Story © 2000-2004 by Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved. Characters Sabrina the Skunkette, Amy the Squirrel, Tabitha, Carli, Tammy Vixen Shiela Vixen, Clarisse, and Carrie Squirrel © Eric W. Schwartz. Character Thomas Woolfe © Michael Higgs. Characters Chris Foxx, Susan Felin, Cindy Lapine, Debbye Squirrel, Clarence Skunk, Mr. Canis, Dexter Collie, Angel Collie, Sarge and Endora Mustelidae, Wendy Vixxen, and Wanda Vixen© Chris Yost. Character ZigZag © Max BlackRabbit. Character James Sheppard, Doug and Kelly Granitz © James Bruner. Character Mark the cheetaur © Mark White Eric W. Schwartz © Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz. Michael Jones © Martin Pedersen. Arden Eastridge © Keith Dickson. All rights to additional characters reserved by their respective owners.

Identity Crisis
Act IV
Chapter 15

Daydreams and Nightmares.

Sheila wrapped her arms around Rathsmon in a post-orgasmic embrace, kissing him deeply. “Oh God, that was wonderful,” the vixen moaned.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” the bald human replied, rolling over to lie on his back next to her in the bed.

Sitting up, Sheila threw her legs over the edge of the bed before stretching her arms and back. “I’ve never had an orgasm so powerful. It was almost painful.”

“Painful?” the sorcerer asked, the pitch of his voice dropping as he spoke. “It shouldn’t be painful. You know I’d never do anything to hurt you.”

Sheila’s heart skipped a beat as she sucked in a startled breath. Turning slowly she looked over her shoulder and saw the mummified corpse of Arden’s human body, lying in the sheets next to her. Leaping to her feet, she let out a horrified screech as her eyes locked with those of the corpse.

A hand on her shoulder caused her to spin around to face a large, black haired stallion. “Leon!” she cried out, startled at the sight of the mafia thug.

He reared back and struck her across the face with is fist, knocking her to the ground. “Bitch!” he shouted at the prostrate vixen. “What the fuck did we tell you about the beds?”

“Not to sleep in them,” Sheila whimpered as she curled into a ball, instinctively trying to protect her vulnerable abdomen from the enraged equine.

Leon removed the thin leather belt he wore and looped it around his hand. “That’s right, bitch!” he shouted as he laid into her back with the strap. “You---never---get---on---a---bed---without---permission!” he shouted, punctuating each word with a lash. Breathing hard, he looked down at the sobbing female before kicking her in the ass. “Now get up and make up that bed… MOVE IT!”

Trying to ignore the pain in her back, Sheila struggled up from the floor and grabbed the sheets. She had just started to make the bed when the strap came down on her again, causing her to yelp.

“What the fuck is that in my bed?” Leon shouted, hitting her again with the strap.

Sheila looked at the mummified corpse of Arden, who’s sad eyes seemed to be looking back at her. “I---I don’t know,” she stuttered.

“Well whatever it is, get it out of my fucking bed!” the horse shouted, striking her across her exposed legs, causing her to cry out again.

Scrambling around the bed, Sheila threw back the covers while choking back the horror. She reached out and grabbed the desiccated body by an arm and proceeded to drag it from the bed, all the time her eyes were locked with those of the corpse. The body dropped unceremoniously to the floor, landing first on the head and causing it to break off. Sheila was momentarily hypnotized by the sight of the head spinning on the floor, its eyes still locked with hers. The feeling of the leather strap across her back broke the trance.

”What the fuck are you waiting for, bitch?” the stallion demanded, striking out again with the belt. “Get rid of that fucking body!”

Sheila looked around to find some way to dispose of the body, but the room was empty save for the bed, a dresser and a small refrigerator with a microwave on top. Desperate to hide the corpse, Sheila started shoving it under the bed. She turned to the head, which looked at her with a mixture of sadness and betrayal, pausing for a moment before quickly shoving it under the bed too.

“That’s better! Now make the bed!” Leon commanded, slapping the belt across his palm impatiently.

Scrambling, Sheila quickly brushed out the bed as best she could with her good arm before pulling the sheets up and tucking them in. Moments later, she turned to face Leon, her head down. “Is that satisfactory?”

“Satisfactory?” Leon demanded, bringing the strap down across her shoulder, causing her to drop to the floor. “Do I look happy, bitch?”

Sheila let out another yelp as the strap crossed her back. “I’m sorry, master.”

“What did I say about the bed?” he asked, grabbing the vixen by the headfur and forcing her to look at him.

“I’m not allowed on the bed,” Sheila whimpered, tears streaming down her face.

“Wrong!” Leon shouted, slapping her face with the strap. “What did I say about the bed?”

Trembling with fear, the vixen tried to cower away, but his grasp on her headfur prevented it. “Dogs---dogs aren’t allowed on the bed,” she stammered.

Leon shook the vixen’s head, causing her to cry out again. “That’s right, bitch! And what are you?”

“I’m just an overgrown dog,” the vixen dutifully replied.

“And what are dogs?” Leon demanded, yanking on her hair again when she didn’t answer quickly enough.

“Dogs are animals,” Sheila replied.

“And what’s the one good thing about animals?” the thug demanded, tightening his grip on her headfur.

“They’re faithful,” Sheila cried out, wanting to grab his hand and force him to let go, but knowing if she did, he’d just beat her all the more.

“That’s right,” Leon replied, shoving the vixen away. “Now go get in your kennel,” he ordered, kicking her again in the ass. “And don’t forget! Dogs walk on all fours!”

Scrambling to get away from her tormenter, Sheila looked for an exit, but there were no doors to the room. She was trapped!

“What are you waiting for?” the horse demanded, bringing the strap down on her back as she scrambled to find an exit. Again and again, he brought down the strap. “Get in your hole, bitch!” Cornering Sheila, he really laid into her.

