December 22, 2047.
“There’s just no way. You’re making it up.”
“You should hear my mother describe it. I had a few walls for buffer and it was still that bad!”
Tari smirked, looking out the passenger window of Lenard’s car. Deep snowdrifts flanked the roads, pushed into strange frozen waves by the wind whipping across the prairie. They looked like they’d been frozen in mid-crest where they’d formed on the lee side of the small hills. “Have you ever even seen a didgeridoo?”
“I didn’t think so. If you had, you’d know it’s completely impractical for a bobsled team to be playing them in quartet on their way down a long gravel driveway.”
“It’s a metaphor.”
“I’ve a better one.”
“Impossible,” Lenard challenged.
“Oh yeah? How about… Cutting a corrugated tin sheet with a band saw, inside a storm sewer?”
“An iron lung falling down the stairs onto a pile of idling chainsaws.”
“Mmm,” Tari appraised. “A string of firecrackers going off in the bowels of a surprised walrus.”
“Cruelty to animals is kosher? Okay. An angry and flatulent pig, trying to tie balloon animals.”
She laughed, closing her eyes and rubbing the bridge of her nose. She was in human form for the drive; no telling who might pass by and drive into the ditch upon seeing her, otherwise. “You win. I can’t get rid of that image.”
“That’s my mother’s favorite. She’s had a lot of time to think of how to describe his snoring.” Lenard glanced at the car’s gauges before his eyes returned to the roadway. “She and dad are both looking forward to meeting you.”
“I wish I could say the same.”
“Almost as much as the night I lifted the veil of lies.” Settling back into the bucket seat, Tari gazed out the moonroof. Snow flying through the air was all she could see overhead. “It’s not only meeting them. I’m just not all that into Christmas. Not only is it centrally a celebration of a religion that I don’t follow, it’s a celebration that has long since degenerated into a commercial entity. I remember the days when the earliest sales went up in December, not August.”
“It’s not really religious or anything with my folks. It’s always been more of a time to get the family together. There’ll be some gift exchanges, mostly for the little kids.”
“Well, as long as you don’t make me go to church.”
“Someone might invite us along.”
“Nnf. You’ve no idea what it takes to get me into one.”
“A leash? Crowbar, perhaps?”
“No, I don’t mean… Never mind. If it comes up, I’ll deal with it. What have you told your folks about me so far?”
“Just that I met you at the school when you needed a tutor for a CS class.” Lenard tapped the steering wheel with his thumbs. “They were curious what else you were studying, how old you were, so on. I dodged the subject, said I was late for a study session.”
“Lies are hard to remember. The best bet is to tell them the truth, somewhat edited for time and content. My father’s deceased. My mother disowned me for not following the path in life she wanted me to walk, so I’ve been on my own for a long time. I was born in Japan and I’ve got dual citizenship, but I’ve been here in the States for most of my life. I’m twenty-three, which is pretty close if you scale an average kitsune lifespan to an average human one. I’m studying… Botany. Let’s say I’ve finished classes as of this semester, though. Don’t explicitly say ‘graduated’ - let them connect the dots on their own.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
Tari peered at her nails, removing the green polished look on a whim. A serious botanist should have some mud under her nails, shouldn’t she? Polish would just get scuffed off in the dirt. “Where am I staying? A little apartment near the university. How am I paying for it and everything else? Mmm… Crap.”
“There’s the first boldfaced lie. Whether I claim it’s an inheritance or if I’m working a job someplace… Well, I suppose that’s got some truth after all. I’m working as a researcher.”
“Where do you get your money, anyway? Do you just conjure it up?”
“Not at all. I’ve really done work as a researcher. My employer left me with access to his account and told me to set my own salary.”
“That’s got to be nice.”
“I don’t take out more than what I need for living expenses. Before I got the job, I was doing just fine… I suppose I’ve gotten kind of spoiled, knowing I’ve got a warm meal and a roof over my head every night if I want it.”
Lenard frowned. “So, before this job, you were homeless?”
“Only in that I didn’t own a piece of property. Still don’t, unless you count the apartment. I was exactly where I wanted to be - wandering the countryside, living off the land and exploring the world. That’s how I met him, this very strange man walking northeast in a storm way worse than this one. We travelled together for a while before he enlisted my help in putting together some information.”
“When was this?”
“Just around the turn of the century. Come to think of it, that was just a few hundred miles north of here, near the Manitoba border.”
“You’ve been working this research job for almost fifty years? What in the world are you studying?”
“Human behavior. I’m an outside observer - I’m not human. I’ve got a unique perspective he was interested in hearing from.”
“But you were human, right? Won’t that bias the results?”
