“This is going to sting.”
“No, this is going to sting a lot.”
That warrants a dry swallow and a second nod, more nervous this time.
The first thing they’d done at the mod parlor was shave my fur. A smooth line back from my muzzle toward my ears, stopping just short of my neck. They’d gotten all of both of my cheeks, down to the jawline and up toward my ears, though not quite all the way.
It’s not a good look for a weasel, this awful grooming.
I’ll have to live. I suppose it’ll take a few months to go from stubbly to bristly and back toward soft, and then another few after that until I’m back to normal.
Well not normal. New. Different.
“Alright, first bit,” the rat begins, tugging over the lower half of a milk jug that’s been cut in half. “Gonna get the bars super cold. You sure you want the straight lines?”
“Yes.” I don’t sound sure, even to myself.
The rat does that thing where he just sits still and silent, waiting on me. His ears have been tattooed black up along the backs, and the fluorescent lights shining through them cast blurred shadows, crenelated ideas of shapes.
I sit up straight in my chair and give a firm nod. “Yes. Straight lines. Three on each cheek, spreading out toward the back of my head.”
The rat waits a little longer, then cracks a goofy grin. “Good. Good choice. I’m gonna start the middle one a little further back. And I’ll use tapered ones rather than rectangular. It’ll make you look speedy.”
We laugh at that, and I use the it to hide the terror. Not at the pain, mind, but at the sheer enormity of what I’m about to do.
“Alright lady.” The rat stands, pads across the room with claws clicking on linoleum. There’s a hissing, gurgling sound, a sound of something more complex than water being poured, and then a soft curse. A single curse is more a matter of form, though, and the lack of follow-up keeps me from panicking outright.
The rat hurries back toward me, the half-jug in oven-mitt-clad paws billowing a sinking fog in his wake. This gets quickly set down on the steel table so he can shake the mitts off. The nitrogen fog continues in its cascade, flowing over the table and onto the floor. From then, everything happens in quick succession.
I’m laid out on my side.
A thick petroleum jelly is smeared into the fur around my eyes, and a piece of aluminum foil massaged into that to create at least an attempt at a seal.
A paw holds the foil in place. Another holds my muzzle down against a pillow in a sanitized paper pillowcase. A third, more spindly than the others, presses down on the side of my neck. Someone presses a rolled-up towel into my paws.
A rush, a clatter, and then pain as something presses against my cheek. I grit my teeth, clench the terrycloth in my paws, and let out a sort of gurgled moan. Someone’s counting down.
The pain leads with cold, then turns searing, and then is lost in a labyrinthine landscape. Sere, white, a sun too bright to look at, and the smell of snow.
The countdown reaches zero, and the pressure against my face relaxes. That ‘something’ that was pressed against my cheek is lifted away, and someone murmurs dryly, “One down, five to go.”
I spend the next half hour alternating between gasping for breath between each countdown and exploring that landscape. A tangled mess of chalk-white rocks, angular, thorny bushes with no leaves, lingering snow-scent, and a flute playing whistle-tones above it all.
I’d never known how intricate pain could be.
After the last countdown is finished and I am allowed to sit up once more, I finally allow myself a simple, “Fuck.”
There’s laughter as the foil is pried away from my gummed-up fur and I blink my eyes back into focus. There’s the rat along with his accomplice, a weasel far taller than I, sitting on a stool with a kerchief keeping unkempt headfur out of his eyes. On the table by him, a short copper bar clamped into a stainless steel handle is still oozing tendrils of too-heavy fog.
“Fuck,” I say again.
“Stings, huh?” The weasel grins, and I recognize his voice from the countdown.
“Uh…I guess.” I try to smile, feeling cold-burnt skin pull at my cheeks, and the smile turns into a wince. “Bit of an understatement. What does it look like?”
The rat reaches to snag a mirror and hold it up to my face. Shaved cheeks — that much I’d seen — cutting fine brown fur almost down to the skin, and three bars on each cheek, radiating away from my whiskers toward the back of my head. The bars show up as patches of matted, crispy, burnt fur.
