Ethan smiled at Trish as he jogged to the elevator.
“Where are you headed?” She sat up in her seat, looking confused and a little pleased.
“I’m taking Carey to a support group for people who deal with phobias,” Ethan smiled.
“What? You convinced him to leave?” Trisha stood up, shocked.
“Yeah, why?” Ethan stopped as she ran up to him, her heels tapping on the tile floor.
“You don’t understand. He hasn’t left this place since he was released from the labs he was kept in,” she said, jaw nearly touching the floor. “All the doctor visits, groceries, everything is delivered to him,” she said.
“So he really hasn’t been outside in-”
“2 years!” Trish giggled and jumped up and down. “This is a huge breakthrough! Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!” She giggled as her blonde hair bounced around her shoulders.
“Wow... well, wish me luck!” Ethan smiled, and pushed the button to call the elevator. He jogged down the hall and nearly laughed at how happy he was to spend the day with Carey, outside. He knocked quickly and waited, when he heard no reply, he frowned for the first time that day. “Carey? You there?” Of course he was there, Carey was always there. He poked his head inside and saw that the apartment was dark, as usual. “Carey?” he called out in a sing song voice, searching the dark living room with his eyes. When there was still no response, Ethan stepped inside.
Everything was silent and empty as Ethan searched through the apartment. After searching every room and finding them all empty, he was beginning to get worried. He was about to head back downstairs when he heard a faint sound from somewhere within the apartment. He paused and listened. The sound floated to his ears, a sob. He looked around again, stopping in each room until he finally reached the bedroom where the sound was loudest.
“Carey?” he whispered. There was another sob, a little louder this time. He rolled his eyes and leaned against the wall next to the closet door. He stood there for a second before knocking softly. “Carey... come on out,” he said. There was no response other than another sob. Finally Ethan opened the door. Carey looked up, his wide black eyes reflecting the bedside light Ethan had turned on. Shirts and pants dangled above his head, brushing his large round white ears. His knees were tucked up against his chest, with his arms wrapped around them defensively. He sniffed again, his small nose twitching as he wiped away the tears that had matted the fur under his eyes. “Carey, come on, you can’t be that scared,” Ethan said, in a soft voice.
“I’m sorry,” Carey whispered.
“Don’t be sorry.” Ethan sat down in the closet with him. “You just need to face your fears. If you don’t, then you’ll never be in control of your own life. Out of all the people I know, I would think you would want that control more than anyone else,” Ethan said.
“I do,” Carey whispered. “But it’s not that easy.” He let out a big sigh as he cleaned up the rest of his tears.
“Yes, it is,” Ethan stated. “If you want something, you have to reach out and take it. If you feel something, act on it,” Ethan urged, and was surprised when Carey let out a laugh. “What?” he frowned.
“I think we could both use a lesson from each other. I need to do more taking and acting, and you should probably do a little less,” he blushed and smiled a small smile. Ethan laughed.
“Yeah, I suppose I should. Come on.” He stood up, and pulled Carey up by his hands. Carey brushed himself off and played with his tail nervously. “Uh, you should probably put a shirt on,” Ethan said. “And shoes,” he added.
“I don’t like shirts... they feel weird on my fur.” He brushed a small delicate hand across his lightly furred chest. Ethan felt his cock jump in his pants as Carey absentmindedly brushed his nipple.
“Alright, I’m sure they’ll be understanding about that,” Ethan mumbled, looking Carey up and down again. “But what about shoes?” he asked.
“I don’t own any,” Carey replied.
“What? No shoes at all?” he asked. Carey shook his head.
“They hurt my feet,” he whined. “Plus I never leave the house, so...” he shrugged. Ethan sighed.
“Okay, well I don’t want you to hurt your feet, here.” Ethan sat down on Carey’s bed and tugged off the brown work boots he had on. He tossed them at Carey who slipped them on. They were way too big and he looked like a child playing in his father's shoes
“Thanks,” Carey muttered. Ethan smiled as he watched Carey clomp around in his shoes.
