Penelope spies a peculiar fox on her porch. Then, the nightmares begin...
Chapter 1 - Dreams
When Penelope pulled into her driveway, the fox was already sitting there. It perched on the front porch, staring her down with eyes like two golden search lights that cut through the afternoon fog. Penelope turned the key in the ignition until the engine grumbled to a stop, then covered her mouth and nose. She waited, struggling to suck in breath, but the creature didn’t disappear, and she remained in her car, listening to the tick of the engine as it cooled. Finally, she allowed herself relief.
“I can’t breathe,” she said out loud, “so I’m not dreaming.”
That was when the fox sauntered down the porch steps and trotted over to the driver’s side door. Raising up on two back legs, it peered through the window, wagging its tail like a dog greeting his beloved master while it sniffed at the glass.
“So, you probably have rabies…” she said. “But you look fine.”
Penelope tapped at the steering wheel and bit her bottom lip.
“Do I call someone? Should I just make a break for it and try to run inside?”
She had imagined scenarios like this before: If she were strolling through the woods and a coyote bounded towards her, she would stand her ground and yell. She could slash at it with a stick, if one happened to be lying around. Bobcats, she knew, could be ferocious, but they would retreat from a larger, louder beast. If she saw a bear - though she’d only ever spotted one for as long as she’d inhabited her little mountain sanctuary - she would have to run for her life, as she still hadn’t quite planned out what to do.
Close encounters with foxes had never crossed her mind, though. The bushy tailed creatures that sometimes skirted across the corner of the yard were so cautious, she rarely caught a glimpse of them. In the daylight, they were practically invisible, and at night only their shrill, alien screams gave them away.
Now, one was pressing a damp black nose against her car window, so near that Penelope could count every whisker on its face.
“If I just kick the door open, and yell, you’ll run away,” she said. “Even a rabid fox would run from a screaming lunatic, right?”
Penelope pulled the sleeves of her jacket down over her hands and brandished her umbrella like a club, just in case. She gave herself a silent countdown, gripped the door handle, then flung open the car door. She leapt into the driveway and unleashed an Amazonian yell that would be sure to alert the neighbors, had there been any. Waving the closed umbrella like some deranged badminton player, she stomped her feet and screamed.
The rest of the display might have been unnecessary, since the fox retreated before the second slash of the umbrella. Penelope sucked in breath and waited for it to come bounding back, perhaps foaming at the mouth with yellow fangs bared, but it didn’t. Crashes rising up from the leaf-strewn forest floor told her the furry intruder was long gone.
Penelope grabbed her bag from the passenger’s seat, chucked the umbrella back into the car, and headed inside. Up the crunching gravel walk and the aging porch stairs, then in the front door she went, only to find another beast waiting at the welcome mat.
“Hi Cinnamon,” she chimed. Penelope dumped her belongings onto the bench under the coat rack and squatted down to greet the tortoiseshell cat who gazed up at her expectantly. “Was that fox trying to eat you? Scary, right?”
The cat bumped her head into Penelope’s palm and purred loudly, motor revving with every stroke of her ears. Clearly oblivious to the threat that had loomed beyond the front door, Cinnamon seemed to have little more on her mind than a bowl of Gravy Delight with chunks of real turkey.
Penelope’s hand stilled in spite of Cinnamon’s insistent nuzzling.
“I should probably call animal control…” she said. “In case that thing really is rabid.”
She looked down at Cinnamon, who provided counsel in the form of an eager mewl.
“Ugh, but then they’ll kill it, even if there’s nothing wrong with it!” Penelope moaned.
A contemplative second dragged on while Penelope’s eyes focused on the stream of dust floating in the dim band of sunlight.
“Oh well! Not my problem,” she announced while hopping to her feet. “I don’t want some animal’s blood on my hands. Hopefully the next person is smart enough to stay away from it, right Cinnamon?”
Cinnamon ran ahead once Penelope removed her shoes, racing in a neat line towards the kitchen cabinet that housed her treasured chunks of turkey.
