LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
“After you've caught and eaten most of the fish, set aside several of the bones.” Jon placed ten thin rib bones on a flat rock in front of his small audience. It had been a week since the Furs' return to the Institute and everyone had fallen back into daily routines. Anyone who had shown any kind of survival experience during the recent trek had since become instructors themselves. It didn't matter if what they taught was considered major or minor, but the sharing of knowledge was sought after.
The broad-shouldered mountain lion had become one such instructor, and although what he taught today was nothing that had been needed during their recent experience, the subject could be of use in the future.
Wearing only furman shorts, Jon stood waist deep in the water near the banks of the lake and washed his hands of the slimy residue of the fish he had just cleaned. Closely watching him from seated positions upon the grass were Kevin, Dante, Jenni, Rose, Sissy, Ivan and Dara, each eating the raw portions of Jon's fish. Also in attendance just to see an instructor at work was the director, Marcelo.
Jon picked up a small hand towel draped across the flat rock he used as a table and dried his hands. Without looking at his audience, he picked up one of the fish bones.
“Since the bone is rounded, you'll first want to flatten the broad end before you attempt to drill a hole in it. You can use sandpaper or a file if you have them, or something like this rock should work too.” Using shortened fingers with permanently extended claws made handling the small bone a challenge, but after several false starts, he managed to hold down one end enough so that he began scraping it against the rock. “You will want to do this while the bone is still soft,” he added as he worked. “If you wait until it's dried, it may become too brittle for this particular task.”
He held up the bone and examined the end that he had just sanded a flat spot on its curved surface. “It doesn't have to be real flat, but you'll want to do opposite sides. Once that's done, you'll need a small drill.” He held up the bone in one hand and a tiny drill bit in the other.
“Put the bone on your work surface and hold it steadily in one hand, and then roll the drill between your fingers to make a small hole in the place you just flattened. If you choose a bone that's too small, you won't be able to drill a hole big enough for your thread.”
The cougar worked with the drill bit for a few minutes, and as he worked, several in his audience scooted closer toward the water's edge for a better look. When he finally broke through and worried the bit around to smooth the edges of the hole, Sissy applauded. Jon looked up with a smile, simultaneously surprised at how much closer she, Kevin and Dante had gotten to his work. The others behind them looked irritated at having to look over them to see. Jon merely gestured for them to get closer as well.
Once everyone could see well enough, Jon held up the fish bone needle he had just made. The business end of the needle was tapered to a sharp point and the other now had a hole in it for thread or line to be used.
“Once it's finished, just rinse it off,” he did this as he spoke, “and then set it aside to dry. Since this one is fresh out of its fish, I'd let the bone needle dry for several days before I would try to sew anything with it. Lemon juice would help speed up the process and give you a clean, white bone, but you may not have lemons available wherever you're going. You can make needles of various sizes for different purposes, and you don't even have to use fish bone. We'll be taking along our own cattle, sheep and other critters with us, and when one of them dies or is killed for food, the bones is just one of the things you can harvest from them for other uses.”
He handed the finished needle to Sissy so she could look at it and then pass it around. Once it made its rounds, Jon gestured to several more flat rocks he had lined up near the water's edge. “I won't make you go fishing since I already have several good bones here, but if you'll all come and get a bone and a drill bit, you can all make one of your own.”
Moments later, Marcelo approached the mountain lion while the others were busy working on their needles. He crouched beside Jon's rock and nodded to him.
“It looks like things are going well,” he said in a quiet voice, “but do you really think making bone instruments is a skill you'll need? We will equip you with a supply of them made of carbon steel, you know.”
Jon shrugged. “I've been told that once we set up camp out there, we'll also be required to explore those new worlds,” he said. “You never know when an exploring party will be away from camp and may need something they forgot to bring along.”
“Do you think a rip in your robe or those special jeans of yours won't wait until you get back to sew it up?”
