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Book 1 – Chapter 3 – Corpse Fox – Part 3

My doctor had his office on Commonwealth Avenue in one of those brownstones that you’d expect had classical pianists and coke fiends for tenants. Down the steps inside, it turned into a teal drywall waiting room full of sniffling kids rolling trucks around and dripping God-knows-what on the shag carpet. The receptionist hid behind the glass. She asked me to take a seat after I’d checked in. I searched for a magazine that wasn’t from last year, and picked up a Home and Gardens which almost fell apart. I used it as a sneeze guard until the nurse called my name. He had these thick curls which he must have rolled himself. “You’re here for blood work?” he said.

I nodded.

“Veddy good.”

I followed him into a station with everything from an EKG machine to an autoclave on the counter. Every clock, calendar, notepad and magnet was plastered with drug advertisements. He had me sit and roll up my sleeve. He complimented me on the size of my vein. “So, we’re having a preliminary test? Veddy, veddy good.”

I wasn’t sure he even knew he was imitating Andy Kaufman anymore. He brushed my vein with an alcohol towelette. “You and your partner were engaged in sexual activities,” he said. “What would you call them?”

I tried not to watch the needle prick me. “I call them all kinds of things,” I said, “like cunnilingus and masturbation, and I’m pretty sure that’s how you refer to them too.”

“Touchy, touchy,” he said. He drained two tubes worth of red liquid from me. He snapped the needle out and tossed the umbilical cord into the hazardous waste bin. “Well, we have to send this to a lab out of state, so we’ll get a response in two to three weeks,” he said. “Think you can make it that long?”

I waited for him to tape the gauze over the needle’s hole. “I’ll be all right.”

“Veddy good.”

He released me and I signed some papers with the receptionist. I didn’t envy her, dealing with Nurse Veddy every day.


I don’t seem it, but I’m deathly afraid of control and imposition. It freaked me out when I swept the kitchen and the brush slid across the drywall. It rumbled like a drum for the rest of the complex to hear. When my neighbors did that, it was even worse. I had no idea when they would stop sweeping. Drywall is cheap. My furniture has made so many nicks in mine, it’s kept me from moving more than once.

It doesn’t matter where the embarrassment comes from – me or someone else. The result is the same.

That’s why I played Master/Servant with Angie; to focus away from fear of disintegrating. Just to try my best to be useful and responsible for someone else. It didn’t matter if I played the top or bottom. They were both service, and they were both scary when the other person wasn’t clear with her boundaries. Until a month after we started, Angie forgot to mention that she couldn’t have her right wrist bound. Her brother used to drag her around by it when her mom was at work, since Angie received all the attention. And it became my fault when I didn’t immediately know this. It didn’t split us up, but it didn’t help.

Everything changed on my way to Elory’s. I’d never been hunted before.

Forest Hills was the last stop of the Orange Line, but my carriage had emptied out long before I reached it. The station had more chipped paint than the stops in town. It had a weather-beaten clock over the parking lot. I thought I’d arrive at Elory’s with my tail on, so I cruised through the bathroom. I wouldn’t have said no to a few compliments from her. My tail felt silly and right, but I didn’t have the words to defend it.

The other riders had left the station, with only me and the ticket lady. The lights over the lot hid the suburbs until I came out at a crossroads. Up one way, the triple-deckers like Trisha’s had their shades drawn. A Coke sign was lit on a convenience store in the ground floor of one of them. Down the other way, strips of light broke through the fences where the houses stopped at two stories. Their lawns were rimmed with bramble puffing out in a white coat. Elory’s directions led me towards the darker side of town.

The temperature had risen to the high forties, the warmest in weeks. I needed a scarf, but the air had started an early, futile thaw. Every yard had begun to crack. It rang off the aluminum sidings and the oak trees. I craned my neck, but I couldn’t tell where any of it came from. Chunks of powder spilled down the roof of a cottage, but the snow never gave me another warning.

I followed her directions up a hill which no one had shoveled. The ground was slush under the surface. I almost slipped and my peripheral vision caught movement. In the next yard, I saw nothing, but the ground moaned with the rumble of shifting stones. “I can see you,” I shouted, but the low roll didn’t stop. My tail brushed against my legs.

