by Tristan Black Wolf
He stuck his snow-white muzzle through the open passenger-side window of my van, blinked his crystalline blue eyes and hesitated. “You’re human,” he said.
“I don’t mean to be.”
I saw him wince. “I’m sorry; that was rude.”
“I’ve already forgotten about it. Perhaps it would help if you told me where you wanted to go?”
“I’m headed for the coast.”
“I’m aimed west, and I plan on going until there’s no more road. Close enough?”
He managed a shy grin that looked sweet on his muzzle and moved to put his stuff into the back seat area of the van. His luggage consisted of a duffel bag and a guitar case. He climbed into the passenger seat, rearranging his tail carefully to accommodate the captain’s-chair style of the seat, and closed the door. He looked at me, still nervous. A young man—pardon me, a young male, of the arctic fox line, if I wasn’t mistaken. His denim pants and dark t-shirt weren’t new, but they were well taken care of. He wore no shoes; I had a passing thought, gratitude that I’d actually vacuumed out the floor of the van only a few days ago.
“My name is Darius,” I said, “as in dry-as-dust.” It was my turn to hesitate. “Are you comfortable with shaking hands?”
He looked at my outstretched hand, grasped it tentatively. His paw—should I perhaps call it a hand?—was warm and smooth, with the fur on the back of it soft and glistening white. I didn’t squeeze or shake his hand with undue vigor; he returned the clasp with gentle firmness. “I’m Angelo.”
“Welcome aboard, Angelo.” I signaled, pulled back onto the freeway. We were far enough away from the last town that no one argued with me about how much road I was allowed to have. After a moment or two more of silence, I asked, “What’s on the coast?”
“Maybe some luck,” he said. “I’m hoping to find someone or someplace that might take me on as a singer-songwriter.”
“Solo, or with a band?”
“Either.” He hesitated again, and I had the feeling that he was shivering.
“Angelo,” I said softly, “are you cold?”
A mile or so passed. My new passenger stared at the road and barely moved. I wasn’t sure if I was going to break this ice or not.
“I haven’t hitchhiked before,” he said suddenly.
I nodded. “What made you start?”
He looked away briefly. “An argument. A stupid argument.” He paused. “Maybe most arguments are stupid. I don’t know, I just needed to get away. I’m not running from the law or anything,” he added, regarding me sharply.
“No worries. Most people who travel aren’t escaping much of anything but themselves.”
He seemed to examine me a bit. “You sound like a doctor, or a philosopher.”
That got a laugh out of me. “Far from it. Just an old wanderer myself. Too nosy for my own good, with a platitude for every occasion. Dear Abby to the western world.”
I smiled. “A bit before your time.”
Another few moments passed. Angelo still sat very still, looking out ahead of us, to his right, back again. The long summer evening was just beginning; it would probably be light for another few hours at least. I caught the slightest movement out of the corner of my eye—I deduced (quite brilliantly, no doubt) that it was the tip of his tail, performing a nervous twitch. “What sort of songs do you write? Do you have a particular genre or theme?”
“Not really. I like a lot of different types of music.”
“I’ve got pretty wide selection myself. Here,” I said, switching on the CD player. “I was listening to this just before I picked you up.”
The strange and sweet refrains of October Project filled the van—
Take me as I am
Someone you don’t know
Even in the dark
You may not be sure
Take me while you can
I can see you standing in the smoky entrance
Giving up your good intentions
Leave the shadows dancing
Dancing on their own
Let the moment free you now,
Leave it all behind you
I’ll know where you’ve gone
Let the world go on…
I half-sang under my breath, haunted as I always am by this particular song. When next I glanced over at my passenger, I found him all but staring at the stereo. He seemed thunderstruck, entranced, as if hearing something that he recognized as being somehow part of himself. I let the song continue without interruption until it ended. I took a chance and turned off the CD player. Angelo blinked, as if coming out of a trance. He looked at me, seemed to be embarrassed and shrank back a little into his seat.
“That’s a favorite of mine,” I said. “Old, by today’s standards, I guess.”
“It’s really beautiful,” he said softly. He looked at me again, and I couldn’t read what was going on in his mind; his eyes held some sort of change in the way that he regarded me, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. “That’s the sort of thing that I’d really like to be able to say with my music. I haven’t been able to. Not yet.”
“Why do you say that?”
I shrugged. “Partly to be encouraging.”
“And the rest?”
Again, I glanced at him. “I have the feeling that you’ll know what to say when the time comes.”
Angelo looked down, then out the passenger window again. I thought I heard a sigh come from him. I didn’t press the issue.
After about half an hour, filled in mostly with silence, the road led us through enough civilization to reveal a scattering of fast-food places. “Feeling hungry?”
“Not really,” said my passenger.
“I could do with a bite.” I looked over. “If it’s a question of cash, I’d be happy to buy something for you.”
“I don’t want to—”
“It’s okay,” I interrupted gently, smiling. “I’m not rich, but I can afford a burger or a sandwich. Do you have a preference? What sort of food are you in the mood for?” He looked like he was about to object once more. “Angelo,” I said very softly. “I promise that I wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t wanted to. Besides, eating alone—even at a fast-food place—just feels too isolated for me. I’m glad of your company.”
He took a breath, and slowly a smile spread across his muzzle. He nodded. “Okay. Thank you. And I eat just about anything.”
I considered making some sort of scavenger joke, but I didn’t know how it would come across, so I thought better of it.
