by The TBPRR Collective
©2005 the TBPRR Collective

Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 1, part 2 -=- Chapter 1, part 3 -=- Chapter 2, part 1 -=- Chapter 2, part 2 -=- Chapter 2, part 3

Home -=- #8 -=- ANTHRO #8 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
This installment of the TBP (Tales of the Blind Pig) serial The Downward Spiral has previously appeared in TSAT #43
Go here for more information on the TBP setting

Christmas Nightmare (Chapter 1, part i)


   There’s a war on—and always has been.
   The conflict has many names: ‘Intelligence vs. Ignorance’, ‘Kindness vs. Cruelty’, ‘Tolerance vs. Bigotry’, call it what you like. Even ‘Good vs. Evil’. That one’s especially popular during the Christmas season, which it happens to be now.
   Nobody can say when this war began; nobody can say when it’ll be over. God knows it didn’t end with the Martian Flu’s unwanted advent, and especially not when the first SCABS cases showed up.
   That was twenty-odd years ago.
   But the war is still on. By now, the good guys and noncombatants are pretty well used to not-quite-humans in their neighborhoods and workplaces. Too bad the bad guys think the only good SCAB is a caged or dead one. And too bad they think they’ve got the right to make it so, by any means necessary. For instance, take Robert Atwell Barnes, the late Councilman. Controversial politico; he ran for Mayor on a campaign that could have been a search-and-replace copy of any pre-Civil War Southern bigot’s.
   The only thing that kept Barnes out of office was him dying of AIDS.
   So if SCABs seem a bit wary of norms at times… well, now you know why.
   But it’s Christmas, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want to spoil the holiday spirit by dwelling on bad memories. Not even if some people insist on making more of them right now

1: Christmas Present (Michael Koicto)

   Damned office work! I’m running three hours late because of it. You’d have thought those game harvest reports could’ve waited until after Christmas. Looking at the stack of boxes in the DNR garage, I growl to myself: “This is going to be like picking up teacups with chopsticks.” But while SCABS may have left me with the body of a puma, my mind is still mostly human and thinking. I stand on my hind legs while grasping the box between my forepaw pads, then I push it onto the sled with the others, in one fluid motion. I hate moving packages! Maybe losing my hands has something to do with my attitude? Gripping the laden sled’s rope handle with my shearing teeth, I drag the first load out to my minivan in the parking lot.
   No, come to think of it, I hated packing before I SCABbed over.
   You got to love these SCAB-friendly doors. My claws easily catch the door handle. A little pull, a click, then the back door opens. I see that I forgot to remove my poacher medicine case. Well, there’s no time for me to mess with it now; I’ll just shove it under the rear bench seat. After a minute working it with my forepaws, it’s properly stowed. With that done the ‘fun’ part starts—loading the van. Thanks to the same forepaw/chopstick method, I manage to only drop seven of the boxes twice. Some thirty minutes later, I finally have all eight boxes in the van. Not perfectly stacked, but in the van. This is something of an accomplishment. I guess.
   Jumping down to the snow-covered pavement, I pull the sled back for a second load. I glance at the garage wall clock and count the rest of the boxes; at this rate, I’ll be another hour packing. There must be a way I could get a better grip on these boxes! Without leaving claw punctures, I mean. Well, I’d better keep moving or it won’t get done.
   Standing on my hind legs, I move another box. Hold it—this one didn’t slip out of my grasp! Huh? What happened? I notice wet paw prints on the box. The moisture from melted snow on my forepaws. Very interesting. Maybe if I lick my pads to keep them moistened? It works! I can stack the boxes on the sled faster. 
   A bit later, this set of boxes are in the van’s cargo bay. I do a quick time check. Hey! I’m getting better at this. Only fifteen minutes this trip. Just one package more and I’m done. But Ugh! Cardboard aftertaste! Did I mention, I really hate packing? 
   While contemplating my accomplishment, I hear footsteps moving closer from behind me. Familiar footsteps!
   “Hello Amanda,” I chirp without turning around. “I thought I would get as much done as I could while waiting for you.”
   “Hi. How’d you know it was me?”
   “It’s a cat thing.”
   “The senses again?”
   “Yea. I can’t explain it. There are times this puma body knows things. There was a time I scoffed at the idea of having six senses. Now I’m not so sure.”
   Amanda looks at the boxes in the van, at the sled. Then the tracks between the garage and the van. “There’s one thing I can’t figure out. Why didn’t you just back the van up to the garage and load from there? You’d only have to handle the boxes once.”
   “I ah… Well, ah…” Self-consciously, I lick my nose. “To be honest, I never even considered doing it that way. Too much of the renowned feline focus seasoned with a dash of human stubbornness, I guess.” My vibrissae (you know, cat-whiskers) droop. “A bad combination.”
   Amanda embraces me around my neck. “You’re still learning to adjust.”
   I return her hug feline-style, with a rub of my face against hers and purring, “Thank you.”
   She releases my neck. “For a hug?”
   “Naah. For being a friend, for lifting my spirits, for helping me where a pair of hands are needed, and for not wearing perfume.”
   Hopping out of the van, I say, “Everything else is on board. I just need help loading Donnie’s present.” I pull the sled back to the garage, stopping by a package 48 inches by 18 inches by 12 inches. “It’s this one here,” I say, one paw patting the package wrapped in colorful plastic. “Careful—it weighs about seventy pounds.”
   Amanda rolls the package onto the sled. “This thing is the shape and weight of a… ohhhh noooo! You didn’t..?”
   I grin and nod. “Yes, I did. This was never rained on after it was cut. Fragrant smelling and tests at 29% protein. He should love it.”
   “If he doesn’t eat too much at one time. You’re very pleased with yourself, aren’t you?”
   Pulling the loaded sled, my whiskers twitched forward as if to say, ‘Oh Yes! Exceedingly so!’ Once back at the van, it takes one minute for us to load Donnie’s present; me using my head and neck muscles to lift it, and Amanda’s hands holding it balanced on my head.
   I say from where I’m seated cat-style in the passenger’s seat, “I know it’s my turn to drive home, but would you mind? I haven’t slept in eight hours. I’m not fit to drive.” Then I jump down and maneuver between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat, headed towards the rear of the van.
   Cats have perfected the art of instant relaxation; I’m no exception. Two minutes later I am sound asleep in my ‘den’ under the forward bench seat.

