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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 6
Night Stalkers

 

Tigers love the water, but after walking all day in constant cold rain, even Dante was in a miserable mood. Unlike the first leg of their journey up the mountain, the tree cover was thinner in the area where they now travelled due to the fire in the recent past. Smaller growth only a few feet high dominated the area, with taller trees as only ghostly sentinels in the rain, their trunks long ago blackened and dead. Without overhead branches and leaves, there was no protection from the rain.

The ravine was behind them and the Furs were now descending in a southwesterly direction toward what they hoped was the way back home. Without either a working GPS receiver or Sissy's Personal Business Juxtapositioner, Avon could only guesstimate their route, taken line-of-sight from the ledge where Gerard had had his mishap across to their new location on the opposite side of the ravine.

Despite the rain and the wear on them following several days of walking, the group was making good time down the mountain with gravity on their side. There were plenty of passable animal trails, and every time they came across an open clearing with a view out over the Adirondacks, most of them were encouraged at how much closer they were to the lower valleys of the region.

Stomachs grumbled, but instead of allowing another large hunt that had fed them all before, Avon was adamant about pushing on to get Erin to proper medical attention. She was holding on as best she could, but spent most of her time sleeping while alternating riding on the backs of Carl and Ellie. They checked on her periodically, but thankfully she had not taken on a fever from her wounds. Either her new physiology was more resilient against infection or they had done a better job than they'd hoped cleaning her injuries.

Avon had approved of individual requests to hunt along the way, but they would have to be quick about it. Everyone would be fending for themselves, more or less, but it couldn't be helped. Up until now, there had only been minor injuries on their journey back home, but now that there was a serious incident, they could waste no more time.  Without the GPS receiver, they could not know for certain how much further they might have to go, but Avon was certain they could reach the Institute within another day – barring another deep ravine or other disasters.

With the focus on Erin's injuries, Kristen felt lost in the shuffle. Her own emotions were in turmoil over Travis' attack and she needed the services of a counselor more than ever; Unfortunately, Erin was their resident counselor. A number of the women in the group had rallied to Kristen's emotional defense, but none of them seemed to want to spend the time necessary with her to help her through it, not even her housemate Jenni. None of them had ever been the victim of a rape attempt and the thought of it made them all uncomfortable.

The only one who seemed to show the most compassion toward her was the one other person in the group of Furs she had no desire to talk to, and he ranked only slightly higher than Travis himself.  Jon had come to her following the apprehension of the offending canine, genuinely concerned for her well being, but she was still harboring a grudge against him for their big fight, forever ago it seemed.

The mountain lioness worried her bottom lip, her emotional flux causing her to waffle back and forth about her feelings for the male cougar. His rejection and rebuke had hurt her deeply, so much that she didn't even want to be around him anymore, but the concern in his eyes when he had come to check on her had been real. She had seen no aversion to her appearance due to the fact that she resembled the man he had killed. Still, she had pushed him away, unwilling to face him after so personal attack by the German Shepherd.

Kristen wanted to cry, but she didn't want to appear weak to any of her companions. She tried to keep a strong front, but with her ears back, her tail low and her head down, she was fooling no one in a group of animal hybrids that was learning to read body posture and scent as well as spoken words.

She wished she was home in bed – not her new home at the Institute, although that would be preferable to a long walk down a mountainside in the rain, but she missed her old life before things had taken a downward turn. She had not lied to Jon when she'd privately confessed her reasons for volunteering to become a Fur, but now that it was far too late, she wondered if she shouldn't have made an effort to deal with her situation instead of running away.

She sniffled a little and idly wondered if it was from her emotional turmoil or from the constant rain. As if to punctuate her thoughts, the sky rumbled deeply and the sound echoed around the valley below. She kept her head down and mutely followed Manny who trudged along in front of her, walking quietly around rocks and trees, ever downhill now.