After a very few miles, I pointed out a place that Angelo agreed had food that was actually edible, and I turned into it. There was a sufficiency of parking places, and I pulled into one, put the van in park, and switched off the engine. As I worked to get my seat belt unfastened, I noticed Angelo looking at me a bit strangely. “I thought we might use the drive-through,” he said.
“I figured I needed a break from being behind the wheel. I get highway hypnosis after several hours of driving. We don’t have to stay long; I want to put some more miles behind us, believe me.”
Angelo hesitated briefly, then stepped out of the van and closed the door. I used the key fob to lock up, and we went into the restaurant.
The place was nearly empty, perhaps only because it was on the highway instead of closer into town, or because it was a weeknight instead of the weekend. An old man sat in one corner, nursing a cup of coffee and looking at a newspaper as if it could somehow explain where the world—the one he’d been born into and grew up in—had disappeared to. I could see a couple of fry-cooks in the back, and a very bored young girl at the cash register who looked as if she had sold her soul to minimum wage, only now realizing how badly she’d been screwed.
I stepped up and ordered, asking Angelo what he wanted. He seemed hesitant again, looking at the cashier with trepidation. He ordered light, just a chicken sandwich and a drink, no fries. I asked if he didn’t want to expand on that a little, and I hoped that I read his body language correctly when I added some fried cheese sticks that I said we’d share. I turned back to the cashier, who didn’t seem to have heard me. I repeated the order, politely if a trifle more loudly, and she finally pushed the buttons to make the machine work. She quoted a price, I handed over the cash, and I took the receipt from her. After this, she all but ran back into the kitchen area.
The food would take a minute or two, so we got our drinks from the fountain near the counter, and I waved us over to a table that gave us a little privacy. I let out a hearty and sincere sigh of relaxation as I stretched out my legs and sat in something other than the driver’s chair for the first time in a good number of hours. Angelo took the side of the table nearest the wall and tucked himself carefully into the seat, looking around at what passed for décor in the place. “They always seem the same,” I said. He looked at me oddly for a moment. I waved a hand briefly in the air around me. “I guess they want people to feel that the environment is familiar. Wherever you go, one of these chain stores looks just like another.”
“I really wouldn’t know.”
I shrugged. “I’d probably be healthier if I didn’t eat so often in these places. It’s reasonably good and quick when I’m on the road. More of that now than there used to be.”
A voice from somewhere behind the counter bellowed out something that sounded like “Sixty-two!” I took the cue to go pick up our food. The man waiting behind the counter looked at me a little oddly, and two young fry-cooks seemed to peer as best they could from their posts toward the back of the kitchen area. I patted my hair gently and smiled at them. “Really, fellahs,” I said lightly, “anyone would think that you’d never seen a supermodel up close!”
The guy in front of me backed up suddenly, nearly knocking over a stack of cardboard drink caddies, while the kids in the back tried desperately to stop their laughter. I made the best of a good exit line and sashayed back to the table with the tray. The old man at the back table looked up at me over his paper, his eyes floating owlishly behind thick lenses. I gave him an exaggerated wink; his eyebrows went up a little. He shrugged his shoulders casually and went back to his reading.
Angelo looked up at me as if I were mad. I set the tray in front of him, smiling. “Zere, put zat behind your necktie.”
I shook my head and grinned. “Just a line from a movie, a long time ago. I’m a wealth of useless information; if you hang around me long enough, you’ll probably hear more of it than you really wanted to know.” I chuckled, indicating the food. “Dig in. This stuff is usually only edible when it’s significantly above room temperature.”
The first of my two cheeseburgers disappeared in direct proportion to my ravenous appetite. It took Angelo a little longer to get interested in his food, but he finally dug into his own kit and, as I’d suspected, he didn’t let the fried cheese sticks go to waste. We chewed more than we conversed, and that made a certain amount of sense to me at the time. I was slightly wired from the drive, and the caffeine didn’t help much; I figured we might be able to manage another two hours or so of road before I’d have to crash for the night. I wasn’t sure how Angelo would react to that, but that was for later. At that moment, I just wanted to satisfy my craving for cholesterol, sodium chloride, hot sauce, and whatever else was in these idiot burgers that made them addictive.
Back in the van and on the road yet again, conversation was slow to pick up; postprandial narcosis was thick with both of us, although I couldn’t let myself nod off while at the wheel. I noticed that the sun was closer to the horizon, made a rough guess about when it would set, and started thinking about packing it in for the night. The next mileage sign that we passed suggested a town of reasonable size that we would reach somewhere close to sunset, which suited me well. Driving west is romantic, but when the great flaming gas ball in the sky is boring holes into your eyes, the romance flags just a bit.
“Angelo, I’m starting to feel a little tired of driving. If I’m right, there are some motels maybe an hour or so up ahead, and a double doesn’t cost much more than a single.”
I glanced over, not too surprised by what I saw—one very nervous arctic fox who really didn’t want to show it.
“I know I’m a stranger,” I said. “I guess I should probably tell you also that I’m gay, in case that matters to you, but I’m not predatory. I’m only suggesting a room with two beds, nothing more. In the morning, we can keep on going west.”
He didn’t speak for a long moment. “I guess I couldn’t ask you to let me sleep in the van. You don’t know me either, and it’s reasonable to think that I might drive off with it in the middle of the night.”
“I really don’t think you’d do that.” I looked at him again briefly. “If you’d rather, then I’ll help you get comfortable in the van.”
Slowly, he relaxed. “If you can trust me in your van, then I guess I can trust you in a motel room. But at least let me chip in a little for that.”
