|Paradise story universe|
|Works by Jetfire on Shifti|
"Who's that?" Emily asked, pointing with a chocolate bar she'd picked up while cleaning up around the cash registers.
Richard lifted the last box of stock off his cart and followed the bar. "Him? Oh that's just Bob. This your first Wednesday overnight?"
"Yeah it is. What about it?"
The pair of workers watched the hunched over figure shuffle down the aisle away from them. He was bundled up in a coat, wore thick gloves, a toque, and had a scarf wrapped around his face up to the edge of the tinted ski goggles he wore. No bare skin showed at all.
"Bob comes in every other Wednesday, give or take a bit, always dressed like that, no matter what the weather or temperature, and always in the dead time of the night. He's harmless, even friendly once you get past his dress and the smell, but he doesn't interact with people much," Richard explained.
Emily shook her head and watched him come out from another aisle and head up the next, pushing his cart. "He's the weirdest I've seen so far. You sure he's harmless?"
"Sure he is. Just an old man getting his groceries. He lives down in Maugerville I think. Want me to stay up here and introduce you?"
"If you don't mind, I would appreciate having someone else up here." She looked at the aisle he had gone down, then returned to her register to check out a couple of University students on an all-night project snack run.
Richard busied himself refilling the ends nearest the registers and soon enough he saw the figure shuffling towards the lit check-out lane. He adjusted the box of cereal and walked around the lane to the bagging area. "Evenin' Bob, How are you doing? This is Emily, she just started on the graveyard shift with the rest of us."
The figure looked at Richard, then at Emily. His covered head nodded briefly and he started to unload his cart, passing the reusable bags to Richard to fill.
Emily stared at him for a long moment even as the belt brought the first items to the scanner. She gagged a little as a scent reached her, smelling like a mix of old-man sweat and some animal smell she couldn't place. "Did you find everything you were looking for? Do you have an Air Miles Card?" she asked, falling back into the standard routine and beginning to scan as fast as she could.
Bob nodded, but didn't say a word, a gloved hand reaching into a pocket and pulling out a couple of cards. She plucked the collectors card from his hand, scanned it and went back to scanning his groceries. He had his debit card ready when she finished.
"Have a good evening, Bob. See yah in a couple of weeks," Richard said, putting the bags on the cart.
The covered figure nodded to the stockboy and the clerk, and pushed his cart towards the door. He stuffed the receipt into the SPCA box by the windows and was gone.
"We-ird.... Is he sick or something?" Emily asked once the inner doors closed again.
Richard shrugged and adjusted the bags around her bagging station. "No one knows. We don't think so, but he doesn't talk much."
The lights of the truck lit up the windows as it started up and pulled out of its spot. Richard walked back to his cart. "Anyways, I've got more stock to get. You on tomorrow? That's when Luanne comes by. Bob's downright normal compared to her."
"Oh fun. I can't wait."
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
"Police and Fire Fighters are going door to door in the flood zone, making sure everyone has either evacuated, or has the supplies they need. EMO Officials are encouraging anyone in the flood zones to leave, either to the red cross emergency shelters, or to friends and families. If you do insist on staying, make sure you have at least a weeks worth of supplies on hand. Once the roads are closed, even emergency vehicles may not be able to get through."
I half listened to the news report on the radio, skimming through the news websites for updated pictures. Flooding along the Saint John River valley was a common spring occurrence, but this year was proving to be extra bad. We had broken snowfall records over the winter, and now all of that frozen water had melted. And there was only one way for it to reach the sea. Before last night, it looked like the peak had passed. But last night a storm system that covered the entire length of the river dumped another hundred millimeters and swelled the river again. Now what had looked like a slightly higher flood season was well on track to breaking the records set back in '73.
My own risks were minimal; living on top of the valley meant I was well above the flood plains, but the pictures were fascinating, even with the city webcams overlooking the river turned off. Further down river, the water was over the old highway and covering the fields and surrounding the houses in those regions. The road closure list was growing almost as fast as the river was rising.
I rubbed at my side and dared to reach under my shirt and pull out a tuft of fur. The warmer temperatures also brought about another bit of personal unpleasantness that had to be dealt with one way or another; the spring time molt. I balled the thick fur up as tight as I could and tossed it into the garbage can.
I chuckled over a few images on the CBC gallery, showing a farmer 'trying' to use a snowblower to blow the water away, then shrunk the windows and got back to work.
Around ten, my cellphone rang.
"Joey speaking," I answered, tugging off a small clump of loose winterfur from the back of my forearm.
"Joseph Ford? My name is Ian Hatfield. I'm with the EMO. Do you have a moment to speak freely?" the voice said over the rumble of a vehicle in motion.
