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Turner: Bitter Change
Published in United States
Fiction - Fantasy, Science Fiction

Print: 978-1503060272
Smashwords: 9781311833693
Mobi: ASIN: B00NE4HRM8

Date of Publication: 18 Nov 2014
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Turner: Bitter Change

Bea Cannon

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Change happens. It’s a fact of life. But what if the change is so drastic it changes the world and everything in it?
The world has changed but so has Juri Turner, and the change is bitter. She’s a teenaged runaway who since the age of three has been transforming into something that’s not quite human. She struggles to learn what she is and to understand what she is becoming. 
Does she hold the key to throwing off the yoke of alien invaders?
This is a story of change, and of hate, love, and betrayal; of a coming of age, and of spaceships and magic…

Chapter One: Therapy

I SAT UP SWINGING MY LEGS OFF the cot as I heard the key in the lock. I watched the door open.

Mary Ann came scurrying in carrying a food tray and set it on the floor near the sink. She avoided looking in my direction.

Mrs. Poole stood in the doorway behind her watching to see that she didn’t say anything to me, or try to come near me.

What, did she actually think Mary Ann might try to slip me a note or help me in some way? Fat chance. Mary Ann hated me as much as everybody else. She’d be the last person to try and make anything easier for me. There was nobody here at Haven who would.

“Eat your breakfast. I’ll be back in forty-five minutes to take you to see Dr. Hinson,” said Mrs. Poole, staring at me stone-faced.

I could tell she was watching me for any signs of defiance. I dropped my eyes and nodded, waiting for them to leave so I could get my food. I’d learned the stupidity of trying to do that before they left the room.

As soon as the door clicked shut and I heard the lock being turned, I hurried to get the tray.

In the beginning, I’d wondered why Mrs. Poole didn’t have whatever girl she designated to carry the tray, simply hand it to me. There were a number of large, cockroach-like creatures that were my cohabitants in the room, and I had to scramble to beat them to my food.

I had wondered, that is, until one day I had the temerity to ask, explaining that this way I wouldn’t have to fight the bugs for the food.

Mrs. Poole had glared at me, glanced down the hall, motioned for another girl and had her, and the one who’d brought the food tray, hold me, while, without uttering a word, she punched me in the gut. I never asked again. I wasn’t able to eat at all that day and the bugs got all my food.

They weren’t really cockroaches, or c’roaches, as they were called now, and there didn’t seem to be as many of them around as regular roaches. They were some of the new vermin that came down when the Artesio landed twenty years ago in their big round spaceships changing the world forever.

As far as I knew, the bugs only lived in cities because I’d never seen any the time I was out in the woods. I thought they’d eaten all the true cockroaches that would be the usual residents of this old building, as well as many other small native insects and spiders, and since I hadn’t seen any mice or rats since coming to Haven, I assumed they must have gotten most of those too, or at least scared them off.

But, we called them cockroaches because that’s what they most resembled, in size anyway. Fortunately for me, they didn’t bite and eat people else I’d have been bones long before.

After a while, I kind of - I guess you could say - adopted the creatures. I got so I’d leave them some of whatever was on my tray. I figured the little buggers needed to eat too, even if they wouldn’t have left me anything if they’d gotten to it first.

Besides, it was interesting to watch them run out and snatch the scraps up and eat like it was fine dining.

Yeah, I know, gross, huh? But there wasn’t anything else around for entertainment. I wasn’t allowed books, magazines, paper or pens, and don’t even think TV. And, for whatever reason, the c’roaches didn’t seem to hate me, either, as all the people did. Guess maybe they figured I was a big one of them - or, whatever it was that caused the hate didn’t affect them.

I gobbled down my food and washed my face and hands in the small sink. I rinsed the dishes and tray, stacked the dishes on the tray, then stood waiting for Mrs. Poole to come back. I knew better than to sit while waiting.

I’d long since learned the rules: sit when your food is brought in; stand holding your rinsed tray and empty dishes when Mrs. Poole comes back to collect you for your three times weekly visit to the doctor’s. Those were the two main rules.

There were others.

I negotiated the return of Mrs. Poole and the inevitable girl to take my tray and dishes, without incident. Mrs. Poole put the cuffs on, and I soon found myself sitting in front of Dr. Hinson’s desk in one of his hard, wooden, straight-back chairs.

I watched him as he looked over my files. He glanced unsmiling at me from time to time, as if he’d never seen those reports before. He did the same thing every single time I came in, and I’d been seeing him for two months. I had no doubt it always showed the same thing: name, sex, age, offense, etc.

My name was listed as Juri Turner, and though that wasn’t accurate, it was close enough. The age, eighteen, wasn’t correct either, but for me, that was a good thing. If they’d had my true age, I would’ve been in Haven for three more years and five months, instead of just the five months I had left. If I could convince Dr. Hinson that I was “cured”. Technically, he could cause me to have to stay for an extra year if he so desired, if he thought I needed more “therapy”.

As for my sex, female, that was practically the only thing they got right. They got the offense only partially right, too. In fact, what they had about that was actually much less than what I’d done. If they’d known that, I wouldn’t have been in this “nice” institution for rehabilitating wayward youth.

I would’ve been in that large building in the wastelands called Breeland, which is reserved for more severe offenses and violent offenders, with them working on my legal execution even if they’d known I was only fifteen. Assuming I would’ve survived getting there in the first place.

The rest of the stuff in the file, the “etc”, was also as imprecise: Parents, deceased. Next of kin, none. Raised in a government orphanage within the city of Charlotte after my parents died. The orphanage had a fire which destroyed all its records, and it shut down directly after that, and, as so many public services now, it had never resumed operations. All incorrect except for the city. I was born and raised here, and there had been an orphanage that burned, but I was never in it. Forget the medical stuff.  They didn’t care if that was right.

I was never really examined. No one would actually touch me except Mrs. Poole, and then it was only to occasionally punch me whenever I gave her some imagined excuse, being careful not to touch or break my skin, of course.

All Dr. Hinson was interested in was what he thought was the progress of my psychological health. Again, he had no clue, he just thought he did, and I wasn’t about to disabuse him of that idea.

He closed the file folder and placed it in his “out” tray. He leaned back in his comfortable, fake leather, upholstered chair, and peered at me over his steepled hands with his pale blue eyes.

He cleared his throat of phlegm.

“Well, how are we today, Juri?”

“Fine, Dr. Hinson.” I knew better than to answer any other way.