I nodded. “Perfectly fair. Although if you’re shy on cash, maybe—”
“As you said, I wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t wanted to.” I saw him smile at me. “This morning, I wasn’t sure where I would sleep, or even if I’d sleep. Thank you, Darius. You’re making me start to believe in luck.”
“Keep that up, and we’ll have to buy a lottery ticket.”
It was a place sort of like the one that keeps the light on for you, except not part of that august chain, and I wasn’t entirely sure if the night clerk who checked me in could be bothered to make sure that I got a clean room, much less a working light. However, a fairly small amount of money and a room key later, I pulled around toward the back of the motel area and let myself and Angelo into our little home from home. A small sign on the door announced that it was a non-smoking room, as I’d requested. And yes, the room was neat and the lights worked. Probably the day staff’s job.
Angelo brought in his duffle and guitar case, setting them on the bed furthest from the door. I tossed my own duffle onto the other bed. He looked around, still nervous but much less so than I’d thought he would be. Perhaps my Dale Carnegie course had paid off after all.
“Smells pretty clean,” he said.
I looked at him. “I never thought about that, actually. I guess you…” I hesitated. “Stop me if I’m being a jerk. I was just thinking that you probably have a really good sense of smell. Is that … I don’t know, speciesist or something?”
For the first time since we met, Angelo laughed out loud. “It’s no secret. You’re very discreet.”
“More like ignorant,” I admitted. “I’ve never had a chance to meet many therianthropes. I’m not even sure if that’s an acceptable term.”
“I’ve heard worse,” he said, sitting on his bed. He looked at me with amusement touching the corners of his mouth, his eyes smiling. “I guess I might be a bit of a jerk if I say that you’re about the nicest human I’ve met up with.”
“No argument from me,” I said, opening my duffle. “A lot of the humans that I know aren’t nearly as nice as you are. Not sure why that is, except that humans seem to be far more prone to run to judgment rather than to understanding.” I shook my head, waved a hand in the air. “I’m sorry, I’m getting cynical in my dotage. Sometimes, saying that people are prejudiced is itself prejudicial.”
He looked at me carefully. “It’s an important point for you,” he observed.
I shrugged. “An old Indian once told me that when you point your finger at someone, three more fingers are pointed back at yourself. Guess I try to keep that in mind.”
“You’re a very gentle soul, Darius.”
That comment made me look up sharply. My young companion sat on his bed, his crystal blue eyes regarding me with some emotion that I couldn’t really fathom—nothing the least bit threatening, just incredibly unexpected. I smiled. “Thank you, Angelo.” I picked out a few things that I needed to get ready for my nightly conference with Morpheus and took them to the large countertop near the bathroom sink. “I have a sort of odd tradition on the road,” I said, turning to face my guest. “I like having some nice cold chocolate milk before bedtime. There’s a convenience store a short walk past the parking lot. Can I get anything for you while I’m there?”
“I love chocolate milk,” he grinned.
“Two chocolate milks for the chocoholics in room 128,” I said. I put the room key in my pocket and said, “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be here,” he said. As I closed the door to the room, it seemed to me that there was a shade more sincerity in the voice than was strictly merited. Or perhaps that was only wishful thinking.
The store may once have been part of a chain, but its look was more independent now, by which I mean that it was more seedy than was strictly necessary. I figured that the milk would be sealed and probably safe unless it wasn’t chilled properly. On that score, I lucked out—there looked to be a few ice crystals at the top of each of the pint bottles that I pulled out of the ice chests. I set about looking for other items, in case something attracted my attention, when I heard the door open again. A young husky walked in, cleanly dressed, shoulders very slightly hunched as if not wanting to attract too much attention to himself. I saw the two human guys behind the counter nudge one another after the pup went past them. I lingered just long enough to be a few seconds behind the husky when he returned to the counter.
“Just this, please,” said the therianthrope politely, setting a single bottle of beer on the counter.
“You got any ID?” said the gruff, grizzled man behind the counter. The husky withdrew a state-issued drivers license from his windbreaker pocket and handed it to the man, who looked it over with some suspicion. “Yer how old?”
“I turned 22 a few months ago.”
“That a fact.” The man looked up with a nasty grin. “In dog years, you’re only three years old.”
This got a guffaw from the cashier’s equally grizzled friend, who squatted on a stool behind the counter as if he were somehow important to the running of the place. The husky didn’t move; I had the sense of a blush deep beneath the fur on his muzzle, although that may have been communicated by some other body language that I wasn’t conscious of. He tried to smile and didn’t quite make it. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he said. “I’ll have to tell my mom that.”
“Yeah, I guess an old bitch would like to hear something like that.” The proprietor smirked as the husky clearly fought to keep some dignity. “Well, that’s the right word for a female dog, ain’t it? Bitch? Just bein’ poli-ticky kee-rect.”
That was enough for the silent sidekick to start holding his sides, braying like—well, I can’t say that without insulting a mule somewhere. I could see the husky’s fur starting to rise, an instinctive reaction that humans also can do, just without anything like the impressive display that the pup could provide if pressed much further. I stepped up to one side, slowly, setting down the two pints of milk. As I hoped, the cashier tossed the license at the husky as if dismissing him. The card fell on the counter, and I took a big chance picking it up and looking at it.
“Hey,” I said as disarmingly as I could. “You take a good picture. My picture stinks, wanna see?” I handed the license back to the pup, who looked at me strangely. I dug out my wallet and held out my license to him. “I look like I should be pinned up on the post office wall, don’t I?”
