“Bro. Pass me those Cicada Puffs, wouldya?” Harry mumbles, laying flat on his back. Norm very slowly obliges, being that he’s nearly as immobile as Harry at the moment. “Thanks.”
Audie tries to lift her head. Failing to manage this simple act, she grasps the fur atop her scalp and pulls, kind of twisting her head almost sort of upright. “Hey. Hey, I want a snack too. What’s a girl gotta do to get some treats around here?”
“Just make Reese get you something,” Harry snickers. “How’d you get him so fuckin’ whipped, anyway? I see him do almost half the shit you tell him to, that’s fuckin' unprecedented.”
Audie giggles. “Dude, if he did almost half of what I told him to do he’d be doin’ a shitload more. You’re just not around to see him when he's stubborn.”
“I han hunh,” I mutter softly through my drooling, hanging-open mouth.
“What’s that, dude?” she chuckles.
“I can hear you talking about me,” I mumble quietly, almost as though I’d just awoken from a coma. Frankly I’m not certain I haven’t just awoken from a coma; this shit we’ve been smoking is, if I’m being honest, simply too strong to be entrusted to mere mortals or those without medical degrees. “What the fuck did you make me smoke? What was in that? I was an egg just now. I was an egg for a million years just now, and I am not okay. I don't know if I'll ever be okay.”
Harry stares at me. "Bro are you sure you smoked what I gave you? Nip doesn't do that."
“Yeah I don’t think he’s grabbing me anything right now,” Audie remarks. “I don’t think he’s got a grip on himself or reality, much less a bag of fuckin’ crackers. Can you move your legs?”
“I got legs?” I wonder aloud.
“Dude, you’re fucked,” she laughs. “Norm! Cheese me, if you please.”
Norm tosses a bag of artificially-flavored and -produced cracker-like food squares. It lands on top of Audie, covering her head and most of her body, but she’s in no state to object. She barely seems to have even noticed, judging by how she’s reaching up and into the bag with one paw and cramming salty snacks into her mouth.
“Can someone bring me some water?” I ask weakly. “I think I’m drying out. I'm like a starfish in the sun.”
“And it seems to me, you lived your life, like a starfish in the sun,” Harry sings to the tune of an Elkon John classic.
“I’m dying, Harry,” I complain. “I need sympathy. I need help. Not your damned wit.”
Audie pushes her snack sack to the side and squints at me. “Nah, you’re not dyin’, you look fine. You just got cottonmouth,” she snickers.
“Et tu, Audé?” I sigh. “All right. Okay. I guess since I can’t depend on my friends I’ll just have to die alone.” I wiggle slightly, trying to figure out how this strange, noodly flesh vessel works. Am I really shaped like this? Have I ALWAYS been this weird, long, bendy thing? I look like a goddamn eel or something. I manage to roll off the couch and land on the floor in a heap. I twist around a bit until I think I’m right side up - with my perception as muddled as it is, that’s not a certainty - and try to start moving. Okay wait, how do I… shit. Don’t I know how to do this? I swear I do. Do I slither? I'll try to slither. No, that's not working. I don’t think I slither. Wait. Maybe I crawl like an inchworm! I wiggle madly, trying to somehow translate that into forward motion, but nothing doing. Shit. I'm going to die here next to a fucking ketchup stain.
I scratch my nose when it hits me. I have ARMS. I can just drag myself to where the water is! Son of a horse am I clever. I reach out and grip the carpet with my grabby little claws, pulling myself forward slowly. Fuck yes.
Norm just watches. He’s out of his gourd right now, the fuck else is he gonna do.
I creep into the kitchen and find, to my dismay, that the carpet ends. Woe! Damn these hooks, what so ably drew me hither but can little pierce the patterned vinyl of a lowly kitchen! Truly curs'd am I, to struggle valiantly and still suffer a mean death so near my salvation.
…Oh hang on a second, I have squishy little fingertips. While they don’t have the same traction my claws did on the carpet, my little paws continue to carry me onward. Huzzah! I arrive at a ladder, a ladder that seems familiar to me. Why am I looking at a ladder? Oh duh, there’s a faucet up there and I am parch'd. Upward ho! I grip the first rung and pull, dragging myself sinkward. So far so good. Second rung! Third rung! I wonder, am I really strong or do I just not weigh anything? I feel as though gravity may have no effect on me. Judging by the scale of this kitchen I think I am in fact very small. That’s a little terrifying. Isn’t it? I mean, think of who must live here. They could probably step on me and not even notice. Fuck, I better stay the hell off the goddamn floor.
I reach the countertop, still clinging to the ladder, and pause to get my bearings. All right, there’s the faucet, now I just need to drag myself onto… what the… what’s this feeling? It’s the strangest sensation, as if I had some kind of extra appendage lower down on my body and this odd protuberance were moving on its own.
I glance down and gasp. Holy shit, I have FEET! When did those get there? I am evolving at a rate unheard of by science! It seems that only moments ago I was some sort of limbless, boneless encephalopod and now I’ve got all sorts of limbs all over me. This is fantastic. I’ll have to figure out how these things work, though, because at the moment it appears that only one is moving and it seems to have a mind of its own.
I drag myself a little higher on the ladder and my new foot finds a rung, quickly settling itself stably and pushing me upward. Oh, that’s much better than just pulling. With these things growing out of my ass I can’t think of ANYTHING I’d be unable to climb!
…Shit, I forgot what I was doing. Why the hell did I come in here? I look around. A kitchen. Norm’s kitchen. I remember Norm. He’s nice. Goddamn, my mouth feels as dry as… you know what, since I’m in here I suppose I’ll have a drink of water. I'm sure I'll remember what it was that I came in here for.
I crawl towards the sink, staring into the brushed-steel cavity with equal parts thirst and wonder. How do they make these? Does someone have to hammer them into shape? Must be a big mammal to pull that off, it would take someone like me a year to do that. I crawl forwards a little bit more and, missing the edge of the basin with my paw, I topple headfirst into the sink with a thump. Fuck. Oh well, now I’m where the water goes, so getting a drink should be easy. I rise to my feet, wobbling, and approach the faucet. I’ll have to kneel a bit to get my mouth under that, but that’s no trouble.
Oh hand on, I don’t want to get my clothes all wet. I know, I'll take them off! Have I always been this smart? God, I hope so. I wiggle out of my shirt and step out of my shorts, piling both on the counter before I turn back to the faucet. I’m so thirsty. My mouth would be watering for that cool, crisp deliciousness if there was any liquid in my body to turn into saliva, but alas, there is none. All the more reason to quit wasting time.
Now suitably nude (though some others may disagree with that description) I twist and lift the faucet lever. Right for cold and up for flow, as I understand it. Glory to Njord! Clear, cool water pours from the mouth of the faucet, splashing against the basin and wetting my legs as I begin to drink directly from the stream. As I realized mere moments ago I am not a terribly large mammal, and so it is not long before my thirst is slaked. I could turn the faucet off, but who knows, maybe I’ll be thirsty again in a bit. I know, I’ll plug the drain! That way I can save up a shitload of water, enough to share with my friends in case they get thirsty as well. I’m so thoughtful.
The sink slowly fills and the water rises past my legs. Damn, does this feel good or what! It’s so fucking warm in here. This whole city is too goddamn warm and it always puts me in a bad mood. This water is just perfect to cool off in, why haven’t I thought of this before? I shut off the tap as the level nears the top of the sink, careful not to let it overflow.
I lower my body fully into the water and lift my feet, floating effortlessly in my new pool. Basking in utmost comfort, and still quite astonishingly high, I soon fall asleep.
Audie pushes against the cushion with both paws, sitting herself upright. The bag of snacks covering her head and chest slides off to the side and she looks around as if searching for something. “Hey, where’s Reese? I wanna get my paws in his fur.”
Harry blinks slowly. “You sure you don’t wanna do that in private or something?” he asks.
She rolls her eyes. “I’m not sayin’ I’m gonna fuck him, I just said I got a case of the feelies and I wanna grab me some of that thick fuckin’ fur he’s got. Where’s he at?”
“That chompa went to get a drink a while ago,” Norm mumbles, pointing lazily toward the kitchen.
“Aw man, he’s in the kitchen? How the hell am I supposed to drag my ass all the way out there? Norm, can ya give a girl a lift?” Audie begs.
“How’m I supposed to give you a lift when I can’t feel my gotdamn face? Y’all got legs.”
With a huff and a pout, Audie works her way toward the edge of the cushion and lowers herself carefully to the floor. Shakily, she begins her perilous quest to the kitchen in search of sensory satisfaction in the form of squeezable, snuggable fur. Jeez, who made this apartment so freaking big?? It’s gonna take all week to catch up to the little devil at this rate!
She eventually reaches the kitchen and, straining against the oppressive forces of science and physics, opens the refrigerator. Wh-what the heck! Where is he? He’s always squattin’ in the fridge! Damnit.
She looks up to the counter. Maybe he’s at the sink, she thinks. He’s more likely to just drink water anyway, since Norm and Harry don’t usually keep any stupid green tea or fish egg-infused vodka in the fridge.
He’s not allowed to make flavored vodkas anymore, by the way. Don’t EVER let him trick you with his stupid silver tongue. Don’t listen to him! It’s a fucking trick!
Anyway, he’s probably up at the sink doin’ something gross like putting a pinch of salt in a glass of water. He totally did that before. He lied about it when she caught him, of course, but that doesn’t change the fuckin’ facts.
She pauses to stare at the ladder. Dangit… she didn’t realize it ‘til she moved outta Billie’s place, but ladders can fuck right off. Havin’ to turn the lights on and off with a stick can eat shit, too. Size-appropriate living spaces are awesome, no matter how big a bed you might have all to yourself otherwise. "Ah what the hell," she sighs. She can climb up one measly ladder.
She reaches the countertop in no time and blinks in confusion, staring at the sink. “Dude... what the fuck are you doin’?” she mutters.
I wake slightly, lifting my head to look around. Oh, Audie’s here? I Pat the surface of the water, attempting to entice her as I float on my back. “Come on in. The water’s nice.”
Instead of joining me, however, she just pulls out her phone and takes a picture. We can agree that's pretty rude, right?
“Ow, goddamnit! Are you looking in my ear or trying to see my brain?” I yelp, jerking away from Doctor Goode and his torture device.
The groundhog huffs. “This wouldn’t be difficult if you’d hold still,” he grunts, gripping the fur on my head with a paw as he pokes the scope back into my ear hole.
“I’m more gentle when I’m gutting fish, okay? I’m not the problem here,” I argue as he so ruthlessly manipulates my head.
“And I hear less whining from children,” he counters, looking through the device. “Do you just stick your claw in your ear when you have an itch? That’s a great way to puncture your eardrum, you know.”
“Well what the hell am I supposed to use, a cotton bud? My fingers don’t cost me anything and they don’t have a warning on the package.”
“Nobody cares about that warning. That’s just there to keep mammals from suing the manufacturer if they hurt themselves,” he quietly informs me.
“See, that’s a big problem with this country. You’ve given dumbfucks the same rights as anyone else and as a result you’re not allowed to call them dumbfucks or tell them to shut up.”
He twists my head around to look in my other ear. “Part of the problem with that is that nobody who’s stupid knows they’re stupid,” he explains before staring at me pointedly for a moment.
“Oh, very funny. I’ll have you know I’m well aware of every bad decision I’ve made. I know exactly how stupid I am.”
“So I see. Open your mouth.” He takes a gander in my joke hole as I oblige, pointing the same waxy instrument at my throat. “Any chest pains or difficulty swallowing? Stiff joints?”
“No. Usually nothing hurts unless I strain myself,” I answer.
“Keep your mouth open.”
“But you just…” I sigh, opening my jaw wide.
“Good. You mentioned you’ve started playing hockey?”