Ahead of her in the line of Furs, Erin awoke at a touch upon her thigh. Her eyes snapped open in panic and she nearly fell off Carl's back, but then a hand caught her good arm and kept her upright. Having a tail normally would have given her the exceptional balance to stay put, but she was so keyed up that even that hadn't helped. The diminutive fennec woman turned wild eyes upon her male counterpart and Kevin suddenly felt bad for disturbing her sleep.

“I'm sorry,” he mumbled, dropping his ears. “I was just checking on you.”

It took a moment for his words to register through Erin's terror-stricken brain and she began to pant heavily. Carl peered at her over his shoulder and Ellie watched them from the other side.

“What's going on?” the male wolf asked. “Are you okay back there?”

Erin swallowed the lump in her throat and forced herself to extend a hand toward the young desert fox walking beside them.

“Kevin, please forgive me,” she managed to say somehow. “I… I was dreaming of coyotes… and your touch startled me.”

“I'm sorry,” he mumbled again. “I should have said something before touching you.”

Erin stretched forth her fingers and lightly stroked one of his large, wing-like ears. “It's all right,” she assured him, ignoring the renewed throbbing of her injuries brought on by increased heart rate. “I'm okay now.”  He looked up at her and she gave him a weary smile. “What was it you needed?” she asked a moment later.

Kevin still felt awful for frightening her, but her expression encouraged him. “I was going to see if there was anything you needed,” he replied. “Are you hungry or thirsty? I could hunt something for you.”

Erin smiled, fully appreciating his willingness to make sure she was cared for. “I am hungry,” she told him, “but I'm afraid I don't have much of an appetite right now. It's sweet of you to ask, but thanks anyway, Kevin.”

His ears drooped again. “Okay, but if you change your mind, I don't mind.”

Erin leaned down and pulled him toward her. She gave him a small kiss on the cheek and then stroked his ear once more. “Thank you,” she said warmly.

Sounds were muted in the rain, but Travis had hearing good enough to hear the small foxes behind him.  He wrinkled his nose and snorted in disgust at their sweet interaction, but the action caused the raked furrows across his muzzle to sting. With talents and skills similar to Kristen's, Raine Terrance was a horticulturist and had made a quick salve out of local plants he found along the way to keep infection out of the cuts, but it had done nothing for the pain.

He turned slightly in his walk to look back toward Kristen, certain she could have found a plant more appropriate, but he knew there was no way she would help him after what he'd tried to do to her.

“Eyes front,” Aaron growled, cuffing him on the shoulder none too gently. “Don't look at her. Don't even think about her.”

“You're lucky she didn't remove those eyes with her claws,” Norman added, “so keep them off of her.”

The German Shepherd muttered something beneath his breath and Norman's eyes widened. He gave the dog a feral grin and then punched him once right on the hip bone.  Travis yelped and fell over, but Aaron pulled him back up to his feet and shoved him forward.

“What's going on back there?” Avon asked over his shoulder.

“Attitude adjustment,” Aaron replied innocently.  The grizzly gave the other bear a look of long-sufferance, but then turned back without another word.

“Hey, look!”

Avon slowed to a stop and looked back in the direction of Michael's voice. The swift fox pointed into the dreary shadows of the forest through the rain. If he hadn't been looking directly at it, the old log cabin could have been easily missed. The grizzly saw it merely as an unwelcome distraction on their forced march, but others didn't see it that way; a distraction from a weary journey was exactly what some of them needed.

Michael, Dante, Jasmine, Dahlia and Wendy rushed over to the small building with interest, followed a moment later by several others. They gathered beneath a small porch that had been fashioned over a door that was slightly ajar.

“Careful,” Jasmine said quietly, “someone might be inside.”  Ignoring her advice, Wendy knocked on the door with a stick she had picked up from the ground; the wooden panel swayed inward.  There were no sounds within the structure, so Michael pushed the door in slightly.

