I endured the next few hours in near silence, keeping to myself. Jackie's pained cries punctuated the still air. The fur on my body was standing on end, feeling cold at the same time as I felt my fever growing worse again.
I had hurt her. It was a really, really strange thing for me to process. All my life I had been pretty terrible at talking with people, especially girls. I had grown to believe that anything that I said was not considered meaningful enough to give a second thought. Everything I said or did could be disregarded, because "it's just Matt."
But this incident had shattered the illusion that my mind had constructed. I had seriously hurt someone, because I hadn't thought once about if this was going to hurt her feelings. It was a spiral of self doubt that had led me here. It was self doubt I had just accepted, believing that everyone could obviously see my social ineptitude, and thus knew that I wasn't worth listening to. But that spiral had led me to believing that I could say and do whatever I wanted. I had given myself a convenient excuse to never try to improve.
I glanced over to the divider, and I visualized her on the other side. I had always looked at other people as being on a pedestal, so much more together, so much more skilled and mature than me. But Jackie was not put together nearly as well as I had thought.
Jackie was a furry. I didn't know exactly what that meant to her. To me furries were something out there in the corners of the world, corners I wasn't very interested in exploring. I wasn't sure if I felt negatively about them or not. The weirdness of furries kind of paled in comparison now to us - basically real life anthropomorphic animals.
I looked down at my arms again, my fur cast in red from a rare cloudless dusk. The fur was now covering my whole arms and fingers. Lifting up my shirt I found it nearly covering all of my torso. I checked my legs and feet, and they too were nearly completely covered. My footpads had completely grown in.
There was a feeling that I couldn't really describe in looking over it all. My mind knew acutely that I should not have black paw pads on the balls of my feet or on my palms. At the same time however, it felt like they had always been there. I strangely had a difficult time imagining my normal body instead. This was me now - Matt the dog boy.
I no longer was afraid of my transformed body, no longer constantly repulsed by it. I didn't even have a sense of curiosity about it as much now. It simply was me, and I was going to have to live with it.
All the experiences of my life were going to now be through this body. My graduation. College. My career...
I felt a pang of sadness as I thought of that - and then the other things that usually happened in a person's life. Things where if I wanted them, I could not hide in my room forever. I would need to venture into the outside world, and try to be around normal people again. But would any girl really want to go out with me? Douglas said that he was going to be my friend no matter what - but there was still a lingering doubt that even our friendship would be anything like it was before.
I felt an inkling desire to talk to Douglas. On a whim, I decided to submit to his desire to see a picture of me, and quickly took one. He responded very quickly after I sent it.
Woah... that is... different.
Yeah. Very different.
Can I call you right now dude?
My tablet began buzzing a moment later. I answered, making sure to have the speaker off.
"Hey," Douglas said.
"You doing alright?"
"With the changes? I guess. I don't know how much more is going to happen, but I'm pretty much all covered in fur now."
"Does it feel... hot?"
"Not as much as I was expecting it to. In a way it feels... I dunno, a bit comfortable if I'm honest?"
Douglas laughed. "Of all people, of course you're going to find the bright side to being a dog person."
I paused for a moment.
"Sorry, I just... I have a lot on my mind."
I collected my thoughts. "Douglas... do you... you like hanging out with me?"
"Yeah, sure dude. Why?"
"I just... I just feel like people don't like me. Gosh I feel so childish. It's just already so much going through all these changes, but I'm feeling like at the same time it's making me spiral about everything else in life... I just... I just feel like I'm not much fun. That I'm an annoyance. That I don't pick up on social cues. I feel like I've acted like no one cares what I say, so I have a license to do whatever I want."
Douglas didn't say anything.
"Yeah," he said, "I'm here. I get you. Everyone feels anxious about how they act socially. If you want me to be frank, I think that you could improve. I think that just simply focusing on how to make sure other people have a good time is what you need to do - and sometimes that means biting through things that you don't feel like doing."
It pained me slightly to hear his advice, but it's what I needed, badly.
"Okay," I said. "Thanks."
"And just remember that you're more than your bad moments Matt. For all the times that you might be a bit obnoxious, there are many other times where you make us laugh, where we've had fun conversations about games and movies... "
"But does being funny or talking about games make me a good friend really?"
"We're just seniors in high school dude. Our lives aren't that hard. To me, all you need to be a friend is someone that I can have fun with and relax after school and work."
"I'm not sure if I help people relax that much. I think that I only stress them out."
"I don't think so Matt."
I let in a deep breath. The divider was fully closed, and I knew that it muffled the sound somewhat.
"Douglas?" I whispered.
"I... I hurt Jackie's feelings really badly today."
"We got in a petty argument about books and movies, and she just... she kind of blew up."
"Yeah," he chuckled, "Jackie doesn't seem to like a lot of popular media, though I don't think she's really tried getting into it. I'm surprised that you didn't think about that being a potential powder keg conversation."
I was silent.
"Sorry dude," he said. "it's okay. We all make mistakes socially."
"I just feel like I should know her better."
"Well I guess I shouldn't place those expectations on you. Jackie seems to have a unique dislike of you. I'm going to be clear, that is not your fault. You just have kind of clashing personalities. Some people aren't going to get along, and that's okay."
"But I do want to get along with her Douglas. I like her. Even after what's happened. I know that we can get along. We were playing this old game Stardew Valley, and she seemed to be having a good time."