By the time the covers were turned down and Penelope was mindlessly skimming through one social media app after another, the intrusive fox was half forgotten. The doors were locked, lights doused, and Cinnamon was safely curled up in her cat hut, undoubtedly chasing phantom mice through the ether. Rain started pelting down shortly after ten, and Penelope finally decided to plug in her phone and close her eyes.
Some time past the witching hour, Penelope vaguely recalled sliding down out of the bed. The rain had tapered off, leaving the house silent and still.
The living room began as a dark blur, then gradually grew brighter. Lighter, brighter, approaching morning. The newly installed carpet felt plush under her bare feet….
Shoes, shoes, why were there so many shoes?
She pawed through the shoe rack, one shoe after the other. The first matching pair she found, she would pull on, regardless of what they looked like, no matter how they felt.
“I need to get out of here.”
Something was coming, coming through the back door she couldn’t lock.
She continued trying on shoes, shoes she had never seen before. No matter how many sandals and boots and sneakers she sorted through, she could not find two that matched.
Far, far away, a clock wound down and something clicked inside her brain.
“It doesn’t matter if they match. I need to go.”
Finally, she yanked on two random shoes and climbed over the pile, out the front door that seemed as flimsy as cardboard. Somehow she leaped down all four stairs without stumbling and raced across the wet front lawn. Looming above, the white moon was so intense that night became day. She could see the rickety front door opening again behind her.
She ran down the hill, over rock and root into the forest. The stalking figure stayed behind her, out of sight but forever in pursuit. When she bounded past a house she didn’t remember, down into a mire of mud and thorns, her legs slowed. The muck wasn’t pulling at her, gravity was. Her muscles turned to flaccid bands of glue and no matter how she strained, her run remained a crawl.
It floated up behind her, bright eyes peering through dark rivers of hair. She struggled to forge onward, but she finally arrived at both a stand still and a clear, haunting moment of clarity.
“I’m going to die.”
Penelope gasped and opened her eyes. Morning had arrived, and her pillows were piled around her. Between the gaps in the curtains, morning sun beams barged into the room and made the white walls glow. Penelope pulled the blankets up to her chin and smiled. Another nightmare had chased her down, but been thwarted by daylight just before her own climactic death. Birds sang. Cinnamon was curled up at the foot of the bed. Her mother stood in the kitchen making breakfast.
“My mother doesn’t live here anymore.”
Then she saw it, standing before the foot board, leaning down to slither towards her, long hair trailing behind it.
Penelope’s back strained to pull her out of bed, but she was paralyzed. She screamed, and screamed. She cried out for someone to hear her and shake her awake. She heard the yowling and clawing of Cinnamon beyond the door, begging for admittance. Her eyes were wide open. She could see the room around her, the ceiling, the reflections in the mirror, and that thing in the middle of it all, creeping closer, weighing her down.
She shook and shouted. She begged her body to move. She felt a stabbing, agonizing pain shoot up through the back of her leg, and with her heart exploding in her throat, Penelope gasped and finally jolted awake.
Cinnamon was still reaching her paw under the door, clawing at the floating wood floor.
Penelope tore the covers off and hunched forward. A knot as hard as stale rubber gripped her calf muscle. She winced, kneading at the cramp while she fought back tears. After a few minutes of rocking and rubbing her throbbing leg, she had the sense of mind to pick up the phone resting on the bedside table.
The digital clock read 5:58, two minutes before her alarm was set to chime.
When she looked past the phone and saw the small, fuzzy arm still scratching at the bottom of the bedroom door, she finally hobbled out of bed and pulled the door open. Cinnamon sprang up onto the mattress and walked around her. Her short, tortoiseshell tail stood straight up like a warning flag, its fur puffed out until the tail appeared three times its normal size.
“Why are you so spooked?” Penelope asked. She rubbed at her calf once more. “Was I really screaming?”
She pet Cinnamon until the cat rolled onto her back to expose her belly and the fur on her tail finally flattened. Shrill beeping from her phone made Penelope’s arms twitch, but she realized in half a blink that the irritating tones were not some threat from a dream, but her daily signal to get up and get ready for work.