As one, he and Dante stuck their noses inside, but the single-room cabin was vacant.  A portion of a back corner had collapsed in on itself and the interior was just as wet from the rain as it was outside the building. It had a wooden plank floor, a rusted potbelly stove in the center of the room with a stovepipe that went up through the roof; rain water leaked around it as well. There were no windows in the structure, but there was a wooden picnic table near the stove and a folding cot with rotting canvas beside a wall.  Ivy grew up the wall beneath the collapsed section and the place smelled of mold and dust. It had been abandoned for some time.

Michael took a step inside, resisting the urge to shake the rain water from his fur. Dante moved past him and sat down tentatively at the table, instantly soaking the seat. When it held his weight, he turned to look at the others who had come just inside the door. “It's not much, but for the first time today I don't have water dripping on my head!”

Kim Tanaka crawled in beside him at the table and her sister sat down opposite of her. “I like it,” the lynx said with a weary smile. “Why don't we stay here until the rain stops?”

Jasmine joined them at the table, but her eyes were on the ceiling above. “I wouldn't mind stopping for a while,” she said, “but it isn't big enough to get everybody inside.”

“We could gather up wood for the stove and Aaron could use his lighter to get a fire going,” Yuki suggested.

“I saw a small stack of firewood outside,” Michael said, “but it's all wet.”

“That cot's not any good for anything,” Wendy remarked with a look behind her. “We could break it up and burn that.”

Several more curious noses peered in through the door. “Well now, this is cozy,” Jon remarked, stepping inside. “Are you folks thinking of homesteading here?”

Kim looked at him with a smile. “That's not a bad idea!”

Jasmine snorted. “You're not on about that again, are you?”

The lynx frowned at her. “I was only joking just now,” she huffed in response, “but I still think we're walking into a trap by going back.”

“At least here we wouldn't have to start up with nothing,” Yuki added. “Shelter is always an important part of starting a colony and one has already been provided for us.”

Dante looked up at the leaks around the stovepipe. “It's barely a shelter,” he commented, “but it's definitely a fixer-upper!”

Kim leaned over onto his shoulder and flashed her feline eyes at him in a seductive manner. “Why not stay here with us and help us repopulate the forest with our kind?”

The tiger looked at her in amusement. “You have this all planned out, don't you?”

“We've had nothing but time for thinking over the past few days,” Yuki answered. “Plenty of time to make plans, if any of you would listen to reason.”

“You'd have to talk to one of the canine guys to stay with you,” Dahlia pointed out to the Akita, “or your sister would be the only one populating your colony of three.”

“You can have Travis,” Jon offered in jest. “I'm sure he'd be more than willing to help you make some puppies.”  Despite the sarcasm, Yuki actually looked as if she were considering his suggestion.

Avon stuck his head inside the door and glanced around at the room a moment. “Come on,” he groused. “We've got to keep moving!”

“Why?” Kim asked. “We're out of the rain in here!”

“It'll be drier in your own beds! We're getting closer to the valley and if we stay on the move, we may actually be home by morning,” the grizzly replied.

“We'll be put in cages and sold to a local exotic zoo,” Yuki tried again, entreating the other Furs who had slipped inside the cabin. “You want to be in a cage sleeping out in the rain when you could be dry and free in here?  We could fix up this place without too much trouble!”

Dante stood up and moved away from the table. “That's my cue to leave,” he said with a look of exasperation toward his housemate. Jon merely arched an eyebrow and turned to go back out in the rain with him.

“Wait!” Kim called out to the tiger. “Stay with us here!”

“Nobody's staying here,” Avon said darkly. “We're tired, we're wet and I'm cranky — you don't want to be having an argument with me right now. Everyone, let's go.”

Kim and Yuki grumbled in unison as the others moved toward the door. Avon stood just outside and waited for the sisters to emerge as well. They weren't moving as quickly as the rest of them, but the grizzly made shooing motions until everyone had rejoined the rest of the Furs impatiently waiting for them in the rain.

