SUNSET OF FURMANKIND
— by Ted R. Blasingame
Jon and Kevin jogged side by side around an outdoor track that circled the small lake on the back side of the Institute grounds, their feet crunching upon dried leaves that blew across the path. Despite the peach-fuzz layer of fur that each had developed body-wide over the past two weeks since their injections, the meager furman robes were not as well-insulated as they had hoped against the encroaching winter temperatures of November in the Adirondacks. The jogging helped keep them warm enough, but they would soon need something more if they were to continue their outside excursions. The daytime mercury had only risen into the low-fifties Fahrenheit with partly cloudy skies and light breezes through the treetops, but the nighttime temperatures struggled to reach the upper thirties.
As they jogged in synchronous steps, Jon reached up and absently scratched a spot beside his nose. Although there had yet to be any transformation in his actual bodily structure, colors and patterns had already surfaced in his fur. The tip of his nose was a muted pink, but his upper and lower lips, jaws and neck were snowy white. Atop his nose, the fur was sandy brown, with darker browns coloring his cheeks and pale patches over his eyes. The fur over his brow and the rest of his head was in various shades of tan and brown, but when in direct sunlight, some of Jon's original red hair coloring could be seen as a tint to his pelt, a color not really uncommon among mountain lions, though perhaps a little brighter.
Although still small and human-shaped, the backs of his ears were dark rimmed, almost black, with a nebulous white area in the middle. Above his nose ran a darker brown stripe straight up his forehead that faded out at the top of his head; there were two dark vertical strips an inch long right above the inside corner of each eye too. So far, there had been no sign of whiskers, a fact that Dante bemoaned daily in anticipation.
The thin fur over the rest of Jon's body was fairly uniform brown that faded into beige on his chest, belly, around his crotch and on the underside of his arms, and although there was no distinct border, the fur down the back of his neck and the middle of his back tended to be a little darker than the rest of his fur.
Doctor Renwick had confirmed that an unrelated DNA donor had been used for Kristen, but her patterns were remarkably similar to Jon's, while the central fur along her back was not as dark as his was and she did not have the reddish tint in the sunlight.
Despite the fur and the patterns, on a human Jon thought it all looked like nothing more than body paint or theatre makeup from a short distance. Despite his revulsion to Furs, he merely felt silly when looking at his reflection in the mirror, almost as if he were examining his Halloween costume.
Jon glanced aside at his jogging companion and allowed himself a smile at the young man's ears. None of the ears of those in the Felis Wing had begun to change besides growing the peach-fuzz over their outer surfaces, but Kevin's ears were getting noticeably larger, although they were nowhere near the size they would get before the transformation was complete. The teenager had chosen a fennec fox as his ultimate furman form because they were generally smaller predators than most of the others and the diminutive animals had personalities that seemed to match his own timid bearing. It had not occurred to the guy that his own ears would become extremely large, even though he had often seen photographs of the tiny foxes. As a human that had only begun the process, his ears did not yet resemble those of a fennec, but they were larger than normal and were beginning to take on a definite elfin look.
Like the Felis housemates, Kevin's thin fur had spread out all over his body, but actual patterns were not as distinguishable. His was a uniform tan the color of desert sand, with white on his throat, belly and hands. Aside of his ears, his most prominent new feature was the dark brown “cry lines” leading down from his nose at the inside corner of each eye that ended at the corners of his mouth. The end of his nose was devoid of fur, but the skin tone was darkening towards black.
Some of the volunteers might lose or gain mass over time due to their DNA donor material, but it was unlikely that Kevin would get any bigger, even as he moved on into adulthood. Still, despite his current teenage lanky frame, he was able to keep pace with his older companion during their daily jogs.
Kevin looked over and saw Jon glancing at his ears and a goofy grin spread across his features. Although the older male sometimes teased him about certain things, he always knew when to stop before feelings were hurt — unlike his housemates; the Fleur sisters could be unrelenting in their teasing. They were not mean, they just did not seem to know the difference between enough and too much.
Neither Kevin nor Jon said a word as they exchanged amused looks. They were only halfway around the trail course and they continued their even pace around the track.
