by Equestrian Horse Wrangler
Text ©2006 Equestrian Horse Wrangler
Hot Summer Night ©2006 Cayenne Doubletree,
Helping Hands ©2006 Nicole Riley

Home -=- #5 -=- ANTHRO #5 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   I stared in the mirror for longer than usual. The face staring back didn’t look very enthused. It rarely did. Just another day alive in this world.
   I rubbed my chin and sighed, and felt the cold chill of the sink as I planted my lower hands on it for support while the uppers opened up the medicine cabinet to retrieve my toothbrush.
   It was rough sleeping at the station; about what you’d expect, when you’re a rabbit surrounded by predatory species. Most of the company was nice, though. The kind of company that might tease you, play jokes on you and the like—but at least they didn’t eat you.
   Morning made me groggy. That was something we all shared, carnivore or not: Nobody was functional without their coffee. Grumbling, I slid my shirt on, my lower arms gripping the hem from the inside as my upper ones slid through the top sleeves. The lower ones soon followed suit, and I rolled my neck around to get a crick out of it.
   My ears twitched, and then—Run! Run!—cold chills ran through me. I felt the need to dart into a corner, but I ignored it. I just smiled and waved at the fox, Preston, as he walked by, and he returned the favor as best he could without stumbling into a wall. Like I said, we all need our morning coffee.
   In my case, at least, caffeine deficiency lets the dratted instincts run a little freer than I like. My fur stands up whenever anything with sharp teeth walks in front of me. I feel bad about it, but I really feel guilty each time it’s Preston; fox or not, he’s a good man.
   I wandered toward the kitchen, where everyone else seemed to be located. They were all sitting at the tables, shooting daggers at poor Cliff who was doing his best to get the coffee machine to work right. Cats are already high-strung, it doesn’t help to have a firehouse full of angry firemen who need their morning pick-me-up.
   “Come on, Cliff! It’ll be dinnertime before you get that thing going!” Ben said, rolling his eyes.
   “Tell Cappy the city can forget new fire trucks, just get us a Mr. Coffee like any decent fur would own!” Patrick barked, which probably befits a dog morph.
   “Hey,” Darren said with a lupine smirk, his eyes fixed on me. “Why not have Tom give you a hand? God knows he has plenty to spare.”
   I gritted my teeth and felt four hands ball into fists, but the captain walked in at that point.
   “Knock it off, Darren,” he said. “Cliff, get away from that thing. You clearly don’t know what you’re doing.”
   “Hey, I went to college!” Cliff protested.
   “My point exactly,” the captain said. He pushed the cat aside, fiddled with the machine, and within seconds it was pouring out the dark ambrosia we all craved. Tension dropped pretty quickly after that, with everyone reading the paper or eating breakfast.
   My body was certainly more awake from that point, as I drummed my lower-left fingers on the table. Preston was across from me, and glaring at me something awful. The fox hated that sound, so naturally I did it to annoy him.
   “Knock it off, long ears!” he said, knowing full well that we rabbits hate to be called that.
   That was my cue to add harmony, with my lower-right hand; he just shook his head in disapproval. All part of our standard morning ritual. I’ve never dared take it farther than two hands, because I’d just be a jerk. As it was, well, I was bored, which isn’t so bad considering the alternative. In this line of work, ‘exciting’ is usually a synonym for ‘life-threatening’.

   Four arms? It’s called having “the Condition”, because the scientific name for it is about 83 syllables long. And it’s hard to deal with in such a cramped workspace—have to make allowances for the extra limbs all the time. I tuck my lowers in against my body whenever I walk by a chair or a table, lest I accidentally smack an arm into something. But as tough as that is, coordinating the things can be a downright nightmare.
   I rubbed my lower-right hand, having accidentally smacked it into the door when I meant to use my upper-right. Darren seemed to think that was funny. Well, fine; it helps to have something to laugh at during re-qualification exercises.
   You want to be sure a fireman is physically capable of doing the job, right? So we have to re-qualify every couple months, general physical fitness and the like. It can be tough, and the worst thing is the hose run. That’s the one where you carry a complete fire hose up five flights of steps. It’s always a chore.
   Cappy had his starter pistol raised in the air, and looked over at Darren, who was gritting his fangs at me. That familiar feeling tore through my gut, screaming 100 warnings at once: Danger! Flee!