“I have the worst Charlie Horse,” she moaned, when she placed her feet on the floor. The muscle cramp was writhing in her calf and the pain crept all the way up her leg, past her knee. She was forced to limp her way through the kitchen to Cinnamon’s food cabinet. Even crouching down to pick up a can of creamy tuna and shrimp was a struggle.
A hot shower did little to dull the pain. Penelope flexed her lower leg back and forth while she washed her hair, propping one elbow against the shower wall for balance. The ache diminished with each movement, but lingered on and on, through moisturizing, through a cup of barley tea, all the way to the closet where Penelope’s clothes hung. She chose an outfit that would pair well with comfortable black flats, since she was likely to be shuffling around for most of the morning.
While Penelope dressed, she noted the sound of the continuing rain. It pinged like thousands of tiny fingernails on the metal chimney.
“I was sure it stopped raining,” she said.
Cinnamon only stared up at her from the middle of the pillow pile and purred.
Penelope ran a comb through her hair, brushed her teeth, and started gathering up her belongings. As it did most mornings, her departure time had already sneaked up on her, in spite of her best efforts to stay on track. She sifted through her bag one last time after putting on her shoes, confirming the presence of her wallet, phone, and keys. With barely a minute to spare before dooming herself to another frantic race through traffic, she stepped outside and pulled the front door shut behind her.
Streaks of fresh blood stained the porch.
Human footprints marred the wet earth below it.
Chapter 2 - Reality
Penelope slunk into the office with her eyes focused on her shoes, hoping that if she slouched enough she might completely disappear behind the grey cubicle dividers. She crept past the brick wall that bordered the hallway and along the idea wall, which was sprayed with mood boards, posters, and sketches relating to upcoming projects. Her chair at the desk two stations from the window sat waiting, empty. Without sparing a ‘Hello’ on anyone, Penelope threw her tote into the chair and began yanking out all the materials for the career-changing meeting that started promptly at 10:00 am.
The time read 10:27.
One glance at the clock and Penelope felt earthy barley tea and honey creeping back up her throat.
“Oh my God, where were you?”
A pair of deep brown eyes belonging to the inhabitant of the neighboring cubicle peered past the upholstered divider. They slowly rose up until they stared down over the top.
“I texted you,” Penelope hissed through gritted teeth. She tugged a fat portfolio from the tote bag and dropped it on the desk.
The owner of the eyes brought her hand up to shield her face.
“Nooo, I couldn’t check my phone,” she whined. “Everyone is all mad and they’re glaring at me, like I caused you to be late.”
“I’ll tell you everything when I’m done getting fired.”
Penelope tapped her paperwork against the desk to straighten it, stacked it against the portfolio, and bustled back down the hallway. She passed by the elevators, her brisk steps muffled by the tightly wound grey carpet. Past the restrooms, past one of a dozen office plants, she marched straight into the conference room, where a group of high profile clients had been waiting for twenty-eight agonizing minutes.
“Hey, here she is, the woman of the hour!”
Stationed around the right side of the sleek, marble conference table were three representatives from the nationwide company that had commissioned Penelope’s current project. Opposite them were the founder and CEO of the design firm, their account manager, and Rose McMillan, who was not only Penelope’s direct superior, but a galactic bitch when nobody was looking.
Rose paused in smoothing out her blonde hair, then smirked from beneath her pudgy little nose and followed the CEO’s lead.
“Glad you could make it.”
“We heard you had quite an adventure this morning,” said representative number one.
“Yes,” Penelope said. She attempted to talk over her shoulder and plug her flash drive into a nearby laptop at the same time. “It took almost an hour for the state troopers to take pictures and take my statement and everything once they finally arrived.” In an attempt to lighten the mood, Penelope added, “Police, they always seem to be around when you run a red light, but when you need them they take forever to get there, right?”
Representative number two bristled and straightened his jacket.
“My son is a police officer, actually.”
Penelope’s stomach clenched and she swallowed back that souring tea again.
“Well, um.” A few clicks brought her to her presentation file. “Since everyone has been waiting so patiently, let’s get started.”
She grabbed a tiny remote and switched on the projector that was hooked up to the laptop. The plain, flat screen at the front of the room lit up, and Penelope strode to the corner of the conference room to lower the lights as she began her introduction.
