by Kris Schnee
Text ©2006 Kris Schnee; illustration ©2006 Cubist
Meg Reise blamed herself for leaving campus too late; now she had to cross the desert at night. In her little car she kept close to the speed limit, though no one else was going from Utah to Las Vegas at this hour. Las Vegas was far from home and was supposed to be an awful place, but Meg had a friend to meet, and a copy of the Book of Mormon to bring her. Meg had studied how to talk to people interested in the faith. Still shed have to practice before she met her friend tomorrow.
As the sun went down, Rush Limbaughs radio show ended and some kook called Art Bell came on, talking about shadow people. Meg knew she shouldnt listen to such nonsense. Still she kept it on. It distracted her from the endless darkness just outside her headlights. The night seemed to be growing hotter, so she threw on the air conditioning.
The lights caught fragments of mist, cutting through them so quickly that Meg sat up straighter and stared. Fog, in the Southwest? She fiddled with the radio. Aah, its getting too superstitious. Spanish music came on instead. Loud Methodist preaching. A voice that crackled and whispered without words. She slapped the radios power button. More fog.
The whispering was still there, and a heat that seeped into the car.
A patch of fog condensed and blackened, dark even in her headlights. Meg clutched the wheel and swerved to the empty lane. Now two animals darted across the road! Another swerve dizzied her and sent the car spinning somewhere onto sandy dirt. She couldnt see right, her head hurt, and the heat returned and seemed to reach for her.
Something snarled and leaped at the darkness outside, tearing into it. Two animals were attacking the fog. Meg slumped forward thinking, Thats strange. Do foxes live in the desert?
Meg woke up on the dirt with a beautiful girl staring down at her. The girls eyes shined when the moonlight caught them. Her hair was wrong too, wild and matted, and a roughness in her voice made her seem less than human. Meg tried to sit up but fell back, dazed. Lay still, said the strange girl. Whats your name?
Meg couldnt speak, or see clearly. Cold washed over her and she shivered.
The girl looked aside, saying, It ate at her. I cant heal her. Only one other way. She was panting, like a dog.
A mans voice said, No, Emma. She needs a doctor.
No time. Well be fine.
The man said, Emma, dont do this!
The girl leaned close so that Meg could smell foul breath and see the reflection in her eyes blot out the pupils. Meg willed herself to move but could not, and inwardly she quailed.
Emma whispered, I wont hurt you, and took Megs hand. Emmas fingers turned black and hairy and sprouted claws. The change rippled through her, making her into something monstrous. Worse, the clawed hand turned ghostly and overlapped Megs own, combining with it. Meg felt the roots of claws as though they were her own, and a burning all along her arm. For the first time in her life she clearly sensed her own soul. She felt another presence that wanted in. Meg remembered to prayfor what, exactly, she never knew. She was being possessed.
The monster-girl winced. Youll die if you fight now. I might too. Let me help.
From above herself, maybe from Emmas reflective eyes, Meg saw herself badly hurt. I didnt get to my friend. I promised Id bring her the Book. I cant do anything right She could throw off this monster, lie down somewhere, and accept her failure.
She let the chance pass. She couldnt break her promise. Megs decision, made in a daze, in the dark, in a desert, changed more than her life.
She sat up violently, yelling and shivering. The man shed heard was kneeling nearbyno. He wasnt a man. His hands were clawed; grey fur covered a face that had sharp red ears and a protruding muzzle, and his eyes had slits. A fox-man. Its all right, he was saying, his mouth revealing predators teeth.
Meg scooted away from him backwards on all fours, until her tail caught beneath her. She yelped and reached behind her to feel what felt like her spine, bristling with red hair and a white tip. Her other hand flew to her face and found it oddly shaped, sticking out. Her hand had fur.
She staggered upright and ran. Her balance was unfamiliar, and she crashed muzzle-first into the sandy dirt.
The man knelt beside her. Emma, wait.
Emma? Meg lifted her head and said, What did you do to me?
Lets work this out. You tried to bind with a human girl.