In the administration office on the other side of the complex, Kristen was inside and leaning upon the counter in front of the admin assistant's desk. After she had suffered the indignities of the initial days surrounding the injection, the botanist had sought out the friendship of the orange-furred cat. The young furman woman had already been through the transformation and colony education, and although Kristen's education had begun with her housemates in daily sessions with Sylvia Janes in the saloon of the Felis Wing, it was Sissy's personal memories and positive outlook that encouraged her in the days since the changes began. They met on a daily basis for lunch, as well as other times that the admin assistant's schedule allowed, and today they were speaking in soft whispers outside of Marcelo's office discussing the potential sale of her car to someone driving up from Saranac Lake to see it later that morning.
Doctor Renwick and Nurse Marcy were both away from the Institute for the weekend, each having gone to visit their respective relatives. Marcy had joined her sister and brother for a quick getaway to New York City to see a hot new Broadway production, while Renwick had gone home to Boston to visit his mother.
With their housemates and caretakers off the premises for a time, Jenni and Dante had planned to spend some private time together, but things did not turn out quite the way they had intended. After the kitchen had been cleared of the breakfast makings that morning, Jenni's legs began cramping up on the way to the shower. Dante teased her about needing potassium, suggestive that she needed to eat a banana, but the spasms became so intense that she collapsed to the floor at his feet. He was not strong enough to carry her in his arms, so he provided a shoulder for her to lean upon to limp back.
Dante used his elbow to operate the light switch when they entered her bedroom, and then they both stumbled just before they reached the corner of the bed. Jenni caught the edge of her dresser with a hand and managed to keep them both upright, but then Dante pulled her toward the bed. He rolled her over onto the mattress and then stretched out beside her. The woman wrapped her arms around a pillow and lay face down upon it.
“Are you going to be all right?” Dante asked quietly, turning on his side to face her.
“Probably,” she mumbled into the pillow, “but I have a mild headache, too – right behind my eyes.”
He reached out to her legs and massaged her calves. The slightly furred skin felt almost velvety beneath his hands and despite the situation, he enjoyed the feel upon his fingers. Like Jon and Kristen, the patterns in Jenni's fur were already coming out in dark leopard spots with creamy beige in between; Dante's own fur was coming in snowy white, making the man as pale as an albino, but his tiger stripes were so light grey so they could only be seen well in sunlight from certain angles; he secretly hoped they would darken with time. He did not wish to turn out looking like nothing more than a large white housecat when it was all over.
Jenni dug her fingers into the pillow as more spasms coursed through her legs. Dante could feel the twinges in her leg muscles beneath his fingers and he frowned empathetically. A soft cry of pain escaped her lips when an especially intense cramp quivered just below her right knee, causing her to splay out her toes rigidly.
“This would happen when our physicians are gone,” Dante grumbled quietly, doing his best to administer what aid he could. Then to her he said, “You're a registered nurse, right? What would you prescribe for this?”
Jenni thought about it for a moment. “I need to get up on my feet,” she mumbled into her pillow, “and stretch the muscles with exercise.”
Dante frowned. “You could barely stand a moment ago,” he scoffed.
The former blonde turned and fixed him with a look of sufferance. “Then help me up,” she replied with a sigh. “What you're doing is helping, but I need to stretch the muscles out more.” She saw his smirk and added, “Besides, your massaging is traveling farther north than where my cramps are, dear.”
She rolled over toward him and trapped his hands beneath her hindquarters, playfully slapping his shoulder as she did. Another spasm took the fun out of her statement, however, and she grimaced in pain. Dante started to pull his hands free to help her up, but his fingers trailed across her hips and he suddenly stopped.
“Hello, what's this?” he asked in sudden interest. Jenni shifted her weight so she could sit up, but her companion kept his fingers on a spot just above her buttocks.
“Dante, let me up, please,” she said in sudden frustration.
The man did as he was told, releasing her so she could stand up. When she stumbled to the wall and began to stretch up against it, his eyes seemed to be glued to the back of her shorts. The hem of her furman robe was riding up a little high, and he could see a lump just above her modified waistband.