“Uh huh,” I reply, keeping my maw open.
“Better than getting into bar fights, I guess,” he remarks. “Cutting back on salt yet?”
I sneer as well as I can while holding my mouth open.
“Well then are you at least drinking more water?” he sighs.
“Yeah,” I answer.
“Better than nothing,” he mutters, changing equipment. He pushes one of my sleeves up and wraps a cuff around my arm, squeezing a rubber bulb rapidly. “Any constipation or difficulty uri… you can close your mouth now.”
Well why the fuck didn’t he say so sooner? “I- no, I’m shitting and pissing just fine.”
“Not the language I used but that's good to hear,” he answers impassively, staring at some kind of gauge. “Hm. Your blood pressure’s actually down a little more than I expected.”
“You say that every time and you always sound surprised,” I huff.
He shrugs. “It’s still not as low as it should be. Does that sound better to you?” he adds, putting the cuff back on its hook.
“…Fine. Sound surprised.”
He moves along with the examination, pressing the business end of a stethoscope against my chest. “Deep breaths,” he instructs, listening carefully. “Quit smoking yet?”
“Tobacco or other?” I remark to his visible displeasure.
“I haven’t touched tobacco in months, but if I stopped smoking nip you'd be seeing me on the news. You know, because of all the murders.”
“The only good amount of smoke inhalation is none,” he scolds. “You should cut back. There are other, safer methods to calm down.”
“Can I just have one thing?” I scoff. “I’m drinking less. I’m eating less salt. Can I please just have a little nip to calm down?”
“Well, sure you can,” he shrugs.
I blink. Wh… what?
“…Of course, lung cancer doesn’t really care how relaxed you feel.”
Ah, there it is. “I’m smoking far less than I did when I was on cigarettes. Okay? Woolie Nelson is older than dirt and he’s smoked more than any mammal alive.”
Doctor Goode rolls his eyes. “Anecdotal evidence. Besides, you have other things to help calm yourself,” he adds, sticking a thermometer in my mouth perhaps to shut me up. “I would know. I’m the one who prescribed it. Have you been taking your medication as instructed?”
This fucking guy. “Yes,” I grunt.
“Good,” he nods. “Any issues with your medication?”
“Need a refill on anything?”
“No,” I repeat.
“Really?” he asks. “Not on anything?”
“I just said no, didn't I?”
He hums. He sets the thermometer aside, picks up his tablet, and starts making notes of my vitals. “I don’t think you’ve ever asked for a refill on the Zenex. If you ever need to calm down in a hurry, I’d recommend that over any kind of smoke.”
“I try to save that for emergencies. It scares the shit out of me.”
“Really?” he remarks. “I’d take advantage of it if I were you. It’s not an easy prescription to get, I’ll have you know, and there’s a lot of backseat doctoring that falls on anyone who prescribes it just to be sure they’re not giving it out too freely. While I'm gratified to hear that you are using it, especially that you're being careful with it, I didn’t prescribe it to you so you could not benefit from it.” He continues making notes quietly for a moment. “Any holiday plans?”
I blink. “Did you just say ‘head pains?’”
He looks at me. “I said holiday plans.”
“Oh. I thought my ears had broken or something.”
“I’d be more worried about what’s between them if I were you.”
“Ha ha,” I snark. And I thought I was the comedian here.
He puts the tablet aside and asks again. “Do you have any plans for the holiday?”
“Is that medically relevant?”
“It’s small talk, Reese. But if you want I could explain the effect of stress on-“
“I get it,” I interrupt. “And no. I’m not even sure what holiday is even… what is it, some kind of harvest holiday? The fuck do I look like, a farmer?”
“Far be it from me to assume you have friends or family,” he chuckles to himself.
“I hate most of the mammals I’m related to and my friends respect my desire to be left alone most of the time. I think I’ll be okay without celebrating a made-up holiday that lost its true meaning generations ago.”
He scratches his chin. “Be honest, nobody really wants you around when they’re trying to enjoy themselves, do they?”
I shrug. “I might have taken a remark like that to my therapist at one point, but my wife likes having me around and that’s enough for me.” I clear my throat. “And her family likes me about as much as I like them, so I don’t even have to make excuses to avoid their get-togethers anymore. See? Sometimes life just works out.”
He snorts. “Holidays with the in-laws sounds like a good reason to use that prescription,” he smirks.
“The last time I was invited to… what is it, thanksgiving? Yeah. The last time I was invited I took a Zenex and got a little too physical during the traditional family hoofball game. I mean, that’s what she told me, anyway, it’s not like I can remember. But yeah, Zenex comes in handy when I have to spend time with her siblings. On the one paw I’m a lot more relaxed and pleasant to be around, and on the other I just take the pill before I get there and I wake up the next evening with no memory of their stupid bugshit to clog up my brain.”
“That’s interesting. You sound pretty positive about it now, what makes you so scared of it?” he asks.
“What, are you kidding? I’ve woken up after taking that drug with no idea of where I am or what day it is, and if that doesn't concern you then I don't know what the hell would. Also I nearly got eaten by a crocodile one time, so maybe I've got some extra baggage.”
He blinks. “A crocodile?” he asks, taking a seat. “All right, I’m listening.”
Shit, now he wants the story? “Oh for crying out loud… it’s hazy, see, because I was on fucking Zenex at the time, but we were filming a sketch in Rainforest. Someone was supposed to jump out of the water in a croc costume, but instead of an asshole in a costume it was a real one. The city made us take down the footage… we still have it, you know, in case we ever need leverage, but if I’d been less mellow and more alert that thing wouldn’t have come so close to chomping my ass.”
“That’s nuts,” he chuckles. “And pretty unbelievable. Not like ‘wow, I can’t believe it,’ more like I just don't believe you.”
“Well believe it. There are giant reptiles living in this city. Not many, obviously, or else we’d all know it, but they’re out there. City Hall tries to keep that shit under wraps.”
He leans back in his chair, a small grin on his face. “All right. Do you think we’ve got space aliens, too?”
