Taxidermy

Sharp teeth of a snarling cougar, a tray full of glass eyes, animal skins hanging from hooks. Phillip looked nervously over his shoulder to see Liza offering an encouraging smile. Then the door shut, and Phillip alone with Isaac, his girlfriend’s father.

“I could spend hours working out here,” the older man was explaining. “I find it very thought provoking, especially about politics.”

Liza had tried to warn him, but nothing could have prepared Phillip for this. “About . . . what sir?”

Isaac smiled just a little too eagerly at this invitation. “Well just look at our governmental system. Maybe it was alive and thriving once, but now it’s just a carcass. A relic from antiquity, stuffed with clay and mothballs. And no matter how well we prop it up and preserve it, no one’s going to be fooled for long.”

“I guess . . . it’s hard to nice to have something recognizable to hold onto,” Phillip offered. In the corner, a taxidermy mouse was preserved forever beneath the paw of a hungry looking coyote. Phillip envied the mouse.

“But don’t you see? That’s the problem! I once put wings on a groundhog. I could put a lizard skin on a chicken frame and make a dinosaur. It takes vision. A willingness to experiment. And a very sharp knife. Few people have all three.”

That’s when Phillip finally noticed the tools in the room. He had been so distracted by the animals, he hadn’t noticed the needles, shears, knives and other sharp implements spread out on the workstation. “Are we still talking about politics?”

“Your eye’s twitching, Philllip.”

“I’m very uncomfortable, sir.”

Isaac nodded. “Arrangement of skin,” he declared. “That’s the literal meaning of taxidermy. Putting it like that, we’re all taxidermy. Keep that in mind, and you might be worthy to date Liza.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Reserved

Jane rushed down the apartment steps, tense and flustered. “I don’t want to hear it,” she announced without even looking toward the man from apartment G.

Heavily lidded eyes glanced at her sidelong. An eyebrow rose with exaggerated slowness. “So you do know that it’s my month,” he said dryly.

Lights flashed as Jane unlocked her car. “It was an emergency,” she explained.

Ned’s expression and voice remained flat as he lingered outside. “There’s a schedule for a reason,” he remarked

She flung her purse into the car. “I know, I know. It won’t happen again.”

“That’s what you said last time,” he called out as his neighbor dove into the shelter of her car. With the door firmly shut and Ned’s lazy admonitions muffled, Jane let out a tense sigh. She started her car, glanced in the rearview mirror, and then—

“Ned!”

“Yes?” Was that a grin on his dour features?

“What the hell is this?” she asked gesturing at the Saab parked directly behind her car.

“Chaos, Jane,” he said. “That’s what you get when you abandon the system.”

Though both residents apologized for what happened next, neither was ever allowed to use the reserved parking space again.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Rain

Reflections of red and green danced in the falling rain. She hugged herself tightly as she walked. Nothing could stop the chill seeping in through her sweater, but it was the only comfort she had.

Lights from behind. A revving engine. She turned sharply, ducked down a narrow alley and just kept walking. The car didn’t even slow.

She kept walking.

Water poured into her shoes. Thunder rattled her bones. She leaned against a wall, trying to remember how to breathe. She stared up at street signs trying to make the letters into words. And then she was in front of the building, not even knowing how she had arrived.

She stood on the sidewalk for a long time, then turned back toward the road. The asphalt sparkled, faintly in the cold darkness. She climbed the steps and knocked.

Nothing.

She knocked again, paused barely a moment, then knocked again furiously. Sharp pain in her numb fingers as her knuckles wrapped on the wood.

A light sprang to life in the apartment. No sound.

She knocked even harder than before until finally the door opened. Her sister’s face, haloed by warm, steady light.

“Penny?”

“I don’t know where to go.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Millennials

He smiled broadly as she approached. “Wasn’t sure you’d come.”

She shrugged, settling into her chair. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I don’t know, might be busy or have trouble finding the place or just … you know, not be interested.”

