Proper Care of Construction Equipment

Reynaerde Nov 4th, 2019 (edited) 2,211 Never
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  1. The sounds of the construction site were deafening. Somewhere someone was using a pneumatic drill with unrestrained enthusiasm, every staccato machinegun blast seeming to rattle Stephen’s hardhat. It didn’t fit properly, he thought. It wobbled on his head with every step.
  3. He followed in the shadow of the foreman, trudging through the loose sand and patches of mud that were underfoot everywhere.
  5. “They’ll be around here,” the man shouted over the noise in that casual way of someone used to making themselves heard.
  7. He was right. They turned the corner of a nondescript slab of concrete, and there sat a collection of beast-people, loudly talking about one thing or another. They were massive, several of them having taken a flatbed trailer for a bench, taxing its suspension to the full. That would have been intimidating enough, but the fact that they fell silent and turned their stares on him made him clutch his clipboard like a badge of authority.
  9. “Hey boys!” the foreman called, swaggering forward with a total disregard for the hostility they were showing the pencilpusher. “This is Stephen. He’ll be following you around for the day.”
  11. “You the safety guy?” Rumbled the elephant man in a voice like two granite slabs rubbing together, a roll-up the size of a normal man’s arm dangling from his lip. He expelled smoke from his trunk, throwing up a curtain of noxious fog.
  13. “Uh… yeah.” Stephen held up the clipboard as if it were meant to prove something. It just had a collection of checklists under the clip, nothing more. He gave a smile he hoped would be disarming, but did nothing to move the frowning faces of the enormous beastmen. Each of them was large enough to function as construction equipment, which is exactly why they worked here.
  15. “I don’t see the point,” said the bear man in a deep rumble. Neither him nor the elephant needed to speak up to be heard. He was the smallest of the bunch, still taller than any healthy human could hope to be, but also with a stocky, broad build. He had claws like kitchen knives.
  17. “No complaining. The boss says it’s gotta happen, so it’s gotta happen,” the foreman shouted.
  19. There was a grumble of begrudging assent. The tortured undercarriage of the trailer creaked as someone shrugged in response.
  21. A high whistle sounded, miraculously cutting through the noise pollution of the site. The foreman turned his head, then nudged Stephen again.
  23. “Gotta go.” He looked back at the beastmen. “They’re good guys. Just don’t let them push you around too much.”
  25. With a wink and a smile, the foreman made himself scarce, hustling to the source of the whistling.
  27. Stephen looked back at the beastmen. He was on his own.
  29. “Can’t follow us all, can you?” the bull with the nose ring asked.
  31. He was right. They all worked at different locations, where-ever they were needed. But they had their own foreman of sorts all the same. Stephen tapped the clipboard with his pen, and looked at the name he’d been given.
  33. “I’m looking for Frank.”
  35. Silence. The men exchanged glances, then looked back at him. He could see their faces beginning to contort in the typical way of someone who was trying to hold in laughter, but as soon as one realized the other was doing the same there was no stopping it. The entire group erupted in a deep, booming laughter. The elephant slapped his thigh, causing localized seismic activity.
  37. Oh Christ, was that going to be it? Either Frank was some sort of shitty in-joke, or he was the psycho of the group.
  39. “What the fuck are you idiots laughing about?” a deep growl issued from behind Stephen. From behind, and far up.
  41. He turned around.
  43. There stood a tigress, with fierce orange fur and aggressive stripes. Like the rest of them, she’d fought gravity for every inch, twice as tall as him, and many times heavier. Part of that was the gut that seemed standard issue on any construction site, stuffed into coveralls that could house a human family. But under the fat was obvious muscle. Any one of them would have the strength of a crane or earth mover, and she was no exception. The belt holding up his pants would just about fit around one of her arms.
  45. She noticed him too. Yellow eyes meant to stalk prey looked him up and down, noticing the clipboard, the color coded visitor’s hardhat, the jeans and sweatshirt that screamed ‘I just dressed to get dirty, not to actually work or anything’.
  47. “Who’s the squishy?”
  49. “Safety guy,” the elephant puffed out another cloud of smoke that could smother a trench and force a breakthrough, “meet Frank.”
  51. The predatory eyes turned fully onto him, blazing beneath a knitted brow. He’d say she was sizing him up, but it felt more like she was sizing him down.
  53. “You’re here for me?” she said, the suspicion in her voice icing her words.
  55. OK, she might be able to crush him into a ball and shoot a three-pointer with him, but she wasn’t going to. No sense in being afraid, no matter how much the screaming, primitive part of his brain was trying to make it seem like a good idea.
  57. “I’m doing a safety evaluation of working conditions for large scale employees,” he yelled over the noise of the site, up to her round animal ears.
  59. Good job, Stephen. Got the sentence out in one go, and having to shout his words concealed the tremble.
  61. “Why haven’t I been told?” the giant cat woman growled, planting her clawed hands in her sides.
  63. “It’s not fair if you get to prepare,” Stephen shouted up at her, hoping to break the ice a little. No success. “They should have told you this morning.”
  65. She rolled her eyes and seemed to curse under her breath.
  67. “Bus broke an axle. I only just got here.”
  69. He felt her eyes bore into him for a few seconds more before she flicked her gaze briefly back to her colleagues, then back to him. There was a subdued, heavy chuckle from the men.
  71. “Fine.” Frank let out a heavy sigh. “Follow me.”
  73. She turned on the spot with surprising speed. There was a woosh, and a brief breeze as her tail swept through the air over his head, pushing his hardhat askew.
  75. Jesus, there was some fur padding on the thing, but it’d still be like being hit by a fur-padded baseball bat. Did she even know that thing was dangerous to wave around like that? Should he note it down? There was no category for tails, and technically they hadn’t started yet. He opted for quickly jotting ‘tail danger?’ in the margin before following her.
  77. It took some doing to keep up with her. Obviously, her strides were long, and she made no effort to adjust to a more human pace. For every step she took, Stephen had to take four, leaving him to scuttle after her uncomfortably, trying to maintain some dignity by not going into a full jog. To questionable results.
  79. Her ass was as fat as her stomach. That wasn’t something he normally would have been on the search for, but with it being this clearly in view, there was no getting around it. Quite literally, too. When she ducked into the unfinished hulk of the building there was no room to walk beside her. So he kept to her rear, wary to keep clear of her swinging tail.
  81. They came out at the other side. A crew of normal size was waiting besides a trench in the sand. When they caught sight of Frank, and it was hard not to, they got off their asses and started moving around in reluctant Monday morning activity.
  83. One of them jokingly commended her on her lax working hours, and she responded in a growl about the bus before taking hold of a truly enormous shovel. By all appearances it was a normal shovel, sized up, with a steel handle instead of wood, and menacing earthbreaking spikes much like the bucket of a mechanical excavator.
  85. “You just sit and watch, right?” she spoke in his direction.
  87. “Yeah,” he nodded. “Just do what you’d normally do.”
  89. The meaning of the stares he got was obvious. The same man who called out Frank said something about having an easy job. Stephen just shrugged. He was right enough, at least for this part. He’d have to write a report, too, but no-one who lifted stuff for a living could ever believe that was the hard part. And if he was a smart-ass and asked why they didn’t do it, then… things got less amiable. He thought it was a healthy habit to not piss off people who did physical labor.
  91. The large cat got to work without further comment, thrusting the spade deep into the ground and bringing up mountains of sandy soil. It was a sight to behold, the muscles of her arms and back bulging under the coveralls. Her extra weight seemed to be no impediment, and with a few swings of the shovel she had excavated another length of the trench.
  93. As she worked, he ticked off his checklist. Did people stay clear of the equipment? Questionable. Was safety equipment properly used? Yes. Everyone wore their hardhats.
  95. The purpose of the trench became clear. When Frank judged it long enough, she lumbered out with two large steps, and went for a stockpile of concrete sewer pipes. With a grunt, she moved one from the top and carefully rolled it to the edge.
  97. That thing could crush a man.
  99. The crew moved around her, threading heavy duty hoist ropes around the bulk of the pipe. Frank took a length of rope in each hand and started lowering the thing into place, leaning back to provide counterweight. Two men of the crew jumped into the trench to give her directions and make adjustments. Within a few minutes, it was where it supposed to be.
  101. Damn, she really is as strong as a crane, Stephen thought, then jotted down that a man could be caught under the weight due to equipment failure or operator error.
  103. More of the same followed. While he kept an eye open for potential safety hazard, most of his notes for this activity were done. He just watched as the cat and crew moved earth and pipes. She looked impressive just standing around, but at work she was another beast entirely. At one point she decided she didn’t have a good way down into the trench, and simply jumped. The ground shuddered, and he could see the water in puddles ripple.
  105. Eventually, that most sacred hour rolled around. Lunch. Workers around the site abandoned their equipment to sit, unwrap sandwiches, light up cigarettes, go on coffee runs, or retreat to where-ever they had left their lunch. This, at least, wasn’t too dissimilar from the office.
  107. The trench crew, too, put down their work. Frank stabbed the shovel at the ground, burying it to the hilt. That was the real Excalibur, right there.
  109. She made to move away, then stopped near him, looking down. Her eyes seemed somewhat less baleful than they had been.
  111. “You’re not as much of a pain in the ass as I thought you were going to be, safety guy.”
  113. Not a high bar to reach, with one as large as yours.
  115. He slapped the thought down.
  117. “Thanks,” he said instead. “My name’s Stephen, by the way.”
  119. A grin spread over her face, showing sharp teeth. “My name’s Franky. With a ‘y’.”
  121. So that’s what was up with her name. That single letter made a real difference. With ‘Franky’ he imagined some slight, quirky girl, not the striped tank before him. But with ‘Frank’, he didn’t imagine a woman at all, and he had an instant flashback to various times he’d been called ‘Stephy’. It was hard to imagine who would be courageous enough to pull that joke on Franky.
  123. It was still a weird name, though.
  125. “So, Stephy…”
  127. Goddamnit!
  129. “…What did you pack for lunch?”
  131. And shit. He knew he’d forgotten something this morning. He’d been looking up the commute to the site, he didn’t work here, after all, and it had messed up his morning routine, he’d had to leave earlier, and… just shit.
  133. “Nothing.”
  135. The tigress blinked at him. “You on a diet or something?”
  137. “No, I just forgot.”
  139. “Fuck it, you can have some of mine. I don’t think I’ll miss your little mouse bites.” She rubbed her belly. No, she shamelessly grabbed at it, digging her fingers into her fat, and let out a growling laugh. “Been trying to lose weight anyway. Come on, I bet the boys think you’re cute.”
  141. She set off at a relaxed stride. This time the tail didn’t swish dangerously over his head, but he was on his guard all the same. At least he could keep up, this time.
  143. He didn’t like the feeling of having to borrow lunch from someone, freely offered mouse bites or not. But at the same time he found himself wondering what it’d be. Raw meat? Certainly meat of some sort. Would he be eating a bloody chunk of steak, or a messy handful of tartare?