   This time, the instincts were actually helpful—got the body prepped for speed and strength. That’s why we prey species make up a disproportionate share of the top firemen around; it’s just a matter of channeling the body’s reactions into what you want to do, not what it wants to do.
   “Ready?” Cappy asked. We both nodded, and then there was a bang and both of us were running.
   The hoses were lying down on the ground in front of us, and we dropped down to pick them up. In a flurry of hand movements, I had mine over my shoulder and began my trek up the staircase mounted outside the building. I could see from the second flight of stairs that Darren was trailing behind me, spitting and cussing as he got to the first step. Yes, knowing that there’s a jawful of sharp, hungry teeth behind you is great incentive to move.
   I was sputtering as I made my way back down, passing him on the fourth-level landing as he ran up. In spite of our mutual gasping and loud footsteps, I still heard him call me a bucktooth under his breath. I put it to the back of my mind and continued down. Gravity working with me this time, I welcomed each step downward, metal clanging as I stomped down hard on each step. Instincts or not, this wasn’t going to be my best run.
   Once we were both standing back on the ground, the captain just shook his head at us.
   “Getting a little slow, Tom,” he said, “Better cut down on those extra helpings.”
   He then turned to Darren. “As for you, Darren, this is just pathetic. Tom may have been slow, but at least he was in regulation time. You, on the other hand—”
   Darren snapped back at Cappy. “He had a head start! The only reason he got control of his hose faster then me was he had more hands to hoist it up, and he was able to hold it better while running!”
   A sneer crossed Cappy’s face. “So what?! Tom’s no different than anyone who has an advantage. He exploited it for his benefit. And that may explain why he beat you, but it sure as hell doesn’t excuse how badly he beat you! You shouldn’t have been more than five seconds behind him, at worst.”
   Darren didn’t say another word to him, and Cappy, in an unusual show of mercy, let his insolence go at that and walked away. But as he left, the wolf looked me dead in the eye.
   “You think you’re better than me, don’t you, freak? You remember this: I have to live with you at the station, ride with you on the engine, and put out fires with you. But I don’t have to like you. And I never will.”
   He snarled and showed his teeth, and I got an instant lesson. Before desegregation, someone like him could have mauled me without incident. I stepped back in reaction, hating myself for not standing my ground. Damn these cowardly instincts! I took control long enough for four fists to close up, but it came too little, too late.
   Darren stomped away in fury, the other guys hopping out of his way. For such a hot day, I couldn’t help but feel cold all over.

   God hates me. That’s all I could think as I put some lettuce in my shopping basket. I could have been born normal, had it not been for one gene going weird in the womb. I kept scanning the store around me, spotting people who had been staring as they quickly dropped their heads down to feign examining groceries.
   I looked down at my lowers, biting my lip. The ridicule they inspire always seems to outweigh whatever advantages they may bring me. Sometimes I just wear a regular shirt out in public and hide them inside it; it makes me look obese, but that seems to be more socially acceptable than an extra set of limbs.
   I was just grabbing some carrots when I saw the lioness. She must have been looking at me for a while, since she seemed to be frozen in place. Even behind the display case I could make out she had the Condition, too. I smiled and did a brief wave at her, and she did the same. We both felt a sort of comradeship, at least for a second anyway.
   She stepped out from behind the case and went on her way, and that’s when I noticed her lowers. The fur on them seemed shabbier, not well-kept. She wore some rings and bracelets, but only on the uppers. Her lowers weren’t atrophied, but they definitely weren’t as muscular as her uppers. They just seemed to pathetically hang at her side.
   I kept seeing her as I stood in the check out line, both of us trying to pretend like we didn’t notice one another. We who have the Condition make up less than one percent of the population, or at least that’s what scientists keep saying about us. I run into another one every few years, but it’s still a shock to see someone like me. I heard that one of us works as a traffic cop somewhere—he’s supposed to be really good at controlling four-way intersections. There was also a kangaroo with the Condition who tried to become a boxer a few years back, but none of the major commissions would take him. They said he’d have too much of an unfair advantage. Heh, I suppose they were right.
   The lioness had just paid for her purchases. I thought about going over and saying hi, but on second thought, it seemed pretty dumb. Arms aside, what could we really have in common? Can’t blame a predator/prey relationship on this one, just my dumb lack of confidence. Sighing, I let it go as I turned to the clerk.