I’d grabbed the action away from both sides of the counter; now I had to keep it going. The husky still wasn’t sure what was going on. “Here,” I said, “let me show these guys; man, I look like crap.” I took the license gently from him and handed it to the cashier. “Well, that’s what I get for creeping up on 50, isn’t it? I’m just gettin’ too damned old to look good for a photo. Hey, fellah, if you don’t want that beer, I’ll take it. I’m gonna need somethin’ to help me get some sleep if my boys don’t calm down. Driving always gets ‘em in an uproar. Tough being on the road.” I slid the beer bottle next to my two bottles of milk. “How much is that altogether?”
The cashier had glanced at my license, handed it back to me and rang up the purchase. I passed over a fiver, got a little change back, took up my purchases. I made motions as if I were just about to leave, when I looked at the beer again and frowned. “Aw hell, I really ought to quit with this stuff. Ain’t good to drink before another long day of driving, is it?” I looked at the husky. “Would you like to have this?”
The lad looked at me in complete disbelief. The cashier said, “Mister, we don’t have to serve their kind at this place! We don’t want ‘em here.”
“But you sold it to me. And I don’t want it, so I’m giving it to him.”
“I saw his license. He’s of age. I can give him a beer if he wants one.” I gave the husky the bottle and put an arm around him to guide him out the door. “By the way, you just rang up a sale to a homo. I hope that’s not against the rules.”
The cashier sputtered, “You said you had boys with you!”
“What else would a homo have with him? G’night, y’all!”
I got the husky out the door and quickly down to the end of the parking lot. With one hand on his shoulder, I looked at him and said, “I only hope to God you’re passing through this town, because I just screwed both of our chances of buying anything from those people ever again!”
The husky laughed and said, “Mister, I’m gonna have to tell this story to my grandpups … if I ever have any.”
“Got a girlfriend?” I asked.
“You’ve got a head start.” I grinned at him. “Get home safely, okay?”
“Hey, wait.” He hesitated. “Can I ask…?”
“Because I can’t help being born human, but I can damn well give it the lie. We’re not all like that.”
“I know,” he said softly, and smiled. “I don’t come up against people like that very often. More in this part of the country, I guess. I would have just left.”
“Now, you’ve left with your beer. And that’s better than leaving with so much angry redneck crap rubbing up your fur the wrong way.”
“Can I pay you…?”
“Pay it forward. You know how.”
He extended a forepaw to me. “Rollie.”
I shook his paw warmly. “Mud.”
And we both laughed, heading in our separate directions.
As I unlocked the door to the room, I caught a few notes of guitar music from within. I stepped in with the pints of milk. “He returns, triumphant from the lists!”
Angelo chuckled. He sat on his bed, back propped against the wall, his guitar held in front of him. He had removed his shirt, and I did my best not to stare and the brilliant white fur that covered him thickly, softly, all over. The musculature beneath was well formed and neatly defined beneath the pelt. I handed him his bottle, opened and raised mine in salute, taking a nice draught from it.
“I’m hoping I won’t disturb anyone with the guitar,” he said. “I’ve been playing very softly.”
“For what it’s worth, I didn’t hear anything at all until I opened the door. The walls seem thick enough, I think. An amplifier, that might be a problem.”
“Are you ready to sleep? I can stop…”
“Don’t you dare!” I grinned. “I’m looking to put my feet up and relax for a bit. I need to wind down from a day on the road, and I think some guitar music would suit the bill just fine.”
He gave me that shy look again, the one that brought some coloration to the cheek areas just below his eyes—a blush, on the human animal, and a sweetly endearing effect on the face of this arctic fox. He took up his guitar and strummed a few soft chords, then began picking out a deceptively simple-sounding melody. I sat on my bed, took off my shoes and socks, listening intently. A bridge or other connective theme rocked gently between two contrasting keys—I don’t know how to describe it well, I just know how to really appreciate it. During this passage, Angelo closed his eyes and let his body rock with the music. His chin up, his ears forward, he seemed to let the music come from some deep place in his soul. I could almost see the notes in the air, dancing about him, almost feel the music as if it were a soft, warm blanket that I wanted to curl up and feel safe in.
He returned to the rambling melody line. After letting the guitar sing it once for him, he came back around and sang it once for himself:
Memo dated Monday, 9 AM
To whom it may concern
I’m the one who took back my life,
Left the old one here to burn.
I’m sorry for the mess I left,
But it wasn’t mine to start;
Perhaps someone else can use the pieces
That you’d stolen from my heart.
His voice caressed my ears with a lover’s touch, a gentle tenor with the natural cry given to the singer-songwriter whose teacher was his own burning need to be heard. The fingers of his nimble paws made love to the guitar as he sang, not a note out of place, not a movement wasted. He let the guitar take a turn at the melody, then he slowed and rounded out the piece with a few strummed chords.
He stared at me for a few seconds before I realized that I was quite literally gaping.
“Darius?” he asked gently.
“Angelo, forgive me.” I shook myself a bit, then smiled. “That’s … you’re amazing. I’m guessing that’s your song?”
“Yes. I’ve had the melody for a while, and the words started coming to me today. Well…” Again, the blush. “Tonight, actually. The idea was with me earlier, but the verse … that’s new.”
“It’s beautiful.” I sobered slightly. “A lot of hurt in there.”
“It’s the whole angsty poet thing.” He grinned mischievously at first, then he too sobered. “Yeah,” he agreed after a moment. “A lot of hurt. I guess that’s what songwriters do with their hurt. The good ones, anyway.”
“I want to hear the whole song, when it’s finished. Maybe even on the radio.”
Angelo chuckled. “I’ll just work on finishing it first.”
