After School Special

by: FireMane

 

            “Are you sure you don’t want me to come up with you?” Jackie asked, “You’ll be okay on your own?”  Timothy laughed.

            “Yes, Mommy, I’ll be ok.  It is a daycare, after all.”

            “I know, but you haven’t been on your own overnight in years.”

            “I won’t be on my own.  Mrs. Crenshaw is going to be there, and I’m sure she’ll have people to help her.”

            “I guess so.  You have my cell number in case you need me, right?” Timothy nodded.

            “It’s in my pocket.”  Jackie stopped the car in the driveway of the daycare.

            “Which pocket?” She asked, suspiciously.  Timmy was notorious for putting random objects in his pockets.

            “Uh… This one.” Timmy pulled a small strip of paper out of the pocket on the bib of his overalls. 

            “Now make sure you don’t lose that.” She reminded him as she climbed out of the car, “And don’t put anything else in that pocket.”

            “Ok.” Timmy agreed, sounding disappointed to have lost the use of one of his pockets, “But I’m sure everything will be fine.”

            “Me too, sweety.”  She got him unbuckled and let him lead her to the door.

            She rang the doorbell and was promptly greeted by an older vixen, who invited them both in.

            “I don’t think I’ve met you yet, dear.” Mrs. Crenshaw commented, “Every time I think I’ve met all of you, Little Timmy comes up with another mother for me to meet.”

            “I’m Jackie.” The lioness replied.  The vixen nodded.

            “Of course.  Michelle mentioned you a few times.  Will you be joining us tonight?”

            “No, Timmy decided he wanted to try an overnight stay by himself.  He has my contact information in case of an emergency.”

            “Of course.” She turned to the lion, “It’s good to see you again, Timmy.  I’m afraid we’ve already ordered the pizzas for tonight, but I’m sure there’ll be something you like.”

            “There isn’t much Timmy doesn’t like when it comes to pizza.” Jackie put in.  “Well, I’m going to go.  Call me if you need anything.”  Timmy hugged her, and let her leave without any fuss. 

            “We’ve got plenty of snacks and drinks already,” Mrs. Crenshaw explained as she led Timmy to where the others were waiting, “So if you’re hungry you can go ahead and get started.  There’s even some soda for those who want it.  You’re allowed to be as adult as you want to be tonight.”

            “Thanks, but I think I’ll stick to juice.”  The playroom was occupied by five other victims of Pandora’s Virus, but all the toys had been put away.  A couple of tables had been set up to support the refreshments, and there were several chairs for those who wanted to sit.  Timmy recognized Jono, despite his adult clothes, and returned the wolf’s wave.

            “Timmy!” The muscular wolf offered a paw-shake instead of his usual hug.  “I’m glad you could make it.  You might have met some of the others already, but there are a couple of people here who don’t come here during the day.”

            “So, Jo-Jo, who’s your friend?” A voice asked from behind the wolf.  Timmy realized that the person he’d assumed was a panther was actually a fellow lion.  His mane had been bleached a snowy white, and his fur had been laboriously dyed black.  He noticed Timmy looking and grinned.

            “Admiring the dye-job?”  Timmy nodded.  “It’s a pain to keep up, but I love the way it looks on me.  I’m what every woman dreams of.” Jono rolled his eyes, having heard this routine before.

            “What’s that?”

            “I’m a small black lion that goes anywhere.”

            “Isn’t that supposed to be ‘purse’?” The monochrome lion shrugged.

            “Purse, lion… whatever.  I’m Paradox.”

            “Pleased to meet you.” Timmy responded, though he didn’t sound really sure of it.

            “Don’t worry, I don’t bite.  I’m a little strange, but I swear, I’m a nice guy when you get to know me.”

            “I’m Timothy.” Paradox nodded.

            “I’ve heard about you from Wendy.  You’re the one who scared Carl into wetting himself.” Timmy frowned.

            “I said I was sorry about that.”

            “I know.  From what I’ve heard about Carl, he deserved it.”

            “Be nice.” Jono chided.  “We’re here to be supportive of others, not to gripe behind their backs.”

            “Of course.  Speaking of which, are there going to be any more tonight?”  Jono shook his head.

            “I don’t think so.  Nobody else said anything about coming, so I guess this is it.”

            “Are there usually more than this?” Timmy asked.

            “No, this is about the average size.” Paradox said, “Sometimes we have more, but it usually goes a bit better when there aren’t too many.  It’s easier for everyone to open up.”

            “Come on, Paradoss, don’t hog the new guy,” An orange tabby lisped as she offered Timmy a plastic cup of juice.  “I’m Sue.” 

            “Pleased to meet you.” Timothy repeated, more sincerely.