“I’m really excited to share this first round of polished designs with you,” she said. “The last time you saw these concepts, they were sketches, but I went ahead with some of the ideas you suggested and focused the entire brand identity around cool colors.”
Penelope tapped at the remote control with her thumb and flipped through the slides.
“For the New England chowder, I went with a nautical theme in mostly blues and greens, and pushed that bold, graphic style we’d discussed to the limit,” she went on. Penelope clicked to the next slide. “Here’s the current design for the vegetable soup. As you can see—”
“Choup,” representative number three interrupted.
“Oh, right. The vegetable choup.”
“I’m sorry, but these are all wrong.” The first representative stopped her again before she could continue. “We specifically asked for ‘cool’ colors.”
“Right…” Penelope stammered. “I stuck primarily to blues, greens, and a few shades of purple. The white, which is a neutral tint, is used here as an accent for the—”
“No, ‘cool’ colors, as in hot, new, hip,” he explained, talking over her. He shook his head, waved his hand to the side, and sighed. “Our goal here is to appeal to a younger crowd. Consumers in the 18 to 35 demographic just aren’t eating as much soup as they used to.”
“Everyone has switched over to salads,” his colleague with the upstanding policeman son added. “You can’t put avocados in soup.”
“By launching Caveman Choup, we hope to draw in consumers who are hooked on all these new diet fads, primarily the so-called ‘Paleo Diet’,” said number one.
“I see,” said Penelope.
“We’re making use of trendy, organic ingredients like grass-fed buffalo meat,”
“Yuca root, kale,”
“I don’t think that’s actually—”
“Basically, what I’m getting at here, Miss Evans, is that we need you to completely rework these designs.” Number one glanced at his phone. “Up the coolness factor and we’ll meet again in two weeks. Does that work for you?”
The CEO smiled as though everything was going exactly as he had planned and nodded on Penelope’s behalf.
“Of course! Same time?”
“Maybe one in the afternoon.”
“Absolutely! Ms. McMillan will you add that to the design calendar?”
“Right away,” Rose responded. She took the time to bat her eyelashes at the CEO and all three representatives as the group pushed their chairs away from the table.
They all walked for the door. The CEO stepped back and held his arm out graciously so Rose and the account manager could exit first, then waltzed out with the lead representative by his side.
“Have her e-mail the next round of sketches,” someone mumbled as they left.
The door latched shut behind them, and Penelope was left alone in a room full of empty chairs with the remote still clutched in her hand.
She lugged her belongings back to her work station, and was met by Yuna Ling, whose inquisitive brown eyes had greeted her that morning. She was seated at Penelope’s desk, sipping some outlandishly pink creamy drink and staring at her phone.
“Excuse me,” Penelope muttered.
Yuna got up, tapped at her screen one more time and then reached past the cubicle divide to put her phone down.
“What did they say?”
“They hated everything. I have to start over from scratch.”
“What the heck?” Yuna sputtered. “Why didn’t they like it?”
“They said the designs weren’t ‘cool’ enough,” Penelope said. “As in, they want some hipster, fair trade, organic, millennial thing going on, but they also want it to be obnoxiously colorful, so… yeah. That’s what I’ll be doing instead of having a life for the next two weeks.”
“Honestly, that’s completely weird and stupid,” Yuna said. “Millennial colors are supposedly pastel tones though, so maybe you should go with that.”
“I don’t think they even know what they want.” Penelope sat and hunched over her desk, pawing at the messy mane of curls that fell to cover her face.
“Waaaiiittt! But what happened this morning?” Yuna asked. She wheeled her own desk chair around the divider and slid up next to Penelope’s desk to sit beside her. “Why were you late? Your text said the police were at your house.”
“Oh!” The scene at Penelope’s front porch rushed back into her mind’s eye and usurped the fresh memories of her failed presentation. “So, last night, I had a really intense dream. It was one of those dreams where I’m trying to escape, or complete some mundane task, but no matter how much I try, there’s something preventing me from getting away, or finishing what I’m trying to do. This time, I was trying to get out of my house.”
Penelope was about to go on, but was left at a loss, as though the thoughts had suddenly been yanked from her head. She reached desperately for the words that had just been on her lips, but no matter how she searched, they eluded her.
