by Slyford T. Rabbit
©2007 Slyford T. Rabbit

Home -=- #13 -=- ANTHRO #13 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
   Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed that I was a butterfly. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming it was Tzu.
Chuang Tzu

   The Sunday night dreams are the worst.
   I don’t know which way is up. I never know which way is up on Sunday night. I live in a cave of a bedroom with all the blinds drawn. Close your eyes or leave them open; there is no difference. The room is a never-ending pool of black that loses all shape and dimension after the dream. The room and the dream just sort of meld together, the dream and the room, never separate but never quite together either. And by Sunday the entire week’s dreams are splattered on the walls, flashes of light where there should be nothing.
   I’m lost in nowhere until my wife puts a hand on my foot. “It happened again, Austin,” she says. I’ve pulled a 180 in my sleep. My head’s at the foot of the bed. The pillow’s soaked cold with drool and sweat. My body’s not caught up with my mind yet. Nothing big, mind you; it’s not a falling dream, or a nightmare, or anything really of any interest to anyone else. Pay no attention to the little man with his little life, strung out on the bed in the middle of a dark cave.
   It’s just a dream.
   I was the fox again. I say ‘again’ because it happens on most Sunday nights, like a fake Rolex that only counts some hours. I’m walking along a footpath or riding one of the completely useless vehicles my mind imagines up for these dreams, the kind that have fifty seats or two-story windshields, or something equally stupid. I think about it and suddenly I’m the fox, tail and ears and nose and all, and everything is all so real.
   I don’t tell my wife about this. No reason to worry her. Rational adults don’t have these kind of dreams; they dream of drowning children, falling, flying, possibly a boss or coworker bent over the copier. Adults don’t dream about being a fox. Adults don’t dream about being a kitsune. No, this is just ‘The Dream’ to her.
   “Come on, honey. Sit up. Relax. You soaked half through the covers, you sweat so bad.”
   I knew it was happening this time. Right about when my tail whipped around my cheek, I knew it had to be a dream. Normal people don’t have tails wrapping around their chin. It’s a luxury normal people can’t afford. As soon as I realized it, bam! I’m in the same lumpy bed in the same dark room across from the same loving wife, same as always.
   Nothing changes. Not that I try to change it; I’m the smiling, submissive, take-it-up-the-ass-if-it-means-I-don’t-have-to-argue kind of guy that’s just nice enough to be useful but not assertive enough to be worth your time. I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to be in your way.
   “What happened this time?”
   I try to think about it. “There was a kimono,” I say. A long pause. “I was wearing a kimono. Yes. It was blue with cherry blossoms fluttering down the fabric.”
   “That’s all you remember.”
   “Yep.” I had two tails. I was a kitsune, same as always, walking through lush grass by the still pond. The information passes through a series of filters in my head, little warning flags that tell me whether or not a piece of information would tip my hand. “I was at a park,” I add.
   She eyes me closely. “You’ve got that look in your eyes again. Shifty. Calculating.”
   “I just woke up.”
   “You’re avoiding the question.”
   No answer. I sit up, shift around in the bed, get situated proper. I hate tossing in my dreams. The blankets are all tangled but all I want to do is put my head down on the pillow and pretend that I’m asleep.
   “I wish you’d tell me about the dream,” she says to me. “This is the third night this month. It’s not good to keep it all bottled up like that.”
   “There was a boy. He was a son, or a little brother. Something.” Why not keep it bottled up? This is all I have to myself. I may have McDonalds dinners, Target shirts, mass-produced personal items, but my dreams are my dreams, QED. No reason to ruin my privacy.
   “The little boy again.” She shrugs. “Any details this time? Last time you mentioned the world being cartoony.”
   “No. Not this time.” I was beautiful in the dream. Velvet fur. Gentle sloping nose. Curves that weren’t quite man, weren’t quite woman, but evocative nonetheless. And when the tails swished my gait was smooth as obsidian, beauty in slow, graceful motion.
   This is me, damnit! My world. My life. My fears. My sacred ground.
   The thought makes me chuckle. Some ‘sacred ground’ this is. The only thing I lay claim to is the world inside my head. Sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? I have no long links to the past, no church to pray to, no world bigger than myself in my life. Just another guy dreaming he’s a fox. Move along. Nothing to see here. In the end it’s just a fifteen-minute burst of rapid eye movement, and when you wake up it’s off to work at an establishment not unlike the millions of other establishments in the world. A little gnat which can always be replaced, a spoke in the wheel which has no beginning and whose end will ultimately mean nothing.
   “I don’t know what’s wrong,” I say. “I feel like I’m missing something.”
   “I’d help if you told me about it,” she says.
   “I know. But the dreams…”
   “I know, I know.” She rubs my arm and smiles her pillow-talk smile. “It’s hard for you to talk about things so close to your heart. I’m here when you’re ready, no rush.”
   “Thanks, honey.” I try to collect the covers and get comfortable. “I guess work’s just getting a little too stressful for me. We’re about to release the new product line—”
   “You’ve told me a hundred times,” she says.
   “I know. One of these days, I’ll get up the gall to talk about these dreams. Really. It’s just hard for me.”
   “Understandable.” She nestles her head deep into her pillow and brushes my sweat-strained hair with one hand. “Just… well…”
   “Well, what?”
   “Next time you start tossing and turning, what say you try to keep your tail under control?” She chuckles and grabs the long, furry thing in one hand. “You always manage to tickle my nose when I’m having the most wonderful dreams!” She laughs and disappears into the dark, black night, leaving me alone on the shores of the beautiful lake, my kimono flowing in the wind.

   Morning staff meetings, despite the super-cool action music in the background and the all-you-could-possibly-care-to-eat donuts sitting around the table, always tended to put me to sleep. They call it ‘Immersive Workplace’: Getting the office team involved in a product by having them wallow in the culture. The SuperSPY product line, of course, meant some changes around the office. Co-workers drank their water-cooler water from martini glasses. Office memos were delivered in secret packages that were given through code. ‘Sincerely’ and ‘thank you’ on memos became “This message will self-destruct in ten seconds.” The whole idea was to get us in the mindset to create, market, and sell like the SuperSPYs we were. Don’t ask me where it came from. Probably some crackpot MBA writing under a sugar daddy, the kind of motivational book you see on an extended cable channel at three in the morning for twenty dollars but invariably ends up sold in Wal-Mart like some inventory overflow special.
   It’s just too bad that our Project Speaker Gary bought his business books on the clearance rack.
   Ah, Gary… He stood at the front of the table, dressed in a double-breasted suit, black bow tie, and black sunglasses, holding a dorky-looking bike helmet in one hand, and the breast of his suitcoat in the other. His voice was a forced baritone, the kind of over-the-top acting that made Sean Connery famous. “Remember, even when we have hang-ups we’re still cool super spies inside. Attitude sells!” Then, with the calm of a spy, Gary put on the gaudy bike helmet.
   Everyone nodded. Marketing Coordinator Howard gave the speaker a small round of applause. Few joined him. Gary didn’t do a damn thing to create that helmet; he was the CEO’s little brother. Gary was the only Project Speaker in the company. His responsibility was to run morning shift meetings, then he took his $2000-an-hour paycheck (rounded up) and went off to play some golf. But, in those thirty minutes before the day really got off to a start at all, he owned our asses. Thirty minutes of boredom, of useless banter about things we didn’t care about at all.
   Myself, I usually daydreamed.
   You lose some of the magic of a daydream as you get older. I remember back when I was in middle school, when I’d just lose myself in a thought for hours at a time, imagining something so powerfully that, for a second, it was absolutely real. The magic dissipates as you get older. Wiser. Less prone to fits of fantasy. You run out of things to imagine. Your big dreams become old hat. Maybe your imagination becomes more structured, more logical, more acceptable. You don’t envelop yourself in the dream. No reason to. You sit and you think, maybe about your bills, maybe about your childhood, about the time when you used to jump the big gravel pile down by the power substation, but every time you get a good imaginary world going, the real world just clamps down hard.
   Gary kept trying to push his drivel, oblivious to the lolling heads all around the table. He got a rise out of all this spy talk. “Intelligence says our product might kill someone,” he said. Then he lowered the little HUD glass on the SuperSPY helmet before continuing. A double-zero flashed over his eye. “Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to decide where to go from here.”
   The designers nodded. The marketers shook their heads. The lawyers—the pair of sharp, well-dressed men who refused to have any part of our SuperSPY professionalism—thumbed through the plain, brown ‘accident report’ brochures scattered about the table. The lab technician, a small man that could have been a dead ringer for Q in a few dozen years, stood from his chair and took Gary’s place.
