by David Osgood
James and Sophie have an obligation to love each other, and they do so with complacent, predictable comfortability. They married at twenty, even younger than either of their parents did. He wasn’t shipping off to war, no shotgun wedding; just plain, old-fashioned immaturity and Christianity. Eighteen years later, she complains about his teeth grinding, and he hates when she clips her toenails in bed. Life is a hamster wheel in slow motion.
“I’m going to go watch TV in the bedroom,” Sophie says as she walks out of the den.
James looks up from his book. “What are you watching?”
“Madame X,” she replies.
“Oh, I hate that show.”
“I know. That’s why I’m going to the other room.”
James’ laptop is open, the light from the screen reflecting off his glasses like a mirrored confessional. The anonymous online chat group is buzzing with anticipation.
Howdy Fellow Critters!
We are excited to announce the theme of Midwest Furfest this year: Home on the Range! Join over 11,000 furries – deer and antelope welcome - for two days of furry fun, including dealer’s rooms, deejays, and guest speakers. See you in Rosemount, IL on December 16 for MFF!
He asked her to act like a doe once in bed. He pretended to be a bear. Another time she put a bunny tail on at Easter for a work party. When she returned home, he told her to keep it on and carried her to the bedroom. They haven’t made love in thirteen months.
James checks into the Rosemount Grand Hotel at 5:10 PM, alone. He calls Sophie from the hotel bar while eating dinner by himself. Sophie watches him from the lobby. She tells him she is in bed watching her show, and he tells the truth about his overcooked ribeye, pomme frites, and hefeweizen. She wishes him a good accounting convention, and he tells her to get some sleep. There is hesitation in his voice. She walks out of the lobby to go check in at her own hotel a safe distance away, and he sits alone with his beer.
Sophie spreads out like a starfish on the hotel bed. She wonders how she got here: from eighteen years of passively eating slightly burnt toast to tracking her lying husband to a furry convention. She likens James to a wolf in auditor’s clothes, or vice versa. She falls asleep and dreams about her favorite penny candy store she frequented as a kid. She carries a bag full of Bull’s Eye caramels to the register and realizes she has only a penny. She looks at the cashier. It’s James. He says to her, that’s not enough. You’ll have to put some back. She wakes up crying.
They decided early on they weren’t going to have kids. James wanted to focus on his career and Sophie was happy being young and free. She painted and freelanced for everything from ad agencies to calligraphy stationery. Sitting in an unfamiliar room, a sliver of light from the impossible gap of hotel curtains, she wonders how things would have been different if she asked more questions, if he was more open with her, if they made love more often. She can’t remember the last time she did anything creative. Small resentments lead to miscommunication, miscommunication to none at all. He begins to harbor secrets; she punishes him with intentional acts of emotional and physical retreat. Distance becomes a persuasive friend.
Sophie sneaks over to the empty convention center and ducks into a pop-up costume shop.
“Morning,” greets the shop owner.
“Oh, good morning,” Sophie replies, scaling the costumes and peering out the shop window.
“Are you hiding from someone?” he asks.
“Uh, no. Well, yes and no. My husband is here,” she replies. She immediately regrets her candor.
“Well, you came to the right place. Convention doesn’t open for about an hour, so we’ve got time. What’s your husband’s avatar?”
“His animal,” he replies. “What does he dress up as?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe a bear, I think?”
“And you want to be predator, or prey?”
Sophie ponders the idea. She had always been prey: shy, safe, reserved.
“Predator,” she replies confidently. “I’m a predator.”
“Well, watch out, world,” he says, smiling. “We got a cheetah on the loose. Last rack on the right, orange and black and ready to attack.”
Sophie slips on the costume, wild and fast. She looks in the long mirror and caresses her cheetah fur, running her hands over her breasts and midsection. She feels euphoric and transformative, her anxiety replaced with a surge of empowerment.
Sophie joins the herd filing in through the convention center doors. She scans the place, watching how the male animals walk: a bear moves his neck the way James does, a wolf walks like him. She sends James a tame text and watches for figures checking phones. She wrestles between being curious and being angry.