“No problem,” he held back the laugh. “We can go buy you some on the way,” he suggested.
“I don’t have any money,” Carey whispered. “The program pays for just enough food for me to get by and not much else,” he clarified.
“That’s okay, I have some cash. If you don’t mind wearing something from a thrift store,” Ethan shrugged. Carey smiled.
“No, that’s okay... thank you,” he whispered shyly. Ethan nodded and took his hand, leading him to the living room. He was already out the door and into the hallway and when he looked back. He saw a very pale Carey standing in the doorway, staring at the green carpeted floor of the apartment hallway.
“Come on, Carey. I’m right here, you’ll be fine,” Ethan smiled. Carey bit his lip, and stepped out into the hallway. He kept his head down and walked with Ethan in silence as they headed for the elevator. By the time the large metal doors closed, Carey was an inch away from hyperventilating. “Carey, you gotta calm down. I know it’s been a long time since you’ve been out of your apartment, but things have changed. Infected don’t have to hide as much as they used to. People have gotten used to seeing them around, most don’t even care about it anymore,” Ethan said.
“You care,” Carey whispered.
“Yeah, well... I’m a jerk. We’re working on that tomorrow, right?” Ethan asked. They had agreed that Carey would go to his support group, and if he did as he was told, Ethan would see someone too.
“If I survive the day,” Carey mumbled.
“You’ll be okay.” Ethan smiled, as the doors opened and they stepped out. Carey slid his hand into Ethan's for comfort as they walked across the tiled floor of the front room. Ethan’s boots dangled from Carey’s feet, making his steps echo loudly.
“Oh my gosh! Carey, I’m so happy for you!” Trish greeted him and gave him a kiss on each cheek. Carey smiled queasily and refused to release Ethan’s hand. The grip and the soft fur on his hand made Ethan’s heart pound. He couldn’t understand why he was feeling this way with Carey. He had loved Chris, he really had. But this was different. This was something else. Not lust and not love. He didn’t know.
“Ethan?” Carey tugged at his hand. Ethan blinked out of his thoughts, and smiled.
“Come on, lets go.” Ethan smiled wider and pulled Carey to the door. Carey took a deep breath, as if he was getting ready to dive into the ocean, and stepped outside. The bustling city around them made him dizzy at first, but he got his bearings quickly. In a few minutes, he was clinging to Ethan’s side as they headed into an empty thrift store. Ethan helped him find a pair of shoes that fit, and that were relatively comfortable. Once he paid for the four dollar shoes, they headed to the community center where the support group was being held.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Carey hugged his tail tightly in his arms. Ethan smiled and Turned Carey to face him. He pushed his arms away so that his tail fell behind him, curving around his left side onto the ground. He forced Carey’s arms to rest at his side, and before he could do anything about it, mused his hair so that it fell in a lazy fashion around his head. His ears were hidden in the unevenly cut mop of white hair on his head, but they still poked out. The round pink ears, covered in white fur, moved uneasily as Ethan bent to tie Carey’s shoe as if he was a helpless child.
“There, you look fine. You’ll be fine. Just remember that no one is here to judge you,” Ethan smiled.
“Okay,” Carey murmured. Ethan smiled, and pushed him ahead into the clean and newer looking building.
The room was easy enough to find. A printed sign on the door read ‘Phobia Support Meeting’. Carey fiddled with his tail, before Ethan slapped the appendage from his hands. Carey pouted and then turned to the closed door. He took a deep breath before turning the knob.
A few people mingled around the medium sized room. There was a fold out table against one wall with some coffee, water, and a pitcher of orange juice. Next to the drinks were trays of cookies and other snacks. No one had sat down in the large circle of chairs yet, but it looked like they were getting ready to. Everyone was grabbing their drinks and snacks, and heading to the seats.
“Go ahead and sit anywhere you like,” a tall man said, as he took a seat.
“Come on,” Ethan urged, and grabbed his hand. He pulled Carey over to the seat next to his.
“Okay,” he whispered, though he was already sitting down. In a minute or two, every seat was filled, and someone was looking for a few more for people who were standing around. Once they had accommodated everybody, the meeting began.