“I’ve never missed one of our appointments before, have I?” she said frankly.

“Appointments.” He chewed on the word, swallowed it reluctantly. “Well, how’s the last century been for you?”

A frown. “Perhaps you should be a little more discrete.”

“Huh? Oh, about the time thing?”

“You remember what happened in Byzantium…”

She was always cute when she was flustered. “Hah! How could I forget! But folks aren’t that superstitious these days. You tell one of these so-called ‘millennials’ that you’ve actually been alive for millennia, they’ll think it’s a pickup line.”

A flat stare. “Do you spend a lot of time trying to pick up young people?”

“I knew you were gonna go there.” Voice low, teeth clenched. “Atom bombs, lunar landings, global warming, the internet—all the miracles and catastrophes of the last century, and you want to talk about her?”

Slow, anguished words. “Perhaps we are both selfish and narrow-minded. Perhaps, despite the evidence, we are both still human.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Fears

They had agreed on two things: ordering the artisinal goat cheese platter as an appetizer and admitting deep fears to each other.

“Do we have to do this here?” Benni asked with a nervous glance at the restaurant’s lunchtime crowd.

Doug nodded, heaped some garlic and herb cheese onto a cracker, and said, “It’s now or never. I’ll go first. I’m afraid that everyone in the office can tell I don’t know what I’m doing.” He smiled, seeming relieved, and looked to Benni who hastily shoved a cracker into her mouth.

Instead Samantha declared, “I’m afraid I’ll never tell Doug I love him.”

A fork clattered to the floor. A clump of cheese fell from Doug’s lip. Samantha sank into her chair, busying herself with spreading fig and honey cheese onto a cracker.

Finally, Benni spoke. “I’m afraid . . . never mind.”

“You can tell us.” Doug offered encouragingly.

“I’m afraid of what you’ll think if I do.”

“That doesn’t count,” Samantha muttered.

Benni looked around the table. Doug smiled brightly. Samantha’s cheeks glowed red. Five expensive logs of cheese lay before them.

“Fine. Benni said with a sigh of surrender. “I’ll say it. I’m afraid I don’t actually like goat cheese.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Skip

Jun was waving as I stepped out of the skip station, but I didn’t rush to meet them. They reached out to take my hand, and I flinched, startled by the contact.

“Is something wrong?”

“I . . .” I hesitated. Uncertain? Embarrassed? Afraid? “I think I had a bad skip.”

I tried to read Jun’s reaction, but their features suddenly seemed foreign in a way they never had before. “Let’s get some food,” was all they said, “then you’ll feel better.”

There hadn’t been anything strange about this evening’s skip. I had stepped into the pod in Philadelphia and 17:23:51 planetary standard time and stepped out in Kyoto at 17:24:07. Practically instantaneous transportation. Not transportation, I reminded myself, reconstitution.

“Is something wrong with your noodles?” Jun asked. Was that concern on their face? Confusion? Fear? How long had I been staring at my noodles lost in thought?

Lost echoed in my mind.

“Bathroom,” I muttered, then left the table.

I studied my reflection and found every freckle, every hair, every scar exactly where I expected. Something still felt wrong. I splashed water on my face, gripped the edge of the sink, tried desperately to convince myself I was more than a ghost.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Growth

“I didn’t know if you were coming,” Patty said as soon as Marie had pulled herself out of the dented beetle.

Her sister shrugged, shoved a cigarette between her lips, and lit it with the same beat-up Zippo she’d had since she was 17. “Let’s get this over with.”

Patty pursed her lips. Marie kicked off her shoes. They began walking toward the grove.

“They’re growing well,” Patti explained, stress compelling her to speak. “Much fuller than last year. I was a bit worried, with that late frost—”

“You know they’re dead, right?” Marie interjected.

“I,” Patti faltered, “was talking about the trees.” Marie snorted, took another drag and walked on. “Someone has to tend them,” Patti grumbled.