Jon chuckled. “Probably not the clothes, but you might need to sew up a gash in someone's arm or leg if there's an injury.”
The director pursed his lips. “I hadn't thought of that,” he admitted. “What would you use for thread?”
The mountain lion gave him a big smile. “That's next week's lesson.”
“Jon, I need another drill,” Dara said from the other end of the line of students.
“Yeah, I dropped mine in the water. I have bigger fingers and claws, y'know?”
Jon rolled his eyes over to Marcelo, who merely smiled back at him. “Maybe you need an awl,” he said to the polar bear. “It has a handle you could hold onto.”
“Can I have one of those too?” Dante asked, just as his drill flipped out of his claws and plunked into the water in front of him. The tiger looked at his hand paw with a frown. It was shaking, so he made a fist and then plunged it into the cool water to search for his bit. He was thankful no one else had seen it, embarrassed that holding onto something as small as a drill had obviously made his hand cramp up.
“Maybe this part of the lesson should be done up on the path instead of next to the water,” Marcelo suggested.
“Good idea. Okay, class, you'll need to pull your rocks, bones and drill bits up to the pathway so you can practice. I'll go grab more bits and a couple of awls and will be back in a few minutes.”
Despite the cold water, Dante was unable to keep his hand from shaking so he hid it inside of his robe top so no one else would see it. I've gotta cut down on my caffeine, he thought to himself.
Kristen closed her eyes and let out another soft sigh. She was curled up on one of the waiting benches of the Hospital Wing, her knees up to her chest. Everyone had treated her well enough in the week since they had returned from their trek, but it was her daily sessions with the Institute's counselor that helped get her through the days. She still had difficulty looking anyone in the eyes, especially if it was a male, so to give her the opportunity to think of something else, she had been visiting Erin in the hospital, staying several hours at a time – or at least until Kevin came in to see his female counterpart. He'd already been in there today when she'd arrived a bit ago, but she didn't feel like going back to her room.
“Doctor Allcome to the ER!” blared an announcement across the hospital intercom system. “Code Cyan – I repeat, this is a Doctor Allcome emergency, Code Cyan!”
Kristen looked up curiously when three physicians appeared out of side doors on the second floor where she sat and they rushed down the hall to the stairs. A few more heads peered out of the doorways, but no one else went running. She dropped her head back to her chest. She had never heard of code cyan before in a hospital setting, but considering that most of the patients here would be furmankind, she supposed it was something relating to one of the hybrid physiologies.
Restless, she got up from the bench seat and padded over to Erin's room on all fours. She peeked in through the door and saw Kevin sitting beside the fennec woman's bed. He was holding one of her hands and reading Sissy's Daily Mail to her from his PBJ. The walls of the room were the same pale aquamarine color that was used out in the hallway, but they seemed brighter and cleaner due to the sunlight streaming in through the second story window.
Erin turned her head toward the doorway, but Kristen backed out quickly. She didn't want to disturb the couple, so she decided to come back later. She put her hands into the pockets of her furman robe and walked slowly toward the stairs at the far end of the hall. She had gotten used to wandering around only in her shorts when they were on their march, but ever since that canine had tried to take her in the woods, she was too afraid to go out with only her natural fur as a covering. Her hand bumped into the green PBJ in her pocket and she wrapped a hand around it absently.
When she neared the staircase, she looked up at the sound of hurried steps. Jon Sunset rounded the corner at the landing of the stairs halfway between the first and second floors and looked up at her with a harried expression on his face. He wore only shorts and the fur of his legs looked as if he might have been wading in water.
Kristen immediately wrapped both arms across her chest and moved to the wall farthest from him, but instead of moving past her, the male mountain lion stopped a few steps down from her.
“Kris!” he exclaimed with a tight voice, “They've just taken Dante to the ER!”
“What? Why?” she asked in surprise. She hadn't wanted to talk to Jon, but at his remark, she wanted all the news. Jon gestured toward the stairs behind him and she quickly followed.
“He went into convulsions out by the lake during a training class,” the cougar told her in quick explanation.
“We thought he might be having more transformation issues, but he's delirious and acting as if he doesn't know anyone. I think there's more to it than genetic changes; it could be a stroke.”
“He's too young…” Kristen whispered.
They stepped out onto the ground floor of the hospital and the relative quiet of the upper floor vanished in a cacophony of voices. Doctors, nurses, medics, orderlies and others all seemed to be trying to talk at the same time while moving en masse through a large set of double doors.
Standing by herself against a wall near the administrative counter was Jenni. She wore only a pair of red furman shorts, but she had her arms wrapped around herself and her eyes were moist as they darted from one person to the next in hopes that someone would tell her what had happened. To anyone who knew the leopard, it was apparent that she had developed real feelings for the white tiger in the months they had all been together, despite all their talk of keeping their relationship casual and playful only for the duration of their stay at the Institute.
She looked around and saw her wing mates walking toward her. Jon looked worried, Kristen looked sorrowful, but when the mountain lions approached, Jenni jumped forward and hugged them both together.
“Have they said anything?” Kristen asked.
“Nothing,” Jenni responded, shaking her head. “I've been politely told to stay out of the way, and that's it.”
“I'll go find Doc Renwick and he'll give us some answers,” Jon grumbled.
“He's the one who told me to stay out of the way,” Jenni told him.
“C'mon,” Jon said, leading her toward a row of unpadded seats. “They'll tell us something when they can.”
Two days had passed since Dante was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of the Hospital Wing, and in that time little information had been passed on to those who called him friend.
Although they had not been officially released from their studies, none of the Felis Wing volunteers made an attempt to concentrate on what they were supposed to. Fortunately for them, their instructors were sympathetic so the three of them were either spending their time in the waiting room of the hospital or back in the saloon pit of their wing.
Doctor Renwick walked in through the front door of the Felis Wing and made his way to his patients. Jon looked up from his PBJ on one end of a curved couch, but neither Jenni nor Kristen appeared to notice him. Both were lying amongst several large pillows they had piled up in the middle of the pit after they had moved the table out.
“Dr. Renwick,” Jon acknowledged quietly. The women looked up at his words and both were suddenly attentive.
“I have news,” said the copper-haired physician. Everyone looked at him expectantly when he pursed his lips. “Things have been going well for all of you in the past months of your transformations,” he began, “but as you've suspected, something has gone wrong with Dante's progress.”
“What… happened?” Jenni ventured, an icy feeling rising along the ridge of her back.
Likewise, Jon's throat constricted at the doctor's words. They had been given so many assurances of how safe and successful the process was that he hadn't been concerned for weeks now. “Who botched it?” he asked accusingly.
Renwick fixed him with a momentary icy glare but then shook off the intimidation. “Nothing was botched,” he responded defensively, “and the trouble has nothing to do with anything we've done to him.”
“What then?” Kristen asked, sitting up on her haunches.
Renwick put both hands into the pockets of his medical smock, a stance for him they were all familiar with. “You all know Dante. He's admitted how much he's really enjoying his new life as a Fur – relishing enhanced senses, greater agility and strength. Well, it seems that Dante's subconscious has different ideas about it and is rejecting the species duality, and that has caused a chemical imbalance in his brain and nervous system.”
“What does that mean?” Jenni asked, swallowing with difficulty.
“Basically, there is an internal struggle between the human and the tiger, something that does sometimes happen to a few who undergo the process. It's taken us this long to determine the cause of Dante's current dilemma, but now that we know what's taking place, we can try to treat him.”
“Try to treat him?” Jon echoed.
“We can try to bring the chemicals in his brain into balance, but because it is primarily psychological, his system is still producing them in irregular quantities.
“He will get better,” Jenni asked quietly. “Won't he?”
