my letter to Theiu. I explained that I was only a career counselor, and therefore not really qualified to give them the kind of answers they sought. They then politely asked me if they could meet with my client. I was able to arrange for an immediate interview, though we generated a lot of raised eyebrows at the school when my companions explained that they were not free to disclose exactly which agency of the U.S. Government they represented. Still, their ID's were solid and I vouched for them, so we got in to see George. He was quite excited, and knocked over his lamp again. Fortunately, this time it was not turned on.
The Government types asked George to identify by sonar a series of increasingly complex objects held up in the air in front of him, which he did without fail. Then they asked him to listen to a recording. I am quite sure that everyone else who was there forgot about my own rather sensitive set of ears, or else they would have kicked me out for this test. But I heard just enough to figure the whole game out. The tape consisted of a series of identical electronic hypersonic cries, much like George's own, and distant, even fainter echoes.
George concentrated for a moment; I could easily picture him cocking his head from side to side as he listened. "A round room," he finally said. "The walls are hard, and a bit irregular. Metal cabinets mounted on them, maybe? And in the center is something big and tall. It's round and hard too, like a column. Yes, I have it now. This is a miss-"
"Thank you very much, Mr., er, George," the senior of the two government types interrupted hastily. "That's all we needed to see. Or hear rather. I am quite certain that you will be hearing from us again. Soon."
With that, we rather promptly left. But not before I was able to very quietly hum a couple bars of "Live And Let Die" under my breath. I'm quite certain that George heard me; as he burst out laughing almost immediately.
And crying, too.
The unexpected success with my bat-morph made me all the more anxious to get together with Johni, who I was beginning to think of as my "mystery client". Over and over again she kept missing school on the days when I was scheduled to see her. Finally, with the school's blessing I got Donnie to drive me over to her home. As it turned out, she lived less than a mile from the Shelter.
Her apartment fit right in with the rest of the squalid neighborhood. She lived on the lower floor of a moderately decrepit two-family flat. There was trash scattered about the place, and young children played out front unsupervised, dangerously close to traffic. I felt Donnie stiffen as we walked up the three steps to the porch. One crumbled a bit under his weight, but he caught himself in time to avoid a nasty fall. At least the doorbell worked when we tried it. Though no one answered.
By then, I was beginning to get angry. And stubborn. "Donnie," I said, "This is not your affair, and I know you have to get back and open the 'Pig' up. But would you mind if we just waited a bit first? Eventually somebody has got to come along."
He nodded, and wait we did. Sure enough, eventually someone came along. It was Johni. She wasn't trying to pass as male today, I could see. But on the other hand she was certainly trying to look "butch", and succeeding. Her wooly hair was short and dyed bright red, almost looking like a catholic cardinal's skullcap. The scarlet hair framed a face that was a bit elongated, but otherwise very human in appearance and even smaller than I had been led to expect. From the neck down she was all chrome jewelry and black leather. Her dangling cigarette would have charmingly completed the ensemble, had it not been for the lost look in her eyes. They didn't look tough at all.
"Who the hell are you two?" she demanded of us. "And why are you here?"
"Why do you think we're here?" I asked in return, playing the game.
"Look, I'm gonna call the cops."
I held up a forepaw. "No need for that. My name is Phil, and your school knows I'm here. This is my good friend Donnie; he's giving me a ride. I'm your career counselor."
Her eyes rolled up in her head. They were blue, I noted. "Oh, so it's not enough that I put up with school shit all day; they've got to start sending more shit to my house."
I held my temper. "I want to help you find a job, is all. So that you can get your life started after graduation."
"Fuck," she replied with an evil grin, drawling out the word for all it was worth. "There's no one gonna hire me. I'm a fucked up TG animal SCAB."
"I'd bet against that," I replied evenly. "Though I'd also bet against you keeping any job you might find, if you act like this all the time."
"Fuck you," she replied evenly. Then with a pretty smile on her face she repeated it again, sweetly this time. "Fuck you. I've always wanted to say that to a school guy. And now we're not in school. Care to get your rabbity ass out of my way so I can get into my goddamned house?"
Usually I keep a pretty good eye on what's happening around me. Johni, however, was enough to distract even someone as alert to danger as me. "What did you just say to the nice bunny rabbit?" asked a snarling voice from a few feet away. I whirled around to face it, startled.
