What a shitty day.
It was roasting hot outside, I was sweating, and my bike had gotten a flat tire en route home from work. And before that, I’d had to stop some stupid assholes from harassing the houseless guy that panhandled in front of the game store. People being jerks seemed to be on the rise.
Plus, I was hangry.
Ignoring my growling stomach, I pushed my way into the bathroom down the hall. The house felt empty. Housemates were all still at work. That was good. I could use a little quiet.
I splashed cold water on my face in the cracked white basin, and reached, half blindly, for the bright orange towel.
It moved. I swore it did.
Don’t be a doofus, Candy.
I grabbed the towel and mopped at my face then spluttered.
My lips were stuck with…fur?
“Gross! What the hell?”
I blinked, and scraped my hands across my face, trying to clear the disgusting whatever-it-was from my mouth and cheeks. Fur, like hair, sticks to wet things. I needed a towel. My towel.
“Sorry about that,” said a small, raspy voice. “Poor timing on my part. But I really needed to talk to you.”
My heart pounded and sweat broke out on the back of my neck. Whipping my head around, I scanned the room one-eyed, the other eye shut against what was likely one thin strand of fur, but felt like a whole sweater.
I looked down, and leapt back, crashing into the shower door. “Ouch!”
There was a fox in the bathroom. A big fox. All orange and bristly, with black paws, a black nose, and a damn white tip on its bushy tail.
“What the hell?”
“You’re repeating yourself, so I will, too. I apologize for my poor timing.” The fox had started speaking slowly, as if to a small child whom it really needed to understand. Its black tipped snout moved, though I had no idea how it was forming human words. “I..need…to…speak…with…”
“Oh cut it out! I hear you. Just…go to the kitchen! I’ve got to wash my face again. That is, if you’ve left me any clean towels!”
“Oh, that towel is quite clean, I assure you. Or as clean as it was when I arrived. You may wish to change it out though. It smells as if you’ve been using it for at least a week, and towels are bacteria breeding grounds…”
I pointed to the door. “Out.”
The fox dipped its head, and then trotted past me on dainty black feet. I shoved the door closed and looked down at the towel. No fur. I sniffed it. The fox was right. The towel needed changing. But I could deal with that later.
Hanging the towel back on the rack, I turned the water back on and bent to wash my face. I used soap this time.
I opened the bathroom door and heard the soft rumble of the electric kettle and the clink of spoons. What the hell? Yeah. Maybe I needed a different phrase. But this whole situation was utterly surreal. Sure, a fox cleric was my go-to RPG character, but that didn’t mean I expected an actual talking fox to have shown up and done something weird to my towel.
Or be able to work my kettle.
As I clopped my sneakered feet down the bright hallway, I tried to get my shit together. I entered the red and white decorated kitchen with the worn black and white linoleum tiles, and the clacking Felix-the-Cat wall clock. The fox had dragged a chair over to the crappy white countertop and was pulling a mug from the cupboard with its mouth. I about lost it.
“How the?” Great, Candy. Real articulate.
But really? All I had wanted was to get my limping bicycle home, wash my face, and stare out the living room with a cup of tea in hand. I so wasn’t prepared for a face full of fur and a fox in my kitchen.
“You’re pretty easily surprised for a person who spends so much time dreaming up ogres and wizards and going on whole adventures with them. Do you take milk in your tea?”
The fox looked at me with big dark eyes rimmed in white and black. For the first time I noticed, it was kind of beautiful.
Saying nothing, I walked to the ‘fridge and pulled out a small carton of half and half.
“How are you gonna pour that?” I finally asked, jerking my chin toward the shiny red electric kettle.
“By using your hands,” it replied, cool and calm as you please.
I set the carton down, got two tea bags from the glass canister on the countertop, and poured. The fox trotted over to the small red table tucked by the window that looked out onto our overgrown backyard. Hopping up on one of the white wooden chairs, tail curled around its black paws, the fox sat straight-backed. Waiting for me.