Jenni stood up on her toes and stretched the muscles in her calves, her hands splayed out against the wall in front of her, but she suddenly froze when Dante grabbed the waistband of her shorts and tugged them downward. He only pulled them down a couple of inches, but it was not her slightly exposed cheeks that held his attention.
“Dante!” she giggled in surprise. “What are you—?”
Her companion reached out tentative fingers and lightly rubbed at the base of her spine. There was a lump beneath the fuzzy skin, the size and shape of half a chicken's egg.
“You have a hard lump back here,” he told her in a serious tone. “It wasn't there last night when we were all together in the weight room.”
Jenni looked over her shoulder at him, continuing to stretch her leg muscles by extending one leg out and then mashing her toes in the carpet. “Yeah, I felt it against the toilet seat this morning,” she admitted. “I was going to see if one of the physicians at another Wing would look at it for me today.”
“Does it hurt?” Dante asked, gently prodding it with a finger. “The skin beneath your fur is red.”
“Only when you do that, dear heart. It's a little tender.”
“Oh, sorry. It doesn't look like a bite, not that there are any bugs still around after this cold snap moved in, but something is sure swelling up.”
Jenni closed her eyes and rested her forehead up against the wall. The stretching exercises were helping, but her legs were still sore. “I wonder if I'm having a reaction to the formula,” she mused aloud. She heard a small gasp and she looked back at her companion.
Dante had one hand around behind him and the look on his face was of dread. “Oh no…” he whispered, “I've got one too!” He swallowed, looking up at her. “Mine's not as large, but I can feel it beneath the skin.”
The cramps having subsided for the moment, Jenni turned around and gestured toward the bed. “Lie down and let me have a look.”
Dante pulled down his shorts a few inches and then lay face down upon her mattress. Jenni knelt on the bed next to him and lightly prodded a slight swelling beneath his white fuzzy skin. Dante flinched when her fingernail pricked the area and she drew away with a mumbled apology.
His tender lump was in same place as hers was. Without glancing at his partially exposed buttocks, she sat up beside him, searching her medical knowledge for some affliction that could cause this.
Dante closed his eyes and merely lay there beside her quietly, but after a few moments, he heard her chuckle. He opened one eye and looked over at her. “Are you laughing at my butt?” he asked lazily.
Jenni looked down at him with a look of amusement on her face. “Not at all,” she replied. “It just occurred to me what was causing our lumps.”
“…and you found this funny?”
“Yes, actually. Consider where the lumps are located, Dante. They're at the base of the spine… It's our tailbones!”
“What disease would make your tailbone swell up?” he asked, not comprehending.
“It's our tail-bones, Dante – our tails are growing! For animals with a tail, it's an extension of the spine!”
The man thought about it for a moment, but he looked doubtful. “Let me see yours again,” he said. Jenni turned around and presented her backside to him, but then a smirk crossed Dante's face. He pulled her shorts down beneath her cheeks in one swift motion.
“Dante!” she gasped in surprise. She had to scramble to get the furman shorts back up into place, falling over onto the bed in the process, and she had to slap his hands away from her exposed buttocks several times before she got them up.
Despite that he had surprised and embarrassed her, she was laughing as she scuttled away from his lecherous fingers. “Stay back, you!” she commanded with a giggle when he crawled across the bed toward her.
“Aw, c'mon, Jenni,” the man lamented in a mock whine, “I just wanted to examine your tail some more!”
The woman laughed. “Yes, I'm sure you do!” Dante gathered his legs beneath him and prepared to launch himself off the bed toward her, but Jenni snickered and ran out the door. Her companion followed in hot pursuit out into the saloon, but just as he passed through the doorway, he saw his prey stumble down into the central pit and drop out of sight with a yelp.
Dante vaulted over the curved couch blocking his way and landed on the lower floor beside her.
“Are you okay?” he asked in concern.
Jenni clutched at her right leg, curled up with her knee near her chin. “Cramp hit me while I was running,” she gasped between spasms of pain. “I wrenched my knee falling down.”
Dante grabbed her leg gently and stretched it out across his lap so he could massage it for her again. “Even though you've already figured out what the mysterious lump is on your tailbone,” he said soberly, “I think you should still look up another Wing physician about these cramps of yours.”
Jenni looked up at him wearily. “Why aren't you having leg cramps?” she asked. “We all got our shots on the same day.”