“It’ll turn white soon enough,” the weasel says. He stretches out his arm and bunches up his sleeve, revealing simple coiling patterns of white fur amidst the brown of his fur. I’d seen it before in pictures (that being the reason I’d chosen this parlor), but seeing it in person made me all the more eager for the fur on my cheeks to grow back.
“Now you just need some piercings.” The rat laughs as I shake my head.
I pay in cash. They accept cards, but I had more than enough on hand.
From the mod parlor, I head home to take care of the apartment. All the stuff I need is already in the car, packed into a backpack and a suitcase. Nothing from in here, of course, this all has to stay. Still, it’s good to make sure.
Everything’s neat. Not too neat, of course, as I can’t keep up with Jarred’s standards, and he can’t keep up with the rate I make things messy. Stuff’s on shelves, dust free. Clothes are put away, but the hamper’s overflowing. The kitchen’s wiped clean, but there’s a stack of plates and glasses in the dirty half of the sink.
Poor Jarred. Ah well.
Once my account of the house is done, I begin to dismantle the life I’d built up for myself. I unwind it in slow, circular passes of the apartment, starting from the ground up. I carefully destroy what I was.
I slowly untick a checklist, item by item, of the things that got me where I am, made me who I am.
Drawers are tugged open and clothing strewn haphazardly about the floor. The bed sheets are pulled free of the mattress and shredded with my claws to look as though it was all done in haste.
It’s not. It’s all careful. I have to be quiet for the neighbors, and I have to be deliberate for myself, even if it does feel like watching someone else work.
The mattress is thrown askew as though someone had been digging for cash beneath it. The bathroom is mostly left alone, but pill bottles are dumped in the sink, looking like someone was hunting for something more interesting than aspirin. The top shelf of the closet is ransacked, with shoes thrown on the floor and the contents of my jewelry box tucked away in a backpack, along with Jarred’s nice watch. I didn’t care for the stuff, but I knew a burglar would.
The living room is more difficult. We have a TV, which a burglar would latch onto immediately. I’d planned for this, though, and the TV is set neatly by my door while I see to the rest of the room.
I tip over the speakers on their poles and scratch carefully crazed claw marks around their bases, a show of trying to detach them. They stay on the floor.
The bookshelf is dismembered as quietly as I can manage. Books are pulled off in armloads and scattered around on the floor. One from every armful is bent and torn, my heart aching to do so. A yearbook tweaks memories and is discarded. Paintings are removed from their hooks and tossed on top of the books.
The couch is shredded and exposed just as the bed had been. Nothing there, beneath those torn cushions.
The kitchen is next. I step quietly over the pile of books and head on in. There’s a cursory pass of the fridge and cabinets: pushing glasses and food to the sides to expose the backs of them. My concession to looking hasty is to put a glass in a plastic bag and crush it under my foot, then scatter the shards over the counter and onto the floor. A very careful ‘whoops’.
The garage had been my space, and is the last to get torn down. We’d rented half a duplex and paid extra for the side with the attached garage, which I’d claimed for all of my painting stuff, but which was under constant threat of being slowly consumed by junk.
I eviscerate my old camping gear. I trusted Jarred to never pull himself away from his computer long enough to even consider camping. So much time at the keyboard, so little to spend elsewhere; so much time spent on him, so little on anyone else.
My easel is easy to deal with: I just tip it over. The rickety thing clatters to pieces just shy of the front bumper of the car. A sketch of a painting, burgundy on black, lands askew. Boxes containing old clothes are turned out. A clock is broken most carefully.
Jarred and I, we’d never hidden anything together, but I have to look thorough.
On my own, though, I’d hidden cash. Just shy of twenty grand in a locking cash box disguised as a two-quart thermos tucked firmly into my old backpacking gear in the mess of our garage.
Or it had been. Now it was tucked into the car, just behind the driver’s seat.
My life isn’t completely unwound. Not yet. But I’m getting there.