I sat straight in my chair, hands folded in my lap. I made sure the tentacles I had in place of the first two fingers of both my hands were tucked into my palms. Dr. Hinson didn’t like to look at them. He’d made that perfectly clear the first time he’d seen me in his office. I hadn’t been surprised about that. Most folk didn’t like to look at them - or at the rest of me, for that matter. Or touch me, or talk to me, or hear my voice, or…well, you get the picture. People always took an immediate dislike to me, almost as though it was an instinct.

My “talk”, or “therapy” with Dr. Hinson went the way it always did. He’d ask “How was your breakfast” and I’d say “Fine, Dr. Hinson” and he’d ask “How are you being treated” and I’d say “Fine, Dr. Hinson” and he’d ask “Any complaints?” and I’d say “No, Dr. Hinson” and then he’d haul out his inkblot sheets and hand them to me - they were nearly always the same but every once in a while he’d throw a couple of different ones in there, I think just to see if I was paying attention - and ask me what I saw in them. Sigh.

I always saw the same things: destruction, ruin, pain. Grotesque faces, misshapen bodies, monsters all. When the administrator, or whoever was in charge of that sort of thing, started sending me to Dr. Hinson, at first I answered truthfully, telling him exactly what I saw. He never said anything, but once, I glanced up at him and caught a look of pure disgust on his face before he controlled it and put his bland face back on.

After that, I gradually started throwing in a rose or a butterfly, or a cutesy animal face. Not at first, and not often, just every once in a while. That seemed to satisfy him, so I kept it up.  The week before, I had thrown in a bat to see if he’d frown. He hadn’t. I guess bats were okay, but I didn’t want to do that too often.

Now I told him the nice safe things I saw in the inkblots. And, really, I actually could see those things when I squinted and stared hard enough. I think that somewhere, there was a list of the things that a “normal” person should be able to see in each blot, and if I’d have gone too far astray from those, I would have been back to square one.

One of the new sheets looked like an Artesioan until I squinted, then it looked like a lobster. Then I was done and handed the sheets back to him. He laid them down on the desk and gazed silently at me, studying my face.

This was new. Usually, he nodded at me, told me that was all for the day and he’d see me the next time. Then he’d push the silent buzzer beneath his desk - yeah, I knew it was there, I could feel the vibrations from it - and Mrs. Poole would come and escort me back to my seven-by-eight room.

I waited. I knew what he saw when he looked at me: a small, green-eyed girl covered in iridescent scales with an underlayment of pink skin, with thick, coiled, dread-locked hair on her head, no eyebrows - well there were eyebrows of a sort but you had to look close - and of course, the tentacles in place of some of her fingers.

Yeah, I was pretty hideous. Not your usual, fresh-faced teenager. The way I looked was one reason I’d been able to pass as older than I actually was in spite of my size. The “hate” factor I generated was another. Nobody cared to scrutinize me. The fact that I had really good fake ID on me at the time of my arrest was a big help, too.

I hadn’t always looked like that. My mother told me - before she stopped telling me anything she didn’t have to - that I was perfectly normal looking when I was born. There were even pictures of me up until around the age of two, that showed first, a cute bald infant, then a chubby, smiling toddler with fly-away, straight hair. I resembled my mother, even had green eyes like hers and was short like she was.

Then, when I was three, the first scales appeared on my belly. I remember how they itched at first, and gradually, more and more showed up, my soft brown hair fell out as my scalp became covered with them, and the ropy “hair” - now black - had started growing in. As it turned out, it wasn’t really hair, but nobody knew that at first.

I don’t know why my parents never took me to a doctor when I first started changing. I suppose it could have been because doctors were pretty pricey but my guess is that at first they thought it would clear up, but as time passed, they quit caring and didn’t want anybody to know they had such a weird kid. I still remember how my mother would slather me with lotion, trying to soften the scales, hoping they would slough off.

I was never sick though, and the only time I was ever in pain was once, when my father tried to scrape the scales off. I screamed so that he’d had to stop for fear the neighbors would hear. The few he’d managed to get off had grown back by the next week, and that’s was when my fingers began to change.

By then I was five and I haven’t changed much since then, just got taller. My parents wouldn’t send me to the rundown neighborhood public school, which closed about a year later anyway, along with all the others. They didn’t want anybody to see me, so they home-schooled me. I mostly looked like I had an extreme case of eczema or some other skin condition, which, I believe, is what the few people who did get a glimpse of me thought.

The rare times I was allowed out - only into the small, fenced-in yard behind our shabby little house - I always had to wear long sleeves and pants and keep a scarf wrapped around my head. I had to remain in my room when anybody came to visit.

Looking back, I guess it’s surprising my parents didn’t simply lock me in my room and feed me through a slot or something. I don’t know how it was before the Artesio came - I’ve heard it was a lot different then - but now, no one would have cared, or even asked what happened to the odd looking kid. They stopped hugging or kissing me, and seldom smiled in my presence.

I had a brother who was five years older. He wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody about me, but I don’t think he wanted to anyway. I do think he felt sorry for me, at least for a while, until he got older and he became afflicted with the same dislike for me that my parents had. Up until I was around eight years old, he brought books for me to read, then, one day, he quit.

Three years ago, one night after a year and a half of planning, I climbed out my bedroom window and left. I never went back.

Dr. Hinson kept looking at me, and I began to feel uncomfortable. Nobody looked at me for long, which suited me fine. I didn’t particularly care about the way I looked, after all I’d looked that way most of my life, and I was pretty much used to it, but I was afraid if they stared too long they might decide I wasn’t as old as I said. I mean, come on - if you stretched it, I could have been twelve. A small twelve.

I had no idea why he would stare like that, so, even though I was afraid he’d get angry, I asked, “Sir? Is there a problem?”

He blinked, and I nearly fell off the chair when he smiled - sort of. It was kind of faint, but his lips definitely did a slight up-curve, something they’d never done before, at least not in my presence. He shook his head.

“No, Juri, nothing’s wrong. In fact, I think everything’s all right, now.”

I know my face must have shown my puzzlement, because he went on to say: “Psychologically, you’re fine, now. Do you know why I kept staring at you?”

I shook my head, still mystified.

“To see how you’d react, to see if you would show any curiosity about why I was staring at you. Had you not asked, I would have known we had more work to do.” He sat back in his chair.

“Now,” he said, “I can release you from therapy, but, keep in mind that you still have five more months, and you will still have to be kept in your room until then. We can’t take the chance that whatever is causing your skin condition may be contagious.”

What? They thought I was contagious? I almost laughed. Then I thought of the “physical examination” I’d had when I arrived and kind of knew why that might be in my records. Of course, nobody had ever given me a real physical.

The medical doctor for the institution, Dr. Monroe, had taken a cursory look at me and refused to touch me, shaking his head when the nurse asked if I should remove my clothing.