“I’d just like to welcome everyone. I guess I’ll start by introducing myself. My name’s Paul. Why don’t you go around introducing yourselves?” Paul said, gesturing to the man at his right.
“Uh... Hi. I’m Steve.” The man gave a weak wave, and then looked to the man to his right.
“Tom.” Finally all the eyes landed on Carey. Ethan watched as his ears fell back against his skull and he reached for his tail. Ethan gently slapped his hand away, making Carey look up at him with fear in his eyes. He nodded, as everyone was waiting.
“Uh... Carey,” he whispered.
“Ethan.” Ethan nodded and waved.
“Good, it’s nice to meet you all. Now, just so I can get a feel for the room, who here is a supporter, and who here actually has a phobia?” Paul asked. Everyone was silent for a moment, so Ethan spoke up.
“I’m a supporter,” he said, nodding at Carey, who still looked petrified.
“Me too,” Sue said, and took Pam’s hand. Everyone else remained silent.
“Okay, well both of you are welcome, of course. And I’m to assume that everyone else here suffers from a phobia?” Paul asked, A few people nodded but most were silent. It was then that Ethan noticed Carey was the only infected in the group. It was obvious Carey noticed this as well, as his anxiety began to build.
“I’m Achluophobic,” Gordon said. “Fear of the dark,” he added. Paul gave a small smile.
“Thank you, Gordon, for getting the ball rolling. Anyone else?” Paul asked.
“I have Eisoptrophobia. Fear of mirrors,” Pam said. Ethan thought it was weird. She was very pretty with long blonde hair that fell in thick curls around her perfectly sculpted face. Her blue eyes sparkled happily, and her well manicured nails were wrapped in Sue’s hand.
“Uh, Gelotophobia... is uh... what I have...” Ali mumbled. Everyone seemed to be waiting for an explanation. “Fear of... uh... being laughed at.” She ducked her head.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that here,” Paul smiled.
“Kakorrhaphiophobia and Kainolophobia and Catagelophobia,” Angelo muttered, with a thick accent. “I don’t like new things. I’m afraid of doing something wrong or failing,” he explained. Once again, all eyes turned to Carey.
“Oh... uh...” he was beginning to hyperventilate. Ethan took his hand and gave him a reassuring look. Carey took a deep breath. “Uh, Latrophobia, Aichmophobia, Nosocomephobia,” Carey said. “Doctors, needles, and hospitals,” he whispered.
“And some Agoraphobia,” Ethan pointed out.
“Oh, yeah.” Carey blushed and reached for his tail, again. Ethan slapped his hand away for the millionth time that night. Carey shot him an angry look and Ethan silently mouthed the words, ‘stop that’. He gave Carey and equally mean glare. Carey pouted and looked back at the ground.
“Alright, that’s okay,” Paul smiled. “Everyone needs to understand that this is a safe space for all of us, no one is going to judge you here. You’re going to be okay.” Paul gave a reassuring smile. Ethan noticed Carey visibly relax a little bit. Just a little.
The group talked for a long time. The meeting was supposed to be an hour long, but it ended up stretching to almost two hours. When they hit the hour mark, Paul quickly asked if anyone needed to go or if they wanted to continue since they were on such a roll. When everyone remained silent, the conversation Paul had interrupted picked up again. After almost two hours of everyone talking about everything under the sun, the group finally split.
It was during the slow walk back to Carey’s apartment that Ethan really saw the change in him. Instead of holding his tail, his hands were at his side and his tail brushed the ground gently behind him. He was smiling, and only glanced around nervously every few minutes instead of every four seconds like he had on the way there.
“You seem to be a bit more comfortable out here,” Ethan pointed out.
“I am,” Carey nodded. “I mean, I would still rather be inside my apartment. Nice... and safe...” he whispered, looking around. He snapped out of it and continued speaking. “But I’m with you and talking to those people really helped. I feel a lot better,” Carey admitted.
“Good. Do you want to go back again next week?” Ethan asked. Carey nodded.