"Oh, shit," Johni whispered behind me under her breath. A very large and powerful looking man was purposefully striding up the sidewalk. I was willing to bet it was Johni's father.
"Come on, little girl, what just came out of your potty mouth?"
"I'm sorry!" she squeaked to the world in general. "Oh god, I'm sorry!"
"You bet your sweet curvy little ass that you're sorry! And you're going to be sorrier! Apologize to the bunny."
"Now." I began, but a single angry glare cut me off.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Bunny Rabbit," she said, her eyes beginning to tear up. "I'm so very sorry."
"Now curtsey to him," the man demanded.
She did so, awkwardly. He made her do it again, more effeminately.
"Goddamn kids." This time he was speaking to Donnie and I. "Show no goddamn respect to anyone. She's a SCAB just like you two. And she ought to have been polite."
I nodded, too upset to speak. He hadn't laid a hand on her or Donnie would have intervened, I knew. But the smart bastard hadn't touched her. Yet. We had no grounds to make a legal complaint. Later, though, when we were gone.
He smiled a little at my apparent acceptance of his apology. "She used to be my only son. Was a worthless bastard then. Now she's just a worthless bitch. And a sheep-bitch at that." He nudged his daughter with his foot. "Get in the house, ewe! We'll talk more later." She scooted without hesitation, and he smiled at his own joke. "A female sheep is a ewe."
"I know," I replied flatly.
"Well, then." He seemed disappointed that I had not laughed. "Be seeing you." And with that he strode inside and began shouting curses at everything in his way.
Donnie and I turned to leave. All the kids that had been playing out front had suddenly vanished. We didn't exchange a single word all the way back home.
The next day, I called again about seeing Johni at school. Not surprisingly, she was absent again. But now she was at the very pinnacle of my priority list, so I tried again first thing the next morning. She was finally in, so I arranged to officially meet with her.
I was deeply torn over what to do about Johni. On the one hand, I know that I am not competent to be a real counselor. What I should certainly have done was officially inform the school officials about my suspicions and then just try to find the girl a job. This was all that I was being asked to do, and as far as my authority extended. If I did my job and no more, I could not possibly get into any trouble myself. But Johni's records contained not a peep about suspected child abuse. Even her psychologist had not voiced any suspicions about the possibility. Which made me believe, frankly, that they were simply incompetent. Over the years, surely someone ought to have put two and to together.
My best guess was that somebody or more probably a lot of somebodies probably had in fact guessed at the truth, but then had simply decided that it wasn't their job to do anything about it. Or else that it was simply easier to pretend not to see. Or maybe they had decided that by doing nothing they could avoid getting into trouble. The very idea of following the same sort of strategy made me feel sick at my stomach. So I compromised with myself. I would talk to Johni exactly one time before reporting anything. And from there I would play things by ear. Worst case, I swore, I would voice my suspicions to the proper authorities after my interview.
When Johni came in and sat down, there was cold silence for long minutes. Her face was badly swollen under heavy makeup. I sat and carefully studied her features, making it obvious that she was not fooling me in the slightest. Silence is a powerful motivator. Eventually, she spoke. "I fell down the steps, all right?" she exclaimed, turning away. "Quit staring at me."
"Do you fall down the steps often?" I asked, not altering my gaze a bit.
"My room is upstairs. I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and tripped over the dog. All right? Can we drop this?"
"Funny," I replied. "I'd have sworn that your family lived in the lower-floor flat."
There was more silence. It lasted for a very long time.
"You're just a career counselor, right? What's this to you, anyway? Why can't we just drop it?"
"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" I asked.
"That's three reasons I can't drop it, then. And you make four, like it or not. Does he beat your mother, too?"
"I'm sorry," I replied automatically. But somewhere a little warning bell began jangling.
"She died when I was eleven. Car wreck. It wasn't his fault. She was driving."
"Hmm. Does he date?"
Johni's jaw clenched, hard. And suddenly I knew what was really wrong here. Oh, dear god. The poor kid!
I changed the subject for a bit. "You're right, you know. I am just a career counselor. This is absolutely none of my business."
"Good!" The girl said forcefully. "Then let's talk about jobs."
"Yes," I replied. "Let's. What do you see yourself doing six months from now?"
There was more silence. Then, hesitantly, "I can't work. I need to stay at home. Help with my sisters. No one will hire me anyway."
"And why wouldn't they hire you?"
"Because I'm a worthless SCAB piece of shit!" she wailed out. And then the tears began. It seemed that all of these SCAB kids could cry forever, once you got them started.
"You sound just like your father," I replied coldly.
"You leave him the fuck out of this!" Johni screamed, so loudly I feared that someone might come in to see if everything was all right. Which was the last thing I needed just then.
"Why, when you aren't leaving him out? All you're doing is mouthing his words and his feelings. It's him that wants you to stay home, isn't it? It's him that needs to beat you down to nothing. It started when you were still a boy, didn't it?"
"Shut the fuck up!" she screamed again.
"Not all of it, maybe. But the beatings and the screaming and the cursing, they've been going on for a very long time. And eating your soul alive."
This time, there was no answer except quiet weeping.
"He's told you that you're a piece of worthless crap so many times you actually believe it, and that's why you act the part. You used to beat up on others when you were big and strong like your Dad because you never learned that people can relate to each other in any other way. Now that you're a girl, you're one of the weak. And one so filled with anger that you feel like you're going to burst. Am I on the right track, here?"
Again, my only reply was sobbing.
"Look, kiddo. Here's what's going to happen. I'm about to make a stink about this. There's no way on Earth you can stop me, so don't even try. There's going to be child welfare people at your house by dark tonight. Do you understand me?"
"No. Please, please don't." But her words were weak, mere reflex. Listening to her, I was convinced that she sounded more relieved than angry.
"You have a choice to make. You know what I suspect, but only you and your father know the truth. Any day now you're going to be eighteen. That means you are about to become an adult. I need you to start thinking like one just a tiny bit early. What's going to happen to you and your sisters, if things keep going on like they are?"
She didn't respond, so I reached over and touched her gently. "Listen, if a dumb untrained career counselor like me can figure out what's happening here so easily, you had better believe that a dedicated pro can do it quicker and better. And I'm going to see to it that a dedicated pro is exactly who looks into this. If you work with them, they can protect you. They can end this. this nightmare. But if you insist on fighting them, well, I honestly don't know how things will come out."
Johni looked up at me. Her makeup had run, exposing the black-and-blue that I had known must lie underneath. "Why are you doing this?" she asked. "Why are you doing this to us?"
The victims of repeated and sustained abuse are often very confused about right and wrong, I reminded myself. And there were three other children involved. Even if Johni didn't approve of what needed to be done, someone had to speak up for them. Even if it hurt.
"For your own good." I replied evenly. And that ended our interview. Johnie screamed tearful insults after me as I quietly left the room, but I was no longer really listening.
I made the promised phone calls, of course, and spent most of the rest of the day answering questions from Family Services officers and school officials alike. One of my connections down at City hall had seen to it that a good caseworker was assigned. But the school officials really got under my skin. They seemed to think I had somehow invaded their turf, stepped over an invisible line. Their questions got snootier and snootier until finally I explained in rather pointed words that if they had done their godamned jobs to start with then I wouldn't have had to do their work for them. I was pretty upset; it was the most assertive I'd been in years. When I finally left I was certain that there was no remaining love lost between us. My career in the school system was over before it even really started. The only really good thing that happened all day was that I ran into Mrs. Poltava, George's mother on the way out, at school to pick her son up. She raced over, threw her arms around me and kissed me right in front of the still-steaming school faculty without even introducing herself. "Oh!" she said, "Thank you so very, very, very much!"
When she saw that I was very confused, she finally explained who she was. "George has been so very much happier!" she exclaimed. "He acts like he wants to live again! All he talks about is how he can have a real life again now. You've given us back our son!"
Had it not been for that incident, I would have gotten very, very drunk that evening. But because of Mrs. Poltava, I was able to keep right on working. Which was a good thing, because otherwise I would never have found work for my jackrabbit client, Billy Winecrest.