I walked on. I was completely obvious in enemy territory, as if that would protect me. If I stayed on the street in town, I could always lay low in a store or a restaurant until it was safe. In the suburbs, it was all fiefdoms designed to keep me moving. A lawn jockey with its black face painted white held its empty hand up. A garage light flashed on as I passed, while I was far from the range of its sensor. I expected squirrels, crows or even cats to rustle the overhead branches, but I strained my eyes and they were empty. Elory had said five minutes from the station. I checked my phone and that much time had passed already.

Over the hill, I spotted paw prints on the sidewalk that vanished when I blinked. I tried crossing the road, but the hairs on my neck twisted. I was under one of those staring paintings from an artist who knew exactly what they were doing. I counted house numbers. Hers was 57. Beyond the nearest trellis, the front door said 40.

I retreated quickly backward to test the gaze, but it didn’t stop. Gaping holes had formed from snow falling into a row of cinder blocks lining a driveway. I thought whatever they held had been plucked away clean. Softness touched my calf.

I bolted. If the sun was out, or I had a friend with me, or I hadn’t seen two apparitions since the morning, I could have handled it.

I cut off my circulation with my scarf while I hurried down the hill. I sealed the ends of my sleeves, but the air crept out from under me. I pretended that It was behind me, whatever It was, and that It would leave me alone if I thought hard enough about It. A mailbox bent towards me, but might have always been that way.

I flicked on my cell phone. I waved the bright screen around me to fend off the unknown world. I was desperate, and whacked my arm against a sign pole. I dropped my phone in the slush. It went dead when I picked it up.

My tail touched It behind me and my nerves lit up. I knew where every tail joint was, as delicate as the nose on my face. The Thing that followed me had soft, supple flesh over thin bone. I ran ahead at full speed. I passed under a light and my shadow spread out as long as the road. It formed perfectly over the ruts of the tire tracks. It itched for a surface to spring up from the ground. I was surrounded.

I sprinted across the road, out of the light. I could blend into the dark as long as It couldn’t hear or smell. A hedge rustled, and my hands turned cold inside my gloves. The street had no end. It was a shooting gallery with hiding spaces concealed everywhere – under frozen gardens, in cellar wells and in the silhouettes of the fences and brush. I spotted the blue paint, and rushed for the front door. Her house was seated on a concrete pedestal, the same as a fire hydrant, where the ground had sunk. The second floor was covered entirely by a slanted roof with a cyclopean window over the front door. A rock wall as high as my knee separated her lawn from the next home. She didn’t have a porch; just a door, then a path to the street.

I stepped on her lawn and the weight lifted from me. I could breathe. I had passed from water into air. I turned around, and It snarled. I skipped onto the three steps leading to her door. I rang the bell, but no one answered. Her driveway was empty. It waited for me beyond the thin line between her property and the neighborhood.

I sat on her steps and passed the time. I stared at the crooked lines of wood under me, bundled close together. I hunted for faces in the patterns, with bumps for eyes, noses and mouths. These were in every texture, not only clouds. I took out my cell phone and instinctively checked the time. It lit up again. I selected a game. I don’t know how people used to live without these things.

When Elory’s car pulled in the driveway, the Presence hadn’t left. However, It had become ordinary and lost most of its threat. Without a light, Elory was a black bundle. Her hair spread out wildly, but mirrored its frenzy on both sides of her head.

“Hello,” she said. “Are you here for the harness?”

I stood up. “I am.”

She waved her hand at the front door. “It’s right inside,” she said. “It’s a good deal.”

She had the key in her hand, with her briefcase slung over her shoulder. She strode as if she had a path cleared in front of her. She matched my height, although the heels of her boots were an inch higher than mine. I stayed on the lawn while she unlocked the door.

“Have you been waiting long?” she said.

“No, not at all,” I said.

She entered and all the lamps inside switched on. She hung her briefcase and bent to unzip her boots in the hallway. I knocked the snow off my shoes and followed her in.

Her face was round as the moon under her jet-black hair. Her nose formed a smoothed beak. Her eyes and cheeks hinted that her skin was ready to sag. I have no idea when skin decides to let go – I’ve poked and prodded my own enough and it’s never given way. But hers had, and from the somber line of her mouth, she appeared to believe that she deserved it. She kept her makeup natural, with only a dark plum over her lips.

“You can put your boots here,” she said, and pointed beside hers.

I slipped them off. When I stood upright, her jaw had fallen and her brown eyes gaped in shock.

“Where did you get that?” she said. “Who told you to come here? Was it Jordan? Or Max? Or Nickee?”

“Nobody sent me,” I said. “ I found your ad on Craigslist.”

She sized me up again and licked her lips. “How long have you been wearing that tail?”

“Since the weekend,” I said. “Why?”

“Nobody told you?” she said. “You noticed the ad and came right over?”

I threw up my arms. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” I said. “ Is there a problem?”

She sighed and shook her coat off her shoulders. Underneath, she wore a generous indigo pantsuit with a bright red sweater beneath her jacket. I would expect my aunts in that outfit, and she seemed a decade too young to have it on, despite her wrinkles. “No,” she said, “I thought you were someone’s idea of a joke. Can I get you something? Tea or juice?”

“Do you have cinnamon apple?” I said. It had been very cold on the front steps, and it would be a long walk to the train.

She slipped away through an amber living room. She ran water, and her microwave beeped. I followed after her. I took care not to touch her sofa or the flowering plants set around her windows. A huge television sat in an open cabinet with a Playstation 2 beside it with one controller.

Over her couch, she had hung an Indian spread of a long tunnel extending to nowhere. Beside that, she had an exquisite painting of two foxes, one blue and one white, chasing each other’s tails to form a yin/yang symbol. The artist had dated it, “1991.”

Elory returned with a steaming mug with a tassel over one side. She motioned me to the couch. She brought over a chair for herself while I rested with my tea. She stopped, awestruck. “How did you get it to curl behind you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It works better if I don’t think about it.”

I had prepared a list of joke answers at work, but they weren’t appropriate.

She scowled, although she might have always done that when she pondered someone. “So it’s autonomous?” she said. “Do you have any control over it?”

My tail shook, as if I’d hooked it to an off-kilter engine. I sipped my tea and it calmed. “Not yet,” I said. “I’m supposed to, but I have no idea when it’s going to happen.”

“So you didn’t make it?” she said.

“No. A friend of mine did,” I said. “I sewed the cover, though.”

“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “The harness you’ve come to see. I had it made for a fox tail as well.”

She searched me for cracks, as if it was my fault I didn’t have a rational answer for her.

“That’s weird,” I said.

She folded her hands over one knee. “Let’s cut to the chase,” she said. “Did anyone send you?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said. “Maybe I should leave.”

“No, don’t,” she said. “I’m… I’ve had a rough day. Stay right there. Let me get you the harness. You can try it in my bathroom.”

She meandered up her staircase and fetched the harness. She had kept it in a plastic bag, wrapped in a baby blue terrycloth. “I wasn’t sure if it would fit me,” she said, “so I had it made it with extra buckles. Adjust it however you want.”

I lifted it out. Its leather straps were burgundy and dotted with brass tacks. It had a soft musk, and several bend-marks under its skin, but none had cracked. I jingled it. For her offer, it was a steal.

I rose from the couch. “You don’t mind?”

She rescued my drink from the couch’s armrest and set it on a stone coaster. “Not at all.”

I had almost dumped my drink on her rug, so I dashed to her bathroom without thinking. It was as small as I expected, nestled under a flight of stairs. A stack of New Yorkers lay above the toilet. Her bathtub only had bottles of Suave shampoo beside bars of nameless soap. I stripped down and unwound my ropes. I needed a minute before my tail’s ghost stopped swinging behind me.

The tail needed some work to fit through the harness. I had to cut and reattach the strands that bound the fur to the skeleton before the tail went in. I had to rub the buckles to break them loose. Other than that, the leather gripped my skin fairly well. I bounced twice to make sure the tail would stay on. The leather didn’t bite me, and when I squinted, the thin strips could have been henna around my waist.

Elory had changed into a crocheted sweater and loose jeans when I came out. She had cleared the makeup from her face, probably in the kitchen sink. She was flushed, spreading out from her nose. She carried a half-empty watering jug. A couple of the plants were swinging and the living room had an earthy scent. “What do you think?” she said.

I shook my hips like a belly dancer and my tail curled out. “I’ll buy it,” I said, and unfolded the bills from my pocket.

She stuffed the money in her jeans without counting. “Fabulous,” she said. “I’m just glad you’re taking it out of the house.”

I folded the ropes into my bag and dressed for the long, unpleasant walk to the station. Elory slipped by me and undid the latch. “Thank you for coming by,” she said. “I apologize for snapping. I’m not really this on edge.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “Thanks for the harness.” I scooted by her, down the front steps.

The Presence hadn’t left the street. It leered at me through the invisible bars.

I turned to her. “Could I ask a huge favor?” I said. “Can I get a ride to the station?”

Elory rippled her forehead at me. “What for? It’s not that far.”

I nodded and plugged a draft in my scarf. “I just don’t feel safe walking on my own with the tail.”

She waved me inside. “The neighborhood is very safe weeknights. Do you have someone looking for you?”

“Sort of,” I said, but cut myself off. I had said too much. “Okay, this is going to sound weird. Outside, something is hunting me. I think it’s been after me all day. I know I saw it twice. But it got vicious on the way here. It touched me, physically.”

She cocked her head. I thought she might be checking my eyes for dope. “What do you mean, ‘saw it?’ What does it look like?”

I gripped my elbows, flustered. “I don’t know,” I said. “It was a tall man this morning, up so high I couldn’t see his head. Then it was my boss at work, and now it’s invisible but it’s everywhere. I’m really sorry. I sound crazy, but this is the strangest part. It stopped when I crossed onto your lawn. It didn’t follow me onto your property.”

“Do you mean it’s there now?”

“Yes.”

“Show me.” She slid her boots on and held the door.

I hurried across her lawn, out of the range of her front light. I thought the Presence might have left after I told Elory about It, but Its grip on the air bled through. I scanned the sky, trying to make sense of It. One of us was caged and the other free, but who knows which was which. A television flickered in the house across the street, but otherwise, only my gut could sense anything there.

Elory left the steps to join me. I gestured to the street. “It’s here.”

Elory shivered while she gazed into space. “I don’t feel it.”

With a snap she grabbed my hand before I could protest. She put one foot onto the sidewalk and waited. “Come on,” she said.

She had me tight, and I stepped across the border before she could yank me. My face plummeted towards the surface and then I felt nothing. The Presence had drained away. “It’s not here,” I said. I wrenched myself free of her and retreated onto her lawn. I retraced my steps to her house and back, even staying in the same footprints. The street remained empty.

Elory rubbed for hands for warmth. “What changed?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It was sucked away.”

Elory blew steam out of one nostril. She retreated to her front stairs. “Try it again,” she said. “Go out farther if you need to.”

I bent my head low and tiptoed onto the sidewalk. I clucked my tongue in case I could coax It to come out. I considered that Its threat was merely an act. I walked onto the street and searched the sky for a bolt-hole or pocket where Its weight remained. I reached my arms out, and checked every hair on my hand for Its return. I was past the yellow lines midway across the street when It enveloped me.

A cone of static electricity fell, surrounded by thousands of eyes opening at once. My heartbeat shook me from within. I inched around to face the darkness at the end of the street.

A voice called “Cheryl” through the veil. I clamped my lips shut as the Presence began to creep inside my mouth. Again, I heard, “Cheryl!”

Elory hobbled across her lawn, eyes wide. She reached down and hurled a scoop of snow in my direction. It splattered into powder on the wet tar a few feet away, missing me. The snow remnants shone brighter, illuminated. Tiny shadows formed on the chunks and shrunk inwards. I traced the light’s path and blinked at the two white globes coming at me.

My muscles burned and I leapt onto the nearby sidewalk. A Ford Explorer skidded to a stop inches away from where I had stood. I went through the snow and hit the concrete. My left arm winced, and my head might have split open. I sat up and checked my scalp for cuts.

The Explorer’s window rolled down and a woman peeped out. My vision blurred, and I couldn’t discern her face. “Are you okay? Are you blind?” she said.

The Explorer’s headlights cut out. Elory fell beside me and panted. “Can you hear me?” she said.

I nodded. She held up two fingers. “How many?”

I showed her with my own.

She turned to the driver. “I’ll take care of her.”

The driver didn’t need to hear it twice. She pulled away. I fanned the exhaust off my nose.

Elory peered around both sides of my head. “Do you think you can stand?” she said.

I played with pain enough that I knew to wait until it throbbed. Elory stood to lift me off the damp pavement. “Let’s get you inside.” she said.

I steadied myself on her shoulder and brushed the snow off my butt. The cold air fought against a drowsiness which swelled from within me. “No, I’ll be okay,” I said. “I swear I didn’t see the car coming until you threw the snowball.”

She pressed her fingers on each of my cheeks. “You didn’t hear her horn?”

I racked my memory. The fuzz could have been one long blast, stretched out. “I heard you shouting,” I said. “That was it.”

She shuffled me back towards her house. “Don’t let go of me,” she said. “Tell me what happened.”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I was caught in something and I wanted to move, but I couldn’t. I was being stared at. I heard you say my name. If you have any clue what it is, please, throw me a bone here.”

She helped to lower me onto her steps. I pulled my tail to my lap. I took her hand between mine under the fur. “Well, you scared me half to death,” she said. “You tensed up and looked at the car like you wanted it to hit you. You don’t want that, do you?”

My neck trembled. “God, no.”

She squeezed my palm. “Good. You know, I was shouting at you while the horn went off.”

“I didn’t hear the horn.”

“Right, only me. That’s very strange.”

The aching sloshed against my scalp, and I needed a minute to process her words. I kept adding fragments to my memory which I knew had not happened. I watched the road, the lamp and the house beyond.

“It almost killed me,” I said.

And then It returned. The weight flooded overhead and around her property, silently amused. I jerked my eyes up. She was startled, but I pressed my skin to hers. I rose and tugged on her until she followed. “Come on,” I said. “Maybe you can catch It this time.”

We ran off the lawn but I had to stay slow for her. The Presence covered me as we dove into It. I gripped her as It grazed over my body, gnawing for a way inside.

“Don’t you feel It?” I said.

She shook her head, perfectly calm.

“What’s wrong with you?” I said. “It’s here. It’s real. Come on.”

I dragged her across the street and I was not paralyzed. I pulled her to a neighbor’s yard. “What do you feel?” I said.

She stroked my wrist with a few fingers. “You’re very agitated,” she said. “You tensed up in the street.”

“Not me, you.”

“I don’t feel anything.”

I balled my fists and lifted them up. “Let me go for a second, and then grab me, okay?”

“All right.”

I separated myself from her and the air collapsed over me. The thousand eyes opened again. Hers joined them, scrutinizing me, an experiment in a glass cage. Her arm remained motionless and she was amused to see me trapped. My strength drained away. My tail fell. She took far too long to wrap her hand over mine.

“Don’t do that,” I shouted at her.

“Keep your voice down. It was only a few seconds,” she said. “Your tail’s stretched out again.”

“It didn’t seem like a few seconds,” I said. “What about my tail?”

“It cowered like that when you were in the street,” she said. “Now it’s spread out. That’s a defensive position.”

“Okay,” I said. “What does that mean?”

She gritted her teeth. “Will you keep your voice down?”

“Why?”

“You’ll disturb my neighbors.”

I put my free hand over her face. “Is that what you’re thinking about?” I said. “Close your eyes and keep them shut.”

I wriggled my other hand free and circled behind her. I held my palm on her back, and guided her on the sidewalk. I spun us around and around, stopping to reverse directions until I was sure she was disoriented. Pins and needles scraped my neck. I guided her up the street, with twists in case she got her bearings. Slowly, she relaxed in my arms and followed my lead without trying to anticipate my steps.

“Keep them shut,” I said. I came around to her front and gripped her hands. The Presence swarmed against us. Her eyes were clenched tight and she shuddered. She held me so tight, I almost cried out.

“I can feel it,” she said. “Don’t let go.”

She freed me when she spoke those words. We clasped together in the dark road, with death surrounding us. This strange woman understood that which no one else could. Elory and I could go to parties together, and if one of us said, “I have that feeling,” the other would cart her away without asking why. It was a moment that defined us while we were still in it, and it kept on going.

Minutes passed. The Presence became ordinary and faded. Elory blinked her eyes and heaved a sigh that ended in her legs. She massaged my skin for warmth, and then let me go. “Let’s get some more tea,” she said. “I’m freezing.”

Categories: Book 1 - How Cheryl Got Her Tail, Chapter 3 - Corpse Fox.

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