Avon counted noses, and satisfied they were all present, he moved back to the front of the line to continue leading his charges down the mountain.

They had been walking for twenty minutes when Kim and Yuki stepped out of line and let the ones behind them go on ahead. When Jon brought up the rear, he looked over at them with a frown.

“Ladies,” he said quietly. “You'd best keep moving.”

Yuki bit her bottom lip and stood up on two feet, crossing her knees together. “I need to pee,” she whispered to him. “All this rain, y'know.”

“You should have gone to the bushes instead of playing house in the cabin,” Jon acquiesced. “Go, but don't take too long.”

“I'm going with her,” Kim told him.

“You have to pee too?”

“No, but she'll be vulnerable and I'll keep a watch out in case that other coyote is still following us,” she explained.

Jon looked unconvinced, but when Yuki began dancing around with her hands at her crotch, he gestured toward the bushes with a tilt of his head. “Go on, but get back as soon as you can. Avon's moving faster down the hill now that the underbrush has thinned out.”  He looked up at the grey clouds, raindrops pelting off his nose. “It's hard to tell what the sky's like with this weather, but I think it'll be getting dark soon, so don't take too long getting back.”

“Thanks, Jon!” Yuki said, dancing around with a grimace. She and her sister took off toward the bushes while the mountain lion quickened his pace to catch up to the line of Furs.  

*** 

The sky grew darker within the hour, and although the rain had let up so that it was only misting now, Avon was reluctant to stop for the night. Dogs, cats, foxes and bears all complained at him, but the grizzly took up a position beside Erin on Ellie's back and gave her a quick examination. Despite her own coat, the small vixen shivered, cuddling as close to the she-wolf's fur as she could for warmth.

“Take a look,” Avon directed the group to look downhill from their current position. They were almost to the bottom of the mountain they had been on all day. “Most of you have been walking with your heads down most of the evening, but for the past fifteen minutes, I've been heading towards that!

Just about every pair of eyes followed the direction where he pointed. They were only slightly above the tops of the trees in the valley between mountains, and about two miles distant was a bright glow of lights. From the amount of illumination amongst the trees, the lights appeared spread out for something large enough that it could be a college campus.

“It's the Institute!” Sissy cried out. “We made it!”

“Yes,” Avon assured her. “We're almost home.”

“It's so beautiful!” Rose exclaimed with glee.  There were more collective remarks about the end of their journey, but not everyone was in agreement.

“How do we know that's it?” the large African lion asked doubtfully. “Maybe it's just a used car lot or a supermarket.”

“In the middle of the Adirondacks?” Manny retorted with a laugh. “C'mon, Arne, the Institute's the only place that large out here among the mountains. That can't be anything but our home sweet home!”

“Are we going to try to get there tonight?” Hank wanted to know. “Maybe we should stop for the night and go the rest of the way in the morning.”

“What?” Alicia exclaimed at the black bear. “Are you kidding?  We're this close and you want to stop?”

Hank looked annoyed that she was missing the obvious. “What little daylight we've had today is almost gone. What happens if we come across another ravine, or even just a rocky embankment in the dark?  We'll all go over like lemmings, following one right after the other. We're all exhausted from days of traveling and you want us to go off blindly in the dark when we can barely keep from stumbling over our own feet!”

Avon listened to conversations around him, but he looked again at Erin and put a gentle hand upon her shoulder. Her slight frame shivered beneath his touch. 

“I think that's a valid concern and normally I would agree,” he said loudly, “but for Erin's sake, I think we should press on.  We've got to get her to the hospital wing as soon as possible, so each of you will need to draw deep down inside for a last reserve of energy for our final stretch. I don't think those lights are more than a couple miles away at most, so the sooner we go, the sooner you can all be warm, dry and comfortable in your beds.”

No one argued with him, not even Aaron or the Tanakas. Either they all agreed with him or they were simply too tired to talk back this time. Whatever the reason, he was thankful for a moment of peace.