I smiled, stood up. “I’m going to run some hot water over me, loosen up my muscles a little. Keep playing, if you like. I’ll be back out in a minute.”
I went into the bathroom, undressed, stood under the hot water for several minutes, let the needle spray massage my skin and muscles. Angelo, if he was playing, was doing it softly enough for the music not to penetrate the sound of the cascading water. I found myself torn between wanting to keep showering and to go back and listen some more. Eventually, I figured I’d had enough hosing down, shut off the water, and dried myself. I wrapped a towel around my middle, and after hesitating only a moment, I walked back into the room.
Angelo still sat on his bed, strumming his guitar softly. He looked up and smiled at me, and I returned the favor. The music that he was playing was lighter somehow, sweeter, slower. It was something that could provide the support for something like a love song, or just a song about feeling content. It was relaxing, and I gathered he had decided that perhaps I needed to relax.
I sat on my bed, pivoted, and sat with my back against the headboard, content simply to sit and listen for however long he wanted to play. It was perhaps another five minutes or so before he paused and set the guitar aside. He shifted on his bed to look at me. “I’d like to thank you.”
“You’re welcome, for whatever it is.” I smiled. “I’m really glad to have met you, Angelo.”
After a pause, he said, “I didn’t want to go inside that restaurant this evening. I don’t go into restaurants too much, unless they’re clearly frequented by others like me. There are very few places that cater only to my kind, and not too terribly many that seem comfortable with a mix of human and…” He paused, snorted a little laugh. “I keep saying ‘my kind,’ as some kind of label. There’s no equivalent term for us, as there is for humans; after all, you’re a single species, and we’re sort of all over the place.”
I had to laugh, gently, at the description. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. And I’m sorry you’ve had bad experiences with humans, Angelo. Believe me when I say that I have too.”
“It’s not all that bad,” he said. “It’s not like all of us walk around in constant fear. I’ve read about human history, particularly in this country, since I live here. I think you might equate our experience with the black people of the early 20th century. In a lot of ways, our problems aren’t as severe as theirs.”
“Humans do grow, or at least most of us do.” I smiled wanly. “There are people who want us all to go back to ancient days when skin color was about the only thing that mattered— social status, jobs, money. All of it was tied to pigmentation. It might be like foxes deciding that the white fur is superior to the brown or gray or black.”
“Well of course white foxes are superior!” We laughed together, and as his laughter subsided, I saw something cross his eyes like a cloud across the sun. It was gone quickly, and I wasn’t sure that I should say anything about it. He saved me the trouble by saying, “You’re the first human who ever took me somewhere—into a restaurant. You didn’t even think twice about it.”
“Why would I?” I asked, genuinely confused.
“That’s what I mean.” He smiled at me softly. “I wasn’t anything different, as far as you were concerned. You weren’t ashamed to be with me, or…” He held up a forepaw to forestall my protests. “You’d be surprised,” he continued. “I’ve had some human friends who, for one reason or another, would never walk with me into a store or a restaurant or whatever. We never really spoke of it, and I grew up thinking that it was somehow normal. Not ‘right,’ necessarily, but normal.” He looked at me, his crystalline eyes revealing great emotion. “Thank you, Darius.”
I sat up and faced him. “You’re entirely welcome, Angelo.” I paused and said, “I feel that you’ve had some very bad experiences simply for being what you are. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through things like that.”
His eyes widened. “Darius, I’m so sorry—”
I waved a hand in dismissal, tried to smile. “It’s all right. And no, I’m not just saying that.” I looked at him carefully. “You’re a very wise and perceptive young fellow, Angelo. I’m guessing that you’re talking about my being gay.”
“Not necessarily,” he hedged, shifting himself, looking awkward. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I only meant that you seem very sure of yourself, and I can’t imagine anyone…” He shrugged. “I’m sort of talking myself into a circle.”
“It’s all right,” I repeated. “You’re not wrong. I didn’t exactly become me overnight.” I paused, my brain running through a series of memories that, when taken together, seemed to show a pattern that led from then to now, from the Me of youth to the Me of current day. Parents, no longer alive; a sibling, to whom I was no longer alive. First curiosity; first lack of understanding; first discovery of having to lie. First encounter; first lover; first breakup; second discovery of having to lie. Decisions; consequences; less understanding of why; more understanding of lie.
I looked up to see Angelo eyeing me with concern. He leaned closer to me from his position on the bed. I smiled softly. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward. A quote from Søren Kierkegaard.”
The fox looked a little embarrassed. “I don’t know who that is.”
“I don’t really know much of him either; I know the name as associated with the quote, and I believe that the man was a philosopher. Certainly sounds like one.” I snorted. “I fall back on that quote sometimes when I don’t really know what to say about life in general. I look back on various things that I did, or that happened to me, or that I witnessed in some way, and I can make sense of some of it, with the perspective of passing time. The rest of it is still confused, and I can never quite understand why I do certain things. Like just now, at the store…”
I told him about my little adventure with Rollie and the Ridiculous Rednecks. After I told him what I said to the humans on the way out of the store, Angelo fell back on his bed, holding his sides and laughing. He actually kicked his hind paws in the air, and his tail flicked back and forth in a way that I took to be another indicator of his overall glee. I was afraid that he was going to hyperventilate, but he finally got his breath back under control. I could see tears in his eyes, and his mouth was still open as he gasped for air. His face had that pinkish undercast again. It took a few minutes before I felt it was wholly safe to speak again.
“So, you liked that story?”