In Billy's case, I believed, landing any old job "right now" was far more important than finding him a good job later. After all, by the time "later" rolled around he almost certainly would have been committed to the Colonies. The hare and I both understood this clearly, and he told me that his parents would 100% support anything I could come up with. Even with this sort of freedom, the task proved far harder than I would have expected. The job market for full-morph lapines is almost non-existent. But I had to find something! The price of failure for Billy was just too great for me to even contemplate giving up. I even considered trying to get his parents to set up a sham corporation to hire him. They were supposed to be well off, after all. But in the end such extreme measures proved unnecessary. As it happened, a job offer came right to me. Literally, it came to me. I was sitting at my desk aimlessly going over and over Billy's file when the phone rang.
"West Street Shelter," I answered.
"Hello. I am looking for a certain Phil Goosz, a lapine SCAB. Is this him?"
"Yes," I replied, wincing once again at the mangled pronunciation. I was too tired to try and correct it. "This is him."
"Phil, I'm with the Armstead Corporation here in town. And we are looking to hire a rabbit."
Never, ever had I gotten a call like this before. "Hire a rabbit? Why? And how did you get my name?"
"You came up on an Internet search for lapiform SCABs. You're a career counselor now, aren't you?"
"Yes, a volunteer one. But."
"Well, we sure won't have any trouble topping those wages then, heh, heh." The man's voice sounded a little strained; my guess was he wasn't very used to casually conversing with SCABs.
"Tell me, whatever would you specifically need a rabbit for?"
"Have you ever heard of Huggy Bunny Day Care Centers?"
"We want to make that more than just a name. Our clientele is all upper income-- carriage trade, you understand. The next step up from our child care center is to get a nanny."
"Uh-huh," I replied.
"Well, the latest trend out on the coast is for upper class folks-- movie stars and such, you know-- to hire SCABs for highly visible positions. SCAB gardeners, SCAB limo drivers."
"Yes, I get the picture." No SCAB agents or doctors or lawyers though, I was willing to bet. God forbid that we should actually have important jobs!
"Well. Huggy Bunny maintains one day care center in your city. And lapiform SCABs are generally very safe to have around kids; we've checked out your condition pretty thoroughly. We're not even worried about fearful parents-- everyone loves rabbits. What would you think about becoming a day-care center team member?"
"Uh." I replied intelligently.
"Now, we understand that physically you have limitations. We're willing to work around them, no matter what they are. In fact, you won't have to do any actual work at all. Just sort of lay around, keep an eye on things and let the kids pet you sometimes. And let the parents see you letting the kids pet you too, of course. That's very important."
"Of course. I can see where it would be. Tell me, would you consider a rabbit locked in fullmorph form?"
"Are you morphlocked now? I am very sorry to hear that." He sounded sincere; for the first time I warmed a little bit towards him. "Of course we would still consider you. Like I said, we don't need any real work done. And by the way, your voder work is superb."
"Actually," I replied," I'm not using a voder. And I'm very happy in the position I am in." By the time I was done explaining, my caller was as enthused about Billy Winecrest as he had been about me. I had him call the Winecrest home and give them my name as a reference. By the end of the week, my client was working part time. Making decent money, too. Enough to live on, if he chose. Which was going to give the Colony man fits in court.
And that suited me just fine.
It was rather startling next morning to realize that I had only one client left who was still unaccounted for. My elephant-girl, Sandy Blankenship.
I was really sweating her case. Keeping an elephant isn't exactly cheap, and almost by the very nature of things anyone who hired Sandy would most likely have to pony up for room and board as part of the deal. But what could she do that might justify such high upkeep, plus a decent wage? I'd had exactly one idea. And it took forever to get the information I needed. In fact, the envelope finally arrived from Zambia on the very last day before graduation. It took me three tries to nibble it open, I was so nervous. Then, it seemed to take an eternity for me to get it unfolded with nose and paws. But once I managed the feat, the contents proved themselves to be well worth the wait. My heart leapt with joy; Sandy had work, if she wanted it!
I hadn't felt very welcome at the school since my confrontation with the faculty over Johni, and so had never returned there. But Sandy's home number was in her folder, and no one complained when I asked her parents for permission to visit.
This time Clover drove me over. We were nearly there when we pulled up next to Sandy at a red light. It had never occurred to me before, but once you gave the matter thought it was easy to see that Sandy would just about have to walk to and from school. And, given this fact, it was obvious that she was physically too big to use the sidewalk. So she strode right down a traffic lane instead, obeying all the traffic rules.
