Jackie stood outside the school, pulling her hoodie tightly over her ears. There were people around her. They casually walked into the school without a thought. They were normal. They were humans. She however, was canis. She was only just now realizing how horrible of a difference that was going to be for a long, long time into the future.
She stood out there for a good while, as the morning went from dark to a light overcast. Even with her fur, the time spent out there in the cold was beginning to wear on her. When there were only ten minutes left to the start of school, she finally saw the eyes of a golden retriever boy appear in the distance. He too covered his head with a hood.
"Gosh," Matt said as he walked up to her, "don't tell me you've been standing out on the curb like this this whole time?"
Jackie just shivered in response.
"C'mon," he took her hand, "let's go in."
"No... no...," Jackie whispered.
"You can do it," Matt said, "today is going to be tough, but every day after is going to get easier."
Jackie didn't say anything. He tugged her forward, and she began shambling toward the doors. She felt her tail, constrained down her pants, curl between her legs. It hurt being bound. She wanted it to be free, to wag it...
Matt was braver than she was. His ears were also covered by his hood, but his tail was plain to see.
Warmth flowed over her as they entered the school - and then Jackie felt like she was going to faint. Or barf. Or go insane and run back outside and into the street. There they were, hundreds of people. All of her peers... they were staring at her, she was sure. Oh gosh oh gosh oh gosh....
"Just keep moving," Matt pulled her forward again.
She held his hand tighter, as though if she let go, she would drown in the sea of people. She felt certain in that ocean of people, that monsters would be there. Monsters from the depths come to mock her awful appearance. She was the real monster. She was -
"Jackie," Matt stopped her, "you need to relax. I can feel through your very, very tight hand that you're extremely stressed. Just relax."
"I'm going to die Matt. The floor is going to swallow me and suck me into a horrible dimension of even more embarrassment."
"Just keep moving," he said. "Just keep moving."
She tried her best to, but it wasn't much more than shambling with a lot of intent. It didn't help that she felt very exposed with her paw-like feet visible. Shoes didn't work, and the school wasn't sure what to do about it dress-code wise.
After an intense trek that lasted only a couple of minutes, they were close to Mr. Dun's room, with several minutes to spare. The stress on her went down the slightest bit. They'd be there on time. On time for what though? Torture?
"We're here," Matt said, "are you ready to go in?"
Jackie shook her head. "No... no... no..."
"It's okay," he steadied her. "Do you need to get a drink, or use the bathroom first?"
She blinked, feeling the traces of tears forming. "No. I just... I just want to sit down for a moment before we go in."
They found a bench nearby, and she immediately felt worse upon sitting down. Now she was not moving. Now it was easier for people to stare at her. She saw eyes begin to cross her vision, they were staring. They were all staring! Oh gosh the staring was unbearable!
And then she saw something else - a face with a snout and fur. Then in another part of the crowd, another one. There were others. Other canis people. They looked so weird... seeing them in this place from her normal human existence. That was what she looked like to everyone else. She was a bizarre blot on reality, as though someone had ridden a unicorn into the hallway.
She turned her gaze towards Matt.
"Just... focus on me okay? Don't focus on them."
Her face quivered. She felt so pent up. She wanted to escape. The idea of just sprinting out the nearest exit and ditching school didn't seem nearly so daunting as remaining here. She couldn't stay here. She couldn't...
"Is that okay?"
She looked to where Matt was pointing - to her imprisoned tail.
"No," she said, "it hurts."
"I know you're scared," he said, "but do you want me to help?"
He retrieved his pocket knife. She stared at it for a moment, and then silently, slowly, turned her back to him.
"Just... try to hide it... when it comes out."
She tried to stay calm. Breathe slowly, in and out. A boy had a sharp knife close to her, and she couldn't make any unsteady movements. He punched the blade through the denim. She briefly trembled, then went still again as he carefully cut a large enough hole in the back.
The world faded for a moment as she felt his fingers wrap around her tail, and gently pull it free. Relief washed over her, and she couldn't stop herself from wagging it slightly.