“No!” Sheila cried out as she sat up in the hospital bed. Her heart pounding in her chest, Sheila looked around in a panic. Only a few slivers of light filtered in through the Venetian blind, illuminating the darkened room. Slipping out of bed, Sheila quickly pulled up the sheets and covers, tucking them in so that it looked like nobody had slept there.

Glancing around in the darkness, she spotted the dresser, the refrigerator with the microwave, the door to the hall, bathroom door and the closet. Scrambling on all four, she skittered over to the closet door and opened it. Terrified by the vivid dream and ever-present fear of punishment, she closed the door to the closet and curled up on the floor, hoping nobody would notice her there. Hugging her broken arm close to her chest, she prayed for the nightmares to end as she quietly cried herself to sleep.

“God, I look a mess,” Doctor Spivey commented to himself as he studied his reflection in the mirror. The bags under his eyes wore deeper and darker than usual, testifying to his lack of sleep. Grumbling to himself, he made his way downstairs for some breakfast. The smell of coffee guided him as he turned and walked into the kitchen.

“Good morning, darling,” Amanda, a middle aged female orangutan said before giving her husband a quick kiss. Handing him the cup in her left hand on her way over to the table in the breakfast nook, she set her own cup down before taking a chair. “I take it you didn’t sleep well again last night?” she asked.

John stopped by a bowl of fruit to pick out something to eat before joining his wife at the table. “Does it show that much?”

“Um hum,” his wife grunted, nodding. “That and the fact that you were tossing and turning all night.

“I’m sorry,” he sighed, taking a sip of his coffee. “I’ve got a lot on my mind right now.”

Amanda wrapped both hands around the cup, allowing it to warm her fingers. “Sheila Vixen?” she asked.

“Yeah,” the doctor replied, setting the cup down and leaning back in his chair. “I don’t know what’s wrong. I just can’t seem to get through to her.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” she replied, giving him an encouraging smile.

“Not this time,” he complained, taking a sip from his cup again before setting it back on the table. Picking up an orange, he began pealing it as he talked, “Every time she starts to open up, she catches herself and stops. She’s worried that I’ll think she’s crazy and have her permanently committed to an institution.”

Amanda frowned as she considered the situation. “Have you tried offering her ‘the deal’?”

John nodded. “Yes, and she agreed to it with a small amount of resignation. Unfortunately, she’s not following through on her end.”

“Well, just because she hasn’t opened up doesn’t mean she’s reneging on the deal,” she chided, taking another sip of her drink.

“You don’t understand,” he said, shaking his head. “Every night since she checked in, she’s gone to sleep in her bed and then sometime during the night, she gets up, makes the bed and then proceeds to sleep the rest of the evening in the closet.”

Amanda leaned forwards. “Do tell? And this has been going on every night?”

“Every night,” he mumbled, stroking his chin with the thumb of his left hand. “The first time it happened, the nurse thought that perhaps she’d left the hospital, but the security cameras covering the hall didn’t show her leaving her room. They did a second check and found her asleep in the closet.”

“And they left her there?” Amanda asked.

John nodded. “I’d left instructions to observe but not take any action if she did anything unusual unless it could be a risk to herself or another patient.” He paused to pop a segment of the orange into his mouth and chew on it. “I’m not sure she knows that we know that she’s been doing it,” he mumbled past the masticated fruit.

“Don’t speak with your mouth full, John,” his wife admonished by reflex as she considered his statement.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, his mouth still full. Taking a sip of coffee, he used it to help wash the orange down. “That’s not the only thing I’m concerned about. Every time I bring up even the possibility that being continually raped might have affected her somehow, she becomes defensive saying that they didn’t make her do anything she wouldn’t have willingly done otherwise.”

The wife shrugged. “That could be. After all, she’s been working in the sex industry for almost twenty years, right?”

“Yes, but then why the delusion?” he thoughtfully asked. “In the first part of her delusion, she remembers having swapped bodies with her boyfriend, Arden and living as a male for some period of time. At first I thought that perhaps this was a sympathetic projection after having witnessed him being castrated, but I’m not so sure about that now. Yesterday she told me that her boyfriend was raped during the delusion which leads me to think that portion of her psychosis may have something to do with her having been raped.”

“Has she said anything about her feelings at the time?” Amanda asked with her brows furrowed.

John gave a curt nod. “She feels guilty for having caused it. Supposedly she was in heat at the time they vanished. Arden didn’t realize this, which would be virtually impossible if you think about it. She said her scent was enough to convince some local royalty to order Arden’s capture and ultimately causing him and other males to rape her. Considering what Sheila was going through at the time, I can’t help but think that the events of her delusion are directly linked to what was happening in real life.”

“I see what you mean,” Amanda thoughtfully replied, looking down at the reflections in her coffee as she thought. After a few moments she looked back up at her husband expectantly. “Do you think it would help if I talked to her?”

“Eh?” John grunted past another piece of orange. He quickly finished it off and swallowed before replying. “At this point it couldn’t hurt, though I don’t know how well she’d take to being handed off to another therapist so early in the process.”

“Why don’t you let me worry about that,” Amanda replied, giving him a reassuring smile. “I’m sure that we’ve got enough in common that I can make a connection. When’s her next session?”

“This morning at ten,” he replied, popping the last of the orange into his mouth.

“Ten o’clock? On a Saturday? Oh dear. That doesn’t leave me much time,” she replied, finishing up her coffee as she stood. “I’ll take over your session today and we’ll see if I have any better luck than you do.”

John nodded. “Whatever it takes, my dear. All I’m concerned about is seeing that Sheila gets the best possible help.”

Amanda smiled and laughed. “And that’s what she’ll get,” she said before leaning over to kiss her husband again. “I’ll let you know how it went when I get home.”

