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Book 1 – Chapter 3 – Corpse Fox – Part 4

We listened to each other’s steps on the way home. I have no idea what my tail did. We didn’t speak. The night air tingled down my throat and must have done the same for her. Whatever It was, It had left Its scent behind.

Our eyes met as she held the door for me, but she was worried and I was raw, so it didn’t last. I was relieved when she turned the lock inside. She started the tea while I undressed. The computer’s fan whirred behind a closed door. I thought about work.

I spread out on her couch while I waited for her. I assumed that she would be okay with me. I knew better than to put my cup on the armrest this time.

She set a TV tray on the rug and retrieved our tea. Mine was cinnamon again. It had the same red tag, but hers was potent like roots. The tags hung over her cup’s side. She shooed me over and she collapsed on the other end of the couch. Her chin pressed into her breastplate and hid her neck. She inhaled the fumes from her cup, and drank.

The heat carved itself through my gut. Her refrigerator hummed, and we had said everything we could without words.

“Does this happen a lot around here?” I said.

She jerked her tea bags, fishing for whatever was at the bottom. “No,” she said, cutting the word short. “This hasn’t happened to you before.”

That wasn’t a question. I didn’t know how to answer. “Just this morning,” I said.

Her bushy hair stood up on one side while she stared into her cup. “I haven’t felt that in a long time.”

I traced the tendrils of the plants around her window. They had crowded close together for every bit of sun. The tea was lovely and my tail was soft, but her living room reminded me of an Ethan Allen gallery. Everything was arranged practically and hardly lived in.

“Was it as good as your first time?” I said.

She rolled her head back and a laugh erupted from her throat. Her lips spread into her cheeks, and a crack split open on one side of her mouth. A few drops of blood seeped out and she licked them away. Without her lipstick, her lips were scaly and flaked. I imagined she had not smiled in so long, the split had healed over, expecting she wouldn’t again.

“Oh, I don’t talk about that. Either one,” she said. She tapped her sock on the rug. “You know, I had the most extraordinary urge to clean out my attic last weekend. I try to keep this place nice, but up there,” she pointed to the ceiling, “it’s a lot to move if I ever wanted to.”

I understood where she was heading. “Synchronicity?” I said.

“Does it happen to you, too?” she said, and waited for me to nod. “I had a friend who would be on the phone calling me whenever I picked it up to call her. I never heard the phone ring.”

I didn’t have anything that clever. “I never had anything like that,” I said. “I used to know this girl who always outbid me on eBay in seconds. Then I discovered they have computer programs to do that sort of thing.”

She dug her shoulders into the cushions. “I hate those,” she said. “I always want to see how high I can drive the price up to screw the guy running the bots. I wouldn’t, but, you know.”

I stretched out my toes. “I know,” I said. “That would rock. Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“Whatever you like,” she said.

“What was that outside?” I said. “You’ve seen it before, right?”

“Like Kirk and the fog?” she said.

I squinted at her. “What?”

She humphed. “Nevermind,” she said. “That could have been a lot of things. I don’t know which. And I’m worried, because It came to you, and It came to me though you. Usually, I had to go to… that. But He or She is interested in you. I’d like to know why, if you don’t mind.”

It was one thing when my parents said I was special, but when a stranger throws it at me, there isn’t a good way to respond. “Okay, I guess,” I said.

“Obviously, it involves your tail,” she said. “You don’t have to answer this, but I swear I won’t let it leave this room. How did you get it?”

I shifted and it curled off me. “You have to promise,” I said. “I could get in a lot of trouble.”

She seemed amused. “Really?” she said. “You can trust me. Who am I going to tell?”

“How much do you want to know?” I said.

“Just the basics,” she said. “What you’re comfortable with.”

I put my drink on the floor so I could let my arms gesture. “I got it from a friend at the M.I.T. media lab,” I said. “I’d heard about it before, and she works there at the school, and she knew I was interested in it. They were going to dismantle it for scrap, but they had it on display last Monday. She picked it up during cleanup. I brought it home with me, but they would have destroyed it anyway, you know? It was a prototype they built in a larger prosthetics project.”

Her eyes were glassy, but she nodded. “Uh huh,” she said. “Are you into prosthetics?”

“Not like that,” I said. “I thought it was a neat idea, people having animal tails. No one else was talking about it. You had a tail, right?”