“Do you take milk in your tea?” I asked. Two could play the cool-as-you-please game.
The fox tilted its long snout down. “Of course,” it replied.
Of course a magic talking fox takes milk in its tea, I thought. What else would you expect?
I plunked the heavy mugs down on the table and sat down. Scrubbing my hands across my face, I released a sigh.
You’d think I would feel ecstatic to have a talking fox in my kitchen, but really? Sometimes a person just wants an ordinary life, you know? No matter how much we play at knights and castles, dragons and magic amulets, we really just want a stable job that pays the bills and a place to sleep at night.
The fox sniffed at the steam curling out of the mug.
“So,” I picked up my mug and took a sip. “What’s your name? And are you going to explain what you’re doing here? Also, my towel? Seriously? What kind of magical creature uses a towel as a portal, for Gods’ sakes?”
The fox lapped at the tea, long tongue flicking out delicately, rolling the liquid into its mouth.
“My name is Tracy,” it said. “And why not a towel?”
“I thought you…” I waved a hand in the air, “types.”
The fox arched one bushy eyebrow.
“You know, magical beings,” I continued. “I thought you used mirrors as portals.”
The fox sighed and lapped up some more tea. It was amazing that it could drink from a mug and not spill anything. I could barely manage that some days.
“Different beings use different things. I like towels. They’re soft and easy to manage. Mirrors are hard and cold and feel weird when you’re halfway through. Walking through a towel is like walking through a sunbeam. Besides, what makes you so sure I’m a magical being?”
I shook my head.
“That towel thing is bizarre, but okay. And why do I think you’re magic? Come on. You use towels as inter-dimensional portals, and you talk. Plus…” I paused and gave the animal another look. “You kind of glow around the edges.”
The fox didn’t reply. I took that as a yes, I’m magical but not admitting it, answer.
“Not being a magical fox myself,” I said, “I’ll have to take your word for the portal thing. And I hope you give me some credit here for not being a gibbering mess on the floor right now. Most people would be, you know.”
I could swear the fox smiled.
“That’s why I’m here,” it said. “You’re not most people.”
Now, everyone wants to hear they’re special, but color me skeptical. Telling someone “you’re not like other fill-in-the-group” is the oldest con in the book.
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. So I did, and drank some more tea. A hummingbird buzzed the window. The fox jerked its head toward the glass and gave that snout-dipping nod again. The hummer buzzed away.
Okay. Were all the local creatures in on this?
“What I mean,” the fox continued, “is that you have a unique confluence of an open and curious mind, a flexible sense of reality, no family you’re responsible for, and you already have skills in the area I’m interested in pursuing.”
“And what area is that?”
“You understand fantasy role-playing games.”
“You want us to what?” Rina yelped. We were hanging out in the living room, arrayed on the cozy overstuffed couch, feet up on the battered coffee table. Rina, a short, curvy, brown-skinned creampuff of badass, tapped the toes of her boots together in irritation.
“Yeah,” said Solomon, lighting up a joint. “I don’t get this at all.”
A big, pasty, Jewish dude with five o’clock shadow and a black leather kippah, he sat on one of the matching club chairs covered in fake-tapestry-blankets with stylized dragons on them. What can I say? We’re geeks, and we’re relatively broke. He passed the joint my way. I handed it to Rina.
Things were weird enough as it was. I needed as clear a head as possible to explain the entity currently hiding out in my bedroom.
A talking fox.
“I’m going to need you to suspend disbelief for a minute. Pretend you’re in a new RPG, okay?”
Rina huffed and crossed her arms over her ample chest. Solomon took another puff on the joint and nodded before tapping it out in an ashtray. He was a two puff a day guy.
“A magic fox came to us with a proposition.”
“To us?” Rina asked. Maybe she needed more pot. That one puff hadn’t made her any more chill, that’s for sure.