“I don’t remember,” she confessed. “I just know I was trying to get away. In the dream, I finally reached a moment of lucidity and I started running into the woods, but my legs slowed down. It got to the point where I could barely move. Then, I suddenly woke up with a horrible cramp in my calf, and Cinnamon was freaking out.”
“What does that have to do with the police? Was somebody at your house?”
“The dream left me feeling really weird,” Penelope said. “You know those dreams when you think you’re awake, but you’re not? I woke up feeling kind of like that, and Cinnamon running around as though something bad had really happened didn’t help. That’s why I almost thought I was still dreaming when I walked outside and there was blood on my front porch.”
“Blood!?” Yuna exclaimed. Her face paled and her mouth twisted downward in disgust. “Like, human blood?”
“Apparently, because there were also footprints in the mud,” Penelope said, “all over the place. It looked like people had been running around trying to kill each other.”
“Isn’t there some weird guy who camps in the woods near your house?” Yuna asked. “Maybe he got crazy drunk and was just, running around in circles.” She leaned back and laughed at the absurdity of her own suggestion.
“They were bare feet,” Penelope said.
“There was a bear too!?” Yuna shouted. “Did a bear, like, murder somebody!?”
“No, bare,” Penelope corrected, “as in, not wearing shoes.”
She envisioned the scene with which she had been confronted that morning and felt the rush of reason leaving her body as the memory took over. The carnage around the porch had prompted her to perform her test of consciousness for the second time in two days. She covered her mouth and nose, fought to suck in oxygen, but her airways remained firmly blocked and cemented her in the real world.
Splotches of blood, only slightly muddied by the rain, stained the aging wood of the porch. Red flecks sprayed across the balusters and all the way down the front steps, onto the gravel path. The foot prints continued from there, sunken deep into the saturated earth. Somehow, Penelope had found the sense not to follow them, though she saw they continued around the house and out of sight.
“So… there was a drunk and naked guy,” Yuna said. She blinked away bewilderment and stared Penelope down.
“It was probably some kids living up their summer vacation,” Penelope said with a shrug. “I don’t know. But, the cops said if they turned up anything really serious, they would let me know.”
“Nooo… I’d be scared to go home,” Yuna said. “Do you want me to call my dad and ask for a gun?”
“I don’t want a gun!” Penelope turned away to organize her work space and turn on her computer. “I just need to focus on these designs. It took me almost a month to finish them the first time and the soup guys said they want more in two weeks.”
“Mmkay,” Yuna agreed. She wiggled her chair back to her own desk. Penelope could hear her slurping her pink drink through the divide. Yuna remained occupied while Penelope’s computer booted up, but peeked around the barrier one last time to whisper, “let me know if you want a gun, though.”
Penelope rolled her eyes, pulled herself as close to her monitor as possible without giving herself double vision, and sank into her task.
She rudely ignored the rumbling in her stomach and worked straight through lunch. The blue of the sky deepened and the reds and pinks of her illustration were beginning to blur together when another call of nature summoned Penelope out of her chair. She got up and turned towards the hallway, heading to the bathroom, but was interrupted by Rose blocking her path.
“Could you join me in my office for a few minutes?” she asked.
Rose’s frown made Penelope’s already aching stomach tense up. She followed Rose into the little glass-walled dungeon she called an office and sat down. Rose seated herself across the desk. Lying on the glossy desktop were printed copies of Penelope’s rejected designs.
“I’m sure you already know how unprofessional everyone looked when we made the Caveman Choup representatives wait this morning,” Rose sighed.
“I called on my way in to let everyone know I would be late,” Penelope responded, “and I texted you personally.”
“A text isn’t enough. Office policy is that you give at least an hour’s notice if you’re not going to be here,” Rose stated. “I checked with the secretary and she said it was already almost ten when you called.”
“The police were at my house,” Penelope said. “I explained everything in my text message.”