The man looked over at her and both eyebrows suddenly went up. “I dunno,” he said distractedly.
Jenni saw his expression. “What's the matter?” she asked, reaching up to run a hand across her forehead. “Am I bleeding?”
“Uh, no,” he answered. “You aren't bleeding.”
“Then why are you looking at me that way?”
“Your eyes… they've changed color in just the past few minutes…”
“Changed color?” she repeated in surprise.
“Your eyes are a little dilated, but they were light blue… now they're light green…”
“My eyes are blue, Dante. You're just imagining it or the lights are making you see them in a different hue.”
“The lights are off, Jenni; we have sunlight coming through the skylight. I can see your eyes clearly. Your eyes have changed color!”
The woman put a hand up to her temple and rubbed it lightly. “That might explain why the room seems brighter than usual. I've had a slight headache behind my eyes today,” she muttered just as another spasm quivered through both of her legs. She looked up at her companion with her new green eyes.
“Would you send a message to the medical staff of another Wing?” she asked with a tight throat. “If one of them is available, I'll need you to help me over there.”
“Sure thing,” Dante replied with a nod, “though it might be better to have him or her come over here instead so you won't have to walk on your cramping legs to get over there.”
Wondering when the same painful changes that were affecting her would hit him, Dante ran to his room to get his PBJ. Until now, he had been looking forward to the transformation, but seeing the pain on Jenni's face made him wonder if he had been too optimistic about the process.
He grabbed up his PBJ and connected to the Institute's network. He located the contact point for the Canis medical staff and typed out a quick explanation and request. After sending the message, he tucked it into one of the large pockets of his furman robe and then turned to leave his room. The PBJ pinged a response before he had traversed three steps. He took a peek and found a short message: “On my way.”
Satisfied, Dante returned to the common area in the saloon, jumping down into the pit as he had done before, bypassing the steps to the lower level. When he hit the ground, a sharp jolt of pain exploded in his left ankle and he fell hard against a leg of the table.
“Dante!” Jenni exclaimed, “Are you all right?”
The man groaned and sat up clutching his leg. “Ouch…” he murmured.
“I think I landed too hard,” he replied. The ankle felt tender, but when he worked himself up onto his feet, the foot held his weight. He gave his housemate a sheepish look and then sat back down on the floor beside her.
“The last time I stumbled over my own feet was in a cave in New Mexico,” he added.
“Oh, was it Carlsbad?”
“Lechuguilla,” Dante replied. “I was part of a group with the National Speleological Society that had been granted special access to help out with the survey work in parts of the cavern the public doesn't get to see.” He grimaced, holding his ankle, but continued to keep his mind off of it. “It's the deepest cavern system under the United States with an underground maze of over a hundred miles of explored passageways, going down over sixteen hundred feet below sea level. Once you're inside, it's a visual wonderland of natural formations.” He sighed and then looked over at her with a crooked smile. “Lechuguilla is the reason why I'm here.”
Jenni raised an eyebrow and sat back against the couch, absently massaging the calf of her left leg. “Did you run into a Fur down there?” she asked with wide green eyes.
The man laughed aloud. “No, I'd never met one before coming here,” he replied with a grin. “It was while surveying a particularly intricate chamber deep in the cavern system that I felt like I exploring another world, and it was then I started toying with the idea of doing it for real. I mentioned it to one of my survey partners during a break and it was he who suggested the Anthro Human Colonization Program. After I got back home, I researched the program and got interested in what I read.”
“You didn't join up because of the reward prize?”
“Not at first,” Dante admitted, “but that was icing on the cake. I'd heard of furmen, having read about their purpose in a few trade journals, but had never seen one in person. My primary reason was to become an explorer. Although there are a few places on earth still not fully explored, I had always dreamed of going to a place that no one had ever seen before. If becoming a Fur was the price of that opportunity, I had decided it would be worth it. I look at the one million prize reward as compensation for this little detour in my humanity.”
“What about your family? How did they feel about it?”