Renwick began to nod, but then he stopped to consider his words. “That will depend upon Dante,” he said after a moment's hesitation, giving her the truth. “If he cannot rein in both sides of his new nature, there will be a physiological breakdown as well as psychological.” He gave the leopard female a look of compassion and added, “However, if his subconscious has the strength to accept what he is, he will pull through this and be stronger for it.”
“Why did it have to be him?” Kristen asked bitterly, scowling directly at Jon. “After all, you're the one who hates all Furs! You should be the one having an internal conflict for the thing you're becoming. Dante doesn't deserve this!”
Renwick expected Jon to blow up at the accusation and immediately prepared to counter the explosion, but instead the male cougar surprised them all by simply nodding.
“Yes,” Jon said calmly, “that should be me. Dante and I may have had our differences, but he doesn't deserve this.” Jenni and Kristen were both somewhat shocked by his remark, but Kristen recovered quickly.
“Doctor Renwick, why isn't this happening to Jon?” she asked in frustration. “You know his past, why he's here and what he thinks about Furs.”
The tall physician merely shook his head and looked at the male cougar. “I'm curious too. As much as Dante has accepted his duality, his subconscious should be supporting him. With all the dreams and nightmares you've had, Jon, why aren't you in this state instead?”
Jon didn't even have to think about his answer before he replied. “Professor Flynn has helped me through my fears,” he replied. “I haven't had any anxieties or nightmares for at least two weeks and I think even my subconscious has realized that I've finally accepted who and what I am, Doc.”
“What about Dante?” Jenni asked, bringing the topic back to the one who was suffering.
“We can try to help him medically,” Renwick replied, “but ultimately it will be up to Dante to accept or reject his hybrid nature. As far as I know, he's never sought out counseling since he's been here, probably thinking he's had no mental issues to work out – but there seems to be some internal demon he's battling now. You are all so close to being at the end of your transformation periods, and there's still to be some internal changes, but it will be up to each of you to reach that finish line on your own.”
He cleared his throat and looked at each of them in turn for a moment. “If any of you are so inclined, you may wish to pray for Dante or offer up whatever good luck you may.”
“When can we see him?” Kristen asked.
“You can see him now, if you wish,” the doctor replied, “but in his current mental state, he may not acknowledge or even recognize any of you. His mind is extremely confused, so whatever you say or do in his presence, please remain calm and don't upset him if at all possible.”
He paused and then said, “You've known Dante as a human with animal tendencies added into the mix over time, but right now the Panthera tigris altaica – his Bengal white tiger – is dominant. It's confused and frightened, and that also makes it dangerous. He injured an orderly when he was first brought in, so his hands and feet are currently wrapped up in Kevlar mitts to keep him from hurting anyone else. He's also sedated, but we can't knock him out completely since we have to allow his psyche the opportunity to work out its internal issues. Just be careful when you see him.”
“He'll recognize me,” Jenni assured her companions, “and he'd never hurt me!”
“Then let's go,” Jon said, closing up his PBJ. “Seeing you may help his troubled mind.”
When the trio reached the curtain to the ICU cubicle where Dante was being monitored, Jon and Kristen stopped by unspoken agreement to let Jenni go in first. The leopard female tentatively pulled back the edge of the curtain and peered inside.
Flanked by softly beeping monitors on both sides of his wheeled bed, Dante lay on his back beneath a single white sheet. His legs and feet were spread out wide, his hand paws were curled up at his chest and his tail hung over one side of the bed. Feet and hands were both encased in grey mitts and all were moving independently in quiet agitation. The anthro human tiger's head was thrown back up against a thin pillow behind his neck, his brown scalp hair splayed out in disarray, and the great feline jaws were opening and closing in an unsettled motion. His large blue eyes refused to stay still, roving from one point in the room to another as if there were too many things to see at once.
