LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
“That's the woman who got your friend Henry Parker killed.”
“What?” Manny exclaimed. “You're joking, right?”
“That's her, all right. Her resemblance to Bettie Page is what the media brought up during the trial.”
“Pin up model from long ago. They made a movie about her a few years ago.”
“Right, I think I remember that one.”
The likeness to Bettie Page is what had attracted Jon to Rebecca in the first place when they'd originally met at an office party, and the media had played up that little morsel in their reports. It was a shock seeing this dark-haired angel and it took a tremendous effort for the person born as Brian Barrett to stay in character as Jonathan Sunset.
“I can see why Henry went after her, that lucky lion,” Manny murmured with a smile.
“Yeah, he was very lucky,” Jon growled. “He paid for the tryst with her with his life.”
“True, but at least that means she's not a Fur-hater like the dolt she was engaged to,” Michael remarked. “I wonder which Fur type she's signing up for?”
“I hope it's a fox,” Manny said optimistically. “She obviously has no problem sleeping around, so perhaps she could help us build up the Vulps population for Bastien!”
“That's a thought,” Michael remarked.
“I thought the settlement on Bastien was a Felis colony,” Kevin mused, keeping his eyes on the individuals getting out of the bus.
“Not anymore!” Michael said with a grin. “Cats can't live there but foxes can, so that world's as good as ours – and they already have an established colony site that we could move right into!”
“You guys are all heart,” Jon muttered.
Michael looked at him. “Sorry, Jon, but a lot of time and effort was put into that colony. It was a terrible loss, and I'm sorry your kin couldn't make it there, but we can still build upon what they established instead of starting again from scratch somewhere else.”
“Uh oh…” Kevin muttered quietly.
“What's the mat—oh,” Manny gulped. Jon and Michael looked up to see what cut off the arctic fox's question and then they all froze in place. The woman they had just discussed was striding directly to their section of fence.
Jon could feel the ridge along his back stand up again, and it was all he could do to keep from flattening his ears against his head. He swallowed with difficulty as she approached the fence.
“Hello, boys,” she said in a pleasant voice. Her tone was smooth and strong, as if she had been trained as a singer at some time in her life, and she gave them all a nice smile. “I'm glad you came out to see us arrive.”
“Uhm, welcome to the Furmankind Institute,” Kevin said in response. He was mesmerized by the woman's blue-grey eyes, long lashes, full lips decorated with only a hint of burgundy lipstick and the perfect teeth in her smile. She looked at him and her eyes crinkled with delight, instantly drawn to the timbre of his voice through furman-altered vocal cords.
“Thank you,” she said to the fennec fox. “My name is Rebecca. What's yours?”
“I, uh, I'm Kevin,” he answered with a hard swallow. He remembered his manners and gestured to the arctic fox beside him. “This is Manny,” he said. Then to the swift fox, “This is Michael,” he told her. He looked at the feline behind him over his shoulder. “This is Jon.”
Rebecca nodded toward each of them when introduced, committing their names to memory, but when she looked up at the cougar, her smile widened for him. “I am pleased to meet you all,” she said, drawn to Jon's large golden eyes. “I am looking forward to spending time with each of you.”
While her attention was on the mountain lion, Manny elbowed Michael covertly and they shared a conspiratorial grin regarding their earlier comments about her spending time with them.
“It's nice to meet you, ma'am,” the white fox told her.
Michael stepped closer to the fence. “It sure is,” he agreed. “Everyone has a reason for becoming a Fur. Why did you decide to join us?”
Rebecca didn't bother disguising her interest in the tall, broad-shouldered feline, and her eyes roved up and down his body, lingering only briefly upon his shorts. She put a light hand up to her collarbone, narrowing her eyes at him, and Jon had the sudden impression that she recognized him despite his changes.
If she had, there would be serious repercussions to the Institute for harboring a confessed Fur-killer, especially with the deception on the media and general public concerning his ultimate fate. It wouldn't matter if it was explained that his continued existence as a Fur was considered an imposed prison sentence by the judge that had doomed him to this life. All that Rebecca and the public would see is that he had never paid for killing Henry Parker and the demand for his head would be high. The furmankind program might even be shut down altogether, affecting more lives than just his own.
Jon tried to swallow his panic and fight down the churning in his stomach. She couldn't have recognized him. He had to convince himself that she saw only a small group of Furs who had come out to see the new volunteers arrive. As long as she had no suspicions about him, Jon would have to be extra careful to give her no cause to tie him to Brian Barrett.
Rebecca stepped closer to the fence and wrapped the fingers of both hands around the bars as she felt her attention drawn back to the quiet feline's amazing eyes. She thought he seemed a little sad, but she hoped she could help cheer him.
“I used to have a furman boyfriend like this one here,” she said quietly over a pleasant smile. “He told me all about furmankind and convinced me to volunteer for the program.” She glanced over at the expectant foxes and surreptitiously gave them a side profile of her figure, having recognized their interest. It was an old game she played, one that had helped her advance in just about everything she put her mind to where males were involved.
“I know it can be painful,” she confessed, “but it's a worthy cause and I'm looking forward to having a permanent fur coat of my own.” She gave each of the male foxes a warm smile and made the pretense of looking each of them over just as she had done with the mountain lion, absently toying with the buttons of her blouse. She acted as if the top two had come undone without her noticing them, and although she didn't have an enhanced sense of smell, she could practically taste the scent of their arousal.
She laughed with a broad smile at their sudden discomfort, the sound of her laughter pleasing to their ears, and then she shifted her eyes back to the cougar.
“Can this one talk?” she asked. “He hasn't even said hello to me.”
“I think the cat got his tongue!” Michael said with a grin.
Rebecca gazed at him expectantly, still toying with the buttons of her blouse, and Jon was finding himself drawn back to the woman he had once loved. If Parker had never gone to Colorado, Brian and Rebecca could have been a happily married couple, possibly planning a family of their own.
“Hello,” he managed in a quiet voice. With the way she looked at him, he had to admit that it was highly unlikely she knew who it was she was talking with. There was no fear in her eyes, no animosity on her face, and as she unfastened another button, he knew she was flirting with him just as she had done with his vulpine companions. She didn't recognize him, but he knew those eyes and those full lips intimately.
Jon dropped his shoulders and felt the tension start to melt away. He took a step toward the fence and gave her a tentative smile. Her expression brightened immediately and then neither of them remembered the foxes standing beside him.
“How was your trip out here?” he asked quietly. “It had to have been a long one coming out from Colorado Springs.”
Rebecca raised an eyebrow. “How did you know I was from Colorado Springs?” she asked.
Jon's tail twitched and he had to think fast. “We may be hybrid animals, Ms. Collins,” he answered quickly, “but we can all still read the news.” Beside him, Manny was shaking his head to warn him away from the subject of her notoriety.
“I… see,” Rebecca murmured, keeping her attention locked upon his face. “I suppose the media did make a circus of the event, so I shouldn't be surprised that someone would recognize me.”
“It's not only that,” Michael interjected, stepping closer to her at the fence, “but Henry Parker was our friend. This is where he went through his own transformation.”
Rebecca laughed, instantly relaxing. “Yes, I should have realized that the furman community would have an interest in the incident.” She reached through the bars and lightly brushed the soft fur of the swift fox's cheek. “I still miss him, but I'm glad to be among his friends.”
Kevin moved forward a step, secretly hoping she would caress his cheek too. “Are you going to be a fox too?” he asked hopefully.
Rebecca shook her head. “No, I'm sorry,” she apologized. She looked back up at Jon with a coy expression and explained, “I volunteered with the intention of becoming a mountain lion like Henry. I'm glad to see I won't be alone with such a handsome fellow to help me with the hard parts.”
Michael and Manny exchanged looks of guarded envy at her double entendre, but Jon's reaction was not what any of them expected. Coldness crept into his eyes and he stepped back away from the fence to put a little distance between them. Thinking to himself, he likened her to a female dog, but he was too much of a gentleman to call her that comparative term to her face.
“You would probably be happier in another form,” he suggested with a hard look. “You'd make a fine canine.”
“Or a vixen!” Kevin said enthusiastically.
Rebecca blinked at Jon's sudden change of mood. She didn't know what she might have said to offend him, but she could clearly see that he was displeased.
“Have I done something wrong?” she asked with uncertainty.
Jon's cold look of indifference didn't change, but instead of answering, he simply turned on his toes and walked away. He took only a half dozen steps before he dropped to all fours and picked up his pace.
“What just happened?” Michael mused, watching the feline pad away across the grounds.
“I don't know,” the woman responded with a hurt expression.
Manny cleared his throat and gave Rebecca an embarrassed look. “There's a mountain lioness here that's been working hard for his affections; they've had a rocky relationship, but things have been going smoother lately,” the arctic fox explained in a low voice. “Perhaps he sees your intentions as a road bump.”
“Jon's a good guy and just about everyone likes him well enough,” Michael said, “but sometimes I think he has issues.” He tapped the side of his head when she looked at him. “If you're planning to rely on him helping you through your transformation, perhaps you should consider a different species – perhaps a fox.”
Rebecca frowned and looked back across the grounds at the retreating backside of the mountain lion she thought she had liked right off. He wasn't like Henry at all.
She turned toward the voice and saw everyone loading up on another old bus to give the new arrivals transportation to their quarters. Marcelo was looking at her in amusement, but it was clear that she was holding up things.
“I'll see you boys later,” she told the trio of foxes. “I'll think about what you've said.”
Jon was disgusted with himself for his reaction to Rebecca's revelation. It had been a shock to see her here of all places, but he supposed that he shouldn’t have been surprised that she had chosen a mountain lion. For a few brief moments, he hadn't seen the woman who had left him to chase after the tail of an animal, but instead had seen her only as the gorgeous lady he had once fallen head over heels in love with. With the confession of her intentions, however, he was instantly reminded that she was the reason he'd had to endure the painful and unwanted transformation into a creature he had despised.
After months of counseling where he'd come to accept his fate with good grace, Rebecca's arrival threatened to rip that all to shreds. He didn't want to be here! He didn't want to be a Fur! She may not recognize him, but she could still cause him untold grief. Would his punishment never end?
He muttered obscenities beneath his breath as he padded across the empty Osprey helipad, but then another thought struck him with a cold chill. If she was going to the Felis Wing, she would see the portrait that Marcy had taken of him when he'd first arrived. Even if Rebecca didn't recognize him now, she would definitely know that face in Jon's 'before' photograph!
The mountain lion altered his course and ran full-out toward his former home, for once thankful that he could run faster as a furman than he could as a human. He had no intention of revealing himself to her accidentally, just as he had that first evening when Dante, Kristen and Jenni had found out they'd had a killer in their midst.
He stopped at the door of the Wing, got up onto two feet and then went inside. The interior lights were off, but the overhead skylight provided ample illumination.
“Doc!” he shouted loudly. “Doctor Renwick!”
Without waiting for the Felis physician, Jon began looking over the portraits hung in the entrance hall showing past classes as each of them had appeared before and after their transformations. It appeared that Marcy had rearranged them after they had moved out of the building, so he had to search for his own face among sixteen groups of volunteers who had come through the Wing.
“Hello, who is there?”
The doctor rounded the corner of the saloon to look down the entrance hall at him. When Renwick recognized the cougar, Jon's face was a mask of panic.
“Jon? What's wrong?” he asked. “Is someone hurt?”
The mountain lion approached him. “Where's my before photograph?” he asked in a rush. “We've got to take it down!”
“Wait, what's going on?”
“The picture Marcy took of me when I first arrived – where is it?”
Puzzled, Renwick turned to the opposite wall and gestured toward one near the end of the bottom row. There were seven portraits in that section and Jon was determined to make it six. He reached for the picture, but the doctor put a hand up over the frame.
“Tell me what's going on,” he demanded.
“She's here!” Jon explained in simple terms. “Rebecca's here!”
“Rebecca… as in your ex-fiancé?”
“That's her! She just arrived as one of the new volunteers — and she's coming to the Felis Wing! She can't see Brian Barrett's picture!”
Doctor Renwick was one of only a few individuals at the Institute who knew the full connection between Sunset and Barrett. He suddenly understood the reason for the cougar's panic and he removed the portrait from its wall hook himself.
“We can't leave that spot empty for long,” the doctor told him. “We'll have to put your picture back up eventually.”
“No! You can't put it back up!” Jon exclaimed. “You can keep it inside your file cabinet or a box until she's gone from the Institute, but it can't go back up as long as she's here! She would alert the media and probably a whole swarm of bloodthirsty lawyers. They'd probably shut this place down and have me executed for real!”
Dr. Renwick mulled over Jon's words and had to agree with him on most respects. This could be a major disaster, but it could be diverted if done just right. He glanced back up at the portraits on the wall and made a quick decision.
There was only one photograph of Dante Capanari at the very end of the row, since the tiger hadn't completed his transformation before his untimely death, so Renwick plucked the man's photograph from the wall and placed it on the hook above Jon's 'after’ portrait. Although the humans and their furman alter-egos always bore some resemblance to one another, the same could not be said for Dante's portrait looking anything like it could transform into the way Jon looked now. The expression on Renwick's face told Jon that he didn't think it would fool anyone, but they both knew that it had to be better than simply leaving Brian Barrett's face up on the wall.
“It will have to do,” he finally muttered.
“What will you tell Marcy?” Jon asked. “She doesn't know my background. If she sees the pictures out of place, she may rearrange them and start looking for my original portrait to put back up there or have another print made.”
