LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Sissy's tail swished back and forth in anticipation. A bus full of fifth-grade children from a local elementary school was due to arrive soon and she was excited about seeing them. It had been three weeks since Marcelo had cancelled an approved vacation for all the Furs due to the shooting incident at the gates, but when the Saranac Lake principal contacted the director requesting a start of the school year field trip for the children, it gave hope to some of the Furs that felt cut off from the rest of the world; Sissy was one of them.
She had always loved children, and had she not gone into the Anthro Human Colonization Program right out of high school, Sissy might have pursued a teaching career. With life on another planet, it had looked like she would have no more contact with children other than those who might be born to the colonists should they survive long enough to do so. The orange cat knew this might be her last contact with human children and was greatly anticipating the event.
The Furs had all been assembled several days earlier and were told of the field trip. Individually, they were given the opportunity to opt out of meeting the kids, but most seemed as agreeable as Sissy to have a small break in the routine to meet anyone without a pre-conceived notion on the evils of voluntary genetic transformation for the good of mankind.
Although the guards at the entrance would inform her directly when the bus arrived, the small feline woman couldn't seem to stay in her seat. Between tasks at her desk, she would get up and peek out the door out toward the gate, groan in disappointment when she didn't see the bus, and then plop back down in the seat at her desk behind the counter.
“Sissy!” Marcelo bellowed out his open door at her, “Would you please sit down? Martin will call you when they get here! You're driving me to distraction, rushing past my door every couple of minutes, and you know I have to get the paperwork on our new volunteers done in the next couple of hours! There are too many things going on today!”
The orange striped cat peered into his office with her ears lowered, chastised by his scolding. “Yes sir…” she told him. She returned to her chair, unconsciously sliding her tail into the slot at the seat back and pretended to look at the computer monitor on her desk. She had prepared all the necessary documents for the director's PBJ earlier that morning, but he still had to review all sixteen folders before he could put his signature to them.
Due to his conflicting workloads, Marcelo had asked Sissy to be the coordinator and welcoming committee for the school's field trip, an assignment that she had accepted with great enthusiasm. Although it had been hot and humid the day before, a cool front had moved in over the Adirondacks and the day was pleasant, so she had arranged the Meet & Greet between the kids and the Furs to take place under canopies erected out near the lake.
The feline's ears twitched when she thought she heard the low rumble of a bus, and without thinking she was up and at the door again. No bus yet, the sound she'd heard was nothing more than a custodian pulling a garbage bin behind one of the ever-present carts.
She shut the door and peered over her shoulder toward the director's office. Marcel was standing in the doorway looking cross and she felt her stomach twist. She knew that if she irritated him too much, he'd never let her have another assignment like this. She started to slink back to her desk, but the man pointed at the front door with a scowl.
“Get out!” he growled. “Go check on your friends out by the lake or go pace at the front gate if you want. Just leave me in peace!”
Sissy's eyes lit up, but with the director's blood pressure up, she made herself nod quietly before she grabbed her PBJ and then let herself out. Before she'd taken half a dozen steps, she heard the office door lock behind her.
The school bus arrived twenty minutes later. After conferring quickly with the driver and teacher, Sissy greeted each child as he or she stepped off the bus and was met with wide-eyed wonder and amazement at the giant smiling kitty cat. Just about every one of them wanted to pet her fur, and Sissy was more than happy to let them, even giving a low-throated purr for their amusement. Once she'd had a few minutes to answer some of their questions, she led twelve kids and their teacher in through the tall iron gates and then across the freshly trimmed grounds to the lake.
So none of them would intimidate any of the children right off the bat, all the Furs awaited them seated on the ground, most of them sitting back on their haunches with their tails beside them. Each of the four species sat together with their own groups and conversations hushed when Sissy's entourage approached.
Although the young students knew why they were there, they all hesitated when Sissy stopped to introduce the groups to one another. The orange feline waved a casual hand over the children and looked out over her associates.
“Good morning, everyone,” she said in a clear voice. “These fine young visitors are from the Saranac Lake Elementary School with their teacher, Mr. Meers, who has been telling them of the Anthro Human Colonization Program; they asked if they could all meet with our Furs today.”
“Welcome to the Furmankind Institute,” Avon said in a gentle voice. “We're happy to see you all today and will gladly answer any questions you may have.”
Despite what they'd been told in class, some of the children seemed startled when the largest of the furry people spoke to them. However, it was Cheryl who took the first step toward them. Knowing that most kids love doggies and kitties, the Border Collie padded toward them on all fours, her old cowgirl hat perched between her floppy ears.
The children smiled when she sat down right in front of them and wagged her tail for them. “Hi, kids,” she said with a bright canine smile.
“Hi,” said one boy right in front of her. Without any seeming fear, he stepped forward and began petting the fur of her shoulder with a big grin. She wore a slim halter top today, merely for modesty, but also because it showed off most of her fur patterns and she'd wanted to put the children at ease.
“My name is Cheryl. What's yours?” she asked pleasantly.
“Markle,” he answered. Other children seemed encouraged by the boy's rapport with the big doggie and a number of them surged forward to pet her fur.
One by one, some of the other Furs came forward, but those who were larger and might appear more intimidating held back, letting the children come to them if they wished. One who stayed where he sat was Jon. Even after three weeks of recuperation and the removal of his stitches, the cougar's arm was still in a sling primarily to keep him from using it and taxing the injured shoulder muscles. He was only now starting to exercise lightly with that arm, but the soreness was deep in the muscle and he wasn't able to do as much as he'd like with it. His ability to support his upper body weight when walking on all fours was still weak, so he was thankful that his altered form could still walk upright when needed.
Despite his injury, Jon was not opposed to spending time around children, but he'd not really had numerous opportunities to know many young kids during his life. That aside, he didn't really think any of them would be enamored with a mountain lion like they would cats, dogs, foxes or even a large teddy bear. Erin and Kevin seemed to be a hit; the small foxes with the big ears were cute, even if their features were a blend with the human beings they used to be.
Without any interaction with either the children or the adults, Jon was feeling drowsy in the shade of the tarpaulin canopy. He was tempted to stretch out in the grass and had come close to doing so when a voice roused him from his thoughts.
“Jon? I have a dark-haired angel who would like to meet you.”
The mountain lion started abruptly at Ellie's sudden intrusion to his daydreams and her words caught him off guard.
“Rebecca!” he croaked hoarsely. Had she tracked him down to the Institute? Was his life over even as a Fur?
Ellie knew she'd startled him, unaware that dark-haired angel is what his friends had called his fiancé, but she was taken aback by the sudden smell of fear she got from him.
“Jon?” she asked tentatively.
“Is he hurt?”
The cougar's ears twitched at the voice, but it was not the one he had expected. Standing beside the wolf was a young girl with feathered black hair swept back from her face like small wings. She wore denim shorts, sneakers and a white tee shirt adorned with a large sunflower, and she looked at him with deep brown eyes.
“Yes, he is,” Ellie answered, “I'm afraid we've startled him out of a nap, but he's as gentle as any small kitty you may see.”
Relief spread across Jon's face with a smile. “Hello there,” he said in a calmer voice. “My name is Jon. What's yours?”
“Hi,” the girl said with a smile at the thrum underlying his voice. “I'm Angel Lonergan.” Without prompting, she left Ellie's side and approached the lion. “May I pet your fur?”
“Yes, I think I would like that,” the mountain lion answered.
She knelt down beside him in the grass and lightly stroked one of his ears, giving his arm sling a sudden frown. The petting felt nice and Jon's eyes narrowed appreciatively as he gave her a low-throated purr for her kindness. This brought the smile back to her face and she leaned up against him to pet at the rusty-red hair on top of his head.
Although Jon had never really spent much time around children, he'd never had anything against them. This one seemed to have taken to him because of his injury. He sighed contentedly. The petting really did have a calming effect on him. It was easy to see why pet cats loved it so much.
Angel smiled back at Ellie. “I wish I could take him to school with me,” she said, eliciting a chuckle from both of the Furs. When she looked back at Jon, she frowned again at his sling. “What happened to your arm?” she asked.
The cougar exchanged a quick glance with the wolf, but then shook his head lightly. “I was hurt by someone who didn't like what I am,” he replied in a quiet tone. “He didn't understand why I became a Fur and reacted out of fear.”
Angel mulled this over, remembering some of the things Mr. Meers had told them in class about the furmankind project. She reached out and lightly touched his injured arm without putting any pressure on it.
“I know why you became a Fur,” she said, “and I would never hurt someone like you.”
Jon smiled and took her hand into his own. She looked down at the oddly shaped hand and then smiled back at him. “I am glad to hear that,” he told her. “We are doing something very important for everyone on Earth, but there are those who don’t agree. I'm thankful that I could meet someone like you, Angel.”
The girl grinned widely. “I'm glad I could meet you too,” she said.
“So… is there anything I can show you? Anything I can do for you?” the feline asked.
Angel looked at their hands again and felt of the pads of his palm with her fingers. “I dunno,” she said. After thinking a moment, she settled down beside him in the grass. “What's it like being a Fur?” she asked. “I mean, you weren’t always a Fur, were you? What's it like now?”
Jon liked this girl immensely and appreciated her curiosity. “That's right, I wasn't always a Fur, and it's not something I really thought I would ever become, but now that I've changed, there have been some really good times.”
Ellie smiled at the interaction between the student and the mountain lion. It seemed they had forgotten about her, so she withdrew quietly to see if there might be another she who needed to meet a Fur.
When it was time for the students to head back to their school, there were a few teary farewells. They had only been at the Institute for two hours, but some of the kids had already grown attached to the wonderful animal people. It was like being in a petting zoo where the animals could talk and play with them.
Near the end of the session, Sissy and Mr. Meers had gathered everybody together under the canopies by the lake for snacks and to talk about the reasons for furmankind. Some of it had already been covered in their classrooms, but the teacher had appreciated the hands-on experience for his students to help them understand more fully what the program was trying to do.