Dante gave a little shrug. “Mom didn't like the thought of me leaving the earth forever, but my Dad was long used to me running off to explore caves around the country with my friends and I guess he already figured I'd probably disappear in one someday. He talked her into letting me go more than I did, but in the end, she eventually realized that I would go no matter what she thought. I'm pretty stubborn that way. She finally gave her blessing and made me promise to contact them as often as I could when I was gone.”
Both suddenly turned their heads in unison toward the entrance hall. Someone had entered the building.
“Hello?” called out a concerned voice.
“We're down here in the pit,” Dante responded.
A moment later, a tall thin man with a lean face approached the steps above them. He appeared too young to have the shock of silver hair he had upon his head, but his eyes and the lines of his face hinted at an older man. Whatever his age, this fellow had seen many life experiences.
“I am Dr. Gabriel Aristotle, the attendant physician of the Canis Wing,” he said with an accented voice, removing his winter coat. Underneath, he was dressed in dark casual slacks, a white shirt and a lab coat similar to the one Dr. Renwick always wore. “I understand you're having a few issues.” He stepped down into the pit and knelt down in front of Jenni. The first thing he noticed was her eyes and he nodded quietly to himself in some confirmation.
“I'm Jenni and this is Dante,” said the woman. “You may want to look at his ankle too. He just twisted it coming down to help me. He was just telling me why he joined the AHCP while we waited.”
“I see,” murmured the physician as he gently stretched out Jenni's legs to examine them. “There are many reasons for joining. What was yours, sir?”
“I was a surveyor in the Lechuguilla caverns,” Dante boasted, “and I decided I wanted to explore other worlds too.”
Aristotle looked up in interest. “You have been in Lechuguilla?” he asked with a sudden smile.
“Many times. It was during my last visit that I twisted my ankle like I did today, but fortunately the entrance is level and I was able to continue.”
Aristotle stopped what he was doing and looked at the other man in puzzlement. “What do you mean, the entrance is level?” he asked. “You have to go down over a hundred feet of rope and ladders before you're even inside the actual entrance of the cave.”
“No, you're thinking of Mammoth Cave,” Dante dismissed with a wave of his hand, trying to sound knowledgeable. “That's nearby.”
Aristotle gave him a dark look and narrowed his eyes. “I do not believe you have ever been inside Lechuguilla,” he stated flatly. “I have been there twice as a guest of the Cave Research Foundation.” Dante's face fell and despite his white fur, he seemed to pale even further. “Carlsbad Caverns is the commercial cavern in southern New Mexico,” the doctor scoffed, “and Mammoth Cave is in Kentucky! Lechuguilla is not open to the public, with access made available only to a few to survey and explore the system. The entrance is arduous and not easily forgotten. Now, do you want to start again?”
Dante looked over at Jenni's look of disbelief and he hung his head in shame. “The doc is right,” he finally admitted after a long moment of silence. “I've never been to Lechuguilla. In fact, I've never even been to New Mexico… What I know about Lechuguilla is only what I've read online.”
Aristotle snorted his displeasure and returned his attention to the woman whose left leg he held in his hands. “If your friend has finished weaving lies to make an impression upon you, please tell me what you have experienced today.”
Jenni gave Dante a brief glance of disdain before she turned to the physician. “I've had a slight headache ever since I woke up this morning,” she told him, “and I started getting severe cramps in my legs just a little while ago. It doesn't feel like a regular leg cramp, though. It feels deeper, more intense.”
“It is the transformation,” the doctor informed her. “Your skeletal structure is beginning to soften ever so slightly to allow the reconfiguration the ability to change your form. It is a slow process, but within a few weeks you may have trouble holding up your own bodily weight.”
“I landed wrong on my ankle just before you came in the door, but it might have been a cramp like hers,” Dante added, still feeling sheepish at being caught in a lie. “Is this what's happening to me too?”
“Most likely,” Aristotle muttered, openly disappointed over the Lechuguilla matter. For just a moment, he had thought he had met someone with which to share experiences with over the great cavern system. “I can give you medication that will soften the cramps for now and soon you will be able to resume your activities, although I would caution you against doing anything strenuous for a while. Doctor Renwick should have informed you all of this phase of your transformation. Have any of you experienced anything else of note?”
“Yes,” Jenni replied, her cheeks coloring beneath her thin facial fur. “I have a lump… above my rump.”