2: Christmas at the Pig (Liu)

   The mice in the corner were full of Christmas cheer, and Donnie had strung tinsel through his horns. The Lupine Boys had a poker game going with a twist—whoever loses a hand has to sing and act out their favorite carol. Wanderer’s version of Baby, It’s Cold Outside will live in memories for quite a while. The jukebox in the corner had been unplugged, the Boys have been warned before about requesting the Baja Men’s version of Jingle Bells.
   Christmas in the City can be hard, but us SCABs tend to stick together. Something about sharing the burden makes the load lighter, or at least that’s what they tell me.
   Me, I’m an odd one. When I caught the Flu, they thought they had a vaccine for it, and I received one of the few experimental versions. There are always a few people able to set up studies at the drop of the hat, and I got lucky, or so I thought. Money doesn’t save you from all the grief, it just creates more.
   I’ve consulted with Dr. Stein, but he doesn’t recognize my version of SCABS any more than any of the other doctors that know less about the disease. I’m not just a polymorph; I change constantly, consistently, and the changes seem to be mood-based.
   Currently, I’m an anthropomorphic dragon, but I’ll change in about a half hour. Sometimes the changes are minor, cosmetic; other times I don’t recognize myself when I look in the mirror. As for a name, just call me Liu. I didn’t start out Asian, but I’ve always liked the name.
   Donnie and I were about to hang some decorations when the door opened, and a sorry-looking thing in a coat drifted through the opening…

3: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Jonathan Practice)

   It’s the happiest time of the year: Sleigh bells are ringing. Everyone everywhere with a smile firmly planted on their faces as they firmly plunk down the plastic that’s sure to have them screaming in agony through the new year up to July. People singing tunes from long ago.
   Christ, how I hate it!
   Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with Christmas, as such. But ever since SCABS gave me a new set of eyes and a new ability in exchange for taking away my family, Christmas has done nothing but remind me of everything I’ve lost. That hurts more than anyone can realize. Like rubbing salt into an old open wound.
   God, do I need a drink.
   The dim cramped apartment had no Christmas decorations. The bare walls were peeling paper in places. The light of the television lit it up, blaring on and on about how the Human Firsters were getting bolder or something with the latest attack on some kind of clinic. I guess they don’t even take Christmas off.
   I flick off the set in disgust as another Christmas commercial came on. You’d think after all this time, Santa would have gotten off that freaking shaver… Stepping over to my sink, I put on my trademark mirrorshades, and a long overcoat I shoplifted from a local Salvation Army.
   Hey, you do what you got to, to survive .
   Storming out the door I slam it hard with a wham. Barely checking the locks, I head out for a bar, any bar that would be open on this night of all nights, the happiest of the year. God, do I ever need a drink.
   Stomping down the street, muttering occasionally, I don’t take time to recognize when people bump into me. Stopping at the first place I come to, I reach into my pocket and search for my wallet. My wallet! It’s gone!
   What a way to end a perfect day.
   What the heck, I’ll go in anyway. Maybe I can get some sympathy from someone and get a free drink.

4: Linxs (Greg)

   With a wide yawn I shuffle today’s load of articles to my printer. After I make sure the thing would spit out all the pages, I get out of my chair, stretch my sour muscles and scratch my beard. With five pages of text researched and written, this was a productive day. But then, days always get productive with so many festive things happening around Christmas. And then there’s the preparation for New Year’s Eve, which means announcing all the parties.
   Interestingly enough, I had even more to do back in the days when I was writing for that local newspaper in the town in the middle of Colorado. I was one of two journalists who gave their heart and soul for the little tabloid; there were three other folks who did the layout. The printing was made outside in a central factory. Or so I’ve been told. I never had much interest in the way my stuff got published. I only was interested in the writing itself. Oh, and in talking to people of course. I knew them all; the mayor, all the club presidents, the ladies of the reading circle and what not. And they all knew and liked me, as a friend and as a professional and trustworthy provider of chatter.
   My colleague Herman would always come up and ask, “Greg, I really can’t understand how somebody your age could spend so much energy and talent in such a small piece of paper.” That’s when I’d answer, “Geez, Herm, I’m 27. I know what I’m doing. And besides, I just love writing about all the unimportant things that reassemble our lives. There are downsides like grumpy old coworkers, but I can live with that.” We always shared a laugh about this dialogue.
   This was until I came back from a convention with an unwanted freebie: Martian Flu. We’d only heard of it through the news; the town was very remote and rather cut from the outside world, after all. But when I came down with it, it was all a craze. Still, I loved my town and the folks, so I quarantined myself. They were kind enough to look after me—from a safe distance, of course. Everything seemed to make out quite well. Soon I regained my former health. I believe it was Mrs. Plummer’s cookies. She was our resident Hobby-Witch including her own garden.
   Of course I developed SCABS shortly after. That was when things got quite nasty. They chased me out of town with torches and pitchforks, literally. But who can blame them? I’d be afraid of a six-foot-tall, bipedal lynx, too. Even after seven years, my mirror image still sends shivers down my spine…
   I stop my stroll down memory lane to look after my printouts. They’re done, and as always they’re a little piece of art. Talk about a healthy potion of self confidence. I carry them to my garbage bin, flick a match and burn them. Then I dispose of all the evidence. Writing is the last thing that keeps me sane these days, even if no one is ever going to read my lines.
   I go to my crummy bathroom and take the heavy used electronic shaver. With all my facial fur off I could pass as a human. Except, of course, that stupid lynx-beard grows back within a few minutes. I can cover the rest of my body in a lengthy trench coat. It’s not like lynxes have a long tail, okay? And at least I don’t have whiskers or a muzzle. Not yet. From what I can tell when I wander through the dumped streets these days, SCABS is pretty unpredictable. I mean, who would have thought that SCAB hate-monger who was turned into a boy was one of them himself? And all this on live television—some kind of publicity thing, maybe he was running for something, I don’t know. I really don’t remember. I don’t pay that much attention to what happens in the world anymore.
   After I’m done with shaving, the last item on my agenda is to begin the daily ritual of numbing my brain. Maybe I’ll look for companionship in a local bar today. It’s Christmas, after all…

5: A Pawn for Christmas (Draxa)

   It was Christmas again. He could tell by the abundance of decorations, the closed stores emptied of all goods, and the families gathered together in front of their fireplaces, happy to be with the ones they loved as they opened presents and gifts from friends and family. God, he hated it. The gaudy lights, the tinsel, the mistletoe, every last bit.
   It wasn’t as if he hadn’t had his fair share of happy Christmas mornings—but back when he was still David, things were different. His family lived comfortably out in the suburbs; his dad was a minister for a neighboring Baptist church, his mom a happy housewife, and you probably know the rest of the story by heart. He graduated from high school, and was taking a year off, saving up money for a trip to Europe.
   Then it happened—Martian Flu. Not only to him, but far too many others as well. But he was the only one in his family to be afflicted. It was a close call, as he got sicker than most. But he managed to work his way through it, and live.
   After surviving the Martian Flu, he was okay for a little while… before SCABS changed him. Dramatically. Previously, his height reached 6 feet, 5 inches. After the change, he was 4 foot nothing. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, he had become a small, draconic being. Green-scaled, with batlike wings coming out of his back. He also developed a lizardlike tail and claws on his hands and feet. His hands were still hands, clawed or not, but his feet had become hindpaws.
   This change didn’t upset him as much as would be expected, but his family reacted strangely. His own father accused him of being a demon, and he was banished from his home. This was why he had come to the city. Over time, he realized his changes had gifted him with a body perfectly suited to thievery. He could take short gliding flights, and he was small and nimble. He started off slow, and then became a lot better at it, using his skill to support himself. He lived in the basement of a pawnshop, reached by crawling through a ground-level window that opened onto an alleyway. The shop’s owner let him stay, rent-free, as long as he could provide a steady supply of stolen objects. Every once in a while his ‘landlord’ paid him a minimal fee for something.
   He had carved himself a new life and renounced his human name; as he saw it, ‘Draxa’ was a name better suited to a small draconian being. But he wasn’t happy, and that’s where we come into the story.
   It was Christmas time, and Draxa had been able to acquire enough goods to keep him alive throughout the year. He didn’t much like stealing—his previous morals spoke against theft rather loudly—but what choice did he have? So he wandered the streets of the city, from shadow to shadow, believing that no one would ever accept him again. His wanderings eventually led him to a small pub, a tavern he had never seen before, and as he walked into the building, he looked up, seeing the name on the building’s sign:

6: A Nap in the Nip (Duncan Cougar)

   I just wanted to get out of that damn hospital, out of the cage they called my room, away from that wretched smell of disease and disinfectants, cleaned up or whatever, all that noise of hundreds of people running around with one purpose or another. Most of all I wanted to get away from the heat of that place!
   Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad place per se. The doctors were competent and the nurses observant, even helpful. Some of them didn’t even smell afraid of me…
   So you see, it was really quite a good place, if you happened to have the need to be stuck in one. It’s just that I wasn’t used to hanging around a crowd or—come to think of it—being around people at all, at least not for any prolonged period of time.
   To be honest, the last time I was stuck in a place I couldn’t walk out of whenever I liked, I’d been in a zoo. Caged. This happened right after the Martian Flu—as it was nicknamed at that time—changed me into what looked like a 100%, fully grown, four-legged, clawed and pawed version of felis concolor, also known as mountain lion; puma; cougar; catamount; panther (don’t ask me why, those are even in a different genetic family); deer cat (guess why <licking my chops>); mountain devil; king cat; Mexican lion; mountain screamer; silver lion or—big surprise, eh?—“the cat with many names“.
   That was more than twenty years ago. Even after all these years, I still have nightmares about that time.
   So, as you can imagine, neither being put into a hospital nor being on display summoned forth any happy memories. Sure, that ward for heavily SCABbed people was the best and probably most comfortable place they had for cases like me, SCABs in dire need of intensive care. And that big bulletproof window made checking on my health and status a lot easier, even if it also allowed a nice view for anyone walking by…
   Good thing I heal so quickly, and even better that I was able to persuade them to let me go, although they weren’t quite convinced that I should be up and about already. But then, wasn’t it Christmas, and shouldn’t I be allowed to join the festivities, meet with other people of like mind, enjoy the spirit of Christmas? I put on the ‘virtuous little kitten’ act; I played it so well, I think they could almost forget what my teeth, claws and muscle were capable of doing…
   Just between us, all that stuff about Christmas is no big deal, really. We pumas are solitary critters at the best of times, and I am no exception to that rule. Plus, when you stay that far in the back of beyond of the Idaho Rockies, you kind of start to not care what day it is. Hell, most of the time I don’t even know what month it is… but I digress.
   All that really mattered to me was getting out of that cage… and even more important, getting away from the blast-furnace heat they were firing up indoors.
   As you can see, another courtesy of living outside up in the Idaho mountains was that I had—same as any winter season since my change—grown a nice, thick and very warm coat of winter fur. Just thick enough to spend the night outside on a mountain top, enjoying a cool breeze of about -20° degree Celsius (for those of you still living in the dark ages of imperial units, that’s about -4° Fahrenheit).
   So forcing me to endure about 20°C (or 68°F) was about like dropping off an Inuit in the Sahara. Inside, I just wished I actually could get out of my coat, but then getting back into it would be a real pain in the ass… not that getting out of it in the first place would be any better, come to think of it. So, as they say, ‘don’t try this at home’.
   Oh man, finally getting out into the ‘cold’ felt gooooood! I positively purred as the cold air gobbled up the heat that had been cooking me from the inside out.
   Padding down the streets, I drank in the fresh air…
   Well, as fresh and as cold as could be expected in the city…
   Okay, okay, it stunk! The beautiful smell of civilization: Exhaust from cars, heaters and fireplaces; the sweet, warm stench up from the sewers; the scent of wealth and poverty; and—when people became aware of me—also of fear and anxiety. In short, all the wonders of civilization shoved into just one nose. Damn, why did it have to be my nose? Couldn’t it go somewhere else to roost, couldn’t I go…
   No, back into the hospital was definitely out of the question, not after going through all the trouble, all the paperwork they said had to be signed—and how should I do that with paws, you son of a bitch—before finally getting out.
   What was the name of that place one of my nurses—a coyote-morph by the way—told me about, a bar where SCABs of all kinds could have a good time? The Blind Pig or something… funny name, but then wasn’t there a saying that blind pigs would learn to fly when lion and sheep would peacefully drink at the same watering hole? Maybe I would see my first flying blind pig today, me being a lion (ahh, well mountain lion, but does that really matter), there sure being some other SCABs (so why not some sheep, rabbits, horses, deer or whatever), and it being Christmas and all.
   Keeping that happy thought in mind, I strolled down the streets toward the watering hole, my aim firmly on the second star on the right, hoping that I would find my destination well before morning.
   Okay, so that nice coyote lady had shown me a road map and given me a detailed description how to get there. Plus, dire warnings that I might end up with my coat dyed blue and pink ribbons tied to my tail. Even that would be preferable to another night on display, being prodded by doctors and unable to sleep due to that godforsaken heat. And anyway, I’m telling this story, so why make it your business to badger me with petty details, huh?
   Outside now, I was as happy as the proverbial cat who got into the cream, looking for a chance to be with other people, people that might just understand what it means to live in the body of an animal, living like that animal… People who just might not be afraid of seeing me, being around me.
   And if things didn’t work out…
   Hell, I just had to pass the night and catch my flight back home in the morning. That would be the end of suffering any more ‘civilization’ for me.
   God, what a reek! I had completely forgotten what humans considered to be the height of civilization, me being a simple savage living in the untamed, uncultivated wilds of back country Idaho and all.
   While strolling down the streets, another thing slowly began to dawn on me. People weren’t only afraid of me; there was another kind of nervousness in the air. Some lingering fright, something that made a fully grown—possibly feral—puma only a mild inconvenience…
   It got worse the closer I came to that part of the city where most of the SCABs lived. As expected, it was a far cry from the better neighborhoods, but then that was hardly a surprise. People who SCABS changed often lost their jobs, sometimes because they couldn’t continue due to bodily or mental changes. Quite often, though, they just weren’t allowed to continue their work or were simply mobbed out of their jobs. More than twenty years since the first case of SCABS, and people still had the same prejudices—if not worse.
   Still, this sense of foreboding all around puzzled me.
   I was used to people being nervous around me. Even with that wretched collar I wore, sometimes people mistook me for a wild beast or for a runaway from a zoo or circus and either called Animal Control or tried to do me in themselves. I just hoped that the collar around my neck would let them pause long enough that I could call out, “Please, don’t shoot me!”
   So far, that strategy had worked… well, almost always. Thank goodness the one time it didn’t, the guy was too drunk to properly aim…
   And speaking of drinks, I finally arrived at The Blind Pig, as the sign above the front door proclaimed. Amazing: that door had a paw- and hoof-friendly handle! So with just a moment of hesitation, I rose slightly, opened the door and stepped in. Holy shit, this place was busy! Inside I was drinking in the sight, the Sound, the smell of that place and its inhabitants. Even at this relatively early hour there were quite a few patrons around. Closing the door behind me, I slowly sauntered towards the bar in the back of the common room. The barkeeper, like most but not all of the patrons, was a SCAB. Some sort of bovine, by the look of his head and horns. Geez, there was even some tinsel strung between his horns. Some mice in the corner definitely seemed to have a good time, and one wolf-morph was singing (or was it howling?) and acting Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.
   I really had come to the right place to enjoy this night with some similar-minded beings.
   However, each step closer to the still-empty bar seemed to deepen the disapproving look the bartender was directing my way. Clearly puzzled why I was rewarded with such an increasing scowl, I slowed down, coming to a grinding halt some feet away from the bar. Satisfied that he had got my full attention, he pointed with his left-hand thumb behind his 290 kilogram (640 pound) body to a sign at the back of the bar, prominently positioned between several fancy bottles of various liquors, next to one of the large mirrors:

Patrons & Employees of the Blind Pig Gin Mill:

§1: Thou shalt not engage in rude, obnoxious, and cruel behavior within this bar. See also point 3.
§2: Thou shalt wear clothes. This is not a clothing optional bar—from now on all Lupine Boys wear pants, period! See also point 3.
§3: Thou shalt not sleep under the pool table, drunk or sober—you have a home, DeMule. Use it. See also…

   Then it struck me… clothes! I hadn’t any clothes on! I was only wearing that collar with my identity and credit card. Damn, I didn’t even have any clothes, hadn’t worn any since contracting SCABS more than twenty years ago. Embarrassed, I looked down my front, down at my paws. My ears wilted; my tail dropping to the floor with an audible <plop>. Shit, I wasn’t even sure if I could wear clothes, not even considering how ridiculous they’d probably look on me if I tried.
   Furthermore, thanks to the wretched paws I had instead of hands, I sure wouldn’t be able to put them on by myself—or get them off again, except by shredding them to pieces with fangs and claws. Shaking my head, I sighed deeply. Well, there wasn’t a way for me to get some clothes around here, let alone put them on.
   Until now, I hadn’t quite realized how much I had been looking forward to spending Christmas together with others… hell, forget Christmas. Just spending some quality time with other human beings would have been great.
   Face it old boy, you are an animal. Even other SCABs see you for what you are! Stop trying to act like there is some humanity left for you… there’s no point in it. I felt as if someone had just bludgeoned me. Well, seems like I’m not welcome here… not even here…
   Without looking up, I just turned on the spot and started for the door. Head hanging, ears and whiskers drooping low, tail dragging on the floor, I hoped for a call, anything, from the bartender. Even just a word, that he might reconsider his verdict.
   But all I heard from the bar, besides the chatter of other patrons, was some scratching noise like a rough towel on wood, or a pencil on paper.
   No word.
   No call.
   No nothing.
   Face it, kitty face, you got to look for another place that might let in a stray cat on Christmas Eve. Maybe some old lady, who thinks you are just an overgrown house cat to be petted all night long.
   Wait a moment. I stopped dead in my tracks, slightly raising my head. Hardly daring to raise my hopes, just loud enough to be heard by the bartender, I asked “Would you allow pets?”
   …still no answer…
   Couldn’t he at least show just enough respect to say ‘get lost’?
   Hmm. What’s going on here?
   Curiosity getting the better of this cat, I chanced a quick glance behind, so that I would at least see it coming…
   [STAY] had been hastily chalked on a small blackboard the big bovine behind the bar was holding in my direction.
   I could stay, he…
   I wouldn’t have to…
   I actually could…
   This was the best present ever! My mood skyrocketed, my tail, ears and whiskers only barely behind. I really could stay, join the crowd, enjoy the festivities, I thought in jubilation. Bouncing towards the bar in one quick jump, I hugged the bartender, giving him a proper cat’s greeting—i.e., rubbing each others’ noses together, if you didn’t know—just barely able not to show any teeth while smiling from ear to ear. By the surprised look in his bull’s eyes, he hadn’t quite expected such a reaction to a single, hastily scribbled word.
   “Dear Sir, you’ve just become the owner of a very happy pet for this holy night!”
   If anything, that statement shocked him even more. Putting my front paws back on the counter and getting a grip on my exuberant behavior, I continued in a more normal tone, “Thank you for adopting this stray“. Then, pointing with a single extended claw at myself, “Hope you don’t mind the care and feeding,” I added with a mischievous twinkle in my eyes and a roguish smile on my lips. The outrageous look on his face, when it dawned on him that I expected him to provide free drink and food, was memorable to say the least. Slightly tilting my head, I went on in my best conspirator’s voice, “You wouldn’t want me to break a several-thousand-year-old feline tradition of strays adopting a new—ahhm—owners adopting a stray cat for a pet, do you?
   “But then,” I continued while fumbling a certain plastic card out of my collar, “a pet doesn’t actually have a need for a credit card, now does it? So would you be so kind as to take care of this for me“—when handing over my card—“as long I’m your ‘petron’ anyway,” I finished with a broad smile. Damn it, I never had thought that becoming anyone’s pet would be so much fun! Shaking with laughter, he accepted.
   “Name’s Duncan, by the way. And yours would be..?”
   He just nodded and pointed, first to the lower end of the formerly-mentioned sign at the back wall again, then at himself.
   “Ahh, Donnie?” He nodded and held up an empty glass.
   “Mmhh…” I replied, “I don’t really know, haven’t been to a bar for ages. Anything suitable for this joyous day and a feline like me, I guess. No strong liquor, please, and… alas… neither chocolate, cocoa nor coffee.” None of those were compatible with my digestive system, the latter positively poisonous… Oh well, that time is gone for good.
   With an understanding nod, Donnie wrote something else on his little blackboard. [FEELING EXPERIMENTAL?]
   With a sinking feeling I knew that I was in for retaliation. Oh, well, my exhilarated demeanor had certainly earned it.
   So with a nod I replied, “Just as long as it is clearly understood that you are the one to clean up the mess, if it makes me sick“.
   [DON’T WORRY, THIS WILL CHEER YOU UP,] the bovine SCAB scribbled on the board.
   The enthusiastic nod of his bullish head wasn’t quite able to fill me with confidence that I would survive whatever concoction Donnie was going to come up with.
   “Uhm, do you mind if I take up residence at the empty table near the door? It’s a bit warm in here for me,” I said, pointing at my thick winter fur. While coming in I had noticed that the place there was exposed to drafts from the door, providing me with an ample supply of what you would call ‘cold’ air. Another enthusiastic nod. Uh oh, this can’t be good. Well, what do you expect when you can’t keep your big muzzle shut? I chided myself, while getting comfortable below the table at the door, lounging on my belly, in dreadful anticipation of what was to come.
   Shortly after, Donnie placed a bowl in front of me with a flourish.
   Oh my—they even have ‘Kitty’ stenciled onto the side of it. Just as I opened my mouth to ask what it was, I got a first whiff of that bowl’s contents.
   Holy Moe-!! What is that stuff?? Oh my, this smells gooooooood, soohh verrrrrrrry goooooood… I purred to myself.
   Just having the bowl placed in front of me, I let the flavor play over my palate, its scent drowning all other senses in its wake. How could I have missed this smell? Only when another draft form the door registered with my whiskers and almost drove this impossibly pleasant scent away from me, did I realize: I had been upwind, so to speak. One part of me was just about getting ready to plunge head first into the bowl till it was up to my ears, when suddenly…
   What!!! It’s trying to get this purrrrrfect liquid away from me!
   “Keep!!!!!” I snarled—fangs fully exposed—into the bullhead’s concerned looking face, paws gripping hard on, claws digging deep into my plastic bowl.
   However, his intervention had given the tiny, silly voice of reason, somewhere in the back of my head, the time needed to regroup for a last stand. You sure you want to let the undiluted stuff hit your tongue? Just breathing it is almost too much! You stick your muzzle in that, and it’ll blow a fuse or ten.
   Hah! How could anything dangerous smell so purrrrfect? the rest of my mind replied, a bit preoccupied with getting a deeper whiff. But—That treacherous spoilsport! This was only a diversion!—my whole body had turned rigid, trying at the same time to move forward, to move away. Whimpering, snarling.
   See! Even that thief is running away. It’s mine! Give! my feline part snarled at what was left of reason, knowing it was losing ground, fast.
   Still reason kept on fighting, hoping… yes, he came back, together with a large bottle of water, part of it splashing all over me, most of it landing in the bowl, when the tip of my muzzle made contact. Hah! I won! Now there is 10 times as much of it! All for meeeeeow! my feline part gloated at the voice of reason while happily lapping up another gulp of the concoction. But then, reason knew better than to answer that. It was playing for keeps and guess who was still around.
   It was a while before I regained conscious thought… maybe as little as an hour, maybe as much as several hours. I was feeling more rested and relaxed than I had in days. Eyes closed, I hovered on the edge between dreaming and waking.
   What’s that sound? I asked myself.
   Purring, I heard myself reply.
   Where’s it coming from? I wondered.
   It’s coming from you.
   Me? Why?
   Because you’re a cat.
   Oh. The internal conversation ceased for a moment.
   What’s that sound again..?
   Ever so slowly I returned to the land of the living, finally coming awake, and realized that there were quite a few other sounds from all around. Still keeping my eyes closed, resting my head on my front paws, which were still holding my bowl. Oh, that was a good, good catnap. I was just seeping in one more whiff when a close voice startled me fully awake. “Finished your catnap, O catnipped cougar?” it asked kindly, a paw-like hand lightly petting my head.
   Uhhhm… that felt strangely good. I was wondering to myself, Mmmh, strange accent. At least part canine by his scent. Hadn’t he been one of the poker players? Probably a regular of the bar…
   Bleary-eyed, I looked around. The bar had become even more crowded. Some of the earlier patrons had left, but most were still around. While I was letting my attention wander, the wolf SCAB continued, “Donnie, our redoubtable bovine bartender, sends his apologies. He has been reformulating this drink for awhile now, testing it on any willing feline, to get it just right.” Indicating the bowl in front of me, the wolf went on, “Although I have no idea how a feline stomachs such stuff. In my humble opinion, it smells approximately as delectable as lawn trimmings.”
   On the ground next to my bowl he placed a notepad, on which stood in nice longhand: [SORRY, GUESS I MADE THE CAT-A-TONIC A BIT TOO STRONG. DONNIE SINCLAIR]
   “He also asked me to return your card to… ah, I see!” Fumbling a bit with my collar, he placed my credit card back in its slot.
   “There you go. By the by, might I ask what our silent Sinclair meant by, ‘He might want to look for a new owner, one who takes better care of his pet’?”
   Surprised, I looked toward the bar. Seeing how intently the bullheaded bartender was watching the little scene over here, a startling insight struck me. Seems I wasn’t the only one this horned devil was planning to play a practical joke on…
   I gave my new ‘owner to be’ a speculative glance. Mmmh, might he be one of these ‘Lupine Boys’ mentioned in Donnie’s rules? That would be Number 2 if you remember, the one that almost got me thrown out. Seems I owe him one, even if only by proxy, I said to myself. He was just about to rise back up, giving me a final pet on the head. So I turned towards him, licking his nose and muzzle, giving him the full benefit of my long rough tongue and the residual smell of Donnie’s concoction on it. Stunned, he stopped in mid-rise, looking crosswise at his wet nose.
   “Um,” was all he managed to utter.
   Seems he liked it, I mischievously told myself. “Miaow!” I meowed, trying as best as I could to sound just like an overgrown domestic cat.
   “Oh, dear,” was his flabbergasted response, still looking cross-eyed at his now smelly nose. Then I stood up and meandered around his legs, brushing my fur and tail against his legs on my way toward the door. With a wave of my paw towards Donnie, indicating that I was fine and would be back after I got some fresh air, I slipped out into the clear winter afternoon.
   The last I heard before the door closed behind me, was a very reprimanding “Bad ol’ Puddy Tat!”
   I pitied whoever was the source of the displeasure of my kind new ‘owner’. The culprit must have done something really reprehensible to deserve such a response. Thank god, that it couldn’t have been me, hadn’t I been outside already..?
   Enjoying the nip in the air, I wandered off…