Oh, God. Now Meg remembered what had happened, and shut her eyes tight. Shed let herself be possessed..! There was nowhere to run from her own sin.
Shed read a lot of regular Christian pamphlets to prepare for visiting her friend. She much preferred the Mormon literature, because the other stuff was less about God than about Satan. The devil could ensnare you through practically anything, it seemedtelevision, music, evolution, dancing, drugs, the Internet, Harry Potter, astrology, Buddhism, you name it. But Meg believed there was only one way to lose your soul: By choice.
There was a lot of vivid material in the Christian tracts, too, about Hell. I didnt mean to do it! Meg said. She was sitting now with her knees pulled up close, arms folded, shoulders hunched. The fox-man was staring at her, but wasnt hurting her. It was her soul she worried about. She felt tied up in a little spiral of fear. Its my fault, but I didnt mean to.
Youre safe now, he said. Listen. Take deep breaths. He reached for her but hesitated.
Meg stared into the mans slitted eyes and tried to breathe, working her tight lungs like a bellows. You cant lose your soul unless you give it away. Thats what I did. Theyre monsters. Demons! Oh, Lord, Im a demon now!
Feel better? said the man. Im Rooks. Remember? His ears perked up like an animals, and she could see a thick tail twitching behind his blue jeans.
She couldnt let herself get distracted. She prayed to have her sin taken back, and felt no response. She was cut off from God.
Rooks ears slumped. Hey.
Maybe she could get exorcised, back at the temple
Rooks grabbed Meg. She yelped. He hugged her tight and said, Its okay. Talk to me, Emma.
Meg felt warm from him and from blushing, with a bizarre sense that there was nothing wrong with being inches from the fox-man. She tried to speak, full of questions, and after a moment realized she was naked but for bristling fur.
Wide-eyed, she tore away from Rooks and dashed for her car. It was still beside the road, banged up, facing the wrong way. Keys, where are my keys? Lying in the dirt were some charred clothes, her keys, and an ordinary foxs corpse.
Behind her Rooks said, Thats not you any more. Youre alive.
She saw him a safe distance away. She picked up the keys while trying to cover herself, threw open the door, stabbed a key into the ignition, slammed the door, and skidded away as fast as the little Honda would go. The car banged its way back onto the road and Meg sat rigid, bare foot on the gas, sharp teeth clenched.
Besides everything else, shed sat on her new tail.
In the rear view mirror she saw Rooks just staring, looking defeated. Hes the only one who wont call me a monster, and Im abandoning him. She let the car drift to a stop.
Rooks was red in the Hondas taillights, walking toward her. Meg squirmed in her seat and peeked out at him, arms crossed. You called me Emma, she said.
He stopped beside her door. Please, tell me you remember. Dont run.
I-Im Meg. I dont know who you are. I dont want to be a demon. Im not that, that thing!
What? A demon? A thing? Emma, listen to me! Rooks slapped clawed hands against the car door. Youre a kitsune. You saved a girls life. I know youre upset, but youre not some monster!
Meg was frozen, staring at his claws. He looked at them himself and slowly pulled his hands away.
After a moment Meg said, Whats a kit-kitsu? Her own voice had turned ragged, and she smelled salt from her eyes.
Kitsune, Rooks said. Please, listen. Remember. He began to speak more freely, willing Meg to understand. He told her of kitsune, the spirit foxes of Japan; of European legends of Renard the Fox; of Brer Fox and Disneys Robin Hood. We use the Japanese name.
We, Meg echoed. She felt numb except where her hands were digging claws into her arms.
Itll come back to you.
Us. Were demons.
Rooks stiffened. Were not! Who are you, anyway? Emma is alive in you. She saved your life and you call us all demons. I want to talk to her! You are her; youve got to be! He got closer and Meg flinched. Rooks stopped and held out his hands. Im sorry. Dont go.
Demons apologize? And he hadnt hurt her. There had to be some reason why God had let this happen, why she was being tested and shed failed so badly. All she could do was ask God and this person for help.
Im sorry, Rooks said again from outside the car. But, listen, is Emma there at all? Is she alive?
Meg shivered at the thought of another spirit invading her own. I dont know she said, sinking lower into her seat.
A distant mechanical whine caught her ears; she felt them swivel and she put a hand to them as if theyd escape. Distracted by the feeling, she gave into the obvious, worldly problem. I dont have any clothes Not to mention having these ears, and this tail!
Wait. Rooks stood nearby, blocking the view as a car roared by and vanished.
Didnt they see you? Meg asked when he stepped away again. Then she saw a handsome man with shaggy red hair looking at her, and she cowered in her seat.
Oh! The man turned away and his appearance blurred, gaining Rooks fox-features. Its me. I didnt mean to startle you, he said while looking away. Any further, I mean. But the clothes are easy. Just change. Make some. What Im wearing isnt real either.
I dont know what you mean
Sure you do; I taught you, he said. Remember.
Meg forced herself back through the memory of this horrible night. She smelled blood and sweat, and knew that Emma had had the power to heal. Emma and Rooks had fought something beyond Megs understanding, something that preyed on lone travelers souls. But farther back, another memory called Meg when she thought of changing, and she imagined a place shed never been.
In that time shed been an ordinary fox, on all fours, on a rooftop where snow drifted down. Rooks towered over her in human form, talking at length about illusion shells and chi. Her little paws sank into the whiteness.
Finally the chance came to try what hed taught her. Shed focused a power inside herself, and felt surrounded by tiny bricks building a disguise, raising her onto two feet like a human, erasing her tail and her fur. She stared at her hands because they were, for once, pink and clawless. Shed been so proud standing there face to face with Rooks that she hadnt understood his grin. Almost! hed said, tickling the fox-whiskers shed forgotten to hide.
Meg gasped, back in the desert. None of that had happened to her, yet it seemed real. Now Rooks was watching her. She ignored his stare and said, How long did you know Emma?
Since you were a kit. I found you.
Im not Emma! Im not a fox! I dont know you!
He turned away as though slapped.
Meg contemplated the fur of her crossed arms. That powerits witchcraft. I cant do it. Ive sinned too much already. There might still be a chance for her, if she could hurry home and reach the temple
She sat there shivering, and this time Rooks ignored her. He turned and walked off, towards the dead fox.
What are you doing? asked Meg.
Burying Emma. Rooks walked away into the desert night, leaving Meg alone.
Meg was free of him at last. She would forget tonight and seek out exorcism and forgiveness. She sat there with her nose smelling sweat and blood and strange scents on the wind. Shed call her friend in Las Vegas and make excuses. There was no way Meg could minister to her now; Meg had neither the right nor the confidence, even if she could hide herself.
She had memories that werent hers. Her thoughts went back to the snowy rooftop and the way Rooks had held her then. Vaguely she recalled other things theyd doneand under her fur Meg blushed. That wasnt me! she shouted out the car window. No one answered. Meg got out of the car, afraid that anyone would see her, afraid of facing her friends again, ashamed of things she hadnt done. She sat at the edge of the road behind her car, letting her numb tail revive. There were more stars in the sky than shed seen at home.
She tried praying for Emmas soul. Demon or not, the kitsune had saved Megs life. In trying to come up with words, Meg realized: Im jealous of you, Emma. The places youve been, the things youve done.
Meg heard: Im here
Meg sat up straight, ears high, not sure whether shed imagined the gentle voice. Emma? But Meg heard only the wind.
She shivered. Shed abandoned God, and Rooks, and her own soul. She deserved to be called a monster. The weight of the night pressed down on her, but she made herself stand up. Enough sinning, then. If she could say goodbye to Rooks instead of just running, she would at least be doing honor to Emma. She walked from the highway into the darkness, following Rooks musky scent.
The desert was full of life at night, she realized. A bird patrolled overhead, small things scuttled underfoot, and a dusty smell came from night-blooming flowers. Farther into the wilderness, Meg worried about the thing that had attacked her. Were there more? She hurried ahead, ears alert.