“The fuck would I know about space aliens? I’m talking about giant goddamn water lizards.”
“Nevermind,” he snickers. “In any case, you’re doing okay physically. Cut back on the drinking and smoking, keep exercising, drink more water… and keep away from flying saucers.”
I shuffle out of the exam room, rolling my eyes, and make my way to the door. The receptionist chirps a cheerful goodbye my way as I pass through the waiting room and out to the sidewalk, and I stare at the bright, hateful daytime sky for a moment. FUCK, why do I always look at the fucking sky?! I know it’s going to hurt my eyes but I do it anyway, and every goddamn time! Shit. At least it’s halfway cool out today. Not that that’s saying much, of course; it’s still warmer than I like. …You know, I keep hearing about this thing called the ice age. That sounds nice. Can we have another one? I’m sure everyone else could adapt or put on a few layers to keep warm, we’d probably only lose… I mean if I had to guess, I’d say maybe one in five mammals, tops. Mostly just the weak and skinny ones. Everyone else would be okay, they’d have sweaters and hot chocolate to keep them warm. That’s what Audie relies on and it seems to work for her. She’s also got my red hot lovin’, as she’s been known to call it, so at least the two of us could survive in a terrible, long-term freeze.
It’s funny… now that I think about it, I feel like society collapsing would solve a lot of my problems. I mean, sure, there’d be stuff I missed if that happened, but to be honest a lot of that is crap I don’t really need, you know? I have a woman and a boat. There really isn’t that much more a guy needs, when you get right down to it.
A woman and a boat, occasional artistic fulfillment... just what I need. And the best part is that I don’t have to deal with her family.
I wake to the feeling of paws gently massaging my shoulders. Cracking an eye open, I see that the sun is up. Weird, but okay. “Harder,” I mumble.
Audie snickers. “Wake up, dude.”
“You want me that badly?” I smirk. She pinches my neck. Not playfully, though. This is clearly a warning. “Ow. What the hell?”
“Get up. We got shit to do.”
Now that wakes me up. What the fuck could we possibly have to do today? “I demand an explanation,” I snort, pulling the covers tightly around my body.
“Do you wanna… go to my folks’ house?” she asks coyly.
I twist around and stare at her through one tired eye for several long, silent seconds before I answer. “I’ll be going back to sleep now.”
Audie groans, slumping her shoulders like a moody teen. “I knew you’d frickin’ say that.”
“Well then why’d you bother asking?” I scoff. “You know I don’t get along with those assholes. I like you and your father and I’ll hang out with either or both of you any time, but the rest of them can-“
“Yeah I know! The rest of them can go crawl up a cow’s ass or whatever dumb thing you were gonna say that you think is terribly clever. My point is that we’ve been invited, I told ‘em we’d be there, and you’re all just gonna have to get used to each other.”
“I was quite looking forward to sleeping all day,” I huff. “You know, like we do most days. It’s kind of our thing.”
“It’s not ‘our thing,’ dude, that’s just when we sleep,” she sighs. “Nothing is a ‘thing’ if it’s something that everyone does, I told you that. Can’t ya just do this for me?”
Weak-ass argument. “I do a LOT of things for you, many of which I don’t particularly like, but this doesn't make any sense. Why would I deliberately ruin an entire holiday for you and your whole family? Why would you want me to? Just go by yourself. I won’t be upset, I promise.”
“I’d be upset,” she argues. “You’d really make me go there all alone so they start talkin’ shit like we’re not doin’ well together? Because believe me, some of those bitches be makin’ shit up for no reason. Besides,” she adds, clearly trying to sweet-talk me from the way her paws have returned to my shoulders. “If you’re not there, they’ll be talkin’ all kindsa shit on you. Do you want that? Huh? For them to talk trash on your red ass unchallenged?”
Is it me or is she just not very persuasive today? It's probably due to lack of sleep. “I’ve seen you throw a punch. You challenge them,” I grunt. “I trust you to defend my honor.”
“Aw come on!” she scoffs, already losing her patience with me. That was pretty fast, actually… more proof that she's just as fucking tired as I am. “I’m just askin’ you to show up. You don’t have to talk to any of ‘em or anything, and trust me, mom and pop are the only ones who’ll even wanna say a word to you.”
I yawn. “Be honest, Audie. Do you really want me to go?”
“Dude…” she sighs.
“I’m serious. You and I both know it won’t end well. Why would you want that? For material? Because if it’s for material, I… okay, that would be a fair argument. I want you to succeed and I want to help with that in any way I can. But let’s face it, your family is a wooden church and I’m a heathen with a torch.”
“I want you there because I wanna be there and I don’t wanna go alone. I freakin’ said that. Maybe I've got some really shitty in-laws because my brothers have crappy taste in women and I don’t wanna deal with their shit! Did you think of that?”
“You can’t just hang out with your mother? She won’t back you up?”
“She’s gonna be busy hostessing, Reese, I can’t just hide behind her apron or something. Look, it’s cool with my parents if you come by. That’s always been their position, it’s all the other jerks who get mad. But it’s mom and pop’s house and they have the final word, so you’re always welcome no matter what. …Unless you did something really fuckin’ bad, so just don’t do that.”
I sigh. “Well can I bri-“
“NO. I-I mean, uh, that’s not really necessary. There’s gonna be plenty of food.”
“Well what am I supposed to eat? No offense to your mother or her bugloaf, but I’m not touching anything that contains breadcrumbs.”
“I just told you there’ll be plenty to eat. Even for a picky ass like you,” she snickers. “And I kinda promised you wouldn’t bring anything. They’ve all heard my jokes about your food and they don’t really wanna see what the fuss is about, so you can save your weird fermented roof pigeons for yourself.”
“I wasn’t going to bring one of those," I snort. "First of all they’re not ready, and second I wouldn’t share those with a bunch of fuckers I hate. I'd share them with your father without hesitation. Your mother… I still don’t trust her, but okay. Your siblings? Fuck no.”
