My thumb slipped slightly as I strummed the strings of my guitar. It was difficult now, with the slightly padded fingertips. On one hand, the tougher pads made pressing down chords a lot easier. On the other hand, they didn't slide as well to new chords. Barre chords also had the extra padding of the fur on my index finger, but the fur would also brush up against the other strings, messing up the sound.
I thought about that a lot, as I picked what I knew of an old bluegrass tune. I couldn't even remember the name of it, but my teacher years ago had made me do it as an exercise.
I hummed along to the tune as I moved to the song's bridge. My fingers were different, but the song was still the same. It was still fun to play, rapidly picking at the notes. Playing was both easier and more difficult. It was a summation of what my life was now. I hit many notes wrong, but I kept playin' fast and it didn't last for long.
I needed to find out an excuse to bring out my guitar when Jackie was around. Yes, it was extremely cliche, but it was fun to play for people. Sadly there weren't many organic ways to bring out the guitar without coming across as being showy.
For the time being though, my spirits were a bit too faint to feel like playing for others. Picking up the guitar again had made me feel better, like it always did, but it was just another subtle reminder that things would be different from now on.
I finished the song, to my annoyance, catching my thumb-pad on one of the strings as I made my final strum. It muddied the last chord, and I felt the need to replay it to feel satisfied. I rested my guitar against the couch, and leaned back. I wondered if over time I might be able to wear down the edge of the pad so that it slipped easier down the strings. I wasn't quite sure how the pads worked.
I really needed to get around to studying some information online about living with canis - but that would inevitably ignite my morbid curiosity to see what people were saying about us. I had already read some of it before. I did not need to see it ever again.
A thumping came down the stairs. I locked my gaze with Ashley as she turned the corner. Her nose was darker, and starting to turn upward. Her ears had fully flopped down and were covered in fur. She had a sour look on her face.
"Are you going to play any more?" she asked.
"I don't know," I sat up, "Maybe if I feel like it."
"Well can you not? I'm trying to work on homework and all I can think of is that stupid earworm you've been playing since you learned to play guitar."
"Sorry," I said, in a very not sorry tone.
She glared at me. "I feel awfully certain that as soon as I leave the basement, I'm gonna hear you start pounding some rock song, screeching at high notes you just can't reach."
"At least I actually tried to learn music. You just gave up."
"And I'm sure mom and dad are very proud of your average level of skill at guitar. Maybe you can actually be successful with it by making a furry rock band. You could have really obnoxious barking sounds in the background."
"Go work on your homework Ashley."
She stood there for a moment, staring at me, a ironclad scowl on her face.
"Even with my deforming face, I'm not going to let anything in my life change. I'm going to take the hardest classes, and I'm going to be good enough at what I do, that whatever the heck I am doesn't matter to people anymore."
"Well good luck," I said. "I'm glad that me getting a drink was able to be a catalyst for your amazing career."
"Oh it's going to be amazing Matt," she said. Her fists were clenched. "I'm going to study my stupid tail I'm sprouting off, and get to a point where I'm working on Mars, far, far away from here."
She turned around and marched back up the steps.
I felt my energy deflate out of me. It had been years... like since we'd been little kids, that I remembered me and Ashley getting that mad at each other. My heart went cold. She hated me. In this moment, she really, truly hated me. She wasn't going to forgive me for this any time soon.
Ashley had always told Mom and Dad how cool it would be if she could work on Mars someday. Mom had always been extremely skittish about the idea. It would take her away from our family in a way that was hard to understand. Video calls would not even be possible.
She was only in junior high now, and so much could change. I was certain that in a month from now, the heat of this situation would die down - but right now her rage seemed stoked to a blazing temperature. I thought about how mad I'd have to make someone that they'd want to leave the planet to get away from me.
It hurt. Gosh... it hurt.
Ashley hated me, and Mom and Dad only really said what was necessary. They'd taken to just saying that they'd made dinner - and then we would each split off, eating apart. It was incredibly unnerving. For many people I'm sure this would be a weird thing to be uncomfortable with - but my for whole life, whenever we were all home, it meant we ate together, even if it was just pizza.
And the fast food was more common these days. Dad was continuing to work hard at his new job, and working from home at her job, Mom seemed to have less and less motivation to cook either.
I just... hated it. I hated what had happened. I felt deep down inside like somehow I could've not just been more careful and prevented Ashley from turning, but I also could've helped them accept me better. I had been able to come to peace with who I now was - but as my discomfort for my body subsided, self doubt and anxiety took its place. I felt some of what Jackie felt - doubt that the person on the inside was of much value, even as we struggled with how people viewed our changes.