   Immediately, people snapped to attention. Gary tried his best not to notice.
   “Well,” the engineer said while clearing his throat and adjusting his glasses, “we screwed up. After all that design work, all that research and development, all buying all those customized machines for the assembly line, we found a flaw in the SuperSPY helmet. In one out of every thousand simulated collisions, the Heads-Up Display unit fragments. This, coupled with disfavorable circumstances, could cause irreversible damage to a child’s eye, and in extraordinary disfavorable circumstances lead to fatality.”
   Today was a good day for my imagination. The world opened up before me like a perfectly-cracked walnut: the real world and my world split right down the center, two perfect chunks of my mind. Maybe it was the dream that did it—I always did better at this after a fox dream—but for one reason or another, the daydream fell heavily over my world like a layer of gauze.
   “We’ve conferred with the actuaries downstairs about this problem. Our calculations, combined with their statistical data on the average number of bicycle accidents sustained by children in our target market, says that approximately one out of every one million children stands a slight chance of dying because of this helmet.”
   “Or because of the wreck,” Gary added. “Being a SuperSPY is dangerous work, after all!” He tapped the side of his helmet—that gaudy, racing-stripe-and-circuit-board painted helmet that only a kid would dream of wearing, let alone hassling mommy to buy. Gary didn’t care; Gary was our SuperSPY.
   I imagined my tail and my ears into reality. They were pretty solid—one of my better daydreaming jobs in a long while—and I busied myself by flicking the tail, turning the ears. It was a fun little touch, something simple but altogether fun to do, the kind of thing that didn’t send me into an eyes-half-closed state of imaginary journey. All I had to do was sit back, act like I was paying attention, and enjoy the fact that I had a tail, and fox ears, and a little fuzzy chip on my shoulder for the fact that I was the only one in the room that felt that way.
   “Ideas?” Gary asked. There was silence for a solid ten seconds. No one moved, but Howard’s eyes were deeply set in thought. That was Howard’s thing: Consider everything before you open your mouth. Be ready to capitalize on the moment. He wore his hair with gel and his goatee thin and prideful. Most days he wore his SuperSPY bow tie and SuperSPY sunglasses, but today he dressed for casual Tuesday. Not that casual Tuesday was any different from any other day of his week; Howard did what he wanted and no one fired him. He was too damn good to lose.
   He moved to raise his hand: Slow, purposeful, with one finger up, chest height, as if he couldn’t be bothered to raise his hand any further. Gary pointed. Howard paused. Then, with all the gusto a brown-nosing marketing employee could muster, Howard leaned forward to speak. “Maybe we can write it off as a disclaimer,” he said. “You know the drill—mark it up as a cool spy gadget that isn’t to be worn as a safety device. We can keep the campaign but the helmet would just be really cool on its own.”
   Gary looked to me for the answer. That’s my job: Market analysis and copy writing. I make sure that the designers and the marketers stay in check, and when everything is all said and done I slap a label on the front of the product. That’s me. Invisible behind a veil of text. I flipped to page thirty of my Analysis Bible and pointed to a demograph. “No go. Over-thirty housewives won’t be willing to buy their sons bike helmets that aren’t bike helmets at all. They’d start a letter-writing campaign and we’d be sunk.”
   Howard looked to his feet and grumbled. I ignored him. If I had my way we wouldn’t be in this jam—we’d be making helmets with cat ears laid into the top. It was the first idea I ever pitched to the company; we’d brand that one crazy skier—the one who insisted that the Olympic committee allow her to wear her cat-ear helmet on the slopes—and play the ‘dare to be different’ card. No go. The higher-ups wanted to appeal to the boys’ market. I insisted the product was unisex. Higher-ups said that boys wouldn’t go for looking like a cat while going down the road.
   I knew better. I’d have given my left nut for a helmet that cool, back when I was a kid.
   The daydream was going along quite nicely, if I did say so myself. I was up to putting a muzzle on my face. It was a strong, pointed muzzle, very Disney-like in appearance, complete with the black nub for a nose, white fur on the chin and neck, and big, thoughtful eyes with emotive black pupils. I knew I looked good. This wasn’t some stupid paper-and-duct-tape costume, or a makeup job that couldn’t quite cut the mustard. This was the real thing. Muzzle. Ears. Tail. A fox from top to bottom.
   The floor opened for suggestions. I drew in the margins of the Risk Assessment brochure as the meeting droned on. Mostly bookmarks, really. If I didn’t write down what was going through my head I’d forget it. They were little things, mostly faces, poses, smiling foxes and the like. I put a crying one next to the mortality rates, a smiling one by projected sales in the first two quarters. I drew meadows around the advertising budget, barbed wire fences through the target audiences.
   I fell away from my daydream long enough to listen to an idea, this time from a woman across the table. Small, pencil-armed, with plain brunette hair and lackluster features. “Maybe we could just soak the cost. If we’re going to make money on the thing, let’s make money! Kids are gonna get hurt even if the helmet breaks. Besides, from what I read it sounds like it’d take a ton of force for this helmet to break. I mean, sure, there’s a fault line in the HUD molded plastic. But if a kid’s gonna take that hard a fall to break it, why should we worry? It’d be defensible in court.”
   Everyone nodded. Discussion became frenetic, positive. Uplifting even. I went back to my daydream and drew a hallway on the notes page of my report.
   The hallway. It kept showing up in my doodles. It was the long, black hallway that waited for me just outside this room. In a few seconds the place would turn hostile. The spies all around me would close in, start asking questions, weapons drawn. I’d draw my kimono around my waist, tight, and jump out of my chair, sword drawn, body leaning heavily forward. Then I’d make a bee-line for the door, kicking it down at the very last second. The world would become blackness itself as I ran down the hall, my sword crossing my chest, arm bowed, ready to strike, as I ran down that long, black hallway just as fast as I possibly could run…
   Yeah, that’s the stuff. That was the daydream! I closed my eyes for a brief moment and felt the wind blowing through my fur. This was the real deal. This was the kind of dream that stuck to your bones, that wouldn’t let you go. This was the dream I had back in middle school, where every moment I didn’t have to talk I’d be lost in my own world, fox ears and fox tail and fox face and happy as hell to be there. Back when I could zone out at a moment’s notice when the history class got too boring and I’d just sit back and imagine, my tails swishing, swirling behind my chair.
   “So what I’m hearing is that we should play it cool,” Gary said. “We’ll get our lawyers here to give us an estimate on what a fatality may cost us and go from there.” He looked to me. “Does that sound good to you, Spy Fox?”
   I didn’t answer at first.
   “Hello, fox at the other end of the room?” Gary chuckled. “I’m talking to you.”
   I nodded, not sure what to think. Then I stood, slowly at first, but as things sank in I shot bolt upright. This wasn’t right. The daydream went away when someone talked to me, yet there I stood for everyone’s amusement, my tail wrapped around me as if I were embarrassed to stand in front of them all. The kimono, the tail, the ears, they weren’t imaginary anymore. They had weight, body, character.
   I was a fox.
   I had just enough time to smile before I blinked. Then everything fell away from me, a thousand held breaths released at once. The world spun for a moment and when the haze cleared everyone was staring at me. I was wearing the same stupid shirt and tie, the same stupid khakis and loafers, the same white skin as I came in with.
   Gary, now standing at the front of the room with a cock-eyed look on his face, leaned forward to address me. “Can I help you, Austin?”
   “I think the fox would be okay with that,” I replied. “The play it cool thing, that is. He’d be a real cool spy.”
   “The fox?”
   “Yeah. The fox.” I snapped my fingers to try and jump-start my brain. “You know the one. Big mascot. Spy Fox. We were just talking about him.”
   “Spy Fox.” Gary thought about it for a moment before shaking his head. “Nope, no Spy Fox in this campaign. I think you have the Robin Hood Renaissance catalog—that’s the project Team Delta’s working on.” He motioned to a plain-shirted intern in the hall. “Can we get a SuperSPY catalog for Agent Seventy-five, Agent Ninety-seven?
   The intern didn’t ask questions; he presented me a new SuperSPY secret packet within a minute’s time. I sat down with my second copy of the catalog and tried to sink into the chair. I couldn’t get the dream started again.

   I write progress reports for the rest of the day. That’s just part of the job—writing progress reports, that is. I write needless pages of reports detailing the progress of the SuperSPY project. In Immersive Workplace terms, I’m a mole. I record everything from potential marketing niches to powerlunch catering expenditures. Hardly the most useful job, sure, but at the very least it gives me a little privacy when I start seeing it again.