“Okay, so just… don’t bring anything. Ya know, like I just said.”
“I’m not showing up empty-pawed, Audie. If you want me there that much then I’m showing up with something to share or I’m not showing up at all.”
She grumbles softly. “What were you thinkin’?” she asks. Judging by her expression she's already convinced herself that she won’t like my suggestion.
“There are a lot of big, fat pigeo-“ I answer, up until she shuts me up with a pillow to the face. “Relax, I’m joking.”
“You fucking better be,” she laughs.
“I’m sure your mother’s kitchen isn’t set up for butchering fowl, anyway, so pigeons and ducks are out. But I’m a fisherman, Audie. I can bring real meat to the table.”
She rubs her face. “Ya really don’t have to, Reese.”
“Yeah? Well I’m gonna,” I reply, borrowing her vernacular for a moment. “What do you think? Salmon? Cod? No… this is a holiday, how about halibut.”
“That sounds nice and all, but you really shouldn't bring a main course. Okay? The hosts provide the meat, and if the guests bring anything they bring a side dish. Don’t try to show up my mom, that's just gonna cause all kinds of drama.”
“I’m not trying to show her up, I’m trying to make sure there’s something I can eat. The rest of you can fill up on potatoes and carrots and… whatever kind of beans there are. Are there beans? Don’t, uh, don’t answer that. You know I don’t care.”
“Are you for fucking real?” she mutters. “Look, I’ll prove it. I’ll call my mom now and ask her, and if she says ‘don’t bring fish’ will you shut up?”
“I’ll consider it,” I snort, narrowly dodging another pillow strike.
She reaches for her phone and, poking through her contacts, dials her mother. “Hey mom! We- …yeah, we’re comin’, Reese just has it in his head that he HAS to bring something," she laughs, pretending as though she's not at her wit's end with me. "Yeah, I told him he really doesn’t, ya know, but he…” She rolls her eyes as she’s interrupted again. “Well fish, what else?” she chuckles. “Oh. Y-you’re sure? That’s great. N-no,” she sighs as her temporary smile fades. “Well we gotta take care of a few things, I don’t have time to… mom… mom, we’re about to go through a tunnel Iloveyoubye,” she stammers before ending the call. “God, I don’t have time to listen to all that right now! Why’s she gotta tell me on the phone, anyway? I’m gonna be there later and she can just tell me in person.”
“I didn’t hear her side of your conversation, however brief it may have been, but judging by the lack of a smug ‘I-told-you-so’ smirk on your face I don’t think she agreed with you,” I remark, reaching under the covers to scratch somewhere it’s improper to mention.
“I’m never smug,” she huffs. “Now get your paws off your beanbag and put on some pants.”
“I take it that I’m right, then,” I reply. “But if it’ll make you feel better I can bring something less expensive than halibut. I have some salmon curing on the boat. That’s more of a humble, working-class fish, wouldn’t you say?” I ask, slipping out from under the covers.
“Just shut up and get dressed, okay? You can go get your dumb fish, just don’t come bitchin’ to me when everybody starts givin’ ya the stink eye.”
I sneer as I dig through my dresser for a decent button-up shirt. “There’s an old saying I’ve heard. Stink eyes get black eyes.”
“Aw fer fuck’s sake. You’re not punching anybody, Reese,” she groans. “I mean it! Not one fuckin’ mammal is gettin’ socked! And you totally just made that saying up, admit it.”
“It doesn’t matter who made what up. What’s important here is that you’ve been given every opportunity to leave the barbarian at home but you insisted on bringing him to Rome, and I shall bear none of the responsibility for the ensuing sacking.”
She stares tiredly at me as I pull on a pair of shorts. “I bet you’re so proud of your sack of Rome joke, aren’t you,” she sighs.
“Only a little. Feel free to use that in your act if you’d like.”
We leave the apartment and take the elevator down to the ground floor, shuffling in pointed silence to the truck. We’ve climbed into the cab and buckled in - Audie with the actual safety belt, me into my rigged standing harness - by the time she finally speaks. “Just so you know, ten minutes before we get there I’m dosing your ass,” she warns.
I turn the wheel slowly as I check traffic, carefully pulling into the street. “You are, are you? I seem to recall a nice policewoman having a very stern conversation with you on the subject of drugging mammals without their consent.”
She shrugs. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m tellin’ you now so you have time to realize it’s in your best interest.”
“It sounds like you’ve forgotten how stubborn I can be. So just how do you expect to pull that off?” I chuckle. “And with what?”
“You think I’m gonna tell you? Get real, buddy.”
“I know you don’t want me to call Pat, especially not on a holiday of all days. How about you let me worry about medicating myself if necessary and we’ll see how things work out.”
I trudge up the front walk to Audie’s parents’ house with a slab of cured salmon on one shoulder and a deep scowl on my face. I’m not looking at Audie nor am I talking to her for at least the next hour if I can help it, or for however long it takes for the back of my throat to stop throbbing. The little harpy shot a quarter-tab of Zenex down my throat with a goddamn slingshot! While I was YAWNING! It’s bad enough to realize that I can’t let my guard down around the one mammal I love in this world, but I almost choked on the fucking thing. Where the fuck did she even get that? …BOTH of those. I keep my Zenex very well hidden and nobody’s used a slingshot for anything since the nineteen fifties!
We stop at the door and she turns to face me. “Okay. Remember what I said? Ignore everything they say, just laugh and go along with it. You don’t care about their opinions anyway, so don’t worry about tryin’ to argue, and don’t start throwin’ punches.”
I blow a short raspberry in response.
She rolls her eyes. “Oh, grow up.” She turns and opens the door, leading us into the home where… cheese are fucking rice, how many of these fuckers are there?! I mean I know there’s a lot, but every time I’m around the whole family it feels like they’ve fucking doubled their numbers. Can none of these idiots pull out?
Fuck, the noise... mindless, unintelligible drivel pounding into my head from every angle. I hate this already. I need a drink. I push past Audie, not to mention a few other mammals, carrying my hunk of salmon to the dining room. That’s where the liquor cabinet is, and within it the elixir that can calm my nerves nearly instantly.