7: Christmas Blues (Terrence F. Lee)

   Christmas dinner went all right, all things considered. Dad insisted on picking me up at my apartment, even though I could have probably taken a cab if I really needed to. He’s done a lot for me, both he and Mom, and I’m certainly grateful for that, but sometimes they’re just a trifle overprotective. I try not to resent that, to acknowledge it as a sign of their love, but it’s hard sometimes. Especially during the holidays, when all the memories come home to roost. So to speak.
   I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t because the room was unfamiliar; after I’d contracted Stein Syndrome and become a macaw (parrot, to most people), my parents assumed that I’d have to move in with them again, so they’d had my belongings brought back to their place while I’d been in the hospital. I’ve got my own place again now, but of course most of my old things are now useless to me. Mom and Dad kept them stored here in the guest room, which seemed so similar to the bedroom of my childhood, but tonight the familiarity brought no sense of comfort. From my perch on the headboard I gazed down balefully at the smooth, unblemished surface of the bedsheets, neatly covering a mattress that I couldn’t use anymore. By the glow of the streetlight outside the window, I could see my old clothes still hanging in the closet. Mom kept saying that she was going to pack them up and give them to Goodwill, but somehow she never got around to it. I felt suddenly angry. Did she expect that I was going to suddenly get better? Or were they keeping the room as some sort of memorial, as if I were already dead? I’m not dead, I whispered to myself. I’m still here.
   I’m still here.
   Then I had an idea.
   There were any number of reasons why it was a stupid idea. It was freezing outside, for one thing, and I knew I was being foolhardy, but in the end I just couldn’t resist. I needed to be outside. I needed to fly.
   I flapped over to the dresser and shrugged into the Velcro collar that held my ID (no driver’s license, of course, obviously), then hopped to the window and drew back the bolt on the sliding panel Dad had installed for me. It was cold outside, sure enough; my feathers fluffed up reflexively as I stepped out onto the sill, and I felt the chill work its way into my lungs and bones. Once my tailfeathers cleared the door, I nudged it shut and launched myself into space.
   Ah, ecstasy! The avian form is so well-adapted for flight that it feels not so much like an effort of muscle and sinew but of pure will. The wings move almost of their own volition, each feather caressing the air, feeling every nuance of the breeze. Ignoring the biting cold, I willed myself higher, faster, leaving the Christmas blues far behind.
   The city spread out before me, a huge magical tapestry of lights. To my left, the downtown area with its assortment of high rise offices glowed like a fabulous many-tiered wedding cake. Each streetlight below cast a warm yellow halo that snowflakes danced through like moths. The sounds of the city, never fully still even at midnight, seemed oddly muted by the snowfall.
   In the wild, the Hyacinth Macaw communicates through an assortment of vocalizations that can be heard from miles away. My bout with the Martian Flu had left me with a knack for vocal mimicry that would be the envy of most celebrity impersonators, and I was suddenly moved by the spirit of the holiday season. The few pedestrians in the streets below looked up in astonishment as the voice of the late Burl Ives drifted down from the darkness, singing Holly Jolly Christmas.
   Parrots are not marathon fliers as a rule. After a few miles the cold weather was starting to slow me down considerably. I scanned the buildings below until I spotted a cloud of condensation, and dropped down beside a rooftop heater blowing a comfortable draft of warm air. Feeling much better, I fluffed up my plumage and took the opportunity to rest for a few minutes before heading home.

