"I'm tellin' ya Matt, today was insane," Douglas said over the call. "We hadn't even gotten to lunch before all of the sudden the news was blowing up. At first a bunch of people, including the teachers are all like 'just relax, we don't know a whole lot, so for now just go about your normal routine' - but then an hour later the call to enter quarantine came. A bunch of people just went full doomer, freaking out... gosh dude, like this is freaking scary."
"I know," I said, "it's just... so surreal after what's happened to me... knowing that it's public knowledge out there in the world... that this is happening to people."
"Oh dude, like I actually saw some people that I could tell had it. There were a not-insignificant number of people with their hoodies pulled on tight, avoiding people."
"You getting any inside information from there?"
"No," I said, "at least I don't think so. From what I've checked of the news, you guys know pretty much everything. Unfortunately."
"Does it... bring any comfort knowing why it's happening?"
I adjusted my position on my bed. I had my tablet sitting next to me while I continued playing Stardew Valley. Jackie was taking a break and reading a book instead.
"I dunno. If there's anything I can say has been most disturbing about this, it's been the slow transition from a waking nightmare to comprehensible reality... if that makes any sense."
"Yeah, I think I get what you mean."
"Like... it just felt like it wasn't real at first. I could pretend that it wasn't happening. But now... like I've had a tail for a whole week nearly. The world now knows about all of this. I can't really deny it anymore."
Douglas was quiet for a moment. "Does it hurt really bad?"
"No," I said, "not for me since I got here. Jackie had a bit of a hard time though. I think that the tail specifically causes a lot of pain."
"I know this is a sore spot," Douglas asked cautiously, "but... how much has changed now? Can you send me a picture?"
"I would rather not."
"C'mon dude, I promise it's not a big deal."
"You'll see me when they let me go."
".... and when will that be?"
I shrugged, then realized it made no sense because he couldn't see me. "I don't know."
"Do they... do they know how bad it's going to be?"
I let out a long, slow sigh. "From what they've told us, they think the changes will be somewhat 'superficial'. "
"And that means..."
"We're going to look different, but hopefully not any changes too drastic."
"Dude you have a tail. How is that not drastic?"
"Well they mean stuff even worse - like they were afraid at first that I'd be walking on all fours and be unable to talk."
"The thought of that is just... freaky."
"Yeah... and it'll be soooo much better just looking like a Disney character instead."
"Hey," Douglas said, "they're right. It could've been worse."
"I suppose so. I just wish that the Disney villains of this story actually had the slightest compassion for what was happening."
"I heard that Generation was spending a ton of money on trying to solve the problem."
"Uh uh," I said, "that's a lie. From my place in here, Generation is trying to abandon us and all their employees. Any work that's being done is motivated solely by the people that actually care."
"Have they had any luck in finding a cure?"
"No," I said. "They're doing all they can, but from what I understand, they're all fighting for time to calculate stuff on the company's quantum supercomputer - especially since rumors are going around that the company is going to shut the computer down in the next week."
"That sure sounds like they really care about you."
"Yeah, they're the paragon of kindness. Bottom line is, sounds like I'm stuck like this... for a long time."
There was a long, pained pause. "... How long do you think?"
"I don't know dude. Maybe when I'm thirty or something they'll have figured something out?"
"Yeah, like I said, the company is shutting down their supercomputer, and without that, they're going to lose all their progress, and it'll take years to make up lost time."
"But there's a lot of other places that worked on the cancer treatment right?"
"Yeah I guess."
"Have you considered Matt, that maybe you're being a bit pessimistic?"
I sighed. "Maybe. I'm just... very tired, very bored... and I've been looking too much at how people are reacting online."
"That's probably not a very good idea."
"Look... I don't know about other people, but even if I have a hard time getting my head around it at first, you and Jackie - and anyone else we know who changes for that matter, you're all still my friends. It will take time to adjust, but I care about you all. None of this was your fault, and you deserve better than those people trashing you all online."
"And I know that's not just me. I've talked with other people at school, Wendy, Ted, my girlfriend, they all care about you too."
"Aughh, gosh," I ran my hand through my hair. "They all know..."
"Yes," Douglas said. "They do. People were talking about that whole thing that happened in gym."
"Gosh I'm never going to be able to live this down."
Douglas laughed. "For better or for worse, I think most people have forgotten about it in the wake of everything that's been happening. You were simply the first sign they saw of what was about to go down."