  145. When they cut past a section of the building to be, there was a faint rumble. Chunks of concrete started hitting the ground around them, and Stephen felt the icy grip of crystal clear realization on his stomach. Somewhere in the distance people started shouting, their voices muddled and slow, as if he was stuck in amber. Everything seemed to slow down as his body’s survival instincts kicked in. He was surprised at the sudden clarity it provided. He noticed the jagged edges of the rubble, the pitter-patter of the small chunks hitting his hardhat, the hail hits on his shoulders. He even had time for a few errant thoughts. Just like in a video game, he thought. Ironic, that the safety guy was going to be crushed by rubble. And he really should have cleared his browser history.
  147. Despite going into bullet time, he couldn’t will his limbs into movement. They felt sluggish, undefined, as if they’d anticipated the accident and just done away with their bones to get things over with.
  149. Heavier chunks started hitting the ground with equally heavier thuds, sending up sprays of sand. This was it, then. One of them would hit him, probably more than one, and that’d be the end. The light of day was already dimming in the shower of debris, dust swirling into his eyes and nose.
  151. Then everything went black.
  153. Oh well, he thought.
  155. But he noticed it wasn’t sharp, jagged concrete choking him. It was soft, but coarse, with the smell of musky sweat. The weight bore down on him all the same, squeezing the air out of his lungs and preventing him from getting any in to replace it. If things were black before, they now went slightly blacker still.
  157. -------------------------------------------------------------
  159. The weird thing about waking up was that he wasn’t really waking up. Rather, Stephen gained a mounting awareness of the things around him, such as the fact that he was lying in bed, that everything around him was white, that there was a dull, but distant, pain in his ribs, and that he was saying… something to the other person in the room. A middle-aged man with a leg lying above the covers in a thick cast.
  161. “What…” he said, trying to recover from the initial surprise, “…what was I saying?”
  163. The man with the broken leg registered surprise.
  165. “You’re finally out of it, then?”
  167. “Out of what?”
  169. The man let out a single laugh. A loud ‘hah!’ that you’d need some form of advanced age to really get right.
  171. “I don’t know what they gave you, but it really messed with your head. Son, you’ve been rambling like a drunk.”
  173. “Oh.”
  175. “Yeah,” the man continued, eager to share the story now Stephen would actually remember it, “you asked what time it was twenty times. At least!”
  177. Stephen dug himself into his sheets, preparing for the recounting of shameful things he probably said. He’d seen that video of the girl at the dentist going on about how she wanted to be railed by Ryan Gosling, to the great embarrassment of her mother. He knew his own mind well enough to realize what sort of thing would have been on the forefront if he were in a similar state. But as the man’s eyes lit up with what was no doubt to be a juicy fact, a nurse cut between them. The old, no-nonsense sort. Pear-shaped, short hair, and a chiseled expression of neutrality. She knew exactly what she was doing, and Stephen was grateful for that fact.
  179. “You’re lucid,” she stated.
  181. He took stock of his mind. Yup, seemed to be all in place. The memory of the last few minutes was entirely intact.
  183. With the fact confirmed, the nurse called a doctor, and wasted no time putting the practical facts to him. His clothes were in the bed-side cabinet, but he might want to get some new ones. Are these your house keys? Yes, they are. Oh, here’s your phone.
  185. Screen cracked, unresponsive.
  187. Fuck. Well, there went calling his boss and parents. At least the former would already know, and the latter didn’t really need to right now, unless the doctor was to come in with a particularly grave look on his face. He felt no bandages beneath the covers, so he figured he wasn’t heavily injured. No, better to wait with calling his parents until he was home. If he called them from the hospital, especially if he put effort into it, he’d have to talk them out of hopping onto the first flight.
  189. Frankly, he thought, it was surprising how well he was taking having been almost crushed to death.
  191. Wait… Frankly… Franky…
  193. The residual memory of musky tiger sweat came back to him. The cat had thrown herself on top of him like a giant, orange airbag. Fuck. Was she OK? She wasn’t here, obviously. But it’s not like she’d fit. Maybe at a large scale ward? He’d have to look into it. But the way she was built it wouldn’t surprise him if she’d shrugged off the concrete shower with nothing to show for it.
  195. Before he could agonize about it too much, the doctor joined them, bearing no grave look on his long face. It was more of a casual disinterest, which was positively the most angelic way a doctor could look in the ER ward.
  197. “You’re lucky to be alive,” the doc said.
  199. Real original.
  201. “I bet you get to say that a lot,” he shot back.
  203. “About once a week,” the doctor said without pause. “Is that a lot?”
  205. Stephen shrugged, and immediately regretted it, as a sharp pain shot through his body, radiating out from his midsection. He winced and sucked in air between his teeth.
  207. “You’ve got a few bruised ribs. No internal damage. Some minor scrapes on your back, arms, and legs. You were without oxygen for a while, according to the ambulance crew, but you were breathing on your own. So I’m afraid you can’t claim you died and came back to life.”
  209. “Guess I’ll have to cancel my daytime talkshow appearances,” Stephen said, refraining from shrugging or any other type of movement.
  211. The doctor lifted his casual demeanor to crack a smile.
  213. “I wouldn’t. You’re the most talkative patient we’ve had who’s been crushed by a ton of rubble.”
  215. It wasn’t rubble. It was a tiger. And she probably didn’t weigh a ton, at least not literally. Probably. But he decided to leave that in the middle, for now. He had no idea how it would go on the books for the insurance company if he wasn’t technically injured by falling rubble. Maybe it was paranoia, but he’d seen things pass his desk that put this sort of worry close to hand.
  217. Oh, the riveting life of a construction safety clerk.
  219. Wait, that was a good pun. He’d have to remember that one.
  221. Then followed more of the same, though Stephen’s mind was really only half there for it. He was shown some X-rays and scans that showed the surprising lack of damage. He was given some papers to sign, a bottle of pills, and a prescription for more. Painkillers, obviously. If he wanted to do anything more than lie on the couch without dropping to the floor and doing the excruciating pain dance, he’d be on them for a while. And even lying on the couch was iffy, depending on the couch.
  223. They offered the use of a phone, naturally, but Stephen refused. Not out of any conviction of one sort or the other, but as a true child of the modern generation he had to admit he didn’t know any number by heart. The reception desk would be happy to call a cab for him, and he could just do all the necessary calling and mailing from home.
  225. He was leaving today, wasn’t he?
  227. Yes, he was. Hospital beds are expensive, and ribs heal anywhere. They’d keep him a few hours for observation, but he’d sleep in his own bed tonight.
  229. And they did just that. He read a dog-eared magazine about interior fashion, dozed a little, and chatted with his roommate. The man’s accident had been dreadfully boring for the horrible compound fracture he’d been given in return. Just a simple slip down the stairs.
  231. Of course, Stephen went into a quarter hour monologue about the danger of stairs. Stairs were one of the biggest killers in modern society. Really, we keep an architectural feature in our houses that’s almost perfectly designed to break bones and fracture skulls if you were to toss someone down it. That’s exactly what the Aztecs did with prisoners and their monstrously steep temple stairs. No, the ideal stairs would be the opposite of Aztec stairs, with large, shallow steps.
  233. It’d take up too much room, the older man wisely interjected.
  235. But we could use playground slides, couldn’t we? Much more fun, and much safer. Sure, you can’t go up them, but that’s half the danger eliminated. Just put them next to the regular stairs.
  237. Eventually the man’s son came to the ward, helping him into a wheelchair for easy transport. As he was about to be wheeled away, their brief intersection in each other’s lives coming to an end, the man turned to him a last time.
  239. “One more thing, son. I’m guessing you’re not together with this Frank guy, but you wouldn’t stop talking about him before.” He gave a wink. “Nobody cares if you’re into fat, hairy guys. Just listen to your heart.”
  241. Stephen attempted a stuttering response, but the old guy was already out of the door before he could think of anything, waving like the queen of Britain all the way. Goodbye, then. Watch out for those stairs.
  243. Shit, what did he even say? Franky’s bulk smothering anyone was sure to leave an impression, and at the time he’d been sure it was the last thing he’d ever experience. Plus, he’d spent a decent amount of time with her ass in front of his face. He knew himself. It had crossed his mind at least once how she had the proportions of a Robert Crumb character, and Crumb was an ass man if there ever was one.
  245. Yeah, he probably talked about crawling up there like the snoid, the tiny man who loves fat asses so much that he lives in one.
  247. It was probably better not to think about it. At the very least he’d have to thank Franky for, you know, the whole saving his life business. Better to leave out any speculations about how he thought he told some random stranger he’d like to crawl up her butt, but only because that’s what his rational self thought he’d say with his inhibitions removed. It wouldn’t be a good look.
  249. Not entirely succeeding in banishing the thoughts of what his zonked out self would have wanted to do with the big tigress, Stephen buried his nose and mind in the interior decorating magazine once more. A bit of a tall order, given how far he was removed from the suggestions it offered. Who the hell would even spend that much on a rug? How come there aren’t any magazines like this for people who don’t have any money to spend? If anyone needed some smart suggestions, it was them.
  251. When he was pondering the meaning of reclaimed wood tea cabinets running into the thousands, and considering that a dedicated tea cabinet wasn’t that bad of an idea, they came to boot him out.
  253. It wasn’t quite that dramatic, but all hints of the stuff that turned him into a filthy-mouthed freak had worn off. Consequently the process of liberating himself from bed… wasn’t fun.
  255. He might have cursed a little.
  257. OK, a lot.
  259. With help of the nurse, who was thankfully built solidly enough to lean on, he eventually got it. She pulled him into some cheap sweatpants and a hoodie.
  261. Just as he was trying to guess where the spare clothing had come from, the answer revealed itself.
  263. “Thank God you’re OK.”
  265. He’d know that voice anywhere, though he’d never heard it say anything close to what it was saying now. In the door opening stood a thin, tall man with a shock of ginger hair on his head, perpetual stubble on his chin, and office casual sense of dress.
  267. Leonard Conroy. Otherwise known as ‘the boss’. Because that’s what he was.
  269. “Wow. I’m getting the royal escort.”
  271. Conroy moved to support him. “I dropped everything as soon as I got the call.”
  273. He couldn’t exactly blame the boss. The most risk any of them were ever in was of developing back pain, and not from heavy lifting, either. Maybe a papercut here and there, but honestly it’d been years since he ever heard anyone complain of one. Office workers really don’t get as many papercuts as most people think.
  275. The nurse rustled up a wheelchair, and Stephen quickly found himself sitting in it as his boss pushed him down the corridors of the hospital, a plastic bag with his own clothes sitting in his lap, the smell of pulverized concrete drifting up out of it.
  277. “I’ll drop you off at your place,” Conroy said as they moved down the sterile white corridors. “And I’m putting you on sick leave for a week. We’ll see how things go.”
  279. “I can work from home,” Stephen feebly offered, but was acutely aware of how weak he sounded.
  281. “What are they putting you on?”
  283. Stephen fumbled around for the pill bottle, read the label.
  285. “Tramadol.”
  287. Conroy laughed. “Just take the week, Stephen.”
  289. They rolled out into the parking garage, dark grays and the smells of exhaust fumes and filthy asphalt replacing the bright whites and disinfectant. Conroy’s Lexus was that sort of management vehicle that slyly tries to look subdued, with enough hints to show that it is, indeed, better than anything you can afford. But that meant the seats were comfortable, which was of the utmost importance right now.