He’d apparently lied on paper, saying he’d given me a thorough examination and had determined I had a bad skin condition but other than that, and the odd birth defect of several boneless fingers, I was in good health. The month before, he’d given me my yearly checkup the same way.

Either he, or someone else, had added after the first examination, that my skin condition may be contagious. It partially explained why I’d been removed from the dormitory I’d shared with six other girls the first two days I was in Haven.

No one had ever told me the reason I was suddenly taken from there and put in isolation, and I’d already learned it was pointless to ask questions. The doctor had prescribed some kind of thick lotion, which I used because if I didn’t, Mrs. Poole would hit me.

I smiled as best I could, being careful not to show my teeth - those really rattled people - and said, “Thank you Dr. Hinson, I appreciate the help you have given me.”

I wasn’t a bit different from the first time I’d come in to see him, and I think he knew it. I believe he was playing the same game the medical doctor had: lying on paper in order to not have to see me again. That was okay with me. I didn’t want to see him again, either.

He beamed happily - this time a real smile - and pushed the buzzer for Mrs. Poole.

Chapter Two: Sudden Changes

I LAY ON MY COT STARING UP AT THE CRACKED and peeling ceiling. I had two more months and two days to go before I got out. Mrs. Poole seemed determined to make my life as miserable as possible until then.

She was supposed to take me to the outside isolated area that was reserved for quarantined inmates, for one hour every day but she refused to do it. She had taken me every day before I started going to Dr. Hinson, and after I started seeing him, she took me out on the days that I didn’t go to him.

Now that I was no longer seeing him for my three times a week therapy, her refusal meant I never got to leave my room except for being taken to the showers twice a week, and then I was only allowed ten minutes. There wasn’t any point in complaining, though. Who was I going to complain to?

Nobody knew she was doing it. As far as I could determine, the security camera in the corner of my room hadn’t worked since I was confined, so nobody was watching.

The first day she was supposed to escort me outside, I stood with my tray and dishes waiting for her to come get them and me.

She unlocked the door, had her current helper - Gloria - take the tray, and started to close the door as soon as Gloria exited the room, without whipping out the cuffs.

I waited half a beat then I started forward.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she growled.

“It’s time for me to go outside, right?” I asked, keeping my voice soft - well, as soft as I could get it - and neutral.

She barked out a harsh laugh. “In your dreams, snake girl! Go sit your scaly ass back on that cot. You ain’t going nowhere!” She slammed and locked the door.

I could hear Gloria tittering as they moved away down the hall. Thereafter, she watched me carefully, hoping, I think, to find some excuse to belt me one.

Thus it was for nearly three months. I knew better than to ask again. That would have brought on a call for two girls to hold me while she punched me in the gut. I couldn’t figure out why she felt she needed somebody to hold me, though. The woman was about six feet tall and had to weigh a good two-fifty. I was four-feet six and weighed all of seventy-three pounds. I guess she didn’t want anything interfering with her fist as she smacked it into my belly.

Then, two days before the third month was up, I made the mistake of cracking my tray. It was after dinner, and I was rinsing it out in the tiny sink, when suddenly, my hands began to shake violently, my fingers twisting and curling around. The two tentacle-fingers on each hand whipped back and forth spasmodically. The tray slipped from my hands and hit the tiled floor.

I scrambled to pick it up knowing Mrs. Poole was on the way. I concentrated to stop the shaking and spasms in my hands, and managed to get a grip on it. My heart sank when I saw the jagged crack across the bottom of the hard plastic tray.

Crap. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, and I could hear her coming, so I hurriedly rinsed the plate, spoon, and dented tin cup, and stacked them on the tray. The key turned in the lock, and the door opened.

This time she had a girl with her that I’d never seen, or if I had, only briefly in the short time I’d spent with the other girls before I was isolated. The girl snatched the tray from my hands, looked to make sure I’d placed everything on it, and stopped, staring at it, her dark brown eyes narrowing.

“Mrs. Poole, she broke it!” She sounded triumphant.

“What? Lemme see!” she snarled, grabbing the tray from the girl.

She studied the cracked bottom. “What did you do to it, snake girl? Huh? Step on it or something?”

“No, Mrs. Poole. It slipped out of my hands at the sink and fell on the floor. It was an accident,” I told her.

But I knew it didn’t matter how the tray was broken. She would use it as an excuse to hit me. Up until then, she hadn’t had any excuse. I had been careful not to give her one. That day, my luck ran out.

Sure enough, she gestured down the hall - I think she always kept another girl around for just such occasions - and Mary Ann came in.

“Hold her,” she snapped with satisfaction.

Mary Ann and the new girl each gingerly grabbed one of my sleeved arms, and Mrs. Poole drew back her fist to slam it into my stomach. I tightened my muscles in anticipation, knowing it was going to hurt anyway, but it would help a little, and as her fist rammed into me, I smelled smoke and my shirt turned to ashes, fluttering down to the floor.

A look of pure shock appeared on her face. Mary Ann and the new girl screamed in horror and dropped my arms like they’d been scalded, and made a dash for the door shaking their hands and blowing on them as they shrieked in pain. They actually had been scalded, or at least burned.

By their contact with my arms.

Mrs. Poole was holding her fist, backing away from me, her pale gray eyes stretched wide.

“What th’ fuck are you?” she croaked.

I was as surprised as they were. I looked down at my arms, and the iridescent scales were glowing a bright red. My too-big jeans chose that moment to finish turning to ash, and whiffed away from my lower body along with my plain cotton underwear. I hadn’t felt Mrs. Poole’s fist when it made contact with my stomach, and I didn’t feel hot, or anything but normal.

She slammed the door as she got out into the hall and turned the key.

“You’re a monster!” she shouted through the door.

I heard her footsteps receding as she followed the screaming girls. I was horrified. I was afraid to move lest I set anything on fire and burn the building down or something.

Mrs. Poole was right: I was a monster, but I’d known that before I was ever arrested and brought to Haven. They hadn’t known it, even though I think they could feel the difference in me, which was why I figured I was always disliked on sight. No, they’d thought I was just a stray thief with psychological problems and a bad skin condition.

I just hadn’t known I was also apparently a fire monster.

A few minutes later, my skin - or scales, I should say - abruptly reverted back to the normal shade of shining sparkle with my pale pink skin showing beneath. Well, it was almost the same. There was now an extra, underlying luminance in my scales.

I heaved a sigh of relief. At least I wouldn’t set anything on fire.

I could hear rapid footsteps coming toward my door, and I was standing there ass-naked. I had no other clothes in the room.