I reach in the car and grab a bag of odds-and-ends fur sweepings. Little bits snagged here and there from shedding coworkers. Some from a grooming place. Even a bit from the mod shop’s bin before I was shaved. I make a quick circle around the apartment, scattering fur on the most torn up bits
I grab the TV on the way back to the garage — a flat screen thing that we only ever used for movies — and lay it down its back by the car. I give it a kick until it’s squarely behind one of the front wheels.
Here we go.
I climb in the car and hit the button to open the garage.
When I reverse over the TV, there’s a delightful crunch. I can’t smile without my newly branded cheeks burning, so I breathe satisfaction out on a sigh.
My paws ache all the way to Oregon. I had thought it would be pretty easy to slash up the inside of my car before I abandoned it, but they were tougher than I had imagined. I’d managed to come out of the experience without breaking any claws, at least.
Once the seats had been shredded, I carefully cut my finger along the side and smeared blood along the clawmarks. The car was trashed as I rolled it into a ditch. There was a tiny forest there, with crumpled cans and paper wrappers mixed in with the fallen leaves. After thinking for a moment, I squeezed out a few more drops of blood onto that garbage.
The bus driver had greeted me with the tired acknowledgement of a fox who had seen much worse than a sloppily dressed weasel with newly branded cheeks.
I’d never been on a long-distance bus trip. Jarred and I had never been wealthy, never higher than lower-middle class, and this wasn’t helped by me pretending to make fifteen-hundred less than I actually did a month. A cross-country bus trip is unthinkable when you can fly, when you have a car.
But you can buy bus tickets with cash.
The seat is cramped. About what I’d expected, to be honest, but I wasn’t prepared for this quite as much as I thought. No one sits next to me, but I still felt hemmed in on every side. I tell myself to just enjoy myself, enjoy this new life. This non-life. This life without history.
Hard to do when you bumping down the road at sixty-five and no faster.
I use the toilet as little as possible.
I have made a huge mistake.
If I were a smarter lady, I would’ve spent more energy figuring out what to do once I got here than what I spent on that hour of unwinding my previous life.
I can stay here, of course. There’s a long-stay hotel that doesn’t side-eye my cash too much, and there’s a little kitchenette in the room with a two burner stove that’s plenty for cooking for myself. Getting groceries with cash is as easy as expected.
But I can’t get a job.
If I were a smarter lady, I’d’ve changed my name before leaving, keeping it a secret from Jarred as best as possible…but even that isn’t smart. That would’ve tipped off investigators immediately. “Weasel changes name, weasels out of debt.” I can only imagine the headlines once I was caught.
But I can’t get a job.
I’m educated and all. I was a fantastic accountant, and it felt awesome to be one of the few who actually uses her college degree for what she does for a living and enjoys it. I worked for a few CPA offices and was on the short track to moving up at the last one. I’m fantastic with numbers, which is why I thought I had this all set.
But I just can’t get a job.
No one is going to hire an accountant with no name. With no history, no verified skills, no bank account, no credit, no social security number. No one is going to hire even the smartest weasel to run numbers if that weasel doesn’t legally exist — or is at least trying not to.
I can’t get a job, I can’t rent a place, I can’t open another bank account. I can’t even change my name, since that would mean engaging with my old identity, the one I’d tried to kill.
I can live here for a while. I ran the math on my recently-purchased calculator (cell phone was back in the car, of course — no more ‘net for me, much as I can help it), and I can live here for maybe a year and a half. Longer, if I find a cheaper long-stay. At least I have time to try and fix this.
The proprietor, Adam, and I have been getting on surprisingly well.
He’s a good guy, which I hadn’t picked up on at first. I’d taken his silence while handing over my key with only cash to show as standoffishness. There was certainly an element of caution to it, but he’s also just a quiet guy.
We exchanged nods daily for the first two weeks I lived here, then simple pleasantries for the next two. He came off as soft spoken out of being content with where he was in life, and as far as I could tell, he was.
A week or so into my second month staying in that little studio, and he’s invited me over to the patio behind the office (which I suppose is also his home) to discuss arrangements for the future.
“Discussing arrangements”, however, has turned into sharing half a bottle of rum while sitting in deck chairs. The rum’s fantastic, but comes out of a vodka bottle. The glasses are half-pint canning jars.