Her tongue ran along the inside of her mouth. I didn’t know I had cornered her, and I apologized. “I didn’t mean anything,” I said.

“No, it’s all right,” she said. “I had my own reasons for liking tails and they aren’t necessarily yours. I started wearing mine in college, which was ages ago. It’s reminded me of a lot, that’s all.”

“How long did you wear it?” I said.

“Let’s see,” she said. “Seventy-nine, eighty, eighty-two. I think I burned out and stopped wearing it in public around eighty-three, but I kept it for parties into the nineties.”

It was still weird to hear about social lives from before I was born. “Why did you burn out?” I said.

She shrugged. “It became old hat,” she said. “These things happen. I was a wanna-be punk back then. I had fishnets and hair like you wouldn’t believe. I was set to tear down the world because it was going to blow up from nukes, Reagan, pollution and whatnot. It was different.”

There she sat, an older, dumpy woman, but I could imagine her at the front of a downtown rally. “What was it like when you first put it on?” she said.

“It wasn’t like anything,” I said. “It didn’t work. It twisted and whacked things.”

Her eyes narrowed. “When did it work?”

I took a breather to sift through all the ways not to say ‘caning.’ “My friend Trisha helped me out over the weekend,” I said. “We got my tail to work when this guy started ordering me around like a dog on the street. It’s okay; I had taken his dog by accident and he was pissed. So he caught up with us, and I felt awful. He was telling me ’sit’ and ‘heel,’ and my tail stopped being screwy. I don’t think the tail really ‘heard’ me until I was feeling really intense. I don’t want to go into it, but Trisha and I did some intense stuff. And it’s worked ever since.”

Elory began to positively glow. “You had an initiation rite?”

That wasn’t how I would have phrased it. “I guess,” I said.

“But you never saw any ghosts until today?” she said.

“Right.”

“Until you knew you were coming to see me.”

She leaned, all her weight on one hip, towards me. She held still, and her paralysis spread across the room, over the tables, paintings and plants. “Why do you want to wear the tail?” she said.

I stared at the cushions between us. “I don’t know,” I said.

“Cheryl, you wanted to understand what’s happening, and this is it,” she said. “Please, be honest for both of us. Why have you stolen this tail? Why have you put yourself through pain for it?”

Hindsight is only 20/20 if you have the time to reflect on it. Moments from college, to my first apartment, to Della were scrambled together. I swore she was about to rip open my head and sort them for me if I didn’t start first. “I don’t have a good reason,” I said. “I never thought I’d get the tail, and when I had it, I just wanted it to work. It fell off on the way to my job yesterday, so I bought your harness for it. Now it’s all fixed and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“You like wearing it?” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“You like showing it off to people?”

“No, I like it because of what it says about me.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m an animal person. I can be an animal person.”

“Has anyone had a problem with this?”

“Don’t get me started,” I said. “First my mom, and then my last girlfriend. She absolutely freaked when she saw my fox posters at home, and she grew up in West Virginia.”

“Are you still together with her?” she said.

“No,” I said. “She was cheating on me for months.”

“So you got the tail after you broke up.”

“No, before. I didn’t wear it until afterwards.”

“Would it bother you if anyone could have a tail like that?” she said.

“That would be great,” I said. “It wouldn’t just be me on the train. I’d love it if everyone had the option.”

“Oh, yes,” she said, and lifted a leg into her arms. Her spell released me, and the room eased to life again. She closed her eyes. “I’m making a wild guess, and please tell me if I’m wrong. Did you make your own tails before this, but stopped because they weren’t good enough for you?”

I nodded.

“I had a friend of mine build my tail. She worked as a magician,” Elory said. She held her arm out, palm up, and swung it gently. “It had a series of rib-joints, and each was weighted to hang naturally. If I pushed it upwards, it could roll into a ball like a pill bug. It broke a while ago, though, and I lost touch with her when she moved. It was a good option when I had it.” She sunk into the couch.

My belly rumbled. I had only given it tea. “You could always check with the costumers at Furrificon,” I said. “I’m sure one of them could rebuild it for you.”

“Furrifah what?” she said.

“Furrificon,” I said. “Or Anthrocon, or Further Confusion. Furry conventions.”

“Furry,” she said. “That’s still around?”