Once a week, Mrs. Poole flung another too-big, long sleeved tee shirt and baggy jeans in and had one of the girls pick up my discarded ones. I didn’t wear a bra and I washed my lone pair of now-gone-to-ash panties out in the sink nightly.

I hurriedly snatched the thin blanket from my cot to cover myself. As I wrapped it around, I was jolted to feel several small protuberances on my back - two up high, at around my shoulder-blades, and one that felt like it was in the middle of my back, right above my hips at the base of my spine. I didn’t have time to examine these as the door was being opened, so I tucked the blanket in above my practically non-existent breasts and waited.

The first into my room was one of the big male guards that usually patrolled the fence around the building. He came in with his taser drawn and his brown face tight.

I backed up beside the cot as Mrs. Poole followed him in.

“What’s going on in here, girl? What happened to your clothes?” he asked, in a rough, gravelly voice.

“I told you - she burned them off! She’s a monster! She was glowing red-hot, burned the girls, too! Shoot her, nobody will blame you!” screeched Mrs. Poole.

She was holding her right hand with the left. I could smell the burnt flesh and her hand looked blistered. Her hair had come loose on one side from the bun in which she wore it, and long, brown and gray strands fell haphazardly over her left ear and down onto her shoulder. Her broad, pink face was shiny with sweat.

I dropped down in the corner gripping my blanket. I thought for sure he would shoot me, and while tasers weren’t supposed to be lethal - the Artesio didn’t allow anybody except their agents to have lethal weapons - they hurt like hell. I’d been tased when I was caught so I knew how much they hurt, and besides, I’d heard they sometimes did kill.

But the guard was looking at her incredulously as he holstered the taser.

“We don’t tase people for no reason, Helen. You know that. I don’t know how she managed to burn you - that’s something we have to find out I guess - but, look at her! She’s just a sniveling little girl!” he pronounced with disgust.

“Get her some clothes to put on, then report this to the administrator. He’ll take care of it.” He spun around and strode out of the room.

Mrs. Poole took one look at me, glared, and hurried out behind him, turning the key in the lock.

I sagged down in my corner with relief. I wasn’t “sniveling” as the guard had said, but I must have looked terrified crouched in that corner with my blanket clutched in my hands, my eyes wild, and my ropy hair falling every which way.

I got up on shaky legs. I had to pee, so I hurried to the toilet on the other side of the sink. I knew someone was going to be back in there shortly and didn’t want to be sitting on the john when they came in.

Sure enough, just as I flushed, I heard the key in the door and Gloria, looking irate, threw some clothing in.

“Here,” she said, standing in the door. She glared at me, hard eyed.

“You burned my friends. More important, you burned Mrs. Poole, and she’s reporting you right now. You won’t be gitting outta here no time soon, now, bitch. I know you gonna git more time. I hope they bury your skinny scaly ass here forever!”

I looked at her and narrowed my eyes. I grinned. Her eyes flew wide with fear as, for the first time, she saw my teeth, and she slammed the door fast, turning the key hard.

My grin faded as I walked over to my cot to get the new clothes on. I seldom showed my teeth, as they were black and very pointed.

After my hair fell out when my scales started forming, my baby teeth had fallen out, too, and when the new teeth began to come in, it was the last time I saw my mother cry. She and my father had looked at each other and quietly closed the door to my room as they left out.

I quickly learned not to smile at them or my brother. It made them real uneasy. When I was seven, I started shedding teeth again, and as they fell out, I kept hoping the new ones would be normal. That didn’t happen. When I was eleven, I shed teeth again, and, of course, the new teeth were the same, just bigger - and sharper.

I sincerely hoped I wasn’t going to have to go through losing teeth again. It itched liked crazy, not to mention the pain when the new ones came in.

It was two days later, and I was still waiting to find out what was going to happen. I knew it would do me no good to try and explain that I hadn’t deliberately burned Mrs. Poole or the girls. I didn’t know what she or the girls had told the administrator, but I pretty much knew that nothing I said would be believed.

Neither of them had been back to my room. The guard that had come with Mrs. Poole, brought my meals, and he never said anything to me. He did hand me my tray as opposed to sitting it on the floor, which was an improvement. I had the feeling he’d been told not to speak to me.

As I lay there contemplating the ceiling, I thought of what those things on my back meant. It was obvious to me that I was undergoing a new change, a new phase in whatever I’d been becoming since I was three years old. My fingers were changing, too. I still had the two tentacles on each hand but now, my other fingers seemed to be lengthening, the nails rounding out.

The nails on my toes were doing the same. Looked like I’d be getting claws soon, to go with the tentacles. The knob at the base of my spine was definitely a tail, as scaly as the rest of me, and I sort of knew what the ones at my shoulder blades would eventually become.

Idly, I wondered how long my tail would get and how wide a wingspan I’d have. Or if I’d be able to fly. Or if I’d ever get the chance to find out.

That morning, as the guard left my breakfast, he’d told me to be prepared to go before the administrator.

So, I waited. I didn’t know what the administrator would do, but if it involved more time at Haven, there was no way I was staying. If no more time was tacked on, I’d do my other two months and leave.

Anything else, and I would figure a way to break out.

Chapter Three: The Administrator

THE ADMINISTRATOR STARED AT ME, his gray eyes bland.

“What have you been given for your skin condition?” he asked in a mild voice.

I was surprised that would be his first question after “Hello”.

“Some kind of lotion, sir,” I answered from the chair to which I’d been directed.

It was a clone of the one in Dr. Hinson’s office: wooden and hard. I had my so-far short but prehensile tail coiled tightly around my waist, and I sat up straight so as not to lean against my budding wings. It didn’t hurt to lean on them, but it was uncomfortable.

I shifted to try and get into a better position, the little chains between my cuffs clinking.

No one seemed to have noticed the extra appendages yet, but then the clothes I was given to wear were much too large, so they didn’t show.

“Does it help?”

“Sir, it neither helps nor hurts. It just feels sticky.”

He looked down at the papers on his desk, which I supposed were my files.

I’d only met the administrator once, briefly, when I was brought to Haven, and he hadn’t really looked at me then. He’d signed some papers and sent me to stay in the dormitory.

I’d not known until Dr. Hinson said they thought I might be contagious exactly why I’d been moved, but the other girls hadn’t appreciated the new “snake girl” being assigned to live with them anyway, so I’d always figured that had something to do with it. I imagined the administrator had signed the papers to move me to isolation.

I studied him while he was looking at my papers. I hadn’t paid much attention to him before, either, and now I saw he was taller but appeared to be around the same age as my father, though I didn’t know exactly how old my father was so I couldn’t be sure - maybe fifty. He was wearing a nice gray suit that was slightly rumpled, as though he’d been sitting in it for a while, but it wasn’t threadbare like a lot of clothing were nowadays. He had a nice face, kind.

I figured it wouldn’t stay kind-looking long. As soon as he’d been around me long enough, that was sure to change.

“Do you still itch?” he asked, continuing to look down as he read the information in the records.

“No, sir.”

I hadn’t itched since the first scales grew in when I was three. I guess I looked as if I should.

“Have you ever itched?”

He was smarter than I’d thought.

“Only when I was small, sir, when my…skin…first got this way.”

He looked up at me sharply. “Juri, I’m not utterly blind - as some of the people around here seem to be. I can see that you’re covered in scales.”

Again, I was surprised, but I held it in and said nothing.

“How old are you really, Juri?”

“Eighteen, sir.”

I definitely wasn’t going to admit to anything less. He’d try to hold me here another three years otherwise.

He leaned back in his chair and studied me. “You want to tell me what happened the other day?”

I stared at him. “Sir, didn’t Mrs. Poole tell you?”

“I want to hear your version, Juri.”

I thought about it. I didn’t know what she’d said, though I doubted she’d told him what she was trying to do to me at the time. I didn’t want to speak to him for too long, because the longer I spoke, the more my voice seemed to grate on people, which is why I always kept my answers short.

“Mary Ann and a girl whose name I don’t know, held me while Mrs. Poole hit me in the stomach, only this time, my scales turned red-hot, my clothes burned off, and the girls’ hands got scorched, and so did Mrs. Poole’s fist.”

I got it out as fast as I could.

He sat very still and studied me some more. “Had that ever happened before?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

“Has Mrs. Poole ever hit you before, I mean.”

“Oh. Yes, sir.”

“Why did she hit you?”

“This time it was because I broke my tray. It was an accident, and I told her that, but --” I shrugged, “--I guess she didn’t believe me.”

He wrote something down on a notepad. My hopes of getting out of Haven in two more months flapped away. I knew he was going to hold me longer.

He looked back up at me. “Tell me of other times Mrs. Poole has hit you, and her reasons for doing so, if you don’t mind.”

He was making me real nervous. Why did he want to know that unless he was going to really stack more time on me? And wasn’t he curious about how my scales could burn somebody? Maybe he simply didn’t believe that part.

I hesitated.

“Juri, I need to know this, for the records. The camera for your room had been out for quite some time, a software problem, I believe, but it had been upgraded and reprogrammed the night before the incident with Mrs. Poole.” He sighed and ran his hand through his thick head of steel gray hair.

“She wasn’t aware that it was working at that time, or no doubt she would have behaved much differently.” He smiled briefly.

“Now, please tell me of any other time Mrs. Poole has struck you, and why.”

So I told him, and he wrote down everything I said though I couldn’t see why. Mrs. Poole would just deny everything. The only one she wouldn’t be able to lie about would be the one they had on video.

I saw him beginning to look annoyed and I knew I’d been speaking too long, so I shut up.

“Is that it?” he asked.

“No, but you’re beginning to get irritated with me, sir.”

“Why would you think that, Juri?”

“Everybody does, sir. If not immediately, then after hearing my voice for a while.”

He looked at me, startled. “Do you really think that?”

I nodded.


Crap. I didn’t want to talk anymore but he wasn’t giving me a choice. I made it as quick as I could.

“Ask anybody here, sir. They’ll tell you they don’t like me but they won’t be able to tell you why. Mrs. Poole, well, she has it really bad. That’s the reason she looks for excuses to hit me. She doesn’t know why she’s doing it.”

I felt I’d said enough. He was starting to look angry. It took some people longer, but eventually, without exception, it happened to everyone.

“Juri, it doesn’t matter how she feels about you. It’s against our policy for her to hit you,” he snapped.

He was getting upset with me without noticing. There was nothing I could do about it except stay as quiet as I could, hope he had enough control of himself not to hit me, and then get out of there as soon as possible.

I knew this meant for sure he would see to it that I stayed there for as long as he could keep me.

He looked at me in silence for a minute, waiting for me to say something. When I didn’t, he stood and came around to my chair. He was a big man and he loomed over me. My stomach began to squeeze up. I shrank back in my chair.

I hoped he wouldn’t try to hit me for two reasons: one, being a man, he was more powerful than Mrs. Poole so it was bound to hurt a lot more, and two, if it didn’t hurt because my scales lit up again, I didn’t want to burn him and possibly torch the building in the process.

I stared up at him but he didn’t touch me.

“Juri, please don’t look at me that way. I’m not going to strike you. I’m simply trying to understand why anyone would. Yes, you look different but that’s no reason to dislike you on sight or to treat you with violence.”

I watched his eyes warily. No one, not even my parents, had liked me since I changed. My parents hadn’t tried to hurt me, well, not since my father tried to scrape my scales off, and he wasn’t really trying to hurt me. No, he’d thought he was helping, but plenty of people in this screwed up society of ours had tried to hurt me since I ran away from home, some of them succeeding quite well.

For a long moment, I hoped. Hoped he’d be different, hoped the look in his eyes wouldn’t start to change, hoped the look of disgust wouldn’t suddenly cross his face. Hoped I could at least get him to back up before it happened, thinking if he stayed far enough away from me, maybe… but then I saw the change in his eyes and my hope died.

I stifled the sudden hot tears that wanted to come. Was it too much to ask that one person in this incredibly stupid world would not hate me merely because I existed? I hadn’t asked to be this way, it had happened without any rhyme or reason I could see. One day I woke up with scales. It was not my fault!

I almost despaired, something I hadn’t done since the night I ran away after I overheard my father tell my mother that the time had come for them to find a more permanent solution for me, and heard her agree with him. It had taken a while for their dislike to go to full blown hate, I guess because they were my parents, but in the end it had.

Then, I got myself under control. Tears wouldn’t help anything. It hadn’t then and it wouldn’t now. If anything, it might make him madder quicker.

I clenched my fists in my lap and sat as still as possible, waiting to see what direction his budding dislike of me would take. I already knew it was a lost cause to think I would be allowed to leave in two months.

He abruptly turned and went back around his desk and sat down. He clasped his hands together on the desk and sat frowning down at me. He started to speak but paused. The man was actually in conflict with himself. I could see that.

It surprised me. Most people didn’t stop to think about it once the dislike or hate set in. They got away from me as fast as they could, as the medical doctor had, or as Dr. Hinson had after he couldn’t take seeing me three times a week any more, or they lashed out at me in some way, like Mrs. Poole who always looked for reasons to hit me.

Or, they tried to capture me for their own purposes, as had the three people who’d quickly made me their captive after saying they would help me if I allowed them to study me, but after poking and probing and running me through their machines which I imagine saw inside me, began torturing me. For a month they did this, by pulling my scales out one by one, seeming to be fascinated when they’d grow back.

They’d also wrapped rubber bands tightly around my tentacles to see what would happen, and when they’d dropped off and then grown back, they’d taken to, first, chopping them off which didn’t stop their growing back, then cutting them off in thin slices to see if they’d still grow back - which they had.

Those were the least painful of the things they did.

The administrator cleared his throat. “Juri, you were right, I don’t like you now,” he said, sounding puzzled.

“And this is strange as I have no idea why. I didn’t dislike you a minute ago, I think, so I have to conclude that there is some truth in what you’ve said.”

Well, that was different. They usually just got me out of their presence as quickly as possible, or tried to attack me, or tried to catch me… well, I was already caught, so I guess he didn’t have to do that one. But, he hadn’t forgotten that I’d told him he wouldn’t like me after a while, but wouldn’t know why.

I’d said that to someone once before, and after the dislike set in, she hadn’t remembered that I’d told her it would. She had run like crazy to get away from me.

He eyed me before he said, “This is something that needs to be studied, along with why your scales would suddenly grow hot.” He stopped, looking at me thoughtfully.

“Has anyone ever looked into why you have scales in the first place?”

So, he did think my scales had heated up. I wondered why.

“No, sir.”

Yeah, I lied, but - sure couldn’t mention that.

“Then I think we should investigate that, too.”

Ah, hell. And end up with my scales being plucked out one by one again, or my tentacles being lopped off? Those particular people had wanted to study me, too. No. I wasn’t ever going through that again.

Something deep inside me wailed with anguish that his dislike would take that path. He hadn’t seemed the type to enjoy torture. I ignored the internal misery. It wasn’t useful.

I watched as he made more notations on his pad.

I felt a sharp pain in my hands and glanced down. My claws, or talons, had grown out more and I had clenched so hard they’d pierced the palms of my hands. I slowly relaxed my fists, loosening my fingers. The talons pulled out.

I turned my hands over and watched fascinated as they healed over. I heal fast but I’d never healed that fast before. In a few minutes the only sign of what had happened would be the blood stains on my jeans.

“I’m going to have you transferred to the infirmary, Juri. Perhaps we’ll be able to discover exactly what has caused your condition and be able to look for a way to cure it.”

I blinked at him but said nothing because I knew there would be no cure. There wouldn’t even be a real study. There would only be pain. And the administrator would be there to participate.

I waited for what I knew he was going to say next. Then he said it.

“Now, of course you won’t be able to leave in two months after all, Juri. But don’t worry. Conditions will be much better for you in the infirmary, and I’ll be dropping by from time to time to see how you are faring.”

Yeah, I knew he would, too. I nodded, as if I really believed they were going to study me to find a “cure”.

I wouldn’t object to going to the infirmary, though. It was a whole lot less secure than my tiny room. Sometime before the torture began, I was going to find a way out.

A “study” was how I’d gotten caught in the first place. I trusted someone when they’d said they might be able to help me, and I went with them, willingly.

Stupid, I know, but I was so tired of being hated, so lonely, that I allowed myself to believe, to fantasize that those people could actually help me.

Oh, I’d known they felt the same dislike for me as everybody else, but I was convinced they could ignore it.

They were volunteer doctors at a place that tried to help people who lived on the streets - homeless people, or “new nomads” as they were called, shortened to “newmads”. I figured they probably had helped others that they hadn’t been especially fond of, but did so anyway because, even if they weren’t keen on the person, they liked helping.

I repeat: stupid. They locked me in a tiny room in their stinking basement. So much for altruism when you’re cursed.

I killed them in their sleep after their “study” turned to torment. How did I get them? Well, one night after a particularly bad session, they got drunk and got careless, and I got loose.

I suppose I could’ve simply run away once I freed myself, but their last round of “studies” had been especially painful, and in my defense, I wasn’t completely rational at the time. I was afraid they’d find me again if I simply ran off. Couldn’t take a chance on that happening.

I really don’t like remembering, but I never forget anything and what they did was unforgettable anyway: they tried to dissect me, though since I was still alive, I guess you’d have to call it vivisecting. Which, in actuality, they succeeded in doing. They didn’t give me an anesthetic.

I should have died, and I believe I nearly did. I think they thought I was dead or soon would be because they left me on their table with only minimal restraints.

Unfortunately for them, they were wrong. Most of the scars from what they did to me have disappeared, but those scars I still have. You just have to know where to look to see them.

Where I made my mistake was in using the food card I took from one - once my stomach grew back and I got able to eat.

Oh, I got the food all right, but the card had a chip in it, and I was tracked down and arrested for stealing, and tased for resisting arrest. I was still a tad unhinged at the time and started hallucinating that the cops were the three assholes coming to take me back, so I’d been trying to fight them.

Later, I figured out that the card had already either been stolen by one of the people I killed, from another good citizen of our fine city of Charlotte, or found by one of them, though if they’d found it I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t have just turned the thing in. At any rate, I guess the…esteemed researcher…hadn’t gotten around to removing the original chip, which was fortunate for me. The card had been reported stolen by the previous owner, so of course the cops thought I was the perpetrator.

Had it belonged to the one I took it from, I would have been tracked down and arrested for murder, because the people I killed were supposedly also upstanding members of our screwed up society. I knew they weren’t, but then, who was going to believe me? They had what they supposed was the thief: an ugly, unlikable newmad. Nobody wanted to hear anything I had to say.

I’d just been grateful they hadn’t traced me back to the dead people. That was over a year ago and - from overhearing Mrs. Poole talking to one of the guards - a real mystery to the authorities. Because I hadn’t stolen anything else from the place, there was nothing to tie me to them. I hadn’t taken much with me when I went with the aforementioned shitheads, and even in the bad state I’d been in, I’d had the presence of mind to carry those few items with me when I left, so nothing of mine was there to find and lead anyone to me.

So I’d thought I’d serve the one year and six months I received, and then be on my way. At least that had been my hope. Sigh. Screw hope.

The administrator rang for the guard to take me back to my room. He hadn’t noticed my talons, or the blood on my jeans, either.

This time if I had to kill somebody, I wouldn’t have to use a knife.

Chapter Four: The Infirmary

THE ADMINISTRATOR HADN’T SAID WHEN I’d be moved to the infirmary, but I figured it wouldn’t be long, and I was right.

The next day after lunch, I was leaning back on my cot thinking, which was what I usually did for entertainment when I wasn’t counting my scales or watching the c’roaches snap up the crumbs I saved for them. This time I was thinking about my new changes.

I’d noticed the night before that my hearing had become much more acute than before. In fact, all my senses seemed to be undergoing a change. I’d always had good hearing and eyesight but now it was miles above what it had been. And I could feel things I hadn’t been able to before, at least not unless I was close, like the so-call silent buzzer in Dr. Hinson’s office. And I’d learned my claws were retractable.

That was a plus, because I’d been wondering how to keep those hidden in case somebody got the idea to give me a manicure. It would also keep me from digging into my palms again.

The camera in the corner of the ceiling had bothered me. Nobody had come to escort me to the showers down the hall in the three days since I’d burned Mrs. Poole and the two girls.

I let it go at first, but the night before, I wanted to at least wash up, which I could have done in my little sink if I didn’t mind my naked behind - and the wings and tail - being seen.

I didn’t want anybody to know about my new physical changes until I had no choice, and there sat that stupid camera recording everything I did.

I held off going to the bathroom as long as possible, but when you gotta go…I did it as quickly as I could, and hoped the sink at least hid my lower half.

I had unconsciously growled at the camera - and heard a small ping. Startled, I’d gotten up and dragged my cot over, and climbed up to get as close to the camera as I could. It appeared to have cracked, and the lens was filled with spider web-like fractures. I hazarded a guess that something about my voice had caused it.

For some reason, that filled me with a certain amount of dread for a moment, even more so than my other changes. What was I becoming? But, I took advantage of the broken camera and stripped and gave myself a full, all over bird-bath.

My changes were accelerating. That scaly tail of mine was getting longer and the little wings bigger. They didn’t have feathers. Instead, when I looked closely, I saw they were covered in tiny, dark blue scales, smaller than the ones on the rest of my body, and edged in a deep, shimmering black.

I found I could move them. Aside from being able to flap them - to no avail, as it only stirred the air like big fans and I didn’t get any lift from doing that - I could roll them up into tubes or make them telescope in and out like an accordion.

I now had them spread out and draped across my shoulders under my shirt like a short cape.  They had grown out since seeing the administrator. I didn’t think they were big enough to fly with yet, but I figured that given enough time, they would be. Assuming I could learn to fly with them. I had no idea what the tail was for.

I knew I was going to have to get out as soon as possible or I was going to be in some serious do-do.

I heard someone coming, so I stood and waited. I could tell it was a different guard, along with Mrs. Poole and the administrator. Aside from hearing them plainly, I could smell them.

She unlocked the door and stood to the side glaring balefully at me as the guard and the administrator squeezed past her into the small room. I noticed one of her hands - the one she’d slammed into my stomach - was bandaged.

“Ready to go, Juri?” asked the administrator. He kept his distance from me.

As if I had a choice.

“Yes, sir.”

He looked at the guard and nodded. The guard pulled out the cuffs with the slender chains dangling. He eyed me, then looked back at the administrator with a questioning look on his face.

“You know the routine, Tony. Sure, she’s small but we have to follow procedure. Go ahead.”

Tony, who looked about thirty, shrugged and squatted in front of me. Strangely, he didn’t seem to mind being that close to me. The restraints were different from the ones they usually used. I guess they felt I was more dangerous now.

The chain had double cuffs at either end, and he quickly clamped one set around each of my ankles, then he slid the other set down, brought the chain up and cuffed my wrists, and then looped a length of the chain around my waist fastening it in front, leaving a dangling end. The chains from both sets of cuffs ran through a loop on the chain around my waist.

He pulled at them to make sure they weren’t too loose. The cuffs were tight enough but the chain between the ones on my wrists had more slack than he apparently wanted so he did an adjustment that brought my hands closer together. He nodded with satisfaction.

It was the first time they’d ever put fetters on me. That made me suspect they had no intentions of ever allowing me to leave. I wondered if I was really going to be taken to the infirmary.

I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Matters couldn’t get much worse than they already were.

“Am I going to the infirmary now, sir?”

“Shut up!” snapped Mrs. Poole. She grimaced, as if the sound of my voice was actually painful to her.

You don’t ask the questions here!”

The administrator stared at her for a moment, then turned to me and said, gruffly, “Yes, Juri. That’s where you’re going. Per regulations, this is the way you have to go.”

I nodded. I could see he was trying his best to be civil, so I didn’t ask him anything else. I could tell my voice had gotten even more grating. I think Mrs. Poole was the most sensitive to it.

He led the way out the door and Mrs. Poole grabbed the loose end of the chain with her good hand and gave it a yank, making me stumble as she snatched me forward.

I shuffled out the door behind her, clinking as I moved. Tony walked behind me. I guess he was there to ensure that I didn’t try anything.

What I was going to try with three big adults, one with a taser, I had no clue. Oh well, with that chain around my waist, I figured at least my too-big pants wouldn’t fall down.

We got to the infirmary, and the medical doctor - Dr. Monroe again - was there along with a woman I’d never seen before. I assumed she was a new nurse, or medical assistant.

Like Mrs. Poole, she was tall for a woman, six feet, though she wasn’t nearly as bulky as Mrs. Poole. She looked about forty years old, wore her black hair in cornrows, and had a pleasant face.

The doctor looked at me with distaste. “She needs to get undressed and put on a gown.” He turned to the woman. “Ms. Williams, set up the screen around bed number five. That will be hers while she’s here. She can get undressed there. Tony, you can remove her chains, now.”

Tony removed the fetters. Surprisingly, he still didn’t seem to be annoyed with me. I guess he hadn’t been around me long enough, yet.

The other guard, the one who’d brought my meals - Don was his name - had caught the I-don’t-like-Juri-bug at last, and started practically shoving my food tray into my hands when he came.

Mrs. Poole walked me over to where the nurse was setting up the screen around the last of the five empty beds in the room. She pulled a white hospital gown down from a shelf and roughly shoved it at me.

The assistant - Ms. Williams - finished with the screen and walked back to Dr. Monroe.

I was getting tired of Mrs. Poole. I was getting tired of all of them, but especially of her. I turned and looked at her. I don’t know what she saw on my face or in my eyes, but her eyes widened and she moved back a step.

I clutched the gown and stepped behind the screen. I didn’t want to remove my clothes but I didn’t know what else to do. I peeked through a crack.

Tony and Mrs. Poole were leaving, and the administrator was talking in a low voice to Dr. Monroe and Ms. Williams, not knowing I could hear them anyway.

“I don’t know what to tell you to look for, Howard. I was told her scales grew hot enough to burn.”