   I look myself in the mirror I’ve taped above my computer monitor. Yup: The fox muzzle is still there. A quick look behind my chair confirms that the tail is still flicking around, still there, still existing. This isn’t supposed to be happening. People don’t have muzzles, or tails. That was all in my head.
   I try to ignore the thistle and bushes that start growing in the hallway. It’s gnarly and thorny, the stuff that appears in nooks and crannies of streets and sidewalks. Mother Nature’s way of saying “I told you so.” It’s dark out in the hall, like a never-ending late dusk/early twilight…

   It had to be in my head.
   “Everything okay in here?” Howard threw open the door. The muzzle disappeared. The hallway thistle sank back into the walls and the fluorescent lights came to life. All in my head. “You’ve been locked away in here all day.”
   “Yeah. I’m fine.” I took a stack of papers into my painfully furless hand and held them up for him to see. “Just catching up on paperwork. You know the drill.”
   “Ah.” He nodded. “Just wanted to make sure. You seemed out of it at the meeting today.” This wasn’t about altruism, or a good friendly leg-up. That wasn’t Howard’s way. Nothing could be that simple. He’d butter you up, get you friendly, and then go in for the kill. This was another day at the office with everyone’s favorite get-ahead bottom feeder.
   “You look pretty chipper today,” he continued. “What’s the occasion?”
   “Oh, nothing. Just having a red-letter day.” If I still had my tail I would have flicked it with content. Going insane had its benefits.
   “Well, I’ll get right down to brass tacks.” He took a seat on the cheap folding chair on the other side of my desk. “I know you don’t like me, and I don’t like you. That’s okay—I’m not here to make friends.”
   “No, you’re here to make business.”
   “Exactly! So glad to see that you see it my way.” He laughed, trying to warm me up to his way of thinking. I didn’t respond. He cleared his throat and tried to recompose himself. “I’m here about the helmet.”
   “The SuperSPY heads-up helmet, for the safest spy?”
   “That very same one.” Howard leaned back in the chair and folded his hands, his index fingers on his lips. “I’ve got a lot invested in this helmet. The campaign is 100% my baby, top to bottom. I directed the whole damn thing. You know that, right?”
   “I heard at the water cooler.” The fox ears were just under the surface of my skin, just waiting to pop out. I tried to keep them down. “Rumors travel all around, you know, when you have a small team working on a project like this.” Not to mention that I’d worked under Howard’s direction for the past month and a half, revising ad copy and typing up results of focus group tests. Of course, Howard couldn’t be bothered to know who worked under him and who was too unimportant to impress.
   “Ah, yes. I guess word does travel around.” He smiled. “This is my first big project. You know that. I know that. If this toy hits the market it’s gonna be the Next Big Thing.”
   “And my name’s on the ad campaign.”
   “Right again.”
   “There’s a lot at stake here.” He looked me right in the eye—some sort of managerial tactic to impress importance on an issue. “My career—my life—will be defined by how well this product takes off. If this product gets off the ground I’m going places.”
   “And if it doesn’t?”
   “I’ll be hurting for credibility.” A blatant lie, of course, but Howard didn’t care. Better to brow-beat and appeal to sympathy than to actually tell the truth. “We’ve got a chance to go places—you and me both. Imagine how our resumes will look when we can say we worked on the award-winning, top-selling SuperSPY helmet!”
   “Right. Carry on.” I turned to my computer and started typing. I tried my best to make it look like I was just too terribly busy to listen—the passive-aggressive way to say ‘get the hell out of my office’.
   “I’m working on a proposal to fix the—” he cleared his throat, “—issue we have on our hands.”
   I laughed. “Oh? You mean the whole ‘our product has a chance of killing a child’ thing?” I heard a boy scratching at the door—maybe Howard would notice it if the sound got to be any louder.
   “That one.” He nodded. “Though you don’t have to put it that way. You know the data’s not conclusive on the issue.”
   “It’s enough of a chance that I feel we should consider redesigning the helmet.”
   “Too late. The machinery’s already been ordered. We’re too far into the process to retool the assembly lines.” He shook his head violently. “We can’t let the SuperSPY helmet die. We just can’t!”
   “At the cost of a child’s life.”
   “There’s a good chance that no one will die.” Howard pulled a rolled-up Risk Management brochure from his pocket and laid it on the table, opened to a page he dog-eared a while ago. “The average force required to trigger the fault would probably kill the child anyway.”
   More typing. I pulled a paper from the pile and clipped it onto the little paper holder above my monitor. “Mmm. Go on.”
   “I need data—lots of data. Projected sales. Projected interest levels. Ratings of the SuperSPY pilot we put on TV. You wrote all that.”
   “If I had the data I could put together a proposal looking at the potential damage a fatality could do to the company. Lawyer’s fees. Settlements. Maybe we’d be better off just taking the loss, you know?”
   I swallowed hard. “Let the kid die?”
   “Sure.” He laughed—a quick chuckle of a laugh, nothing more. “That’s how manufacturing works. Sometimes you put out a product that you know isn’t quite right, but you don’t have the money to fix the problem. But you’re already in for a penny, right? Now you have to go all the way. So you go ahead and push the product through, knowing you might be hit with a lawsuit.”
   I paused long enough to face Howard directly. “This isn’t a small choking hazard, or a sharp edge on a doll. This is a helmet. It’s supposed to keep kids safe.”
   “We’d be releasing a product that we consciously knew would kill a child.”
   “In extreme circumstances.”
   “By the odds, one kid’s going to die.”
   “This is going nowhere.” I navigated through a few folders on my computer until I found the SuperSPY data folders. Top secret, the icons said, but I was long past the point of caring about Immersive Workplace bullshit. Anything to get Howard out of my hair and my mindset back in the right place. I opened a handful of documents on focus groups—quotes from the discussions, databases of survey answers, pictures of helmet designs from the prototype stages. “Give me a second.”
   “I just want you to see it my way,” Howard explained. “I’m not trying to be the bad guy here. I’m trying to be the businessman. You have to break some eggs to make an omelet, after all.”
   “Right.” He opened his mouth to continue but I stopped him with an outstretched hand. “Look, I sent it to the printer.” I pointed out the door. “Should be about a hundred and fifty pages there. Will that keep you out of my hair for the rest of the day?”
   Howard taped his finger on the desk. “You’re missing the point, Austin.”
   “No, You’re missing mine.” I wiggled the finger that pointed at the door. “I asked you a question. Please answer it.”
   He fingered his goatee for a second more before standing up. “Right. You realize you’ll get nowhere in this corporate toy world with an attitude like that, right?”
   “You realize that I don’t care?”
   He smiled and walked to the door. “Too bad. I was hoping I could count on you, Spy Fox.” The kimono was back. The ears, the tail, the muzzle, the fur—it all came rushing back to my body as my mind came whipping back around. The hallway is dark and the thistle is wrapping around Howard as he stands tall, his gloved hand tightening razor wire around the boy’s contorted face. “He’s going to die either way. Why should you worry yourself so much?” My hand reached to the pommel of my sword. My tail flicked out from behind the chair so it could move freely—wouldn’t want it getting in the way when I lunged to strike.
   It was all in my head.
   I managed to stay my strike long enough for Howard to step out of my office and shut the door. Then the door, the office, everything faded to black and I was alone, kimono whipping in the chill breeze, the blade in my hand. Just like the dream. Anywhere I stepped the ground came up to meet me in inky night, so on and so forth, forever, in all directions, just the darkness and me.

   The image staring back at me from my bathroom mirror is exactly what I expected to see. Spy Fox stares right back at me. His kimono is yellow, I realize, and has an intricate hook-and-loop pattern that I almost couldn’t quite make out. It reminds me of an old cartoon, something from way back in my youth. The same yellow some cartoon character wore. Damned if I could think of it.
   I use a claw to pull white fur down and away from my eye. No bloodshot eyes, no puffiness. At least I’m a healthy delusion. I wave my black paws around in front of the mirror, smile, frown, stick out my tongue. The face in the mirror shadows my every move. I laugh. I grin. I shake my head to try and clear the vision.
   I blink, and it’s just another normal (if not a little paranoid) Wednesday night. Just great. To be honest, I like the delusion a lot better than the genuine article. More suave. Debonair. More what I want to be. Given the choice, I’d much rather go around with fox ears and a tail for the rest of my life, if it means I look that damn good. It’d be worth the ridicule.
   A paw appears on my shoulder. “Once more with feeling, eh? Same mirror, same dream. Don’t you ever get bored of staring at that face?” The fox is behind me. He shouldn’t have made sense but the words still struck home. I’d heard them before. I’d been in this place, this time and a thousand times before. The motions were as casual and rehearsed as brushing my teeth in the morning.