Rose leaned back in her chair. Penelope noticed the top button of her blouse was undone, a sure sign that she had recently been schmoozing up to the CEO. When Rose joined the firm a few months earlier, she and Penelope stood on even ground, but Rose learned quickly that doe-eyed gazes and tight skirts were better tickets to the top than Penelope’s raw talent.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve been late this month,” Rose said. “If this keeps up, we might have to consider some kind of reprimand.”
“We, or just you?” Penelope asked. “I didn’t realize this firm had such a strict schedule. What about all the days I’ve stayed here late or worked on Saturday? Do those not count?”
“Just make sure you finish those new designs on time,” Rose said firmly. “I’ve been asked to monitor your progress.”
“Right…” Penelope clenched her fists under the edge of the desk. She squeezed until her nails pressed into her palms, then stood up. “I’ll get back to work.”
With anger creeping up her neck, Penelope took a hard right swerve out of Rose’s office towards the hallway. She marched straight to the bathroom door, only to find an ‘Out of Order’ sign pinned over the placard that normally said ‘Women’. Penelope tensed her hands again.
“Why is it always one thing after another,” she mumbled.
She eyed the Men’s bathroom, but received a suspicious stare from the male co-worker who stepped out in the hall, still wiping his damp hands on his pants. Penelope lurked in the hallway for a few more moments, hoping that someone might show up just in the nick of time to repair whatever had rendered the bathroom unusable. Ultimately, she had no choice but to journey all the way downstairs to the basement floor of the building, where she knew another restroom waited.
She took the stairs and stretched her knotted calf. That morning’s ache still lingered deep in the muscle tissue and complained with every step. Penelope passed the door to the yoga studio on first floor, and heard the soothing ‘Breathe in… Hold for four…’ of one of the instructors. Underneath the yoga studio, the rental space was empty, still waiting for a new tenant. All that remained for the moment was access to the adjacent parking garage, the server rooms, storage, and the bathroom.
Penelope passed by a mural of some zen garden, leftover from whatever business once resided in the space. The instant she finally passed through the bathroom door, she paused. A nearly forgotten tingle of unrest quivered through her. She had only used these facilities once before, when she was three cups of tea deep and discovered a wall of occupied stalls mocking her in the upstairs ladies’ room. Necessity brought her here again. Now she recalled why she had so long avoided a room that should have granted a haven of privacy in an otherwise busy place.
Two sinks were adorned with gold faucets meant to resemble bamboo fountains. Below them, the basins were dusty from lack of use, but the almond-colored porcelain looked almost brand new. One wide mirror stood flat and flawless, excluding a tiny chip in the lower left corner. Whoever had remodeled the lavatory had spared no expense on a space meant for their customers to feel at ease. When Penelope stepped up and stared into the glass, though, she was shaken by how wrong she felt. Behind her lurked a presence that screamed for her to turn around. She gripped the surface of the counter, taunted by some irrational fear that her own reflection would betray her. If she turned around, she was sure someone would be there, a specter unseen in the mirrored image.
She listened for the hushed brush of fabric or the thunk of toilet paper unrolling. Straining past the sore spot in her leg, she slowly crouched down. Where there should have been feet hanging below the stall walls, there was nothing. The bathroom was empty.
Penelope slipped into the stall, checking through the crack between the door and wall at every opportunity. She waited without breathing for footfalls on the tile, but they never came. She carried out her business, and after washing her hands, she left in a hurry and climbed the stairs two at a time back to her office.
Hours wound around like minutes once she returned to her computer. Every click of her stylus against the drawing tablet seemed to eat up twice as much time as necessary, until before she knew it, the sun had set and most of her fellow designers were hauling messenger bags over their shoulders. She heard the sigh of Yuna’s computer shutting down. Her chair rattled against the floor when she pushed past the divider.
“Jeorry wants to know if we’re going anywhere,” Yuna said.
“What? Why did he text you and not me?” Penelope asked. She glanced back at her monitor, and though she knew she was light years away from finishing her design, she saved her work and sent her computer through its shut down procedure.
“I think he did text you, but you were staring at your screen so obsessively that you didn’t hear it,” Yuna responded.
Penelope pulled out her phone. Sure enough, the notification bar was crowded with little icons denoting all the unread alerts.