  291. “What about the investigation?” He offered as they pulled out onto the road.
  293. “We’re putting the spotlight on this, Stephen. One of our guys getting into an accident during a safety walk is extremely embarrassing.”
  295. He thought of Franky. Would she catch any flak for this? Officially, she’d be responsible for him on the site. The construction company would be looking for a scapegoat, if he knew companies.
  297. “You’ll get a call in due time. So get a new phone, OK?”
  299. “What about my report?”
  301. Maybe it was a silly question, but he’d made a few observations there that he wouldn’t want anyone else to take any meaning from.
  303. “We found the clipboard, but the entire thing is practically unreadable. Don’t worry about it, we’re starting from scratch on this one.”
  305. They turned down the road to Stephen’s apartment. Conroy helped Stephen out and to his front door. The comfort of his home close, his mind was already wandering to thoughts of doing absolutely nothing at all. Before he closed the door, a quizzical look formed on the boss’ face.
  307. “What does ‘tail danger’ even mean, anyway?”
  309. -------------------------------------------------------------
  311. In his mind’s eye, he had pictured himself weathering his injury with dignity and practicality. What that exactly would have looked like, he didn’t know. It was more of a vague desire, to use his week’s free time to set things up in a way to make things easy for himself.
  313. However, nothing came of it. Tramadol turned out to be a real knockout drug, and Stephen found himself doing very little at all. He became well acquainted with YouTube, Netflix, and the various take-out places near him, as his already rudimentary instinct for housekeeping broke down completely. He got online with his friends, true enough, but his distant, cloudy demeanor was rather more a source of entertainment than anything else.
  315. Then there were the dreams. Weird, waking dreams, and weird, sleeping dreams. They were filled with falling rubble, the smell of dust in the air, and giant, fluffy tigresses. The dream tigresses jumping on him, smothering him beneath big bellies, breasts, and butts. One time he woke in complete clarity, the pain in his ribs gone. He cleaned his apartment in a breeze, pulled on his coat, and opened the door to step outside, only to see that before him there was only a sheer drop down. Soft, orange fur to both sides, and a giant tail swishing to and fro overhead. Then he woke up for real, sweating in his bed, morning wood mocking him from under the covers.
  317. Well, he had himself to thank for that image. Himself and Robert Crumb.
  319. It was only near the end of the week that he started looking into phones. It was hard enough to make sense of all the features, payment plans, and whatever when your brain is off floating somewhere near the ceiling. If it hadn’t been an absolute necessity he’d have put it off as easily as he did with the dishes and the laundry, but the words of the boss nagged in his mind. An investigation, and a reevaluation of his sick leave.  The pain had lessened, so maybe he could be of some use again.
  321. Thanks to the blessings of modern society the next day a delivery guy dropped off the package, within a nondescript, budget line phone he’d picked more out of randomness and need than any real interest. He made the painful decision to leave the pills be for a while, and slotted in the SIM from his previous device.
  323. As soon as he booted up, a long list of notifications rolled down the screen. He should have seen that coming. All of his app groups went on without him. But… no, he hadn’t installed his apps yet. He squinted at the icons. New e-mails were nicely condensed in their own category, but the rest had that tell-tale icon of an old fashioned telephone next to them.
  325. Missed calls.
  327. Who called people anymore? He got maybe two calls per week, on average.
  329. The feeling he’d done something wrong sneaked up on him. The opiate had been a snug blanket against the world, and without it he was suddenly reminded of such things as responsibilities and obligations. Sure enough, there were multiple calls from his boss, from his parents, friends, but also a load of numbers that didn’t ping number recognition.
  331. Maybe if they were old fashioned enough to call, they were old fashioned enough to leave voice mail.
  333. “Hello honey,” his mother’s voice chimed from the tinny speaker, “we heard there was an accident on the news. I know it’s silly to be worried, but give us a call, OK? Your aunt says hi.”
  335. The news? Of course, there had been an article somewhere saying ‘man injured in construction accident’, but those didn’t even gain traction on the internet. And his mom still read the paper.
  337. Next message.
  339. “Hey Stephen, Leonard here. I told you to get a new phone. Look, the case has blown up, so just sit tight, alright? Call me when you can.”
  341. Next message.
  343. “Hello Mr. Clover, I’m calling on behalf of the Local Bugle. We’re covering the accident you were involved in, and would be interested in interviewing you on the ordeal you went through. If you’re interested, ask for Sam Worthy. Take care.”
  345. He knew the Local Bugle. They were neither local, nor a bugle. They printed lurid tales about weird, gullible people for weird, gullible people. Stuff like how a celebrity with a rumored allergy was rumored to visit exclusively labradoodle prostitutes. How the fuck had these vultures gotten his number?
  347. It didn’t stop there, either. An impressive array of media people paraded past on his voicemail server, not even all of them total ambulance chasers. There were some real newspapers represented here, some real websites, and even a real television show.
  349. Daytime television.
  351. The more unscrupulous headline-hunters called multiple times, checking in a few days later to turn off their unresponsive target with increasingly hyperbolic language, offers of payment where there first had been the public interest, and vaguely threatening language.
  353. Christ, the boss wasn’t kidding. At least it was only the ass-end of media that no-one took seriously. Without planning or intending it he’d gone off the grid quite successfully. Maybe the entire thing had already blown over.
  355. At that moment, as he pondered the treasure trove of trash media in his hand, the phone’s standard ringtone blared through its tiny speakers with amazing volume. Stephen jumped at the sudden noise, immediately regretting it owing to the equally sudden stabbing pain in his sides, clutched at his sides in pure instinct, and immediately dropped the phone.
  357. And that thing was so new there were still stickers on it. Cursing himself, Stephen got down to floor level at the best speed he could manage. Which is to say, his grandfather would do a better job of it. Granted, the old man could get down on the floor with such alacrity that it could, and had, landed him in the hospital, whereas Stephen had taken the reverse course. But he was in luck. The screen was uncracked, and the caller persistent.
  359. Another unknown number. His first instinct was to let it ring, to remain excommunicated for another day, but the words of Conroy swam back into his memory. Investigation. Not to mention the other in-word, insurance.
  361. With a smooth motion he flicked his thumb over the phone’s screen and listened, half expecting a media vulture.
  363. “Hello? Stephen? You there?”
  365. A voice like the rolling thunder of an early autumn storm. It had a familiar growl around its edges, spoken past sharp teeth.
  367. “Franky?”
  369. “Yeah. Listen, we need to talk.”
  371. -------------------------------------------------------------
  373. With some effort he managed to locate some socially acceptable clothing, and with considerably more effort managed to pull it onto himself. Just a hoodie and jeans, of which he was sure at least one had seen a washing cycle somewhere recently. Hands thrust in pockets he fondled the pill bottle, unopened, like a talisman. It’d be there if he needed it.
  375. Franky hadn’t been talkative. No ‘how are you?’ or ‘glad you’re not dead’, just the name of an establishment. It stuck in his head as the city passed by the bus’ windows. In fact, the entire tigress had stuck in his head for a week, now. Maybe that’s why he thought there ought to have been a bit more.
  377. The bus vomited him out at his stop, in a neighborhood he normally only saw from the other side of the windows. Once, it had been the heart of the city’s blue collar population, but that time was visibly coming to an end. Modern glass facades stood tightly drawn up between rustic, unassuming brickwork, here and there oppressive concrete reminding people what efficiency looked like. Where once factory workers with flat caps would have lounged aggressively on street corners puffing on roll-ups, now stood hipsters with beards and beanies being aggressively non-offensive. They at least still smoked roll-ups, though. Away from the main streets some old-fashioned businesses still clung to a precarious half-life between their modern counterparts. Stuck away in side streets and alleys still existed unassuming dive bars, simple barbers, and the like. But even here the spectre of gentrification crept closer, as evidence by a run-down old noodle place sat across the street from its alternate reality self, loud advertisements rolling past on flatscreen billboards behind floor-to-ceiling glass.
  379. In one of those side streets an old warehouse stooped wearily between two modern buildings, unassuming aside from the garish neon sign over its giant double cargo doors. ‘Big Joe’s’ the sign read, though the ‘s’ flickered more off than on. That’s the place Franky told him to come to, and the big doors weren’t just there for nostalgia. The giants standing outside, drinking and smoking at standing tables the size of parasols, cast strange glances at him as he made his way inside. His being out of place was obvious, but it was so obvious that it couldn’t be chalked up to any sort of social unawareness. He clearly meant to be here, so they said nothing.
  381. Inside, in that typical bar gloom, his confidence left him somewhat. It was a bar writ large, everything being bigger and louder. A dozen conversations rumbled together like a freight train, glasses slammed onto tables or clinked in toasts like industrial activity. The cadence of people simply walking, let alone stamping their feet, traveled through the floorboards with a subtle vibration that made Stephen realize just how tiny he was. Subconsciously he put his arms around his aching ribs, though it would do him little good if one of these people didn’t see him and stepped back…
  383. Even as he searched the crowd for a flash of orange and black, the flash of orange and black found him. With a call and a waving arm Franky brought his attention to a table near the wall.
  385. “Squishy coming through! Watch it! Squishy coming through!”
  387. Eyes turned to him as people gingerly checked their feet. Legs like tree trunks moved aside to let him pass. Sure, it was better than tapping people on the thighs and hoping they didn’t think he was an itch, but it felt very much like being on the other side of that thing everyone does when there’s a toddler at an adult party.
  389. Franky sat casually leaning back in a battered chair, legs wide, one arm slung over the back. With the other she gestured to the opposite side of the table, a real shit-eating grin plastered on her fuzzy face. The sharp teeth made it look somewhat menacing still.
  391. “Have a seat.”
  393. There stood not an upsized normal chair, but a straight-from-the-beach lifeguard chair. Turns out they’re just the right size to let a ‘squishy’ sit at the table. Give it its own, little table and the toddler theme could continue.
  395. Forgetting himself, Stephen took hold of the rungs and made to pull himself up, winced, cursed, and nearly doubled over at the stabbing pain in his sides. God damnit. Of course he can’t climb a ladder. What was he thinking?
  397. “You OK?” Franky said with a casual form of concern.
  399. “My ribs are fucked.” He glanced up at the impossible height. “I’m going to need a hand.”
  401. That was the literal description, as it turned out. Franky just scooped him up, carefully, with both shovel-sized hands, depositing him in the chair with only a brief stab of pain.
  403. Yeah, she looked incredibly pleased with herself as she put her fat ass back down in her own chair, predatory eyes twinkling with mischief, whiskers splayed proudly wide, the tip of her knock-out tail swaying behind her back.
  405. With no hardhat to obscure it he could see she had a haphazardly cut head of hair, though it seemed more an outgrowth of thick fur battered into submission, continuing the pattern of her pelt in an unintentional display of avant garde fashion. That was really the only bit of fashion about her, because otherwise she was unapologetically the opposite of fashionable, wearing a baggy T-shirt with a faded print that did nothing to flatter anything while also not hiding her belly or…
  407. Tits.
  409. They were pretty big, Stephen noticed. Hey, it’s the male gaze, he couldn’t really blame himself. And not just big in the absolute sense, which they absolutely were, but also in the relative sense. For her size, Franky was well endowed, her bust being just as robust as the rest of her.