Turning from the dinette table, Amanda hurried to the master bedroom upstairs to get dressed. It would take some time to figure out exactly what was best to wear for a session like this, but then again, that was half the fun.

Channel after channel after channel after channel… Sheila repeatedly pressed the button on the remote as she surfed the cable channels in search of something worth watching. Disgusted with the lack of intelligent programming, she turned off the TV and tossed the remote onto the coffee table in front of the couch.

“Hang out in the commons,” the vixen mumbled to herself in a mocking, sarcastic voice as she stood. “You need to get out of your room. Do something else for a while.” She spat derisively as she walked over to look out the windows. “Like it’s any less boring out here than in my room,” she complained.

Sheila was restless. It wasn’t just from being cooped up in the building. It was more than that. She was lonely. Sure, Zig Zag and the others from the studio had dropped by, but they usually only stayed a couple of hours before they got on with their lives. The worst part is that she was finding it hard to relate to them. It’s like they didn’t speak a common language any more. Sheila had been gone from the studio for so long that she wasn’t current on what projects were going on, though that was slowly changing. Of course, nobody would dare to ask her anything about what had happened for fear of having Zig Zag rip ‘em a new asshole.

She let out a sigh as she turned away from the windows. Her eyes settled on the desk in the corner of the recreational area with a phone on it. For the hundredth time, she thought about picking up the phone and calling Anatol, but hesitated. She’d told him that she didn’t want to see him again. Obviously, he didn’t want to press the issue or he’d have called or sent flowers or something by now.

Why am I thinking about this? she demanded of herself. I don’t need him! I don’t need anyone! Angry with herself, she turned back towards the window, her arms crossed over her stomach as she hugged herself. Her ears drooped as she realized for the hundredth time that she was only fooling herself. She did need someone. She needed Anatol.

I don’t want to be alone.

Turning from the window again, she walked over to the desk and sat down. She reached out with her good hand, grabbed the yellow pages and opened it to the section on churches. Within a few minutes, she’d located the section of the listings that covered Catholic churches. Picking up the phone, she dialed the first one on the list.

Sheila stepped into the outer office for Doctor Spivey and paused. The receptionist she was used to dealing with wasn’t at her desk. Glancing at her watch, Sheila noted that she was a little early for her appointment still, so she decided to sit and wait. A few minutes later, Sheila saw a somewhat overweight female orangutan wearing a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flips entered the room, walked over to the closed door and without pausing, entered the darkened office beyond.

Curious as to who the female was, Sheila stood and walked over to the doorway. Knocking on the doorframe, she stuck her head in just as the orangutan sat down in the oversized chair behind the desk. “Um, excuse me, but do you know if Doctor Spivey is going to be in today?”

Amanda looked up at the door and smiled. “You must be Sheila,” she declared. Standing up, she came around the desk and over to the door. “My name is Amanda,” she said, taking the vixen’s hand and giving it a good shake. “Why don’t you come on in and make yourself comfortable.”

Confused as to what was going on, Sheila stepped into the office. “Is Doctor Spivey going to be late?”

“Oh no, dear,” Amanda replied with a slight chuff of laughter.

Sheila glanced at the clock and saw that it was ten o’clock. “But it’s ten now. Where is he?”

“He’s not coming, dear,” the orangutan cheerfully replied.

Now she was really confused and getting a little bit annoyed. “But you said he’d be in today!” she declared.

“No I didn’t,” Amanda replied, a wide grin on her face. “You asked if Doctor Spivey would be in today and I said yes.” She let out a small laugh of amusement and then explained in a very cordial manner, “My name is also Doctor Spivey. I’m Amanda, his wife.”

“You’re his wife?” Sheila asked, blinking in surprise. “And you’re a doctor too?”

Amanda eagerly nodded. “That’s right. John was feeling a bit under the weather this morning and asked if I’d sit in for him today. Come on. Why don’t we have a seat and talk, eh?”

“Um, OK,” the vixen replied, taking a seat on the couch.

“Wouldn’t you rather sit in John’s chair?” Amanda asked, cocking an eyebrow at the vixen.

“Not really,” Sheila replied as she got comfortable.

“Why not? Amanda asked, taking a seat opposite of her on the same couch. “You’ve done it during his sessions.”

“I don’t know,” the vixen answered with a small shrug, looking away.

Amanda smiled. “You don’t know or you can’t really explain it?”

Sheila’s ears perked up as she looked at the orangutan again. “I guess I can’t really explain it.”

“How about I explain it? OK?” Nodding towards the desk, Amanda let out a derisive snort. “Just look at that desk. Typical male desk, all big and imposing with an oversized chair that nobody in their right mind would want to sit in. None the less, my husband does sit there, right?”

“Yeah. Right,” Sheila agreed, frowning slightly.

“Don’t you see, dear,” Amanda said, patting Sheila’s hand. “It’s a position of power. By sitting in his chair, you were taking the high ground as it were. Dominating the room and dominating your sessions, or at least that’s what you thought you were doing. Doesn’t that make sense?”

Sheila blinked a couple of times as she thought about it. Glancing over at the desk, she remembered the first time she sat there, thinking that the doctor would be annoyed. “Yeah, I guess so.” Sheila reluctantly acknowledged, not completely convinced.

“Of course I’m right,” Amanda said with a laugh. “This is what I do for a living and I’m very good at it. If I weren’t, I dare say my husband wouldn’t let me help with some of his more difficult cases.”

“Is that what I am?” Sheila asked, her ears laid back. “Just another troublesome head case?”

“Why did you use that word?” Amanda asked.

“Huh?” Sheila grunted, confused by the sudden change. “What word?”