The day turns nocturnal with no hint of the accountant. The party moves off the convention floor and into a large ballroom with bars and a deejay. Sophie throws back a shot to take the edge off, chasing it with a strong gin and tonic. The lights tinsel in slow motion as she sways her hips to a song about stars. Her head is light. She scans the round tables and watches as sweaty animals pop off their costume heads to breathe stale air. There, sitting alone, is James, a fox head perched on the table in front of him like taxidermy. He takes out his phone and texts, and she feels a vibration beneath her fur. “I miss you,” he writes. “I miss you a lot.” His head hangs longer than his text, his face a sullen hibernation. He puts on his fox head and gets up to leave, so she sets on a collision course to bump into him.
“I’m so sorry, excuse me,” fox says to cheetah.
“My fault,” cheetah replies. “I was trying to shortcut my way out of here, but cheetahs never prosper.” Fox laughs: cheetah breathes. “Not much of a graceful gazelle, I guess.”
“That could be next year’s costume,” fox says politely, and walks out into the hall.
Cheetah follows him out. Her movements are fluid and satisfying, like a hard yawn with outstretched arms.
“Hold on, wait up. What’s your name, Mr. Fox?” Cheetah says in a low tone, smoky but still feminine.
“Uh, I’m married,” fox replies.
“Oh, me too,” cheetah says. “I don’t mean to pry, but why is your wife not here?”
“She wouldn’t get it. She’d freak out.”
“Mine too. He’s not one of us,” cheetah replies.
“Isn’t it hard to keep it up, though? I feel dirty,” says fox.
“Have you strayed? Sorry if that’s too personal.”
“Oh, no. I love my wife and I’d never. But I just wish I could share this with her.”
“Have you tried talking to her about it? You might be surprised.”
“I don’t know. I worry I’ll lose her.”
“Or maybe you’ll lose her if you don’t tell her,” cheetah says.
“What about you?” Fox asks.
“I decided to tell him when I get back. I hope it will save our marriage, but it might be too late.”
“Something to think about,” fox says. “I don’t want to lie anymore.”
“Then don’t. Later, Fox,” cheetah says, sassy and confident. “My song’s on.”
“Have fun. I don’t dance,” replies fox.
“I know,” cheetah says, then catches herself. “Foxes are terrible dancers.”
Sophie’s hangover breaks sometime during hotel breakfast after she realizes the damp eggs are inedible. She thinks about her marriage and uncloaks the reality of a transactional partnership built on lies. She packs up, checks out, and hangs up her cheetah costume on the grab handle in the back seat. Instead of heading home, she hugs the coast: route 32 toward Milwaukee. She gets as far as Racine and parks her car at the Windpoint Lighthouse. She ignores the texts from James as they come through in rapid fashion. The where are you’s and I’m worried and please call me feel hollow. Sophie wonders what it would be like to start a new life. She looks out in the direction of the Kate Kelly shipwreck that she scuba dove with James in less tumultuous times. Though she cannot see it from the shore, she knows it’s there, scattered and broken on the lake’s murky bottom.
She knew he’d come, eventually. From afar she can tell he is still a fox, at least from the neck down. He holds his phone up and points to it like an exaggerated gesture of a sworn oath. He yells something to her from afar. Sophie puts her hand up to her ear and shakes her head in confusion.
James tries again. “Is it too late?”
Sophie pictures what the Kate Kelly might look like if all the pieces were sifted from the lake bottom and glued back together, one by one. She wonders how long it would take, if it would resemble what it once was, and if it would float again.
David Osgood is a short story writer who believes life to be an evolution of diverse connections, and his writing is a conduit. David has been published in O:JA&L, Crack the Spine, Firewords, Treehouse, Glassworks, Eastern Iowa Review, Peregrine Journal, tiny journal, X-Ray, and won the Microfiction Honorable Mention Award from San Antonio Writer's Guild. Visit him at www.davidsosgood.com.