   “That’s, um, $30.42,” he said, trying his best to keep his eyes trained above my neck. I handed him the money and got my receipt, the lioness now out of my sight. Maybe I might see her again, maybe I might not. Way of the world, I suppose.
   “Do you need some help with your bags?” the clerk asked me.
   I smiled and shook my head. “No thanks. I can handle it.”
   I lifted all four hands and wiggled my fingers at him, each one grabbing a bag as I headed out to the car.

   Preston dealt the cards across the table as I poured my drink. Firehouse was pretty quiet right then, all the guys in their own little worlds; sometimes it’s like that. We hadn’t received an alarm in days. Nothing but time to kill. Not that we complain, mind you. Days of boredom, they’re fine—it’s the seconds of intense terror that get to you.
   I held my cards in my uppers while a lower held my drink, nonchalantly swishing it around. Preston kept on eyeing it, and then me.
   “You know, I wouldn’t mind having an extra set of arms,” he finally said.
   “Yes, you would,” I answered, not taking my eyes off my cards. I lifted the glass up to my lips and drank, dropping my arm back down as I looked at my options.
   “No, really,” Preston said. “I think it’s neat. I mean, you could do double the work!”
   I sighed. “Not quite. When you have four arms, you tend to notice that most of the time half of them end up going to waste. It’s not like I can do a separate task with each one of them. Well, besides for simply gripping things.” I paused for a second to pick up a bag of chips on the table with my lower left hand and lift up my glass with my right one. “For the most part though, they’re pretty superfluous.”
   “Well, I bet they come in handy in special situations,” Preston said as he dropped a card on the table and picked another one off the top of the deck.
   “Yeah? Let me know when one of those ‘special situations’ comes up,” I said, dropping two cards and picking up two more, hoping for a full house.
   “Still,” Preston continued, seemingly ignoring me, “I bet it stinks having to get all those tailor-made alterations on your work clothes. Call.”
   I smiled, a little. “Not too much. I get to claim it as a tax deduction. Work expenses, you know.”
   I laid down my hand, only managing to come up with a pair. When my fox companion laid down aces over eights, I sighed, and poured some more soda in my glass. Preston just stared at me for a few moments, and I began to feel uncomfortable. My dumb instincts kept telling me he was sizing me up for an attack, but that clearly wasn’t it…” Suddenly, he laughed.
   “What’s so funny?” I asked.
   “Well, I was just thinking—the Plague did a lot of good.”
   No need to ask which Plague he meant; there was only one lethal pandemic that had crossed species barriers. Everybody had lost relatives to the Plague. Everybody. I gave Preston a puzzled look. “A 20 percent death rate is ‘good’?”
   “Well, not by itself, but the consequences, okay? See, my grandfather was paired up with a mouse during that time. His town was so desperate for clean-up crews they placed all the workers together. Being with her changed a lot of his views.”
   “Huh… him and a lot of other people.” I slowly nodded. “If anything good came out of that whole mess, it was the end of those miserable segregation laws.”
   “They might have been miserable to us, but I bet they saved some lives back in the day,” Preston said. “Before scientists got the cattle solution under control, you couldn’t trust someone like me around someone like you.” That surprised me: It’s rare for a carnivore to mention the whole ‘eating sentient meat’ thing, even obliquely. We prey species, we talk about it all the time among ourselves; carnivores pretty much stonewall. I sometimes wonder if they’re ashamed… but it isn’t really the kind of thing you can ask about, is it?
   I shrugged. “Well, now we’re both in the same boat. Hey, did I tell you I saw another person with the Condition yesterday? A lioness.” His ears perked up, intrigued, and I continued. “I didn’t really think about it at the time, but maybe we were all meant to be together. Despite our differences, especially in food choices, it just goes to show we’re all the same. I wonder: Could the Plague be responsible for the Condition? The first cases didn’t show up until a couple years after the Plague, you know. I suppose it could just be a weird coincidence… but maybe it’s more than that. Heck, maybe this is the start of something good for all sentient life!”
   Preston rolled his eyes. “You’re weird when you get philosophical.”
   I sighed, looking down at my hands. All four of them were open, palms up. Yeah. Maybe I’m just weird.

   The ringing bell startled all of us awake at the same moment. A feeling of terror overcame the house, but only for a moment. We steeled ourselves and threw our bodies out of bed. We made a beeline for the pole, sliding down to the bottom floor and bolting toward the lockers.
   What time is it? Two? Three o’clock in the morning? Feels like it. Can’t focus on that right now, have to wake up, and wake up fast. I threw my fire jacket on; one, two, three, four arms through, and then I yanked on my trousers.
   The alarm was like claws on a chalkboard, my ears burning as I slipped my boots on. It’s almost like something out of a horror movie to go out on call during this time of night. Your body doesn’t want to react properly: it wants you to run around in a panic. But that’s what our minds are for. This is where all the drills and training pays off. It was only four minutes since the bell went off, and I’ve already grabbed my helmet and I’m heading toward my spot on the fire engine. Darren hopped on board last, and then we were off.
   “It’s a bad one,” Cappy said from the front. “Four-story apartment complex. It’s a three-alarm, but we’re going to be the first on site. ETA, six minutes.”
   ‘First on site’: Everyone was miserable when they heard that. Being second or third meant that your backup was already in place; being first meant that there wasn’t any backup, not to start with anyway. Nobody spoke—we just looked at each other as we were jerked around inside the rig. Cliff was crossing himself, and Patrick was wringing his hands. I looked across to Preston, who was doing his best to give me a reassuring smile as I did the same. Bad? Hell, this was going to be a nightmare.
   The engine came to a stop and we piled out, the stench of embers permeating the air. I looked up and saw flames spitting out of various windows, screams coming from the rapidly growing crowd around the building as people ran out the front doors.
   “Cliff—Preston—get on the hose!” Cappy said, and the cat and fox went running.
   “Tom—Darren—you two find out if anyone’s missing!”
   I ran a hand over my face and made my way to the crowd, Darren approaching the mob from the other side. Got the typical array of responses; some complaining about how long we took to get here, one person trying to stop me from heading toward the front door, another practically pushing me inside to go get her family pictures. There’s a stink of panic in the air.
   Darren was having trouble with one raccoon lady, who was screaming and trying to fight her way back into the building.
   “My daughter’s still in there!” she yelled as two men held her back. I could tell she was going to tear through them if they didn’t let her go. I looked up at the flames swirling out of the building. It must be an oven inside. An inferno with a little girl.
   “Cappy! There’s—” I started, but the captain was already standing next to me.
   “I know,” he said. “Look, it sucks, but we’re going to have to wait until another rig shows up before I can send anyone in.”
   “The kid will be dead by then!” I shouted. “And that woman’s not going to wait much longer. I’m going in!”
   “No way! I need you out here on crowd control,” he said.
   “Damn it, she’s going to die!” I spat. “Let me go in and get her!
   The captain looked up frustrated at the building, hating each flame that blazed from the windows. The crowd meanwhile was growing as onlookers began to mingle with the other people. In a fraction of a second, he’d made his decision.
   “Fine—you and Darren go in there. But don’t do anything stupid, there’s more rigs heading this way!”
   I nodded, and ran back to the truck, grabbing a fire ax. Darren was right behind me, as we made our way inside the building, stepping right into an oven.
   The staircase was a blanket of smoke as we made our way up, coughing and hacking as we got to the second level. The door handle was scorching; we wouldn’t be going in there.
   “The mother said she’s on the next level!” Darren yelled. “Come on.”
   We both ran up the flight of steps and when we got to the next landing, the smoke levels lightened considerably. Darren felt the door, and then kicked it open. We both charged in, staying low as some flaming embers rained down on us, bouncing off our helmets.
   Every fiber in my body was screaming for me to get out of there. Fire! Danger! Flee! Flee! My body wanted me to do what even the dumbest animal would in this situation, but I—my mind—flatly refused. I’m a fireman, damn it! This is what I train for, and there’s no way I’m going to let any stupid instincts get the better of me.
   “God, she could be anywhere!” the wolf said, looking around the hallway. The doors to the apartments lined the middle of the building. We started screaming out, but the flames were roaring too loudly.
   Crack! Before either of us could react, part of the ceiling crashed down in front of us. I slammed against the wall as a fireball burst up, close enough to singe some of Darren’s facial fur.
   “I’m going back!” he shouted over the fire’s roar. “We can’t do anything up here!”
   I just looked at him. “I’m not leaving without her.”
   Darren balled his hands into fists. “Damn it, the other rig is probably outside right now! We wait until a few more guys come up here…”
   “She could be dead by then!” I spat. “You do what you want, I’m staying!” I don’t have time for this crap! I’m going to find the girl, and that’s all there is to it.
I could read the fury in his eyes. “Look, you stupid buck-toothed freak! I’m not gonna die for your stupid pride! Stay up here and roast for all I care.”
   He turned around and headed back toward the door, and I watched him disappear into the smoke, the door of the staircase wobbling, and then nothing. The flames burst forth from the hall again. There was a chilling howl from above me, the promise of death surrounding me.
   I’ve never felt more alone in all my life…
   Back before the Plague hit, emergency services wouldn’t take prey species at all; they figured we’d panic under pressure and run away. Not stand our ground. And frankly, running away sounded like a real good idea, right at this moment.
   But however tempting it might be to give in to fear… I knew I wouldn’t. I’m a fireman. And nothing on this Earth is going to stop me from finding this little girl.
   My ears twitched as I opened the first door to my right. I tried to sniff the air, but the air I couldn’t smell anything through the smoke and soot. The apartment wasn’t burning, but it was filled with smoke. I ran inside, keeping low as I examined the different rooms. Empty.
   I ran into the apartment across the way, not pausing as I rushed through the hallway. I called out, but didn’t get any answer. This one had some live flames, but it seemed to be empty. Biting my lip, I went back into the hall, desperately trying to collect my thoughts. Thanks to the fire, I could only get into one more door. It’s this one or nothing: If you’re not here, little girl, I’m sorry.
   The door wouldn’t budge! No hesitation: My uppers hacked through the wooden obstacle with the ax while my lowers chucked debris out of the way. I crawled over the chest that had been blocking it—huh. Big hole in the ceiling; it must have fallen through. I pulled it out of the way and continued inside, scanning the living room for any sign of life. Nothing.
   Running into the kitchen, I was surrounded by flames burning on the counters and cabinets. Nothing.
   I felt my insides quaking as tears formed in my eyes, only partially from the smoke. Heading to the first bedroom I prepped myself for disappointment, resolving that I’d have to go back downstairs alone and tell that poor mother…
   “Help!” a voice screamed as I stepped inside the room. “Please! Help me!”
   There, pinned to the floor under a wooden beam, was a little raccoon girl, couldn’t be older than 10 or so. There were small flames in various parts of her room, each one growing larger. I rushed to her, dropping the ax on the floor as I tried to comfort her.
   “Are you okay? How bad are you hurt?”
   She was sobbing, her cheeks soaked with tears. “I’m trapped! I can’t get this off me!”
   I took a second to assess the situation. The beam had been part of the support structure, if that hole in the ceiling meant anything—no telling how long before the whole building went down. Claw marks on the beam said the poor little girl had tried to free herself, to no avail. The thing had to weigh several hundred pounds, at least—and from the way it was smoking, we had maybe 30 seconds before it burst into flame.
   “Please! I don’t want to die!” she cried, and I exhaled in frustration. I had to get her out.
   “Okay! I’m going to try to lift this up! Think you can crawl out from under it?”
   “I’ll try,” she whimpered.
   I grabbed the massive structure and lifted up… but it slowly dropped back down again. I dropped my head in defeat. Too damned heavy! No way any normal man could lift this thing all by himself! She was crying again, obviously thinking she wouldn’t get out of here alive.
   No! I’m not going to let her just roast in here! I looked down at my arms… all four of them… and grinned. No normal man, maybe. But an abnormal man..?
   I gritted my teeth, dropped to my knees and grabbed the beam with my uppers, lifting with all my might! It moved off the floor, just far enough to let me stretch my lowers underneath, grabbing hold of the little girl. She was still weeping as I pulled her free, cradling her in my lowers as the beam crashed back down onto the floor.

HELPING HANDS, by Nicole Riley

   “It’s okay. It’s okay,” I chanted to her as I scooped her up, picking up the ax with an upper as I got to my feet. “What’s your name?” I asked, hoping to calm her down.
   “Aww-Audrey,” she said between sobs, her tail flicking about in relief.