I slouched, resting my head against my pillow. "It's so... just... I can't believe that this is happening all over the world. That all these people our age... it's going to change everything."
"I'm just certain that as soon as they find out how to control it, there are going to be people hijacking the virus to make catgirls and stuff."
"Ugh. Why would people willingly want to change into this?"
"You serious dude?" Douglas laughed. "It's the 2050s, people are into some real crazy stuff. Even fifty years ago there were people who were totally into that."
"I just... this has been so painful, physically, mentally, and emotionally - and then you're stuck looking like an animal... I don't know why someone would want this."
"Gosh I don't think you realize, cat people are like absolutely tame compared to the absolutely wacky things people will do to themselves."
"Gross. If people want to do that, can the world just pool together some money to book em' a flight to Mars, and we can let the people there deal with them?"
"Gosh I can't wait," Douglas laughed, "Mars a hundred years from now is going to be the furry planet - no, the red fox planet!"
I let out a slow, groaning laugh.
"This sounds like an awful science fiction story," Jackie raised her voice from the other side of the divider. "It turns out, the aliens we discover are us from the future! Oooohohohohooo."
Douglas laughed. "I dunno. I need to go, but I hope you both get through it fine."
"Thanks dude," I said. "Thanks... especially for forcing me to call my mom when this started happening."
"For sure," he laughed. "Like I said, I think that some other people at the school who'd started changing had been hiding just as much."
I reached up and felt one of my floppy ears. I couldn't imagine the extreme anxiety if I'd tried to keep all this hidden this long.
"Anyway, I hope you all are alright. See ya."
The call ending left me with a lot of mixed emotions. Slowly, real life was leaking back into the bubble I'd been confined in this past week. I would have to face it all. Soon I would have to face reality again...
I saved and exited Stardew Valley, and put my controller back next to the TV. I glanced over to Jackie, who was still reading her book. The cover was a cloudy grey, with some sort of picture of a person looking through barbed wire on the front.
"What are you reading?"
She set down her book, and I saw a slight annoyance in her eyes from the interruption.
"It's about this girl who was in this camp during war, and... whatever, I can tell you're not very interested."
I shrugged. "Eh, it's just not my type of fiction, but everyone is -"
"Ugh, no, it's not fiction. It's something real. Something that's actually good."
"So you like reading, but you don't like reading any fiction?"
"I've read some of the classics," she said, her face taking on more and more of a defensive look. "But I like the awareness while reading nonfiction that what you're reading about actually happened."
I fell for the first impulse that came to my mind. "Just because it's nonfiction doesn't mean it's true. A textbook can be outdated. A biography biased, a personal account dramatized."
"Whatever," she said. "The point is that it will almost always have more meaning than anything in fiction."
She had just declared war.
"What's so wrong with fiction?"
She twirled a finger around the tip of her ponytail. "It's drenched in idealism much of the time, especially all the popular stuff. Everyone just has to have a happy ending, and that optimism has an intoxicating effect on people, giving them a false perception of the real world."
I stood there for a moment, baffled. How could anyone be such a stick in the mud? I briefly considered saying that out loud, but I knew that it would do little to support my argument.
"Why," I asked carefully, "in your mind are these stories lacking in value?"
She gave me a puzzled look. "Basically what I just said. They make it seem like reality is smooth sailing to a happy ending. They depict heroes and heroines that are larger than life, that can solve problems with magic lickety-split."
I laughed. "I don't know what type of fantasy you're reading, but all the fantasy and sci-fi that I've read, stuff that's well written, is anything but nonstop good times. You can't have a story without conflict, and most do."
"Okay then," she said, "let's look at one of these popular pieces of fiction. In Star Wars, they have challenges, but everyone's all happy-go-lucky all the time, no issues whatsoever - "
"Seriously? Have you watched Star Wars? Like the actually good ones?"
She rolled her eyes. "Like once I guess."
"In the first movie alone, Princess Leia has to watch in agony as her entire home planet is obliterated. How can you call that happy-go-lucky?"
"A story oversaturated with good times, but pockmarked with a few plot-required 'be sad' moments does not a meaningful story make."
"They aren't just plot required," I said, "they are intrinsically tied together with the story's themes. Luke sees his aunt and uncle murdered by the empire. It is what forces him on his adventure, but it is a key moment for him and the audience, as we can no longer doubt that the Empire is evil, that this world will be filled with even more injustice if they are not stopped - yet despite seeing this, Luke stays hopeful that something can be done. He does not give up. He fights against the odds even when people tell him to give up."