And I wished that I knew how to help her. For every tender moment, there would be another filled with tears. I did not show my pain as visibly, but it still strangled me. It just... it just felt like the two of us were floating in the ocean. No raft, just each other, having some odd hope that maybe the other can keep us from sinking.
School would be starting again soon. I would be forced to face all of my friends again. It had been shocking enough for them to find out what had happened to me, but how would they deal with seeing the new me in real life? How would they react to the bizarre golden retriever boy in shorts and a t-shirt?
And then there were the strangers. I would have to walk through school, facing crowds of people. People who would be repulsed by my appearance. People who would widely circle around me, out of fear that somehow in looking at them, I would give them canis.
Then there would be other people with canis too. I knew that there were a good many my age - according to Dad, our area had higher than the average amount - as many as a hundred at my high school could've contracted canis. The thought was just... so strange. I couldn't imagine how I would manage it. I put my hands against my head, closing my eyes and clenching my teeth.
Too much... too much... just too much had happened in so short of a time. It was only just the beginning of February. Not even a month had passed since I'd changed. It had all crumbled before my eyes. My image of myself, of my family, my friends, and the world.
It just... it felt so unfair. Even as I thought that, I felt immature. Everyone knew that life was not fair. But it was extremely frustrating. I knew why it had all happened, and why it had happened to me - but why did I have to be one of the first? Why did it all have to happen so fast? Why couldn't I have been of of the ones watching on the sidelines for a few months, and then have the lot fall on me to get canis later on?
Would I really want that? Would I really be the perfectly kind person to canis people that I imagined I would be? I knew that I wouldn't. If anything, I would be one of the silent majority who just pretended nothing had changed. I would ignore people like Jackie. I would have left her alone, and searched for girls who were normal.
Yet here I was. Dating a dog girl. Telling her that it was okay to be weird, and give into these new, bizarre canine instincts. I curled up on the couch, resting my head against a pillow. I was diving into all of this so fast. Into everything. I had a girlfriend for the first time, and I was encouraging her to act like a dog. It felt... wrong... somehow. I felt so... so confused.
I just hated it. Hated all of it. I wished that I could just decide how I was going to act, just decide that I was going to be at peace. But I couldn't. Everytime I started to get too comfortable, I suddenly realized how strange it all was. I'd realize that everyone was staring at me because I'd licked my nose.
Being with Jackie didn't feel worth this humiliation. I doubted I would have the resolve to stay this way if they found a cure. It was silly to think that what I had with her would last forever. High school romances usually didn't.
But I was all she had.
I was the person she had opened up to.
If I did not stand with her, she would be alone.
My tail curled between my legs, and I reached out and gripped it tightly, like it was some kind of teddy bear. It felt so normal now to have a tail. I tried to will my brain to imagine my normal body without it, but it couldn't. Every time I imagined seeing myself as a human, gradually my brain would pop in my tail, then my ears, until all I could think of was my canis self.
I continued in this labyrinth of wayward thoughts for a good long while, going nowhere but in circles, over the same fears and anxieties, all the same frustrations and complaints I'd had the entire time I'd been stuck with this. I knew however, that even at that moment, I was getting exhausted feeling so stressed. I'd hop over to Jackie's house, play Stardew Valley, feel in a better mood again, and then I'd completely change my attitude.
It felt so easy to want to look at the world in a positive way, and to want to act in a positive way when you felt happy.
I sat up, feeling my ears flop around as did so.
When my life went south however, it felt like my resolve just crumbled. I felt weak. I felt... pathetic.
A memory rose up in my mind, of a story my dad had read when I was little. It was about a sailor who was renowned for his skill in sailing, in exploring the world, who had undergone great voyages, and discovered many far away lands. He boasted often of his exploits, but never in his stories did he include his first mate. His first mate said little. When on voyages, they traveled through harsh storms, encountered pirates, and when faced setbacks, the first mate was the one who kept the crew intact, all while the captain cowered in his room.
I had asked my dad what it meant. He said, in a very firm way, without hardly having to think of a response, that the true measure of a man was that he stayed just as strong in hard times as in good; that he could not be moved.
It was a phrase I knew that my dad lived by. He was immovable. He knew what his goals were, and when something went wrong, he did not waste an hour getting angry, or sobbing. He just went to what he needed to do.
I let out a very long sigh. I did not feel like I could ever do that. And right now, stuck in quarantine with little productive to do, I felt like I didn't have much work I could accomplish.
But maybe I could try to push away these useless anxieties. I could try to focus on what I could control. I could attempt to be brave - as little of that as I could muster.
I put away my guitar, and went upstairs to my room. I was going to get ready to go to Jackie's house - and I was going to try to be there for her.
The storm of life was going to come - and I could stand and face it, or cower in the dark.
A golden retriever that knows how to use a computer
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