Poor lonely girl.
Still, I had detected a fetching sense of humor in her when we had talked so I stuck my head out the window. "I'll bet that you never have anyone fail to yield the right-of-way, do you?"
She cocked her head, trying to identify the voice. "Phil?" she finally asked.
"The one and only. And I've got some good news for you."
"Oh my. You're kidding. You've got to be kidding."
Just then the light changed, and the impatient driver behind Clover laid on his horn. Looking irritated, Sandy turned around to face the offending vehicle and trumpeted out her reply. It was literally earthshaking, and I was forced to cower under the seat. When it felt safe for me to emerge again, the other car was long gone and there were long black stripes on the pavement where the driver had peeled rubber while getting away. I also faintly scented urine in the air.
"You really shouldn't do that, Sandy," I pointed out. "It's not polite."
"What are they going to do, take away my driver's license?" she retorted. "I'm not driving. And if I use the sidewalks they crack and buckle. It was the Public Works Department that asked me to walk out here in traffic to start with."
I sighed. Unless I missed my guess she wouldn't be in the City much longer anyway. "Meet you at your house, then. OK?"
"Sure thing! I can't wait!"
When we all finally met up again in the Blankenships' back yard, I asked Sandy's mother to read the letter from Zambia aloud. It stated clearly that the Ecopeace organization was very interested in hiring someone like Sandy to help rear orphaned baby elephants in Zambia. They had a gang of Norms working on such a project already, but their results were mixed at best. Sandy, they believed, could be the factor that made their operation a success. In that part of Africa, the letter pointed out, providing food and housing for elephants was a relatively simple matter. The climate was amenable, as well. They would gladly pay not only for the one-time relocation, but for a yearly visit home as well. And salary wasn't bad, either.
When the letter had been read, there was silence for a bit. Then I asked Sandy the big question. "Is this better than the elephant home in Kentucky? If not, I am willing to try again, you know."
"I. I." A big tear rolled down Sandy's cheek. She was speechless. Then she simply stroked my ears with her trunk and then stepped across the yard to be alone for a time. After a moment or two, her family gathered around her. Clearly, it was time to leave, so Clover and I did exactly that. Very quietly.
And then it was Graduation Day at last.
Michael, the head guidance counselor for the whole City, had personally invited me to the graduation ceremony some weeks before, and I had already accepted. The kids already knew this, too. Otherwise, I would never have set a hindpaw on school district property ever again. The Johni thing still rankled with me. Deeply.
Clover came with me. It was hard for us to find time to spend together, but somehow we had grown closer and closer. As I sat waiting with her, hand-in-paw, I realized perhaps for the first time how important she had become in my life. There had been women before SCABs, of course, though none really serious. But none like Clover. None at all like Clover.
"Oh!" Clover exclaimed, pulling away her hand. "I almost forgot. This was lying on the floor in the foyer at the Shelter when I picked you up. I bet someone dropped it when they picked up the mail. It looks important."
So it did, I realized upon closer examination. The letter was from Universal Motors, my previous employer. From whom I was drawing my disability pension.
"Excuse, me, dear," I mumbled. Clover understood, and held her peace as I nibbled it open.
The letter was cold and bare. My pension was to be cut off on the grounds that I was no longer disabled. I had proven myself able to work in another field, they claimed, with potential pay equal to or exceeding what I had previously made. As evidence they included a letter from the same professional organization that had been threatening to take me to court, and copies of my signed and sworn depositions made on the day Johni and her sisters had passed into the custody of Family Services. The part where I had described myself as a "career counselor" was highlighted.
I crumpled the paper and sighed. In court I could easily beat it and get my pension back. But how long would it take? Months? Years? It wasn't the money so much; Universal Motors still owed me a slightly lesser retirement pension regardless of my condition, and I had saved considerably on my own. In point of fact, if I really needed to I could live off of nothing but interest. It doesn't cost much to keep a rabbit, after all. But for some reason the courts considered my partial retirement pension to be an inadequate income, even though it was only a few thousand dollars a year less than disability. Would the Colonies try for me again, once they got word that my circumstances had changed?
