In the past, ice skating had annoyed me for one small reason; if you didn't get the skates tightened just right on your feet, the top of the skate boots would shift back and forth, rubbing against your ankles and forming welts. Today however, despite some difficulty at first with trying to get my foot-paws into the boot, my fur gave a nice cushion to protect my ankles from developing those painful sores.
After I finished putting my skates on, I turned to Jackie to help put hers on. She smiled, her golden fur reflecting the lights illuminating the skating rink.
It was Valentine's Day. I'd wanted to take Jackie on a real date, out in public - and she'd agreed, though with some trepidation. It had been several weeks of school now, and we were starting to get used to the idea of being around a lot of people.
When we moved out onto the ice, I realized very quickly how long it had been since I'd gone skating. Jackie and I laughed a bit as we worked to gain our footing, but having grown up in the frigid landscape that was the great lakes region, we got the hang of it quickly.
The second thing I realized, was that being out in public had a very noticeable difference from being at school. At school, the primary demographic that had contracted canis - teens who had gotten the cancer treatment as toddlers - were more common, and thus non-canis people were more familiar with us. They had gotten acclimated to it.
Here however, I knew that we were an oddity, especially when most canis people didn't go out in public when they didn't need to. Even though it was Valentine's Day, and a lot of people our age were here, it seemed there was still a feeling that they didn't expect to see us out in the open.
I pushed those concerns aside, and turned to Jackie as we held hands, gliding along the ice. I focused on the comforting, now so familiar feeling of our paw pads pressing against together. In spite of this crucible of trials we and so many other people were going through, we had found comfort with each other.
In the cold winter evening, decorative strings of lights were draped over the skating ring, and made it feel a little cozy. Even though it was obvious from the passing glances at us that people here found us strange, there was still the sounds of people talking and laughing. It felt alive, and it felt invigorating to be out in the world again, after hiding from it for weeks.
When going around a curve in the rink, I spun around trying to look cool, and nearly biffed it on the ice. Jackie caught me thankfully, and we laughed. She pulled my tighter against her, and we pressed our snouts together, making a little kiss.
I loved her so much. I loved that she loved me, not despite of how I looked, but because of it. I was growing to love that adorable puppy dog look she had in turn. She was so cute with that slightly sheepish, yet eager look in her eyes. We had slowed to a stop now, and I kissed her again, wagging my tail happily.
I had dated before this, but I'd never had a real Valentine's Day date. I felt a bit sappy and silly, but being a silly golden retriever boy was who I was. I was going to be happy, and it didn't matter how I looked. No, it did matter a little. I was happy as a canis person. It just felt... right. Without my body, I would have the cozy feeling of cuddling with Jackie, our fur pressing against each other. I wouldn't be able to smell her familiar grapefruit scented shampoo without my snout. And of course, I couldn't imagine not having my tail anymore.
It had been such a short time, just coming up on a month and a half, since this had all started, but I now felt confident this was how I wanted my life to be. I knew that the world wouldn't understand it, and my family probably wouldn't either - but Jackie and I understood, and that was enough.
As we skated, the future settled on my mind. Thoughts of college. Thoughts of career stuff... it was all very stressful. Most stressful perhaps though, was thinking of Jackie. We had talked a bit about life after high school. I didn't see any future where we went to different schools. That was unthinkable.
So we were going to continue our relationship in college... and then...
I let out a long exhale. Jackie tugged me a bit forward, wanting me to keep up with her.
We were both only 18 now. That would mean around two years before I felt comfortable... with... well, a certain something. I couldn't imagine waiting that long. I knew deep down that I was just a lovesick high school kid, literally experiencing puppy love. I was going to change a lot as I took on more responsibilities in life.
But I wanted to marry Jackie so bad. I obviously couldn't marry her right out of high school. We'd known each other for years as acquaintances, a solid handful of months as kind of friends - but only this month or so had we been in a relationship. I knew I needed a lot more time for us to see if our relationship was stronger than its initial spark. Plus it was a bit... unseemly marrying someone that early.
But two years. I was so afraid that our relationship would fizzle out in such a long stretch of time. Part of me said that I really needed to talk about this with her, in some fashion. That terrified me. I knew of course that a guy wasn't just supposed to pop the question on a girl with no warning, but... augh. The thought of talking about that... it sounded so... so... awkward. It was something I'd rather push down the road to when I was 20.
Putting me even more on edge was the fact that I knew Jackie was thinking about it too. She was also thinking about... other things. When she was in a very relaxed mood once, she'd asked me what kind of baby names I thought were cute. I'd be lying if I denied that the idea of reaching that point with Jackie made me incredibly happy - but I was not ready for the awkwardness of discussing it right now, while I was barely figuring out how to just be her boyfriend.
