His father had always told him that no one was special. Not him, not his mother, not the President of the United States. That there was no magic in the world. His father was a business man. Not the sort with a gray suit, with treads of pin stripes, and a sad, porcelain face. A veritable flat tire. No, his father was the sort who made others believe in magic. The magic of the product, of those who buy it, of branded stories. To many, he was a magician who could make dollars appear from thin air, make his every thought go viral, and find truth in the most corporate lie. Any good magician knows that there’s nothing special to flash and misdirection.
But that didn’t stop his son from believing in the real magic. The kind that has nothing to do with Wall Street, and, frankly, cannot be found on any sort of street. We were schoolmates, him and I, and we spent much of our time together. Not as friends but as two pieces in a factory on the same conveyor belt. We lived on the same block as well in a part of the City for somewhat well-to-do families. Not powerful enough to lead, but enough to be glared at by the huddled masses. We were stuck in the purgatory of the American Dream. It was my little bubble. A nice little bubble, for it was the only one that I’ve ever known.
And so one day, I watched him do the same thing he did every day after school. It’s funny how a strange thing can become normal with enough repetition. I was standing at the window of our little urban townhouse, all concrete, steel, glass, and solar. Even in the cloudy Northwest, we were able to capture enough light to power our little darknesses. I was watching the rain cascade down the glass and into the gutter. The magic of water falling from the sky hurriedly hidden from view. The flow of the water made everything seem alright, even though I knew it wasn’t. I could hear my parent’s voices arguing the other room. The crescendo from soft to shout was punctuated by a loud whisper.
“What if he hears?”
It was getting worse. My mother had uncovered something world-shattering. Something that she couldn’t wash away. Something that had to be held onto, if only for the reason of showing the man who caused the pain to witness his actions, his consequence. The water flowed down the glass in smooth rivulets that could not be stopped. Sheet after sheet fell from the sky.
I watched my classmate walk down the street, past my window. The soft glow of the bioluminescent street lights gave his little green coat an eerie blue glow. It was the same every night. I didn’t always watch him but the water doesn’t stop flowing when we blink. Believe me. I had tried, if only to understand my mother’s hurt. Nothing ever stopped flowing.
Except for tonight. We caught eyes while he hurried down the street. His footsteps stopped. The illumination from the streetlights caught the ripples from the raindrops on the sidewalk and made it look his he was standing in much deeper water. Standing on the surface of the ocean. He stared at me without moving.
I pushed the bridge of my glasses against my nose and almost missed his hand emerge from under his otherworldly jacket. He gestured: come with me. His hand disappears back into warm folds of his coat.
From the other room, there’s a stir. An anger that cannot be contained by a partially closed door. Like the light from the lamp illuminating the other room, the words spilled into the room.
“You’re fucking him up.”
I looked back out the window. A lonely car slowly slogged down the street. My schoolmate was gone. I pulled a sweater over my head, grabbed my coat, and eyed my boots. They were built for this weather but putting them on would make too much noise. I opted for a pair of sneakers and squeezed out the door.
The first step into the world fogged my glasses. I took them off and hurried through the mist after the slight silhouette of a boy. The angry words of my parent’s fight were replaced by the gentle pressure and pattering of the sky falling. It was assuring.
I gave my glasses a wipe on my sweater while flitting down the street. Even though I attempted to walk from the side of the puddles, my sneakers were sopping wet in less than a block. In another block, I had given up on my sensibilities and just stepped right in the middle of each puddle. Streaks of water on my glasses obscured my sight while I chased the cloaked figure of my classmate.
My shoes were making sounds now. The squish of a heel slopping around in the back of shoe followed my every step. It was getting colder. I was watching the mist of my breath fade into the darkness when the feeling struck me. Someone was watching me. I stopped and looked around. No one walked the damp streets at this hour.
I almost missed it. I had missed it countless times walking down this street to catch the bus to school when my father was away on business and the darkness kept my mother from getting out of bed. Grass grew through the cobblestones, almost obscuring the pathway. Walk the same path for long enough and it will become invisible.
His voice came from the darkness. I couldn’t make up the words but the rise and fall of his tone gave the sense that he was singing a song. Softly to himself or to another hidden nearby. My sneaker sunk into the ground as I took a step. The waterlogged earth swallowed the cobblestone. It took another few steps for the soil to give me firm footing. I followed the winding train into the darkness toward the voice.