“I need two volunteers to go ahead of the rest, to make sure we don't stumble off Hank's embankment in the darkness,” he said. “It's potentially dangerous, but it's important.”

“I've been looking at everybody's butts for days,” Jon said from the growing darkness. “I think I'd like a change of scenery.” There were a few tired chuckles at his remark. “My night vision is better than it's been all my life, and now that the clouds are starting to break up, the starlight should provide enough for me to see where we're going.”

“Thank you, Jon,” Avon said.  “Anyone else?”

There was silence for a moment, as there were few who trusted their own tired feet in the darkness, but then an unexpected voice spoke up.

“I'll do it,” Kristen volunteered.  “I need something to focus on to get me the rest of the way home.”

Jon looked over at her, but she did not return his glance. “Okay,” he said quietly, “I'll take the lead.”  Without further preamble, the larger of the two mountain lions took his bearings with another look at the distant lights and then began walking downhill to the valley floor toward them. The line of Furs fell into step behind Kristen, and each one was more than ready to be done with their march in one way or another.  

*** 

Jon was the first one to step out from the cover of the forest onto the gravel road. He hadn't seen the break in the trees and underbrush until he was right upon it, and when he stepped onto flat ground while walking upright to see over the bushes, he stumbled in the darkness. They had been fortunate that no one had tripped up in the night on the rest of the way down the mountain, so he felt a little foolish doing so at the end.

Kristen almost took a tumble too, but caught herself by dropping to all fours. “Watch your step,” she called back to those who followed behind. “We've found the road and there's a small drop down onto it.”

“It's the road?” Dahlia repeated wearily. “It's about time.”

The cougar looked back at her crossly. “You think we were holding back on the way down?” she asked.

The vixen shook her head in the starlight. “Not what I meant,” she muttered.

“What then?”

“I've been dreaming of my soft bed for the past two nights. I think I've been sleepwalking behind you, dreaming about it again.”

Kristen thought her friend's explanation was lame, but she was too tired to argue so she just let it drop. “C'mon,” she replied. “We should be there soon.”

Jon rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands and watched the rest of the group file out of the trees onto the road. The sky was now clear above them, though more than starlight illuminated the area. He could tell that most of them were dragging their feet, but they were still moving. He had found the road while walking upright merely to see above the denser underbrush nearer the road, but everyone else was traveling on all fours.  He could hear a few mumbled words as each of them stepped out onto the gravel road, but for the most part, the Furs were quiet. 

Satisfied that everyone was getting down onto the road okay, he turned to the right and led them along the avenue cut through the Adirondacks.  The curvy road to the Institute had never been designed for heavy traffic, but the glow of lights not more than a half mile distant was a clear beacon for the direction they needed to go.

As the group got closer, some of them seemed to have found an extra reserve of energy and padded on ahead of him. This close to home, Jon wasn't concerned if they did, but he was in no state to rush anywhere himself. Then, at long last, they rounded a turn in the road and the small gravel parking lot in front of the large iron gates of the Furmankind Institute lay before them.

Although happy at having arrived, a sudden disquiet moved through the furry crowd. The seeds of doubt spread by Kim and Yuki now caused them to hesitate.  From across the parking lot, they could see a single guard sitting on a folding chair outside the guard shack, enjoying a cigarette in the night air. They could tell he was bored, but he had not yet noticed the Furs. From his vantage point, they would all still be in shadow, blended in with the night.

“What do we do now?” Sissy whispered to Avon; she didn't want to attract the guard's attention just yet by speaking.

“Do we just go up and ask him to let us in?” Michael whispered from the grizzly's other side. Everyone gathered close to their ursine leader, awaiting his decision.

Avon looked over at Carl and noticed the watch still on the wolf's left wrist.  “What time is it?” he asked quietly. 

Carl glanced at the glowing hands of his timepiece. “It's twenty minutes past midnight,” he answered. “Will that make a difference?”