She remembered a lot of nights like this, spent wandering and hunting. Rooks tended to outpace her. Catching him was fun She shook her head to clear it of the thought.
Meg stopped to sniff a dry sagebrush that towered over her head. It looked loose, so she nudged it with one paw and sent it rolling as a tumbleweed. Distracted, she trotted into a cleared circle of shrubs where a fox was digging.
Meg approached Rooks and tried clawing clods of sandy dirt out of the pit hed made. Then he saw her. His eyes flashed, reflecting light. She looked at her little paws with sand stuck to them, and realized shed changed. Embarrassed, she sat up just as Rooks transformed again, turning to the humanoid-fox form that seemed to be his true shape. Rooks forced a smile under knotted brows and sagging ears. I thought you left.
Meg wasnt guilty of leaving him yet, at least. She wanted to say goodbye but could only bark. She tried to relax herself and felt a change ripple through her. She was Rooks height again, humanoid, with ears and tail and simple clothes that felt ghostly. She looked down at her clawed hands resting on her long skirt and her knees. I could make any clothes I want this way. Ugh, thats vanity. As she sat, a second change came; her hands were soft and human. She looked herself over, surprised, feeling the slightest bit redeemed for no good reason.
Meg said, Let me help with Emma. I owe it to her.
Rooks watched her for a while. Im not sure who you are.
Meg smiled sadly. That makes two of us. But whoever I am, whatever I am, I want to do whats right.
In silence they set about covering the fox. There had to be a reason God had brought Meg to this place on this night. Had she been meant to die keeping Emma out? Im a sinner, but Im alive. Im me again! Thats something. And how could it be a sin to help this man?
Rooks said, You say your names Meg? Please, let me come with you.
For now Meg decided to see where this road took her. They walked back to her car together, looking like a pair of ordinary travelers.
Id like Can you teach me about your people? Meg asked.
Youll meet them. Where are you going?
Im Good question, Meg thought. Where am I going? Not just her immediate destination of the day; what was she going to do with the rest of her life, now that she wasnt human any more? The question frightened herit was just too big to think about. Well, maybe I dont have to worry about my life. Maybe its enough if I just take things one day at a time, do right one day at a time Im going to Las Vegas. I promised, and I have to keep my word.
The kitsune girl drove with a faint smile on her face.
Las Vegas speared the horizon, one ray of light extending from the desert. Meg didnt know whether it was real till Rooks broke the silence.
Youve been through a lot, he said. Lets stay the nightI know a place we can crash.
Megs human hands were sweaty on the steering wheel.
Rooks ears slumped. Youre supposed to say Left at the light. Thats what you always say.
A purple haze appeared on the horizon, starting to develop into a jagged skyline of impossible buildings. Selene needs me.
Really, that can wait for
She needs to see me! If she doesnt, then everything was a waste!
All right, he said. Whats the address?
Please, be normal. Be human.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw his outline shift, shadowed. She let out a breath and for a moment could pretend he was just a hitchhiker, that she didnt suddenly have a years-long history of knowing him. Of knowing hed do anything for her. She drove closer to the towers that glowed in every color, and realized she didnt know the way. I have an address
Rooks pointed Meg ahead, until the highway sent her across the Las Vegas Strip. A red light stopped her and she barely noticed the green. All to the north the city shined and flickered in ways shed never seen before, yet were familiar from this new past, this other past, of hers. Sin City felt disturbingly like home. She wanted to turn onto that road, to see more of it, but her friend was ahead, past the Strip into relative darkness. Selene needs me.
Her apartment complex was east, with rock gardens, shrubs, and an automatic gate. Meg tapped the number shed been given into the control pad and said, Please
Meg? said a girls voice.
The gate whirred open and soon Meg was bounding up the stairs of an apartment. Flags snapped in the cold desert wind. Meg felt the prickle of fur on her arms and froze at the door, staring at herself with gritted teethno, she was proper. She looked proper. Rooks was there with her, pausing in the act of putting a hand on her shoulder. Meg stared.