“This is the first time in a long time where I’ve felt like my fears don’t control me. I feel so free!” Carey giggled, before covering his mouth with a clawed hand, and laughing more quietly this time. Ethan laughed.
“See, I knew you could do it. You survived the night,” Ethan winked.
“Yup, and you know what that means,” Carey said, in a sing song voice. Ethan groaned.
“Ugh, I was hoping you forgot about my side of the deal,” he mumbled.
“It won’t be so bad, Ethan. It really helped me, I’m sure it will help you too,” Carey smiled. Ethan stared into his shining eyes and frowned for a second.
“How old are you?” he asked out of nowhere. Carey looked taken aback, but recovered quickly.
“Really? You don’t look it,” Ethan smiled. Carey smiled with him.
“Really? Thank you.” His blush showed through his white fur. “Well... to be honest...” he looked around as if someone was listening in. “I’ve been thirty for two years now,” he giggled.
“32 huh? You definitely don’t seem like it.” Ethan smiled to himself.
“How old are you?” Carey asked.
“Turn your age around,” Ethan said.
“What!?” Carey stopped walking. “No way in hell you’re 23,” he said. Ethan pouted.
“How old do I look?” he frowned.
“Well, it’s not how you look. It’s just... I don’t know,” Carey pouted. “God, you’re so young.” Carey put his head in his hands.
“I am not,” Ethan laughed.
“Oh yes you are. Because if you’re not young than that makes me old-.” Ethan opened his mouth. “And you better not say a word about that or our friendship is over,” Carey pointed at him. Ethan shut his mouth and smiled. “Now enough changing the subject. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Carey smiled, as they stopped in front of the building that housed hundreds of troubled infected.
“Tomorrow... right. Are you sure you don’t want me to walk you up?” Ethan asked. Carey looked up at the building, and sighed.
“No, I want to try this for myself,” he said. Ethan smiled.
“Okay. Good luck,” he said, as he began walking away.
“Thanks,” Carey smiled. Ethan turned and walked backwards, watching as Carey reached for the door handle. He stopped walking and paused. For a moment, his mind flashed to one of those cheesy movie scenes where the guy runs and gives his date a goodnight kiss, leaving her blushing and giggling. But only for a moment. He quickly snapped out of his trance, and left.
“This isn’t a good idea, Carey,” Ethan stated, as the bus hummed beneath them. Carey placed a clawed hand on Ethan’s shoulder, making him twitch slightly, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“I didn’t think yesterday was a good idea, either. But just trust me, okay? It helps,” Carey said. He hadn’t been quite as confident being outside as he had the night before, but it was still a small difference from the first time they had ventured into the outside world. He seemed to calm down a little when they got into the bus and sat down. Ethan supposed that it was just his mouse instincts kicking in, small spaces meant you were safer from predators.
Carey could tell that Ethan was nervous. He could clearly see the fake ‘macho guy’ attitude just under the surface. Talking to somebody meant you were weak. At least that’s how Ethan saw it. They finally arrived downtown. Carey didn’t like the crowds that pushed and shoved down the street, but if it was for Ethan, it was worth it.
Ethan got more and more nervous as the visit with the therapist came closer. He was happy when he met Carey at his apartment. He was annoyed and slightly worried when they were on the bus. As they walked down the street he became more and more agitated. Now, sitting in the waiting room of the therapists office, he was down right pissed.
“Come on, Carey. Lets just leave. This place looks like a dump anyways,” he stood. Carey reached for his hand and pulled him back down into his seat.
“Dr. Nelson is a good friend of mine. I spent my internship with her.” When he saw Ethan was giving him a hard glare, he stopped. “Uh... never mind. Point is, you can trust her, she’s a really good doctor,” Carey said.
“Right,” Ethan mumbled.
“Come on, at least do this for me. I agreed to the terms, now you have to hold up your end,” Carey said.
“Alright, alright,” he snapped. Carey stared at him for a moment before lowering his head. He still felt uncomfortable making eye contact with people. He was beginning to wonder if he would ever get over his anxiety.