Then they reached the trees. Tall, sturdy oaks, some nearly 200 years old. Continuing on, they passed smaller and slimmer specimens until the sisters stopped suddenly about fifteen feet back from the two slender saplings on the eastern edge of the grove.

Stillness among the trees.

“That’s where they’re . . . ?” Marie asked.

“Yes,” Patti said in a whisper.

A gentle breeze. Leaves shaking. Their hands found each other.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” Marie said.

Patti squeezed tightly. “I’m glad you’re here now.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Bruise

“Oh Valerie!” Eddy’s sing-song voice called out.

“What, you still can’t manage to give yourself a black eye?” I grumbled.

Eddy leaned back with a smug grin. “Clumsy fingers. Besides, Valerie loves working with me. Don’t you, Val?”

And then she was in the dressing room with us. “I really don’t mind,” she said, moving briskly to arrange makeup supplies. I busied myself with tying my cravat so I wouldn’t end up staring at her.

“See?” Eddy teased. Even without looking, I knew he was grinning at me.
I had tied the cravat wrong. Frustrated, I undid the knot and started over. “You’re exploiting the poor girl,” I said.

“Nonsense,” Eddy declared, “I’m giving her life purpose, isn’t that right, Val?”

In spite of myself, I was staring and saw her shoulders shrug as she worked. “I really don’t mind,” she insisted.

Eddy suddenly grabbed her hand, lowered the makeup brush, and leaned forward to whisper. “Perhaps you could powder his nose so that he doesn’t feel left out.”

Her lips pressed together, mouth crinkled, but the laugh escaped anyway.

My face went hot. I rushed out of the dressing room, suddenly desperate for the refuge of being someone else.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Wait

“Another cocktail?”

The woman hesitated, checked her phone, examined the lipstick stain on her glass. “Whiskey. Neat. Something with bite.”

The bartender nodded. Her movements were effortless fluid as she replaced the empty cocktail glass with a fresh tumbler and filled it with a rich golden liquor.

“Thanks,” the woman replied. She took a long, slow sip of the whiskey, then sighed. “I’m wasting my time, aren’t I?”

The bartender shrugged. “It’s not that late. You’ve got a great smile, killer curves, and that dress! Honestly, I’ve been thinking about trying to get your number, except it seems like you’re waiting for someone.”

A sad smile “You’re sweet.”

“Nah, I’m just a sucker for red lipstick. What’s the story?”

Another long drink. “I’m here for a conference. He told me he’d meet me at my hotel while I’m in town, so I gave him the address and everything, but . . .” she trailed off into a sigh, then drained the remainder of her whiskey in one long gulp. Moments later her glass was full again.

“On the house,” the bartender smiled. “This guy, is he worth waiting for?”

Her lips twitched. “I thought so.”

“And . . . would he wait this long for you?”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Interjected

I looked back and forth between the two of them. Neither of them was looking at the other. Jeff was looking over the kitsch and memorabilia nailed to the restaurant walls while Mallory traced swirling patterns in the sauce left on her plate. Jeff coughed. Mallory’s fork clinked. “I’m sorry,” I said, though I didn’t know what for.

“You’re fine,” Mallory said, licking some sauce off her fork and setting it aside. Her cheeks were flushing red.

Jeff was smiling. “I’m the one who should be sorry,” he said. “Crashing girls night.”

“Oh,” I waved, “it’s not—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mallory interjected, turning to look out the window, or maybe at a reflection.

“You can stay if you want,” I offered. “We were thinking of having dessert?” I tried to catch Mallory’s eye, but she just shrugged and turned her attention back to her empty plate.

“I’ll get going,” Jeff said.

“Okay…” I said, confused.

For the first time they made eye contact. I was aware that I couldn’t fully grasp what was transpiring, but now I felt the depth of it. “If you want,” Mallory said.

Jeff nodded, drummed his fingers on the table. Then he was gone.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox