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Book 1 – Chapter 1 – With Your Monkey Wrench – Part 1

I didn’t wear my tail until several days after I stole it.

I first heard about it when I was a junior at BU. I was studying for an exam in my women’s history class and I had NPR on the radio for background noise. I didn’t pay attention most of the time, but I caught the interviewer asking an engineer, “Would you consider bringing the tail to market?” I sat up and listened for a chuckle. The answer was “No,” but he never explained why.

This was before podcasts, so I grabbed a pen for all the details. The project leader’s name was Terrence Lanyi, working at the M.I.T. Media Lab to create adaptive technology using the nerve clusters at the base of the spine. The tail was only an interim step in the scope of his research so I barely found anything about it on-line. I didn’t take chances and saved every bit of news to my hard drive. In high school, I once let a reference slip through my fingers involving long-haired slacker students at seventeenth century Harvard and I never forgave myself for that. Ever since then, my computer was littered with esoterica.

I was stunned to find that no one was writing about the tail. It was a fully functional, multi-segmented prehensile tail operated by thought. I had friends who followed the development of danderless cats, mice with human ears growing on their backs and every mammal up the food chain grafted with the glowing jellyfish gene. When Simon lived down the hall from me at school, he showed me tons of links to a surgeon’s article postulating how ornamental wings might be created by extending our shoulder bones.

I told Simon that wearing the tail might be a good change from all the fae wings that my friends showed off at the dance clubs. I liked my body well enough, in spite of the stretch marks from my freshmen fifteen and my hair that wouldn’t hold a curl without cement. I just thought it was nice to have options, especially ones I could remove.

I started writing about the tail in my clawscratches.com journal to see if anyone else would pick it up. Of course, no one did. I wasn’t popular enough to steal from. I had one foot in the party dyke circles, one foot in the sci-fi/anime fandom and another one in the furry community. Plus I had classes.

But I’ve always been a picker. I rip pages out of spiral notes hole by hole, and God help me if I notice a tiny crack on the edge of my nails. Every smidge of tail news went in my journal and I put a counter at the top of my website listing the number of days the tail had been in captivity. I waxed awful but clever poetry asking: if cat ears sold at Hot Topic, why not a line of fashion-accessorized tails? I saw the gingham and polyester pants suits my mom wore to the realtor’s office and I could feel my future self screaming already.

I’ve since gotten used to such outfits. But for the longest time, I never wore them without subversive flair.

Then last February, a girl I vaguely knew who went by “Tigerlilac” sent me an email to ask if I wanted to have the tail. I thought she was being cruel, but she meant it. She worked as a network administrator at M.I.T., and I had met her at one of the few Massachusetts Furry Society meetings I visited. We never did much besides a few picnics and a couple of trips to conventions across the United States. Tigerlilac was known to volunteer all over Boston to network and date people. She wrote me that she was on the crew to set up the audio-visual equipment for presentations at the college. That night, Professor Lanyi would show off the tail in a speech about his work, after which it would be decommissioned for spare parts. His project had had its budget cut, she said. I would have to keep mum about it.

I didn’t ask why she offered me this. I was sitting in my tech support cubicle breaking in a skimpy Vickie’s bra under my blouse for my girlfriend Della. I hadn’t taken a call in half an hour. I probably had reset my Minesweeper high scores so the computer would ask me for my name again. I jumped on every email I got as if it was the Second Coming. I took perverse pleasure in flushing away the spam. I had my ears perked and detected my boss’ exact location in the room. I named him Manager Badger when I first started the job. He would stop by my cube if I was eating a brown-bag lunch and say, “That’s a God-awful looking sandwich. Where did you get bread that falls apart like that?” He thought he was being funny.

So I was skeptical when Tigerlilac’s email arrived, but her story checked out on the M.I.T. website. And it was better than the whole-lotta-nothing I had planned for the night. I really wanted to believe her because, honestly, I didn’t know why I was still in Boston with the sky-high rent, the ice half the year and my few friends who hadn’t married and moved away yet. Della was wonderful, but she didn’t have email at the bakery and she would leave town as soon as she found a college which would offer her a boatload of financial assistance.

In the meantime, I would have a tail; the only one of its kind. The first thing I wanted to do was slap Tigerlilac. How dare she toy with me; the absolute gall of her to offer such a gift. I knew exactly what I was going to wear on the day I quit work to go wherever Della was going.

I caught a few minutes of sun on the walk to South Station, but it was gone when I arrived at the Kenmore Square stop. It’s the one spot in Boston that feels like New York City, with the street crammed between two buildings like the icing licked out of two halves of an Oreo, and all the students and professional whatevers running around. I hid in the shelter of the subway stop and oriented myself until my printed M.I.T. map settled over reality. I wrapped my scarf over my nose to filter out the Legal Seafood and headed west until the world flattened out again. I passed a stylized wreck of several towers bursting through each other intentionally, something one of Trisha’s friends would design, and I knew I was on the right track. Beyond that, it was all white boxes and huge mausoleums with libraries poking out, not nearly as interesting as one would think.

If I had put my map away, I knew no one would mistake me for a visitor. I was carded regularly and my puffy blue coat had seen better days. However, I didn’t know what I’d do if someone stopped me for directions. If I met a girl my age on the BU campus, I would assume she was a student. As far as I knew, she had an advisor, a major and had memorized the shortcuts to the late-night restaurants on Beacon. I could chat with her about our class officials, the gunk in the dining hall and which bands were playing that night. She could play along easy. I wouldn’t worry about which dorm she might be sneaking in.

The students I passed hunched down against the wind or speed-walked to their destinations. I had forgotten how busy everyone was in school.

Tigerlilac’s directions brought me to one of the white prefabricated buildings with the lobby painted a rotting yellow that was popular in the seventies. The check-in desk across from the entrance was empty. I didn’t hear movement anywhere. I folded my map and read the flyers on the bulletin board to catch up on the college events, in case anyone asked.

I was halfway done when a cough echoed up the hall. Tigerlilac was strutting toward me with her black cowhide jacket open and her white T tucked in against her big belly. She carried a coil of power cables over her shoulder and her belt was studded with steel tools and pagers. She had a baby-face that she will still have when she’s fifty. Her blond hair was tied flat against her scalp and she glanced at me with the indifference most geeks have, even in the face of apocalyptic peril.

“You’re early,” she said and pointed behind her, “Meet me in the women’s room in a few. Follow the signs.”

I stepped out of her path before she had me press against the wall. “Okay,” I said, “It’s good to see you here.”

She didn’t turn around. “Likewise,” she said, “Git!”

The bathroom was down one floor where the architects had fit classrooms around the boiler’s space. I washed my hands while I waited so they smelled less like glove. I peeked in both of the stalls, but no girl would go out of her way to rush there.

I hunted for patterns in the floor tile until I found them all, and she hadn’t shown yet. The ceiling rumbled from the early arrivals and I searched my pockets for any Chick tracts I had stashed to read. The stairs outside clattered and Tigerlilac burst in, winded. She gripped a long instrument case, fat on one end, and panted.

“Hold onto this,” she said, “And don’t damage it. It’s my roommate’s.”

She waited until I slipped my fingers around the handle before she let go. The case pulled my arm down and I had to hold myself back from swinging it. “Did you get the tail in here?” I said.

Tigerlilac bent over the sink and splashed water on her face. She watched the droplets run down her cheeks in the mirror and brushed them off with a paper towel. “Not yet,” she said, “I put a few books in for weight.”

She inspected me head to toe to head again. “Did you tell anyone you were coming?”

“A few friends on clawscratches,” I said, and prepared to give the case back. “I didn’t mention you.”

She shook her head and leaned against the sink. “That’s fine, I guess,” she said, “I have to get back to finish the setup. Wait in the lobby about a half hour, and then go to the lecture hall. There’ll be a girl by the podium with a gold ring on her eyebrow. Her name’s Allyson. Don’t mention me. Don’t look at me if I’m around. Ask Allyson to store your trombone for you. Sit down, enjoy the show. Understand so far?”

I nodded and peeked at the door in case she was followed.

“Good. When it’s over, give me five minutes to get the tail, and then ask for the case back. Don’t wait for me. I’ll stop by your apartment next week.”

I curled my arm around its lumpy neck. “No, it’s fine. I can bring the case to you tonight.”

She cut me off. “Except I won’t be home long. They moved my flight to L.A. to an obscenely early time tomorrow and I haven’t even packed yet. Please, Cheryl, I don’t need anything else to think about.”