“No, this is bullshit!” Ethan said, as he slammed the door open to the therapy room.
“Ethan!” Carey called after him, and then let his ears shrink back as the entire waiting room turned to stare at him. Of course the ‘entire waiting room’ consisted of no more than three people, including the secretary.
“No, I’m not doing this!” he shouted, storming out the front door of the office. Dr. Nelson stood behind Carey as Ethan stomped out onto the sidewalk. Carey sighed and chased after him, apologizing to his friend as he left.
“Ethan, what’s wrong? You were just starting to open up!” Carey said, running to keep up with Ethan. He bumped people as he went, making him nervous and twitchy.
“I don’t want to open up. It’s none of her business what’s happened in my past,” Ethan said, weaving through the crowds of people.
“What’s happened in your past that you don’t want to talk about? Ethan, just talk to me!” Carey pleaded, as a tall man bumped into him, sending him towards the curb.
“I don’t know just... just be quiet!” Ethan covered his ears, as if trying to block Carey out.
“Ethan, please. Just talk to me!” Carey begged.
“Just shut up, Carey! Just shut the fuck up!” Ethan turned and shouted at him. He left Carey stunned, in the middle of the street. He turned, and walked in the opposite direction. Carey stood there for a second, wondering what had triggered the sudden anger in Ethan. But when he finally snapped out of his trance, he realized he was alone in the middle of a bustling downtown district. He froze, and felt as if every person was staring at him. In truth, no one even noticed the small mousy man in the middle of the sidewalk. But to him, the whole world had a spotlight focusing directly on him. He felt his chest draw in tight and he began to get dizzy as he started hyperventilating. He gasped for air and looked at the swarm of people around him. He whimpered and hugged the brick wall of a building. His heart pounded in his chest, echoing in his ears as he tried to block out the packs of people around him. He screamed bloody murder when he felt a firm hand grip his elbow.
“Carey, Carey!” Ethan shouted in his face. Carey opened his large eyes and stared up with fear. When he realized it was Ethan, he began sobbing. He buried his head in Ethan’s chest and wrapped his arms around his wide shoulders. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry,” Ethan apologized. Carey sniffed as Ethan pet his ears down against his head gently, trying to soothe the poor man.
“I want to go home,” Carey sobbed.
“Okay, come on. I’ll take you home,” Ethan soothed. He felt terrible. Carey had started making progress for the first time in a long time and he had ruined it. Now the man was a wreck and was clinging to Ethan like a child who had gotten lost in the store. Ethan led him through the streets, keeping his head pressed into his chest. Carey refused to look up, no matter what. Ethan hailed a cab, even though he knew he couldn’t really afford one. Carey was done, he wanted to be home now. As they shut the door to the cab, Carey finally began to calm down. His loud, rough sobs slowed to a constant sniffling and gasping.
When the cab stopped, Ethan quickly grabbed his wallet and dug out enough cash to pay the driver. He grabbed Carey around the waist and pulled him into the building. Carey clung to him, burying his head in his shoulder. Ethan ignored the mildly angry and confused look from Trish, nearly carrying Carey to the elevator. The elevator ride was awkward. As the only sound in the machine was Carey’s soft sobbing. Ethan rubbed his back, trying to comfort him to no avail. The elevator doors opened and Ethan pulled Carey to his door, and fished the keys out of his pocket. He unlocked the door for him and locked it, making sure he did every lock to make Carey more comfortable. Ethan turned to face Carey in the darkness of the apartment, and was surprised that he wasn’t there. He searched through the black room quickly, and found no sign of the man.
“Carey? Carey, where did you go?” He jogged towards the bedroom and found the door closed. He reached for the door knob and realized it was locked. He remembered the dozens of locks across the door and sighed, putting his head against the door. “Carey?” he sighed again. “Carey, I’m sorry.” When there was no reply, not even a sob, he gave up. He set Carey’s keys down on the coffee table, and took a seat on the couch. He stretched his legs out and fell asleep.