  411. Jesus, Stephen, get a grip. First you’re checking out her ass, and now her breasts? This woman could bend you into a pretzel and then eat you like one. He might go well with the barrel of beer she’d worked half her way through.
  413. “You look like shit warmed over.” Franky said.
  415. “Glad to see you’re doing well, too. I was kinda worried.”
  417. She bellowed out a burst of laughter. “It’ll take more than a few pebbles.”
  419. “Thanks, by the way. For saving my life and all.”
  421. “Nah,” she waved away the accusation with a meaty paw, “you were just in the way, is all.”
  423. “In that case, fuck you for crushing me.”
  425. She seemed to appreciate that.
  427. “So how’s it feel to be dead?” she asked.
  429. Wait. What?
  431. “You’re going to have to explain that one to me.”
  433. “Haven’t been keeping up with the news?”
  435. “Uh, no?” He attempted a moderate shrug, but didn’t feel like he got it across. “I’ve been high off my ass on painkillers, and my phone was busted. Still is. I got a new one. Anyway, I had a dozen missed calls from journalists.”
  437. Her black lips curled into a grimace. “Guess that explains it.”
  439. From a pocket she fished a phone, or rather a tablet that looked like a phone in her hands. She stabbed a finger at the screen a few times and turned it to him. Corralled between bands of bottom feeder advertisements and the very latest celebrity gossip was a thick and flashy headline:
  441. ‘Crushing news: Construction behemoths kill safety inspector.’
  443. The Local fucking Bugle. He hadn’t picked up the phone, and that’d been enough for them. That wasn’t the only thing, either. A quick glance at the body of the article revealed lurid, and entirely made up, details about an anti-human conspiracy among the large scale workers.
  445. “Nobody takes that shit seriously,” he said more for his own benefit than anything, then thought of something that would benefit him more. “I need a beer.”
  447. As he turned to search the room for a server he found his senses jarred by the perspective. It wasn’t like he had truly forgotten where he was, but the autopilot part of his brain had taken him sitting at a table as a sign that everything had returned to normal. It hadn’t, and that part did responded to that revelation by inducing a spike of vertigo. Not enough to make the room spin, but it definitely moved by a few degrees.
  449. The problem was, Stephen decided, the deceptive normalness of everything now he was up high. The barkeep tapped a glass, and the way the beer gushed from the tap just didn’t look quite right, just as the foam collar it formed didn’t look quite right. Without any other frame of reference, such as a normal sized person, these were the only things that hinted at the fact that the bar was actually large enough that you could rent out the cupboards as student housing.
  451. Did everything look like this for them, too? The entire world a delicate dollhouse? Or did the brain stop jolting itself after enough exposure?
  453. Having refrained from flagging down anyone, a waitress came over anyway. Then again, he could see her coming from across the room, and he was pretty sure she’d seen him, too. Because she was a giraffe, slender neck reaching out even above most of the giants in this place. She probably never went to the movies, but she was born for a job like this.
  455. “Hey Franky!” the giraffe girl gave a cheery greeting from on high.
  457. Figures. This place might as well be a small town bar, with its select clientele.
  459. “Zoe. Looking good.” Franky flashed her a toothy smile. Was she capable of giving a normal smile, or did they all look like she was about to pounce? She held up the barrel-sized glass, which had somehow become empty while he wasn’t watching. “I’ll take another one, and one for my tiny buddy.”
  461. It was understood he’d also be drinking from a tiny glass, he hoped. After a week of no drinking and bad food he wasn’t particularly in the mood to level the big guns at his liver quite yet.
  463. “What about the other papers?” he asked once the waitress had left.
  465. “Eh…” The tigress shrugged her broad shoulders. “Same bullshit, kinder words. They’re just guessing, and they’re guessing wrong.”
  467. “But you didn’t call me over just to talk about the news, right?” It seemed pretty obvious to him. Even though it was slightly paranoid, if the more unscrupulous journalists could in some way eavesdrop on his phone, they would.
  469. She leaned back with a deliberate slowness, the wood of the chair creaking like an old house in winter. “This shit’s hurting people. Good people, not just me. They’re spinning this into being about all of us, big people I mean. Guys’ve been put on half hours already, union won’t stand up for us.”
  471. “But that’s all nonsense. No serious paper would print it.” He hoped he was right in having that much faith in the media. No doubt it was only contained to tabloids and agitator websites. “Besides, the investigation isn’t even looking into large scale workers. As far as they’re concerned rocks fell, nobody died.”
  473. “You know who gives a fuck about the investigation? No-one.” The growl in Franky’s voice grew as she spat the words, whiskers bristling. “And the ‘serious’ newspapers just use it as a reason to talk about the shit they really want to talk about.”
  475. She was scary when angry, but at least she looked kind of cute doing air quotes.
  477. “And what’s that?” she continued. “Big folk doing jobs little folk can’t, big folk earning more, and this bullshit pseudo-scientific, Freudian glorification of machine power as if introducing a collection of designers, mechanics, trainers, drivers and shit doesn’t add way more opportunity for failure!” She simmered down to a grumble. “I swear, there are people taking kickbacks from CAT.”
  479. Zoe the giraffe returned with their drinks, placing another pool’s worth of beer under Franky’s nose, while thankfully giving Stephen something more manageable. Still a larger glass than he was used to from any regular bar, but he’d soldier his way through it somehow.
  481. The interruption left Franky to stare sullenly at her glass for a while. Where first her whiskers had bristled fiercely, they now hung limp. Even the black and white stripes on her face seemed to accentuate a more contemplative expression. Her eyes flicked up at him, and for a moment she seemed more kitten than tigress before they returned to their previous hardness.
  483. “I got kinda carried away. You’re pretty easy to talk to, you know that?”
  485. In fact, he did know that, because people had said it before. Instead of saying that, he just answered “Thanks.”
  487. “Thing I wanted to ask is, it’d be nice if you could do… something.”
  489. For the moment Stephen hid behind his glass, taking a generous swig of generic pilsner. The first beer since the accident. He feared the favor Franky was about to ask, and he feared whether he’d be able to refuse.
  491. “What were you thinking of?”
  493. “You said they tried calling you, yeah?”
  495. He nodded.
  497. “So do an interview, tell ‘em what you just told me. That we’re not even on the radar.”
  499. Yeah, that was what he was expecting.
  501. “The investigation is still going. Going to the media about that… I might as well climb onto my boss’ desk and piss in his face.” He tried to sound as apologetic as possible, but the beer was hitting him with unexpected confidence. “Besides, it’s giving them exactly what they want. Accidents happen, we investigate, improve, and the media never gives a shit.”
  503. It’s not like accidents in construction were particularly rare, least of all with things falling down. Though, most of the time that was the workers themselves. Falling from great heights was the leading cause of death among construction workers, and it had nothing to do with their size or animal nature.
  505. On the other side of the table Franky grumbled, shifting in her chair to creaking protest. Under the need for action, he figured, she realized he was right. Her slouch was oddly photogenic, making her appear like an understated, ill-kempt, furred Venus. That is, until she idly scratched her big belly.
  507. Or maybe that was just the beer talking. Boy, it packed a punch.
  509. “What if they don’t stop?” she growled. “What if your investigation says I crushed you, and they just cherry-pick that?”
  511. He shrugged, and didn’t regret it quite as much as before. Thanks, beer. “Then I’ll come out and say they’re full of shit. The company will, too. We could even hit them with a lawsuit.”
  513. “Union won’t pay for it,” she said, washing the acidity in her voice down with a swig.
  515. “What’s this with the union?”
  517. Those yellow eyes hardened. “Officially, we do construction equipment work. Some work-around to make sure we get enough pay to eat, but now some bastard got it into his head that means we fall outside regular union representation.”
  519. Stephen didn’t say anything. It sucked, but he knew nothing about how the union worked.
  521. “There’s always been people gunning for our jobs,” Franky continued to fill the silence. “It’s not like we can go work in a fucking office pushing pencils or something…”
  523. Those yellow eyes regarded him from behind a giant glass of beer. “No offense.”
  525. “None taken.”
  527. It made sense. People her size were, what, 3% of the population? 3% that needed special… everything. Clothes, transport, services… bars. And, naturally, jobs. It hadn’t been too difficult in the past, but in modern society construction was one of the few places left where they could leverage their size. Consequently they were massively over represented in the construction business, hence his safety evaluation in the first place. That, the military, heavy industry, and beyond that you had to look at specialist jobs. Of course, Franky wasn’t being completely honest: They could just get an office job. With a regular office salary having to pay for all those specialized services, not to mention the food. Shit, the beer Franky was working her way through was already a good night out for most people.
  529. With that in the back of his mind, he could understand her concern.
  531. “It’ll be fine. Some bottom feeding ambulance chasers or some cunt in the union aren’t going to make you less essential.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arms and caught himself letting out a laugh. “What are they going to do? Buy a bunch of machines, train the people to use them, do that at higher cost? In a world of emission standards an anti-discrimination laws? It’s just not going to happen.”
  533. He could feel a fuzzy mellowness radiate off Franky and felt a deep sense of satisfaction at that. Beer always made him a little more willing to put the truth out there. Yeah, she seemed positively like a soft plush animal, now. One he wouldn’t mind snuggling up to.
  535. Wow, where did that come from? Damnit, Stephen. Though, the world did seem to have a softer hue around him. Was the beer really hitting him this hard after a week of no drinking?
  537. “I guess you’re right. So we just do nothing? Wait it out?”
  539. “Yeah,” he nodded, feeling like a bobblehead. “We can always do something later.”
  541. “We should keep in touch.”
  543. Yes! Yes we should!
  545. “That’s sensible.”
  547. He looked at the glass in his hand. He’d only drunk half of it, but he’d had enough. In fact, the world seemed to swim before him as if he were looking out into it from an aquarium, his limbs having a watery weightlessness to them.
  549. “Maybe I need to go,” he said. “I feel kinda woozy.”
  551. Franky arched an eyebrow, big fuzzy face leaning closer to examine him, cocking her head slightly. She looked him in the eyes, then smiled.
  553. “You on painpills?”
  555. “Yeah.” Was his voice slurring? He couldn’t tell. “But I didn’t take any today. Except for one in the morning.”
  557. Did Franky take a lot of regular pills, or did she use giant pills?
  559. “Maybe you’re a little extra sensitive. It happens.” The tigress gulped down the rest of her beer and slammed the empty glass onto the table with a startling boom. “I’ll help you down.”
  561. It’s not like he could have gotten down on his own, anyhow. Not without performing the graceful move of falling onto his face.
  563. Standing on his feet, he realized he’d made the right call. While the floorboards had the look of well worn wood, they felt more like rubber under his feet. In fact, his legs felt like rubber, but at least still a stiff sort of rubber. He remained standing.
  565. Behind and above him Franky bellowed his war cry.
  567. “Squishy coming through!”
  569. With all the confidence he could wring out of his rubbery legs Stephen stumbled forward, and immediately had the world disappoint him. What he could only perceive as a blur, a big blur, came from the forest of legs around him and slammed into his side. The pain was immediate, as was the momentum. He made a cursory attempt at keeping his legs under him, but it really only were his instincts trying to do something for the sheer hell of it. He hit the floor, slid, rolled, and came to a stop.
