Hidden Beauty
by Trey McElveen

1997


Jacob got to the library about three that afternoon. He hefted his bookbag back onto his shoulder and shoved the door open. He walked into the huge open foyer and past the rows of drawers that contained the card catalog. He giggled to himself, thinking how funny it was that they still had the catalog when the whole library was wired into a computer system.

Jacob was a boy of about fifteen years, still waiting for that elusive First Sign. The jeers and scoldings of his peers didn't matter much to him; they were just annoyances that would very soon disappear. But he was a little different than others in the respect that he visited the library regularly, not to research or to learn, but to look at pictures from the past. He would spend hours just looking at a photo of Marting Luther King Jr. or George Washington. His parents thought that he was just inteested in history, but Jacob had his own reason for being there.

The cougar at the front desk recognized Jacob and greeted him. "Hi Jake!" she said, "Come to browse around again?"

Jake nodded, "Yes, Mrs. Daniels. I'll be around for a while."

The receptionist smiled, "You always are, Jake." Jake smiled and nodded. He turned and began to walk away, but Mrs. Daniels stopped him.

"If you don't mind, would you tell me how old you are?"

Jake grimaced inside. He knew what she was really asking. "I'm fifteen, Mrs. Daniels."

She nodded thoughtfully, "Getting around that age, aren't you?" Jake nodded politely. "Any Signs of late?"

Jake shook his head no. He liked Mrs. Daniels, although sometimes she did tend to get a little too personal. "None yet. If you don't mind ma'am, I want to go browse a bit."

Mrs. Daniels smiled, embarrassed. She waved him on with a paw, "I'm sorry. You go on ahead."

"Thanks."

Jacob gathered armfulls of books and set them down at his usual table. He opend one, titled "The Civil Rights Movement" and looked wonderously at the pictures it contained. People getting beaten back by firefighters with water hoses, dogs biting protesters, and other scenes of violence. He gazed in wonder at these photos, but not at the history or the signifigance behind them, but at the people in them.

Human people, not hybrids of animal and man. Jacob turned the page to a full page picture of Martin Luther King Jr. during one of his speeches. Jacob traced the outlines of the orator's face. No fur, no feathers, not even a scale. No muzzle, just a human face. An adult human face. He had never come across such a sight in his life. Only pictures remain of what was once the "adult human" race. He studied the picture intently. It intrigued him.

He ran his own human fingers around his own face, feeling the contours and the shape, seeing his own face with his fingers, as a blind person reads braille. Over his forehead, across his eyes, down his nose, between his lips, on his cheeks, everywhere. He read himself with his fingers.

Jacob closed the book and pulled another to him. This one was a monster tome, called "Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body". He had found this one way in the back of the library, where it was so quiet that his own footsteps would often startle him. He giggled to himself. He opened it up and marveled at the astounding, and somewhat graphical, pictures and representations of the inner workings of the body. The intestines, the stomach, the liver. He poured over the entire abdominal unit, tracing the routes the organs took on his own stomach.

Jacob frowned. "This book must not get much use," he thought. But it was so interesting! This is what it was before the Change. He had not been around long enough to see any of the immediate effects of the Change; Jacob had been born five years after.

He thumbed through the tome again and then pushed it aside. He opened a third book, titled "The German Holocaust". Jacob shivered. He knew what this was about. Upon opening the book, he saw a small boy, standing naked with his back against the wall. There were corpses all around him, and German soldiers reaching for the child in the photo. Snow was on the ground. The picture left no attempt for modesty. "Dear God," Jacob said in a whisper.

But one thing stood out from the child in the picture. The feet. Speckled with blood and most certainly frostbitten, they shone like a beacon through the snow. Jacob put his hand on the feet of the child, as if to caress them. He traced them, pretending to wipe clean the blood and dirt and frost from them. He thought for a second, and wondered what had become of the child. "Probably murdered in the chambers. Or worse yet, given the Plague." Jacob shivered again.

He returned to the feet of the boy. He smiled and enjoyed the simple beauty of the human form. He opened the anatomy book again and looked to a full page photo of an adult male. He shook his head in amazement. He couldn't believe that everyone looked like this. All the men at least. Now, they're dogs, cats, birds, lizards, the list goes on and on. Jacob looked at the feet of the man, then to the boy. They were very much different, the man's more muscular and strong. The boy's seemed to be deprived of life, limp and sinewy. Jacob smiled at both the pictures. They were simply amazing. "No," he thought, "Beautiful. Just beautiful."

Suddenly, his feet felt as if they were dipped into a sauna of warm jello. He could feel his toes melding and thickening into each other. There was a muffled ripping of fabric and a sharp pain as another toe slid out of his heel and collided with the back of his shoe. Jacob grabbed at his tennies and tore them off. He watched in amazement as thin, scaly toes replaced the short, fleshy human ones. Long black talons grew from tips of his new toes. The scales took on an orangish color and began to spread up his ankle. He grabbed his socks and literally ripped them off of his feet. The talons cut throught the cloth like a knife through hot butter. The queer, liquid feeling subsided, but was replaced by a pricking sensation throughout his feet and ankles.

"Aaaaaaah!" he screamed. People sitting at tables near him looked up from their studies and toward him. One woman, a deer-morph, rose from her seat and headed for the receptionist's desk. Jacob sat in his seat, grimacing at the pain. He rubbed his hand up and down the rough and scaly surface, mapping out its touch while massaging the pain away. The pins-and-needles subsided as quickly as the other feeling had. There was a touch on his shoulder, and he looked up to see Mrs. Daniels smiling down on him. Her tail twiched from side to side. It was odd, really. She had never shown her teeth while smiling, but she did now.

"Jacob! This is great! I'll call your parents if you'll give me your phone number. They'll take you to a doctor."

Jacob stammered, still looking at his new feet, "Ummm... 555-6723. They should be there right now."

Mrs. Daniels grinned, "They'll be so happy when they hear you had your First Sign! I'll be right back!" She headed off in the direction of the reception desk.

"Do you know what I'm going to be, Mrs. Daniels?"

She stopped and shook her head. "As best I can tell, you're going to be a bird of prey, like a hawk or eagle. But I'm not sure." She started for the desk again, "I'm going to call your parents now. I'll be back in a second."

Jacob finally turned his gaze from his own feet to the pictures, never once looking to Mrs. Daniels. He looked from the boy's feet to the man's and back again. Gingerly, he touched them both, and laid his head on the table, crying at the hidden beauty that he had once owned, and had just lost forever.



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