Avon shook his head. “No, I suppose not.”  He turned and faced back toward the tall wrought iron gate surrounding the compound. He studied it for a moment and then without turning away he asked, “Do any of you think you have enough energy to climb over that fence?”

“Why would we do that?” Manny asked quietly. “If we need to subdue the guard and open it ourselves, we only have to walk right up to him. He's standing outside the gate.”

“I don't want to alert him needlessly,” the grizzly explained. “It's after midnight and he might jump to the wrong conclusions if a large group of animals come after him from out of the darkness. He is armed, after all.  No, I was hoping someone could sneak over the fence and then run to get Marcelo out of bed.”

“I'll do it,” Sissy volunteered. “I've had to wake him from sleep before and I know how he reacts when startled.”

“Do you think you can crawl up those iron bars?” Dante wanted to know. “No offense, but you don't have a very long reach.”

Sissy gave him a patient smile. “Silly, I don't have to go over the top,” she answered. “I can slip between the bars!”

“Are you sure?” Jenni asked. “They're pretty close together.”

The orange feline snickered. “I'm very flexible,” she said with a smirk, “and I've done it many times.”

“You have?” Avon asked in amusement.

“There's a small, all-night country grocery store about three miles up the road that I like to go to sometimes. Our Shoppette here doesn't carry some of the snacks I like, so sometimes I sneak out and trot down there in the middle of the night. The guy who works the graveyard shift likes cats and loves to pet my fur, so he's never turned me in. The guards would freak if they knew I'd been out at night.”

“Sneaky kitty,” Michael said with a laugh.  Sissy merely batted her eyes at him and then turned to look up at the grizzly.

“Your secret is safe with us,” Avon replied with a gesture toward the fence. “You seem to be our best hope to get back in quietly.”

“Once I'm in, it'll take me a few minutes to get across the compound to Marcelo's quarters,” Sissy told the gathered Furs, “so don't be too impatient. Just wait here and we should be out to get you shortly.”  Avon gave her a simple nod and then she turned away. Without further conversation, she padded off around the perimeter of the parking lot so she wouldn't give herself away to the guard.

The Furs watched her until she reached the fence, and then without trouble, she slipped right through the bars and was lost in the shadows.

“Take five, everybody,” Avon told his companions. Without further instruction, everyone retreated to the trees beside the road and then either sat down or lay down among the leaves and pine needles. None of them wanted to remain on the road in case a late-night delivery truck or car arrived, as unlikely as it may be.  

*** 

Twenty-five minutes passed before a set of headlights from within the compound approached the gates and come to a stop.  The security guard let himself through the gate and then walked up to the vehicle. Some of the Furs had drifted off to sleep while they waited, but Jon had kept his eyes and ears upon the compound. The guard only spoke with the driver of the vehicle for a moment before he moved to the gates to open them.

The cougar recognized the hydrogen engine of the same old charter bus they had all ridden in several nights ago.  It passed through the gate the guard opened and traveled across the parking lot directly toward the place where they were all hidden in the trees.

It moved across the parking lot before it stopped just short of the road.  The doors opened and then Sissy stepped out, waving a hand.  Avon emerged from the woods by himself and cautiously approached the bus. Sitting in the driver's seat was Marcelo Delgado, the director of the North American Furmankind Institute. The swarthy man was dressed in dark blue pajamas decorated by light blue squares, matching slippers and a light summer bathrobe. His hair was disheveled and his Van Dyke beard was flattened on one side, presumably the side he'd been sleeping on when Sissy had awakened him.

“Hello, Hiamovi,” the director said in a quiet voice.  “If you'll get your people on the bus, we can all get some sleep tonight.”

Avon stared at him for a long moment, internally battling the desire to ask the man a flood of questions, foremost of all on why they had been abandoned out in the woods in the first place. He finally nodded and turned back toward the woods without saying a word to the man. He was simply too tired to argue.