   “Okay, Audrey. My name is Tom. And we’re getting you out of here, okay?”
   “Yes,” she said, her arms wrapping around my chest between my own two pairs. She had the scent of fear on her. I tried my best to reassure her.
   I kicked the remaining rubble out of the way at the front door and took her out to the hallway. The fire had gotten much worse; most of the hall was engulfed, leaving only a small pathway to the staircase door. I wrapped my lowers around Audrey in a protective cocoon as I charged toward the exit, clearing a path with my uppers. Flames scorched my uniform as I got to the landing, kicking the door shut behind us.
   Audrey was hacking heavily as I made my way downstairs, doing my best to protect her as flaming debris fell from above. We got to the bottom floor and I tried to get my bearings, only to see Darren running around frantically ahead of us. He froze when he saw us, and then ran over. He was noticeably avoiding eye contact with me.
   “The door is blocked!” he screamed. “I can’t find any other way out of here!”
   I spun Audrey around to face me. “Do you know any other exits?”
   “The, the laundry room!” she sputtered. “It’s in the back.”
   She pointed the way as I carried her, Darren bringing up the rear. I couldn’t bring myself to hate him—I couldn’t do anything but worry about this girl. I had to get her out of here. There wasn’t much fire down this way, but the smoke was getting thicker. At this rate, we’d end up dying from asphyxiation before we burned.
   “That’s it,” Audrey said, pointing at a nondescript door. It looked like the door to a janitor’s closet; no wonder Darren had missed it. We went inside and made our way to the exit, only to be greeted by another obstacle.
   “It won’t budge!” Darren said, pulling on it. “Do people not obey fire codes in this city?”
   “My mom says our super’s cheap,” Audrey said, forcing a smile. I smiled back, and turned to Darren. It was a heavy metal door; kicking it down would take too much time.
   “Hack the frame,” I told him.
   “I, uh, dropped my ax at the front of the building,” Darren said, looking down at the ground. I handed him my ax, and using my now free hand to help support Audrey.
   “Are you doing okay?” I asked her, trying to help calm her while Darren whacked at the door.
   “Yeah, I think so,” the little raccoon girl said. “My chest hurts, though.”
   I nodded. “We’re going to have to get you to a doctor, just to make sure there’s no internal injuries.”
   Darren forcefully hacked at the frame; I got ready to rush out in the open. I noticed that Audrey had been looking down at me for the last couple of minutes.
   “Is everything all right?” I asked.
   “Yes, it’s just, I’ve never seen someone with four arms before,” she said. She seemed a little embarrassed to say that out loud.
   I smiled at her. “Yeah, there’s not too many of us.”
   “What’s it like?” she said with all the innocence of a kid her age.
   “Well, it can be a hassle,” I said rather honestly. “I sometimes reach for something with the wrong hand and end up bruising myself. And it takes me twice as long to put my shirt on.”
   She giggled at that, the first time I’d seen her smile, which made me more at ease.
   “But sometimes, having extra arms means I’m really good at giving someone a hand.”
   Darren paused after hearing that remark, giving me a weird look before continuing swinging away.
   “Or three, or four,” I then added, lifting up my lower arms in sync with their ‘numbers’. Audrey laughed again, and then there was a flash of sunlight.
   “I got it going!” Darren said, shoving the ax into the crevice. “Help me pull the door off!”
   I set Audrey down. “Stay low and out of the way, okay? I have to help get us out.”
   She nodded, and I hustled over, using my lefts on the door and my rights against the wall. I pulled on the door as Darren used the ax as leverage, prying the door open. All 20 fingers gripped the burning metal, and tears formed on my eyes as I pulled and pulled until—
   “Move!” Darren commanded, and I dove aside as the door crashed down. I turned and grabbed Audrey as we rushed outside, the fresh air like ambrosia to our lungs. I sputtered for a second, slowly catching my breath and making sure Audrey and Darren had as well.
   We made it. We made it!

   “My baby! Oh Audrey!” the raccoon lady squealed, hugging her daughter tightly. Audrey scurried around in her mom’s arms, and her mother licked her face and flicked her tail. I watched the scene from further away; there was no way I was going to disturb the two, but at the same time, I just had to see the reunion.