“Was I actually human? I thought I was. Doesn’t mean I was right.” Tari inhaled slowly. “Anyway, it was so long ago that what I experienced then is way different than human life today. All I have to do is keep track of goings-on, note strange and esoteric things that people do, toss in my personal thoughts about it. A little bias won’t hurt that. Hell, a human honestly could do it.”
“Sounds like a diary that you’re getting paid to write.”
“Without the ‘I’m wearing green underpants today’ drivel.” Tari nudged his shoulder. “So. Tell me a little bit more about your family. Who’s going to be there?”
“Let’s see…” Lenard appeared pensive as he took a mental headcount. “My mother and father, Ron and Linda… My brother Jonathan, his wife Sarah, their two boys, don’t remember their names. I think… Jacob and Roland? Maybe. They’re living there now, helping dad run the farm. My brother David, his girlfriend… Um… Amanda…? My sister Jolene and her husband Gary should make it this year along with their three kids, boy and two girls. Spacing on their names too.”
“Fifteen people, counting ourselves. The house big enough?”
“Not really. Jo’s got an RV, and the old clubhouse my brothers built turned into an outdoor guest room several years ago. I think Dave and Amanda are staying in that. Jon and Sarah have one of the old bedrooms. Jo’s girls will have one, and all three boys are sharing one. As I understand, we’ve got the attic.”
“Hm… How many bathrooms in the house?”
“Two. Both have showers.”
“That’s something, at least. How long have we been on the road? Two, three hours?”
“Two and a half. At least another four yet… Longer probably if the roads keep getting worse.” He smirked. “At least the early drive back can’t possibly be more treacherous.”
“I’m really sorry about that,” Tari apologized. “I wish I hadn’t promised Traize that I’d take her out for dinner on her birthday.”
“It’s no problem. That’s on the 27th, right?”
“Yeah,” Tari affirmed. “If you wanted to stick around with them for another couple of days, I could just borrow the car and come back afterward. I don’t drive a lot but I’m completely capable of doing it.”
“No, it’s okay. They already know we can’t stay. The way the job market’s looking, I’ll probably wind up helping out dad and Jon on the farm for a while after graduation.”
“And after your trip around the world,” she reminded.
The sun had long since set when they pulled into the yard of the old farmhouse. An old pair of sodium-vapor electric lights illuminated the yard in a yellowish-orange glow. Beneath their salty monochromatic gaze, a small fleet of vehicles slept under varying blankets of snow. Lights shone from inside the house through frosted windows, icicles lining the eaves. Smoke wafted up from a brick chimney, hints of burning birch in the air.
“If I had to spend another hour in your car, I think I’d scream.” Tari grabbed her backpack from the crossover’s back seat and shut the door. Large and fluffy snowflakes still drifted through the sky, only lacking the wind from the near-blizzard they’d driven through. “It’s a lovely shade of powder blue, it’s got great fuel economy, but there’s just no way to get comfortable for a nap.”
“Can’t even get in a decent stretch like this to make up for it,” she muttered, following Lenard up the half-dozen steps to the porch. “It’ll be your fault if I go feral.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell the difference.” Knocking twice, he opened the door. “Anybody home?” he called.
“Hey, mom, dad, he’s here!” A short, lithe, strawberry-blond woman threw her arms around him, despite the bags he was carrying. “About time! You overshot supper by a long way.”
“Roads were terrible. Couldn’t get signal on the phone to let you guys know where we were at.”
“Likely story. You probably just didn’t get out of your dorm on time.”
“She’s totally got you pegged,” Tari chided.
“He’s always been the tardy type.” The woman gently elbowed Lenard in the gut. “I see she’s not imaginary after all.”
“Jo, Tarioshi. Tari, my sister - Jolene Wolf.”
“The woman who finally proved he does like women?” Jolene questioned with a wink. “Great to meet you.”
“You too.” Tari grinned, shaking hands with her. “I didn’t realize there was a question about his preferences. I certainly haven’t found him terribly confused on that area of interest.”
“Come in or get out,” a man bellowed, drowning out Jolene’s cackle of laughter. “But shut the damn door!”
“Isn’t that familiar?” Jolene grinned, taking a few of Lenard’s bags and helping them inside. “Dad! Be nice, it’s nearly Christmas.”
“‘Nice’ doesn’t heat the house!” An ox of a man stepped into the hallway, grinning from ear to ear. “Glad you could make it, son. And this must be that young woman we’ve heard so much about.”
“All three seconds of it good, I hope? Tari Kitanaka, sir.”
“Sir? Ha!” He spun around, yelling into the other room. “Linda! She called me ‘sir!’”