“Whoa!” Audie warns, catching up to me just before I drop the meat on the table. “You can’t just put that on the tablecloth, ya chucklehead. Let’s find a platter. Hey mom? You got a spare, uh… well, what’s the biggest dish you got?”
Anne pokes her head in through the kitchen doorway. “Oh WOW! That looks delicious!” she beams. “I’ve got just the thing.” She disappears back into the kitchen and returns shortly carrying a large, rectangular platter, almost perfectly sized for the brick of red fish on my shoulder. As soon as she sets it on the table I drop the salmon and head for the liquor cabinet.
“Reese… Reese, come on, can you wait just one minute?” Audie sighs.
“Half the adults here are already drinking, Audie. Why should I wait?” I rasp.
“You sound terrible, Reese. Are you all right?” Anne asks.
I look to the older woman for about a second before glaring at Audie. “Why don’t you ask her what happened?” I cough.
“It’s- it’s not important what happened,” Audie mutters. “All right, Reese, you can have ONE drink for now. Okay? You're on medication, you don’t wanna pass out.”
“What if I do?” I huff, selecting the one bottle of vodka on the shelf.
“Well I don’t want you to pass out, then. Happy? And if you DO pass out I’m lettin’ the kids style your fur.”
I shuffle angrily past Audie and her now-jabbering mother, head into the kitchen, and begin searching for the glassware. I think they’re in one of these upper cabinets. Let’s see what’s in... plates. Nope, next cabinet. Herbs. Next cabinet. Cereal. I feel like I’m getting farther away from what I’m looking for. I go back to the plate cabinet and check the cabinet on its other side. Bowls?! Fuck! Well I’m getting closer, I guess. If I don’t find the glasses I’ll come back to this one. I can drink from a bowl if I have to. I check the next cabinet in line and find, to my relief, that it’s filled with cups and glasses of any size I could want.
If you’re wondering, yes, I have seen glasses large enough that I could submerge myself in booze. I said any size I could want, though, and I don’t want one of those. I want something I can lift to my mouth.
I start to pour myself a double - she only said I could have one, she never said how big it could be - when someone bumps into me from behind, causing me to spill precious liquid on the tile counter. “Do you MIND?” I growl, sneering over my shoulder at a marten I don’t recognize. One of Audie’s sisters-in-law, I guess. Does that make her my sister in law, too, or are we just unrelated strangers? If it’s up to me then I’m going with the latter. I prefer that one.
She turns her nose up with a snort and goes on her merry way. I, meanwhile, manage to throw my drink down the hatch just as Audie escapes her mother’s yammering and comes to collect me. “C’mere dude, let’s go sit down or something,” she suggests, reaching for my free paw. I immediately jerk the defenseless appendage out of her grasp, giving her an unhappy look. “Oh come on. Are you gonna be mad the whole time we’re here?”
“Yes,” I answer tersely. Talking hurts a bit, in case you hadn’t realized. “Unless the Zenex and the vodka take me away from here sooner.”
She rolls her eyes. “Come on. Do you wanna sit in the living room or do you wanna watch all the guys play hoofball out back?”
“If you’re letting me choose, then I’d like to go back to the truck and smoke. Wouldn’t that be nice? Nicer maybe than trying to kill me?” I hiss.
“I said no nip! They’d all smell it and we’d never hear the end of it. Let’s just go to the living room, all right?” she grumbles, taking my paw firmly in hers and dragging me from the kitchen.
We return to the living room and take one side of the sofa for ourselves. Everyone else seems to be giving us a fair bit of room which, to be honest, is not enough fucking room. I’d prefer that they stay farther away, perhaps far enough that I wouldn’t have to hear their stupid bugshit. That couple there is talking to another couple about how they’re trying for a baby. They’re saying it weird, emphasizing it as though it were something magical and special. A baby. What the fuck ever! Shut the fuck up, will you? Audie and I do the same shit as you, we just don’t brag about it. And we probably do it better, too. I can tell from looking at everyone here that they don’t know how to fuck. I don’t mean they don’t know how to have sex, any idiot can figure out how to put a stick in a hole, I mean they don’t know how to FUCK. Look at all these fucking Christians! They probably pray for forgiveness after the fact. These poor, repressed bastards...
All right, they’re not all bad. Sometimes all that Catholic repression backfires and makes a real freak. Case in point: Audie. God damn.
...Wait, I’m trying to be mad at her right now. Fuck! Stupid sexy asshole. I think that shit’s starting to hit me.
Only moments later it becomes apparent that, yes, that shit is indeed starting to hit me. I loosen up just a bit, I slouch in my seat, and I stop caring so much about what all these fuckers are talking about. Their words become background noise, like the lapping of waves on a stony shore. Audie’s paw is warm, wrapped around mine like a velvet shackle. “You can stop squeezing,” I grunt.
“You sure?” she asks suspiciously. “Knowin’ you I'm pretty sure ya might just bolt.”
“I’m just about stuck here,” I reply. “I don’t really feel like standing much less running.”
She shakes her head. "I told you to wait before you had a drink."
Audie’s mother calls, needing her youngest daughter’s help in the kitchen. I can’t imagine why she’d want her help; Audie knows her way around a prepackaged meal, sure, but that’s more out of necessity than culinary ability. And that’s not some hack joke about my wife’s cooking, goddamnit, that’s a genuine observation I’ve made. Given the choice between cooking and cleaning up or paying someone to bring food to our door, she's much more likely to go with the latter.
In any case, she leaves me alone here on the couch to go help her mother. I look around the room. Nobody’s looking at me. Nobody’s talking to me. If I wasn’t wearing pants this would be pretty great, but everyone in this country tends to freak out when I try to get comfortable. It's not my fault it's so warm here. I continue to just sit and watch passively as mammals come and go from the room, not minding the occasional unfriendly glance in my direction. Eventually I’m just sitting here like a sponge on the sea floor, staring blankly at a swirl of shapes and colors.