            “And this is Abram, and I’m Jim.” A spotted leopard announced, pushing a dour-looking Horse in a wheelchair.  The equine was clearly one of the less fortunate victims of the disease, his hands ending in two stubby digits and his legs hidden by a blanket.

            “Nice to meet you, too, Abram.” Timmy said, extending his hand.  The Horse stared at the hand, as though trying to decide whether or not to bite it.  The leopard leaned down and whispered in his ear, and the Horse grudgingly took Timmy’s paw and gave it a perfunctory shake. 

            “Would you like something to eat?” The leopard asked, and his charge glared back at him.  “Come on, I’m sure you’re hungry.  You didn’t want lunch, either.”

            “Please don’t.” Timmy barely heard the Horse whimper.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

            Timmy could see that Sue and Jono were doing their best to ignore the situation, and even Paradox seemed a bit embarrassed. 

            “Now, I’m not going to let you starve yourself out of pride.” Jim calmly answered, “You need to eat.  I’m sure there’s something good over there.”

            “I haven’t had anything yet either.” Timmy put in, earning another glare from the Horse, “I’ll get you something while I’m over there.” Jim smiled approvingly.  Unsure of what the horse-morph could stomach, Timmy scooped a few wheat crackers and some carrot sticks onto a plate, and made a similar plate for himself.  “Here.” He offered, holding the plate out to the Horse, who stared at it.

            “Look, carrot-sticks!” Jim exclaimed, “I know how much you like those!  Do you want to try…” The horse turned his head away, and the leopard sighed.  “Fine.” The leopard pulled up a chair and started holding out carrots and crackers for Abram.  The horse resentfully nibbled the morsels, looking as though he’d rather have died.  “You know, despite what you think, I didn’t bring you here to humiliate you.” The horse whuffled through his nostrils in reply.  “And you can cut the mute act, too.”

            “The pizza should be arriving soon.” Mrs. Crenshaw announced as she returned, “So we should get started.  We have a couple of new faces here today, Abram and Timmy.  Let’s do what we can to make them feel at home.”

            “But we don’t know what they might do at home!” Paradox pointed out. 

            “Let’s move the chairs into a circle.  Eric will let us know when the pizza gets here, so we can go ahead and start the discussion.”

            “Any particular topic today?” Paradox asked, not seeming put out that his joke was ignored, “Or is it another free-for-all?”

            “We have a requested topic today.  We’re going to be talking about how the Change has affected our lives.  Unless anyone objects?”  Nobody voiced a complaint, though Abram glared more fiercely at Jim before he turned his head to stare at the floor.  “Alright, then, who wants to start?”  Timmy could see Jim was about to volunteer the horse, and stepped in.

            “I guess I will, since I’m new here.” Jim seemed disappointed, and Abram, if he noticed, didn’t acknowledge the gesture. 

            “Alright then.” Mrs. Crenshaw smiled, and Timmy knew that his good deed hadn’t gone entirely unappreciated.  “Tell us about your change.  I’m guessing you’re a little old to be second generation.”  Timothy nodded, and took a deep breath.  He’d expected to have to tell a little of his history, but he hadn’t realized it would be so hard. 

            “Well… I wasn’t born like this, but I’ve been a lion for as long as I can really remember.  I was about three when I caught the Virus.  My parents and I were on vacation in Africa.  This was before anyone had any idea what was going on, of course.  They knew that the Virus had been released, but only the first few cases had shown up, and they were being kept very quiet, so everyone still thought it was some sort of plague.

            “I’m not really sure how that lion got the virus in the first place.  Of course, American tourists did a lot to see that the disease spread all across the world, so it probably came from an earlier tour group.  Vacationing abroad was very popular then, you understand.  Anyway, part of the safari tour was getting to pet this tame old toothless lion.  My parents weren’t interested, but I was all over him, letting him lick me with his rough tongue as I ran my hand through his mane.  Clumps of his fur came out in my hand, and the guide told me I could keep it.  As a souvenir.  I still have it somewhere.

            “The guide got sick a couple of days later, and my Father decided it was a good time to return home.  No sense going abroad to avoid one plague and get caught up in another, after all.  I started running a fever right after we got home, but nobody really thought much of it.  For the first few days, it looked like a typical cold.

“I don’t really remember much about the actual Change.   The virus did a good job of scrambling my brain as it rewrote my genes, and I forgot just about everything.  I had to relearn how to walk, talk… everything.  I forgot who I was.” Timothy paused, “So did my parents.”

            “A lot of parents reacted poorly.” Mrs. Crenshaw comforted, “Especially in the early days before anyone really understood what was happening.”

            “My parents understood well enough.” Timmy growled, surprised by the depth of his own anger, “They had the best doctors, and they knew as soon as anyone what had happened.  They knew I was changing, that I was becoming an animal.  I was downgraded from son to unwanted pet overnight.”