Jackie laughed. "And you call this realistic? Like it or not Matt, any meaningful thing done in the world is not by one amazing hero. If anything, giving one person that kind of opportunity is what leads to dictators and other awful people."
I shrugged. "That's kind of the nature of writing a story, that we need to have a point of view, and it would feel unsatisfying if Star Wars ended with a text crawl saying 'and the empire was defeated by a separate army that attacked them by surprise.' "
Jackie gave a "I guess" look.
"But I think that one of the great elements of these stories," I said, "is that they show small, humble people doing great things. The hobbits in Lord of the Rings are a big example."
She laughed, much harder this time. "There are... a lot of problematic things about Lord of the Rings, don't even get me started on that. It's to be expected of a story from a hundred years ago. But ignoring all that, it again, is just a fantasy. The world is not filled with perfect heroes or obviously evil dark lords."
"And that's exactly what the story says. Other stories would place Aragorn, the one to be king, at the forefront. He is the one with the romance, he is the one who leads the battle against darkness - but instead we focus on Frodo, someone who makes many mistakes. He isn't perfect. He keeps on fighting. He needs friends to help him. They fight against an obvious dark lord, yes, but there are so many other people in the story who are less obvious in their misdeeds."
Jackie didn't respond. She sat there with a thoughtful expression.
"In the end, the heroes don't get through easily. They lose some people they care about. They go through an awful amount of pain and heartache. They watch in distress as the world seems on the verge of collapse - but in the end, it is showing that the efforts of small people, all together, make up a great force for good. Frodo alone couldn't have done it. Aragorn alone couldn't have done it. Not even Gandalf, a powerful wizard, can fight darkness on his own. It's the collective effort of good people that makes great change."
"Yes," Jackie said, "in the end, we just have to believe in ourselves and trust in our friends. Cue goofy outro theme music."
"Well any message is going to sound like that when you reduce it - "
"Look, I'm done with this conversation. I'm going to the bathroom."
She got up from her bed, giving me a glare. I don't see what I did wrong. She had insulted fantasy and sci fi, something beloved by me and countless people around the world, throughout the solar system even. She had kicked a hornets nest and gotten the hornets angry. I don't know what she was expecting.
I walked up to her bed, glancing at the book. It was simply called "Broken." How cheerful. I didn't think that we should push away anything that was depressing - well I personally did, I didn't like that type of literature - but I felt like we needed to balance it out with books, movies, and games that were actually positive.
I walked up to her stack of books on the floor. More of this same sort of thing. Some of them were political. Then something different, a little bit hidden away from sight, caught my eye.
I picked up one of these hidden books, a simple paperback, with a somewhat crude image of a wolf on the front. I thumbed through it, and came to a shocking realization - this was a werewolf romance novel. There were more of them, hidden away. Really sappy stuff too.
"How DARE you!"
I dropped the book.
"How dare you go through my stuff! Go away!"
I spun around. "You seriously read werewolf romance novels?"
"Go away Matthew Hewitt! I'm so sick of you. This is the last straw. I'm going to call someone and get me moved to a different room."
I stood there firm as a rock as she stared me down.
"Go to your side of the room, now."
"Awful lot of bluster for someone who was trash talking everything that I cared about a few moments ago. Guess you don't like someone shaming your interests either."
"Gah! They're not my interests. They're a stupid little guilty pleasure. Now leave me alone."
"Clearly," I said, "you think that some fiction is worth reading."
"Maybe it might be fun," she said, "but it doesn't have any value in it. It's just a trashy romance novel. It isn't even something that I've read in ages, my mom just dumped a bunch of books here."
"Sounds like a plausible lie."
Jackie clenched her fists. "Fine Matt. I like werewolf romance novels. I like stupid hunky beastly men. Are you happy? You want to go blab about it to everyone in the school?"
I was silent.
"Is that no enough for you?" she said with deepening rage. "You want to know more embarrassing things about me? Fine. I'm a furry. Is that enough?"
I flinched in surprise. "You're... a furry?"
"Yes," she said, "I like stuff with anthro animals. And now the universe has given me a twisted curse, giving me 'what I really wanted all along'. "
She suddenly wailed and jumped onto her bed, and then buried her head into her pillow, crying intensely.
I had broken her.
I'd just messed up.
A golden retriever that knows how to use a computer
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