“Come on,” he announced to the Furs in hiding. “Help one another get to the bus. Our journey's over.”

From the director's seat, Marcelo first saw numerous pairs of eyes shining in the trees staring back at him, and then cautiously at first, they all emerged to converge on the bus. They looked exhausted, some appeared frightened, while others smoldered in renewed anger.  Marcelo couldn't keep from taking a deep swallow, but then he steeled himself when Sissy led them up the steps and then to the seats.

Carl stood upright and carried the diminutive Erin in his arms up the steps, but he sat down with her in his lap in the first available seat.

“Marcelo,” he said in a grave voice, “we need to get her to the medical wing as soon as possible. She was attacked by wild coyotes who tried to drag her off to eat her. We bound her injuries as best we could, but now she needs real medical attention.”

The director looked astonished, but he nodded. “As soon as everyone is on the bus,” he stated quietly.

Most of the Furs gave him an intense look as they came up the steps, and after the first ten or so, he turned and stared out the forward windows so he wouldn't have to look at them.

Jon was the last one on the bus, and as he passed the director, the mountain lion lightly patted him on the shoulder. “Good to see you again,” he said quietly.

Marcelo glanced up at him in surprise, but the cougar had already moved on along the crowded bus aisle. Jon found a seat near the back of the vehicle without even noticing that it was Travis he sat down beside.  The German Shepherd looked at him warily for a heartbeat, but when Jon didn't do or say anything to him, the canine turned toward the window and closed his eyes.

With everyone on the bus, Marcelo closed the door and put the vehicle into motion. It lurched forward with a jerk and then for a brief moment, it appeared as if Marcelo was heading straight for the road. Several of the Furs thought he was going to take them back out to the clearing where he had dropped them off, but then more than a few let out a collective sigh of relief when he turned and circled the parking lot to point the vehicle back into the compound.

Everyone rode quietly as Marcelo passed through the gates and then the old vehicle rumbled along the ruts of road back to the center of the compound. He drove past the vacant helicopter pad, and then past the Felis Wing.  Dante watched mutely as his home receded behind him, but the tiger was too exhausted to complain.

After several minutes, the bus came to a stop in front of a two-story building. Avon got up, opened the door himself and then looked back at Carl, who stood up beside his wife to take Erin into the hospital wing.  The rest of the Furs watched quietly, but Marcelo did not follow the others outside the bus.

“Erin will get the care she needs now,” the director told them, “but for now I will take you back to your Wings.”

“What happened?” Jasmine piped up at last. “Why did you do this to us?”  Tired voices raised together with similar questions, mixed in with a few uncomplimentary remarks about the director's heritage.

Marcelo held up a hand and called for quiet. “Go to bed. Get some rest, sleep in, have a good breakfast or lunch, and then we'll gather in the assembly hall in the afternoon. I will explain everything to you then.”

“Why not now?” Gerard grumbled. “Can't we get just a simple explanation?”

“No, there is no simplified version. You'll be more receptive when you've had rest and I can explain fully.”

Voices rose in complaint again, but this time Marcelo returned to the driver's seat and put the bus in gear without a further word.  He pulled right up to the front door of each Wing to let out the Class Sixteen furmen, and then he took the remaining Class Fifteen Furs to their Educational Wing dormitories. He had avoided eye contact with everyone who got off the bus so he didn't notice the specific number of Furs that headed into the building toward their rooms.

Once the vehicle was empty, he returned it to the motor pool parking lot and then went back to his quarters on an electric cart.  

*** 

The Felis Wing was dark. Jenni, Dante, Kristen and Jon walked in through the entrance hall in silence. There were no lights on in the saloon, but they had been walking in virtual darkness for the past several hours that none of them noticed or cared. There was no talk, no whispers and no cuddling. All four of them went straight to each of their rooms, and they were so quiet that it was doubtful that either Marcy or Dr. Renwick even knew they were there.

They were home.

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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.