I looked around quickly, but my coworkers that I could see were busy with their own tasks. I tried to figure out why the Emergency Measures Organization would be calling me, especially when they would be so busy dealing with the flooded river. My eyes fell to the clump of fur in my thick fingers and I clued in about what it must be about. "Hold on a sec," I replied, getting up and walking to the small conference room. "Okay, I'm clear now. What can I do for you?"
"I hope you don't mind me calling, we aren't even sure this is Change related, but all the signs indicate it may be. And your name is on top of the list to contact around here."
"I don't mind. It's why I'm on the list."
"Right, well, we have a situation down in Maugerville. A widower who won't evacuate."
"I thought there wasn't a mandatory evacuation going on?"
"There isn't, and technically we can't force him to leave. But his house is in a bit of a dip. Our predictions are it will flood, at least a foot or two deep."
"Fair enough, what do you need me for?"
Ian paused a moment. I heard the vehicle's engine turn off and a door open and some muffled talking I could barely make out. "Sorry about that. Well, the inhabitant, a 'Bob MacLean', isn't even answering his door, but we saw movement inside his place so we know he's home. We want to at least talk to him, make sure he's well aware of the risks and has the supplies to last out the flood.
"I've talked to his neighbours. They evacuated yesterday and were worried about him. It seems last August, he started acting strangely; refusing to see anyone, only going out completely covered, stuff like that. Sounds like a Changed who doesn't know about the Field, doesn't it?"
"That it does," I said cautiously, trying to remember if I had seen this worker's name on the Known lists before. I was drawing a blank, but that wasn't a surprise. "So what do you need me to do?"
"I'm going to be heading down there, and I'd like a Changed with me, to help with the convincing and briefing. Would you be available to come with me? Or could you point me to someone who could go?"
I looked out the little window in the conference room. Trees were budding, and there were no signs of the river from this angle. Our offices were too far back to see the flooding, let alone be at risk from it. I ran through the list of furs we had in the area. "How soon are you leaving?"
"Within the hour. The old highway is flooded along most of the route, and we want to get down and back as fast as possible."
I crossed Freddy Mack off the possible list; he was on the air until noon. There were a couple others I technically could call, but I knew the answer. I was too curious to see what it was like in the flood zone to pass up this chance. "Can you send someone to pick me up? I can come, but I don't have a vehicle."
"Sure where are you?"
I gave him directions to the office and hung up. I walked back to my cube, pausing to let my managers know I'd be gone the afternoon, and quietly filled Chris in on what Ian thought was down river. Soon enough, Rachel called, letting me know I had a visitor.
The man waiting in the lobby was clean, but he had a workman's build, and his nails caked with sand and dirt. We exchanged greetings and made our way out to his truck. It was a half ton that had gone in and out of the flood zone multiple times judging from the mud spray along the sides. The inside of the truck smelled wet with a couple of pairs of damp hip waders on the back seat.
"I'm not sure if you can even wear those, but they're there if you want to try them and we need them," he explained, hauling himself into the driver's seat.
"I'm not sure what the field will do with them. Lets just hope we won't need them," I said, slouching down to keep my horns from the roof. We pulled into the thickening traffic and were soon slowly making our way through the city towards the Westmorland Street bridge.
"So, if you don't mind me asking, what are you?" he asked while we were stopped at a light.
I tugged at some of the loose fur on my arm and let it loose out the window. "A rather raggy mountain goat at the moment. This coat was great through the winter, especially last winter... but losing it is a pain all over."
He chuckled a bit then did a double take as he saw me tug another mat from my other arm. "Weird... that just appeared out of no where."
"Oh it came from somewhere all right." I hung one arm out the window and looked ahead. "So how long have you Known? I didn't recognize your name from the- Wow!"
We rounded the corner, coming off Smythe street and onto Saint Anne's Point Boulevard. The boulevard was only a couple of clicks long, but it ran along the river and had entrances and exits for the bridge along it. Normally there was a grassy shore and a walking trail between the river and the road, but now the boulevard was more like a causeway. A very low causeway at that. As I watched, a wave washed lightly up and over the road. A police car sent up a spray of water as it approached us and passed us, lights flashing. Over the radio in the truck, someone was saying that the ramps were being closed to the bridge we were approaching.
"Sounds like we got through just in time," Ian commented as we drove through another flooded section before turning up onto the bridge.
"Yeah, this is gonna be a pain come quitting time. Damn, I've never seen it this high."
We drove onto the bridge and I had a good view of the river lapping around the base of some of the downtown buildings. Further downstream, the old train bridge, now a pedestrian bridge, had water lapping near the bottom of the deck. We took the ramp off of the bridge and made our way back to Riverside drive, driving along the river towards the Princess Margaret and the old Trans-Canada Highway.