   Spy Fox rests his muzzle on my shoulder, his paws on my arms. “Yeah. Back here again. No surprise, really. Not after the day you had.”
   “You aren’t real.”
   “Of course I’m not.” He smiles and touches the tips of his claws to my ears. Fox ears explode from the points of contact. “You’re real. I’m just a delusion.”
   “I know I’m real. Great.” This is about the time I realize that I ’m dreaming. This whole sequence will make me laugh after I wake up. I know this, but I still can’t stop the conversation from happening.
   “You just need to learn what’s real and what can be bent, that’s all.” More dreamspeak. The fox is dancing behind me, smiling and bouncing and generally excited that I was talking to him. He plays with my ears. He flicks his tail this way and that. I close my eyes again, thinking I can join him, but nothing came of it. “Maybe we can come to an agreement.”
   “This is all a dream,” I say to him.
   “Of course it is!” The fox pats me on the shoulder and I feel fur start to grow. “Just… well… stop worrying your little head about it. I’m you. Would you lie to you?”
   We’re in a bedroom closet. We hadn’t been there, but things changed and we were in the closet come hell or high water. Yet another thing I’ll remember and laugh about when I woke.
   “Well, well.” Spy Fox is walking along my closet floor, climbing over shoes and running his claws through the shirttails that hung over us like willow leaves. We are a foot and three inches tall. This, of course, makes perfect sense to me. “Welcome home, Austin. Third shoebox from the bottom, right? Under some hardcopy of programming code you grabbed off the internet. Just like old times.”
   There was no door. There was no back wall. All that exists is the shoebox, the shoes on the floor, the shirts hanging like old memories over my head. I am Spy Fox, even though I’m watching him walk, hearing him talk. I’m a disconnected director that watches the fox take down the too-familiar shoebox and lay it on the ground, open it into a big treasure box. That was his motivation.
   “Yep. Everything is just like you left it.” He reaches into the box, pulls out a headband. “Nice ears. Paper cutouts, right? Printed them on your dad’s computer late one night when he wouldn’t see what you were doing.” He looks to where I watch myself rooting through the box. “The real ones are better, aren’t they? You don’t need to reply. We already know the answer.”
   There are some art prints in the box. When he touches them my vision fills with images so familiar that I can see every contour, every shadow, every bend and kink in the tail. “Stunning likeness, eh? You do have a sharp imagination. Only the best.”
   The shirts close in tight around Spy Fox. Me. Somewhere, outside the world, I fear someone will start knocking. It was almost worse than when someone just barged in; it gave you time to freak out, to worry, to get that little shock of adrenalin that said They might see you looking at these stupid little fox pictures and start asking questions.
   “This is what you wanted, right? To have this body. This life. This chance.” He looks down and I see his black paws through my eyes. “This change. Man, I’m putting it on a silver freakin’ platter for you and you just don’t want to take it!
   “You!” He laughs. “I am you. You are me. Why are we even having this conversation?”
   Have you ever been in conflict between what you wanted and what you were?
   The fox laughs and pulls a thin, yellowed piece of paper from the depths of the shoebox. I look at poor penmanship in bleeding blue gel ink. “Remember this one?” I say. Spy Fox has a silly nostalgic smile on his face. The Trip. Your first furry story. Your first shot at being me.”
   “Funny you say that,” the fox says. He doesn’t follow through. “All sorts of stuff down here. I sure was a collector back in the day.”
   “I made a ton of excuses,” I say.
   “I sure did.” Spy Fox skims the story, though the words never quite stayed the same. “But that was all different. It was dreams. Fantasies. This is the real deal. You just have to reach out and take it.”
   A knock at the door. I sit up in the bed, eyes wide open, the dull red of alarm clock numbers sparkling and spinning in my eye.

   The alarm is a shot in the night. It clicks once, loudly, then plays a long stream of white noise.
   Heather rolls over with a groan. The alarm is two hours too early. I reset the alarm and shut off the sound—she’ll appreciate the extra sleep more than I would. I pour myself out of bed and onto the dark, fluffy carpet flattened by years of dull, flat-footed wake-up calls.
   That’s life, I guess.
   I go downstairs and fall into the couch. The dream still hangs like a haze to the edge of my vision. Dreams do that to me sometimes. I wake up and the dream is still running in instant replay in the background. I laugh at the things I said. I relive the sensation of ears exploding onto my head. I run the boy’s face through my mind, over and over, watching the razor wire wind more tightly around his face.
   I grab the curry comb from the coffee table and brush the fur on my tail. Mats seemed to just pop up like zits whenever my stress load grew.
   Nothing ever happens in the dream, of course. God forbid my dreams reach any sort of conclusion! Everything is prep and buildup, never release. Even now, as I sit combing the fox tail that I know I don’t have in waking life, nothing will happen. There will be no climax, no action. I’ll sit combing my tail, possibly taking in the surroundings that remained static and unchanging, and eventually I’ll wake up. Maybe there’ll be some end in sight. Maybe I know something was supposed to happen. No matter. In the end I wake up in my bed, disappointed.
   Heather watches me from the stairwell. “Sure are the early riser,” she says to me. I jump. The haze falls away for a split second. I lunge forward to grab the brush I nearly dropped in shock; when I have it in my hands again I squeeze it tightly and try to relax.
   “You could say that.” I lean back into the couch and let fake leather surround me in a cold cocoon. “Just worried.”
   “Worry, worry. Always worry.” She shakes her head. “What’s it about this time?”
   I think about the dreams, about Spy Fox, about the fact that I’m slowly losing my mind and the world along with it. Then I run it through my filters before I respond. “You know. Work. The usual.”
   She shakes her head again. “You are a mess! Let me help you with those mats.” Then she takes the curry comb into her soft, slender hand. It’s better when someone else does it—kind of like getting scratched behind the ears, or on the small of the back. More fulfilling when it’s someone else’s handiwork. “You’re gonna worry all the fur off your tail at this rate.”
   This is all a dream.
   She moves close to me and I smell the morning dew on her hair.
   “The helmet could kill someone,” I say to her. The boy is still fresh in my mind’s eye. I can almost pick out his features in the shadows of our entertainment center, outlined by the moonlight coming in through our bay window.
   “Honey, this isn’t about the helmet.” She tugs at a difficult mat a few times before it comes loose. “It’s not about work, it’s not about Gary, it’s not about Howard, nothing.”
   I try my best to chuckle, but it just comes out as an energetic sigh. “I’m just going through a rough time right now. Lots of things on my mind.”
   “I’ll say.” She puts her free hand on my shoulder—warm, a little firm, but supportive as always. Desperate, but not desperate enough to look it yet. “I wish you’d talk. You look like hell.”
   “I will.” The comb works its way to the underside of my tail. I melt a little bit on the inside; the words I’m choking back almost but don’t quite make it out of my throat. “I’ve just got to figure out what’s bothering me first. One of those self-fulfilling conundrums.”
   My wife is brushing my conundrum. None of this is real. The alarm will start ringing any time and I’ll be awake again, lost in the black void of my cave of a bedroom.
   She never knew how I felt. The fox pictures were from the old cartoons I watched. The fox ears were from my Junior year Halloween Bash. The photo collections, the models, the fixation… it all fell into one not-so-cleverly crafted excuse: I liked foxes.
   “You’re always trying to sound so smart.” She laughs and tickles that special spot two inches from the tip of my tail; my head lolls with the pleasure. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? Hot Chocolate? Breakfast? Massage? Come on, hon. I want to help you feel better.”
   I relent. “Hot Chocolate sounds nice.” The air feels empty when she stands from the couch, like I’m missing something. Something tangible. Some important part of me. For a single, panicked moment I wonder if the dream will ramp back to full speed without her by my side. The darkness envelopes me, surrounded on all sides by cold night air and a sticky, too-hot leather chair.
   The kitchen light shatters the electric air. I turn away and cover my eyes. Heather just laughs her angel-bell laugh and moves about the kitchen on featherlight feet, filling the teakettle, pulling down the teapot, flipping switches, tearing open packets of instant chocolate. I watch her soft shadow dance on the hallway wall and breathe easy. No boy in barbed wire; no my-size shoebox of memories I’d rather have left forgotten.
   But my tail still lay beside me on the couch. Its puffy fur bristles in the chilly morning air. It flicks when I want it flicked, twirls when I want it twirled. I drink in its every move, memorize every detail, note how much clearer the tail is when I stop thinking about the dream and just start living it.
   I’m not tired anymore.
   Heather peers in through the kitchen door as the water comes to a boil. “You know, we never get time alone anymore. Real time. We’re always working. We come home and we’re tired. We watch TV. We surf the net. We sleep.”
   I chuckle. “We dream.”