8: Searching for SCABS (Ron Smythe)

   Ron Smythe was genuinely excited. He was going to get to sit down and chat with a whole bunch of SCABs! He found it rather annoying that his professor gave them such crap. He was going to look like an idiot doing this homework; he was already working through all the embarrassment he would get from all the questions he was going to have to ask.
   He had made a list copied from the board and carried it in his backpack. They included such questions as: Was it frightening when you morphed? How did you deal with it initially? How has this affected your relationship with your family? Do you enjoy your current condition? Where and how did you pick up the disease? Etc.
   He also was going to take some blood to examine, or at least he hoped someone would let a student stick a needle in them. Hopefully he could talk a few of the ’morphs into coming to his lab sometime for more extensive research. Actually he wanted to do research at the forefront of the field. Most of this stuff was done long ago.
   Of course there were SCABs around the University, even a couple in his class. However, he figured that this might be a better place to look. He was particularly interested in how the genes managed to regress and progress so quickly. So far no one had been able to figure out how the changes could occur so quickly—especially in the polymorphs. The way the DNA was rewritten was incredible. They called it the flu, but it was actually a viral infection. In this case, though, the virus didn’t just reproduce its genetic coding, but simply overrode the existing deoxyribonucleic acid at breakneck speed. The cells responded swiftly, altering themselves to match the new coding. His intention was to find out how this was accomplished so quickly and with no serious cellular damage. This might not find the cure, but it would help with understanding of the world, and that was important above all else.
   This information was well known to most people. SCABs lived in just about every neighborhood, and he could probably ask his best friend this stuff. He was a woman now, after all. This ‘Blind Pig’ place would be his first stop to do his ‘homework’ information. Apparently there was a good mix of SCABS and unaffected humans in there, so he wouldn’t be the only one by any means. All to the better he supposed. The ’morphs would probably feel more comfortable and be more up front about their answers than might otherwise be the case. He bumped off one of the steep curbs and cursed mildly. He rather wished they would build more bicycle friendly sidewalks around here. He hated to spend money on gas for in-town trips that were good exercise anyway. He loved this new yellow mountain bike. Nice shock absorption and a soft seat helped the bumps a lot.
   He began to wonder just what it was about science that had him out doing research on Christmas. He knew that on a holiday there would probably be more activity at the bar, but he could just as easily have waited for Valentine’s Day. Ah well; part of the reason, he knew, was that he wanted knowledge above all. It was his life and his passion. The more of it he could acquire, the happier he would be. He also did want to help these SCABs.
   These people, he mentally corrected himself.
   They were too often thought of as something other than human. While they didn’t have quite the same genetic code, their minds were not changed. Most people knew this; he himself did from personal experience. What’s more, he’d even met a few. They showed up occasionally at public places. He’d actually played paintball with a group of them the other day. They’d kicked his team’s butt since they had a host of advantages that his team couldn’t begin to match. One was a centaur and could easily outrun him while carrying another on his back to fire on all sides while he fired as well. Another had been an eagle-morph who would scout and land in trees for sniping. While some couldn’t handle a normal gun that well, they had some special weapons constructed to better suit them. A few even required multiple people to operate them. It didn’t matter though. He rubbed one of the bruises on the back of his head from a run-by shot. It had been a fun game and he had been a great guy. Though he often worried that if any SCABs ever got upset about something, they could be very dangerous. Many SCABs were capable of things that normal people couldn’t match—larger, faster, sharper and stealthier than even the best trained military. All the more reason to learn as much as possible about them.

9: Fire and Brimstone by the Roadside (John Doe)

   On a cold winter’s night, in the middle of a field by a large forest, stood about twenty or so of the most ignorant people I’ve ever had the opportunity to study. Two older cars, a white Ford Ranger, and a couple of other vehicles sat parked beside the road. In the center of the circle stood a man on a makeshift stage. The picnic table did get the job done, though I couldn’t help but hear the sound of Dueling Banjos as he spoke. His fire-and-brimstone speech instantly caught the crowd by the throat, demanding their attention, and they gave it readily.
   I clapped and cheered just like the rest of the sheep. The leader ranted, raged, carried on about the Lord’s work and how Satanic the demon scum who’d been cursed with the disease are. I cheered as loud as the next guy when he described the day that the “disease-bearing filth are driven back into the fiery pits of hell from which they came.” I had to bite back a groan; this guy was getting to be too much.
   I grinned and clapped anyway, though. The way any good undercover officer would.
   Word had it several months ago that Humans First, the nationwide anti-SCAB hate group, was getting much more militant and violent. Firebombings of several smaller SCAB places in rural areas, and their usual melodramatic, over-the-top fanfare. My bosses wanted someone who could get inside their group, find out just what they where up to and stop them before they could do anything. With the bitter memory of my SCAB mother being beaten to death for her disease, I jumped at the chance.
   “Now my dear brothers and sisters,” the leader shouted, fire burning in his eyes, “tonight we will rain down the wrath of God on those heathens! Tonight we shall burn two of the devil’s playgrounds to the ground! Those in the Blind Pig shall fear the name of the Flames of Justice!”
   Cheers and jubilation erupted. The small band of 20-something crazies sure could make a lot of noise. I slowly started to make my way to the back. I had to do something, and fast! If I called for backup my cover would be blown, and I’d end up dead meat on a stick.
   No, this called for creative thinking.
   As he mentioned something about a shelter on West Street, I ducked into the back of one of their trucks, grabbing all four gasoline canisters. I raced back into the woods and hid the gas cans, placing them behind an old log. Lying low, I waited.
   Mosquitoes dined on my flesh, but I dared not swat them, for fear of the sound would attract more attention than I desired. I held my breath as I heard two voices come closer and closer.
   “Yeah, Leonard, those beasts certainly got it coming to them tonight.” He spoke the muffled talk of someone lighting a cigarette.
   “The dear Lord definitely will smile on us tonight,” another voice replied. They spoke a few minutes, slowly edging closer and closer. I reached down and gripped the revolver from my ankle holster, unstrapping it as silently as possible.
   “Come on! It’s time,” a third voice said. I breathed a sigh of relief as the voices faded in the distance, talking of glory and the war that was coming.
   I shuddered as I replaced my weapon. Things were getting out of hand. I slowly stood up and stretched. As expected, the entire field was empty. All vehicles were gone. They didn’t even miss me, or the gas canisters.
   I started the long walk back into the city. Things were way over my head now. It was time for me to cut my losses and retire this case, before things got too hot. Literally.