            “Timmy, please, calm down.” Mrs. Crenshaw requested, “I know this isn’t easy for you.  It’s never easy.  Why don’t we start in on the pizza, and then you can go on.” Timothy was surprised to see that Eric had brought the pizzas in already.  “And Eric and I can help anyone who wants to freshen up before dinner.”  Jono and Sue were in “big kid” clothes, which might have meant trainers or underwear, Timmy wasn’t quite sure, but he and Abram both needed a change, despite Abram’s protests.  Mrs. Crenshaw left Eric to distribute pizza, and she led Timmy off to be changed.  Jim gave her a questioning glance, and when she nodded, followed behind with Abram. 

            Timmy let Mrs. Crenshaw take his overalls off, more self-conscious than usual from having revisited his past.  Mrs. Crenshaw noticed, and asked him if he was all right.  On the far side of the room, Abram was quietly putting up a struggle, which he was clearly losing. 

            “I’m ok, I guess.  I just suddenly feel weird about being changed.  My parents didn’t toiled train me, you know.” Mrs. Crenshaw smiled as she had him lay back on the table.  After some remarkably cheerful threatening from Jim, which seemed to involve the prospect of carting Abram back to the discussion and changing him there, the Horse was letting Jim help him onto the changing table.

            “Is that why you still wear diapers?” Timmy shook his head.

            “Oh, no, I didn’t start wearing diapers full-time again until about seven years ago.  I learned bladder-control.  It’s just that my parents paper-trained me.”

            “You know, you aren’t the only person that’s ever happened to.  A lot of parents didn’t know how to deal with children who had fur and tails.  Some of them handled it well.  Some of them didn’t.”

            “Mine didn’t.” Mrs. Crenshaw shrugged, and gave him a pat on his freshly diapered hip.

            “I’d guess they didn’t do too badly.  You seem to have turned out well enough.  But you can tell us all about that while we eat.  Now lets get your overalls back on.”

            Jono and Sue had eaten their fill of pizza by the time Mrs. Crenshaw led him back in.  Timmy had plenty of time to eat a few slices of meat-covered pie and socialize before Jim finally wheeled Abram back in.  Despite the Horse’s quiet protests, Jim fed him a couple of slices of vegetarian pizza, and everyone turned to Timmy to avoid watching.  Though they were used to such displays among themselves, there was something about the situation that made it seem different.  Surprisingly, Timmy had a feeling it had more to do with Jim than with Abram, but he couldn’t quite put his paw on it.

            “Now, Timmy, you were telling us about how you Changed.”  Paradox opened his mouth to follow up with the obvious pun, but decided better after receiving a warning look from Mrs. Crenshaw.

            “Well, like I said, my parents treated me pretty much like a pet.  As far as they were concerned, Pandora killed me.  I think they would have disowned me completely if they hadn’t been hoping for a miracle cure.  I saw a lot of doctors in those first few years.  I was seven before I went to school for the first time.  Child Welfare actually intervened on my behalf, though my parents filed several lawsuits to prevent them.  They argued that I wasn’t a human being, so I wasn’t within the jurisdiction of the system.  They argued that I wasn’t their son, on a genetic basis.  They argued that my illness was too severe to allow me to attend school.”

            “I’m surprised you weren’t put into foster care.” Jono commented.  Timothy shook his head.

            “Oh, no, that wasn’t really an option.  My parents were willing to tolerate me, and there just wasn’t anywhere better to stick me.  There were a lot of Pandora victims hitting the system all at once, and at that point any home was considered a good home.  My parents didn’t physically mistreat me, though they did administer corporeal punishment occasionally with a rolled-up newspaper.

            “Of course, going to school wasn’t a cake-walk either.  At seven I was about three years behind my peers in terms of social and verbal skills, so I was put into a special education program.”

            “You mean the keep-them-from-contaminating-the-other-kids program?” Paradox asked, the first sign he’d given that he was still listening.

            “More or less.  But even limited contact with people other than my parents was a powerful positive influence.  I began to realize that the world was a lot bigger than I’d been led to believe.  I met other Morphs for the first time, and that was probably the most amazing experience of my life.” Timmy smiled, remembering, “I suddenly understood that I wasn’t alone.  That I wasn’t the only one like me.  I learned more from watching the older kids than I did from any of the teachers.  They taught me a lot of lessons that I needed to survive.  They taught me when to fight back, and when to bide your time.  They taught me to pull my punches against normal people, to fight with my claws in, even if it meant I lost the fight.  They taught me all the things that the normals could never teach me, because they’d never understand.  I learned about following your instincts, and doing what you know is right, about… about when to hide your feelings, and when to show your teeth.