“Yes. Well…to me, first. But it can use our help.”
“And what is it that this fox wants us to do?” Solomon asked.
“It needs humans to collaborate on a game. To seed more magic in the world, it said.” I was kind of wishing I’d taken a hit off the joint. Rubbing my hands on my jeans, I took a breath. “It says the realm of faery is in danger of completely separating from the human world if more humans don’t start to believe.”
Solomon leaned forward, elbows on the knees of his black cargo pants. “Seems like that would be a good thing for faery,” he said. “Less interference by human bullshit. Just let us go our way. Make our own mistakes. Orchestrate our own demise.”
“Well that’s cheerful,” Rina said. She touched my arm. “I still don’t get it, though, Candy. Are you making shit up? Or is this fox real? Like physically real? Or what?”
I angled my head and called up the stairs.
“Tracy! We’re ready for you!”
Well, that was an overstatement, wasn’t it? No one could be ready for a talking fox.
Tracy’s slender orange form appeared at the top of the oak staircase.
“You called me?” Their raspy voice was quiet, barely audible over Solomon’s heavy breathing and the strange, mewling noise Rina was making with her throat.
“Yes. It seemed simpler to introduce you in person. Come down?”
Tracy barely made a sound on the creaky old stairs, disappearing behind the couch for a moment, before emerging into the living room.
“Holy shit,” Solomon breathed out. “You’re an actual, talking fox. Just like in the games.”
Tracy leapt up onto the other chair, circling three times before settling onto the second dragon fake-tapestry-blanket.
“What do you want to know?” the fox asked.
Rina and Solomon looked at each other. Then at me.
They both avoided looking at the fox.
“Go ahead,” I finally said. “What do you want to ask?”
Rina swallowed, hard. She was trembling a little bit. I stopped myself from reaching out to grab her hand. I had a feeling this was something she had to do herself.
“So…” her voice was reedy, as if she wasn’t getting enough air. Rina cleared her throat and tried again. “Candy says you need help. That faery will separate from the world or something?”
“That’s right,” Tracy replied.
“And why isn’t that a good thing?” Solomon asked, running a hand over his stubble.
The fox fixed him with its dark gaze. Solomon stared right back. I was impressed. He seemed to be recovering quickly, though I could see his fingers tapping to light up the joint again.
“If the realms separate completely, one of the worlds will die.”
The words hung in the air like smoke from a California wildfire.
“And it won’t be faery, will it?” Rina asked.
Tracy gave a little shrug of its small, umber shoulders. “Could go either way. But the way humans are going so far? It’s likely that your realm will be the one to die. Or at least your race.”
“Like, the human race?” Solomon rumbled.
“Exactly,” Tracy replied.
Solomon and Rina both looked at me again, waiting for me to say something. To be the Dungeon Master in charge of this new game.
“If you’re in,” I said, “we should order up a pizza and start to make a plan.”
Solomon slipped his cell from one of the many pockets on his cargo pants and hit dial. He had at least three pizza places programmed into his phone.
“One meat, one veggie okay?”
“Extra cheese, please,” the fox said.
“You eat pizza?” I asked.
“Doesn’t everyone?” it replied.
That was five years ago.
Slowly, the story came out. Tracy had been watching me for a while, peering through curtain fabric and towels, making sure I was the right one. I didn’t want to think about that too hard. If Tracy saw some things that were embarrassing, the fox kept it to itself.
I now have a pretty good job running a small gaming company, with Rina and Solomon as my seconds in command. Together, we’ve made enough to put a down payment on a house. Who wants to live alone? Our friends test drive the games, for the price of a pizza and snacks.
Tracy literally pops in once a week to confer.
What does Tracy get out of it? The fox insists we’re saving the world. Sometimes I still find that hard to believe.
But then again, we’re still here, aren’t we?
And anything that makes the world a little more fun and magical? That’s okay by me.
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