There had been no troublemakers among the students, although Mr. Meers had been hesitant to have three of the boys along. In actual proximity, however, the trio was just as awed by the Furs as the other children, so the overall experience had been a good one.
Goodbyes were finally said and the Furs accompanied the children on the walk back out to the school bus. Angel held hands with Jon until they reached the fence, and then he had to bend down so that she could hug his neck.
“Thank you,” she told him with moist eyes. “May I write to you?”
Jon gave her a nice smile. “Yes, I think I would like that,” he told her. “I will make sure your teacher gets my address.” Angel grinned and then gave him a small wave before she joined her classmates outside the gates.
The mountain lion was surrounded by other Furs as everyone watched their new friends board the bus and then depart moments later. They all waved to the kids, who waved energetically back at them out the windows. The bus disappeared around the bend in the road, leaving only a bit of dust in the air from the gravel parking lot.
He felt a hand upon his good arm and he looked down at Kristen. “That's a bunch of good kids,” she said. “I almost hate to see them go.”
“Yeah, me too,” Jon replied. “It was nice to be in the company of someone who didn't want to harm me.”
“How's the shoulder?”
“It's still sore, but it's getting better,” he replied.
The female feline patted his arm and then turned away. “I've been outside all day, so I think I'm going to head to my shower. Want to join me?” He gave her a tired look, but she only laughed at his expression. “I know, I know,” she quipped. “I'll see you later.”
Kristen left with most of the Furs that turned back toward the Institute, but just as Jon turned to the few still milling around, Marcelo rode up on his cart and stopped beside them.
“How did it go?” he asked with a smile.
“Wonderful kids,” Manny said with his hands in the pockets of his shorts.
“Yeah, if they can keep that attitude toward us growing up,” Michael added, “you may be seeing some of them come through your gates in few years.”
“Either that, or at least you'll have some supporters for the program,” Jon remarked. “It never hurts to have those who understand what we're trying to do.”
Marcelo studied the cougar for a moment and then nodded. “This is true. I'm sorry to have missed it all, but I had to get ready for our next volunteers.”
“When are they supposed to get here?” Kevin asked.
Marcel gestured toward the parking lot. “Right now,” he said. Sure enough, a large chartered bus drove into view around the bend in the road. They must have passed the school kids just up the road on the way in by only a few minutes.
“Excuse me,” the director said. He put the cart into motion and drove out to meet the newcomers.
“Should we hang out and see who gets off the bus,” Michael asked, “or just wait until we see them out on the grounds?”
“Let's hang around,” Kevin said with a smile. “It was nearly dark when my group came in so I didn't get to see some of you until later.”
The four of them walked up to the fence and looked through the iron bars at the newcomers. Marcelo pulled up beside the sleek bus and then stepped inside when the doors opened for him. They could see him through the smoky glass of the vehicle; he appeared to be giving a small speech, probably a welcome to the Institute. The Furs all knew from experience that the director would meet with each of the new volunteers separately throughout the rest of the day.
The driver came out and opened up the luggage compartment low on the side of the bus. While Marcelo was inside giving his welcome, the driver began pulling out the riders' suitcases.
After about ten minutes, Kevin sighed. “Is he ever going to let them off the bus?”
There was the sound of a hydrogen engine behind them and they all turned as one to see the old Institute bus pulling up to the gate.
“I'll bet Marcelo was killing time until Martin got here,” Manny replied.
The director appeared outside the Greyhound chariot. Passengers began to disembark and the Furs watched as each one came into view.
The first individual was a tall, lanky man in his mid-twenties in jeans, a tee shirt and sneakers. He stretched and then turned to get his luggage.
The next person off the bus made the fur along the ridge of Jon's back stand up beneath his shirt.
“Wow, would you look at those curves!” Manny exclaimed.
“Man, I'd like to get her number. She's gorgeous!” Michael agreed.
“You don't recognize her, do you?” Jon grumbled, swallowing with difficulty.
“Not personally,” Manny answered, “but she looks like Bettie Page – that's good enough for me!”
“Who's Bettie Page?” Kevin asked, his eyes locked upon the newcomer.
Manny looked at the young fox in amusement. “She was a dark-haired beauty waaay back in the nineteen-fifties that some called the Queen of the Pinups. She appeared in photos wearing anything from very little to nothing at all – which was scandalous at the time – but she had a distinctive look about her and the gorgeous creature that just got off the bus looks like she could be her sister! Her hair style is even the same.”
“Yes, she is beautiful,” Jon agreed, “but that's not what I meant.”
“Okay then, who is she?” Michael asked, unable to keep his eyes off the woman's curves. She wore form-fitting slacks and a white blouse but no jewelry beyond a couple of small diamond stud earrings that glittered in the afternoon sunlight. “Somebody famous?”
“That's Rebecca Collins,” Jon explained with his ears back and tightness in his throat. The tip of his tail twitched in agitation and it was all he could do to keep from growling. “That's the woman who got your friend Henry Parker killed.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.