“Just. You said, ‘Just another troublesome head case’ just now,” Amanda replied, her voice tinged with curiosity. “Why not say ‘yet another’ or something else. Why use the word ‘just’?”

Confused and off balance by the question, Sheila shook her head. “I don’t know, I just did.”

“Self worth,” Amanda replied solemnly. “It shows that you have low self worth right now. Everything you do, everything you say tells me something about who you are and what’s going on in your head.” She paused and gave the vixen a smile. “To answer your question, no you’re not just another troublesome head case. To be honest, you have my husband flustered. He can’t seem to connect with you in any way and he’s been losing sleep over it. That’s why I offered to come in and help.”

“So you’re some kind of a psychoanalytical pinch hitter or something?” Sheila asked, giving the orangutan a dubious look.

“Well, if we must use baseball terms,” Amanda replied thoughtfully, “I’d say I was more of a relief pitcher. Does that sound better to you?”

Sheila shrugged her shoulders. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“So, you don’t mind working with me?” Amanda prompted, giving the vixen a hopeful look.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” Sheila replied with a shrug.

The orangutan picked up a small note pad and a pen. “Great. So, how about if you tell me why you’re depressed?”

“I’m not depressed!” Sheila defensively declared.

“Hmmmm,” Amanda hummed as she checked her notes, “I must be mistaken. It says here that you tend to sit around staring into space, are lethargic, apathetic and show no enthusiasm for anything.” Looking back up at the vixen she cocked her head to the side slightly and gave her a quizzical look. “That sounds like depression to me.”

“Sounds more like the drugs, if you ask me,” Sheila shot back in an annoyed tone of voice.

“I don’t think so,” Amanda said, checking her notes again. “I’m very familiar with the side effects of the drugs you're on and none of them should cause that problem.”

“Wait a minute,” Sheila said, holding a hand up as she leaned towards the doctor some. “What about that crap they were giving me at the other hospital? The stuff that’s making me all fuzzy headed?”

Again Amanda cocked her head at the vixen. “Do you feel fuzzy headed right now? You shouldn’t, you know. John stopped your prescription for Thorazine after you complained about the side effects. The only thing you’re on right now are some antibiotics and analgesics because of your surgery and broken arm. You’re not on any psychotropic right now.”

Sheila’s jaw dropped open for a second. “I’m not?”

“Oh no, dear,” Amanda replied, looking at her notes again. “Your last dose was at seven thirty a.m. on Tuesday. You haven’t been given another dose since then.”

“Oh,” Sheila replied, feeling rather small. She had been so busy being angry at having to take the drugs she didn’t even notice that they’d stopped giving her that particular pill.

“So you see why I asked that question. If you’re not on any prescription that could account for such actions, then I have to presume that it must be depression,” she explained, putting the book down. “So tell me, Sheila, why are you depressed?”

Sheila gave a small shrug and looked down. “I don’t know. Maybe---It’s just---I guess, everything.”

“Everything?” the doctor asked?

“Yeah, everything,” Sheila replied, giving her another shrug. “You know, this whole situation. I just want to go home but everyone keeps treating me like I’m some nut case who’s going to go off the deep end if they say the wrong thing. There’s nothing wrong with me. Why can’t you people believe that?”

“Because we know it’s a lie, Sheila,” Amanda replied, frowning slightly. “And you know it’s a lie, too.” Sheila looked up but the doctor continued before she could say anything. “I know about your dreams, Sheila. How you wake up in the middle of the night, make up your bed and then crawl into the closet to sleep.”

Sheila angrily stood up, her hands balled into fists. “What? Have you people been spying on me? Is that it?”

“Sheila, you’re not fooling anyone,” the doctor replied with a sad voice. “You know that this is a hospital, and that we have to keep an eye on the patients to make sure nothing happens to them.”

Sheila stammered momentarily as she tried to find some argument she could use to dispute the orangutan’s statement.

“And you’ve broken your word, too,” Amanda said, causing Sheila to freeze. “You told John that you’d let him know if you had any problems; bad dreams, sudden feelings of being scared and the like. You’ve been having this nightmare all week and yet you never said anything to John, have you?”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” the vixen replied as she turned and took a couple of steps away.

“You need to talk about this, Sheila,” the doctor replied, moving to stand next to her. “The more you try to pretend nothings wrong, the harder it’s going to be for you.”

“Don’t I have the right to be sad without people insisting something’s wrong with me?” Sheila asked, sniffing slightly.

“Yes, you do. You have the right to be sad, to be angry, to be happy, to be anything,” the doctor replied, raising her voice and throwing her arms up towards the ceiling. “You have every right to shout out your anger, cry at your sadness, laugh at your happiness. You have that right, but you’re not doing it. Instead you’re trying to keep it bottled up.”

Reaching out, Amanda turned Sheila so they were face to face. “You’re hiding from your emotions. Most importantly, you’re hiding from what happened and the fear.”

“Fear?” Sheila said with a sniff. “I’m not afraid of anything!”

“Oh really?” the doctor replied, cocking an eyebrow again at the vixen. “So tell me why you’re sleeping in the closet every night?”

Sheila started to answer several times, but instead turned away. “I---it’s just a bad dream, is all.”

“Must have been a pretty bad dream to make you sleep in a closet,” Amanda replied. “Come on, Sheila. Let’s sit back down on the couch, OK?”

“OK,” the vixen replied, sniffing as she resumed her seat.

Settling in on the couch, sitting close enough that their knees almost touched, Amanda put her hand out on the vixen’s shoulder. “Why are you depressed, Sheila?”

Wiping some tears from her eyes, Sheila debated answering. Should she really trust this other female with the truth? Could she trust her? When all was said and done, would they decide maybe she really was crazy and needed to be locked up?

Sheila shook her head, trying to shake off the mental cobwebs. I’ll trust her. “I miss him,” she replied.