I laughed as he took a playful swipe at me with his forepaw and started laughing again, forcing himself to get control over himself more quickly this time. “Darius, you’re a stinker!” He laughed. “And yes, that’s one of the funniest stories I’ve heard in a very long time. That’s what I’m talking about, though. It’s like you’re not afraid of anyone or anything.”
“Oh, no!” I chuckled in spite of myself. “I don’t deserve the superhero cape. I took a chance with those guys; for all I know they had a shotgun under the counter, and they might have tried to use it. It’s just that sometimes I get this urge to just make something turn out better than it would if I hadn’t taken the chance. It doesn’t always work. I get my ass handed to me from time to time. And yeah, I’ve lived with that too, I guess.”
“Consequences,” said Angelo soberly. He looked away for a few moments, then finally back at me. “I don’t think I’m very good with the idea of consequences.”
“How do you mean?”
The expressions crossing his eyes, his forehead, his muzzle, even the shifting of his ears, spoke volumes in a language that I didn’t completely understand. I saw his tail twitch, knowing that it conveyed more information if only I could decipher it. At length, he took a deep breath to calm himself and looked at me with no small amount of fear. “Darius, I’ve never even been away to camp, or college, or on a trip by myself. I’ve thought about striking out on my own; I planned everything that I thought I could foresee, made arrangements for things, at least in my own mind. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Nodding slowly, I said, “An argument. You said that you’d had an argument, and that was what set you out hitchhiking.”
“Yes.” His voice was so small that I could hardly hear it. The eyes that looked at me implored me for something like comfort, or absolution. “I’m scared, Darius.”
“Do you want to go back home? I’d be willing to take you—”
“No, I won’t go back now,” he said, emphatic and terrified at the same time. His voice trembled even as he tried to keep a determined look on his muzzle. His tail flicked again, agitated.
Very softly, I said, “Do you think that you can’t go back?”
He looked down. “I don’t know.”
“Angelo… may I ask, was this argument with your father?”
“In part,” he said. He looked at me steadily. “I guess that part’s pretty obvious.”
“It takes one,” I said. “I had blow-ups with my father, and a couple of them were pretty bad. On those occasions, I thought I’d never be able to face him again.”
“You must have, at least once.” Angelo managed a smile. “Otherwise, you’d have had only one blow-up with him.”
The fox laughed a little. I was glad to hear it.
“Fathers seem to be at least a little bit flexible, in the long run. I don’t think your father is going to stay mad at you.” I paused, remembering. “Wait a minute, you said ‘in part.’ What’s the other part?”
Angelo took a long moment, breathing slowly. “I packed all my stuff at first in order to go stay with someone. We’d been very close, and I thought we’d only become closer.” His eyes narrowed slightly, and I could see tears trying to form. “Another argument and a ride to the highway was all I got out of that encounter.”
“I guess friends can be a question mark at times.” I thought about it for a moment. “When you weren’t able to stay there, did you think that you and your friend might have traveled together?”
“Maybe. Just staying, a place to stay. That was all I was looking for.” The fox rearranged himself on the bed, tucking his legs together in a sort of lotus-like position. He shook his head slowly, sadly. “Or at least, that’s all I thought I was looking for. I probably wanted more. I was expecting too much.”
“It sounds like you had reason to expect that much.”
“I would have hoped so.”
I hesitated, then plunged in. “It’s none of my business, but was your friend human, or a fox, or…?”
Angelo looked at me, a look on his face that I took to be shame, although I couldn’t understand why. Finally, he said, “He was human.”
I felt myself reeling as so many puzzle pieces slammed into place. I couldn’t think of anything to say, yet I knew that he was waiting for me to speak. “Angelo,” I finally managed, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I’m just sorry that all that happened to you.”
“Don’t be,” he said, attempting a small smile. “Makes great material for writing songs.”
“Maybe that’s my problem,” I said. “I never could write songs, or stories, or anything else. I just had to keep it all bottled up.” I looked at the fox. “You’ve had quite a day.”
“Are you okay, Angelo?”
His eyes swam in tears nearly born. “Yes.”
I hesitated. “I don’t want to take advantage—”
“Oh, Darius, just shut up.” He jumped from his bed and nearly tackled me where I sat. He put his arms around me and started to cry. My arms moved to hold him close, this handsome young male, this slender ball of fur that pressed against me as if he wanted to melt himself into me. He put his head on my left shoulder, and I could feel warm tears dripping from his muzzle onto my bare skin. I reached up to stroke his hair, or head-fur, or whatever you’d call it. I just stroked his hair and held him close. Nothing else. This was what he needed—someone to hold on to, someone to bear up under the weight of his fear and uncertainty. He was warm, needful, trusting, and I vowed then and there that would never betray that trust. I held him, rocked him, murmured his name softly, and held him tight. It was many minutes before he was able to speak again.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“For telling you to shut up.”
I chuckled as I held him. “I think I can forgive that. After all, you were right. Sometimes, I talk too much.” I snugged him close again. “I need this at least as much as you do.”
We were quiet for a while after that, just holding each other. At one point, he turned his muzzle to me and kissed me softly on the cheek, then put his head back on my shoulder and sighed softly. After a moment, I squeezed him again and asked, “Think you can sleep?”
I felt his head nod.
“Do you want to sleep with me?” I felt the hesitation. “Just sleep, Angelo.”
He pulled gently away from me, letting his hands travel down my arms until he took my own hands in his. He looked into my eyes and asked, “Have you ever made love with…?”
I shook my head.
“Do you want to?”