"This has been really nice," Jackie said, pulling me from my thoughts. "I'd love to do this again next year."
"Yeah," I smiled back.
"It could be... a bit of a tradition maybe."
I saw a smirk flash on her face, she'd indicated, perhaps accidentally, her hope that this relationship would last a long time.
"I look forward to it," I smiled, once again giving her snout a little boop.
"I love you Matt," she hugged me tightly, pressing her muzzle into the fur on my chest.
"I love you Jackie."
"I wish that I had gotten to know you much earlier," she said. She closed her eyes, moving to rest her head against my shoulder.
"But we're here now," I said, "and that's all that matters to me. Besides, waiting even longer would've been hard for me."
"Waiting for what?"
"Nothing," I said.
Jackie pulled away from me and laughed. "No, what do you mean?"
"I just... wherever... um, things go, uh..."
Her eyes caught the glimmer of one of the lights above. I couldn't tell whether she was stunned, excited, upset...
"Oh," she said. "I... I see. Perhaps... perhaps you're right then."
I let out a quiet groan, and pressed my hand to my face.
Jackie laughed. "It's okay... I... I think about it too. It... it isn't like I was expecting... anything else."
I kissed her. I felt so... so awkward. But she seemed to feel the same way, so at least we understood each other.
"You've changed my life Matt," Jackie hugged me again. "You've made me excited about the future. When... when I lost my dad... I felt awful. I became even more depressed after I changed. Thank you so much."
"I'm glad that you're fine with me being super sappy," I laughed nervously.
"Sappy is perfectly fine," she hugged more tightly. "I'd rather have sappy and nice, then someone who doesn't care about me."
And again, we kissed.
My parents had made dinner for us before we'd gone skating - Jackie hadn't wanted to go out to eat - but I still took her to a local bakery to get two big cookies. I knew that chocolate was the traditional Valentine's Day treat, but even though it seemed that milk chocolate was harmless enough for us, I wasn't willing to risk getting my girlfriend super sick today.
I wasn't however, able to avoid having a low point on our date. When in line at the bakery, a toddler was standing next to her parents, trying to grab her mom's tablet out of her pocket. The parents were a bit frustrated, seemingly embarrassed as their toddler voiced her disapproval, and loudly. Jackie and I chuckled a bit, in my eyes, trying to show the parents that it was okay, there was no need to be embarrassed.
Then the little girl noticed us, and glanced to Jackie. She began to scream. Jackie tried to smile and say "it's okay" to the girl, but it had little effect. The mother picked up the screaming girl and asked her husband to complete her order, and then took the toddler outside.
I held Jackie's by her side as I saw her eyes leak a few tears.
"It's alright," I whispered. "Toddlers get scared around strangers. She just had a reaction, she wasn't trying to be mean."
Jackie sighed. "We really are like some mascot characters at a parade or theme park aren't we? Scaring little kids away..."
"They're all still getting used to us," I said. "As time passes, things will get easier. A year from now, five years, people will just accept us as part of life."
Jackie simply sighed again. When we got up to the counter, I made an effort to order our cookies with confidence, not afraid to look the employee in the eye with a smile. They didn't seem as keen about keeping eye contact with me, but I held onto what I'd said. It would take some time. People would adjust.
As my family's car drove us back to our neighborhood, and we tried our best to eat the cookies without getting crumbs all over the floor, Jackie relaxed again, and we were just able to chat. We talked about our next canis club meeting tomorrow, about annoying assignments in our classes... and this, in a way, felt more comforting to me than when we were romantic together.
If I really wanted to have a stronger, long term relationship with Jackie, then I needed more than just those perfect romantic moments. I needed stuff like this, to know that we could chat as best friends, and genuinely enjoy each others' company. I'd had friends my whole life, but never someone as close as her. We talked more deeply about each other, shared childhood memories... the kind of things I didn't normally talk about with Douglas, Kevin, or Wendy.
Here I felt us grow closer in ways that just kissing and hugging didn't accomplish. We grew to understand each other, and what we valued in life. Jackie had talked about her dad a lot. She missed him greatly. With that context, it made me feel uncomfortable then when she told me there that I reminded her of him.
"All I can do," I said, trying to smile confidently, "is do the best I can."
"That's the kind of thing he'd say," Jackie said. "But... that's not what I'm afraid of."