She bucked her head back, and I knew better than to be in the way of stressed people. “Okay, I’m sorry,” I said. “Five minutes after the presentation, and then I ask for it.”

She nodded and hurried out to the hall. “Yep,” she said, “We’ll talk next week. Just keep cool and stay out of tech’s way.”

I had heisted a few candy bars when I was thirteen, but not much since then. I always bought something so the clerk wasn’t suspicious. I remembered why I stopped. The edges of my vision became clear as crystal and the walls bent in as if they would collapse. Something outside this world peered in on me as a wolf pack eyes a rabbit.

I wasn’t ready to wait. It’s hard to pass the time without a radio. I checked the books inside the case, but they were about database management. One textbook was six hundred pages of grids and sine waves.

The lobby had a circle of students in engineer boots playing a strategy war game on their Palm Pilots. They jumped as one of them scored a victory. I found a year-old People magazine behind the security desk and read every word, even the advertisements. The students broke their game to follow some new arrivals and I joined them.

The presentation was set up in a miniature amphitheater as tall as my apartment complex. Only a third of the seats were filled, but the chatter took up the remaining space. I headed up the steps to an empty row near the top and claimed a seat with my coat and scarf.

A white projection screen covered most of the front wall and the tech crew scurried under it to lay cables behind the podium and table. I excused myself past a conversation which had spilled into the aisle and carried the trombone case to the main floor. I jiggled the latches to be sure a good jolt wouldn’t throw them open. I rehearsed my line until I realized I was mouthing it out loud.

Allyson was fussing with a microphone on the podium. She had sweaty dark skin, almost glazed, buzzed hair and a gold ring on her face. She barked commands to a large man behind her, and he repeated them into a walkie-talkie. I thought about Blanche DuBois first stepping off that trolley into town.

“Excuse me, Allyson?” I said. “Can you guys hold onto this for me during the lecture?”

Allyson broke out in a smile as if I was the first person grateful for her help all day. “Sure,” she said and called over another techie. “Can you put this in the back room, please?”

I offered the case to a pock-marked man who could have been twenty or forty, and he whisked it through a door on the opposite side of the room.

I waved to Allyson, “Thanks,” and she returned her focus to the microphone. Her brow hardened at the machine’s inability to work and I ascended the stairs again to get away.

The lights flashed and we hurried into our seats. Professor Lanyi stepped onto the floor. I watched a close-up of his grizzled, cleft chin projected on the screen. The crowd clapped and I followed their lead.

The lights dropped except for a spot on Lanyi and the projects arranged on the table, which were too far away to make out. Allyson must have fixed the microphone, because Lanyi’s voice boomed over the speakers. “Thanks,” he said and waited for the bass to subside, “It was September 7, 1987, when my dad broke down on the I-93 northbound. I had just earned my license and I drove up to give him a jump. As it happens, I didn’t leave the gear shift in neutral when I cranked the engine. My dad survived, but lost both his legs. He was developing what would become carpal tunnel as well, and prosthetics weren’t like they are today. Please don’t applaud for me. I wouldn’t have considered research in adaptive tech without him. Please clap for him.”

We did, sharper than the first time. A slide appeared on the screen illustrating the nerves within a hovering spinal column, and we settled down.

“We spent nights weeping together,” he said. “We both went to therapy. But my dad was smart as anyone. He asked me to help him design a system to manipulate the accelerator and brake from his hips. We never made it beyond planning, but I learned how real his feet were to him. He still has them when he dreams. I approached Fred Stanton when he completed his Masters in neurobiology, and we started our project to find alternative nerve clusters. We had a lot of competition for grants, so we struck out on our own. No one else had performed work on tapping into one of the highest clusters of epidermal nerves in the body, near the base of the spine. We started with a crude tail to map out basic control, and then developed the three-fingered claw here tonight. We have a long way to go, but my dad already uses it to goose people at parties.”

The room and I snickered.

“My students get a kick out of him, too,” he said. “I want to begin with a study our fellows conducted on induced paralysis on rhesus monkeys.”

I made it through two slides before I yawned. I closed my eyes and half-listened to him like Science Friday on NPR. My body must have been craving sleep. I had my arms crossed and the seat became a warm hand cradling me. I had to cover my eyes when the lights came on. I had to pretend I wasn’t about to walk away and tell lies.

Lanyi took questions from the audience. Most were highly technical from the gray-suited men in the front rows. They asked how he overcame this theory and that precedent. They had to be investors. Professor Lanyi was schmoozing. He kept his voice mellow to avoid scaring them off.

The audience gave him a standing ovation. The techies swept the table clean before I had a brain awake enough to rise.

I gave Tigerlilac her five minutes while I played Tetris on my cell phone. The audience fanned around Lanyi and the techies hovered for an opening.

I hung my coat over my shoulders. The exit was clogged with people, so I took the center aisle down. The ceiling was so high over me, if I stared at it, gravity strained to hurl me into it.

I hunted for Allyson. She was fiddling with a switchboard on the wall. I creeped by the mob and chilled until she took a break.

“You guys were great,” I told her. “If you have a second, I had the trombone case?”

She snapped a lever and looked through me, spaced out. “Right,” she said and went to the back room.

I checked my phone again. I had given Tigerlilac four more than her five minutes.

The doors swung open and the black case stuck through with Allyson close behind. She lay it down on its fat end. She had no idea. I lifted it from the ground and held it in place. “Thank you so much,” I said, “I didn’t mean to interrupt you there.”

She blew a quick stream of air over her sweat. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “Hope you found it interesting.”

I nodded and slipped into the line streaming from the building.

I couldn’t wait. As soon as I was out, I walked around the cold wall to avoid suspicion. I dashed into a block of shadow from a tree they allowed to grow here. The ground was slush, so I squatted and soaked the rear of my coat. I flicked open the latches and lifted the top over.

The tail was not inside. The case had the same five books I had found before. I shook it and cracked open the hollow velvet. Nothing rattled. I closed it and hurried inside before Tigerlilac had a chance to leave.

I scoped out every face in the hallway. Several professors stared back at me. I knocked against the amphitheater’s propped door by accident and grabbed it before it swung shut.

Tigerlilac was rolling cables from a tangled pile. Allyson and her assistants crisscrossed the row of seats above me, picking trash as they descended. I dashed to Tigerlilac before they noticed me. She had her jacket off and her armpits were stained. She quickened her pace and turned away from me.

“Tigerlilac,” I whispered.

She lifted the cables she had wrapped and marched towards the back room, as if I would turn her to stone.

I whispered again but my throat cracked. I said her real name. “Emma!”

She struggled to open the door with a free finger and flashed her teeth at me. “I will get to you, in a minute. In the hall.”

I drew in a slow breath before I could move again. I found a spot near the amphitheater’s door, across from a window that looked over the courtyard’s tree. I was twenty-three and I waited like a teacher threw me out of class for a time out. I settled my palms in my lap.

If I could have ripped the stress from my brain, I would have. I didn’t care what other parts of me would come out with it. I couldn’t take it when people thought I was a child. Waiters carded me in restaurants and stared at me like I had handed them a fake id. I hated going on dates, and when they asked my age and I told them, they said, “Oh, thank God.”

When I was stressed, there was a chance I would become that girl they saw. When I was expected to move several squirming mountains before a clock counted down, I would break and all I could do was hide until the wave passed. It’s shameful to be stressed, but it kicked in without warning and I couldn’t do anything except ride it out until bed.

The tsunami left me before it hit. I could breathe normally again.

I stood up when I saw Tigerlilac step into the hall. She dropped off her backpack beside me, which was nylon covered in scrap leather pockets. She laid her coat over it. “Hold onto these,” she said, “I’m leaving soon.”

I couldn’t ask her to risk her job and her flight. “I’ll be in the lobby when you’re ready,” I said, and heaved her belongings with my other arm to balance out the case. She was silent as she went back to work. I wanted to offer to buy dinner but I knew her answer.

I dropped her things behind the security desk and tried out a balloon bursting game on my cell. The tail had come and the tail had been taken away. I wondered if it even worked after years of storage. I thought I would have grown tired of it anyway, and developed all kinds of other homilies I would say as if I really didn’t care. I considered sewing a pair of ears to my hat and being content as a Stockford wannabe.

A pair of sneakers squeaked on the tile and Allyson ground to a halt in front of me. Her lip was curled and she rested one arm on her hip. “There you are,” she said and pointed to the case, “Can you open that?”