   “About mornings like this, yes.” She let out a little giggle. “Shame it had to come like this.”
   She flips the living room dimmer switch and suddenly I’m bathed in faint halogen starlight. Every bristle of my tail’s fur comes to life in a sparkling red firestorm.
   “We need to get you out of your rut.” She hands me a mug of steaming hot chocolate, pauses to pick up my tail, sat down. She drapes the tail over her lap so she can stroke it as we talk. “Holding this in can’t be good for you at all.”
   “You’re telling me.” Of course, none of this made sense. So what? I’m willing to ride the chat all the way to the alarm bell; nothing like hot chocolate, a hot wife, and a dream-come-true tail to make a night truly special, I thought.
   “Maybe you can go full-morph,” she says. She takes me by the hand and strokes my paw. “You know what I mean: Get outside, take a quick canter around the forest. Jump, frolic. Maybe catch a rat or two.”
   “Full-morph?” This is all one big dance, much ado about nothing. We can talked for hours and nothing will get done. This is usually where I woke up. This is the shot, the snap, the “oh, goddamnit!” moment that ends the dream every night. Something steps over the line of believability, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.
   She shouldn’t be petting my tail. She shouldn’t be talking about foxes. This is a dream. A fantasy. Another delusion.
   “Okay.” She laughs and puts a hand on my lips. “Forget I mentioned full-morph; didn’t mean to spook you or anything. Hey, maybe we can go for a run! You and me, how about it? Go down to the river trail, maybe. Anything to get you the hell out of this rut.”
   “Maybe.” I focus on the tail. Hard. If this dream breaks any time soon, I want to remember every little detail.
   “You just need to relax, that’s all.” Her voice covers me with smooth, sweet hope. “We need to talk about this. You need to talk. I’m not going to push you, but I’m here and ready to talk whenever you’re ready. No rush.”
   “That’s mighty kind.”
   “Of course it is.” She nuzzles up under my cheek and twirls the tip of my tail with her fingertips. “I love you.”
   “I love you too.” We sit there watching the sun rise through a bay window while our hot chocolate turns cold. I wait for the wake-up call for a full two hours. When the alarm in our bedroom buzzes, we groan and untangle ourselves from each others’ embrace. We go to the bedroom to change for work. Not wanting to get fancy, I grab a polo shirt and a pair of slacks from the closet.
   Neither of us speak as we get dressed. Then, with the careful attention of a mother hen, Heather clears her throat and nods to my slacks. “Don’t forget to button up, dear.”
   I look down. “Right. My fly’s zipped.”
   “No—your other fly.” She twirs her fingers until I turn my back to her. Then, with the exasperated attitude of a mother dressing a fidgety kid for the first day of school, Heather pulls my tail down into its tailored hole and buttons the belt loop over the top. “Much better,” she says.

   The tail wouldn’t go away at the morning shift meeting.
   Gary talked our ears off about team spirit and persevering in the face of danger. Howard stepped up and delivered a preliminary report on the tradeoffs between risk and profit. The buttoned fabric over my tail rode a little low—I didn’t think to wear a belt that morning—and I spent most of the meeting holding up my pants.
   When the meeting ended, I waited while everyone else stood and left the room. The thought of someone staring at my tail made me a little self-conscious. Better to look busy reading over the dry Risk Assessment portfolio than have to deal with more questions. It shouldn’t have been this hard… I shouldn’t have had the tail. This wasn’t a dream.
   But the tail wouldn’t fucking go away.
   At least I wasn’t wearing the kimono, or seeing the boy around every corner. The alarm clock must’ve knocked that part of the dream clean out of me.
   Once everyone cleared out of the room, I collected my papers and walked out, trying my best to look nonchalant, my left hand hooked into a belt loop and supporting the pants that wanted to sag around my lolling fox tail. In the conference room’s silence I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, shook my head. Nothing changed. I poured a cup of coffee, drained it, refilled. Then I stepped out into the office.
   Maybe it was all just in my head. Another delusion.
   “Austin!” The voice was sharp, piercing, full of overpaid underqualification. Gary. He raised his paper water cooler cup to me as I turned to look at him. “What’s with the getup?”
   I looked at my outfit. My tail had already wrapped around my waist; I held it in one hand and tried my best to look casual. “Oh—you know—everything’s in the wash. Too many late nights on the job!”
   A long pause. Howard shot me a sidelong glare. Gary straightened his bow tie and smoothed the lapels of his suit jacket. I twirled my tail and hoped that they didn’t see me doing it. When he was finally satisfied with his jacket, my Project Manager gave me a chuck on the shoulder. “Always a kidder!” Gary said, laughing that office-water-cooler laugh that resided somewhere between polite response and force-of-habit reflex action. “Nothing in the wash? Late nights at work? Ha! Ain’t that the truth?”
   “Sure is,” Howard said. His mouth hung open, as if he wanted to add more to the conversation, maybe a witty repartee or a pun of some sort, but the thought slowly died away in his eyes. Always aiming to impress, right up to the moment the words stick in his throat. “It sure is. Too many late nights and not enough quarters for the laundromat.”
   Silence. Gary shot Howard a ‘what the heck are you thinking?’ glare for just a moment before continuing. “But really, Austin. Those are nice pants. Compliment your tail really well. Just… well… maybe try to be a little more SuperSPY tomorrow, eh? Spy Fox sure-as-hell isn’t stuck in middle-management hell like we are.”
   “Heh.” I looked to my tail for a moment before letting it go. It swung like a pendulum before finally settling into its natural position. Curved. Proud. Beautiful.
   “The cut on those pants really does suit your tail, though.” He cocked his head to one side, considered it, and then pointed to emphasize the thought to himself. “Tell you what. I’m gonna go talk to the head down at PR about putting Spy Fox in khaki. Tea-dyed shirt. Hat. Yeah, that’s the ticket!” Gary looked to Howard, just to make sure he had someone’s attention. “The Oriental thing is great, but nothin’ beats good ol’ Indiana Jones. He was a spy, right?”
   “I don’t think that’ll work,” Howard said. It came with the hesitant, not-quite-sure-how-to-break-it-to-the-boss tone that all brown-nosing workers took when trying to criticize the man in charge. In a few hours he’d write a detailed report on the issue and add it to a personal file that detailed every moment of incompetence Gary showed on this project. Indiana Jones wouldn’t work. We were too far along for that, and Gary should have known better. Just like Gary should have known that playing ‘Immersive Workplace’ was about as useful as paying for beachfront property in Colorado.
   Howard sure knew how to smell blood. Yeah, it was connected blood, but if you climbed high enough on the ladder you could topple anybody. In the meantime, though, Howard sure was the nice pet for his Project Speaker. Gary even put his arm around Howard as the real topic of conversation came into play. “We’re going through with the product,” he said. “The bigwigs took one look at Howard’s plan and went apeshit for it. You should have seen them smile and cheer!”
   “We didn’t talk about this at shift meeting,” I said. As we talked I slowly made my way to a wall I could put my back to. Better to hide the tail than risk someone coming along and popping my delusional bubble.
   “We’re rebranding,” Gary ignored me. “Changing the whole ad campaign. Less action. More stealth and sneakiness. We can talk about the secret message sender in the HUD. Show kids sneaking around woods trails. Playing stealth secret agent instead of action secret agent. Marketing’s already working on the new strategy.”
   Howard sipped his water and shrugged. It was all so simple for him; the answer to all the corporation’s SuperSPY problems came to him like breathing came to an infant. “It’s all about minimizing the chance of injury, obviously. The costs involved with a liability suit of this magnitude would make a significant cut in our profits. Sure, it’s all sunk costs now, but at the very least we can avoid putting dangerous ideas into the kids’ heads. It’s all in the image.”
   “That’s the beauty of it.” Gary chuckled and drained his cup. “This isn’t like Legos. Kids don’t make their own fun with toys like this; we make their fun. We tell them how to play.” Another laugh. “Marketing. It’s all in the marketing!”
   “Later on, we can make another helmet. Build a new brand, fix the problems and release it as a slick new model. Brand it like a rugged, extreme spy helmet. Kids’ll buy the new ones up just as fast.”
   Gary laughed. “What’d I tell you? This guy’s going places!” A quick pat on the back. Howard smiled and chuckled a bit. Gary had no idea his fantasy management world would soon come to a screeching halt. All a question of pulling the right strings, saying the right answers. Howard had it in the bag. Howard was going places.
   I had my back to the wall trying to keep a dreamed-up tail hidden from the rest of the world.
   “It’s not going to be easy,” Howard said. “We have to change almost everything about the helmet without changing the helmet at all. New unique selling point. New image. New angle. The more we can shift our product to stealth and inaction, the better off we’ll be when the case actually hits.”