“That’s nice, dear,” the reply came.
“My old man was ‘sir,’ young lady. I’m just Ron.”
“Attic for us?” Lenard questioned.
“Yup,” his father confirmed. “I’ll warn you, it’s a little chilly up there. Go on, toss your stuff upstairs.”
Lenard led the ascent, followed by Jolene and Tari. The attic door led to a second flight of steps; the attic itself seemed well-kept in Tari’s eye, boxes of old keepsakes stacked neatly and labeled with their contents. No dust, no cobwebs, no nails sticking out of rafters ready to impale passers-by in the head. And, of course, no heat to speak of.
“Damn, he wasn’t kidding about it being cold in here,” Jolene muttered, her breath visible in the chilly air as she offloaded Lenard’s extra bags. “He knew you two’d be up here… Why the hell didn’t he leave the door open?”
“‘Nice doesn’t heat the house,’” Lenard mocked.
“It’s really not too bad. Can’t be less than thirty-five, maybe forty degrees?” Tari set her bag down, peering at the unfinished ceiling overhead. No insulation to speak of, either. “Looks like a miracle it’s above freezing at all. So long as my shoes don’t freeze to the floor, it’s livable. I’ve camped in worse.”
“Gives you two a reason to sleep close, mm?” Jolene grinned, disappearing down the steps. “Roast beef sandwiches and mashed potatoes, probably still warm! Hurry up!”
“Older sister?” Tari queried once she was out of earshot.
“Older everyone. Jon, Dave, Jo, then me.”
“Sounds like hand-me-down central.”
“Yeah. She wore a lot of boys clothes, and eventually I got cooties from the same clothes.”
“They’re good for you.”
Lenard glanced around at the rafters, rubbing his hands together. “Can’t you… y’know, warm it up in here a little?”
“I’d rather not. It doesn’t go from forty to eighty in a matter of two minutes.” She nodded to the steps. “Someone who was up here recently might notice.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Didn’t think about that.”
“When you’re countermanding the second law of thermodynamics, it helps to think ahead. Don’t worry - you’ll be plenty warm tonight. I’ll share some more cooties. Maybe fleas too, if you’re really lucky.” She gave him a peck on the cheek. “What’s left in the car to bring in?”
“Some of the presents. Uh… Nothing immediately in danger of freezing damage. Can get it later.”
“Great! Let’s be sociable. I’m hungry.”
Thick slabs of slow-roasted beef. Two slices of homemade whole-wheat bread. Hot brown gravy drowning both the sandwich and a small mountain range of mashed potatoes.
If heaven existed, Tari decided, it was on this plate.
“I take it from the silence that you’re either very hungry or it’s very good?” Lenard’s mother questioned.
“A very healthy mixture of the two, Mrs. Evanson.”
“No need to be so formal, Tari. ‘Linda’ is fine - we’re pretty easy-going around here.”
“You were never easy-going when we were growing up,” Jolene observed.
“And in twenty years, your kids will tell you the same thing.” Linda smirked, a chorus of muffled cheers rising from the floorboards as she sat down with a cup of coffee.
“What are they doing down there?” Tari asked.
“Playing a football video game. Gary, Amanda, and Dave are playing Jon, Sara, and dad. This time, at least.” Jolene shut the fridge, a can of cola in hand. “Just hope they don’t wake the kids… Just finally got all the little ankle-biters in bed. So! Feed me some tawdry gossip. How long have you two been a duet?”
“What’s it been…” Lenard thought aloud. “Late September, so… three months.”
“And where’d you meet?”
“The cafeteria, a month before that.” Lenard met Tari’s eyes; she simply smiled as she ate, waiting to see how he fared. “She was looking for a tutor for a CS class. After a few weeks she didn’t need my help anymore, but we were still hanging out together.”
“That’s not totally accurate,” Tari corrected. “I was a total pest and wouldn’t leave him alone. He eventually got the hint and invited me to dinner.”
“That sounds more likely, yeah.” Jolene snickered at the glare from her brother. “What are you majoring in, Tari?”
“I’ve always loved being out in nature, playing in the dirt. I have great luck with all the plants I touch so I felt I’d be right at home with botany. A little agronomy, a little horticulture… a lot of pathology. I’m actually done with classes.”
“Oh, you graduated? Congratulations,” Linda praised. “What are your plans now? Moving onto a postgraduate program, or getting right into work?”
“I’ve got a few career opportunities lined up. I’d like to see what options Len has when he graduates before I make too large of a commitment to any particular direction. I’ve still got an income for the time being, so it won’t hurt to wait a few more months.”