            “My parents never did accept me as a son.  They did eventually, grudgingly, acknowledge that I was more than just an animal, and that they were responsible for me, at least to some degree.  When I was old enough, I talked them into sending me to an all-Morph boarding school.  I think they were happy to be rid of me.  They set up an account for me, and they would send me money every so often, but that was the extent of my contact with them.  I sent them letters, but they never responded.  I was hurt, but it wasn’t as though I hadn’t been expecting it.  I tried to forget about my parents, and embrace the startling new culture I’d been introduced to.

            “The boarding school was literally like a zoo.  I’d been used to associating with Morphs, but living around them full time took some getting used to.  There were those who weren’t entirely in control of their instincts, prey species who would climb the walls if you looked at them the wrong way… and predators who specialized in looking at people the wrong way.  We had dozens of athletic teams, track and field, football, soccer, you name it, but we weren’t allowed to compete with other schools. 

            “I know how that goes.” Jono put in, sounding bitter for the first time in Timothy’s memory.

            “We didn’t let it get to us.  There were those of us who felt ashamed of what we were, who wished we were normal, but there was a growing feeling of pride in being animal-men, of having experiences and strengths that the normals would never understand.  Our campus had more than it’s share of activists, coffee-house revolutionaries and that sort.” Timmy saw Paradox’s muzzle twist into a quirky sort of smile, “There were those who wanted equal rights, equal treatment, and there were a few who felt equality wasn’t good enough.  Of course, all that talk came to nothing.”

            “I wouldn’t say that.  We are equal under the law.  A lot of people had to fight for that.”  Paradox pointed out, “Hell, in most cases your parents would have had to sue to get you into school, and not the other way around.”

            “I meant the ‘morph superiority complex’ that was going around.” Timmy explained,  “A lot of the students had big ideas and big mouths.  They talked about a ‘morph revolution’, about radical tactics like deliberately spreading the Virus into the human population, but they never got up the nerve to really try anything.  They were really quite innocent, and I think the administration understood that, and let them be.  They just wanted to feel dangerous.  Which is funny, because most of them were herbivores.  

            “It was about that time that I started having… strange feelings.  Of course, I was a teenager, and my hormones, both human and leonine, were in overdrive.  It doesn’t help when a third of the females on campus are on a seasonal cycle, and they all go into heat at the same time.  One semester, all of the classes were segregated by gender, out of simple necessity.  Still, I had my share, perhaps more than my share,” Paradox smirked again, “Of encounters.  The sex was nice, of course, but… I started to feel hollow inside.  I thought that maybe I just needed a stable girlfriend, but I just couldn’t seem to get into a long-term relationship.  That was more my fault than anything else.  After a few weeks, I’d start to get… bored isn’t really the right term.  Frustrated.  It was as though I was looking for something, and after a little while I could tell that I wasn’t going to find it with my current girl.  I knew I wanted sex.  That was obvious.  But it was also obvious that sex wasn’t the answer I was looking for.”

            “I think I know what you wanted.” Paradox commented, getting chuckles from the rest of the group.

            “Hush.  I’m getting to that.  I… really started to question my sexual preferences.  I wasn’t really attracted to males, but sex with females didn’t seem to fill the void I felt inside.  I started becoming preoccupied with strange things.  Childish things.  If I heard a childish tune, the theme song to a preschool program, the jingle for a diaper commercial, anything, I’d have it stuck in my head for hours, sometimes for days.  A lot of my dreams, especially the…” Timmy suddenly felt awkward, “The, um…”

            “The word your looking for is wet, I think.” Jono supplied, grinning.  “Don’t worry, we won’t take that out of context.”

            “Well, I had strange dreams.” Timothy continued, ”A lot of them involved somehow getting younger, being adopted by a loving mother.”

            “Trying to get back the family you had before the Change.” Sue suggested.

            “I guess so.  I started to fantasize about it during the day.  It became an obsession.  I also started having inexplicable feelings of jealousy whenever I saw small children, which fortunately wasn’t very often.  Watching them, listening to their parents, it felt like knives in my chest.  I was really afraid of myself, afraid of what I might be.”

            “Let me guess.” Paradox interrupted, “You were comparing yourself to a certain negative homosexual stereotype?  You weren’t Catholic by any chance, were you?”

            “No.  I’ve never been a terribly religious person.  But, yes, I was worried that my feelings were… a sign that I was more of a monster inside than I appear to be on the outside.”

            “I imagine that was very difficult for you to deal with.” Mrs. Crenshaw noted, “Did you ever try to get counseling?  Talk to anyone?”

            “No.  Who would I talk to?  How do you go up to one of your teachers after class and bring up the subject?  I had some friends, but we weren’t really that close.  I lost the majority of my friends when I started dating.  It’s hard to keep close relationships when your mind tends to classify people as either potential mates or rivals.  I stopped dating after a while, and pretty much walled myself off from everyone else.