   “You’re going to be wearing a lot of hats,” Gary said. He patted me on the shoulder as he walked toward the office exit, probably to play his requisite eighteen holes of golf before going home to sleep the day away. “Please understand. The mission depends on you, Spy Fox. We need all the help we can get.”

   When I was alone the ears came back and tail came in full force. Not surprising: dreams loved to bite down hard when I was alone. The sacred Bible of the SuperSPY project lay on my desk: A black, three-ringed binder plastered with red DO NOT COPY labels. This was the sacred information. This was the trade secrets. I handled the pages with gentle, delicate claws, and read through the 100-page description of the average boy in the average 2.5-kid-per-household.
   …is seven to eight years old and a fan of cartoons. Fractionalization, they called it. Creating a product for an exact selection of kids which offers a precise way to play with a toy, just enticing enough to get the product off a shelf but just straightforward enough to be boring as hell in one month. The lifecycle and lifestyle of the modern toy was like a swarm of horny, thirsting mayflies; they came out of the box humping faces until they got their jollies. Then the plastic warped, some small pieces got lost, the hinges broke. The toy died in a anticlimactic blaze of glory.
   The tail flicked so fiercely it thumped against the wall. Every passing minute made me more uneasy, more worried that someone would knock and come right inside. “Excuse me,” they’d say, and then they’d run away. Doesn’t matter if it made sense. Even if they’d seen me as a fox the day before, no matter. Old habits died hard.
   The average child spends 2.7 hours watching television every night. Weekday viewing peaks at 3:00 PM, Weekend viewing at 10:00 AM, though the weekend mean is moving toward late-night viewing times thanks to a new wave of late-night cartoon programming.
   I chased a pair of caffeine pills with my fifth cup of coffee. I shook my head violently and felt my ears flapping against my skull. “Alright,” I said to myself. “Time to pull it together. Wakey wakey!”
   The average boy has 3.7 friends he rates as ‘best friends’ or higher. Common activities for the age group include watching cartoons, going on bike rides, and exploring. Roleplaying children usually go on adventures as spies or action heroes and will use props when provided with them. Average kids with average thoughts and average imaginations. What a bore!
   The boy stared at me from outside the window. He rarely left me alone when no one was around to keep me company. Didn’t matter what I was doing, or how much I needed to concentrate; the boy was there, knocking at the door, tugging at my kimono, biking around the street corner saying “Look at me! Look at me!” The blinds were shut but he looked through the cracks.
   The longer he stared the more names I added to a list of licensed psychotherapists that would be covered under the company’s HMO. This was it: I had finally gone off the deep end. This dream was one dream too far, and I was going to lose all my marbles.
   No one ever taught you how to wake up.
   “Always with the dream thing.” The voice came from my reflection in a small, glass paperweight. “When are you going to give it up?”
   I read on, trying to ignore him. Boys are 47% more likely to convince moms on an impulse buy (here defined as a purchase based solely on shelf presence) than girls, and as such can be a lucrative target in the short-term entertainment business. Cheap toys, in layman’s terms, but you never say cheap. ‘Cheap’ is a misnomer. ‘Economical’, maybe, or ‘easy-to-purchase’, or ‘risk-free’, but never ‘cheap’.
   If it were truly cheap, we wouldn’t have made any money at all.
   Nothing was ever cheap. Everything was the right price—it was a question of how much you wanted to pay to have it.
   The fox stepped out of me like oil slips out of water. Then, with flickering tail and eyes dark with scorn, he poked the page with a single claw. “You can’t just ignore me. I’ll be back, time and time again. You want me. I’m a part of you.”
   Boys see blue, black, and red as ‘cool’—
   The boy was wearing a blue shirt. I hadn’t noticed it up to this point, which probably meant it had been red, or black, or simply hadn’t been important enough to exist up until that point. You picked and you chose what details to think about when you dreamed. Maybe the same was true for a delusion.
   I poured another cup of coffee. “That shit’s bad for you,” Spy Fox said.
   I shrugged. “And it’s bad for a children’s cartoon to swear. We’re even.”
   “Who said I was a kid’s character?” Spy Fox touched my nose, now black and a little wet for his presence. “You created me. I’m everything you’ve wanted to be since you were old enough to daydream.”
   “Listen,” I said, my nose twitching with indignation, “If I’m going to have a schizophrenic argument about the nature of my dreams, I’d rather it just be an internal debate. I am very busy and simply do not have time to argue with a figment of my imagination.”
   “Fine. We’ll talk business.” He snapped up the Bible. I reached out to stop him, but the fox deftly pulled it away at the last second. “Top secret documents—sounds pretty spy-like. Kudos to Gary on the Immersive Workplace idea.”
   “It’s a simple rebranding.” For a fleeting moment I wondered what this looked like to people not privy to my little hallucination. Maybe they saw the book floating in the air. Maybe I was actually talking to Gary, or Howard, or one of those copy jockeys that tried to make an extra buck or two in tips for running sandwiches. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary. We always change a product after the focus groups get a chance to see it. This change is just coming a little later in the process, is all.”
   The fox jumped around the room, pasting up pictures of himself here and there. I’d have stopped him if the pictures weren’t so good; as it were, he was simply doing the decorating I was too afraid to do on my own. “A rebranding,” he said, his claws straightening a picture of himself perched over a ledge.
   “Yup.” I turned the page “We’re changing the packaging, talking to the cartoon studio about how the helmet should and should not be used in the cartoon. Spy Fox will use a super-cool spy helmet, complete with a hundred gadgets and gizmos. We’ll try to keep him from doing anything too strenuous.” Then I looked to Spy Fox with a cold glare. “After the rebranding, we’ll stock our product adjacent to the bikes in all stores. We’ll place our ads adjacent to complimentary copy—bike reviews, bike pictures, bike advertisements. We’ll do everything we can to associate the thing with bikes without explicitly saying that we made a bike helmet.”
   “So what if a kid actually uses it as a bike helmet?” the fox asked.
   “Then we did our job.”
   “And if the kid dies?
   “Not our problem,” I said, shrugging. “They should have known better than to ride a bike with such a sensitive piece of electronic equipment.” That’s the line, the defense. Put the blame on the negligent customer. When everything came to a head, we’d have a damn defensible case on our hands. A fatality, the lawyers told us, would cost the company approximately $20,000 in out-of-court settlements. Simple as that. “Besides, you know damn good and well those kids will probably never do stupid shit with these toys. They’ll probably play pretend for a while, get their jollies playing like Spy Fox, then they’ll be done with it. The toy’ll collect dust and eventually dry-rot in some forgotten toybox.”
   “I’m not getting through to you here, am I?” The fox moved forward. His hand sank into my chest, where a small ripple of fur splashed over my skin. “It’s all a question of defining who you are. That’s the toy’s hook. That’s what this Immersive Workplace bullshit does. It gives people like them a way to make believe they can make believe. It gives them the power to be you.” I sat motionless, not sure what to say. He sank into my body as far as his elbow… and the fur that had peeled from his now-nonexistent arm wrapped around my ribcage.
   Two knocks on the door. I had just enough time to get that quick rush of adrenalin I used to get when someone walked in on me. Then, with a sudden lunge, the fox plunged into my chest. I felt as if I’d been hit with a wave of velveteen; by the time the door opened I was sitting at my desk, eyes wide open and jaw dropped, breathing hard, tail bushed in exhaustion.
   Gary stood at the door, waiting patiently for me to get a hold of myself. “Didn’t mean to scare you,” he said finally.
   “No problem.” I hooked my coffee mug with a claw and swung it a few times. “Been a little wired lately. Working hard and all that.”
   “Ah. Yes. Keep that up.” Leave it to Gary to be completely oblivious. That, or he simply didn’t see the fox ears, tail, fur, and face that I saw. It was hard to tell when other people were watching the show from the outside. “Well, I wanted to drop by to tell you that you’ve been promoted.”
   “That’s what I said.” He straightened his tie and tried to look professional—a tall order for Gary. “Starting tomorrow, we’re going to put you on a cartoon tie-in staff. Toy design. Commercial writing. There’s no reason a creative person like yourself should be tied down writing reports!”
   “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said, my ears laid against my head.
   “Remember the cat-helmet idea we shot down a few months ago?” I nodded. “Bangai is about to release a mouse-helmet here in America. Boys and girls both. The thing is selling like hotcakes in Japan right now. They’re gonna make millions because people like you have the forethought to tap those new markets. We need fresh blood like you to keep the excitement in the short-term toy market!”