“Miss who?” Amanda asked, taking the vixen’s hand in hers.


“Arden,” Sheila replied. “I miss Arden.”

“I know you miss him, Sheila, but it’s been a year already,” Amanda replied, giving her hand a squeeze. “How much longer will you mourn for him?”

“For you it’s been a year,” Sheila replied with a small sob, “but for me it’s only been a couple of weeks.”

Amanda nodded, realizing that the vixen was talking about the memories from her delusion. Her dead boyfriend’s memory had haunted her in a way that had kept him very real and very alive for her over the last year, and she was just now coming to terms with it.

Letting out a long sigh, Amanda gave the vixen’s hand another reassuring squeeze as a game plan formed in her head. She had been right after all. All this had needed was a female’s touch.

“Here you go, stinker,” Zig Zag said as she stuffed the pacifier back into Baby-Y’s mouth after wiping it off. Glancing over at the clock, Zig Zag frowned, wondering where everyone was. James had used the excuse of some big county contract to go in to work on a Saturday, so she’d had to call Hazel and see if the kid would kit sit for her. Although the squirrel had grumbled about wanting to go watch a movie with friends, the promise of her old hourly pay scale convinced her to give up the joys of Hollywood and mind the kits.

Zig Zag was just about to call next door and find out what the delay was when she heard the doorbell ring. “It’s about time,” the tiger strped skunk muttered, grabbing up her purse, cell phone and keys before walking to the front door. She opened the door to see Hazel standing there with a nervous smile on her face. “You’re late.”

“I’m sorry,” the young squirrel replied, stepping into the house. “Mickey was already on his way over and he doesn’t have a cell phone, so I had to wait for him to show up before I could come over. But I came over as soon as I could and I’m here now so you can go and—um—I’m sorry for being late.”

“Whatever,” Zig Zag replied, shaking her head. “OK, phone numbers are by the phone. Anything happens, you call and don’t forget, no friends over.”

“Right,” Hazel replied, giving a sharp nod.

“Oh,” Zig Zag said, standing in the doorway to the garage, “Don’t’ forget to put in the door stopper. Don’t need anyone forcing their way in.”

“I know, Zig Zag,” Hazel replied, sounding a bit exasperated.

“All right. I’ll see you later.” Closing the door to the house, Zig Zag slipped into the Viper and fired it up. She waited for the garaged door to open before backing out onto the street. She paused to make sure the door was closing before putting it into first and hitting the gas. The little delays she kept running into because of the kits were annoying, but she was rapidly learning to adjust for them.

The trip to the hospital was fairly uneventful. There were the occasional fans honking at her as well as the occasional self-righteous type shouting at her about something or other. Pulling into the parking lot, she found a spot not too far from the front door and pulled into it.

On her way up to the entrance, Zig Zag noticed that a spot she had thought was reserved for the handicapped was actually reserved for clergy. In it was parked an old, beaten up Toyota that had to be at least twenty-five years old. It was so covered in primer and rust that Zig Zag was inclined to believe in miracles, otherwise how could something like that still run. She laughed to herself as she used the ID card she’d been given to enter the lobby. Waving the card at the receptionist, Zig Zag waited for the inner door lock to buzz so she could step through.

Making her way past the commons areas towards the central elevators, Zig Zag froze as she spotted Sheila and Anatol sitting at a small table with cups on it, holding hands. She let out a low snarl as she took a couple of steps backwards to be able to see around the corner without being seen. Her frown deepened as she watched the pair. I knew I couldn’t trust that son of a bitch, she thought.

Her expression of anger and rage slowly changed to one of confusion as she watched the two talk. She’d expected them to be happily chatting away, however it looked like quite the opposite was true. She could tell from their expressions, posture and other body language that the conversation was something fairly serious and that neither was enjoying it very much. In fact, it looked almost like Sheila was on the verge of crying.

What the hell kind of mind game is that bastard playing at? Zig Zag wondered. She continued watching until Anatol stood, leaned over and kissed Sheila on the lips. Zig Zag barely ducked back out of sight as Anatol turned towards the exit. That son of a bitch!

Frantically she looked around to try and find some place she could hide, came up empty. She turned back towards the recreational area just in time to see Anatol step around the corner.

“Zig Zag!” the startled priest cried out, stopping suddenly. “What are you doing here?”

“I—umm—I was just finishing up a call on my cell phone,” she lied, frowning at the fact that she was on the defensive. She’d have to turn this conversation around quickly or things could get ugly. “What are you doing here? I thought you said you wouldn’t see her again.”

The priest frowned, noting that Zig Zag’s cell phone was nowhere to be seen. “Sheila called the church and left a message saying that she needed to see me and that it was urgent.”

“What was so important that you’d come back after promising you wouldn’t?” Zig Zag demanded.

“That’s none of your Goddamned business,” Sheila spat as she walked around the corner.

“Sheila…” Zig Zag started.

“Who do you think you are?” the vixen demanded. “You have no right trying to decide who my friends are, who I can talk to or what I can talk about.”

Zig Zag swallowed nervously. “Sheila, please…”

“No!” the vixen declared. “No more! No more telling me what I can or can’t do, or who I can or can’t see. No more!” Sheila’s expression became hard as she glared at her friend. “I think you’re the one who should leave and not come back.”

The shock of the vixen’s words caused the world to spin around Zig Zag’s head. The dizziness was strong enough that she was forced to support herself by placing a hand against the wall. She could only stand and stare, mouth agape as Sheila turned on her heals and marched away without a second look. “Sheila…” she whispered in a low voice.

Anatol closed his eyes and let out a sigh of exasperation. “Sheila,” he growled at the retreating form. “Don’t do this, Sheila!” he said, raising his voice to the retreating vixen, but to no avail. Turning back to face Zig Zag, he gave her a helpless shrug. “I’m sorry…”

“You bastard!” Zig Zag spat as she slapped him.