I smiled gently. “I’m not thinking about making love with a therianthrope, or even with an arctic fox. I’m thinking that I want to make love with you, Angelo—the songwriter, the temporarily lost soul, my traveling companion. And as strange as it sounds, I think that for tonight, I just want to hold you. And I want to wake up next to you, and hold you some more, and then keep on driving for another day. We’ll talk, and we’ll boldly go into restaurants together, and we’ll come to the end of another road, and you’ll sing for me again… and by then, maybe we’ll start making whole new stories together. Just one day at a time. No more Monday memos. No more shattered hearts. Just us.”
“And what,” he asked, a smile growing slowly on his muzzle, “will be the consequence of that?”
“I don’t know. Happiness, maybe?”
“And how will I write songs then?”
“Willing to risk finding out?”
He moved from the bed. “I’ll get the lights.”
I tossed away the towel and crawled under the covers. The lights in the room went out. I could hear a zipper working, some pants being removed, sounds most gay men know by heart in a darkened room. A moment later, the young white fox slipped between the covers and cuddled up to me. I held him close, feeling his soft warm fur touching me all over, an extremely erotic feeling that, in this moment, had no sexual component whatsoever. I felt serenely peaceful, fulfilled, comfortable. Just to hold him, this unlikely troubadour, this newfound soul, this precious gift.
“Thank you, Angelo,” I whispered.
“Thank you, Darius.”
I paused, then said, “I think I’ll shut up while I’m ahead.”
I smiled, nuzzled my nose into his sweet-smelling fur, and let myself drift off to sleep.
Morning tried to peek in around the edges of the blackout curtains in our room. I was surprised to find that I felt more rested than I had in a very long time. Somewhere in the night, Angelo and I had moved slightly away from one another; he had one forepaw up under the pillow where his snowy head lay in serene repose, the tiniest of snores occurring rhythmically in his light sleep. I just lay and looked at him for a while, finding it an easy and very pleasant pastime. I had to fight back a comparison that went back to my high school days when I had a dog that would sometimes jump up into my bed and sleep with me. I had a perfectly understandable affection for the dog, of course, but I never thought of him as a candidate for my lifemate.
Jeez, that was fast. I smiled to myself. Just let it be what it is, Darius; it’s already something that you had never even considered before, and it’s also something that already feels very good. Let it be whatever it wants to become, one day at a time, all the way to the coast, and then…
Angelo moved a little beside me. Slowly, his eyes opened, and he looked at me—flinching for a moment, then beginning to smile. “Hey,” he said softly.
“Hey,” I replied. “You know, hustlers like me don’t come cheap. You got the money to keep me another day?”
“Put it on my tab,” he murmured and snuggled into my arms again, grinning. I thought that I could feel his tail moving underneath the covers.
I held him close, his head tucked onto my chest, my hand stroking his fur gently. Foxes don’t purr, so far as I knew, but I could hear a contented little sigh in his breath that made me wonder if I could be wrong. “I hope I don’t have morning breath,” I chuckled.
“Well, at least you didn’t say that I have dog breath.”
“Foxes are dogs?”
“Canines, slightly different branches of the tree. At least, that’s true of the canidae of this world; I have no idea how we really fit in. No one has ever explained us.”
“I don’t need an explanation.”
“Try this.” He turned his muzzle up to me and exhaled slowly toward my nose. “Dog breath?”
“Not even a little bit.” I looked at him softly. A certain completely reasonable urge came over me, and I hesitated. “Do you remember your first kiss?”
“Yes. Not entirely what I was expecting. I think the poor fellow was afraid that I was going to eat him instead of kiss him.”
“Lepine. Handsome young rabbit.” Angelo smiled wistfully. “Didn’t get any further than kissing. Neither of us knew what he was doing.”
“That first kiss is important.” I looked him in the eyes. “I want to save ours, if that’s okay with you.”
He grinned at me. “Not for too long, I hope?”
“I think probably sometime tonight.” I smiled. “Wouldn’t be the least surprised.”
Angelo touched my chest gently. Teasingly, actually. I found that I didn’t mind at all. “Do you think tonight will get here any faster if we got on the road earlier?”
“It’s just possible.” I tapped his muzzle very gently with my finger. “No promises. We’ll see where the road leads us.”
I nodded. “Definitely west.”
I’ve had warmer beds in colder climes that I was more swift to leave than my bed with Angelo. It took both of us a while to realize that we really did have more time, that it wasn’t going to disappear, and that we’d promised ourselves that we’d be good. We took care of various first-thing-in-the-morning needs, got dressed (I had to admit to something faintly kinky about realizing how happy I was that he wasn’t wearing shoes; was I developing a paw fetish in my old age?), gathered everything into the van, and prepared for the road.
“Want to hunt down some breakfast?” I teased.
“Arf, bark, yip,” he said clearly and with perfect sarcasm.
“What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s down a well?”
“I don’t usually bite, Darius, but you’re making it very tempting.” He grinned at me. “Rest assured that temptation is a good thing, and succumbing to it is even better.”
“Glad to hear it.” I looked back down the parking lot to the convenience store. “I’ve got an idea,” I said. “Assuming that the rednecks don’t work in twelve-hour shifts.”
Although it was only a short distance, I drove the van down and parked in the store lot. If nothing else, I figured we could use it for a quick getaway. Angelo looked very nervous. “I’m not sure this is a good idea,” he said.
“Look through the window.” There, inside the store and wearing the color-coordinated smock of the business, a middle-aged woman was sweeping the floor. “I doubt those guys are here. I want to test a theory, and daylight seems the perfect time to do it. Come in with me.”