Ethan was a heavy sleeper. A tornado could have hit and he still would have been snoring loud enough to wake the dead. But for some reason, the soft sound of a lock clicking woke him up. He looked over to the bedroom door and saw it hadn’t opened, but it had been unlocked. He tossed his legs over the couch and let his eyes blink the sleep away. He stood up, and stretched. He walked quietly over to the door and paused, before giving it a soft knock.
“Carey?” he called out softly, there was still no response. He opened the door and saw that the room was even darker than the rest of the apartment. He stepped inside and shut the door, heading for the closet first. He opened the closet door and found the small space empty. He checked the bathroom, shower, and even the cupboard under the sink. Maybe he had dreamt it all. He was about to leave, when he heard a soft sound. He didn’t really know what it was, and it probably wouldn’t have caught his attention if the entire apartment hadn’t been absolutely silent. He got down on his knees, and looked under the bed. Two shining black eyes peered at him from underneath the bed. He thought for a moment how most people would be scared or unnerved by the beady black eyes, but he wasn’t. Ethan found that they showed more emotion than plain ol’ human eyes. “I’m sorry I left you alone, Carey. I was just freaked out, okay?” Ethan said. Carey remained silent, only staring at Ethan. Ethan frowned. It was as if Carey had actually turned into a full mouse. His eyes showed nothing but fear. Ethan sighed, before lying down, and rolling under the bed. He stayed there for a moment, lying with Carey in silence. Carey lay there, staring at the room out from under the bed. His head sat at an uncomfortable angle on the hard floor.
“How about we get on top of the bed, you’ll be more comfortable there,” Ethan said gently. Carey didn’t look at him, but stared down at the floor.
“Okay,” he responded, his voice a bit stronger than what Ethan expected. He crawled out from under the bed easily, leaving Ethan with a bit more trouble. Once Ethan finally wiggled out from under the bed, he saw Carey was already curled up and was watching him with his black eyes. He smiled and crawled into bed with Carey, who rested his head on Ethan’s chest. Ethan stroked his ears lovingly as they laid in the dark.
“Are you okay?” Ethan asked.
“I thought I was getting better,” Carey said, sadly.
“You are, but you can’t expect to be magically cured after one group session,” Ethan said. “Things like this take time, Carey. You just have to give yourself a chance.” Carey scoffed.
“What, like how you gave yourself a chance today?” he snapped. Ethan was surprised at the hostility in the man’s voice.
“I-I’m sorry about that. You’re right, I was being stupid and childish,” Ethan admitted. “I just... I’m so sorry,” Ethan apologized again. “I don’t like talking to people about personal stuff,” he mumbled. Carey stared at him for a long time. “What?” Ethan asked, after Carey had remained silent for nearly a minute.
“Nothing. I’m tired. Will you stay with me tonight?” Carey asked.
“Of course. Whatever you want,” Ethan said. Carey had already crawled under the covers, but Ethan took the chance to kick his shoes off before he joined him. Carey ignored any personal bubbles Ethan might have had, and snuggled close to him. He was pressed tight up against Ethan’s body, and listened closely to the sound of his heart beat.
“Ethan?” Carey asked quietly.
“Yeah?” he answered, already falling asleep. He knew it was very early. Their appointment had been at five and the drive back was only a half hour. But they were both so tired.
“If you won't talk to a shrink, will you talk to me?” Carey said.
“You’re a shrink too, Carey,” Ethan pointed out.
“I’m different,” Carey whispered. Ethan opened his eyes and stared at the man falling asleep in his arms. Carey hadn’t opened his eyes while they spoke, but now he did, sensing Ethan watching him. His whiskers twitched on his face, Ethan thought they were cute.
“Oh yeah?” he asked. Carey nodded.
“You don’t have to be scared of me,” Carey promised. The words seemed funny, coming from the delicate man’s mouth.
“Yeah. I’ll talk to you,” Ethan caved in. “But not now, okay? I’m tired.”
“Okay,” Carey whispered, and shut his eyes again. Ethan smiled as he pulled Carey closer. He knew they weren’t together, but holding Carey, he couldn’t help but want to be.