I eventually snap out of my blank stare, not because of any random burst of mental activity, but due to some sort of impact. I shake my head and look around, realizing in this moment that I’m surrounded by squealing, shrieking kits. Children. Damnit, how could this happen? I’ve hated children ever since I first met them as a child. Come to think of it, I even hated MYSELF when I was a child! I was weak and stupid. I hated that. Don't get me wrong, I'm still stupid, but at least I'm not weak. Self-improvement, you know.
I look at the child that has so roughly smacked against the side of my head and landed on my lap. “D-Doug?” I mutter. “What are you doing there?”
“Sorry uncle Reese,” he mumbles as he scrambles off of me. At least that’s what I think he said. Kids are hard to understand up to a certain age.
Unfortunately, now that I’ve interacted with one of them, the rest turn their attention onto me. Children are like fucking piranhas, except instead of simply devouring me and releasing me from the torment that is life they begin jockeying for my attention. “My family has a gecko!” one of them shouts. Speaking of which, I haven’t seen Anne’s gecko since I got here. Damn thing’s probably hiding. Smarter than it looks, I guess. “Look what I can do!” “My best friend is a robot!” “You’re red.” “Do you know the wifi password?” “Look! Look!” “He was number one!” “Why is there air?” “I can throw a ball farther than anybody!” “Do you know where babies come from?” “AAAAAAAAAAA!”
I clutch my head in the face of this incomprehensible onslaught of jabber, grasping at my last remaining shreds of sanity. “QUIET!” I bark. “Y-you’re giving me a headache!” I open my eyes with hesitation and behold a sea of small brown faces staring at me. Shit. Are they going to start crying or something? Kids cry all the time. I know because I was one and I did. I can't have that, though, the fuckers around here will think I did something to their precious gremlins. “Uh… let’s… let’s watch a movie. How's that sound? Who has the remote control?”
One of the imps surrounding me deposits the remote into my lap, and the jabbering begins again. A thousand words from a thousand mouths assault my ears, no single one of them intelligible among the cacophony. Struggling to keep myself from leaping from the couch and jumping through a goddamn window, I scroll through Pete and Anne’s on-demand menu in search of something - anything - that can keep these little monsters’ attention off me. Preferably something I can stand, too.
My god! Of course! It’s right here in front of me. It’s a classic, it’s funny, and it’s educational! “All right! Everybody shut up, we’re watching The Meaning of Life,” I announce.
“What’s that?” one of them asks with quite a lot more attitude than I think is necessary.
“It’s a very funny movie. You’re going to love it.”
I sit in the kitchen, eating by myself at a small table out of everyone else’s view. The breakfast table, Audie called it. What the fuck is THAT about? One table that’s only used for one meal? It never occurred to me that I’d married into the goddamn bourgeoisie. At least this salmon turned out good.
One of Audie’s brothers wanders into the kitchen to get a bottle of wine from the fridge. He glances my way and our eyes meet. I don’t like that look he’s giving me. I don’t like fighting, either, but if this fucker tries to start something I’ll make damn sure to finish it. We nearly had a donnybrook when all these lame-ass breeders figured out what their kids were watching and I’m still a little on-edge thanks to the adrenaline.
“I don’t know why she married you,” he sneers.
I chuckle. Jittery or not, I’m still a little loopy from the Zenex. “She didn’t tell you? Because I make her laugh and I eat her snatch like a starving savage. She certainly looks happier than your wife.”
His teeth and fists clench and his ears flatten against his head. My shit-eating grin widens despite my better judgement. He finally straightens his shit out and turns to leave, offering with a snort, “Not worth my time.”
“I’d feed your carcass to the crows,” I mutter, shoving another bit of salmon into my mouth.
Audie appears in the doorway, looking over her shoulder and puzzling at her brother’s sour expression. She turns to look my way and I see realization dawn on her face. Yep, it’s me! I’m why he’s mad. “What the hell am I gonna do with you? Seriously, I told you to keep your freakin' mouth shut. What’d you say to him?”
“All I did was answer his question,” I shrug. “It’s not my fault he can’t please his wife.”
She closes her eyes slowly and takes a long, deep breath. From seemingly nowhere she produces a spray bottle with which she spritzes me a few times from across the room. “NO. Bad!” she huffs.
I look at my now-damp shirt, not quite sure what she hoped to accomplish with that. I look back up at her, confused. “Did... did you just squirt me with water?” I don’t understand this. Is she trying to psych me out or something?
“I figured it was worth a shot,” she shrugs.
“Audie, I’m half mink. I’m-“
“Yeah, I know!” she snarks. “You’re aquatic, you're freakin’ waterproof, you’re born to swim, all that kinda crap. Can you just not keep yer mouth shut or something? Not for one hour?”
“I just told you he asked me a question. He meant it as an insult, sure, but I answered honestly.”
She obviously doesn’t buy that. “Was that before or after you insulted him back?”
“Before,” I answer, shoving more salmon down my throat. “I’m not taking shit from him. Why should I? If he wants to mince words with a fucking professional I'm not going to go easy on him. And if he wants to get his ass beaten then I shall most generously oblige. Hell, I’ll kick his ass in front of his wife and children. I'll rob him of his pride and then I'll rob him of his wallet. He can keep his life, though. The fuck would I want that for?”
“Cheese and crackers, will you relax? This isn’t the Hyborian Age and you’re not Ragnor, damnit.”
“I told you this wasn’t going to end well,” I grunt, turning back to my plate. “Your family can’t stand me, I can’t stand them, and this sort of shit will happen every time you bring me here." I tear another morsel of meat from my piece of salmon. "The only thing that bothers me is that, this time, I didn’t even do anything.”
She stares at me quite intently, blinking a few times. “You were showing the kids an R-rated movie, stupid. You had ‘em all singing along to 'Every Sperm Is Sacred' for cryin’ out loud.”
