ONE DAY IN A NICE NEIGHBORHOOD Tom Mazanec "I don't know, Rick. I tried to be a good mother. I just don't know where we went wrong with him." "This is because we sinned, Alice. God is punishing us by doing this to Justin. That's why all these people are being changed, and now it's come to us." "Maybe it's because he *wants* to be a coety-moony, or whatever the doctor said he was. Just look at all those cartoons he watches...and at his age! He's 13, for heaven's sake!" Justin got slowly out of bed, and put his pants on backwards, allowing the long barber-pole tail to stick out the fly. He closed his eyes at his reflection in the mirror, his furry face with its ridiculously long nose making his whole body numb with horror. He had been so sick before that they feared he would die. Now he wished that he had. His parents continued their argument uninterrupted as he snuck down the hallway and out the door, into the warm summer day. He just had to get out of the house, stop hearing his folks fighting because of him. What could he do? If only he could think of something! He walked to the park where he had such good times only a few weeks ago, watching the little kids playing and their parents enjoying the outdoors while watching over the little ones. But now everyone looked at him differently than they ever had before, looks that seemed to burn into him like a laser beam. Several people called him "animal" and "filthy SCAB" and made him want to sink into the mud. After a few minutes, Justin slunk off to the edge of the park where it bordered on a large woods, and began to cry with a sort of grunting sound that only made him feel worse. He wondered if he would ever be able to talk again. He just sat on a tree stump for a very long time, locked in his hellish misery. "Hey, kid, it'll be alright." Justin looked up at the three boys who were gathered around him. They seemed to be a couple years older than he was, and looked at him just as if he was still a normal human. He hadn't even heard them coming towards him. One of them was carrying a coil of rope and another put his hand on Justin's shoulder. "You just get...uh...sick recently?" Justin nodded his head. "Look, we know how that can be. Howie, here, has a cousin who's got...well...your problem. How about we go for a walk in the woods? We got ourselves a tree house in the woods back there. We can go and talk things over. Maybe Howie can give you a few tips on how to deal with stuff." This was the first time in days anyone had said anything really friendly to him. Even his parents had been very tight-lipped when he was around. Now it looked like he may actually have gotten himself some pals. He stood up and began following the boys into the forest. The quartet went deeper into the woods. Justin figured the rope was probably to make a ladder to the tree-fort. He would have to figure out how to communicate with his new friends. He could nod or shake his head, but that does not make for vivid conversation. Maybe there was some way he could the dirt if nothing else. They reached a little clearing and stopped. Justin looked about but could find no trace of a tree-fort. He looked quizzically at the three boys and lifted his paw-like hands to indicate his confusion. "So you think that you're as good as we are, right?" "Yeah, walking around in clothes just like a person." "You stinking SCAB, who do you think you are, anyway?" "Why don't you go to a zoo where you belong, flea bitten varmint like you?" Justin made a break for it so suddenly that the bullies were taken by surprise, and he managed to escape and run off into the woods, even though he had no idea where he was. But he was unused to his new legs, or perhaps he was just plain unlucky. He snagged his foot on an exposed tree root, and went sprawling to the ground. A dull crack sounded from his ankle, and a flash of white-hot pain made him squeal. The gang reached him lying and whimpering on the ground. One of them, the one who complained about his clothes, proceeded to take off his clothes one piece at a time while the other two held him. He started to scream, but the rope was looped around his throat and tightened till he stopped. The rope had a heavy branch through the knot, making it into a tourniquet, and by the time they stopped his head felt about to explode. Then the pressure lessened and he was able to see through the fog in his eyes. His long tongue seemed swollen, and strings of saliva hung off of it as it protruded. "Get down on all fours, SCAB." The boys pushed him down to the ground. He went down, he didn't know what else to do. The movement made the pain in his ankle flare up again. He groaned at the torment and stayed down, shaking. Then an odd zipping sound and, a moment later, a sprinkling of water on his side. "This is all a SCAB like you's good for!" Justin realized he was being urinated on, and finally started to weep and sob. "Lousy freak. Give him what he deserves, Howie!" Howie tightened the rope even tighter, this time. Very tight. The rope kept on squeezing until sight blacked out and sound faded. A few moments later, Justin's heart stopped. ************************************************************* "Come on, honey. We'll get over this. God's helped us through tough spots before. Let's go and talk it over with Justin. We'll face this thing together." They began walking toward the empty bedroom.