   Darren wasn’t as polite—he got the full story out of them while it was fresh in their minds. The mother had left the apartment to find out what the commotion was before she was grabbed in the hallway and pulled down to the street. Poor little Audrey woke up to find her room in flames. The beam that dropped on her had come down in stages; if she hadn’t panicked, she might have been able to avoid it. As it was, at least she didn’t get the main brunt of the weight on her all at once.
   Cappy checked out Darren and me, making sure we were fine to continue. We had some slight disorientation from all the fumes, but other than that, we were okay. I looked in the side mirror of the rig and saw my face, the fur stained black from soot. The building in front of us had flared up something awful, but there were more crews on the scene now.
   An ambulance pulled up. Audrey was placed on a stretcher, the paramedics examining her before leaving.
   “Are you the one who saved my daughter?” I heard a voice ask.
   I slowly lifted my head up, greeted by the sight of the raccoon lady. She was still jumpy, her attention bouncing from me to her daughter and back again. I stood up as straight as I could, woozy from post-trauma but doing my best to look attentive.
   “Yes, ma’am. That’s me,” I said, looking over toward Audrey. She seemed okay, much to my relief.
   “Thank you! Thank God for you!” the lady said, coming over to embrace me.
   Grunting in surprise at the hug, I tried to get my bearings. “Excuse me?”
   “I said, thank God for you!” the lady said, letting go and heading toward the back of the ambulance.
   Thank God… for me? I didn’t know how to react to that statement. Was she suggesting that I was actually here for a purpose? I just stood there watching as she hopped into the ambulance, and it quickly pulled away. I looked down at myself. Deformed from the Condition, a flighty, fearful prey creature. Was I really worth anything?
   The captain let me catch my breath for a few minutes, but I insisted on doing something, so he put me on hose detail. I was just picking up the end when I saw Darren, still visibly shaken from the ordeal.
   “You… came back. Helped me,” he said. “What you did back there. How you acted…”
   I waved his apology away with one hand while securing the line with the other three. “It’s okay, man. You don’t have to say anything.”
   “Yeah, yeah,” he just repeated, hands in his uniform as he looked at the ground. He just walked slowly away, heading out of my sight. I smiled to myself, and got back to work.

   The story was in the paper the next day. I tossed it on the table in front of Preston, who looked like the living dead. We were on the scene for four hours before we packed it up, so we headed back to the station. Some of us fell back to sleep, others didn’t.
   The fox’s entire body twitched from the sound of the paper hitting the table. “Don’t do that!” he snarled, half-awake. “Just… keep it quiet, okay?”
   Local broadcast news had been covering it all day yesterday, and the print media basically regurgitated the same facts. The fire started from an electrical problem in a storage room. A lot of injuries—mostly smoke inhalation— but miraculously, no one died. They’re talking about giving me a medal for saving Audrey. She had a lot to say about her rescuer in the paper.
   “Preston, you’re going to have to be awake if you want to hear about my heroic exploits,” I said, smirking quite openly. He grumbled something and reached for his coffee.
   I just dropped the issue, content that he got the point. From what I’d heard, little Audrey was doing fine; some heavy bruising, but no serious damage. She said she couldn’t wait to see the ‘four-armed bunny man’ again. I still laugh when I say that out loud—wouldn’t you?
   The fire department was getting ready to show me off today, praising me for my bravery and making sure the city gets some good publicity. Me, a hero? I don’t know someone was in trouble, and I helped them. What’s so ‘heroic’ about that? Okay, I admit it: I felt good about that little raccoon girl being alive today, but I sure as heck wasn’t thinking about any medals of anything at the time. Having to wear my dress uniform at City Hall? I shivered at the thought. All those eyes on me! It’s bad enough I have the Condition forget it. Being camera shy won’t help. Man, what have I gotten myself into? No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose
   Oh, knock it off. You saved a little girl’s life. That’s what matters. The teasing you’ll get regarding the ceremony from your fellow firefighters is a small price to pay for that. I did something noble yesterday. Something that really mattered. I looked down at my hands and smiled.
   They weren’t so bad after all, those four hands. And neither was the person attached to them.
   Well… maybe I was a little bad… I looked over at Preston, and a mischievous smile crossed my lips. I began to drum the fingers of one hand on the table. Then another. Preston was really surprised my impromptu percussion reached a four-part counterpoint. He just planted his chin on his palm and rolled his eyes, muttering to himself.

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