            “Then, when I was getting dried off from a shower one day, I got the idea to wrap the towel around my waist as a makeshift diaper.  Just totally out of the blue.  I arranged it as best I could, with my tail sticking out one of the legs, and tied the corners of the towel together.  It was ridiculous, but it felt right.  I stalked around my room like that for the rest of the evening.

            “I knew then at least part of what I wanted, but I still wasn’t sure how to get it.  I didn’t even think diapers came in my size, much less with accommodations for a tail.  Acquiring anything discreetly was out of the question.  Any trips off campus had to be made in a supervised group, as part of the school’s agreement with the city.  Receiving it by mail would have worked, if I’d known of any suppliers, but this was in the dark days before you could find such things with a couple of keystrokes.”

            “What did you do?” Sue asked.

            “I continued to improvise.  I checked a bunch of books on early childhood out of the library… so many that the head librarian started giving me strange looks when I came in.  Some of the newer books had helpful hints on how to diaper infants with tails, and I started trying out their methods.  I got some safety pins for the towels, and made do with that.  I found that if I indulged myself every now and again and spent the evening with my makeshift diapers, I didn’t feel quite so bad the rest of the time.  I became a bit more social, even went out on a few dates again, though nothing serious.  I had a better idea of what I was looking for, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find it anytime soon.

            “I finally decided to let go and actually wet myself one evening.  I used twice as many towels as normal, and waddled around like that for awhile, until I felt like I needed to go.” Timothy chuckled, “I’d never realized how hard it would be.  I had to consciously force myself to wet.  When I was done, I felt sick.  I unpinned myself, took a shower, and promised myself I’d never, ever, do it again.  And I stuck to that, until I graduated.”

            “Despite all this turmoil, I was getting good grades, and I was accepted to Ascot University as a pre-law student.  College was a completely different experience.  There wasn’t the same sense of belonging as there was with the all-Morph school, but by the time I graduated I’d lost that particular feeling of connection anyway.  My little secret made me feel as alienated from my morph peers as I did from the normals.  I kept to myself, though I still dated, mostly for the sex.  I had a small place just off-campus by myself, and I pretty much cruised through my first few years of college uneventfully.  I discovered adult disposables in the supermarket, and occasionally I’d think about trying to cut them to fit around my tail, but I managed to suppress that feeling fairly well.”

            “Then what?” Sue prompted.

            “Well, I… got into a more serious relationship.  She was a Siberian tigress, and for a while I thought that we were meant to be together.  We were the only big cat morphs on campus, and she frequently complained that most of the other cats got on her nerves.  We had a class together, and she made a point of getting to know me better.  It was the first time a woman had ever gone after me, and it was… a very different experience.  She was also a very dominant figure, and I was drawn to that.  We dated for the better part of two years, and we were considering moving in together.

            “The problem was that ignoring my… feelings didn’t make them go away.  She knew that there was something I was hiding from her, and she wasn’t the sort of person who could just leave things be.  She pressed me about it, and I told her that I wasn’t ready to tell her.  She accepted that, but only because I promised that I would tell her, eventually.”

            “And did you?” Paradox asked.  “Or did you walk away instead?”

            “I didn’t walk away, I ran.” Timothy admitted.  “She wasn’t the nurturing type, and she had a fairly low tolerance for new and unusual things.  I know that I hurt her by leaving, but…”

            “Better to hurt than to be hurt, right?” Paradox finished.

            “I didn’t say I was proud of it.” Timothy rebuked, “I was young, and I made a mistake.  I should have at least given her the opportunity to react.”

            “I’ve had that sort of experience before.” Jono admitted, “Opening up to people that way can be very difficult.  I’ve had a lot of rejections.  But it’s better than continuing to hide it.  The worst break-ups I ever went through were when someone found out on their own.”

            “Well, that’s a decision that everyone has to make for themselves.” Mrs. Crenshaw interjected, “My husband waited until we were married for three years before he said anything to me.” She smiled, remembering, “He had a workshop behind our garage, and he hid all of his things there until he could get up the nerve to tell me.  I can tell you, I was furious when I found out that he’d been hiding something so important from me.  But I understood why he did, and why he was so afraid to let me know.  Timothy, do you think you’ve said what you want to say for tonight?”  The lion-morph nodded.  “Alright, then, who wants to share next?  Paradox, you seem to have a lot to say.”

            “No, I’m fine for now.” The monochromatic lion deferred.  “How about our other newcomer?” The horse glared at Paradox as if willing him dead.  “Or maybe someone else?”

            “Come on, Abram, don’t be stubborn.  You’re a horse, not a mule, you know.” Jim prompted.

            “This is a support group, not an interrogation, Mr. Duvall.” Mrs. Crenshaw reminded the leopard pointedly.  “If Abram isn’t ready yet, we will give him time.”

            “I’ll go.” Jono offered.  Mrs. Crenshaw nodded, and Jim, though obviously frustrated, didn’t push the issue.  “I changed very late in life, only a few years ago really.  I was in college when I caught the virus.  I didn’t have an obvious event like Timmy did, I can’t remember ever coming into direct contact with a wolf, but I started to feel the effects my sophomore year.  The change was painful of course, not unbearable, but it completely rearranged my life.  I had a football scholarship, and when it was obvious that I had Pandora’s, the school dropped me like a hot potato.  There aren’t many jobs out there for college washout wolves, so things were pretty hard.

            “I’d been into wearing diapers for a while before I caught the Virus.  In high-school I had a boyfriend a few years older than me who really liked playing “daddy”, and I stayed with it even after he graduated and left.”  Timmy’s eyebrows shot up when Jono mentioned having a boyfriend, but he did his best to hide his surprise.  “Playing ‘baby’ was the only thing I really had for a while.  It let me get away from all of the worries and frustration I was going through after I changed.  I ran through a bunch of odd jobs, working as a grocery stocker, lots of lift-and-tote work.  My parents were really supportive emotionally, but I knew they had enough trouble getting by on their own and I didn’t want to add to their troubles.” Jono chuckled, “It did make some things easier.  Mom finally stopped pestering me about finding a nice girl and having kids.

            “I finally managed to get a steady job as a third-shift assembly-line man.  It’s a nice union job with a really good hourly wage and a few decent benefits.  It’s tough work, but it pays the bills and it leaves me free during the day and evenings.  I’ve gone through quite a few relationships, and not all of them ended badly, but I haven’t really found anyone to settle down with yet.  And now I’m here.”

            “That was brief.” Paradox commented.

            “Are you volunteering?” Mrs. Crenshaw prompted.

            “Didn’t you say just a few minutes ago that this wasn’t an interrogation?” Paradox retorted.  The elderly vixen let the matter slide, and waited for someone to speak.

            “Anyone?” She prompted.  “Mr. Duvall, would you like to tell us about your change?” The leopard blinked in surprise, and his face suddenly clouded.

            “No, I’m sorry, that isn’t something I wish to speak about.  I’m perfectly happy with the person I’ve become, and I have no desire to dwell on who I was before.”

            “But you expect me to talk about it?” Abram asked.

            “I’m not the one who refuses to accept himself for who he is.”

            “I’ve accepted what I am.” Abram responded, “God, it makes me sick to have to sit here and listen to you.  You’re all here because you choose to be.  You’re wearing diapers, even though you don’t need them.  You’re pretending to act like children.  Well, it isn’t funny!  Pandora’s took everything away from me, my money, my dignity, everything.  Do you think I want to be here?  Do you think I like any of this?  I’d rather die than have to put up with any more of this pity party.  I want to leave!”

            “Then go.” Jim told him, backing away.  “I won’t stop you.”

            “Dammit, Jim, you know I can’t do that!”

            “Sure you can.  There are handicap ramps in this building.”

            “That’s not the point!”

            “Yes, it is!” The leopard started to sound angry himself, “You think I’m trying to humiliate you?  I’m not.  You do a fine job of it all by yourself.  You have the nerve to criticize these people?  You’re the one who acts like a baby, Abram.”

            “I do not!” The horse denied, “I can’t help it!”

            “Yes, you can!  There are a thousand things you could do for yourself, if you’d only try.  But you won’t, because you’re afraid.”

            “Oh, you’d love that, wouldn’t you, Jim?  You’d love it if I tried to feed myself, so you could make fun of me for making a mess, wouldn’t you?  You’d love it if I crawled around on the floor for you, or scooted around on that cute little walker you built.  I’m sorry, but I’d like to keep what little dignity God has seen fit to leave me with.”

            Mrs. Crenshaw cleared her throat.

            “I think the both of you should calm down before we continue.  It sounds as though you have some problems the two of you need to work out.” She looked pointedly at Jim, “I’m not sure that this is entirely the right place for you to do that, however.”

            “No, no, I want to hear this.” Paradox objected, “I’ve been wondering what the deal was between you two since I got here.  I mean, Abram, it kinda sounds like you’re in a non-consenting relationship with Jim, and you need to know that you have other options.  You don’t have to leave here with Jim if you’re really that unhappy.”

            “Paradoss!” Sue exclaimed, “Who do you think you are to interfere like that?”

            “I’m a concerned outside party.  It’s my duty, as a compassionate being, to show concern with the welfare of others.”

            “And what about minding your own business?” Sue asked.

            “There is a line beyond which it becomes my business.” Paradox answered.  “There are times when civilized people have to get involved.  If I saw someone being mugged, I’d feel compelled to intervene.  This situation is not all that different.”

            “How do you know that?” Sue demanded.

            “How do you know otherwise?”

            “That’s enough, both of you.” Mrs. Crenshaw intervened.  “If I thought, for a moment, that Abram was being abused by Mr. Duvall, I promise you that there would be intervention.  I don’t believe that this is the case, though I can see where you might get that impression.  Perhaps it would be wise, after all, to let Abram and Jim continue their discussion.  If everyone can remain calm.  Now, Abram, before we do on, please answer one thing for us.  Do you remain with Jim by your own consent?”

            “I guess so.  I mean, I drew up all the arrangements, but at the time, I didn’t have a lot of choice.”

            “That isn’t much of an answer.” Paradox pointed out, “Perhaps you could explain?” The horse sighed.

            “Well, I used to be independently wealthy, before… this happened to me.”

            “Tell us how it happened, then.” Paradox urged.

            “My family had a nice ranch, and I caught the virus from one of our horses.  I had them all killed, but by then it was too late for me.  I was bedridden for weeks, and when the Change was over, I… couldn’t walk anymore.  My legs are too thin to support my weight, and… I can’t control myself.  I don’t have the right muscles anymore.”

            “You’re lucky to be alive, then.” Sue suggested.  “A lot of people who morph improperly die either during the Change or shortly after.”  Abram gave a braying laugh.

            “Lucky?  You’re lucky.  The virus didn’t destroy you.  I would have been better off dead.”

            “That’s not true.” Jim countered.  “You’re no worse off than a lot of people.  There are quadriplegics who’d love to be as able as you are.”  The horse shrugged.

            “Maybe.  That doesn’t change anything.  I’m still stuck here, in a wheelchair.”

            “But you’re still mentally capable, right?” Paradox asked, curiously sharp.  “You don’t have problems with, for instance, grasping basic math?”

            “Well, no.” Abram admitted, “I guess mentally I’m the same as I was before.”

            “Then you really are lucky.  The virus took my life away from me.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Even those who morph well often suffer mental problems as a result of the Change.  Chemical imbalances, memory loss, dementia, all kinds of nasty stuff.  I don’t know what I was like before I Changed, because I don’t remember.  I was found wandering naked through the streets.  It took months of rehabilitation before I showed any signs of having once been human.  I was just lucky that I was found by people who were willing to give me a chance.  I could have ended up in an institution for the rest of my life.  I still have little… quirks.  My brain isn’t wired correctly for doing some types of math.  I’ve learned a lot of tricks for working around my blind spots, but every now and again I come up against a total mental block, and it usually pushes me into throwing a tantrum.”  Everyone except Mrs. Crenshaw looked surprised at the lion’s admission.  “Oh, yes, I sometimes throw terrible tantrums.  Fortunately I’m not usually very destructive.  My psychiatrist suggested that my tendency to act like a baby was probably a coping mechanism, a way to externalize my feelings of helplessness during my recovery.  The point is, when you talk about people being lucky, make sure you know what you’re talking about.  After all, it could be worse.” Paradox grinned, “You could be crazy.  Like me.  But that’s enough about me.  Let’s talk about you.  I’m guessing you spent your family fortune on quack cures for the virus?” Abram nodded.

            “Yes.  When I finally gave up, I had just enough to live off of.”

            “I think I see where this is going.  Jim here is the only caretaker who’ll work for what you can afford to pay.” Paradox guessed.

            “Well, I get room and board, plus a bit.” Jim put in, “It isn’t a bad deal, really.  As Jono pointed out, it can be hard for a morph to find work, even now.”

            “So that’s it?  You’re his live-in nurse?” Jim nodded.

            “All I’m trying to do is get Abram to try.  I know that it’s eating him up inside to be so helpless, but he refuses to try to do anything for himself.  I’ve tried to help.  I’ve put up all kinds of devices to help him do things on his own, but he just won’t try them.  Every time I push him, he accuses me of trying to humiliate him.”

            “Are you?” Timothy asked.  “Trying to humiliate him, that is.  I mean, why did you bring him here?  There are a lot of other morph support groups you could have taken him to.  It seems like this is the worst place for him.”

            “We’ve both been to morph support groups before.” Abram answered, surprising everyone, “That’s actually where we met.”

            “How long ago?” Paradox asked, looking thoughtful.

            “I don’t know, I guess… about a year ago, maybe less.”

            “Then congratulations are in order.” The black lion turned to face Jim, “You did a remarkable job of coming to terms with your problems.” The leopard blinked a few times.  “I mean, you’ve said that you’ve completely accepted who and what you are, but a year ago you were going to support groups.  So you’ve obviously undergone a dramatic personal transformation.  Right?  Or were you there for other reasons?”

            “I was there for my own reasons, and that’s all that you need to be concerned with.” Jim returned.

            “Did I hit a nerve?” Paradox grinned wickedly.  “Maybe I…”

            “Stop.” Abram muttered, then louder, “Stop it!” Both cats looked at him, surprised.  “Jim’s been very good to me.  I don’t deserve him, and I don’t treat him as well as I should.”

            “Listen to yourself.” Paradox suggested, “You sound like a classic abuse case.  ‘Oh, Jim’s so good to me the rest of the time.  He only hits me when I deserve it’.”

            “That isn’t what I said!” Abram brayed, overriding several other protesting voices, “You’re so sure you know what my problem is that you won’t let me or Jim explain.  Maybe Jim does humiliate me a little.  But I’m sure he only does it for my own good.  He just wants… he wants me to get better.”

            “Abram, I guess… I guess I do try to humiliate you some of the time.” Jim admitted, “It’s just… you just won’t try anything!”

            “You don’t know how it feels, Jim.  Every little thing is an ordeal.  I did feed myself, you know, before you came to live with me.  I did a lot of things for myself, and it just… reminded me of how much I’ve lost.  Letting you do it feels bad, but in a different way.  I… do get the feeling that you get off on humiliating me.”

            “Abram, I do enjoy taking care of you.  I wouldn’t do it otherwise.  I understand if that makes you uncomfortable.  If what you want is for me to keep taking care of you the way I have been, and do everything for you, even the things you can do for yourself… I will.  But we both know that isn’t healthy.”

            “For either of you.” Paradox put in.

            “You stay out of this.” Abram ordered. “Jim, why don’t we go home?  I’d really like that.” The leopard smiled.

            “Will you talk with me on the way back?” The horse shrugged.

            “I’ll try.  It isn’t easy.”

            “It sounds as though you two have a lot to talk about.” Mrs. Crenshaw noted.

            “Yes.” Jim nodded, “Thank you for letting us take up your time with our problems.”

            “That’s part of what we’re here for.  You can come back again, especially if you want to discuss your own feelings, Jim.” The vixen gave him a shrewd look, “I think you might have more to say here than Abram does.”

            “I’ll think about it.”

            “You have my phone number.” She reminded him.  Paradox watched with thinly veiled hostility as Jim wheeled his charge away.  “Alright, Paradox, let it out before you explode.”

            “How could you let them leave like that!  It’s obvious that Jim is using Abram as some kind of plaything.”

            “You should think more carefully before making accusations, Paradox.” Mrs. Crenshaw warned.  “I’ve talked to them both, and I’ve personally taken care of Abram on two occasions when Jim had to attend to personal matters.  They have a very complicated relationship, and it isn’t your place to judge them, anymore than anyone else has the right to judge your lifestyle.  You managed to goad the two of them into talking about their feelings, which is more than I would have expected, but you aren’t the person who gets to decide if they should be together.”

            “But…!”

            “No, Paradox, and if you throw a tantrum here, I will make sure you regret it.” The vixen paused, “Are you going to call that abuse?  Because you’re free to leave if you want.”  The black lion visibly shook with anger, and Timothy and Jono both tensed to step in if he became violent.  Instead, he started swaying, and when he looked up, there was no malice left in his features.  “Paradox?  Are you ok?”  The black lion nodded.  Mrs. Crenshaw sighed.  “I think that’s all we can do for tonight.  Unless you want to talk, Sue?” The tabby shook her head.  “Alright.  It’s getting pretty late, but there’s still some time to watch a movie or play a few games before bed.  Eric, I think it would be best if we go ahead and put Paradox into his pajamas.” The large human nodded, and led the now docile black lion off to be dressed.

            “What happened?” Timmy asked, “Does he have the same problem Carl does?”

            “Not quite,” Mrs. Crenshaw sighed, “He has trouble controlling his anger, and sometimes, when he doesn’t have any other outlet, he just seems to blow a fuse like that.  It’s a lot better than resorting to violence, though it certainly does cause him problems.  It’s a shame, really.  He’s quite a remarkable person, once you get to know him, and there’s no telling what he might have been if the Virus hadn’t intervened.”

            “Or maybe his is as remarkable as is he because the Virus forced him to be.” Jono pointed out.  “If there’s anything the Virus has taught me it’s that the difference between a gift and a curse is your point of view.”

            “I suppose that’s true.” Mrs. Crenshaw admitted.  “Still, I must admit I’ve very curious about what sort of person he was before.” Jono smiled.

            “Yes, I get the feeling he is, too.”