‘Thursday is Friday’s Friday,’ read the first text from her cousin, George. ‘Red wine is shown to decrease the risk of heart disease… and it’s good for your colon!’
His message was clear.
“Let me get packed up,” Penelope said.
Yuna started gathering up her own belongings while Penelope responded to George.
‘Meet you near the parking lot on Oriole Street.’ She hit the send arrow and shoved the phone into her bag along with her flash drive, portfolios, and sketchbooks.
A ride down the elevator took Penelope and Yuna into a cooling summer evening. They hopped in their separate cars and wove through dwindling rush hour traffic until they reached the public parking lot at the corner of Oriole and Hawk. While most businesses in Summer Springs were closing their doors and going to sleep, the taverns and taprooms on Oriole Street were just coming to life. Penelope linked up with Yuna at the gate to the parking lot and strolled down the sidewalk that was quickly filling with patrons seeking handcrafted ale and local wine.
George Evans leaned against the brick wall of the Smarmy Fox, their regular bar, and looked up to smile when he spotted them approaching. He had loosened his tie and shaken out his short ponytail, and might have already partaken in a pre-game drink judging by the slight pink in his freckled cheeks.
“How’s the design world?” he asked.
“Fine,” Yuna sang.
“Frustrating,” Penelope said. “How’s the tax world?”
“Someone’s always getting audited,” he said cheerfully.
“What’s that saying about death and taxes?” Penelope asked as George held open the door for her.
“Even after death, you still have to pay your taxes,” he answered.
“I don’t think that’s it.”
The trio stepped onto the ancient wood floor of the bar, over familiar boards that had been lovingly cleaned and restored to preserve the building’s status as a historic site. Every time she entered, Penelope thought back on her childhood, when the structure sat empty for ages before Summer Springs saw a sudden uptick in tourism after the hot spring bathhouse - for which the town was named - reopened.
“What can I get for you?” asked Corbin the bartender almost the moment they walked in. He was at his usual post behind the long, lacquered bar, polishing a glass.
Penelope ordered her usual honey mead, George a stout beer that was as black as ink, and Yuna asked for some cocktail creation that was a special that night. Yuna also opened a tab and smiled up at Corbin as he took her credit card and slid it behind the bar alongside a few others.
As Penelope took the first sip of her mead and eyed the jumping fox etched into the glass, recollection hit her hard and her eyes widened.
“Hey,” she said to the others, “all that police stuff at my house this morning made me forget about the fox I saw yesterday.”
“What happened with the police, anyway?” George asked. “I got an almost unintelligible series of texts from Yuna describing some drunk wandering around your front porch.”
Penelope rolled her eyes at Yuna, whose view was fortunately blocked by the bottom of a glass.
“I’ll explain that after,” Penelope said, “but yesterday, when I got home from work, there was a fox on my porch.”
“Didn’t a porcupine gnaw your porch, once?” George said.
“Yes, but it wasn’t chewing the porch,” Penelope responded. “It was just sitting there, and then it walked right up to my car like a dog and looked at me!”
“Rabies.” George took a swallow of beer. “That thing’ll be dead by the end of the week, I suspect.”
“That’s what I thought at first, too,” said Penelope. “It wasn’t acting sick, though. It stared at me…” she thought back to the curious gaze of the fox through the car window, and the way flecks of gold glinted in its yellow eyes. “It stared almost like it was expecting something.”
“Expecting its brain to disintegrate, maybe.”
“Here, try this,” Yuna said. She reached across George and held her cocktail up to Penelope’s face.
While Penelope was occupied taking a sip, her cousin took the opportunity to ask about that morning again.
“So, the drunk? The footprints?”
Penelope went on to retell the events of that morning. She explained the faded fragments of her nightmare and described the fresh blood splattered all over the porch and gravel path. The more she discussed the circumstances, the more she became convinced that the culprit really had been some raving alcoholic, perhaps an overwhelmed college student gearing up for his senior year, or a delusional, lost camper. Who else would wander all the way through the woods, to a lone cabin, all while bleeding and barefoot? If a crime had been committed, if someone was really in trouble, he or she would have asked for help.
“Right?” Penelope looked up and begged her cousin for confirmation.