Will you be all right? Do you want me to go somewhere else?
Yes. I meanI dont know.
The door opened and Selene stood there in jeans and a long jacket, with copper bangles loose on her wrist. Hey, Meg! she said, stepping closerbut then she stopped. She shook her head, looked at Meg again and saw Rooks beside her. Oh, who is this?
Who..? Meg trembled at the memory of everything and found herself rushing forward to hug Selene, shuddering. It was terribleit hurt and I sawI saw
Selene tensed but tried to hold Meg. Its okay. Whatever it was, well talk, all right? Isis this guy all right?
Rooks made no sound. Megs eyes were squeezed tight. She said, He helped me.
Okay then, come in.
When Meg felt well enough to step inside, Rooks was already there, peering at shoddy rented furniture piled with books. Meg flopped onto a couch beside Selene, but her friend was up again in a moment, heading to the kitchen. I got you the right kind of soda. Selene came back with three cans and made a space between stacks of papers. Caffeine-free for Mormon rules, right?
Meg stared at the little can and laughed, head on her hands. Good to know I wont be breaking a rule!
Meg, what is it?
Rooks had perched on the armrest of another seat. She had some car trouble.
Meg looked up at him. Thats not true! Dont lie to my friend!
Selene looked to Rooks, saying, Mister
Excuse us, would you? Selene tugged Meg to her feet and down a little hall, to a bedroom where she could shut the door. A book on Creative Machine Design topped the nightstand.
Selene glanced at the door, moved them farther away, then grabbed Meg by the shoulders. Meg stared into a face with frazzled brown hair drifting in front. You were going to preach at mebut this man, is he dangerous? Did he hurt you?
Then what happened?
This humanthis friendhad spent years with Meg. That past was more real than Megs knowledge of the man outside. But if she reacted badlyif she ran away..! Can I trust you?
Of course you can.
Meg swallowed a lump in her throat, stepped away, and released the tension that kept her human disguise. Her ears grew and pointed, her face extended in a muzzle, and a white-tipped brush of a tail curled down from her skirt.
Selene yelped, jumping backwards with her shoulder slamming the edge of the bathroom door.
From outside Rooks voice called, Are you all right?
Oh, please go away! said Meg. No answer.
Selene stared at her from the far wall. What!?
Im not going to hurt you
N-no, of course not! Youre Meg, right?
So Meg stumbled through the whole ordeal, trying to tell her how shed had to do it, how shed made a promise to reach Selene with a copy of the scriptures.
How can this be? Nobodys ever seen evidence of, of spirits.
I saw them. I saw Meg started to shudder again but felt a touch; Selene had put a hand on the monstrous fur of her arm, as though Meg weren't terrifying.
Its okay, Selene said. Look, youre youre still my friend. Why dont youhere, Ill listen if you want to preach at me. To me, I mean. Would you like that?
I promised. I have to.
Meg stood a moment, wiping her eyes, then went to the door.
Wait! said Selene. She pointed to Megs tail.
He knows, said Meg. He knows completely.
Selenes eyes went wide as Meg turned and went back to the living room. Selene followed, looking at Rooks. The man flipped Megs Book of Mormon around in his hands.
Selene said, Are you a fox?
He gave Meg a harried look. Might as well, he said, and with a shimmer he was furred in red and grey, a dark contrast to Megs white paws. His little claws dug into the leatherette Book as he set it down.
Selene sucked in a breath. Ive got so many questionsI want blood samples, photos, everythingbut that can wait. Meg comes first.
Meg lurched down for the Book on the table, looking at Rooks, trying to smile at him. She knew he didnt like churchesbecause were demons to them, she remembered saying in another voice. The pages trembled in her clawed hands: Even when she tried to hide the claws, to make herself a little more human, the fur and the faint leathery pads under her fingers remained.