“Do you trust me?” Renwick asked, his eyes looking deep into Jon's.
“Of course I do,” the cougar replied. “You could have purposely botched the job on me at any time, but I had to place my very life into your hands and you did right by me. I'm grateful for that, Doc.”
“Let me tell your story to Marcy — in private, of course. She knows you had your identity changed right after you got here, and even if she didn't know your reasons, she's had to wonder.”
Jon studied the doctor's face for a moment, but then they could hear voices outside of the front door. They had run out of time; the Felis volunteers had arrived.
“I trust you,” Jon said, gently putting a hand upon the doctor's shoulder. “Tell her my secret so we can keep it a secret from Rebecca. It's not just for my sake, but for the Institute's as well. I don't want to see anything happen to this place.”
Renwick gave him a nod, but didn't have time for anything else. The door opened and the platinum blonde nurse led three women and a man into the entrance hall.
“Why, hello, Jon!” Marcy said with a smile. “Ladies and gentleman, this is Jon Sunset. He was in the class that just went through the program.”
Jon nodded and gave a courteous smile to the newcomers, but when his eyes met Rebecca's he had to force himself not to scowl. She noticed his hesitation, still mulling over what she must have said to get a cold shoulder from him.
Marcy gestured to each of the newcomers in turn. “Jon, this is Penny, Rebecca, Lizzie and Richie, our Class Seventeen volunteers.”
“Hello,” he responded politely.
The young woman with bright copper hair introduced as Penny stepped forward with a hand up in front of her. “May I touch your fur?” she asked quietly. “I've never met a Fur in real life before.”
With Rebecca in close proximity, he wanted to be anywhere else but here, but as a representative of his new race, he nodded quietly and held up his arm. Penny gave him a grateful smile and began to pet the fur of his arm. Without asking, Rebecca and Lizzie stepped forward to do the same, although the man named Richie simply looked on in amusement.
Jon almost flinched when his former fiancé touched his elbow, so he turned and looked at Lizzie instead. The older woman looked to be in her early forties, but appeared as if she might be as much of an exercise enthusiast as himself. She wore her brown hair in a short ponytail and her short-sleeved blouse displayed the well-toned muscles of her arms.
He felt a sudden pinch and looked to see Rebecca purposely pulling on several strands of his arm fur to get his attention. Her eyes bore into his, silently demanding that he not ignore her. Although she couldn't know it, he was more than familiar with that look. He felt another chill course its way up his spine and he finally stepped back away from the trio of women.
“If you will excuse me,” he said, dropping his arm, “I have some business to attend to. Welcome to the Institute.”
“See you around, Mr. Sunset,” Rebecca said in response.
“Yes, see you later,” Lizzie echoed. Penny grinned at him, and Richie merely nodded. It was the tall, lanky man who had been the first to get off the bus. Jon had nothing against him, but the man smelled unwashed to his sensitive nose. Perhaps it was from a long day of travel on a bus under a summer sun, but Jon was ready to be away from this nightmare.
“Good to see you again, Marcy,” he said with a smile. “Thank you, Doctor,” he directed at Renwick. “We can continue our discussion at a later time.”
“Of course, Jon.” Renwick kept the photograph frame in his hands so that the portrait faced his lab coat, and he would continue to hold it so until he could get back to his office to hide it away. He gave the new volunteers a warm smile and gestured toward the sunken pit in the middle of the saloon.
After Jon got outside, he headed directly for the Educational Wing. Up on his floor, he found Jenni's door standing open as it often was. She was sitting sideways across a chair with her PBJ in her lap.
“Jenni,” Jon said when he stuck his head in her doorway. “I need to talk to you and Kris right away!” She started when he spoke, but she gave him a smile.
“Sure,” she said. “What's up?”
“Let's get Kris first.” Before she could get up out of her chair, he had already gone to the botanist's door. He knocked on it and called out Kristen's name, but there was no response. The door was unlocked, so he let himself in. Jenni peered in a moment later and saw him open the door to the bathroom.
“Jon!” Kristen's voice exclaimed. “You scared me!” She giggled and then said, “Did you change your mind about joining me? I just finished my shower, but we should still have plenty of hot—”
“Sorry, Kris,” Jon said with a frown, backing out of the bathroom, “but I need to talk to you and Jenni right away.”
“Uh, sure. Just let me get a towel on.”
Jenni didn't know what this was about, but Jon didn't get agitated like this unless it was important to him. She closed the door to the hallway for privacy and then sat down on one end of Kristen's couch. Jon paced the floor until the mountain lioness had dried off her fur enough so that she wouldn't be dripping all over the carpet.