Matt put his pocket knife away, and she pulled him into an embrace.
"I want to run Matt. I don't care about any consequences. I don't want to spend another moment in this awful place."
"You can do it Jackie," Matt hugged her tight. He ran his hand along her back, smoothing the fur there. "We need to get through this. We're going to have to live with this for the rest of our lives. We need to adjust to living around humans."
He helped her stand up, despite her wobbly legs. They began the last stint to their class. Living around humans. They were not humans. Gosh she wish she had some idea of what she was.
And then suddenly it happened. They left the river of people in the hallway, and were in Mr. Dun's room.
And they all stared at the two of them. Her eyes searched desperately, hoping that maybe there was another canis person - but no. They were being stared at like one would stare at an exotic animal in the zoo. She could not quickly get away like she'd been able to in the hallway. Here they could just stare.
She slowly made her way to her desk, sitting beside Matt. Jackie cursed herself a thousand times over for actively speaking in classes. She would not simply hide in the background.
"Y-yes Mr. Dun?"
He stood up from his desk and looked at her. Gosh she felt so trapped! She hated this awful prison of a classroom!
"I'm sorry to remind you and Mr. Hewitt, but hoodies must be down."
A bunch of the fur on Jackie's arms stood on end. She reached for Matt's hand again, and pressed her paw-pads against his.
Slowly with her other hand, she lifted her hoodie up, and drew it back, revealing her large ears. The lights shone more clearly onto her face. There she was plainly before the world. And they all stared.
The bell rang, snapping her classmates out of their trance.
"Alright everyone," Mr. Dun said, "to start off today, we are -"
Mercifully, they all turned around back to the front of the class. Her classmates in the desks closer to her however, continued to make passing glances.
"We're making it through this," Matt leaned over, whispering to her. "You're still alive, you're going to be alright. They're all going to get used to this."
She flinched as Mr. Dun suddenly turned out the lights, and turned on the whiteboard's screen. She hadn't caught anything he'd really said.
A video began with no title, simply showing an empty space with a guy and a girl standing together in it, with a soft blue tint to the background.
"Hello," the boy addressed the camera. "In the past month, there have been a lot of big changes to the world."
The girl stepped forward. "For all of us, these recent events have been very distressing. We've been filled with a lot of fear and anxiety."
The camera panned, and it revealed a very uncomfortable sight - a canis boy and girl. The boy seemed to be some kind of black lab, while the girl was some kind of cocker spaniel. In another setting, Jackie may have remarked that the girl made a cute dog. In this moment however, she could barely breathe, let alone talk.
"However the Canis virus has affected us," the dog girl said, "it has been extremely distressing. Whether you have watched a loved one contract the virus, just read about it in the news, or even experienced it yourself."
"Despite the pain and fear we feel," the dog boy said, "we need to make sure that we don't let it blind us. People who have contracted canis are your friends, your family members. They're people you watch content from online. They're people in your clubs and your workplace. They want to be treated like you treated them before - as fellow human beings."
"Throughout history," the normal girl said, "we've been faced with many challenges when it comes to people of different races, religions, nationalities, sexualities, and genders. As we face these challenges, we must face them as fellow human beings, looking beyond the surface to the humanity inside."
The screen faded to black, and then faded to a new scene, showing a dog girl that looked to be a golden retriever, but more golden and dark in fur color than Jackie or Matt. She was sitting close to the camera with who were presumably her parents. She recounted how she had run away when she'd found out she had the virus. She had driven off into southwest, all alone. It had all the touchy feely soft sad piano music in the background as she told her story.
Then she talked about how she finally gave up driving in Death Valley National Park, and in walking around there, all alone, she had met a family from Germany who'd had the courage to talk to her, and encourage her to call her parents. Once again, the video had all the stereotypical swelling music, showing how amazing and uplifting this was.
The golden retriever girl said something ultimately not very deep, about how you just needed to have hope and stuff.