   Gary thrust out his cold, wet hand. I shook it. Spy Fox, ever the snide one, made his observation from the paperweight: “They’re going to suck you dry.”

   The bathroom mirror in my house was a doorway to the real world. Everywhere else I was a fox head to toe; no pills I could take, no words I could say, and no actions I could take would change that. People even recognized me as the fox, smiling and waving and saying “hey there, Fox!” as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Everything felt right. But no—not here. It was only in the mirror that I saw me, fair-skinned human being that haunted my reality.
   “Of course they see it now.” The fox stood behind me, looking out the bathroom window. “You’re not hiding anymore. How could they not see us?”
   Have you ever been in conflict between what you needed to be and what you were?
   “Yep.” The fox patted me on the shoulder, but he never quite touched me. Our bodies merged before he could make contact. “First time in your life that you’ve ever stepped out of your shell. Amazing what can happen when you’re true to yourself, eh?”
   “But I’m just playing fantasy games.” The shadows under my eyes told me I hadn’t slept in days. Not surprising. How can you sleep when you’re already dreaming? “Stupid things. Useless things. I’m taking the world around me into my mind, that’s all.”
   “Bullshit.” The fox shook his head. His paw merged into my hand and suddenly we were holding up the black-furred thing to the mirror. “Spy Fox didn’t exist here before. All the mascot stuff, the merchandising, the SuperSPY helmet… it was all supposed to be some stupid little Japanimation show about a kid with a utility belt and a taste for crime-fighting. Tons of gadgets that looked good in molded plastic on toy store shelves. Check your notes. It’s all there in the focus group results, clear as crystal. Formulaic, gizmo anime sells; animals do not.” He shrugged. “Simple as that.”
   “That doesn’t make any sense.” Of course: None of this made any sense at all. Not the dreams, not the foxtails, nothing. I wasn’t becoming a fox. I wasn’t standing in my bedroom, sharing a paw with a fox that was actually a part of me, knowing he had to be telling at least some semblance of the truth despite how screwed up everything had became.
   “What’s left to confuse you?” His paw sank in to the elbow, and suddenly I realized that fur tickled when it touched bare skin. “You put Spy Fox into this world by force of will. We—by which I mean me—created a niche that grew and grew until it became something actually tangible. You, kiddo, have the power to change the world.”
   “Just like that.”
   “It’s all a question of degrees, but sure. Just like that.” The fox nodded. He leaned forward and the tip of my nose turned black. “And now you have the power to make a difference.”
   The blue-shirt boy fell through the mirror, broken and bloodied. I jumped back into my fox skin for just a moment as our two bodies intersected. “Jesus!” I yelled. Then I turned to look away.
   “Here it is—the one catch. The boy. SuperSPY knows you have the talent. The gift. They know you can make and destroy worlds. There’s lots of money to be made in creating a world. You’re a precious resource—a god among men. You tell people what to see and what to think.”
   “And you want me to believe that, on a whim, I spontaneously changed the world around me to better fit the dream I’ve had since I was a kid.”
   “Yup.” The fox looked to the boy’s lolling head, jumped, and tried to realign it. “You wanted to be a hero, right? To be different, to be noticed? Well, here it is. Your big chance. All you have to do is be who you want to be.”
   “But they’ll laugh. They’ll call me a hack. A freak.”
   “Not if you’re good enough,” he said. “Not if you just knuckle down and claim this whole world as your own. You made it. You can be proud of it.”
   “But they always laughed when I talked about foxes.” This was another lie, of course; I never let myself actually speak about it in public. Better to be quiet than to risk ridicule for what I liked.
   The fox rapped on my head and ripples of fur coursed over my skull. “Don’t you get it? We’re all hiding from ourselves. All of us! You, me, the guy down the street—secret of the polite society, right?” He shook his head. “Fuck that. You don’t have to hide anymore. Here’s your chance to blow them all out of the water. Take it or leave it.”
   A lump formed at the base of my throat. I swallowed, but that only made me choke up bile as the little boy’s head lifted to meet my eyes. “It can’t be real. None of this can be real. People just… they just can’t do these things.”
   The fox opened his mouth to protest, paused, and then stepped out of my body completely. “Right. This is all just a dream. You can just keep on playing the average middle-aged man from the 2.7 child household, with a 60% chance of coming from a home with separated parents. Keep playing to the middle, even when I put the world on a silver fucking platter, just for you. All you have to do is reach out and take it. Live a little. Save a life, maybe.”
   “You’re offering me a delusion,” I said, a little more confident now that I wasn’t a fox in any way. “A fantasy.”
   “Your fantasy.” He stepped forward again and our bodies became one tangled mess of fur and skin. I didn’t reply, and the fox moved further into my body. “Oh, well. Can’t say I haven’t tried.”
   “I really want this to be real,” I told the confused mass of fox and human staring back at me in the mirror. “Honest.”
   “Then make it real.” The fox moved completely into my skin. The familiar weight of my bobbing tail and pointed ears were almost comforting, after being in my human body. “This is my stop, though. You’re on your own from here. I’ll be being you.” The bathroom went quiet… and I knew I’d never hear from Spy Fox again unless I was speaking the words.
   Even after all that, the boy still stared at me from the mirror. Blood dripped from his wounds into the porcelain sink basin below. There were long gashes in a spiral pattern that moved from his neck up to his hairline, where a single, mangled plastic shard protruded from his eye.. I stared at his smiling, laughing face for a good long time, my nose catching the smell of blood and mucus coming from his lips.
   Then, with gentle paws and a wad of junky washrags, I pulled away the plastic and dabbed away the pus. The boy smiled and said thank you. I played a quiet hero.

   Heather teetered on the edge of unconsciousness, in that place where the real world and the dream world collide in seconds-long fits of microsleep. It was four-in-the-morning late; insomnia late, even. I sat on the edge of the bed, drinking coffee, trying my best to keep my tail wrapped around my legs so I wouldn’t disturb her. It was obvious that she was trying to stay awake—desperately trying, even—but every time she’d lay back I’d hear her breathe a couple deep breaths before shuddering herself back into consciousness. In that moment I wasn’t sure if she was escaping reality in sleep, or sleeping my new reality into existence.
   The world wouldn’t go away no matter how much I tried to wake up. I’d stare into the dark, black night of our bedroom, the kind of darkness that extended onto forever without ending, leaving me only with the sound of my wife and the smell of too-strong coffee to keep me oriented.
   “You sure coffee this late is a good idea?” Heather rolled onto one arm, her head so heavy with sleep that she didn’t even bother to hold it upright. “You start your new job tomorrow. It’d probably be better if you tried to get some sleep.”
   “Still stressing about the helmet,” she said.
   “This isn’t about the helmet at all,” I said, shaking my head and cradling my muzzle in one hand. “I told you that already.”
   “Then what is this about?” she sat up, her eyes suddenly wild with a fiery passion. “Come on, Austin. You’ve been all up in arms for the past few days about something. What’s got your panties in a bunch, anyway? What about these dreams?”
   “They’re nothing.” She never understood because I never told her. Even if this was how I wanted the world to be, even if this form was my lifelong dream, even if the world was really bending to my will, I still couldn’t even get up the courage to talk about it with the one person who was supposed to understand.
   “I’m going to take a shower.” I meant to say ‘We need to talk’, but the words didn’t come out quite right. They never came out right when they needed to.
   “Fine.” She snorted, shook her head, and fell back into the bed. “Remember that I put your fur dryer in the top drawer. Please get decently dry—you know you stink when you go to bed damp.” The words were blank, devoid of passion. I was in the doghouse again, same as I always was when the dream came up. Sure, this time she acknowledged the fact that the fox was there in the room with her, but she still wasn’t happy that I refused to open up to her. I’d just keep lying, over and over again, trying to avoid everything, to keep my thoughts to myself for the sake of polite society.
   But I didn’t need polite society anymore. I owned my world. Maybe…
   “Do something,” Heather snapped, more of a reflex than anything else. Her head dug into the pillow. “Sleep or get a shower. I’m gonna crash either way.”
   Whether this was real or not, I had to do something to stop the cycle.
   “Listen,” I said to her. The word was slow in coming out of my mouth, more a yawn than a statement of purpose. Heather turned to look at me nonetheless. “I have a problem.”
   Heather laughed. “No shit. We’re going to talk about it, then?”
   I took a deep breath and sat down on the bed, my paw on her leg. Nothing to it but to do it—that’s how Spy Fox would have thought. So that’s how I’d do it. “You already know about the dreams.”
   “The ones that keep me up at night?”
   “Yeah, those.” I tried to laugh but the sound died in my throat. “It’s not just dreams anymore. I’ve been having these…” The laugh finally came through; I couldn’t believe I was about to have this conversation! It was only the one thing I never spoke about, not since childhood, afraid that people would think me silly for liking it so much.