Surprised by the unexpected blow, Anatol rubbed the side of his muzzle in shock.

Angry at what had just happened, Zig Zag turned on her heals and stormed out of the building, hitting the doors so hard that they rattled as she slammed through them. Her mind was a turmoil of conflicting thoughts, leaving her virtually unaware of the world around her as she walked back to her car. Dropping into the drivers seat, she stuck the keys in the ignition and started the car.

I don’t know what that son of a bitch is up to, she angrily thought, revving the engine, but I’ll talk to the doctor and see that he’s banned from the building.

She spent a minute to put on the racing harness and to make sure that it was properly adjusted before shifting the car into first gear. Releasing the parking break, she started to pull forward from her parking spot only to have to slam on the breaks to avoid running over Anatol. “Get the hell out of my way!” she shouted.

“I can’t do that, Zig Zag,” the priest replied, his hands on the hood of her car.

Feathering the clutch, Zig Zag caused the car to jump forward slightly, bumping the priest. “Get out of the way or I’ll run you over!”

Anatol straightened up and clasped his hands together as he nodded to her. “Then you’ll just have to run me over.”

Zig Zag let out a snarl of annoyance. “What the hell do you want?”

“We can’t let Sheila keep doing this,” the priest replied. “I don’t want her losing you as a friend, and I can’t be what she wants me to be.” He paused and glanced away for a moment while frowning. “I can’t replace you, Zig Zag, and even if I could I don’t want that to happen. So please, can we try and work this out?”

Closing her eyes, Zig Zag let her head droop for a moment before looking back up at the priest. “Is that the only way I’m going to get you out from in front of my car?”

“I’m afraid so,” Anatol said, nodding.

“Fine,” Zig Zag sighed, rolling her eyes. “Get in.”

Anatol gave a curt not as he walked around to the passenger side of the car. Just as he cleared the nose, Zig Zag revved up the engine and popped the clutch, causing the car to leap forward and forcing him to jump backwards by reflex. He watched as she power-slid the car around the end of the parking row and raced for the exit.

His ears wilting in disappointment, Anatol shook his head as he watched the garishly painted viper disappear around the corner. Taking a deep breath, he let it out in a long sigh as he walked over to the dilapidated car he’d borrowed and climbed in. Inserting the key into the ignition, he jiggled the switch the way Father Francis had shown him, causing the starter to kick in intermittently. The engine sputtered a couple of times but didn’t quite come to life. Anatol pumped the gas twice before cranking the engine over again and was rewarded by a rather loud backfire a moment before the engine sputtered to life.

Giving a small prayer of thanks to God for his good fortune, he put the car in reverse and began to back out, only to have to slam on the breaks as Zig Zag’s viper screeched to a halt behind him. He frowned at his cousin as he saw her waiting there, staring straight ahead to avoid looking at him. Taking another deep breath, he again let out a long sigh as he put the car in park and turned the engine off. Climbing out, he turned and approached the sports car. “Yes?”

“Get in,” Zig Zag ordered, keeping her eyes locked on the front of the car.

Anatol frowned. “What will it be this time? Will you wait until I have the door open to drive away?” the priest asked in an accusing tone of voice.

Her entire body slumped as she looked down for a moment before looking at the priest. “No, no tricks this time,” she said, reaching over to open the door. “If you want to talk, get in.”

The priest squashed several spiteful comments that had popped into his head, choosing instead to climb into the car. He reached down and pulled up the seatbelt only to stare at it in confusion.

Zig Zag smiled, reached over and helped him latch the harness. “Hmmm,” she hummed, glancing down at his frock. “I’m afraid that skirt of yours won’t work very well with the crotch strap, so we’ll just have to do with using the other four straps.”

“It’s a frock, not a skirt,” the priest corrected, knowing that she was baiting him.

“Whatever,” she replied with a mischievous smirk. Popping the clutch, she smiled as she watched the priest out of the corner of her eye. He had grabbed onto the door handle with a death-grip the moment the vehicle had moved. She slowed down to make sure traffic was clear before turning right and again gunning the engine. Her amusement grew as she watched his reaction to her driving.

She swung the car onto the onramp for the Interstate doing twice the recommended speed, then had to hit the breaks as she came up on a large tractor-trailer that was slowly accelerating up the grade. She laughed in amusement as Anatol braced himself for the impact that never came.

Once the car was at the top of the ramp, Zig Zag checked her rear view mirrors and gunned the engine as she whipped around the truck, accelerating from just over thirty mph up to over seventy in a heartbeat, causing Anatol to grab onto the dash with his free hand in reflex. Again, Zig Zag laughed as she navigated in and out of slower traffic. “What’s the matter?” she chided the terrified male. “I thought you priests didn’t fear death.”

“We don’t,” Anatol yelled back over the wind and roar of the engine. “But I’m not particularly fond of spending six months in traction followed by several years of rehabilitation, or worse yet, being paralyzed for the rest of my life! So if you don’t mind, SLOW DOWN!”

Her bad mood momentarily forgotten, Zig Zag let out a loud bark of laughter as she let up on the gas, allowing the car to slow down and merge in with regular traffic. “Tell me, do you like Italian?”

“Italian?” he yelled back, making sure he heard right before nodding. “Yes! I love Italian!”

“Good!” Taking the next exit, Zig Zag negotiated the surface streets until arriving at an upscale Italian restaurant. She pulled the car into a parking slot in front of the restaurant, killed the engine and then set the handbrake. “Here we are,” she declared, climbing from the car.

Anatol struggled for several minutes with his harness before giving up. “Would you please tell me how to get out of this thing?”