“And what's wrong with that?! It’s a funny movie with singing! It’s perfect for children,” I scoff.
She growls, perhaps realizing once and for all (again?) that my standards of decency are wildly and irrevocably different from those prevailing in this country and she should stop fucking trying to get me to act like a prude just because her dumbass family is around.
I mean, that’s what I think she’s thinking. I could be wrong.
“Yeah? Well, ya know, kids around here don’t grow up watchin’ birds fuck because there's nothing else to do,” she sighs. “They don’t grow up stabbing each other, butchering live animals, or walkin’ in on their grandpare-“
“Okay first of all,” I interrupt through a mouthful of fish, “I don’t butcher live animals. I dispatch them quickly and cleanly so they don’t suffer. And second, how dare you. That was one time, it was a traumatic experience, and I don’t appreciate you weaponizing it like that.”
She rubs her forehead, strides over, and sits down across from me. “Dude. You’re freakin' blowing this, okay? You’re supposed to be the fun, cool uncle, not a creep and a weirdo.”
“What’s the difference?” I snort. “What the fuck is the difference? Tell me. This whole ‘cool uncle’ schtick was your idea and you’ve given me no guidance at all. What am I supposed to do? Piss off their parents? That was really the only thing you said. Feed them ice cream? You didn’t like how I did that, either. Here’s an idea, why don’t you just tell me when each of them turns sixteen and I will personally roll their first joint and teach them to smoke. Until then, I really don’t know what the hell you expect from me.”
She leans forward with her elbows on the table, massaging her brow. “God… all right, yeah, I really don’t know what I was thinking. My ‘fun uncle’ turned out to be a weirdo and YOU…” she cuts off, gesturing emphatically towards me with both paws, “…let’s just say you’re a bit too much of an acquired taste. I probably shoulda seen this coming,” she mumbles, returning her face to her paws. “I love you and I love my family, dude, I just kinda wanna hang out with both of you at once sometimes. Who the fuck else am I supposed to talk shit on everybody else with?! Seriously, did you SEE what the hell Tammy is wearing?” she chuckles in spite of herself. “I had to go back to the camper just so I could laugh where nobody would hear me!”
“Is that where you went,” I snort. “You should have told me. We could have just left.”
She scratches her head. “Yeah, that… that mighta worked out better in the long run. Hindsight, I guess.”
“We could have showed up, said some hellos, and left. We could have brought the salmon and left it here, it's not as though I don't have more.”
“They’re going nuts on that salmon, dude. They were all acting like they weren’t gonna touch it at first, but in case you haven’t noticed none of us are real good at that whole 'self-discipline' thing.”
I finish the last of the salmon on my plate and look towards the dining room, wondering what it feels like to be surrounded by happy family enjoying some good, old-fashioned holiday revelry based on a phoney-bugloney nationalistic myth. Don't get me wrong, we all have them, and I swear I’m not just picking on this country’s mythology because we happen to have written records describing what actually happened. I just have a complicated relationship with tradition in the first place, you know?
“So what the fuck is the point of this holiday, anyway?” I ask, turning back to Audie.
She rolls her eyes slightly, rocking her head side to side. “Well it’s supposed to be about givin’ thanks for all the good stuff ya got. And THEN a lot of mammals run out the next day or even right after supper to go fight strangers over second-rate merchandise. Believe me, you don’t have to point out the hypocrisy. A lot of us recognize it. Mostly it’s an excuse for everyone to get together, catch up, have fun, and eat way too much pie.”
“That last bit sounds a lot like every holiday in this country, to be honest.”
She shrugs. “Yeah, most of ‘em are just variations on the same theme. Sometimes there’s some fireworks or a tree thrown in for a little flavor, but hey, who doesn't like pie? Aside from you. If you want, maybe next year we can do a thing with all our friends instead of inflicting you on my family. What do you think?”
“Maybe. Ask me in eleven months.”
She snickers. “Just so you know, I managed to get promises outta almost everyone out there that they’ll let you leave without tryin’ to kick yer ass. If someone does try, though, can ya promise me one thing?”
I glance briefly toward the dining room, then look back to Audie. “Let’s hear it.”
“Don’t pull a knife on anybody.”
I take a deep breath, thinking. “If it’s just one of them, and with empty paws, I promise not to pull a knife.”
“Reese…” she sighs, rolling her entire damn head.
“What? I think that’s fair,” I argue. “As long as it’s one-on-one and paw-to-paw, I will not draw a knife.”
She groans and buries her face in her paws again. “Well… two-on-one?” she mutters. "Can you promise not to?"
“All right, for you I will. But three-on-one is out of the question.” I’m not really being serious. I’m just having fun, honest.
“You’re a fuckin’ maniac,” she grumbles, dropping her paws onto the table. “And…” she stammers, clearly struggling with this statement, “Pop wants to know if you wanna come over for Christmas.”
I wait for her to start laughing. She’s not great at deadpan humor, so I know it’s coming.
…Fuck, why isn’t she laughing? “Are you serious?” I ask.
She releases the longest, roughest, most drawn-out sigh I’ve heard in months. “Yeah. He’s serious. He thought that shit you pulled was the funniest thing he’s seen all year.”
“It almost sounds like he’s encouraging me to do it again.”
“That’s exactly why I didn’t wanna fuckin’ tell you that,” she groans. “Some of ‘em out there said they’d just stay home and I guess boycott Christmas if you’re coming, but I know they don’t have the guts. If I bring you around for Christmas - and that’s a BIG if - can you try to be nice?”
I give it a moment’s thought before I answer. “Can I dress like Odin and come in through the chimney?”
She stares at me for fifteen, maybe twenty seconds without blinking. “Are you gonna pass out presents or something?”
“Sure," I shrug. "Why not? I’ll show the kits how to set up a proper Yule sacrifice.”
“Oh my god… are you fucking serious? No. No sacrificial pyres. And you know what? Gimme your matches, new rule, no more fire for you. If you wanna smoke a joint you can find me, Harry, or another semi-responsible adult to give you a light.”