   “Finish what you start,” she said, then propped herself up on a pillow.
   I hissed a breath out from behind tight lips. “Delusions. I keep seeing things. Kitsune. From the dreams. From… well…” I looked down and tried to hide my flushing cheeks. “From my whole life. From every waking moment I’ve dreamed about foxes. Wanting to be one. Imagining.”
   Her hand laid soft on my shoulder. “And you didn’t want to talk about it?”
   “Yeah.” I grabbed my tail, still not wanting to meet her eyes. “It’s a little embarrassing.”
   “Of course you dream about Kitsune, honey!” she said, smiling that wide, understanding smile I fell in love with. “You’ve always been one. That’s why I fell in love with you. Remember? You were different from everyone else.”
   “No one else was like you,” she continued. “Everyone was so normal, so blasé. But you… you were exotic. Playful. You didn’t want to grow up. Foxes must be that way, I guess…”
   I stopped her in mid sentence. “That’s the thing; life hasn’t always been this way. I, well, I…” there was the chuckle again. “I think I made this world. The fox. The mascot deal. Maybe even the kid.”
   “Oh.” She turned her head to one side, then the other, a blank stare glazing over her eyes. “I think you’ve had too much coffee, honey. Let’s lay down for a while, try to relax.”
   “I will not relax!” I pounded the bed so hard with my paw that a single claw caught in the mattress padding, pulling a little polyester stuffing with it in the process. “For the last two days, I’ve been trying to convince myself this is a dream. A delusion. I’m going to figure out what the hell is going on.”
   She reached out a hand to calm me down. “No, you aren’t. You’re out of your mind.”
   “Maybe. It’s not every day you get to control the fabric of reality.”
   “Come sleep, honey.” She patted the bed again. “Right here, nice and calm. Right by me.”
   “I think…”
   “We’ll call the doctor tomorrow. You need to see a doctor.”
   “I think I like it this way.” That was the key—the floodgates opened and suddenly I wasn’t afraid anymore. I liked it this way! Of course! It only took me a few dozen years to get it, but man! It sure made sense when it finally sank in. There was no reason to be scared, to be ashamed. I lived, breathed, existed as a fox. So what? There wasn’t a single damn reason why I should have hidden behind a mask. None at all.

   I will her to see it my way.
   She wakes up. Of course, she’d already been awake insofar as she was usually concerned, but this is the first time she’s really awakened. It’s an explosion in her pupils, a brutal sledgehammer-blow that pounds her in the chest and sends her reeling into the bed. Her hands shake. Her eyes turn to look at the full-body mirror mounted on our closet door, the irises crazed and shining bright blue in the darkness of the night.
   It’s a full minute before she can bring herself to talk again. “Wow,” she whispers, her lips barely moving. “This doesn’t make a lick of sense.”
   I laugh. “You’re telling me.”
   She closes her eyes and lays back on the bed. “My husband’s in control of the universe. What the hell?”
   “I don’t control the universe,” I correct her. “At least, not yet. Maybe not ever, I dunno. Haven’t had a chance to get past myself and the SuperSPY products to test anything.”
   “And what am I?” She pats down her body. “You just changed your entire existence. Where does that leave me?”
   I can’t help but smile. “I don’t know. I guess it’s something you’ll have to think through for yourself. You know the old line.”
   “Even if this is all one big illusion.”
   “Could be anything,” I say, shrugging. “Maybe we’re both asleep. Maybe this is some twisted government joke. Maybe we’re dead.”
   “Maybe it’s all real, whatever the hell that means.” She laughs and runs a hand through her hair. “Now what do we do?”
   “I don’t know,” I say, looking to the ceiling. “There really isn’t much I can do to stop it—this is sort of what I wanted all along, after all—but at the very least I plan on enjoying myself. Stepping out. Doing what I want to do.” My head lowered so I could meet her eyes. “You should do the same.”
   She smiles. “No holding back from ourselves, then.”
   “More or less, yeah.” I gather my tail under my legs, lean over the edge of the bed, and stand upright. “And that means I have some work to do.”

   The room is bathed in electric blue light. Every wall, every shadow, every semblance of a form in the half-darkness is like unformed clay, waiting for my wetted hands to shape and form. Maybe I’m awake. Maybe I’m asleep. It doesn’t change a thing either way.
   Dialing into the SuperSPY network drives is as simple as breaking into a Siberian outpost. The network administrators hadn’t changed the password since they conscripted a few computer-savvy workers to help clean up a virus attack. I have the keys to the castle, and they were Username: James / Password: Holmes. And once I’m in, it’s a question of a quick find command to navigate to Howard’s personal files and copy the juiciest bits.
   I take pictures of myself with the cheap webcam attached to the top of my computer. The photo I pick out, eventually, is one where I’d winked and pointed to the camera like some overzealous cartoon spokesman. The text beside my head reads: SPY FOX SAYS: When you might kill a kid, don’t change the product—change the subject! The image links to a BitTorrent file containing all the corporate memos in a zipped folder, from conception to identifying the problem to how the toy company planned to ‘fix’ the problem. I highlight the juicy bits: Impulse-buy toys, the accident report, the fact that one child’s death would cost approximately twenty thousand dollars in court fees and compensation to the deceased’s family.
   Not that I know what I was doing. This whole thing might be a big flop, signifying nothing. People could pass right over the file, ignoring the contents. The press could make a half-hearted attempt at uncovering the secret. Howard would deny everything and refer the reporters to the CEO, who would deny everything and refer the reporters to the PR department, who would deny everything and give the reporters free promotional SuperSPY gear as pittance. That’s how press relations work at the toy company: Push them away like flotsam from a shipwreck.
   And who knows? Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion. I don’t have the answers anymore, not by a longshot! I can’t be sure if the room around me is solid, or that I’m even awake or aware of events going on around me. I could very well be laying on a hospital bed, comatose, an IV line hanging from my wrist. It could all be a crazy dream.
   All I have now is faith. Faith that I’m doing the right thing. Faith that what I see is what I can believe. Faith that, no matter what people may think of what I do, I am doing the right thing because my heart says it’s the right thing.
   Maybe I’m delusional.
   Maybe it’s all real, and everyone else is still asleep.
   I don’t care.
   It doesn’t matter anymore.
   I make a second header image, just to send the point home: “1 child = 20 thousand dollars.” It will open whenever someone clicks on the ’Torrent file. A nice touch, that. Then I click the send button… and the ’Torrent goes live. Almost immediately people begin uploading the files—I had contacted an antitrust website before putting up the file, and volunteer workers there were ready and willing to get their hands on the memos.
   By this time tomorrow, the file will be in a thousand computer banks, Digg’ed and blogged, decentralized to the point that no one company can ever hope to stop its spread. Soon anyone who cares to know what the SuperSPY helmet was all about will be able to download the files for themselves. Media outlets will report on the story. People will read the files. They’ll see the sham. They’ll realize that the toy company has played to the middle for its entire lifespan, and they’ll be disgusted to think that their children have been treated like cattle in a short-term toy marketing campaign.
   One by one, they’ll all wake up.
   Maybe not all of them, sure. Some of them are all too happy to sleep, to be sated by the standard. But maybe a few will wake up. Maybe they’ll read it and think, ‘gee, what a nice little story’, and then my world bites down hard. Maybe they’ll just ignore it and I fade into nothing.
   Roll the dice: Maybe I’ll be a hero.
   Maybe I’ll be nothing.
   The hardest part about being yourself was that you never know what others will think.
   The computer screen lets out a screech when it turns off, leaving me standing in the black void. I close my eyes, concentrate a bit. The room goes on forever, formless, unending. My tail is there. It doesn’t flicker, doesn’t disappear, doesn’t falter. The world might be all wrong, but I earned my tail, fair and square. Something about that makes me want to smile.
   The world shifts the way I want it to shift. Suddenly the room is a hallway leading to who-knows-where, lined with empty shop fronts and closet doors. They all beg for my exploration, pockets of the universe that, until I came into being, didn’t exist. Each one is a mini-adventure, a chance to step away from the world other people were so intent on holding onto. My world will be strange, new, welcome. Somewhere, hidden in those rooms, I might even find myself—the true self, I guess. The reason I’m here in the first place.
   I’ve got a lot of exploration to do. It’s my brave new world, after all.
   Steam from a sewer drain curls around my body as I amble down the street. My tail flicks this way and that, spreading the steam into thin, wispy feathers. I walk into dark night that explodes into brightest day, a world reborn.
    A world that waits for its people to wake up.

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