10: Arriving Late (Steve Carson)

   “Are you sure you want to go out in this weather?” my mom asked.
   “I’ll be fine,” I reassured her, slinging a scarf around my neck. “It’s Christmas time. You have to enjoy this weather.”
   She nodded, rubbing her hands together. “Look, I’m not so sure about you going to this place. I mean, all those… weirdoes.”
   I sighed. “Mom, you can’t call them that. After all, I’m in the same boat with them, remember? I really want to meet some fellow SCABs in a relaxed environment. These group therapy meetings are just too fake to me. I can’t stand all that ‘getting in touch with my feelings’ crap.”
   My mother nodded her head again, reluctantly conceding.
   I dropped my head in reflection. “I swear to you, mom, nothing’s going to happen to me. You know me, I don’t even drink! I just want to say hi, and find out how others with my condition deal with it, that’s all.”
   “Are you going to change into… it?” she asked.
   “Maybe, I don’t know. I’ll see you later tonight, okay?”
   “Okay, I love you.”
   “You too. See you later.”
   The weather was beautiful for late December. Well, I suppose we can all say that, but that didn’t prevent me from bundling up when I went outside. I may be a romanticist when it comes to Christmas, but I’m quite practical about defending my body from the elements.
   I walked by some people out for a stroll, waiving briefly at them and getting the same gesture in return. It’s times like this I thank God that I’m not form-locked and I can change back and forth  between my human and animal forms. People still treat me like a normal person, and I don’t have to worry about strangers coming over and making fun of me—or worse.
   Still, I have to think that the man upstairs has a strange sense of humor when it came to picking my animal form. The thing is, I’ve always loved horses, that’s for sure. I could enjoy being a zebra, a donkey, or if I was lucky, I could have been a polymorph and been able to turn into a pegasus or centaur if I wanted.
   Yes sir, I really liked horses. Which is why it’s a shock to me that I ended up being able to turn into a kangaroo. I mean really, a kangaroo!? That’s completely out of left field! At least it was a more anthropomorphic form than usual. My arms—and more importantly my hands—remained almost human in that shape, but my legs were far too kangaroo-ish for me to walk regularly when I changed into that form. I can walk, mind you, but in a sort of exaggerated ‘heel, toe, heel, toe’ fashion, like I’m wearing clown shoes or something.
   But that’s okay, honest it is. I don’t want to look too much like some strange anomaly. Basically, for the most part I look like an adult kangaroo. I’m completely covered with fur from head to tail when I take my animal form, adjustable ears on top, long muzzle and big, clodhopper feet. Really, my arms are the only things that give me away.
   I still don’t know why I’m being drawn to the Blind Pig Gin Mill tonight. Like I said, I’m not a drinker, and what’s more I tend to want to avoid drunks whenever possible. Still, the fact that there’s a SCAB-friendly business in the area is alone worth the visit.
   Personally, I’ve never really considered myself a ‘victim’ of anything in my whole life. To me, this disease is just something I have to deal with. But when others find out that I have it, they tend to distance themselves from me, like I’m carrying the plague or something. Perhaps if I was a better person it wouldn’t affect me, but I can’t shake it. Some people can blow off being hated—I am not one of those people. I can’t stand being ridiculed, looked down on or verbally attacked. That’s why I stay in human form almost all the time.
   Thank God for my family. They’ve always been there for me, always supported me. Not that I think I really need support myself, since my condition isn’t debilitating, but I’ve heard stories of SCABs being rejected by their relatives and friends. That’s something I thankfully don’t have to deal with.
   As I walked along the sidewalk a white pickup truck and a black SUV went blasting the road, sending a blast of snow and nasty slush water flying at me. I didn’t have time to get out of the way, and was immediately and thoroughly coated with the stuff.
   “Hey, watch where you’re driving you bastards!” I screamed as I slapped the horrid gray soup off my clothes. I took a deep breath and then rolled my eyes. No point yelling at them, I told myself. They probably didn’t even see me.
   Man it’s cold! Being coated with nasty water sure isn’t helping right now, but I’m getting close to the bar now. It’s not too far from where I live, and I should be there in a few minutes or so.
   Another vehicle, this one a brown van, slowed down as it passed.
   “Hey, are you okay, man?” the driver asked.
   I gave him a crooked smile. “Okay as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
   “Sorry about those idiots,” he said with a smirk. “They’re with us.” Suddenly his face became deadly serious. “It’s Christmas Eve. I suggest you go home, mister. I wouldn’t want to be out on a night like this. Could be dangerous.”
   With that, he drove off, leaving me soaking in silence. I wiped some more snow off and said aloud, “Yeah, well, if you want it to be less dangerous, keep your friends off the road.”
   I figured that on a night like tonight, there probably wouldn’t be any more traffic. I decided I’d better start to change. I wasn’t sure if I wanted anyone at the bar to know my real identity yet. If I show up in my SCAB form, then I can mingle with others without letting on too much about myself. That way if I run into any of them again later on, I don’t have to worry about being outed in public. Just because they’re okay with their condition, doesn’t mean I am.
   I can make the change pretty fast, usually in about five minutes. Probably because the animal I change into is about the same size and structure as my normal form, so I don’t have to do much stretching and reshaping. Still, once I get going I have to go all the way because I can’t change back into my human self until I’m completely in my new form. So naturally, I don’t do it very often, for fear that someone who doesn’t already know about my condition might walk in on me midway through my transformation.
   I reached back and unlatched a velcro patch on the rear of my pants. These particular pants were a gift from my sister, the only piece of clothing I own specifically designed for my form. She got the pants for me three years ago, and this is the first time I’ve ever worn them.
   I felt a tugging from behind as my tail slowly popped out, lengthening further away from my body and then coating itself with fur. The rest of the transformation happened naturally—I sort of mentally blocked it out as it proceeded.

11: The Lion, the Walrus and the Slaughter (Father Ted Colbert)