At a random page she began reading, forgetting all her training on how to serve as a missionary for the Church. She was at III Nephi 15: That other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd
But it didnt make any sense! It was all new to her now, and she knew Rooks was only listening because he humored her. She flipped randomly, looking for solace in something that had turned to gibberish in her hands. I, ah, I wanted to tell you about the Church, Meg said to Selene.
Take your time.
God She kept thinking it was pointless and humiliating to be praying in front of people, which just showed how badly shed been jarred by Emmas background. If Meg werent totally cut off from God, He would still listen. She threaded her hands together and thought, What do I do? Help me think of the words.
But the room seemed a million miles wide, leaving her stranded far from anyone or anything. None of the warmth was there, none of the feeling of contact that came from sincerely asking for help.
I cant do it! Meg said. I promisedthisits why I didnt just give upbut now I cant even
Selene said, Just go through it. Just talk about what you believe.
Meg looked at Selenes eyes and saw her own distorted face reflected there. She tried to think back to school, to her training, to anything normal at all, and got a welter of scents and running through deserts. She was cut off, alone! Meg jumped up from her seat, reeling from the sense of the world being huge and empty, and scrabbled with claws on the doorknob.
Meg said Selene.
I cant remember! Im alone! Meg was out the door.
Rooks was moving too, saying, Wait, Megaah! Something thumped behind Meg and Rooks dropped, moaning.
Meg ignored the noises. She had to escape, find a priest, anything! She lost her balance on the stairs and landed on all fours, bounding the rest of the way down while her body shifted and the illusion of her clothes faded. The gate was over her head. Maybe someone could help her, maybe back home. She saw blurred neon through teary eyes and turned toward it, as good a target as any.
Metal slammed through the air directly over her, an instant after she flattened herself to the pavement. Another car roared past. Meg staggered in the middle of traffic, surrounded by fast-moving strangers.
Is this what I want?
Maybe but God wouldnt want it, whatever I did.
Meg jumped sideways, off of the road to a stand of shrubs. Hard leaves scratched her fur and neon leaked in patches from the world outside. She curled up among the plants.
Is what I did so bad? I wanted to get to Selene, and to survive. Why has God forsaken me? Whats the purpose in all this?
The world had become a very strange place; everything had changedbut thats what the world did. It changed, where God did not. And shed survived so far. She owed it to God to be patient and find out her new place in His plan.
A sound outside made her ears swivel. Selene, with Rooks following. Meg lifted her head from the ground to peek out through the bushes. Selene crouched behind a tall strip-mall sign, looking down at her and saying, Its all right, Meg.
Meg whimpered. There wasnt any point in running from herself. Not when she had friends here. She let herself shift back to what her real form seemed to be now, a fox-girl sitting and hugging herself in the darkness. Thanks.
Rooks stood nearby, disguised as human and looking pained. Whoever else you are, youre still Emma, and Im going to keep you safe. Just focus on that.
No, Meg murmured.
The Book. Can you bring it to me?
All right. Rooks stumbled off to the apartment and returned a minute later to pass Megs copy of the Book of Mormon through the bushes.
Meg made herself leaf through the scriptures again, starting all over. It was hard trying to remember how theyd made her feel the first time but she was alive. And where there was life, there was hope. She could relearn, discover it again. She had that chance.
That other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring
There was something there, some message, some idea, that was almost within her graspabruptly, Meg stopped in her silent reading. She stared out at Rooks again. Will you listen, if I try to talk?
His ears swiveled (a shrug, an inner voice told her). Ill pay attention.
Meg felt the wind blowing through her whiskers and the light seemed to grow, here in the shadows. And you can take me to other people likelike us?
If thats what you want.
Suddenly, it all fell into place with a near-audible click. Then thats why, Meg said. Thats what I have to do.
What is? said Selene.
A missionary, thats what I am. I dont know how to do it right, how to talk to Rooks people, but I have to try.
Meg was sure there was a lot she didnt know, but God was still there with a purpose behind everything that had happened. It didnt matter what she looked like, except that now she had a chance to reach out to a whole race of people whod never known the Church. God willing, she could be the one to help them.
Meg took her friends hands and let them help her out of the shadows.