"To answer your question, I found out last year, from a roommate's brother. But I'm not on your lists for around here. I live over in PEI now. But I grew up in Sheffield and when I started seeing how bad things were this year, I came over to help," he explained, slowing down for a roadblock. He showed a pass and was waved through.
I nodded, barely hearing as I took in the scenes around us, parking lots flooded, roads covered, and people checking on pumps or filling sandbags around the base of homes and businesses. We drove under the Princess Margaret Bridge and past another roadblock and onto the old highway.
The water lapped at both sides of the road, sometimes going over it. Small subdivisions on either side were completely covered by the river, houses standing out like islands. We drove past a nursery, its greenhouses surrounded and its letter board sign at the road saying "Need a bigger Pump. Flood 2008".
"Quite the sight, isn't it?" Ian said, slowing down as we approached another covered section of road. I pulled my arm in and rolled up the window before it got soaked.
"I haven't seen anything like this in years. Granted, I don't usually come this way, let alone come here during flood season, but man, we're well past '05 levels aren't we?" I thought back a bit, trying to remember when I was last down here during flood season.
"High school... That's when I was last here. The band was heading to Halifax for a music festival around now, and it was before the new highway opened. But the flooding wasn't this bad. It wasn't even over the road. I guess it was '95 or '96 maybe," I rambled on.
"Yeah we're well past 2005's levels. You were in the band? What did you play?"
"Tenor sax, and clarinet occasionally." I looked down at my hands and chuckled. "I haven't played in years though. And the clarinet's definitely out now. If I tried, I might be able to manage the sax again though."
"Cool. I was a trumpet player myself."
"Mmm hmmm," I replied, distracted by the big potato outside the farmer's market. Water filled the parking lot and was up over the landscape bricks that edged the flower bed around the statue's feet. "So what's known about this Bob MacLean?" I asked, trying to get back to what I was pulled out of work for.
"Not too much. He's a widower, in his sixties with one surviving grandson who's in the army and deployed to Afghanistan last September. Used to be a farmer, and still owns the land around him. He rents it to his neighbours to farm and they share the profits. According to those same neighbours, he always helped out where he could, and he was healthy for his age.
"Last August, just before the harvest, he took sick and basically became a hermit. He refused to see anyone, didn't help much with the harvest or anything. The few times, the very few times anyone would see him, he was bundled up tight, wearing a hat, a scarf, jacket and gloves no matter what the temperature. This is his place now."
We were well into the flood plains now. On our right, the swollen river ran fast, eddying around the trees that lined the bank, the water almost up to the roadway now. On our left, it looked like a large lake had formed and been fenced off. I knew the 'lake' was only a foot deep at best, covering the fields that made up this region. A driveway turned off the highway, dipping down before climbing to a hill that was barely higher than the highway we were on. A bungalow perched on top of the hill, completely surrounded by water now. A dirty half-ton was parked outside a separate garage that looked like it was set at a weird angle to the rest of the lot. Studying the ground a moment longer, I realized there was a slight rectangular ridge in the ground next to the garage, hinting at the foundations of an old house long gone. Further back from the road, a flooded unpainted barn stood in the water.
Ian parked the truck and we climbed out. In the sudden silence, I could hear the sounds of the rushing river, and chirping of birds. The smell of wet spring mud and rotting leaves filled the air.
"Look down there," Ian hissed, pointing down the highway. A skinny moose with no antlers and fur looking as ratty and clumpy as mine did, was trotting up the road, using it as a causeway to stay out of the water. Ian leaned back into the truck and mumbled over the radio, spreading a warning for travelers to watch out for animals on the road.
I looked away from the moose and stepped closer to the house, staring at the ground. I soon found what I was looking for. "Found something. He's definitely changed," I called out, pointing to the markings on a muddy spot on the ground. "Do you recognize the markings? I'm afraid I'm not all that much of a tracker."
He looked at the prints that almost looked almost like a bare-footed humans, but with too-long toes and the hint of depressions from claws. He shook his head. "Not sure, I'm not that good at this either. At least it shows we guessed right. Lets go see if he's home."
The house was set on a foundation higher than normal. From the back of the house I could hear the sounds of a generator and of a sump pump going all out. We climbed the stairs to the small porch and rang the bell.
"Mr. MacLean! It's the EMO. We just want to check up on you and make sure you have everything you need before the water cuts you off," he called out.
There was no response. Ian rang the bell again a few times.
"Maybe he did leave after all," I suggested.
Ian shook his head. "Not with his truck still here. It's his only vehicle." He raised his voice and opened the storm door to bang on the metal door. "Mr MacLean! Please answer the door. We need to talk to you about something else too."
"Well maybe he was asleep. If he's been keeping to himself and he got a nocturnal animal morph, he may have shifted his sleep schedule. I'll check around back."
Ian stepped back from the door and leaned over the railing, trying to glimpse through the curtains into the house. "That could be possible. Be careful and don't go near the water."
I walked down the stairs to the ground again and stepped onto the lawn around the house. My hooves began to sink a little in the soft muddy ground. Grimacing, I stepped around the house, looking up at the windows for signs of movement and trying to find dryer spots on the ground to step onto.
The rear of the house had a deck stretching halfway along its length. A covered barbecue stood near the patio door. A greatly diminished woodpile was stacked next to the deck with similar almost-human footprints around it. I stepped over the hose from the sump pump in the basement and climbed up the stairs.
On the deck, a canoe was turned over and laying against the wall next to the patio doors, ready for use. Moving closer to the house, I peeked through the doors and made out a dining room table and a kitchen just off of it.
I stepped back and scanned the other windows at the back of the house, pondering my next move. I was about to try the patio door, when movement caught the corner of my eyes. Looking back along the house, I noticed a curtain moving in a window that hadn't been moving before.
"Mr MacLean! We know you're in there. Please come talk to us. We can explain what happened to you," I called out, scanning the windows and trying to listen over the sounds of the pump and generator.
There was a click from the patio doors and they cracked over. "What do you think you're doing? They're going to see you!" a panicked voice hissed out.
I tried to see the speaker, but he was hidden in the heavy drapes next to the door. His voice sounded male at least, so we weren't dealing with a TG, thank ROB. I took a couple steps closer to try and get a better look. "It's okay, I can explain what's going on. They still see us as human," I tried to comfort him. "Just let us in so we can talk."
There was a long moment of silence. I heard the door bell ring again and Ian calling out. I held my arms out from my side. "Just look at me. I'm walking around looking like this, and shedding a mess. You think I could do this without causing a stir if people could really see me?
"You are not alone. There are more of us out there, a lot more. We can see each other, we know what we really look like, but to Joe Normal out there we're still plain ordinary humans. Please, let us in and we can explain everything."
The drapes rustled again and I saw a grey furred hand reach to the door pull. "What's with this 'we' talk? You look strange, but he's normal lookin'," the voice growled out suspiciously, holding the door pull but not moving the door yet.
I kept myself from sighing. "Yes, he's normal, he isn't Changed yet but he Knows. Knows about people like us and pretty much everything we know. He heard about you from your neighbours and put the pieces together and called me in to help."
There was another long pause, and then the door was pushed open wider. "Git in here. But stay in the dining room," the voice said, its owner coming into view. An old raccoon morph stepped out from behind the drapes, his mask a bit faded from age, but his eyes were dark and clear and very aware. He stepped away from the door, heading to the front of the house.
I stepped into the dark house and waited for my eyes to adjust. The place was tidy and well lived in. My nose picked up the strong mixed human/raccoon scent from the morph.
"Yer friend's already inside, come in and lets get this over with," the raccoon's grumpy voice said at the front door, not even giving Ian time to speak.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw pictures on the wall, some framed, some carefully taped up, all well maintained. I realized they showed at least three, if not four generations of a family, most taken around a farmhouse, the newer ones taken around the house I was in now. Without moving from the dining room, I became aware that every wall I could see had at least one picture of some human on it.
"So what is this all about? Why did you wake me up from my sleep?" Bob asked grumpily, leading Ian into the dining room. Ian's nose was wrinkling, indicating the concentrated raccoon scent was detectable even to him. I nudged the patio door open wider with my hoof as I walked around the table.
"This is all about making sure you are safe and sound, Mr. MacLean. The Browns have already evacuated to the university, but they're worried about you." Ian explained.
"And we're here to find out if you were Changed or not, and to explain what was going on," I added.
The raccoon looked at us, then turned his back to us, tail twitching over the top of his pants. He pulled a bottle of beer out of a bucket of ice next to the fridge and popped the top, pointedly not offering us any, not that I would have accepted.
"I've lived here me whole life, and seen worst than this through the years. I've got water, I've got food, and I've got lots of gas, even at the prices they're gouging us for now. I ain't going anywhere."
"Fare enough, sir. We just wanted to-" Ian started.
"I don't want ta hear any more scaremongering from the likes of you. Driving everyone ta panic when ya need ta keep yer heads on straight. Bah!" the raccoon glared at Ian for a moment, as if daring the EMO worker to say another word. He finally took a gulp from the bottle and shifted his gaze to me. "You though. Ah'll listen to you. You said we still look normal to the likes of him?"
I met his gaze, careful not to glance at Ian. "Yes, you do. You see there's a field-"
"Damn it! Why didn't anyone tell me things like that?" he interrupted me. "Ah've been sneakin' to the late night stores all covered up and hoping people wouldn't see me."
"We didn't know you had changed. There aren't that many of us, especially not around here. There are about a dozen of us that I know of in the Capitol region," I tried to explain again, tossing a look to Ian. "There isn't any pattern to who gets Changed, no list of who'll get hit each August. So we can't exactly warn you ahead of time...."
With many interruptions, I managed to get through the belated briefing and cover what he needed to know. He didn't have a computer, nor did he have any interest in getting one, which made things a bit more difficult, but not impossible. I made a mental note to try to hand him off to Julie when I got the chance; she was closer to his age and on the right side of the river.
"So you're positive people don't see me like this?" Bob asked again as I was wrapping up the briefing.
"Positive. Other than your foot prints, there's nothing that would give you away to people looking at you. And your own prints are close enough to bare foot human that most people probably won't notice them. They might wonder why you're leaving barefoot prints instead of shoe prints, but that's the field."
"And there's no cure for this? No way to get back to normal?"
He'd asked that question many times during the briefing, hoping, daring me to tell him something different. I simply shook my head like I had before. "No cure, and no way yet. They're trying to figure it out but don't hold your breath."
I looked at Ian and nodded, both of us standing up from where we had sat at the table. The raccoon looked pensive, finished off his beer and stood up as well. "We should get going. Are you sure you don't want to head to the shelters?" Ian asked.
"It's a lot ta think of... but no, I'm staying here. I've got everything I need here, and the water isn't that high."
"Fair enough. You've got the emergency numbers if you change your mind but can't make it out yourself. Down this way, it's looking like it'll peak on Friday or Saturday," Ian explained.
Bob escorted us to the front door and paused in the doorway, still mostly hidden by the dark house. "You're positive they won't see me like this?" he asked again.
I made sure I stood clearly in the sunlight, out of the shade of the house and nodded. "I've been this for three and a half years now, and no one's found me out that weren't changed themselves."
He considered it a bit more, then stepped out of the house. He began to blink rapidly, squinting in the afternoon sunlight. "It's bright out."
"Raccoons are nocturnal if I recall correctly. You may want to wear sunglasses when you're out in the day."
He nodded and tensed suddenly, hearing the truck at the same time I did. We turned and watched as a green DOT truck drove down the highway, raising a plume of water from the flooded roadway. The driver beeped his horn when he saw us on the porch, but didn't slow down.
"It was good to meet you, Bob. I'll definitely be in touch once things calm down around here," I said, holding out my hand. He looked at it then shook it tentatively, the first contact we had since we got there, possibly even the first bare-fur contact he'd had since he changed. Equally tentatively, he shook Ian's hand and we made our way back to the truck.
I stayed silent while Ian carefully turned the truck around and pulled back onto the old highway. We both waved to the raccoon-man standing there and eying us and the river. Soon enough he was out of sight.
The river was still rising, and rising fast. In the couple of hours we had been talking to Bob, it had climbed over more of the roads. It was lapping at the feet of the potato statue when we went by the farmer's market. Between the truck's CB radio and the updates on the FM radio from my Walkman, I heard road closures, parliament shutting down, schools being closed and the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel being evacuated. Traffic was already backing up as the approaches to the bridges were closed off.
"Think he'll be okay down there?" I asked as we drove on.
Ian shrugged, trying to see under the layer of water to make sure he stayed on the pavement, and watching for washed out sections. "It's hard to say. He's pretty independent and he's got his supplies. But this is a bad flood this year; it could get higher than he expects."
He slowed down and drove around a fallen tree. "I'll send someone else down to check on him a few times, just in case. We'll be patrolling down there anyways, and Gagetown's got some troops helping evacuate the people and cattle off the islands down there too."
We stayed on the highway as it climbed up the ramp onto the Princess Margaret bridge and crossed the swollen river. Looking out the window, I was awed by the flooding, lakes dotted with buildings and signs replacing the city views I was used to. The view was soon cut off by the University and the valley walls, returning a semblance of normality at least.
"Thanks for your help, Joey. I doubt he'd even have answered the door if you weren't there," Ian thanked me as he let me off back at work.
"No problem, I was glad to help. He may be your problem now, but once things get back to normal, he'll be my problem," I replied, chuckling a bit. "Give me a shout if you need anything else Change related."
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Even with a disaster going on at my doorstep (almost literally), life goes on much as it has before. The flooded downtown was only a few blocks away from my work, but the only signs of it for me, beyond the pictures on the news, was the increased traffic on the roads. After Bob's visit, I checked in on the rest of the local furs, letting them know about Bob and making sure they were fine themselves.
The river peaked in the city just shy of the '73 records on Friday, to everyone's relief (though the EMO spokesperson seemed a bit disappointed that they didn't break the record). Traffic was snarled up, but with schools closed and most of the downtown core and government shut down, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Further downriver, towards Bob's place, the river wasn't expected to peak until Saturday or Sunday.
Saturday, I decided I wanted to see it all again for myself, at my own pace. Plus it was Free Comic Book Day, and the shop I preferred to shop at was downtown, if he was open.
Things looked normal enough as I got off the bus at the Kings Place hub. The power was on, and people were shopping and wandering about. It wasn't until I crossed the street and trotted down towards 'Strange Adventures' (and towards the river) that I noticed the differences.
The smell of wet mud and engine exhaust permeated the air. Clattering gas powered pumps almost drowned out the crosswalk beep signals behind me. The stores along the street were dark, most with doors open, and pumps chugging away, sucking water out of basements and into the streets.
"Free Comic Book Day is going to be next weekend," a voice spoke up as I was looking through the door to the dark interior of the comic store. I looked towards the voice and recognized Derek, the owner of the store.
"With the power out, I can't be open anyways, so I've moved the day to next weekend. I've gotta hand out the books one way or another. Would you like one of them now?" He motioned to a bench with a couple of boxes opened on it.
I stepped over the hose pumping water from the depths of the store and peeked at the boxes. "Sure, I'll take a look. A shame you can't be open today, but I guess you can't do anything about the power or the water," I said, beginning to check through this year's selection. As expected, Marvel had their main properties out, especially Iron Man.
"You didn't take much damage did you?" I asked, nodding towards the pump.
He shook his head and passed out a couple more books. "Nope, I was lucky. It got into the basement, but we had plenty of time getting everything out. The water didn't make it to the ground floor, but it came close."
I nodded and checked the second box for anything that caught my eye. It was filled with works from independent publishers. One black and white book caught my eye, its cover showing an eerily realistic looking wolf morph sitting on the edge of the Centennial Flame fountain in front of Parliament in Ottawa. I'm not an art specialist by any means, but I've seen enough real furs and drawn furs to pick up the subtle differences between the artists who could see through the veil and those that couldn't. This art style in particular seemed familiar to me.
"What's this about?" I asked, pulling the copy of 'Distorted Reality' out of the box.
Derek took it from my hands and held it up close to his face. Discovering the store was run by a nearly blind person had been puzzling when I first started shopping there, but he knew his stuff and loved the books.
"'Distorted Reality' Ah yes, It's a new quarterly from an artist up in Ottawa. Maple Leaf Press is sending it out, mainly to Eastern Canada and New England. Strange story though, people changing into furries, but only they can see each other.
"This is issue zero, supposedly going into the main character's change. Issue one came out at the end of March. I think I've got a copy left inside. Let me go see if I can find it."
He handed the book back to me and disappeared into the dark store. I stared numbly at the book in my hooves and opened it, not sure what I expected to see. The first few scenes were all I needed to see. It was real, and truer to life than any Unknown would suspect. A few pages in, and I recognized the artwork; I had seen it the summer before, at the convention in Ottawa. He'd actually put out the book he was working on.
"Here you go, Joey." Derek held out the book. My ears reddened as I saw the cougress and she-bear on the cover; We'd talked to him at the con, but I didn't think we had left a big enough impression with him to draw us into his script. The scene itself was pure fiction of course; neither of us had posed in bathing suits of any sort, let alone the bikini styles he had drawn. But it was more than a little surreal to see yourself in the comics. I reached to my pocket, trying to remember if I had any cash on me. Derek shook his head. "Don't worry about it, I've added it to your tab. I know you'll be in later."
I shrugged out of my backpack and opened it up, slipping the books in so they'd be flat against my back. "Thanks Derek. Good luck with the water. I'll be by later to square things up."
"See yah Joey." He turned his back to me and moved on to another regular I recognized. I waved to her, then trotted on down to city hall.
Over the next few hours, I wandered around, snapping a few pictures and just being awed by the power of the river. It was clearly in retreat, the levels noticeably down from even what I had seen on Wednesday, but the high water mark was evident all around. Everywhere I looked, I saw pumps, sometimes multiple pumps, pulling water out from the basements of the Victorian era buildings. At Waterloo Row, below the old train overpass, Transportation workers were monitoring flood levels and a pump that was trying to empty out the dip in the road. They were slowly making progress it seemed, but the water was still easily three or four feet deep.