  571. The very first thing he noticed was the pain. He’d noticed it when he’d been hit, but it were now fiery streaks down his sides, so it was perfectly acceptable to notice it again. The second thing he noticed was that the din of the establishment around him dropped to silence, only to pick up again shortly after in a very localized way.
  573. Franky, not exactly dainty at the best of time, growling, hissing, and spitting at a hapless looking moose man. A low, rumbling sound like rolling thunder in which he could only barely make out words.
  575. “Are you fucking deaf? You fucking idiot, you could have killed him. You fixin’ to go to jail? You want this place closed down?”
  577. Her fur stood on end, eyes ablaze, ears flat. Sharp teeth flashed like knives. With a final growl she shoved the moose back, arms like industrial pistons slamming into the guy’s shoulders with a thunderclap. Immediately she seemed to forget about the moose and turned to Stephen, motioning others away from around him.
  579. “You OK?”
  581. “Been better,” he said through gritted teeth.
  583. Before he could fully grasp what was going on he felt the touch of coarse fur, powerful arms lifting him from the ground. She didn’t set him on his feet, rather cradling him like a child. And he was perfectly OK with that, given the combination of the world feeling like a bouncy castle and his ribs feeling like a portal to hell. When he realized that the soft cushion he was resting against was one of Franky’s breasts… well, he’d agonize later on how he was supposed to feel about it, but for the moment he wasn’t complaining. Being this close to her he caught a familiar, musky scent.
  585. “I do mean it, you know,” he spoke up to her as she carried him to the door.
  587. She gave a grunt with a question mark at the end.
  589. “I really would’ve been dead without you. I’ll tell everyone who wants to hear.”
  591. “And now I almost got you killed. We’re even.”
  593. “No, we’re not.” He smiled. “You still owe me lunch.”
  595. She returned the smile. “When this shit blows over, I’ll fucking wine and dine you.”
  597. That seemed nice. He wouldn’t mind being wined and dined, even by a tigress who probably wasn’t being entirely serious about it.
  599. As they exited the warm rays of the sun reached down to blind Stephen, his eyes still used to the dim interior of Big Joe’s. This was symbolic for rebirth, wasn’t it? Being carried out of the womb into the gentle, yet overwhelming light of the world. He could hope, couldn’t he?
  601. The answer came in the form of the sound cue of a digital camera, then several more.
  603. Across the alleyway stood a man, just a guy, with a too-large camera, wearing a leather jacket he had a bit too much pudge for, and too much stubble for his pudge. But the smile, the mirthful eyes above it squinting at them, spoke the true story.
  605. A story that’d be in print tonight, and in the racks tomorrow.
  607. -------------------------------------------------------------
  609. “Do you have anything useful to say about this?”
  611. Conroy’s voice was shocking to Stephen, even with his low expectations of the day, the baleful tone hitting somewhere in the middle between dour preacher and disappointed dad. That wasn’t enough drama for him, and he tossed the paper onto the empty conference table between them with a frisbee flourish. The paper landed with a slap, skidded down the length of the table and promptly cleared the edge to land in a crumpled heap at Stephen’s feet.
  613. Goddamnit, Stephen thought as he started the laborious process of stooping to pick it up. There was no way the boss didn’t do that on purpose. The ginger bastard had a mean villain routine, he’d have to hand him that.
  615. He knew exactly what would be staring back at him from the front page, under the stylized image of an oldschool mailman’s trumpet. There he was, like a rag doll in Franky’s arms with the opioid-alcohol haze blearing his face into a clueless expression. Franky bared her teeth in an unflattering, lop-sided snarl, clearly having noticed the cameraman. Crammed into the free space above them, and running down the right side of the page, shone the headline of the day in bold, shouting typesetting.
  617. ‘Construction conspiracy! Victim found in arms of brute!’
  619. He had plenty of time to take in this glorious scene on his way back up to a standing position. The skeezy journo had clearly landed with his nose in the butter thanks to him being an accidental drug fiend. He was probably gunning for a shot of the two of them just together. Instead, here he was nestled snugly against Franky’s breast.
  621. “It’s all bullshit, you know.” He slapped the tabloid down on the table, hard, to drive the point home. He wasn’t about to let Conroy be the only one to screw open the drama tap.
  623. The boss shook his head and turned to stare out the window, hands folded behind his back.
  625. “It doesn’t matter if it’s bullshit or not. You’re together with her, in public.” He shot a glance over his shoulder. “Normally this is where I’d say you might as well be holding hands, but you’re already at second base. What the hell were you even doing there?”
  627. “Jesus, boss. Just because we’re calling it an investigation doesn’t mean we’re the cops. There are no rules about who I get to hang out with. We weren’t getting our stories straight like some…” his glance drifted to the tabloid headline silently shouting at him from the table, “… some conspiracy.”
  629. “What else are people supposed to think?” Conroy spoke to the pane of glass. “You just struck up a friendship in a morning of work?”
  631. Stephen sighed. “She saved my life, boss. The fuck was I supposed to say?”
  633. Conroy whipped around to face him. It was an odd motion for a man as tall and thin as he was. His drama would probably have been better served by something more slow and deliberate.
  634. “You never told me about that.”
  636. It was true. He hadn’t. But the accusation still made Stephen take a mental step back due to the implied expectation behind the boss’ clipped tone.
  638. “It didn’t come up between having my ribs busted and taking up a drug habit.”
  640. The boss’ eyes narrowed into inquisitive slits. “You broke your ribs because of her, didn’t you?”
  642. “Bruised. And I think so. One moment I’m thinking I’m going to die, the next I’m stuck under half a ton of tigress.”
  644. She had to weigh around half a ton, right? Biggest tiger he’d ever seen.
  646. “It’s good for me to know these things, Stephen.”
  648. Stephen wasn’t a fan of the thing where people used his name in an otherwise normal sentence, but Conroy seemed to look past him, over his shoulder, into empty air. Maybe the guy was just feeling paternalistic. Stephen hadn’t stopped to think how almost losing an employee would look to him. After all, they weren’t the cops or anything.
  650. “I’ll tell the team the full story.” His gaze fell onto the tabloid again, Franky’s angry eyes staring straight at him. “How have people been reacting to the news? Officially, I mean.”
  652. The boss shrugged. A nice, full shrug that Stephen instantly felt jealous of. “As little as possible.”
  654. “Nobody is scaling back large scale workers’ hours?”
  656. Might as well get it out there. There was a moment of silence.
  658. “Nothing official. Part of the site is shut down for the investigation,” Conroy finally said. “Did she tell you that?”
  660. “It came up. I can’t really blame them for the suspicion.”
  662. He was already running a safety evaluation specifically of large scale workers. And he did jot down an infraction when Franky lowered those pipes into the trench. That’s not something that would fall onto the backs of the workers themselves, but not everyone saw it that way. Or wanted to see it that way. There was a long history of division between the bigger people, and just regular folks. The elephant in the room was… well, a saying that didn’t just fall from the sky. The physical threat was real, as he’d experienced recently. Just that possibility made people feel insecure. And insecure people say and do stupid things.
  664. That, too, he had plenty of experience with.
  666. There was the light rap of a politeness knock. The sort that announces entry, rather than requesting it. The door opened with apologetic slowness, then a young woman’s curious face gave a decent Killroy impression through the crack, preceding the rest of her into the room. Shyness and authority made odd bedfellows.
  668. The investigator. If Conroy had any more to say about the subject he certainly wasn’t going to do it in front of her.
  670. “I’ll leave you to it, then,” The boss said, snatching the Local Bugle from the table as he went.
  672. Thank fuck for that. If he really wanted to be a bastard, he could have left it to be a millstone around his neck.
  674. The young woman regarded him for a little too long with large, watery eyes before extending a hand in greeting. He more grasped than shook it as they exchanged names. Hers was Karen. Then followed the brief ritual of empathy over his unfortunate situation, with the central point that it must have been quite scary indeed. Stephen confirmed this. Indeed, it was. He neglected to mention that most of that fear had really come moments later, having found himself to be ill equipped to give the proper reaction in the moment itself.
  676. Introductions over, they both settled in chairs. Karen asked him to recount the events of that day, and he did. He went over his job, meeting Franky, sitting by the side of trench as she dug. With everything that had followed it seemed like a lifetime ago. Then the falling rubble, how he’d felt stuck, unable to move despite knowing what was happening, and how his last memory before waking up in a hospital bed had been Franky’s bulk over him, shielding him from the deluge. Karen duly made notes on a tablet, only acknowledging him with small nods. Her phone was on the table between them, recording everything they said.
  678. A round of questions followed. Had he seen anything unusual? Had they broken any rules? Was he under influence? No, no, no.
  680. “How did you get injured?”
  682. Stephen snapped out of the trance recounting the events had put him in. His cadence broken he looked at Karen for a second with an expression he was sure must have been utterly morose. She simply looked back, big eyes unmoving, the corners of her mouth set in a conservative attempt at an encouraging smile.
  684. “I… I think it must have been Franky.” He had to tease the words from his brain. There was just something wrong about implying her.
  686. “That’s the large scale worker you were evaluating, correct?”
  688. Leading question. A wrinkle in her routine. But she wasn’t wrong, so he simply nodded. In response she flicked her eyes from him to the phone on the table.
  690. Right.
  692. “Yes,” he said, “we were going to have lunch together.”
  694. Franky still owed him that lunch. Maybe he should hassle her over that. It’d be nice to be able to thank her properly, once this nonsense was over with.
  696. “Can you go into more detail?”
  698. “Not really? She jumped on top of me, knocked me to the ground.” That was right. It was weird, but he had no recollection of falling down. Just the shower of rubble at one moment, being smothered by a tigress the next. No memory of pain, either. He probably passed out before he’d run out of the shot of sweet adrenaline rationed to him by evolution. “She’s heavy. I guess it’s kind of like getting hit by a truck, except the truck also saves your life. And the truck is soft. And I have no idea how much rubble was weighing us both down.”
  700. Karen pecked at the tablet with her fingers.
  702. “That’s all,” she said, then tapped the screen of the phone as well.
  704. Just as she had entered the room in as inoffensive a way as possible, Karen left. It was the absence of the careless noise of regular life that was off about her, Stephen decided. No snapping of covers or rattling of clutter as she placed her devices in her bag, nor any audible footsteps on the carpeted floor. Even the way she wished him a speedy recovery was as generic as an automated email, forgotten by the time she stepped through a door opened only far enough to admit her.
  706. Was it all calculated? Stephen thought about the matter as he made his own, slower way out. She’d dodged any chance of lingering small talk with an efficiency that had to be calculated.
  708. It was a lesson worth learning from, though. After a week of absence his fellow office stiffs had been eager to poke and prod him with questions, commiserations, and advice. There were some shared experiences about being knocked out by painkillers which was fine enough, and even before hearing it he’d decided he wasn’t ever going to rub stinking eucalyptus lotion on his sides. Maybe some people would think it speciesist, but he was sure Bruce only said it because he was a goddamn koala in the first place. But the cover of the Bugle lingered over his head like the time bomb of Damocles. The more time passed, the greater the likelihood that someone would want to be funny about it.
  710. So he moved silently, hugging walls, ducking behind cabinets, steering clear of familiar voices, and pretending not to see familiar faces all the way to Conroy’s office. Every rule had an exception, after all.
  712. The days of opulent offices were long gone. Conroy’s office was nothing more than a regular work room with a regular desk and a nameplate beside the door. The only thing out of place was the colorful cover of the Bugle glaring at him from the desk, a spot of color in the muted office gray. The boss was on the phone, but he waved him in all the same. The look on his face was the reason video phones had remained a thing of science fiction. Clearly the person on the other line was not a welcome caller.
  714. “… I advise you to get into contact with our PR department. The number’s on our site. If you’ll excuse me, an important appointment just arrived. Goodbye. Thank you.”
  716. He pointedly tapped the call from his screen.
  718. “We don’t have a PR department,” Stephen said.
  720. “They’ll find some poor idiot to fill the role.” Conroy affected a cold smile.
  722. “Press?”
  724. “You got it.” He leaned forward on his desk. “There’s blood in the water. Usually we get away with a little page 3 article, if even that. Even when there’s a fatality. But if there’s one thing the regular media hates, it’s the fringe media screwing them out of a scoop.”
  726. Stephen invited himself to the cushioned seat of the chair opposite the desk.
  728. “What, haven’t they been calling you?” the boss said.
  730. That was a good question. Stephen fished his new, cheap, possibly crap phone out of his pocket and swept the screen into life.
  732. “11 missed calls. I’m guessing most of those are press.”
  734. He barely even noticed the buzz of the phone any more. That had nothing to do with recent events, and altogether more with meme-happy friends, but it certainly made the recent events easier to ignore.
  736. “You don’t pick them up or call back?”
  738. “If I were in the mood for masochism, I’d just ask someone to tickle me. Besides,” now it was Stephen’s turn to affect a cold smile, “I’ve set my voicemail to say I can only talk as an employee of the company.”
  740. “You’re a pain in the ass, Stephen.” The words were harsh, but the tone was not. “But that’s the right way to go about it. How did the interview go?”
  742. “It was an interview. She asked questions, I answered them.”
  744. “That’s good. I was worried it might be… difficult for you.”
  746. Stephen laughed, then winced. He gathered himself. “Come on, boss. It’s not like I just got back from war. Things could have gone a lot worse, but I lucked out. Have you ever been on the road, and you did something stupid, but another driver saved the situation?”
  748. Let’s be real, Conroy was a middle-aged man who’d always been able to afford nice cars. He’d been in situations like that more than once, Stephen was sure of it. The boss confirmed it with a short, self-conscious nod.
  750. “It’s kind of like that. If Franky hadn’t been there, we’d be having this conversation in the hospital,” or the graveyard, “but she was there.”
  752. “About that…” The boss plucked the issue of the Local Bugle from his desk to let his eyes pass over it with an idle glance. “If they’re calling us, I’m sure they’re calling her as well.”
  754. “I don’t think she’ll want to talk to them anymore than we do.”
  756. Franky didn’t strike him as the person to trust the media, especially not when the media were taking a big dump on her and people like her.
  758. “You didn’t think when you talked, but…” Conroy waggled the limp tabloid at him, “…her name and face are out there, now. This trash is making all sorts of claims, and the real papers calling her are going to wave their legitimacy around. I’m not saying it’s a given she’s going to take an offer, but it’s possible.”
  760. He couldn’t see it happen with the Franky he’d met at Big Joe’s, but only one honey-tongued journalist needed to penetrate that hard, tough exterior. All the worries that were swirling through his head about the entire thing were surely much greater with her. After all, he had the entire company around him to deflect everything on. What did she have? The Union? No, she was facing this shit alone.
  762. “We agreed to stay in contact.” It was time to come clean. “And she… might have asked me to clear things up with the media.”
  764. “Oh?” Conroy just looked at him, letting the tabloid drop from his grasp like a piece of refuse.
  766. “I told her I couldn’t, but,” he gestured to the crumpled paper in front of the boss, “we’re on the cover together, now.”
  768. “You sure are.”
  770. “What I’m saying is, the company is going to have to say something sometime, right?”
  772. Conroy nodded.
  774. “I think we should get Franky in on it. We get it out there she saved my life, drown the crazy suspicions in feelgood, make large scale workers look good, and keep control of the situation.”
  776. “That way she won’t feel like she needs to seek out the media on her own,” the boss finally said. “And you get to reciprocate her heroism. Smart.”
  778. Stephen liked to think he wasn’t that calculating and callous, but took the compliment as Conroy leaned back in his chair, seeming to mull the proposal over. Ah shit, what if he was going to say no? It was a matter of boring, office honor, and he still owed her.
  780. “I’ll put out some feelers about the media response. You call her and say we’re looking into it. Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.”
  782. Thank fuck for that.
  784. -------------------------------------------------------------
  786. The construction site was as loud as ever, and the hardhat as wobbly. He was beginning to think they were supposed to wobble. He’d gotten a weird look on showing up, but a few quick words about being here for the investigation and the fact that Franky had made it known she was expecting someone made his entry as matter-of-factly as it could be, considering the circumstances.
  788. Even the pneumatic drill was at it again, and he found himself involuntarily reaching for his sensitive side with every pounding blast like a veteran at a fireworks display. He looked up before passing by the towering concrete facades of the building-to-be, the rumble of falling debris playing somewhere in the back of his mind. If it weren’t ten to five on a Friday there might be more eyeballs on the skittish guy crossing the ground, but most people’s thoughts were already on the weekend.
  790. Every morning he came to work he’d feared Conroy was going to slap another issue of the Local Bugle onto his desk. It hadn’t happened, though. Sure, there were a few more respectable newspapers speculating about the issue with opinion pieces, columns, and one or two articles of actual journalism, but their nuance just didn’t give as damning a sound when it hit a surface. And more importantly, none of them felt the need to put unflattering pictures of him on the cover. Or anywhere.
  792. The last time he’d seen Franky she’d been surrounded by people her size, and furniture to fit them. On the site, however, she was easy to spot, lumbering around regular sized colleagues with a careful, pondering deliberateness much like how Goliath must have marched with the Philistines. In her arms she carried tarp-wrapped bundles, enough to fill a pickup’s bed, to a waiting truck. Clean-up before the weekend, he guessed.
  794. The truck rocked as she deposited her load. Like a toy, his mind wanted to say, but that was wrong. It rocked like a full size truck. As she turned he could see her luminous eyes flash. They passed over him, and the recognition was obvious.
  796. “Ya made it,” she said in her now-familiar rumble.
  798. “Did you expect I wouldn’t?”
  800. “Thought you might’ve bumped into someone again.” A lop-sided grin bared one finger-long fang. “Maybe drank a beer.”
  802. Oh, he had something to fire back with.
  804. “Maybe end up under another tiger?”
  806. She barked a laugh with a woodsaw purr. “Don’t go making me jealous, now.”
  808. “I… wouldn’t dream of it.”
  810. Considering the joke war won, Franky turned to the other workers and shouted that she was clocking out.
  812. “Let’s go,” she said, and set off.
  814. She was three strides ahead of him before she remembered his much, much shorter legs and let up her pace.
  816. “Why even meet up here?” Stephen asked when he caught up. “Was there something you wanted to show me?”
  818. “There’s something I wanted to not show you.” A quick glance up past her bulk confirmed a smug look that said she was proud of her play on words. “Look around, what do you not see?”
  820. Tricky question, Franky. There was quite a lot Stephen didn’t see. No leprechauns, dinosaurs, or robots.
  822. “Why don’t you just tell me?”
  824. “No journalists!” she rumbled, sweeping both arms through the air to encompass the entire site, stirring the air as she did so. He could feel the hardhat wobble.
  826. Yeah, it made sense. No unauthorized personnel allowed. Construction sites were guarded against people trying to sneak onto the grounds to steal equipment or material, so some slimy fence-hopping paparazzo wasn’t going to have an easy time. And no real newspaper or program had the stomach for the risk of looking like an idiot over the lawsuit they could possibly get nailed to their asses.
  828. Not to mention the guts someone would have to possess to confront monsters like Franky and her co-workers on their own turf.
  830. “I’m assuming we’re not actually going to hang out here?”
  832. “I guess you are.”
  834. OK, she was getting carried away with these words games.
  836. “Damnit, you know what I mean. You want me to start calling you Frank again?”
  838. “Sure thing, Stephy.” Her menacing grin now bared both fangs, and all her other sharp teeth to boot.
  840. “I can take it, Frank my boy,” he shot back with a grin just as wide, though not as sharp. “Nobody’s going to take it seriously. But you’re already big and hairy. You look like Frank might just be your real name. In fact!” He thrust a pointing finger up to her. “I already thought it was your real name!”
  842. He let the accusation hang for a while. When he sensed she was about to return fire, it was time for the good news.
  844. “Besides, the boss said we might get to clear things up with the media. Wouldn’t want me to make a little mistake when relaying your name, now would you?”
  846. Now was the time to bask in his own smugness, as his words had robbed the tigress of whatever glib, coarse comeback she was cooking up.
  848. “Are you serious?” Franky stopped in her tracks, the cool, detached facade suddenly broken. She registered surprise with large, round eyes. A total transformation from Franky the cynic.
  850. Stephen took the opportunity to show off a modest shrug, giving himself only a slight stab of pain. Christ, he was glad to have the ability returned to him.
  852. “No guarantees. The company’s going to get the story straight at one point or another. But I asked the boss if we could get our story out ourselves.”
  854. He must have blinked. She always moved with so much purpose he’d allowed himself to forget that she was actually built for speed and grace. Well, she was also a bit fat. That also contributed to the image. At one moment Franky was towering over him like the pillar of strength she was, despite the innocent eyes she was throwing. The next she’d gone to her haunches, bringing them almost face to face.
  856. Black-bordered gold stared at him, starting the hairs on the back of his neck on end, despite the disarming expression Franky gave a good attempt at. Was it his pesky lizard brain, or a more developed self-consciousness? It wasn’t just the eyes, either. The hypnotic striping, so strangely extravagant for camouflage. The side-burns, so fluffy. The large nose of an apex feline with, he now noticed for the first time, a funny black spot, just right of center.
  858. “Um…” He really didn’t know what to say.
  860. “Thanks,” She said, in a supersized mewl. Her eyes darted briefly, as if she was aware how her stare stripped him to the essence. For the first time he noticed her eyelashes, those of a CGI-assisted model, almost a mockery of anyone who’d think her scary from a distance. “I’m kinda shit at this, but I mean it.”
  862. “It’s the least I could have done,” Stephen managed.
  864. With a delicate motion she put her hand on his shoulder. Or rather, she took his shoulder in her hand, the weight pressing down. She gave a light squeeze that felt like half a hug. A real hug could break him.
  866. “You still did it. I’ll buy you a drink.” She rose again, casting a long shadow in the waning afternoon light. “If you can handle it, this time.”
  868. “I can.”
  870. He could.
  872. They resumed their pace, and it was obvious where Franky was taking him. Next to a large scale sized construction trailer, with large scale workers milling about, stood several trucks parked on the packed sand. Big ones, with double axles, meant to move heavy loads. These had no normal beds, but instead tall superstructures with obvious, and large, windows.
  874. “Safety guy’s back!” One granite voice called, belonging to an elephant spewing smoke from his trunk. Eyes stuck in a wizened, wrinkled face flitted from him to Franky. His lashes, Stephen now noticed, were even more luscious than Franky’s. “Riding the tiger through all this bullshit, huh?”
  876. “You need to work on your material.” Franky punched his shoulder with a blow that reverberated through the ground. He laughed it off and took another drag.
  878. “Sounds like you have shit taste in newspapers,” Stephen said to the elephant.
  880. A gleam shone in the man’s eyes.
  882. “We’ve got the picture up in the trailer. They got ya real good.”
  884. Stephen looked up at Franky. She looked back down and confirmed it with a suffering smile.
  886. “We can’t all be famous. We’ll remember you when the big bucks start rolling in.”
  888. That elicited a chuckle. One that sounded like a landslide.
  890. “Name’s Stephen, by the way.” He held out his hand.
  892. The elephant reached down to shake, putting the tip of his trunk between Stephen’s fingers.
  894. “Roderick. You can cut the crap about what kind of name that is for a pachyderm and just call me Rod.”
  895. With the ice broken the two giants proceeded to exchange jargon about the day’s work that Stephen really only half understood. Before long calls went out to board the trucks. Something much like a set of kitchen steps gave hope there were provisions for his regular sized self, but inside he only saw rows of giant seats with only enough room between them for the workers ahead of him to struggle through.
  897. “Uh, Franky?”
  899. “I’ll help ya.”
  901. Before he had time to question the situation further he felt padded palms and fingers close around him and raise him up. She deposited him on the window seat. Standing, he could look out over the site’s rough, sandy surface, carved by wind and machinery, puddles gleaming luminescent in the low sun.
  902. The view was robbed from him when the world shook beneath him. He bounced down on the soft seat, instinctively rolling to fall on his good side with a short, sharp curse.
  904. “Ah shit, I’m sorry.”
  906. Franky had seated herself with all the grace of a construction worker at five on a Friday. That is, letting gravity do all the work.
  908. “It’s OK.” He said, seating himself properly. With his back against the backrest his feet didn’t even reach over the edge of the seat. At least reaching not even a quarter the expected weight meant that what would be barely adequate for Franky was, for him, the softness of an expensive mattress.
  910. The final punctuation to the strange situation of being a lilliputian came when Franky reached over his head, pulled down the safety belt, and rammed the buckle home like joining two train cars. A thick cummerbund stretched over his stomach, pressing down uncomfortably.
  912. He looked at Franky.
  914. “This is ridiculous,” he said.
  916. A sly smile spread across her face. Really sly. The sort that reaches the eyes by means of the corners of the mouth. Then she kicked home a sports bag in the place he wasn’t using to keep his legs.
  918. “Welcome in my world, squishy.”
  920. Point taken.
  922. “Are we going to Big Joe’s?”
  924. “Where else?”
  926. If he had anything else to say, it’d have to wait. The truck’s engine barked to life, shaking the cabin, suffusing it with the churning of its labor. Lurching and rocking it pulled away, shoving Stephen left and right with its motions. Between the sounds of the truck, the booming conversation the others struck up between them, and the distance he’d have to shout his squishy words up to Franky’s fuzzy ears, conversation was essentially impossible. She’d already realized it, having pulled out a book from somewhere. To weather the journey, Stephen reached for his sparkly, new phone.
  928. He’d better not drop it. If it slipped from the seat, it’d do more than crack the screen. The same was true for him, so maybe there was something to be said for the oversized seatbelt.
  930. -------------------------------------------------------------
  932. Big Joe’s on a Friday rivaled the construction site for noise. Where the site still had something of order about it the bar only knew wild abandon. Everywhere giants jostled against each other, tossing back barrels of beer and dinner-sized snacks. The very structure of the building buzzed with the activity. Phantom pain spread across Stephen’s injured side at the memory of the moose’s careless kick.
  934. Franky seemed even more aware of his fragility than he was. She plunged into the crowd with the subtlety of an icebreaker, clearing safe passage, sounding off a foghorn bellow.
  936. “Squishy coming through! Squishy coming through!”
  938. Far be it from him to not appreciate the extra effort Franky was taking to ensure his safety, but he couldn’t help but let the whispers of his brain get to him. The passage through the temporary corridor of giants, eyes on high following him, felt like something of a walk of shame. Even if he was with Franky, he was an outsider. An intruder in one of the places the giants didn’t have to treat like a world of glass. Behind him the crowd merged again with casual violence, as if to prove the point.
  940. With a gentle push Franky moved aside the last of her giant peers blocking the way, revealing his old friend. The lifeguard’s chair, still looming impossibly high despite his recovery.
  942. “Yeah, I’m going to need a hand with that.”
  944. For the second time today tiger paws grasped him firmly and gave him a fair ground ride on high. He was already paying attention to it, so hearing the snickers was inevitable.
  946. “People are laughing at me,” he noted after he’d reacquainted himself with the proper way of sitting in the seat.
  948. “It’s kinda funny, you gotta admit.” She lounged in her chair with the air of an Iron Age king, a smirk confirming her judgement.
  950. He realized he was sitting up straight, and affected a slight slouch to mirror Franky.
  952. “A lot of these people had to learn to laugh at themselves. Makes it easier to laugh at you, too.”
  954. “Does that count for you, as well?”
  956. On her face appeared the widest grin he’d yet seen. Serious tiger toothpaste commercial material. “Didn’t squish ya yet, have I?”
  958. “You tried, and failed.”
  960. A growl rose up from Franky’s throat. “Maybe I should try again.”
  962. You know what? That wasn’t the worst prospect, if she just didn’t take a jump this time around. Did she even realize how soft she must be to cushion a half-ton impact into a few bruised ribs? Maybe it was hard to feel soft for someone who’s job it was to keep high torque engines and hydraulics to a minimum. Under the fluff and fat her muscles were probably akin to braided steel wire.
  964. “Why not?” He grinned back at her. “The last time caused a nice shitstorm. Might as well see how far things’ll go if you do it a second time. Maybe do it on live television?”
  966. “Wait. We’re gonna be on live television?”
  968. “Hey, I don’t know.” Stephen shrugged modestly. He was really getting back into the shrugging game.
  970. “No guarantees, right?”
  972. “Right. Sorry about that. Stuff like this…” his mind wandered briefly through the passages of memory, “…it takes time. People need to look at it, think about it, sign off on it. It’s probably good we asked about it early.”
  974. A shiver seemed to ruffle Franky’s fur.
  976. “Don’t much like the idea of being on TV. ‘specially not live.”
  978. Made sense, given she seemed to regard the media with every bit of suspicion they were due. Indeed, most of a ton’s worth of tigress stuffed into oversized coveralls straining to do the job didn’t look like standard TV fare. Shit, half the time large scale people were on TV, they were beating the shit out of each other.
  980. “TV’s dead anyway,” he said. “They’d be lucky to have you.”
  982. “Flatterer.”
  984. “I try.”
  986. A giant hand appeared out of nowhere. OK, not out of nowhere. It simply came from behind and he just hadn’t heard its owner approach, giant’s footsteps lost in a crowd of them. However, it came bearing beer, placing a large glass held daintily between fingertips before him. Above, on the end of a long, craned neck, the giraffe waitress smiled at him.
  988. “Welcome back!” she chimed before putting a substantially larger glass before Franky and disappearing back into the crowd. At least, metaphorically. Her head sticking out well above everyone else made it quite easy to keep track of where she was.
  990. “We didn’t even order?”
  992. After all, it couldn’t be a mix-up, right? Who else was drinking thimbles of beer in here?
  994. “Ya ever watch those movies where they walk in and order ‘the regular’?” Franky was already speaking from behind the rim of her glass.
  996. “Yeah.”
  998. “What fucking use is it if they still have to order it?”
  1000. Fair enough. He took a swig of the unordered beer and then just sort of… waited, swiveling his eyes, tilting his head, raising one arm, then the other.
  1002. “What are you acting all goofy for?”
  1004. “Checking if I’m OK. You know, with the beer.”
  1006. “And?”
  1008. “Seems so.” He took another swig.
  1010. “Good. It’d be kinda awkward having to carry you out again.”
  1012. Awkward, but not unpleasant. And the hidden meaning was obvious: She’d do it again. Riding the tiger indeed.
  1014. They were silent for a moment.
  1016. “Do they serve normal sized food here, too?” Stephen asked.
  1018. “Sure thing,” Franky answered. Some foam clung to her fur. “Same stuff, but less of it. It’s not rocket science. You fixin’ to get a bite?”
  1020. “Might as well.” He slid his phone out of his pocket and checked the time. “It’s getting close to dinner time.”
  1022. “I wasn’t planning on it, meself.” Franky stretched much like any lazy cat, regardless of size, showing off rows of dangerous teeth and a long, barbed tongue as she yawned. The chair creaked and moaned at the shifting weight. “Feeling kinda funky.”
  1024. She flared her nostrils for effect. Yeah, she was still in her work clothes, after all. No doubt those felt all kinds of heavy with filth.
  1026. “I’ll get something on the way home, then.”
  1028. “Hey, don’t let me stop you.”
  1030. “It’s weird to eat something when the person you’re with isn’t.”
  1032. Franky shook her head in the typical not-angry-but-disappointed way. “You shouldn’t care too much about shit like that. If you’re hungry, eat.”
  1034. “It feels wrong.” Years of official and unofficial social etiquette had ingrained the rule in is mind. It was so well-carved that he didn’t even know it was there, and that he did care, until Franky challenged it.
  1036. “Then don’t eat. Your choice.” Franky responded with a shrug, effortlessly raising those massive shoulders and arms, probably the equivalent to serious weightlifting.
  1038. Goddamnit, why was he so obsessed with shrugging, now? Just because it hurt when he did it? This shit better not be permanent. Stephen had no intention of becoming a shrug connaisseur. Feeling awkward, he decided to hide behind his glass for a while. When he put it down he’d drained half the liquid from it.
  1040. “How have you been, Franky? With… things and all.”
  1042. He could practically hear the gears whir in the tigress’ head, a placid, thoughtful expression making itself master of her face. Maybe she was thinking of a diplomatic way of explaining the shitshow, or she just wasn’t used to getting asked about something like this. No real surprise. How often did the media come after the average construction worker?
  1044. Oh, no. She was just considering how much beer she was going to drink before answering, as evidenced by the fact that she put the glass to her lips and sloshed down the lion’s share of it. Or the tiger’s share, really. Enough to get him drunk in a single go.
  1046. “Alright,” she said.
  1048. Stephen eyed her, then the mostly empty glass. “You had to drink that much just to give me ‘alright’? Should we order more?”
  1050. She swished the bottom of beer in her glass. “We are running low…”
  1052. With an… expression on her face she rolled up a sleeve like some great, fluffy cartoon about to start a fight. Her chair, and then the table, creaked as she shifted her weight and leaned forward, putting her arm on the table for Stephen to inspect.
  1054. Oh yeah, a slap from that thing would send him flying. Under the fur the corded muscle was obvious. She laid a living anatomical drawing in front of him. This was the power she was picking him up with just to move him from ground to chair and the other way around. The power she had so gently squeezed his shoulder with. Tips of sickle-shaped claws just barely poked from the tips of her fingers.
  1056. “You know what the problem with these stripes is?” she asked, gesturing to the exemplary limb with the other one.
  1058. “They’re… really fluffy?”
  1060. Franky barked a single, loud laugh.
  1062. “No, you idiot. They only work in the jungle.”
  1064. She seemed to beam at the point she just made. Must be one of her things, kind of like he liked to say ‘it isn’t rocket surgery’.
  1066. “You’re definitely not an easy person to hide.”
  1068. “Exactly.”
  1070. Point made, Franky pulled her arm back.
  1072. “Wait.” Before he’d fully thought about it Stephen reached for the retreating hand, latching onto one of her fingers. She didn’t stop immediately and he was dragged halfway over the table with no real effort, edge nudging into his tender side.
  1074. Franky just looked at him.
  1076. “Can I see your claws?” Stephen asked, reseating himself.
  1078. “What?”
  1080. “Claws. Hard, sharp, find them at the end of the arm.”
  1082. “Usually it’s only the kids who want to see my claws.”
  1084. “I’m young at heart.”
  1086. Despite her grumbling Franky put her hand back, pads up. She flexed her fingers and extended her claws. There was no sound, obviously, but even so Stephen couldn’t help but imagine something much like daggers unsheathing. Not that he knew what that sounded like, but he imagined it anyway.
  1088. Franky’s claws had the appearance of polished bone, reflecting a dull light. Thinner than he’d imagined, but that didn’t mean a lot at this scale. They were curved to sharp points. One couldn’t design something better to hook and slice flesh.
  1090. “These’d make great letter openers.”
  1092. Franky flattened her ears against her head. “They make great people openers.”
  1094. “I believe that.” Stephen probed the claws for sharpness and was not disappointed. He’d heard some people dulled their claws, but Franky wasn’t one of them. Well, she probably used them at work, didn’t she?
  1095. “Cut up any journalists with these?”
  1097. “I wish.” Playtime was over and Franky took her arm back.
  1099. “So they’ve been bothering you?”
  1101. “Sort of.” She emptied her glass and leaned back again. “Been getting a lot of calls. I think the guy with the jacket’s been trying to get more pictures of me.”
  1103. Stephen couldn’t help but smirk at that. Say whatever you want about that guy, but he didn’t scare easily.
  1104. “Did he get any good ones?”
  1106. She struck a pose, one hand on her hip, the other behind her head, breasts and belly thrust proudly forward, and fluttered her lashes. “Don’t I look like a model?”
  1108. Goddamn, she was cute when she was being an ass.
  1110. “You look like about ten models.”
  1112. She chuckled with the sound of bricks being banged together. “I fuck like ten models, too.”
  1114. Yeah, OK. That was too much. Blood rushed to Stephen’s face, and there wasn’t a thing he could do to stop it. Maybe blood rushed to other places, too. He had no comeback to that one.
  1116. “Ah shit, I’m sorry.” Franky scratched her head. “Didn’t mean to make ya uncomfortable.”
  1118. That obvious, huh? Uncomfortable wasn’t quite the word, you giant, orange, social disaster. And now there was guilt, too. Guilt for making her feel silly about a joke. Stupid, red face.
  1120. “It’s OK.”
  1122. Oh, that’s just great. Any shred of confidence he’d had, and that wasn’t much, had just about drained from his voice.
  1124. “Said it last time, didn’t I? You’re kinda easy to talk to.”
  1126. There was a hint of self-consciousness in her voice. It probably wasn’t the first time she’d spoken out of turn in polite company.
  1128. “I get it,” Stephen tried to fumble his way to something resembling confidence. “You feel comfortable talking to someone new, so you forget to be normal. I’ve made dirty jokes when I shouldn’t have, too.”
  1130. Franky gave a wan smile, cracking her crass facade for a moment.
  1132. “Yeah, that’s the way it goes. But if you’ve got any dirty jokes, just lay ‘em on me.”
  1134. Shit, it’s not like he could do it on command. If he could, he’d be working the stand-up circuit, not the sit-down office job. He regarded the bottom of beer left in his glass as if he didn’t already know what he was going to do with it, then downed it, and slammed the glass down on the table in the way you just really had to do when the beer particularly hit the spot.
  1136. “Maybe if you get me another. Either way, we really ought to talk about the…”
  1138. “Journalists!” A literally and figuratively high voice called.
  1140. Yeah, that’s the ones. Wait. Stephen glanced up to see the face of the giraffe waitress wearing an expression of conspiratorial concern.
  1142. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Any softness their social bungling had brought out in Franky was immediately covered by a well-practiced scowl as she swept the room with her gaze. “Thanks, Zoe. Where are they?”
  1144. “Outside. The boys won’t let them in.” The giraffe, Zoe, looked smug for a second. Stephen could sympathize. Nobody was going to walk through a wall of large scale animal people. Indeed, if you ever found yourself in the need to refer to a group of bruisers as ‘the boys’, they were the best boys to have.
  1146. “Back exit it is, then,” Franky said.
  1148. “They’ll be watching it, if they’re not total idiots,” Stephen chimed in, then turned to Zoe. “There’s more than one, right?”
  1150. “An entire crew of ‘em. Camera and all.”
  1152. Fuck. Looks like someone got tired of waiting and decided to do a little street harassment. So were they a professional crew doing a respectable man-on-the-street type thing, or were they specifically gunning for Franky? Did they know he was here?
  1154. Ah, none of it mattered. He really should’ve seen it coming. But was he really going to sequester himself because of this shit? Where else could he hang out with Franky?
  1156. “We’d better leave separately,” he said.
  1158. “We don’t have to.”
  1160. “If we leave together we just give them exactly what they want.” He could already imagine Conroy’s restrained, douchebag anger.
  1162. “No, I mean…” Franky gave a meaningful glance. He followed her eyes to where she flicked them, down on the ground by her chair, next to her booted feet.
  1164. It was clear why she wasn’t just saying it. There sat the sports bag she’d brought with her. A sports bag sized up for a big, fat tigress.
  1166. “You’re not serious.”
  1168. “You’ll fit fine. Don’t have much dirty in there, either.”
  1170. It probably wasn’t going to be pretty, lace panties, though. But he did have to admit, if they knew they were both here, leaving separately wouldn’t do much. They’d be on the lookout for both of them.
  1172. “I’m still not sold.”
  1174. “It’s the perfect solution. Ya get out unseen, no weird shit at work, and I’ll buy you dinner.”
  1176. Stephen raised an eyebrow. “Then you’ll owe me lunch and dinner. Might as well throw breakfast in there, too.”
  1178. A stifled giggle drew both of their attention to Zoe’s remaining presence. She was having way too good a time of their ordeal. Franky gave her the serious eyes.
  1180. She got the message.
  1182. “I’ll tell Joe you’ll want to use the back door.” The giraffe made herself scarce.
  1184. “Don’t matter much with your mouse bites,” Franky said to Stephen. “Just get in the bag.”
  1186. Oh Christ, what choice did he even have? It was the only way he’d get away without having to talk to them at all. And if he wanted the company big shots to give any thought to his idea he couldn’t afford to be appearing in the press. If it all went wrong and he somehow rolled out of the bag for all to see, well, might as well fail big.
  1188. “Fine. Help me down.”
  1190. It was true, there was plenty of space in the bag. He barely even had to tuck in his legs. A small amount of light still filtered in through the fabric, making him feel less protected than he thought he would. Sound from outside came through crystal clear, doing even less for his sense of security. It was also true that she didn’t have a lot of dirty clothing in there, though there was enough to make the air stale and musky. Maybe a dirty shirt, together with a regular change of clean clothes that made for a decent mattress.
  1192. When Franky picked him up the bag swayed gently. It clicked for Stephen, then. It was almost like a private hammock. If he weren’t about to be carried past a firing squad he might have been able to chill out quite well in this thing. With some fresh air, that is.
  1194. A gentle rocking accompanied by Franky’s heavy footfalls told him they were in motion. The din of the bar fell behind them, until Franky stopped briefly. There was the gruff voice of a large scale man. Big Joe himself? He caught some choice words about the state of modern journalism, then the swaying recommenced. The heavy, tortured wail of rusty hinges, and the click of heavy metal. The back door. Distant noise of the street filtered in as Franky continued her way, her boots echoing in what had to be a narrow alley behind the building.
  1196. He had enough time to worry as he heard a flurry of footsteps behind them, before the voices called out. Franky faltered in her gait, swaying the bag as she turned to look. Or so he guessed. A weird sort of fear gripped him, feeling suddenly naked with only the fabric of the bag standing between him and eternal ridicule. Not to mention losing his job.
  1198. “Is it true that you caused the near-fatal accident?” an insistent voice called out.
  1200. Yeah, they were that type of media crew. He could practically see the prick shove a microphone at Franky’s face. At least he wouldn’t get very far.
  1202. “No comment.” There was a distinct growl in Franky’s words.
  1204. This wasn’t enough to dissuade the crew. He could hear them jostle around them even as Franky kept on walking, shoes tapping the pavement as they followed at a healthy jog. The light outside was strong enough that he could see indistinct shapes through the fabric. He tucked his legs in further, going full fetal.
  1206. A hard reminder that the threat was real intruded upon him out of the blue as one of the crew stumbled. It struck him with careless force. Must have been a knee, Stephen thought as he rubbed his face. It was just as much through surprise as his own innate manliness that he did not cry out at the accidental assault. Thank fuck the guy didn’t knee him in the ribs.
  1208. “Are you being brought up on charges?”
  1210. “What do you have to say about the danger of large scale workers?”
  1212. “Why were you meeting with the victim?”
  1214. Stephen pucker up at that last one. They kept hitting her with a flurry of dubious questions, even when her response was only to keep moving down the street.
  1216. Then the shadowplay projected on the fabric of the bag was blotted out entirely, as if a cloud passed before the sun. But this cloud was accompanied by many heavy boots hitting the pavement, and a collection of deep voices speaking too loudly for casual conversation engaging in casual conversation. Beneath the blanket of these giant voices he could hear a squeaking protest as the jogging footsteps came to a sudden standstill.
  1218. The boys from Big Joe’s. Stephen crossed his fingers and hoped they didn’t do more damage than they were trying to prevent.
  1220. He allowed himself to relax, then. It wasn’t long before the gentle sway of the bag got the better of him until a jolt roused him from his slumber. Bright, blinding light exploded into his world from above him as the zipper tore open. Through squinted eyes he could just about make out a striped face with inquisitive eyes peeking in to remind him he wasn’t in his own bed.
  1222. “Jesus, were you sleeping in there?” Franky asked.
  1224. “Maybe…” He rose to a sitting position and saw that he was in an unfamiliar place with the same industrial red brick as Big Joe’s, a Big Joe-sized door to Franky’s back. “Where are we?”
  1226. “My place,” said Franky with a raised eyebrow. “Where else?”
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