“Do you remember what we said about beginning to believe in luck?” I touched his paw gently. “Trust me. If nothing else, we can run like hell.”
Angelo produced a reasonably good raspberry but finally got out of the van.
A bell announced our arrival, and the woman stopped sweeping enough to take a look at us and smile. “G’mornin’, fellers. Anything I can help you with?”
“Just wanted to get a few things for the road,” I said pleasantly. Angelo, still not quite sure what to do with himself, looked intently at the candy bars as if deciding that he had to pick the perfect treat to last him the rest of his life, which might end at any moment.
“It’s a good day for it,” she observed, going back to her sweeping. “Where you headed?”
“Just aiming west.”
“What do you hope to hit?”
“Whatever will stand still for us.”
At this, she cackled a good-natured laugh and moved to take her broom and her place behind the counter at the cash register. “A couple of adventurers out on the road, eh? Sounds good.” She looked over at Angelo, still smiling. “You weren’t in here last night, were you?”
“Um… no, ma’am, I wasn’t.”
She nodded. “I didn’t think so. The boys on the night shift said something about a guy and what they called a dog. You’re fox, aren’t you?”
Surprised, Angelo looked at her with a small smile. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, those fellahs probably wouldn’t even know the difference, but I still didn’t think it was you. According to them, this dog feller was trying to steal a six-pack of beer, and they threw him out hard enough to break an arm.” She smirked. “That’s about as reliable as a politician’s promise.”
Angelo flicked a glance at me, then risked a laugh. “I’m glad nothing bad happened.”
“All hot air, those boys. Hear them tell it, they built Hoover Dam by themselves, bare-handed. I’m what you might call skeptical.”
The fox selected a few candy bars and took them to the counter. I found some cookies and a tin of cashews (my favorite) and joined him. The woman looked at him, then looked a little ashamed of herself. “I’m sorry, boy, I guess I’m starin’. I don’t mean to. It’s just… you know, I wonder sometimes what it’s like to be… oh hell, I prolly sound more prejudiced than old Archie Bunker ever was.”
“Not at all,” Angelo said gracefully. “One thing we share is curiosity. And yes, it’s even worse with cats.”
The woman threw back her head and laughed, a big full-bellied laugh that was infectious enough for me and Angelo to join in. “That’s good!” she said. “Haven’t met any cats yet. I guess that sounds like it’s a checklist or something, don’t it?”
“Well, check off ‘Arctic Fox,’ and you can put the name Angelo next to it.” He put out his forepaw without hesitation. The woman took it and shook it gently, seeming very slightly awestruck.
“They call me Billie. Wild Billie, the Weiner Woman.” She pointed to the circular rack at the back where hot dogs were kept hot for an indefinite period of time, the sort of thing that not everyone would want to take a chance on unless their digestive and immune systems were in full working order. She turned to me, still grinning. I took her hand and shook it as well.
“Darius,” I said. “Nothing nearly as spectacular as your name, but it’ll do.”
“It will indeed,” she said. “Is this all together?”
“Sure,” I said.
Angelo raised an eyebrow at me, and said, “Okay, if you’re getting all the snacks, I’ll get the lotto ticket. A five-dollar scratcher, if there’s one available.”
Billie looked a little apologetic. “I hate to ask, Angelo, but I’m really bad at telling just how old a fox is. Could I…?”
With a grin, Angelo produced his ID. “I promise it’s not measured in dog years.”
I bit the inside of my cheek.
Billie flicked a glance, winked at him, and tore a five-dollar scratcher from its roll. “Here’s wishing you good luck, son,” she said. “Let’s see you hit the jackpot, and we’ll all retire!”
“Need a coin?” I asked him.
He held up a forepaw, his claws visible beneath that velvety white fur. “Snap,” he said, and went to work. After several seconds, he raised his eyebrows and grinned. “Not a jackpot, but at least breakfast. Twenty-five bucks, if I may, Billie.”
She took the ticket from him, scanned it on the machine behind her, which chimed a poor imitation of “We’re In The Money.” She crowed a victory cheer. “You got it, Angelo!” She reached into the register, got the bills and handed them to him. “I think you’re a good luck charm.”
“I agree,” I said. I looked at the fox with tenderness that was probably a little more affectionate than was strictly necessary, considering that we were in public, but I didn’t really give a damn at that moment. It did cause him to blush a bit, and I thought better of prolonging the moment. Billie bagged up our purchases and we headed for the door.
“Hey, you two,” Billie called after us. We turned back to her, and she favored us with a thumbs-up gesture. “Be good to each other.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Angelo replied. “Thank you.”
We belted up in the van. “Think she figured it out?” I asked him.
“With those doe-eyes of yours on me? How difficult could it be?”
I laughed. “And my theory tested out: We survived another encounter with a human.”
Angelo looked at me. “We need to find another name. Or maybe she really is human, and those guys from last night really aren’t.”
I shook my head. “Humans come in all types, Angelo. When you find the bad types, walk away; when the good ones show up, be happy. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll probably find more good ones than bad. I probably should remember that.” I paused. “Guess that’s part of taking chances, too.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Consequences.”
We sat for a moment, just like all those damned cliché moments that we think we’re too sophisticated to partake in. I reached for his hand, and when he gave it to me, I committed another cliché by kissing it and giving it a little squeeze. Sentimentality has its place.
“Breakfast,” Angelo said.
“Why not?” he chuckled. “I’m one lucky fox today.”
I grinned, put the van in gear and got us back on the road. For once, I knew when to shut up.