Jenni choked back a sob, putting her hands up to her mouth to silence the cry that wanted out at the sight of her friend and lover. Without thinking about it, Jon moved forward and looked into the room over her head. He felt a lump in this throat. Although the form in the bed resembled his housemate, Jon almost didn't recognize the guy. Kristen peered around them quietly and her reaction was jaw-dropping astonishment. She closed her mouth abruptly, causing her teeth inadvertently to clack together.
The sound attracted Dante's attention and his roaming eyes suddenly stopped, locking onto the trio at the curtain barrier around his room. His ears flattened against his skull and a growl began to form in his throat, but then his eyes opened so wide they could see their whites and his whole demeanor changed. He clutched at the sheet with his mittens and began to shriek in abject terror.
His friends could not know that when he saw their hybrid faces, the confused state of his mind saw only indistinct monsters as if he had never seen their like before. The horrible furred abominations staring at him with demonic eyes were there to eat him alive, to devour his bones with serrated teeth and rend his flesh with sharp claws.
Dante screamed in absolute horror and began thrashing around on his bed. He pulled the air tube from his nostrils and then knocked over the heart monitor near his pillow, causing its screen to shatter when it hit the floor.
Jon rushed in to try to hold him down, but when the mountain lion grabbed his arms, Dante hissed and yowled at the other feline, striking at him furiously. Several orderlies pushed Jenni and Kristen aside abruptly, and then Jon was unceremoniously shoved out of the curtained room.
Doctor Renwick stepped past them, a syringe with a thick hypodermic needle in one hand. Four men were struggling to hold down the thrashing tiger's limbs, while another avoided the feline's powerful snarling jaws.
Renwick darted in and shoved the needle into Dante's hip, but it took a moment for the injection to take effect. Jenni clung to Jon for support, her eyes riveted to the commotion before them and Kristen stood behind them with both hands pressed up to her chin.
Nurse Marcy was suddenly in front of them, quietly drawing the curtain closed. They looked at her all in shock and surprise, but she pressed a finger up to her lips. Without waiting for acknowledgement, she tugged at Jenni's arm gently, drawing the three of them away toward the admin counter.
“Go back to the Wing,” she said in hushed tones. “Visitation is over for now.”
“But—” Jenni began.
The platinum-haired nurse shook her head. “Don't argue. Dante's state is too confused and frightened right now and apparently your presence is only agitating him. I'll let you know when you can see him again.”
“Will he be okay?” Kristen whispered, swallowing with difficulty.
“I don't know,” Marcy answered truthfully. “I can't tell you any more than that.”
The walk across the grounds back to the Felis Wing was quiet. Neither Jenni nor Kristen was in any mood to talk and Jon's memory was fixated on the look of terror that Dante had given him. Seeing his wing mate like that affected Jon more than he'd thought it would. Kristen was right. That should have been him in there. Why was someone with such an easy-going personality as Dante's be struggling with the changes that he'd claimed for months was exactly what he needed in life? It just didn't make sense.
Professor Flynn had helped Jon through his anxieties for weeks, admitting his fears and working through his prejudices. That the person who had stolen his fiancé was a transformed Fur didn't really matter. He had originally focused only on that aspect of Henry Parker, but in the end Jon knew that whether he was human or furman was not the issue. He still hated Parker for what he'd done and he had not waivered on the fact that he'd been guilty of stealing Rebecca away from him.
Now that Jon was himself a Fur, he knew from personal experience that he didn't feel any different than he had before. His name had changed before he'd received the injection that altered his outward appearance and although now close to the end of the transformation period, he still felt like the man he'd always been. He was not an animal. He had not lost his soul and he was not a monster. He was a man; a furman, perhaps, but still a man.
When they got back to the Felis Wing, all three went back to the saloon pit without a word between them. However, none of them felt like being alone, so they each curled up on the pillows under the sunlight that streamed down from the overhead skylight, taking quiet comfort in one another's presence.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.