Her expression fell to one of sadness, and I realized the implication. Her father had been taken from them quickly and suddenly. Brain cancer. He was perfectly healthy, and a month later, he had passed away. She had only told me about it in detail once, and she'd been in a pretty good mood - and it had drained her for the rest of the day talking about it for just those few minutes.
It was hard to deny how scary the thought of that was. How cruel life could be, that someone could just be taken away from you so quickly. We imagined sometimes, with all our wonders of technology, that something like that shouldn't be possible anymore. But people still suffered in the world. People still died. Random freak accidents happened, as did natural disasters...
And then there was stuff like canis, a scourge that hurt people in a different way.
"We can't control what will happen in life," I said. "All we can do is control how we live it."
"That... that sounds like your one Lord of the Rings quote."
I was a bit surprised, but happy that she had remembered.
"That's right," I smiled. "And something else that's a big theme in Lord of the Rings - for all the sadness in life, there is so much happiness and joy - and the difficult stuff helps us really appreciate that. We may think that happiness is far away in the moment, but it will come. Things will get better."
The car stopped. We'd reached Jackie's house. I moved over to her seat, and cuddled with her for a moment.
"All I can say is," I said, "is don't focus on those fears. If we can't control what happens to us, then worrying doesn't really accomplish anything. All you can do is prepare for things in a reasonable way, and do your best."
Jackie sighed. "I don't like that phrase, 'do your best.' I could always stand to do a lot better."
"So could I. We'll help each other do better."
"Heaven knows," Jackie smiled, "I've already sanded off some of your rough edges."
I made an annoyed, forced smile, yet knew she was all too right. I gave her another kiss and playful boop on the snout, and then got out of the car and I walked her to the door. Another kiss goodnight, and then finally, we forced ourselves to seperate.
Though I wished I could stay with her, I felt confident, and at peace as I rode in the car the short distance home down the street. I'd gotten past the point where I was afraid about making some mistake, and turning Jackie away. No, we were too close for that now. We were going to stand against the world no matter what they did to us - and I still remained hopeful that things would improve.
I got home and met my parents in the living room with a beaming grin on my face. I related my date to them as we all sat on the couch, and I saw some genuine happiness on their faces. It was an uncommon sight on them since everything had happened, but it was growing more frequent.
Even though they still saw things very differently from how I did, they were starting to understand, I thought, after experiencing their changes from canis. My dad now had entirely floppy, fur covered ears, his fur coming in thicker all over him. His snout had almost fully developed, as had paw pads.
My mom's ears were only just starting to droop, but she had completely formed a snout, and her face was starting to develop a muzzle. She also had grown enough of a tail to need have a tail hole in her sweat pants.
I'd even say that Ashley, if not exactly happy, had at least become more mellow. Her classmates had stopped bullying her, for obvious reasons. She grumbled about having detention, but Mom did say that working on homework there was improving her grades, as had being deprived of her tablet at home.
We were all going to be canis people soon. It was such a surreal thought. I'd grown to be a bit fairer to my parents and their struggle adjusting to me, now that I had to witness the reverse. It was hard not to feel like my parents looked really funny with the changes. Just as I'd seen so far though, becoming canis changed your appearance significantly, but still retained some semblance of facial structure, still feeling at a closer look like it was the same person.
It seemed like they had finally accepted me. I no longer got odd looks when I panted or wagged my tail. Mom had even asked the other day at dinner if I'd prefer to try lapping up water from a bowl instead of using a glass with a straw - and I did have to admit, it felt a lot more natural, and I'd been doing it since. Ashley though still held onto her disdain for seeing me act dog-like. I tried to be patient with her the best I could.
I felt like after getting the awful cut in me that was transforming into a dog-person, the wound was finally near healing. I always knew there would be a scar, some discomfort from living life, having to adjust to different things... but I felt like I'd gotten over the worst of it. I was settling back into some feeling of normalcy, and now I just needed to worry about the things I worried about before like school and my future career.
But I felt resistance to that desire, to say that things were normal again. Even as things were going well with the canis club, we were having to enlist someone to stand outside now after someone had stolen our nice welcome poster. That annoying Labrador guy Horace had split off and formed his own canis club, and from what I'd heard, was attracting some unsavory types of canis people.
At the same time, I'd also noticed that Dad seemed stressed about work again, and when Mom asked about it, he'd been vague. It didn't seem like stress from working hard... but from something else.
I wasn't going to let these kinds of problems get me down though. I was going to do the best I could for the rest of my senior year, and graduate proudly. Now that my family was all going to be canis, I didn't see any way that life could throw a wrench in my plans.
I went to sleep that night, feeling at peace, feeling content with everything in my life.
A golden retriever that knows how to use a computer
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