   The lion-SCAB moved about the gathered people, dragging a large sack on a cart. The red and white Santa cap set jauntily to one side, bouncing the ball shaped tassel about the back of his mane. Like any other Santa, this one had a helper; unlike most, his helper was another SCAB, a pure white rabbit-morph. Stopping briefly at each face, he reached into the sack and handed them a brightly wrapped package. Each person in turn opened the gift, revealing a variety of coats, clothing and other needed items. Finally he moved to the person serving as a greeter near the shelter’s door.
   Her name was Agnes; she was a walrus-morph that fate had been unusually cruel to. Her head was mostly human, with sandy brown hair flowing down to her lovely shoulders. It wasn’t until you reached her lower face that her affliction manifested itself. There the usual walrus muzzle pushed forth with its thick whiskers and short tusks. The disease had also rendered her utterly mute, even though her neck seemed only slightly thick. The most unkind feature jutted from the sides of her otherwise beautiful body. In place of her arms a pair of flippers, totally useless save for the purpose nature had intended, protruded absurdly to the sides. Aside from a few subtle gestures, her limbs were useless to her. These difficulties had made her one of the longest residents at the shelter.
   “And Santa Claws hasn’t forgotten you either, Agnes,” the lion said with a smile. “Now let’s see, where is it?”
   He rummaged around in the bag for a moment but came up with empty paws.
   “Hmm, now I know there was one here somewhere,” he said looking about.
   “Is this what you’re looking for, Santa?” asked a rabbit as he pulled out a package from under the bag.
   “Ah, yes! That’s the one I remember,” the red-capped lion replied. “Thank you.”
   He handed it to the walrus-morph, who held it between her two oversized flippers. She looked at it with an expression of wonder and helplessness.
   “Oh, don’t worry,” Santa Claws told her. “I’ll open it for you, but I think it’s best for everyone to hold their present first.”
   Gently taking the brightly wrapped package back he extended a claw and skillfully sliced the paper free. “Ooh”s and “ahh”s rose from the others as they saw the package.
   “A voder!” squeaked out one of the smaller guests.
   Agnes’ eyes began to water as the lion placed it about her neck and turned it on. It emitted several multi-syllable words that had absolutely no meaning whatsoever. A giggle, one of the few sounds she could make, escaped from the woman’s mouth as the device again produced an unrecognizable sound. She grinned with embarrassment as the voder continued its noisy response to its untrained wearer’s commands.
   “Oh don’t worry, Agnes,” piped up a springbok-morph. “I’ll teach you to use it.”
   The tears were now starting to run freely down the woman’s face as she touched the box about her neck. Her flipper limbs allowed her little more than touching it, however, as they barely flexed enough to reach her throat.
   “Here, let me turn it off until you can get a bit of training,” the lion Santa said, stepping toward his tearful beneficiary.
   As he reached for the switch he found himself in an all-encompassing embrace by the woman’s flippers, nearly toppling him in the process. The feline scrambled to maintain his footing as she sobbed onto his shoulder. Finally working his way free of the joyful hug, he stepped back and smiled. Agnes, though physically unable to sign, had several gestures familiar to her friends. The one she used for ‘thank you’ was now running in an endless loop toward the presenter of the gift.
   “You are very welcome,” the lion replied. “Once you learn to use that, we’ll help you find a way to put those old work skills of yours to use. But for now, let’s eat!”
   Several of the other SCABs ran over to embrace Agnes, her joy still overflowing. The lion pushed the cart (with the now-empty bag) out of the way and took a seat. He was soon joined by the rabbit-morph who’d helped him with the gift.
   “That was quite a generous present,” the lapine commented. “How did you pull that off?”
   “With your help, Phil,” ‘Santa’ replied, removing his cap. “Remember that young fellow you sent over a few months back, a yak-morph I do believe?”
   “Yes, I thought you might help him,” the rabbit answered, his ears askew as he tried to understand. “He was questioning how a loving God could allow something like SCABS.”
   “That’s the one,” the lion said, nodding. “Well I got him through that, and you got him a job.”
   “But what does that have to do with the voder?” the confused lapine asked.
   “He came back the other day to visit,” the large feline said, taking a glass of eggnog that was offered to him. “He’s doing well enough that he bought a new voder, and wanted this one to go to someone who needed it. I figured Agnes was the perfect candidate.”
   “True, but will it really help her? Other than letting her talk, I mean?”
   “That depends,” the dark-maned cat said, looking right at his white-furred companion with a shrewd smile. “Do you know of any openings for a bookkeeper with ten years’ experience and a minor in computers?”
   “What? You want me to find her a job?” he gasped.
   “Well, you’ve done it for a lot of others,” the lion said, downing part of the glass of yellow liquid. “Our young yak friend being a perfect example.”
   “Hmm, I don’t know,” the rabbit replied, suddenly noticing what his friend was drinking. “Say, are you supposed to have that? I thought milk made you sick?”
   “No, no. I’m okay as long as I take the pills first,” the leonine SCAB replied. “It really sucks to be a cat that’s lactose-intolerant.”
   “Tsk, tsk, such language,” the rabbit, Phil, said with a grin. “What would people say if they heard Father Ted speaking that way?”
   “Nothing worse then what they already say,” the feline answered, taking another sip. “Besides, it is the truth.”
   Just then a young man with a mild hint of a muzzle and a foxtail came running up to the table. The expression on his face left little doubt of the urgency of his mission.
   “Father, you’ve got to come to the phone quick,” he cried. “There’s a problem at the Blind Pig.”
   “What kind of problem?” the lion asked,  his rabbit companion’s ears standing erect as they both heard the report.
   “A shooting, or attack,” he gasped. “I heard gunfire in the background!”
   Father Ted was out of his chair and heading for the shelter’s office in a second, the young man and rabbit following close behind him. He grabbed the receiver, still lying on the desk, but only the wobbling tone of a disconnect met his ears.
   “Call the police,” the priest ordered, heading for the back door. “Tell them what you know. I’m heading over that way to see what I can do.”
   “Do you want me to come with you?” Phil asked.
   “No! Stay here,” Father Ted said firmly. “Do you really think you’d do well where there’s gunfire?”
   “No,” the lapine answered, his face a mix of anger and fear as he recalled how his human self would have reacted and how his rabbit self now did.
   “I’ll call when it’s safe,” the lion called over his shoulder as he burst out the door.

12: In For a Shot (Jonathan Practice)

   When I first step into the bar, it seems like a nice place. Nicely lit for a bar, actually; not too much light, just enough to let your eyes rest a bit. I see a pool table where several SCABs have a game going. As I notice the bar, I see a rather large bovine behind the counter with some tinsel or something strung between his horns! I can’t see much with my glasses.
   There are different stages for being drunk. At each stage, you have different personality traits. Different people take different stages at different times.
   The first stage, for me anyway, is Polite Drinker. Here I’m stone sober, ignoring the Quiet Bovine behind the counter as I suck up my beer. I quietly ignore the choir of dogs doing their best rendition of What Child Is This? I check out the rest of the festivities going on in the bar. It’s doing moderate business, not booming by any means, but definitely more customers than I expected on a Christmas Eve.
   The second stage of drinking for me has to be Philosopher Drunk. Here we all know the answers to everything. “Ahm nawt sayin’ Christmas is a bad thing,” I explain to the poor bartender, who’s politely listened to nearly half an hour of my raving now. And I wasn’t done yet! Not by a long shot. “Its jus’, with all I just toldja I loss’, iss like, screw it! Rub it in my face why don’cha! A solid month’a rubbing salt’n my open wounds, go’head! Hey man, ge’ me ’nother beer…” The bartender immediately took the clue to leave for a moment.
   The Third stage is Super Man. Here, I’m told that I tried to tear down the Christmas Tree. And that I tried to take on five guys who tried to escort me out. Oh yeah, and they broke my glasses. Damn.
   Beyond that, I don’t remember much. I do remember the shots. The vehicle was black. That much I did see. The entire thing happened in slow motion. The window rolled down as the vehicle slowed down, and a gun barrel poked out an open window. The gun barrel looked the size of a cannon as fire erupted from the end of the gun as I spun around and tried to throw everyone to the ground.
   My back exploded in pain before it all went black…

Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 1, part 2 -=- Chapter 1, part 3 -=- Chapter 2, part 1 -=- Chapter 2, part 2 -=- Chapter 2, part 3

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