Zig Zag laughed. “Turn the latch a quarter turn to the left then hit it like a button. That’ll cause it to pop open.” She twirled the key ring for the car around her index finger as she waited for the priest to climb out. Dropping the keys into her purse, they entered the building.

“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” the maitre d’ said while picking up a pair of menus. “Two for lunch?”

“Yes,” Zig Zag cordially replied, giving him a curt nod. “And can we have a private booth, please?”

“For you?” he said, bowing his head and smiling. “Always!” He led the pair to a group of small doors along one wall of the restaurant and opened the first pair to reveal a cozy dining area that was setup for four people, but would be large enough to hold upwards of a dozen without too much of a problem. “Will this do?”

“Perfect,” Zig Zag said, allowing herself to be seated. “Thank you.”

The maitre d’ handed Zig Zag and Anatol each a menu. “Your waiter will be Maurice today and he will be with you in just a minute. Is there anything I can get you while you’re waiting?”

“Actually, do you think you could have Jack wait on us, please?” Zig Zag asked, cocking an ear at the maitre d’.

“Certainly, ma’am,” the maitre d’ replied, bowing slightly. “He’ll be with you in just a minute.” Backing from the room, he then closed the doors, leaving the pair alone.

“Zig Zag,” Anatol said, folding his menu shut.

“Ah ah!” the tiger striped skunk interrupted, holding up a hand. “Not yet.”

Both heads turned as the waiter entered. A sharply dressed cheetah with green eyes and a shock of spiky black hair on top of his head, he carried a pitcher of ice water, which he proceeded to use to fill their glasses. “How’s it going, Zig Zag?”

“That’s yet to be determined,” she replied, folding her menu closed. “How are you doing today?”

“Pretty good seeing as how you’re here,” he replied with a chuckle. “Would you like an appetizer or anything to start off with?”

Zig Zag nodded. “How about some stuffed mushrooms to start with and a Bloody Mary?”

“Sounds good,” the waiter replied, noting her choice. He turned to Anatol and looked up from his pad. “And you?”

“Just some ice tea for me, please,” he replied.

Jack made a note on his pad while nodding. “All righty. Do you guys know what you want for lunch, or should I come back?”

“Give us a few more minutes, if you don’t mind,” Zig Zag replied, opening the menu again.

“Sure thing,” the waiter replied, picking up the pitcher of water and retreating.

“Zig Zag…” Anatol said, but was interrupted again.

“Please,” Zig Zag said, holding up her hand. “Not yet, OK?”

“Are you trying to avoid this conversation?” Anatol asked, leaning back in his chair.

“No,” Zig Zag said with a sigh as she picked up a bread stick and bit off a small piece of it. “I’m trying to delay it.” Reaching out for her water glass, she took a sip before setting it back down. “Right now, I’m just trying to get comfortable with you sitting across from me. In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t like you very much.”

“Really?” the priest replied, crossing his arms. “I never would have guessed it. Tell me, Zig Zag, is it me you don’t like, or the fact that I’m a priest?”

Zig Zag thought about it for a moment before speaking again, “Both.”

Anatol pushed back his chair and stood. “In that case, maybe this will help,” he said while unbuttoning the front of his frock. Slipping the garment off, he revealed a plain, white shirt and pair of pants that he’d been wearing underneath. Folding the frock up, he laid it over the back of the chair to the side and sat back down. “Is this any better?”

Surprised by his action, Zig Zag studied him for a moment. She was so used to seeing the black frock with the small patch of white at the collar, that to see him in what was for all purposes civilian garb was a bit disconcerting. Still, it was a change that did lighten up the mood some for her. “Yes. Yes, I think it is. Thank you,” she said, meaning it.

“I’m not your enemy, Zig Zag,” Anatol said before taking a sip of his water. “I’m trying to do the best I can to support Sheila, but she’s not making it easy.”

“Tell me about it,” Zig Zag grumbled, biting off another piece of the breadstick.

“You’re not helping much either, you know,” he declared.

“Huh?” Zig Zag grunted, swallowing the bread. “What are you talking about? I’ve been doing my best to help her out. I even backed off on telling her what she could and couldn’t do.”

“True, but you haven’t backed off on telling everyone else what to do,” the priest said, pausing as the waiter returned with their drinks.

“Are you ready to order?” the cheetah asked.

“Yeah, I’m going to have the Veal Parmesan and make the pasta angel hair, please,” Zig Zag replied.

“I think I’ll have the lasagna with meat sauce, please,” Anatol said, folding his menu closed.

“All right, and what kind of salad would you like? House, Caesar or chef’s?”

“Caesar, please,” Anatol replied, handing back the menu.

The waiter nodded, noting his order. “OK. Zig?”

“House salad with bleu cheese, please,” she replied, handing back her menu also.

“OK,” the cheetah replied, finishing up his notes. “It’ll just be a couple more minutes for your appetizer and I’ll be right back with your salads.” Backing out of the room, he closed the doors.

“What do you mean by that crack?” Zig Zag demanded, her ears laid back.

“Sheila was complaining that you have everyone afraid to talk to her about anything. It’s making it hard for her to talk to her friends because they’re all nervous they’ll upset her and you’ll maul them,” the priest stated, taking another sip of water. “Not to mention how you had the audacity to demand to know why I was there after you’d clearly been spying on us.”

“I was not spying!” she denied, feigning shock. Reaching out, she took a sip from her drink.

“You weren’t finishing any cell phone call, Zig Zag,” Anatol declared. “Zig, I watched you in the reflection of the window. I saw you stop and back up so you could peek at us around the corner.”

Inwardly, Zig Zag swore at herself. “OK, so I was watching you two. What of it? I’m her guardian. I have to watch out for her best interest. What did you expect? I spot you two holding hands in a nice cozy corner of the room and what am I supposed to do? Especially after you promised you wouldn’t go back!”