I can’t decide if it’s hipster or hippie, but the more I drink, the less it seems to matter.
“So.” A pause to toss another cube of ice in his jar along with another inch of rum. “Why you out here?”
I hesitate and swirl my own glass around, letting the melting ice water down the rum. It’s definitely overproof, and almost certainly homemade. “Needed out of where I was, I guess.”
He does that thing — the thing that rat at the mod shop had done — where he simply waits in silence. There’s no shared glances, and the silence is comfortable, but also expectant. Maybe that’s a thing that people who are happy can do.
“I needed out of that life, I guess. I packed my stuff and left without a word.”
“You seem like you ain’t hurting for cash,” he says.
“Well, no. I brought along enough to live out here for a while.”
“Mm.” He looks at me over the rim of his glass as he sips at his rum. Otter expressions, I’m discovering, are close to weasel ones, but use the whiskers more. The look isn’t exactly crafty, but getting close, as he continues, “Problem with cash is no collateral. S’why I charge you up front.”
I nod. It tallies.
“But you seem straight.”
“Straight?” A smile tugs at the healing brands on my cheeks. They’re starting to come in white.
He laughs, “I ain’t making a pass at you, don’t worry. Sex ain’t a thing ‘round here. Not for me, at least. Hell, maybe you like girls too. Not my business.” He copies my swirl and we both enjoy the pleasant clinking of ice against glass. “No, I mean straight. You’re a good lady. You’re out here to get away, you say, and I trust that’s all you’re doing. No thieving, no running, you ain’t in trouble.”
I settle back into the deck chair and attempt to use that ‘silence’ technique I keep running into. He just grins.
“So what I’m asking is this. That number I said before?” He gestures behind himself, as though that’s where the past is. “I’ll cut it in half if you can do some work ‘round here.”
“Work?” I tilt my head, turning over ideas of what that’d entail.
“Sure. Work. What can you do to cut down your rent?”
“Uh, I can…I mean, I was an accountant. I can run your books, file taxes, that stuff.”
The minute I say ‘taxes’, Adam perks up and his whiskers bristle outward with his grin. “Deal. Sight unseen. I’m good at what I do, but that ain’t taxes.”
I laugh, I can’t help it. “Half rent? For taxes?”
“Sure,” he says, sounding content. “Run the books and handle taxes, and I’ll halve your rent. You can take the desk some days if you want a bit more off.”
I rub my paw over the short, bristly fur of my cheeks, a habit I picked up as it grew back in. The crisped, branded patches had largely been replaced by more normal fur, but the shaved spots were taking a while to grow in.
“A secretary, hmm?”
“Well, sure. It ain’t grand. Accountant like you ain’t gonna find anything grand without being legit.”
At that I fall silent.
He continues, “Jobs these days, you need to be legit. You couldn’t offer me anything but cash, not even an ID to hold. You needed out of life so bad, you left behind your legitimacy.”
My silence becomes darker, seems to close in around me. Ears pinned back, eyes burning, muscles tensed, I try not to visibly panic in front of Adam.
“It’s okay, though.” He settles back into the Adirondack chair with a sigh. “You can get by without that. You’re just gonna have to let go of the idea that you’ll ever be a part of that world again. You might, but it’s best to expect you won’t.”
From then on, it’s silence. I cry as quietly as I can. Adam pours me another inch of rum and leans across the table between us to tip another ice cube into my jar.
Adam is set.
He owns his property outright, and is up-to-date on all his licenses. Business is good. “Half rent”, for me, covers twice the cost of maintaining my studio — utilities, that share of property tax, everything.
And he’s happy.
With my stay here nearly doubled, I’ve started exploring further into town.
We’re a ways out from Portland: I could take the regional bus there in about an hour and a half, but I never do. Instead, I stick to this little town I wound up in, a town picked because I got too anxious about Portland and got off the bus at the stop before. Probably my best idea yet.