“Yes, I know. I treated the girls and Mrs. Poole for their burns. Nasty. I’m going to need to get a skin - or a scale - sample from her, and do a blood work-up. I don’t know what she is, but she isn’t human.”

Ms. Williams looked startled. “Are you sure? Except for the bad skin condition and the misshapen fingers, she looks pretty human to me.”

Gosh. She thought it was a skin condition and crooked fingers, or, maybe she was trying to be nice since she hadn’t been affected by me, yet. Doctor “Howard” sure didn’t think I looked human.

“I believe she’s human, or at least started out that way,” said the administrator, “but obviously she is undergoing some kind of metamorphosis. She’s even changed since I saw her yesterday. Look, get your samples and run your tests. I want the results as fast as you can get them. Let me know if you need to run any other kinds of tests that you can’t do here. I can make arrangements.”

He lowered his voice even further.

“This is very important, Howard. We have to learn for certain what this girl is. If we can duplicate anything, especially that burning factor and something else I saw, we have to try. She just may be the key to…”

He stopped, leaving me wondering what I “just may be the key to”. I thought that was real interesting, since he’d said perhaps a cure for my condition could be found.

I’d known that was bullshit but I’d figured there would be a few preliminary tests, then the torture would start - assuming I couldn’t get away first.

It had never occurred to me that they might try to duplicate anything about me. I wondered why he would want that done.

I finished peeling off my clothes and stuck my arms through the gown openings. It was a wrap type thing with string ties. It was, as every article of clothing I’d been given here, miles too big. This was a good thing as it meant I could hide my extra appendages for a while longer.

I hopped up on the bed.

The administrator went on, “You have to disregard your feelings toward her. I think she’s emitting something that causes people to dislike her, so it’s not how you’d actually feel if that wasn’t in play.” He shook his head.

His back was to me so I couldn’t tell what expression he had on his face, but I sure wished I could. I wanted to get a feel for what he might be thinking.

“If it wasn’t for that, I think I could actually like her. In fact, before it affected me, I believe I was beginning to.” He shook his head again. “Two minutes later I didn’t want to even look at her! Perhaps you can find a way to turn that off. It would certainly make interacting with her a lot easier.”

Dr. Monroe looked pensive. “Could be some kind of pheromone. If so, we might be able to find a way to counteract it. We’ve had some success with that sort of thing - in insects at least.”

I was betting it would involve a lot of poking with needles and crap. From the look on his face, I thought it seemed as if he would enjoy that.

The administrator went on. “The camera in her room went out again last night, and we think she caused it somehow. This time it’s physically broken, not just in need of an upgrade or synchronization. It’s obvious she doesn’t want anyone to see her unclothed, which is understandable. However, I noticed in the video from the other day, before she wrapped herself in that blanket, that she seemed to have some type of lumps or protuberances on her back which may be the main reason she wanted to keep covered. I want you to check those out, too.”

I was surprised. I didn’t know those had been noticed. They didn’t know how much they’d grown since then, though.

“I can remove those,” said Dr. Monroe.

By now they were just about whispering but I could still plainly hear them. I stiffened and listened intently. The administrator’s reaction would tell me more about him.

“Why would you want to do that?” he asked with surprise, his voice almost hissing. “I want you to check her, not start cutting her up!”

“Okay, okay! I thought they might be some kind of cancerous growths. I’ll not touch them!”

Yeah. Sure you thought they might be cancerous without even running tests.

I felt relieved. At least the administrator wasn’t into torture as I’d thought. Seemed the good doctor could be, though.

Ms. Williams came over to the screen and started shoving it back. Somehow, she managed to smile at me. I knew that would change soon.

“I see you’re decent, dear. Come with me.” She held out her hand to me.

I slid down from the bed without taking her hand. No sense in pushing it. She stared at me for a moment, as if she was a bit put off by my not grasping her proffered hand, but no way did I want to be holding it if she changed mid-help.

She smiled, gave an almost imperceptible shrug, and turned and headed for a door at the opposite end of the room from the one through which we’d entered the infirmary.

I started to follow her but the administrator stopped me.

“A word, first, Juri. We’ll have to keep you a while longer after your sentence is over. It’ll be six months, just until the end of your probation. Anything after that would have to be voluntary on your part, but it’s important we learn why you are this way. Perhaps we can find a way to cure it.”

He hesitated, then his shoulders sagged slightly as he added, “I don’t want to lie to you. I don’t think there will be a cure.”

I stared at him. Surely he could see I already knew that. And if he thought I was going to agree to stay longer…

I shrugged and turned to follow Ms. Williams, and to my surprise, he grabbed my hand - rather roughly, as had anybody who’d ever touched me.

“Wait, Juri,” he started, sharply, then a look of sheer astonishment came over his face, and he looked at the hand he was holding, then back at my face, his eyes widening.

And I felt it too. For the first time since I was three years old, somebody who’d caught the hate-Juri bug had seemingly had a remission.

I didn’t know what had happened, what had changed since his dislike set in the day before, but he no longer felt that way. It appeared to have dissipated when he grabbed my hand.

He could see I knew, and he smiled, squeezing my hand gently before letting go.

Whatever he was going to say to me before was apparently forgotten as he said, softly, “Juri, go with Ms. Williams. I’ll come see you after your examination to make sure you’re all right. Dr. Monroe is going to need a sample scale and some blood. Will that be okay with you? He won’t hurt you.”

His tone had changed completely.

I nodded, and he reached down - and patted my shoulder! I was stunned. What just happened? I was reluctant to move, scared it would break whatever spell had come over the administrator that was causing him to behave that way.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, had touched me or spoken to me with anything other than dislike and repulsion since I was a small child.

I could have cried.

I saw Dr. Monroe heading for what had to be the examining room, so I knew I had to go.

But before I did, I whispered, afraid the sound of my voice might send him back to the way he had been, “What’s your name, sir?”

No one had ever told me, they always called him “the administrator” or “sir” and I hadn’t cared enough before to ask.

“Robert Haskins,” he said with a smile.

“Well, Mr. Haskins,” I told him, still whispering, “the knots are wings and a tail. Thought you should know.”

He studied me for a moment. I think he realized that I might have overheard their conversation or at least part of it because he nodded as though he wasn’t really surprised, as if he had suspected.

“Okay, Juri.”

He looked over my head to where the doctor had stopped and was waiting. “Take good care of her, Doctor. I’ll be back.”

Was that a warning in his voice?

“Come, Juri,” said the doctor, coldly.

Well. His attitude hadn’t changed.

I followed him and Ms. Williams into the examining room.

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