The tunnel of darkness swallowed me for a few minutes. With each step, the voice was growing louder and louder, guiding me toward it. I could almost make out the words. Suddenly the trail opened up into a tiny copse of pine. Light flitted through the branches and the soft cloak of rain making the space look like a bubble or a snow-globe. I stood at the threshold, feeling like another step further would pop the bubble and this moment would disappear just as quick.
“I’m glad you came.”
His voice filled the air and then was washed away by the gentle cleansing of the falling rain. He stood slightly under a protective shelter of the tallest pine. The opening was a semi-circle of gnarled branches and soft, fallen needles. A trail of churned black earth followed a stone that into the space. Atop the makeshift seat, my classmate sat on the rock. His knees where tucked under his chin.
“Where are we?” I asked.
He didn’t seem to hear my question and went back to humming the song that had drawn me from the sidewalk to this hidden wood. I gave the scene one last look before taking a step into the space. And then another step along the churned earth toward the break in the branches. I knew that my feet should be cold and damp, but I didn’t notice. Closer to the trunk, the ground stopped being so soft. I could feel the roots under my feet shooting into the earth in search for the water that was never far.
“He’s here,” my classmate whispered.
“The Fox King.”
My classmate’s hand briefly emerged and pointed into the darkness. I looked into the darkness where he pointed. Two blazing eyes stared back at me. Declared extinct before I was born, I had only seen foxes on the screens of my children’s books. Defying everything I’ve ever been taught, there it stood. I couldn’t move. A primal reaction rooted me in place.
The fox circled the area briefly, nose to the ground. After the momentary patrol, it walked up to me and sat. Its tufted ears came up almost to my chest. We gazed at each other for a moment. When it blinked, the eerie light that illuminated the surroundings would dim and almost extinguish. Then ignite again when the fox opened its eyes.
“He knows why you came,” my classmate’s voice floated from behind me.
“Why did I come?”
Suddenly the fox made a sound. It was part bark, part cry, part something that I had never heard before. Although foreign, it struck a familiar chord in my chest. A string of my soul I never knew I had.
“To feel something before the end.”
“The end of what?” I asked.
The fox took a step closer and nuzzled the crook of its neck against my hand. It circled and then nuzzled my chest. I ran my wet fingers through its fur. I didn’t find it odd at the time but the fur was completely dry. Long reddish hairs covered my chest and my fingers.
“No bubble can float forever,” he replied. “There always comes a time when it must return to the air.”
The fox sat down and looked me in the eyes. Its golden gaze was almost human. More than human. It cocked its head to the side. The chord ringing in my chest reverberated low and deep. It started to rumble. I reached my hand out and ran my fingers up the scruff of the fox’s neck to the tip of its ears. The eyes never left mine.
I went to my knees and kept touching the fox. I was enthralled by the softness of its fur. I didn’t notice the strengthening of the rumble. Or the water rising against my thighs.
Black water swept from behind the trees. Its chilling embrace building against my hips, stomach, and chest. All I could do was pet the fox’s ears. Over and over. The dry fur coming off in my hands in tufts. I watched the golden irises as the water rose above my chin. The fox blinked and the lights of the copse turned to darkness.
They told me that it took almost 40 hours to find me. That after 48 hours I would have most likely been dead. They told me that I had been saved by heroes. Those heroes never quite believed me when they asked why I was so close to the river. For every time I told them that I was nowhere near the water, they told me how cold I was when they pulled me out. They told me how blue I was. As blue as my eyes.
I lay in the hospital bed for days while doctor after doctor interviewed me. I slowly understood that these were not the kind of doctor that could put my body back together. These were the doctors who would try to mend my mind.
No one could remember the boy from my class. Or his father that didn’t believe in magic. They said he was just a coping mechanism to cope with my parent’s rift. They said that I needed an outlet to deal with the loneliness, to handle the complicated emotions that come with the destruction of a romance, a household, my entire world. They told me that I could go home soon. They didn’t understand that there was no home to go back to. It had all been washed away.
They told me so many things in their velvet-smooth voices that invalidated the chord vibrating in my chest that had been set in motion that night. They said that every person worked through trauma differently. What they couldn’t tell me was why I was visited by the Fox King every night. Or why I always woke up with a tuft of soft reddish, brown hair between my fingers.