“I’m submitting observations for a human behavioral research project.”
“That’s sort of the opposite of botany.”
“Yeah. Pretty dry stuff as far as I’m concerned, but it keeps food on the table. Nowhere near this good, but still food.” Tari dabbed at her face with a napkin. “Supper was delicious. Thanks for holding back enough for us.”
“I’d be a poor example for the other mothers here if I let my own son and his lady friend go hungry. No, sit. I’ll get the dishes.”
“Okay.” Tari handed off her plate. “Len’s told me less about his family than he told you about me. I didn’t even know he had siblings until the car trip here. Actually didn’t know it was a farm, either, until we discussed where we wanted to spend Christmas.”
“I’m not surprised,” Jolene said. “He’s always been the quiet type.”
“I’m sitting right here,” Lenard muttered.
“See? I could barely hear that. Mumbler.” Jolene flipped a chair around backwards and sat down, using the back as an armrest. “Let’s give you The Abridged Evanson Family Tree. Jon was born in 2013, eight months after mom and dad got married, and Dave in 2016. After a curious six year break, I came along in 2022, and then Little Lenny in 2024.” She lowered her voice to a mock-whisper. “I’m sure I was an oops, and that they had Len to keep me company.”
“That’s not true and you know it,” Linda scolded.
“You’re… twenty-five?” Tari queried, mentally rechecking her math. “With three kids already?”
“I started early, just like my mother.” Jolene laughed at the dishtowel that landed on her head. “My twins, Natalie and Josephina, are six, and Cameron is five.”
“Wow. How far apart are they?”
“They’re all August babies. Cameron’s just a few days off of the twins.”
“She dropped it on the family on Christmas morning, two years in a row,” Linda recalled. “‘Mom, you’re going to be a grandma again!’ She’s as bad as the cats in the barn.”
Lenard shut his eyes, his brow furrowed as he stood up. “I’m going to bring in the rest of those packages.”
“Need a hand?” Tari asked.
“Stay here and enjoy yourself. I’ve got it.”
Tari smirked as he retreated outside. “He’s so squeamish sometimes.”
“He just didn’t need the mental image.” Jolene laughed. “I don’t think I did either. Thanks, mom.”
“Merry Christmas,” Linda replied with a grin.
The girls continued to chat as Lenard made a couple of trips in and out of the house. Eventually, he walked back into the kitchen, leaning on the doorframe.
“Is it safe in here yet?”
“Actually, I was just toying with the idea of sleep.” Tari stretched and stood up. “I think I’m done toying with it.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Jolene agreed with a yawn. “Taking the kids on a walk around the old farm buildings in the morning to show them where mommy grew up.”
“If it’s not too early, I’d love to tag along and see the place.”
“You bet. Weather depending, of course. If it’s like it was today I might run into town and do some last minute shopping. You’re welcome to come along.”
“Just be careful on the roads,” Linda warned. “Harold blew the motor on his plow, and you know how long it takes the county crews to get to the gravel roads.”
“You worry so much!”
“You’ve given me plenty of reason over the years.”
“Right. Goodnight, everyone.” Jolene grabbed a jacket near the front door and wandered out to her RV.
“Well, as long as I’m on a fretting spree, are you two going to be warm enough upstairs? Do you need more blankets?”
“I think we’ll be all right, mom.”
“Okay. You know where to find them if you need them. I’m going to go watch the ‘kids’ downstairs.”
“G’night.” Lenard glanced at Tari. “Well?”
“Yeah.” They wandered up the steps, keeping their voices low as to not wake the younger members of the family. “I like your sister. Unabashed to anything that comes out of her mouth.”
“She was like that when we were younger, too. Mom gave up trying to give her dolls and other girl stuff to get her to be more lady-like. She got in her first fight at school in the fourth grade, beat the crap out of a boy a year older than her. Think he wound up with a broken collarbone.”
“Did he deserve it?”
“I’m sure. She made a career out of it. She was with the Secret Service for a while - I think she’s transferred to the new department working with the alien visitors.”
Tari nodded, a slight smile on her face. “You’ve no idea how lucky you are.”
“You… You know what? Never mind.”
Lenard looked perplexed. “What were you going to say?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Rubbing her arms as they ascended into the attic, she peered about and took stock of the situation. Fire did not meld entirely well with Forest, even with her uniquely specialized skills. The attic was absolutely frigid. Moving heat around herself meant fiddling with Fire. A faint tickling of a headache appeared from just considering it. That left the alternative, create a proxy to do the work on her behalf… Or check her pack for alternatives she’d forgotten about.
“Wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“In the last three months, I’ve lost track of how often you start a thought, then drop it midway and walk away from it. That’s at least twice today. First about going to church, and now this.”
“It’s just… There are things that pop into my head that sound like good things to say until I actually hear part of them aloud. Other things, like the church thing…” Tari turned around, finding Lenard sitting on the edge of their air mattress, watching her. “I know you’re still not completely comfortable with what I am. You’re tolerating it, you’re coming to terms with it, but I still see you flinch every time I shapedance in front of you. The thoughts I suddenly file mid-thought are usually something I’ve reconsidered as falling into ‘creeping Len out’ territory.”
“Tonight, it wasn’t so much as creeping you out as… There was this tiny little pang of resentment as I watched you and your family banter back and forth. I could never have had a relationship like that with my own family, even if mother hadn’t been what she is. Things were just too different back then.”
Lenard simply nodded. “The night you showed me yourself, you told me that if I preferred you stay human around me, you would. You’d even join me in senescence.”
“Non sequitur, but yes…”
“I understand that it’d only be an illusion. You’re still going to be youthful and lovely when I’m shriveled, despite how you present yourself.”
“Appearances aren’t everything. But, you are correct. As an absolutely brilliant man once put it, ‘you can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can’t spend the rest of my life with you.’”
His mouth opened once, closed again, as her words sunk in. “I… lost my train of thought. Uh… Hm. Well, here’s a hypothetical question. If you had to give up everything you are, descend permanently into being human and take all the benefits and drawbacks that come along with it, in order to obtain the family you wished you had… Would you?”
Tari frowned, considering. “I don’t think so. For starters, we’d have never met.”
“Well, let’s say that instead of being born two hundred years ago -“
“No, that’s what I mean. Even if I grew up in the general ‘now’ I sincerely doubt the two of us would have crossed paths.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I recognized a part of myself in you, the day I saw you in the cafeteria. If I hadn’t lived the life I have I’m sure I’d have just continued walking through the room.” She moved to the mattress and knelt in front of him. “The years I spent with my father are some of the happiest days I can remember. It wasn’t always easy, but we were a family and had everything we needed. The weeks after he died will always be among the worst I’ll ever know. We all grow more during the fall into despondency and the rise back into optimism than we do by being elated all the time. What most of us need, though, is someone to help carry us through that curve at the bottom, or at least to give us a good kick in the butt to get on the upward climb again. I’ve been at the bottom, I know what it feels like, and I knew when I saw your eyes that you were stuck down there and didn’t have anyone to help you find footing. I’d like to think I helped start the upward climb.”
“And I fought against you most of the way.” A gentle smile lifted Lenard’s expression; his fingers traced the skin of her cheek. “Do you remember what I told you when you made your offer to only be human around me?”
“That you weren’t qualified to make a decision. The idea of me being anything but human was too new at the time.” Tari pursed her lips, leaning back and watching his face. “You’ve decided?”
“If I ask you to stay like this, I’d be admitting I want an illusion over reality. You might happily wear this mask, or you might just wear a happy mask. I don’t think you’d really be content to pose as a human full-time for the next several decades.”
“I’d do it for you.”
“If you have to pretend to be something you aren’t, solely for my benefit, I think there’s an underlying problem with our relationship. I don’t want an illusion, a facade, a mask… I want you to be able to be you. I’m going to flinch for a long time when you do the things you can do. It’s not that I’m just tolerating it… I’m trying to adapt.”
“And I’m trying to be accommodating to that. Helping you acclimate without driving you nuts is a careful thing. There’s a very fine line and my toes often squeak over it.” Tari patted his knee. “You know who I am - I’ve always been ‘me’ since we met, withheld facts notwithstanding. What I appear to be at any given moment doesn’t change who and what I am inside. Right now, I’m cold. So!”
Lenard gazed on in curiosity as Tari proceeded to extract a portable heating unit from her pack. Setting it in the center of the room, she poked a button and nodded to herself as warmth oozed forth.
“Ta-da. Semi-instant heat.”
“That’s it? I was expecting… more fur. Or fireworks.”
“You’ll get your fuzzy blanket. I’m going to change into something more sleepable than jeans and a sweater before I put on something more ‘comfortable.’” Lifting her bag over her shoulder, she headed to the steps. “Bathroom is…?”
“All the way at the end of the hall on the left.”
“On the left. Got it.”
“Tari?” Lenard questioned, staring at the heater. “There’s no cord… What’s powering this thing?”
“One one-hundredth of one percent of all the solar energy being absorbed by every cat in every sunbeam across the world at this moment.”
“No.” She gave a little shrug and wandered downstairs. “It’s warm! What more do you want? Cold fusion?”
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