I took the advantage to bend towards her. “Are you kidding?” I said. “It’s huge in most of the big cities. Anthrocon’s at the Pittsburg Convention Center this year. Furrificon fills its own hotel and completely books the three nearby every time.”

“Really?” she said. “I remember, at the cons I used to go to, we barely had a couple suites’ worth of Albedo fans.”

I had become a fountain in the desert for her, and I kept gushing. “Yeah,” I said, “the last time I went, we fit about six people in a double bedroom. Half of us had costumes and face paint, so the line to the bathroom took forever.”

Her head bobbled. “What’s happening, outside of the conventions?” she said.

“There’s a ton of on-line stuff,” I said. “The clawscratches blog is big. There’s cyber and chat on Tapestries and SarnMUCK. I’ve been to more art sites than I can count. MassFur used to have lunches around here, but they’ve mostly fallen apart now.”

She lifted herself off the couch and offered me a notepad and a pen. “If you wouldn’t mind. I won’t be able to remember all this,” she said.

I scribbled down all the resources I had on the top of my head and left my email for any I couldn’t remember.

She took the pad, and flipped me a gold-etched business card. “I don’t think we’re going to get any further on this tonight,” she said, “but I would like to keep in touch.”

It read, “Elory K. Burke, Stellar,” above her address and email. The text ended three-quarters of the way down, leaving white space. I thought it must have been printed off-center.

“Sure,” I said. “And really, you have no idea what tried to kill me outside?”

She halted in mid-step and sat in front of me. “I’m not joking with you. I really don’t know,” she said. “The last time I felt that way, I was in my room and I had candles burning. I was waiting, and I sensed that I had to stop and turn around. So I opened my eyes, and I saw my shadow climbing up the wall and onto the ceiling. I was such a little thing beside it, and the room was drafty so the flames made it dance. It could have consumed me, but I stood up to it, and it did not. But it could have. That’s what I felt with you.”

She waited, to make sure I understood, and then carried our drinks to the kitchen. She returned with the money I had given her and folded it into my hand. She wrapped my fingers over the bills. “You don’t pay for gifts,” she said.

I didn’t object. It meant I could order take-out food on the way home. “Thank you. I really appreciate this,” I said. “Hey, this Saturday I’m going to a game night in Newton with some friends. It’s open, and you’re welcome to join us.”

She slid on her coat in the hallway. “I’ll see,” she said. “I might have some errands that night, but I’ll keep it in mind.”

We dressed for the road, and she led me to her car. The passenger seat was vacuumed with a trace of new-car scent. She pulled us out of her driveway and I looked back at her house. I asked, “What do you do for a living?”

We flew past the hill in a second. “I’m sales manager at Edwards Chemicals,” she said. “Not like they need it. And yourself?”

“Outlaw tech support,” I said. “I help customers of other companies’ software, mostly without those companies’ consent.”

“That is something,” she said. “Do they let you wear your tail in the office?”

“They don’t even know about it,” I said.

She held the bottom of the steering wheel and nodded.

We stopped in the parking lot and she turned off the car while I slid out. I turned carefully to her. Even though my tail had a knack for staying out of my way, it required a dancer’s grace when I wasn’t moving.

“Do you mind if I tell my friends about what happened tonight?” I said.

She bent over the parking brake. “Of course I don’t,” she said. “Why do you think you need my permission?”

“I have the feeling that whatever’s going on, there are rules I should follow,” I said.

She offered me a satisfied smirk and reached over for my door’s handle. “You’re something else,” she said, and pulled it shut.

While she drove home, I paused on the edge of a street lamp’s pool. My shadow followed dutifully when I waved my hand. Since she was gone, I finally had an inkling of why I wanted to wear my tail. I didn’t want to be a fox, but fox-like. I wanted a voice in a world that I understood, but kept me helpless. Shakespeare annoyed me with his heterosexism, as if one person could ever be enough to completely satisfy another. I couldn’t talk to the girls in my home town when I lived there. Attleboro was a low-rent place where everybody talked about the TV show “Friends” until a neighbor did something “interesting.” Their idea of wild sex was to have the girl on top. Jennifer, Trisha and I would gape in horror at the mass of Fenway fans sloshed in the streets, exclaiming that it was the highlight of their lives. If I was going to tolerate their idiosyncrasies, they would have to deal with mine.

I had a completely uneventful ride home. The Chinese food I picked up was exquisite.

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

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