Aaron wasn’t prepared for how weird it would feel to be in a t-shirt and shorts while everyone else on the bus was rocking layers, but there was a lot about this he wasn’t prepared for. He wasn’t prepared for the dirt and wet clinging to the fur on his feet even with the sandals, or the feeling of eyes tracking his every movement since he left the house. He couldn’t have known about the way he could hear whispering under his breath everywhere he went. He didn’t realize there would be an overwhelming riot of scents he hadn’t learn to place yet. But it was all happening, right here, right now, and he had no choice but to bear it.
The bus driver, a big woman with grease-slick hair forming a solid line of curls around her neck, nodded to him with wide eyes as he fed his money into the machine. He signed a greeting to her and she watched his clawed fingers slice through the air without understanding him. He twitched his whiskers — the best approximation of a smile he could manage — and moved on. It was best to end interactions quickly to give people time to sit with the shock of seeing him, his social worker said. It wasn’t personal; people just needed time to adapt.
He kept telling himself that, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was absolutely personal. No one around him caused the shock and silence that he did. How could he not take it personally?
There was a row of seats free, so he stepped quickly to snap it up. It was still early and the only people on the bus were those few commuters who had to travel long distances to make it to their offices, students, the homeless who had scrounged enough change to get out of the elements for an hour. All of them, from the young woman with the fresh braids and brand-new Marshall’s outfit to the old man with a patchy beard and patchier smile, stared openly at him. Aaron sat down, took his book out of the small messenger bag slung over one shoulder, and stared back with dark and oversized eyes. His new face was passive, unexpressive, except for the constant twitching of his nose when he was excited. It bobbed quickly now; he had to put effort into slowing it down.
Eventually, enough people caught their fill of him that they returned to their books and phones and companions. Aaron opened his book and stared at it without reading. His ears flicked to snatch bits of conversation out of the air.
“I didn’t know they would look like a straight-up cartoon.”
“Look at all that fur, no wonder he ain’t wearing nothing. Fucker’s gonna fry in the summer.”
“I knew I should have brought my tar baby today.”
“Shut up! You ain’t even right.”
Six months ago, Aaron went to bed as a geeky high-school senior whose biggest point of stress was crossing a field to this very bus stop without getting harassed by the neighborhood kids. He woke up as a six-foot bipedal rabbit the next morning, along with 7 million other people who turned into various animals. No one knew how it happened or why, but it mostly happened to the people in the most run-down parts of big cities or the destitute rural areas. There were a ton of names flying around for the people — people? — this had happened to, depending on where you were. Here, in Baltimore, the name ‘Br’er’ seemed to be the one that stuck.
Aaron had to admit — the Tar Baby crack was pretty funny — but he knew the intention wasn’t to let him in on the joke. So he kept quiet, sat still, and swept his ears back as the bus moved on.
It was no use trying to read. Whenever anyone said anything, his sharp ears would pick it up; whenever someone moved, it would reveal a new smell that he would have to try and catalogue. Was that the warm leather of someone’s coat or a bus seat someone just left? Was that sharp, almost sweet scent the smell of someone’s car keys or their earrings? There was almost a compulsion to find an explanation for each smell, and in a cramped shared space like this there were almost too many to choose from.
He tried to use the purpose of the bus trip as a distraction. The job was simple data entry, and it wouldn’t pay that much, but it would get him out of the house and back into the world. The manager was a church friend of his aunt’s, and she had put in a good word for him. Aaron was fairly sure he would get the job, but he wasn’t sure how long he would keep it. There had been stories on the news about Br’ers who were let go from their positions as soon as they were released from the government facilities where they spent the last few months, and talking heads all over cable news were wondering what kinds of work would be available for walking animals.
“Mascot!” was almost always the joke they ended with, the roundtable all laughing before they moved on to the next topic.
Aaron didn’t know what he wanted to do; he always thought he would go to college and study to become a teacher himself, but now that he couldn’t actually talk he had no idea how viable an option that was. His doctor told him that he might be able to relearn how to speak eventually, but the fact was his mouth and throat weren’t meant for human sounds. Sign language might be his only option.
Whenever he thought about that, a stone dropped into his stomach and it wouldn’t go away for hours. He could hear what everyone else was saying but he would never be able to say anything back, for the rest of his life. How fucked up was that? How was that fair? He never realized how much he depended on his voice until he lost it. Now, too late, he had to find a way to communicate without it or just about anything else he was used to. He was trapped in this body, a mind without a way to express its thoughts, an animal doomed to observe well but remain silent.
He slid back in his chair to relieve the pressure on his tail and sighed out a long breath that whistled between his incisors. That wasn’t helpful thinking, he heard his social worker telling him; he would stay trapped as long as he saw himself that way. The problem was, from where he was sitting, there was no way he could see what freedom looked like.
The bus stopped, and the gasps of a couple passengers encouraged Aaron to open his eyes. Another Br’er stepped onto the bus, this one a fox. Aaron had expected something instinctive to sound an alarm within him, but it didn’t; he was curious, almost happy, to see someone else who might understand what he was going through right now. The fox’s strange, slitted eyes turned right towards him and her whiskers bristled. His own bobbed in response. She looked past the bus driver, past the others staring at her, and walked towards him. He sat up and moved his bag to make sure she knew the seat was open.
She wagged as she walked down the aisle. Then she sat next to him.