This same thing repeated with another interview with a boy - this time a boy and his brother, who had contracted canis, giving their experience. Jackie however, had mostly tuned out. She felt like no amount of inspirational "please don't bully people" videos, no matter how well intentioned, did little to nothing to make her feel better. Even if it somehow made everyone in the school suddenly completely fine with canis people, she would take ages to feel comfortable in school again - and by then her senior year would be over, and she'd be going off to college.
The video ended the interviews, and then went back to the four people original actors. They ended off saying something else vaguely inspirational she was barely processing, then the video ended with their repeated phrase that "we need to stand together as fellow human beings."
Jackie did not need their comforting catchphrase. She did not feel human. People liked dogs, thought they were cute, but they would not treat dogs like humans. They wouldn't let dogs sit at kitchen tables or fly an airplane. She felt a dark sense of foreboding, that for all these speeches, society was going to exclude them. It was going to be just like the horrific prejudice seen all throughout history, and this time, there was extremely good rationalization for people to exclude their kind.
Mr. Dunn turned the lights back on, and Jackie blinked the flash away. She placed her hand against her forehead, wishing her stress headache would end.
Mr. Dun pulled his desk chair in front of the whiteboard, turning it to face away from them, and resting his arms on the back. A few of the students in the front chuckled slightly as he did the characteristic, informal action. He made a slight smile.
"What are you all feeling right now?"
No one said anything.
"Because," he exhaled strongly, "I am feeling very uncertain. Now this is a physics class, not a biology or chemistry one - but I think I can speak with some knowledge on the subject - we've all got some challenging times ahead. The world of genetics, science, and culture have changed forever. In decades past, scientists shook at the thought of tampering the slightest bit with human DNA - and now we've seen a lot of people go through unparalleled changes."
Still, the room was silent.
"And I'm not going to sugarcoat it," he said, "this is pretty scary. None of us know what happens next. Hopefully the virus spread stays low, but even then, our lives are going to be very different from now on."
Mr. Dun stood up from the chair, and to Jackie's dread, made eye contact with her.
"Jackie, Matt, would you both sit on your desks for me?"
"What?" Matt asked.
"Sit on the desk, yes, up you go."
Jackie felt her breathing quicken as she got up on the desk, forcibly put on display. Her opinion of Mr. Dun was falling from neutral to pure evil. She was being tortured. This was unconstitutional!
"I want you all to take a good long look at them," Mr. Dun said.
The eyes. All of them stared into her soul. She felt pain writhe through every corner of her body.
"Now," Mr. Dun said, "never stare at them again. Sorry you two, you can sit down now - in the desks that is."
Jackie, gratefully, slunk back into her desk, for what little additional protection it offered.
"They are just your classmates," Mr. Dun said, "and in your other classes, in the halls, you will see other people your age who got canis. I want you all to remember that there's still a person in there who has feelings, who doesn't want to be stared at. Wasn't that uncomfortable you two?"
The dam holding back Jackie's tears nearly broke. "Yes," she croaked out.
"I'm sorry I did that," he said, "but the fact of the matter is, I want all the rest of you to get used to them. Get used to seeing them as real people, and not an 'other.' Think of how you'd want to be treated if the lot fell to you to go through this."
"It probably sucks," a guy near Matt chimed in.
"You have no idea," Matt said.
"We need to start class," Mr. Dun said, "but just want to say, from now on, we aren't bringing attention to this again. We're all going to get along, and if I see any bullying going on in my class, I'll send my velociraptors after you."
The class laughed, and Mr. Dun directed everyone to get out their tablets and bring up the textbook. Jackie slowly felt herself calm. She was able to get to a point where she could look around the room, and not feel as if the entire universe was fixated on her - but at least one person was.
The girl that sat to her left, Tabitha, slightly smiled at her.
Jackie doubted if the gesture was authentic - but at least it wasn't a look of horror. She might be able to get through this. Like getting into a cold lake, it was going to be shocking at first, but maybe after a while she could get used to it.
Maybe. The word that ruled over her life.
A golden retriever that knows how to use a computer
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