“I mean, probably,” he said. “But there hasn’t been a violent crime like that in decades. All we have to worry about around here is shoplifting and the odd bar brawl.”
“Yeah. I mean if there was a missing person, if a body had been found,” she looked down towards the pale amber liquid swirling in her glass, “it would be all over the news by now.”
“Plus, someone would talk,” George added. “Somebody always does.”
Penelope nursed her pint of mead for the rest of the night. George switched over to soda after finishing his beer. Yuna worked her way through another cocktail and was emptying her third glass of wine by the time they were ready to call it a night. George led her, pink faced and giggling, out onto the sidewalk.
“Come on,” he said, “I’ll bring you back to your car in the morning.”
“Nooo, Jeorry you’re so mean,” Yuna whined while simultaneously laughing. “I want my car.”
“Not tonight you don’t.”
“Yuna, you know we have to work tomorrow,” Penelope reminded her.
“I’ll hide under my desk,” Yuna said.
“I believe it,” George said with a shake of his head.
“Text me when you get home,” Penelope said to George.
“You want me to walk with you?” he asked.
“No, I’m fine.”
Penelope leaned in to hug Yuna, who looked closer and closer to passing out with every moment, then gave a lopsided hug to her cousin.
“Night, Jeorry. Be safe.”
“You too, Nelly. See you tomorrow.”
George lugged Yuna in the other direction and Penelope headed back down Oriole Street, towards her car. Across the road, a group of bar patrons was smoking in the mouth of an alley. A couple walked half a block ahead of her, but turned down Hawk and disappeared, leaving Penelope alone on the sidewalk. Cool, white moonbeams illuminated the parking lot like a spotlight, casting both blinding reflections on the car windows and fathomless black shadows on the ground.
Penelope fished in her bag for her keys. As always, the heaviest items in the small sea of objects sank to the bottom, which meant the key ring was lost somewhere near her phone. Her steps stuttered to a slow shuffle while she searched… then stopped when she noticed someone lurking near her car.
Penelope’s fingers graced the leather of her phone case and the plastic bristles of a mini hair brush. Feigning complete ignorance, she focused on her search and tried to avoid eye contact. Sooner or later, the stranger would find his way and be gone.
He didn’t open the door to his own vehicle, nor did he walk away. In fact, he seemed to be stepping closer, and was staring right at her. He watched her struggle as he casually stepped around Penelope’s car. His thin frame cast a lanky, abnormal shadow. Scorched by the moonlight, what Penelope thought was platinum hair looked almost snow white.
She felt her heartbeat creep up behind her ears. Pulse quickening, she was about to turn around and walk straight back to the Smarmy Fox. Penelope made to leave, then jumped when another figure burst around the corner of the adjacent building and made a beeline towards her.
“Nelly,” called George’s voice, “your keys fell out at the bar.”
Her cousin met her at the gate to the parking lot and handed over the heavy keyring.
“Corbin came out to catch you, but you had already power-walked away,” George said. “I think he spotted me still dragging Yuna down the street.”
“Where is she?” Penelope asked.
“Waiting in my car,” he said, “asleep.”
George then craned his neck and tried to catch a better glimpse at Penelope’s pale face.
She turned around and scanned the area near her car. The silvery-haired prowler was nowhere to be seen.
“Fine,” she said. “There was somebody here. I thought he was going to come up to me, but he’s gone.”
George took a look around the parking lot as well.
“Weird,” he said. “Well, talk to you tomorrow, for real this time.”
“Right, thanks.” Penelope gripped her keys tightly, as though they might fall away and disappear, swallowed up by the stranger’s slender shadow. “Goodnight.”
Penelope checked her back seat three times and locked all four doors before she pulled out of the lot. The whole ride home, her thoughts kept drifting back to urban legends she had heard as a child, about murderers who hid in the back seats of cars, and waited patiently until unsuspecting drivers turned up lonely country roads like hers.
The back seat was still empty when Penelope finally parked her car in her driveway, but the back yard wasn’t.
Stalking the tree line was the fox. It limped along, one back leg matted with dried blood. The gleam of the headlights caught those yellow eyes, then it headed towards her.