My arm lifted it to the desk while my brain scolded me for being a pushover. She leered at me, and I didn’t have an answer for why it should stay shut. I undid the latches and she snapped her fingers. “What are those?”

“My textbooks.” At least they were all the same subject.

She narrowed her eyes. “Why are they in there?”

I didn’t know. I stroked the plastic nubs to stall her. I was never in band. They had instruments from the sixties in a side room off the gymnasium. Some of their cases had long cracks down the side. I pointed to the corner closest to her. “I shattered that on our last trip.” I said, “I just picked it up from the shop after class. I haven’t had time to go home.”

She inspected the corner but she couldn’t tell if it was tampered with any more than I could. From that angle, her hair was all bristles and I had to stop myself from imagining how rough it must have felt.

She pried the inner lining out until she was satisfied the case was empty. She threw up her arms. “Where is it?” she said.

“Where’s what?”

She pinched the top of her nose and closed her eyes. “Someone walked away with some of the professor’s equipment and he’s seriously ticked.”

I stifled a gasp and reassembled the case. “Ouch. I’m sorry.”

She sighed and looked for someone else to give her the answer. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said and wandered away.

When the halls were silent, I reached into the Frankenbackpack and unzipped the top. A mass of pill bottles and spiral bound notebooks almost spilled out, but I held the edges. I snaked my hand underneath. I touched circuit boards and wire bundles. In the center was a cloth bag which contained a heavy object made from thick, two-inch segments.

Forget dinner. I wanted to take Tigerlilac dancing uptown.

After peeking down the hall in case Allyson returned, I lifted out the sack and swapped it with one of the textbooks from the case. There was no time to stop and look inside. I put my feet up and popped balloons as if nothing was wrong.

A few of the crew passed on their way out. The tail was on the desk behind a few millimeters of plastic, and they suspected nothing.

Two quick raps on the desk and I shuddered in my chair. Tigerlilac’s lips had sunken to form jowls and her head slumped over her neck. “Let’s go,” she said. She strapped on her coat and backpack.

I hauled up the case. “You’re going to Kendall, right?”

“Yeah,” she said. She held the door for me.

The wind had calmed and we could hear the traffic rushing by the Charles River. I kept slow to match her pace. She tripped on her feet a few times, but she never fell. I recognized the opposite sides of the campus buildings I had passed on my way in. She stopped in the little park behind the inbound entrance. The path had wooden benches filled with snow. No one had sat on them for weeks.

“You’re outbound, right?” she said. “I’ll take the case now.”

I brushed off a bench and opened the case. “What are you doing?” she said. She turned white as I retrieved the sack.

“Allyson checked it earlier,” I said. “I thought she’d come for your pack, too.”

She stiffened and bit her lip. “You went in my backpack,” she said.

Sometimes I had to be the bad girl to do the right thing. I reached out my arm and offered the case to her. “I didn’t want you to get in trouble,” I said. “Allyson was pissed. And I didn’t look in anything, I swear.”

She snatched the case away and extended her other arm. “I’ll take the tail, please.”

I squeezed the top of the sack. “What do you need it for?” I said.

She waited a moment and her shoulders collapsed. She couldn’t fight. “All right, it’s been a long night,” she said, “You have fun with it. Promise you’ll let me know how it works out.”

I stood my ground. “Thanks.”

Tigerlilac turned and lowered herself down the train’s stairwell, one step at a time. My legs shivered like they do when traffic signals change early and city buses arrive too late.

I ran my gloves along the cloth. It held a substantial amount of tail inside, longer than a dozen Christmas poppers. I crossed the street and ran into the station before Tigerlilac changed her mind.

The train pulled up as soon as I slid through the turnstile. The compartment had several older men coming home from night work. I opened the sack and lifted out the tail. Each segment was covered in a soft metal. A row of colored wires in a clear plastic shell ran through them. Each wire would contract to exert a certain amount of pull to bend the joints. They ran into a large base with gold connectors exposed to contact with the wearer’s nerves. A cartridge for D-size batteries sprouted off the base. It was musty from living in dust. I closed the sack before I started getting questions.

I hoped she would catch her flight. It would have been awful for me if she didn’t.

Categories: Book 1 - How Cheryl Got Her Tail, Chapter 1 - With Your Monkey Wrench.

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