Walking out onto the bridge over the river, I couldn't help but shiver a bit. Brushing the nights before had taken enough of the winter coat out, that I could feel the chill coming up the water. I was standing on a lookout on that bridge, watching eddies whirl around a pier, when my phone rang. "Joey speaking," I answered.
"Joey? It's Ian again. How are you doing?"
"I'm doing fine. Just being a flood tourist down town today. Don't worry, I'm not crossing any barricades. What's up?"
"Well, if you aren't too busy, could you meet us up at the University? Bob's being evac'ed, and he's just a bit shell shocked. If you are available it wouldn't hurt to have a furry face nearby."
"Sure, I'll head up there. I'll see if Nicole is available too. I think she's working in the cafeterias up there. When do you want us?"
"I'm picking him up at the station in Burton, we'll probably be at the University in an hour or so."
I looked up at the University, visible on the valley wall above me, nestled among the trees and nodded. "I'll be waiting."
The line went dead and I looked out over the river one last time. Shaking my head, I started back towards shore, looking up Nicole's number and placing the call.
As far as chaotic scenes went, the parking lot of the Aitken Centre barely qualified. It served as the main Red Cross base for people displaced by the flood, but it was very organized. Most of the displaced had family living on higher ground that they were actually staying with, so only a few hundred people had to be accommodated on the University grounds.
I bought a bottle of water from the machine outside the centre and did my best to stay out of the way of the workers. Soon enough I spotted the tufted ears of the Lynx morph. "Hey Nicole! Over here!" I shouted, waving.
"Hey Joey. Any sign of the newbie yet?" she called back as she jogged over.
I glanced around but we were relatively isolated. "Not yet, and he's not a newbie. He changed when you did."
She grinned and tugged at the sleeves of her shirt a bit. "Maybe, but unlike him, I've been out and about and gaining experience.
I rolled my eyes and was saved by the phone. Ian's named popped on the caller id. "Hi Ian," I answered.
"Hi Joe. We're just coming off the bridge now. Are you at the University?"
"Yeah, Nicole and I are at the Aitken Centre, near the registration area." I looked towards the highway, and spotted his truck. "I just saw you drive past. We'll be here waiting."
I disconnected the phone and started walking towards the parking lot. "They're almost here," I explained as I went.
The truck's tires crunched over the gravel of the parking lot as Ian drove to a more isolated area. I noticed the old raccoon seemed to be trying to crouch down, out of sight a little. Ian parked and climbed out while we approached. The raccoon didn't move.
"How are you doing, Bob?" I asked, leaning in from the drivers side.
He looked at me and shook his head. "This was a mistake. I can't do this. Not like this."
"Sure you can. You've already come this far. Just think of it as the first real steps for the rest of your life."
"But this isn't my life! This isn't me." He tugged at the fur on his arm and glared at me. "I used to hunt these things, to keep them out of the winter stores. Now I am one? What the hell is going on?"
I sighed, hearing Nicole come up beside me. He glanced towards her but didn't react much. "I wish I knew. We all wish we knew. But we don't. We can only deal with the hands we've been dealt and keep living like we lived before, taking it one day at a time."
I moved around to the other side of the truck and opened the door. Bob looked at me but didn't move. "I won't lie, it can be rough at times, very rough some times. But I've lived almost three years this way, and I know others who have lived even longer. Some have even been Changed longer than they've been human now. We just do what we need to do, and trust in the Field to help us stay as normal as we can."
He hesitated a long moment, and finally climbed out of the truck. I stepped out of the way, and grabbed the two full suitcases from the back of the truck. Before he could object, I was pointing to Nicole with one of them. "Bob, this is Nicole. She works here at the university, so you'll probably see her more often than me. If you have any questions or just want to talk freely with another Changed, feel free to seek her out, or give me a call. Ian, where do we go now?"
We were lead to a tent set up on the other end of the parking lot, where Ian helped Bob get through the registration and room allocation processes. Nicole went over the map of the campus with him so he would know where to go. And I, I took the time to call Julie and leave a message for her, to see if the mare could come out and visit the old raccoon if she had the time and desire.
"Uncle Bob!" The young girl's voice pierced through the air, drawing everyone's eyes. She ran through the tent and all but tackled the surprised raccoon. He stood there frozen, unsure what to do.
"Allison! Let him go!" an older woman called out, catching up to the girl. They looked too much alike to be anything other than mother and daughter. "Sorry about that Bob, you know how excited she can get. How have you been? It's been too long since you came over."