She closed the door to the bathroom and then leaned upon it with a brush in her hand. She began grooming her fur as Jon seemed to be choosing how to begin.
The tall cougar finally realized that both women were waiting for him and he cleared his throat. “The new volunteers have just arrived,” he said quietly. “One of them is Rebecca!”
“Rebecca?” Jenni repeated, sitting upright in surprise. “Your ex?”
“Here?” Kristen exclaimed. “What's she doing here?”
Jon looked from one to another. “Henry Parker apparently impressed her enough that she's decided to become a Fur too!” he croaked. “She's here! She's…. here!”
“This is not good,” Kristen muttered. “Not good at all.”
“That's not all…”
“Don't tell me,” Jenni ventured. “She wants to be a cat – a Felis?”
“Not only Felis,” Jon confirmed, “but she wants to become a mountain lion… just like Parker — and she's already set her sights of interest on me!”
“How do you know this?” Kristen asked, sitting down on one of the wooden chairs at her dining table. “Who told you?”
Jon put his head in his hands. “Several of us stayed behind at the fence to see the new volunteers who arrived right after the kids left,” he explained. “She saw us when she got off the bus and came over to the fence to talk to us. I almost had a stroke when I saw her!”
“She talked to you?” Jenni asked. “Did she recognize you?”
“She talked to me, Kevin, Michael and Manny, but she couldn't keep her eyes off of me. I thought she might have recognized me too, but she didn't act as if she did.”
“If she doesn’t know who you are, then you're probably safe,” Jenni suggested. Kristen looked glum, and the leopard noticed. “What's the matter?” she asked.
The lioness looked up at Jon. “I know we aren't a couple,” she said quietly, “but I suppose now that she's here, I don't have a chance.”
Jon blinked in surprise. “Why would you think that?” he asked in a puzzled tone.
“Jon, you almost married her,” Kristen replied. “You told us yourself that you were head over heels in love with her. I can't compete with that.”
The male cougar crossed the room and put his hands gently upon her shoulders. “Kris, there's no competition here. She crushed whatever love I once had for her when she put me through the ringer in the weeks after I caught them in bed together that last time. She's nothing but a bad memory for me, and now she's come here to prolong my torture!”
He dropped his arms and sat down in the other dining room chair. He put his head down on the table and sighed heavily. “Under no circumstances can she ever find out who I am… who I used to be.”
“The portraits!” Jenni exclaimed. “Jon, your before and after portraits are—”
“Already taken care of,” Jon murmured into the tabletop. “I ran to the Felis Wing after I left her at the fence and had Doctor Renwick take down my picture, putting Dante's 'before' portrait up in its place.”
“You don't look anything like Dante in human form,” Kristen remarked. “You don't have the same hair color and you're taller than he was.”
“You can't tell our heights by a head-and-shoulders bust shot,” Jon responded, “and if anyone asks, I was coloring my hair black before I first arrived.”
“Jon, who else besides us knows your background?” Jenni wanted to know.
“Marcelo, Dr. Renwick, Angelina and Marcy.”
“None of them will break confidentiality to let your true identity slip,” the leopard said. “They all know the seriousness of something like that, which is why none of the other Furs here know who you are – uh, were. You're not the same man you were when you first got here. You are now Jonathan Sunset, legally and forever more. You said it yourself – Brian Barrett is dead, having paid the penalty for his crimes.”
Jon lifted his head up off the table and gave both of his companions an apologetic smile. “This is one of the reasons why I came straight to you gals,” he said gratefully. “You know who I am – was – and yet you're still willing to defend me. Thank you.” He looked over at Kristen's downcast eyes and tapped the table beside her lightly. She glanced over at him.
“I know we don't have the relationship you'd like us to have, Kris, but you aren't in competition with Rebecca. You've liked me since before I became a Fur, and with full knowledge of what I'd done. She's only interested in me now because I resemble her dead lover.” Jon gave her a smile. “I have no intention of letting her get close to me. You mean a lot more to me that she does, Kris.”
Kristen got up to her feet and then held out her arms without a word. Jon's eyes widened, but he got up to draw her into his arms, holding her close.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “I think I needed to hear that.”
“Don't be concerned about us,” Jon told her. “I may have to avoid her as much as possible, but there are no barriers between you and me.”
Kristen pulled back and looked up at him with a relieved smile. Then she got a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Does this mean I can shower with you after all?” she asked with a giggle, her tail twitching with a life of its own.
“You may as well,” Jenni said in amusement. “You dropped your towel at his feet when you stood up to get a hug!”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.