I sighed. Clover asked if it was bad news, and I told her that it was but that I was not going to discuss it there. Not on the kid's big day. She just squeezed my forepaw again and held her peace.
Geez. Could I still afford a family, if I wanted one?
Just then Michael came in and took a seat next to me. "Why are you folks sitting in back?" he asked us cheerfully. "There's plenty of room close up front."
"It's a rabbit thing," Clover answered for me. The exit was in back, and she knew that I felt better staying as near to it as possible.
"Oh," Michael replied, letting the subject drop. He was very polite that way. "By the way, I'm very glad you could make it. We need to talk about something, Phil."
Here it comes, I thought. It never rains but it pours. "Yes?" There was ice in my voice, but Michael either could not or chose not to hear it.
"I wanted to tell you that your handling of these six cases has been discussed in the highest District circles. And that even the School Board itself has taken notice."
"In this City, we try very hard to work with the SCABS community. You people are the victims of a lot of hate and prejudice, sure enough. But it is not official policy. We want you to succeed, because if you do so then we all succeed."
I sat silent, and Michael went on.
"Frankly, we gave you our most hopeless cases. And not only did you find futures for five of them, through your actions you demonstrated to us that we ourselves had been severely negligent in the sixth case--"
"I did not find five of them jobs," I interrupted. "One of them found their own career. And Ken Bronski helped out another."
"So who's counting? And in the sixth case, well. I think you did the right thing, and so does almost everybody else. Except for those individuals who actually failed Johni for so many years, of course. They are still ranting and raving about you exceeding your authority, as if that were a more important issue than the well-being of the child herself. Frankly, we are severely re-evaluating our psychological screening staff and procedures, Phil. Mostly because of you."
I began to feel a little bit better.
"Next year, we want you back. Earlier, and with more time to work. As a paid consultant, we hope."
I opened my mouth, then closed it again.
"I remember what you said about legal issues. And I've done some checking of my own. I am actually a licensed professional guidance counselor, you know, and my own specialty is helping match up students with schools. If you start night school next week, you can have a minimal certification in three months. Enough to practice legally on. With pay. And, the professor there is dying to meet you! He says that he's tried to get you in to teach SCABS seminars, for crying out loud!"
It was true enough. But I had always turned him down. Who was I to teach others?
Just then the music started playing, and the fourteen graduating students of he special SCAB program began filing in. "Listen, we can talk more later. Can't we?" Michael asked.
And I surprised myself. "Yes. I think that perhaps we can."
He looked relieved. "Good! That's very good!" And with that he left to take his seat with in the special area reserved for the faculty. Where with sudden clarity I knew that I would be sitting myself next year. Suddenly the letter from Universal Motors seemed very unimportant, a mere relic of a dead person and a dead past. And I felt good, very good.
More music played and the valedictorian, a college-bound giraffe morph gave her speech. She spoke of the infinite variety of life, and of life's experiences. When she was done, I slapped my paws together with enthusiasm, though my efforts produced little real sound. Amen, sister, I was thinking, Amen. Infinite variety, infinite experiences, infinite futures. And then the graduates picked up their diplomas one by one. Some walked normally, one flew, and poor blindfolded George sort of crawled. But all shared the very special moment together.
Even Johni was there. I was surprised to see her walking up the center aisle, but pleased. She looked dazed more than anything else. Drugged, I supposed. Tranquilized. Which meant that at least she was now getting some sort of treatment. The scars of abuse promised to remain part of her for a very long time, but maybe at least the healing was finally beginning. I wondered if she had ever finally told anyone the truth. For everyone's sake, I hoped so. But I would never know.
And then the hats went flying, and the class had officially graduated. Clover leaned over then, and kissed me. I nibbled back; she giggled. And it was time to leave.
"What was that letter about, anyway?" she asked on the way out.
"It's about something that's done and over with," I replied. "And, now that I think about it, not so awfully important after all."
The auditorium was located nearly in the center of the campus, and it was a very long walk back to where we had parked. When we finally made it all the way out to Clover's car, we found waiting for us there not one, but four beribboned bushel baskets, each filled to the brim with carrots.
Graduation Day copyright 2001 by Phil Geusz.
|<< The Gift of the Woods||Great Divide >>|