“I never promised I wouldn’t go back,” Anatol angrily declared. “I just said that I’d try to stay away for a couple of weeks. If Sheila hadn’t called and begged me to come down, I wouldn’t have seen her.”

“Oh? And what was so important?” Zig Zag demanded. She watched as Anatol searched for the right words. “Well? Or are you trying to think of a good excuse?” Anatol’s eyes locked with Zig Zag’s with an intensity that made her shudder.

“Don’t ever accuse me of something like that,” the priest growled in a quite voice. “I’m not you, Zig Zag. I’m a priest. I’ve dedicated myself to God and the service of a higher power, and I’m not in the habit of lying to cover my ass.” He glanced away to regain his composure before continuing. “Sheila has become obsessed with me. It’s the classic Nightingale syndrome. I was there after she got rescued and have been with her almost continuously since, helping her, reassuring her and trying to make sure she feels safe. Because of that, I believe that she thinks she’s fallen in love with me.”

Zig Zag threw her hands up. “Uh huh. And I’m sure that little kiss you gave her before you left wasn’t designed to help stoke the fires any, right?

“It’s not what you think, Zig Zag,” Anatol said in an exasperated voice. “I do care about Sheila. I have very strong feelings where she’s concerned.”

“And you wonder why I don’t trust you?” she asked, taking another bite of the bread stick and washing it down with another sip of her drink.

“You don’t trust anyone,” Anatol replied, taking a sip of his tea. “You don’t even trust yourself.”

Zig Zag’s mouth dropped open. “WHAT?”

The doors to the dining area opened and the waiter entered with a platter. He set the platter down on a stand near the table and served them their salads. He also placed the plate with the mushrooms on the table. “OK. This plate is really hot, so try not to burn yourselves, OK?” Picking the platter up again, he left the room, closing the door behind him.

“What the hell did you mean by that?” Zig Zag demanded, ignoring the food.

“Think about it, Zig Zag,” Anatol said, steepling his fingers in front of him. “Ever since I met you, you’ve been micromanaging everyone, questioning their intent and the reasons behind what they do. You don’t even remotely trust me even though I’m not only a priest but your cousin to boot. You treat me like your enemy when I’ve done everything I can to try and be the best friend I can to both you and Sheila.”

“Can you blame me?” Zig Zag demanded, stabbing her salad with a fork. “Do you have any idea what I’ve been through this last year? You’re damned right I don’t trust anyone.” She stuffed the pile of vegetables in her mouth and mercilessly began chewing them.

“You know, maybe…” the priest started to say, but then shook his head. Picking up his fork he, too, stabbed his salad and took a bite.

“Maybe what?” Zig Zag demanded after washing the salad down with some more of her drink.

Anatol swallowed, taking a drink from his tea to help wash the lettuce down. He paused to study his cousin for a moment before replying. “Maybe you should worry less about Sheila’s therapy and think about getting some yourself.”

Again, her mouth dropped open in surprise. “Are you saying that I need therapy?”

“No,” Anatol said, shaking his head. “You are. After all you’ve been through, don’t you think it’s changed you?” He waved his fork in her direction. “You’re stressed out. You’re wound up tighter than a clock spring and it’s not getting any better. You know I’m right.”

Zig Zag looked down at her salad as she thought about it. He was right about the stress. She had been having troubles sleeping nights lately, and it wasn’t just because of the kits. Things hadn’t been doing so well with James because of the trial, and the brief respite afterwards hadn’t lasted long. Shaking her head, she grudgingly admitted to herself that he was probably right.

Closing her eyes for a moment, she took a deep breath before letting it out. She looked back up at Anatol who was studying her and nodded. “You’re right, I have been stressed out and it’s probably been affecting the way I deal with people around me.”

Anatol nodded and gave her a friendly smile. “Admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.”

Zig Zag frowned. “Isn’t that something they tell to alcoholics and drug addicts?”

“Yes, it is,” the priest replied.

“Well, I’m neither,” Zig Zag replied, taking another bite of her salad.

“Really?” Anatol asked, cocking his ears in her direction. He gestured towards her drink with his fork. “How often do you have a drink with lunch?”

Zig Zag looked down at the almost empty Bloody Mary and frowned. “So I like to have a drink with lunch to calm down. Can you blame me? I just had Sheila tell me she didn’t want to see me!”

“The alcohol is just a crutch,” he replied, nodding at the glass again. “All it’s doing is masking the symptoms, making it harder for you to get in touch with your feelings.”

“Like I really want to do that?” she grumbled sarcastically.

“Oooh, sounds like denial to me,” Anatol said, popping a cherry tomato in his mouth.

“It wasn’t denial,” Zig Zag declared, putting her fork down. “I’m just not convinced that I need to be seeing a shrink about this.”

Anatol nodded. “You know, Sheila says the same thing every time I see her.”

Zig Zag’s head snapped up as she glared at the priest. “That was a low blow.”

“But it was true, right?” Anatol replied, unfazed by her glare.

Letting out a long sigh, Zig Zag nodded. “I’ll think about it, OK?”

“That’s all I can ask for,” he said, taking another drink of tea. “So, do you think we can finally declare peace?”

Zig Zag frowned at the priest for a moment before nodding. “All right, peace.”

“Good,” he replied with a smile, spearing one of the stuffed mushrooms. “Now if you don’t mind, I think I’ll try one of these. They look good.” He popped the delicacy in his mouth and chewed it.

“Are you kidding?” Zig Zag asked, picking up her fork and spearing one herself. “These things are so good, I’m surprised they haven’t been declared a sin by the pope.”

Savoring the flavor, Anatol took his time before swallowing. He reached out and speared another one and held it up. “With any luck, he won’t find out about them any time soon.”