“Up on your knees,” Aristotle commanded, extending a hand to help her up. The woman did as she was told and obediently turned around to present her backside to him. The doctor boldly raised the hem of her robe and then pulled down on the waistband of her furman shorts, studying the lump without touching it.
“It is your tailbone,” he announced. “Although the rest of your skeletal structure has yet to actually begin moving into its new pattern, the tail of your feline profile has already begun to grow. It is nothing to be alarmed with, my dear. It should not give you any real pain, though it may become uncomfortable to sit up against, especially as it begins to extrude, lengthening over time; this is why we have chairs with slots along the bottom of the uprights.”
“That's what I thought it might be,” Jenni remarked.
“I have one too,” Dante supplied, “though not as big as hers.”
The physician eased Jenni's shorts back into position and pulled her hem back down. He looked over at the pale young man. “Everyone develops at different speeds depending upon his or her metabolism, but just about all of the volunteers should be developing this tailbone extrusion at this time. It is one of the first physical manifestations that appear after the start of fur growth.”
Jenni remained on her knees, but slowly turned so that she could look at the doctor. When he glanced over at her, he raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “I am puzzled by your eye reformation, though,” he admitted. “This particular change usually doesn't begin for another week or so.”
Jenni suddenly looked frightened. “Is that bad? Am I going to mal-form?”
Dr. Aristotle chuckled and shook his head. “No, all it means is that your eyes are changing before anyone else's. It's nothing to be concerned with, though you may find that colors become a little muted and that you can see better in the dark than before. Sunlight will seem a little brighter than you're used to, so if you have any sunglasses, you may wish to use them for a while when outside. I am not as familiar with the Felis schedule of changes as I am with the Canis, but I don't believe you have anything to be worry about. Show your new eyes to Dr. Renwick when he returns and he can inform you of anything more to expect. The headache you mentioned may continue until your pupils fully change, but if you feel you need something for it, common aspirin should suffice.”
“Thank you, Dr. Aristotle,” Jenni said gratefully. She grimaced suddenly and bit her bottom lip. “If you can prescribe something for the muscle cramps in my legs, I would appreciate it.”
The older man reached into a pocket of his lab coat and pulled out an amber pill bottle. He twisted off the cap and tapped out four pale green caplets. He handed two to Jenni and the remaining two to Dante.
“Take one now and the other just before you go to bed,” he instructed. “This should reduce the cramps until Dr. Renwick returns.”
“Thank you,” Jenni and Dante said in unison.
Aristotle recapped the bottle and returned it to his pocket. “Do either of you need help getting to your feet?” he asked, standing up beside them.
Dante shook his head. “No, I think we're good for now,” he answered. “My ankle is sore, but I can stand on it okay. I'll help her up on the couch and get some water for her pill.”
The older man nodded. “All right, I will leave you in each other's care for now.” He looked over at Dante and pursed his lips for a moment. “I am curious. If you are not a caver, what was the real reason you joined the AHCP?”
Dante hung his head, refusing to meet the doctor's eyes. “I don't want to talk about it,” he mumbled. “The cave story was more exciting.”
Aristotle nodded. “Well then, if you plan to use Lechuguilla in your tale for others, feel free to visit me anytime you like. I can give you the real lowdown on what it's like to visit the place, from someone who has actually been there. It is a tale I never tire of telling and I have a good collection of vids and pictures.”
“Thanks,” Dante muttered. “I'm sorry for boasting about a place I've never been.”
“You're forgiven, Mr. Dante,” said the physician. “Perhaps after your transformation is complete, I can arrange to have you accompany me on a week-long trip to Lechuguilla so you may see it in person for real.”
Dante looked up in surprise. “I would like that very much,” he replied.
“Now, if either of you need me before your medical staff returns, please call. I am on-call around the clock.”
“Thank you, Dr. Aristotle,” Jenni told him gratefully. “Thanks for coming over.”
The older man gave her a pleasant smile and then retrieved his winter coat. He shrugged into it, fastened the buttons, and gave them both a nod before he ascended the steps and headed for the entrance.