"You got Jackie to play a video game? Wow. Maybe she does like you more than I thought."
"I don't think she does. She treats me like I'm a 12 year old little brother she is desperate to be rid of."
"I think maybe Matt, that you should focus on how she feels, instead of how she is making you feel."
I swallowed, and felt my eyes become a bit watery.
"I hurt her Douglas. Hurt her badly."
I ran through my mind of what was okay to tell him. I was slightly afraid that Jackie would hear. No, that's not what mattered. What mattered was me being a decent person and not telling him her secrets.
I cupped my hand around my tablet. "I... I saw some stuff she was reading. She had been reading really serious nonfiction, and I saw that she... well, she had some werewolf romance novels."
"Oh," Douglas laughed. "Interesting."
"I kind of pointed out her hypocrisy after she'd just trashed about fantasy stuff... and she didn't like that."
"I'd imagine not. Look, you didn't know obviously, but that's a very sensitive spot for her."
"I... I didn't know. She... she has a few other things that I won't share."
"You mean that she's a furry? It's a bit of an open secret dude."
"Well, one that we don't talk about much. I don't personally care. She does though."
He paused a second.
"Ohhh," he said, "I bet that has really mixed up some stuff for her with all that's been going on."
"I... maybe. I just... I don't know where to even start with this. I don't know much about... furry stuff."
I felt weird even saying "furry" out loud.
"How is she right now?"
"Not good. She... she just kind of got more and more tense until she exclaimed that she was into... that. She just seems very upset right now and I don't want to bother her."
"Well, just remember Matt, that she's a person just like you. She feels just as anxious about social stuff, and so she likely feels really embarrassed right now."
"So... did she like... tell you guys about it?"
"No," Douglas said. "Wendy was at Jackie's house once and... well, found incriminating evidence."
"Calm down. Wendy said it wasn't anything gross. Some art on her tablet and stuff like that. But yeah, she's into this stuff. My question is, what are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know. I've just been off by myself for several hours. I... I can still hear her crying a little bit."
"That... oof. That is rough."
"Should I say something?"
"I don't know. I may have made it sound like I know Jackie well, but even though she didn't open up to you as much, it wasn't like she was open a lot more to the rest of us."
"I just... I feel like I've gotten a little bit closer to her as we've been stuck in this. She's been willing to talk to me, to open up a bit... when she was going through a lot of pain from some of the changes, she was willing to hold my hand."
"She was?" Douglas asked in surprise.
"Jackie doesn't really like people touching her you know."
"No," he said, "I'm not saying that you messed up... I'm saying that if she was willing to hold your hand... she must like you."
"Does it mean she likes me more if she was holding it excruciatingly tight?"
Douglas laughed. "I don't know. But if she likes you at all... I can imagine that this has been difficult for her. Going through these changes in front of someone to plainly see, then laying out a bunch of baggage in front of you... things like that hurt way more when it's someone you care about."
"I just... I have a hard time feeling like Jackie cares about me back."
"So are you saying that you were trying to pursue a relationship with no hope of her returning those feelings?"
"Gosh don't say things like that, it makes me sounds like a perv."
"I'm trying to say dude, that if she likes you, you should keep on trying, but if she doesn't, her private life is not really your business."
"That's the thing though man, I have no idea how to pick up on social cues. I have no idea how to tell if she likes me or not."
"Well one thing I'll say is that you're both in a pretty frustrating situation, so neither of you are probably going to be in the mood to be flirting - but on top of that, Jackie, at least from what Wendy has said to me, doesn't really play any sort of mind games. She is a blunt person. I feel like if she likes you, she'll just show it."
I took a deep breath. "So... do you think I should talk to her?"
"I can't make choices for you dude. You got to decide for yourself."
"Alright," I sighed.
"I need to go."
"Okay... sorry dude for just... unloading all this onto you with no warning."
"It's fine. It's what a friend does. I do need to... mention something."
"Well... we don't know yet, but there's... there's a possibility my girlfriend might have the canis virus."
"Yes. That could be really bad news, because we've kissed."
"Gosh," I said. "... on one hand, congrats, but on the other...."
We were both quiet for a bit.
"I'm not going to lie Matt, I'm pretty freaked out right now. I thought when they said that it couldn't pass through air that we were all good, but now I'm thinking about stuff like all the drinking fountains at school... gosh, things could get really bad."
"I'm sorry dude."
"It's alright. I'll get through it, whatever happens. If she changes but I don't, I'm going to stick with her."
"Well... I hope everything works out."
"I'll find a way to make it work out," Douglas said with confidence, "no matter what happens."
"Okay. I'll let you get going."
"I'll be seeing you. Be careful with Jackie."
We said goodbye, and then I was left alone in silence again. It felt loud somehow. Straining at my mind.
I glanced to the divider. I wasn't sure what to do. Waiting until tomorrow to talk to Jackie would probably be the best idea. There was the likelihood however, that she'd continue to give me the cold shoulder, and would not be willing to address what had happened. I also didn't know if she was intending to go through changing to a new room. I didn't know if that was possible, as I had heard that all the rooms were full, but they might always swap someone if she really wanted it.
I had a moment of quiet stirring in my chest, as I slowly solidified my intentions. It wasn't done on impulse, but instead it was a very pointed, intentional act. I walked over, and drew open the divider.
A golden retriever that knows how to use a computer
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