I’d just gone to the dinky supermarket before, but now I started taking walks. Originally, it had just been a “stretch the legs before shopping” exercise, but now I was even heading into town just to wander. There’s a neat little café with huge single-pane windows and a rocket stove that I’ve taken a liking to. Something about the impracticality of the windows combined with that adobe stove behind the bar tickles me. And as long as I stick to drip coffee, it’s not too much out of my budget.
I even ventured to the lone grooming stop in town to get my cheeks checked up on. I had been worried that they’d be weirded out by them, but I was greeted by a punky opossum with a bright pink streak of fur from the tip of her snout down to the nape of her neck. She said my cheeks were looking good, then talked me into buying a tube of dye. She suggested pink, but I went for the blue instead.
I don’t know why I did that. Being an accountant wasn’t just an occupation for me, it was a whole identity. I bought into the smart pantsuits and that sensible jewelry, all still in my suitcase, to mark my position hard-core. The tight grooming and the calm speed of numbers, that’s who I was.
Now, I don’t know. I have three pairs of jeans, a frowsy canvas skirt, and a bunch of long- and short-sleeved button up shirts and tees — only some of which fit well — I grabbed from a thrift store before this whole excursion began.
Maybe I just figured I’d own it. I got the cheek brands, after all; might as well get the dye, too.
Tonight, I’m dyeing a diamond shape into the white down my front. It’ll sit just above my breasts, with a tendril curling down beneath them, and another tendril curling up over my front to my neck. I can hide it with a scarf if I need, but otherwise, it’ll peek up from above my shirt. Just a little tease. One that could go ‘sexy’ when I want, or just ‘artsy’ otherwise.
The thought’s actually quite embarrassing, but it’s been a long time since sex. Jarred and I were pretty into it at first, but then it became routine, and then scarce. We hadn’t fucked for a month before I took off, and since then I’d been too busy hiding to worry about it.
With this new arrangement with Adam, though, I don’t know.
Maybe being a little sexy will be okay.
Holy shit, I may actually be able to pull this off. It’ll be crazy, but maybe I can do it.
I guess Adam did some talking after I’d asked about more possibilities, and now I’ve got the owner of Starry Night, the town’s little café, as a “client” of sorts. He’s having me do the taxes and help run the books. He even offered to let me run the till if things get busy. They haven’t yet, but he’s promised me it’s still the off-season. Not cold enough to be winter, but not yet warm enough for holidays. He’s not paying me anything close to livable, but with the deal I’m getting on rent, I might just be able to do this.
It’s such a small town. It looks bigger than it is, since so many of these kitschy stores and homes have so much space around them. The market has a parking lot twice the size it needs.
There are folks living around the town in seclusion, I guess, but those who live in the town itself, who are the town, probably number in the low hundreds. Other than that, it’s just a waypoint. Folks heading up to the mountains stop through and keep all the businesses going, but they never stay long. They’re always on their way to more romantic locations or heading back through on their way back to the coast. The town itself holds together through the need to provide for all those who would only pass through. All those people on any one day, and it’s still a small town.
No surprise that news spreads fast, I guess.
I’ve started painting again, too. Starry Night has a drop ceiling and each tile is painted a different color. After I mentioned having been a painter in my “past life”, Stefan, the owner, perked up and sent me home with a blank tile, along with a few crusty tubes of acrylic and a brush that hadn’t been used in a while.
“Go nuts,” he said, and so I did. Background of green and a symmetrical tree in black, limbs splitting into branches that became whisker-thin toward the edges of the tile. The leaves were vague suggestions of white that broke the symmetry. An idea of a tree. Just the type of stuff I painted up until four months ago.
Stefan loved it, and here I am working on my second tile.
Each day brings a bit more distance from my old life, both in terms of time and emotion. I can go for days, now, at a mere hiss of anxiety, rather than the roar of daily panic that accompanied me early on. Adam and his rum probably has a good bit to do with that, too. Need to make sure I don’t make too much of a habit of that, I think, if I want to keep this up.
All this, though — working jobs all but off the grid, body mods, looking like a hippie — isn’t what I’d pictured when I unwound my previous life. Now, when I look back on it, on all my planning and scheming, I don’t think I had pictured anything.
Continued in Hot Dish vol 3 from Sofawolf Press!