After the outer door closed behind him a moment later, Jenni shuddered from another muscle spasm. Dante eased himself up to his feet and limped to the steps. “I'll get your water,” he mumbled.
Jenni watched him shuffle across the room toward the kitchen, but she did not move until he had disappeared through the door. She crawled up the side of the couch and then stretched out lengthwise across the cushions.
Moments later, Dante returned and handed a small, chilled water bottle to her without a word. Frowning at her housemate's sullen mood, she reached out and touched him lightly on the back of the hand after she had swallowed her medicine.
“What's the matter?” she asked him gently. “Are you embarrassed that Dr. Aristotle called your bluff?”
“Yeah, partly,” Dante mumbled in reply.
“…and the other part?”
The pale-furred man sighed and then sat down on the floor below her, his ankle still sore but no longer a concern. “I made up the story of being an experienced caver so I wouldn't have to tell anyone the real reason why I was here,” he confessed, leaning back to rest up against one of her legs.
“I'm sorry, Dante,” Jenni said quietly. “You don't have to tell me, and I won't let the others know you aren't really a spelunker.”
“You may as well know,” he told her, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. “I was a homeless beggar on the streets of Atlanta.” He closed his eyes and let out another audible sigh. “I've been on my own ever since my folks divorced. I was always getting into trouble, so neither of them wanted custody of me in the split. I overheard them arguing about me right before the divorce became final, so I ran away and have been living on the streets ever since.”
“Wow, that's awful!”
“I haven't been able to hold down a job and since I couldn't afford my own place, I slept wherever I could find an empty park bench or a spot beneath someone's hedges. I was beat up several times out on the street, but after a while they left me alone since they all knew I had nothing of value. My clothing and shoes were second and third-hand giveaways.” He indicated the gold chain he always wore around his neck. “Even this is only plastic, something I found in a park. I was often starved for food and found ways to steal just enough to keep myself fed. Neither of my parents bothered to report me as missing, so I lived on my own until I found a water damaged pamphlet about the AHCP. I had heard of Furs before, though had never seen one, but with an empty stomach and another cold winter approaching, I decided that becoming part animal was better than starving to death or freezing; at least then I would have a fur coat.”
Dante put his head down on his knees. “I had previously found a discarded pre-paid com phone that still had a few minutes of time left on it and used it to call the number printed on the pamphlet. I offered to sign up on the spot, but I didn't have any money for the bus ride. I was instructed to report to a soup kitchen in my area and that someone there would give me fresh clothing and a temporary place to stay until transportation could be arranged for me. I didn't know anything about the prize money until I was on the bus to New York City two weeks later and read through the material they gave me. I didn't know, and still don't know if I'll be able to survive the five years on an alien world, but right now I have all the food I want and better living conditions than I've had for the past few years since my folks split.”
“No wonder you're always eating,” Jenni said, sitting up. “Wait…You told us you were in your late twenties. How old were you when your folks divorced?”
There was silence for a long moment. She was about to repeat her question when Dante cleared his throat. “I lied about my age,” he admitted. “My parents split when I was seventeen. That was five years ago.”
“You're only twenty-two?” Jenni gasped.
“I've always looked older than my real age,” he told her.
The woman reached out and gently stroked the top of his fuzzy head, but then she grasped one of his ears and squeezed hard enough to hold onto him.
“You're full of all kinds of lies, aren't you?” she said in a miffed tone. “How much of what you've just told me is a lie, too?”
Dante grimaced from her tight ear hold. “Ow… it's the truth!” he exclaimed. “No lying this time! I'm a just a homeless wretch trying to stay alive!”
Jenni glared at the top of his head for a long moment, but then her expression softened and she rubbed his ear in apology. “I'm sorry,” she said quietly. “I don't enjoy being lied to, especially by someone I was growing fond of.”
“You were getting fond of me?” he asked in genuine surprise.
“I was, yes,” she answered. “Now, I'm not so sure I can trust you anymore.”
Dante rubbed his ear and pushed himself up onto his feet. “I don't blame you,” he responded wearily. “I wouldn't trust me either.”
Before Jenni could voice any further concerns, the pale young man ascended the steps out of the pit and limped to his room. He shut the door behind him and left the green-eyed woman to herself.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
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