Bob shuffled his paws in the gravel nervously. "Well, uh, I had some personal things to take care of. I hope I didn't inconvenience you too much, disappearing like I did."
"We could have used your help, but we got the harvest in in time. We're just glad you're fine. With that water rising, we worried for you."
"Bah, this was nothing. You weren't around for '73, now that was a flood. Thought the old farm house would lift right off its foundation back then. And we didn't have the pumps like we do now to keep things dry."
I stepped back and let Bob get reacquainted with his neighbours. At first he couldn't figure out how to act, but he soon relaxed visibly when they didn't react to his animal features. Nicole and Ian wandered over and we watched them for a moment.
"How many more like him do you think are out there?" Nicole asked quietly.
I shrugged. "Hard to say. We've got so many survivalist types in this province, and so many isolated villages and hamlets, it could be any number really. And it's not easy to find them, unless chance and emergencies work in our favour, like they did with Bob. Who knows how many Changed are out in Juniper or Belleville or places like that, those little places with only a couple of homes? Hell, television is still a big thing for some of those places, it's gonna be years before we find them all, if we ever do."
"It'll be a moot point eventually won't it? A few more years and we'll all be Changed and it'll be out in the open right?" Ian said.
"I guess so...." I let it trail off and looked back at the raccoon and spoke louder. "Anyways, I'd better head out now. I've got a few errands to run before I get home. I'm sure I'll be talking to you again, Bob. It was good to meet you Mrs Brown, Allison." I nodded to the mother and daughter, then bade farewell to the others. I trotted out of the parking lot, heading towards the mall.
Late May, 2008
Emily put her hands behind her back and leaned back, feeling her joints pop a bit. It was only halfway through the graveyard shift and she was already eager to head home. Movement caught her eye, drawing it to an old man pushing a cart out of one aisle and down the next. Something about him seemed familiar but she couldn't place what it was. Whoever he was though, he was buying a lot, judging by the cart.
Richard rolled up a cart full of juice boxes and began stocking the end near her cash. She checked for anyone heading to the register, then went to help.
"Did you notice that old man with the full cart? He looks familiar," she said quietly.
"I know what you mean. I recognize him but can't remember from where...." Richard fell silent as the man came down their aisle, and went up the next. He nodded to the two workers without a word.
Emily sniffed a bit and her jaw dropped in surprise. "It's Bob," she said, staring at his back.
"Bob? No way. It can't be him. He always comes in looking like a Canadian mummy. No way he'd be like that."
She shook her head. "It's him. I'd recognize that smell anywhere. He's cleaned up a bit, but he's got that scent to him... I wonder why he was bundled up before? He doesn't look sick or scarred or anything."
"I have no idea... you've got a customer."
The cashier rushed back to her post and checked through the trickle of late night shoppers that had arrived to pick up a few things. By the time she finished, she saw Bob pushing his cart towards her from the freezer section.
"Good evening, Bob. Find everything you were looking for?" she asked cheerfully, looking at the man's face for any reason why he would have kept it hidden all the time. It was and old face with surprisingly few wrinkles, his eyes maybe a bit darker than the rest of his skin, but there was nothing abnormal about it. She saw Richard staring at the old man's back and jerked her head towards the bagging section.
"Most of it," a familiar gravelly voice answered, confirming her suspicions. "Damn flood wrecked my freezer. Just got a new one and now I gotta refill it." She noted his fingernails seemed a bit longer than normal for a guy as he passed over his Air Miles card. A new silver Medic-Alert bracelet was on his wrist.
She started scanning the groceries. "I'm sorry to hear about that. Did you have much more damage?" she asked, encouraged by his talkative mood tonight.
"Nah much. Truck needs a tuneup, and carpets need replacing, but the important stuff was safe. Should be a good crop on the fields this year after all that water."
"Mmm-hmmm," she mumbled, continuing the scanning. The flood not only seemed to have washed away his cover-up look, but it had also loosened his tongue. She and Richard learned more about the old man during that checkout than they had ever learned in the months he had come in before.
She wrapped the receipt around his card and handed both back to him while Richard set the last bag back in his cart. "Good to see you again, Mr MacLean. Have a good evening."
"Same to you," he said, pocketing the receipt and card, and pushing the cart out the doors.
Richard watched the doors close behind him and let out a long breath. "Whoa. Talk about night and day. What happened to him?"
Emily shook her head and chuckled. "I have no idea, but at least he's doing well, whatever it is." She looked over at the display they had been setting up. "Your sign's wrong. It's supposed to be 2 for 5, not 5 for 2."
Clearing the Air
|The Veil (A Paradise Series)
(First: Holes in the Veil)