“Okay. Fourteen seventy five.”
Dani had found a few comfortable spots on the beanbag, alternating between stretching out on her front and laying out on her back with her tail resting between the folds of the cushion. “Right, hm. Back when I was a kid, my dad used to take all of us to church. The preacher was a kind old guy, but one day, he got it into his head that it was best to keep it in the town.
“He saw us girls sitting in the front row and asked us all to come up on the stage. It was so embarrassing. He made us promise to God and the congregation that we weren’t to be married to girls in other parishes.
“Everyone laughed and laughed. Girls marrying, they’d say. Good joke, preacher. But there I was, standing up there with my sisters, saying I’d never marry a girl from another town. All my hopes and–I’m no good at this, am I?”
Amy laughed and slapped her paws down on the page. “No, you’re good! You came up with that better than I thought you would’a. You just got all stiff at the end, is all.”
Dani grinned. “Makes sense, I guess. I kinda get the rhythm, but it’s hard for me to just pull it out of nothing. I get part way through and start thinking about my story too much, about what other categories it fills. I start thinking, oh, that’s four eighty, the kind and unkind girls and then I’m totally lost.”
“Yeah. I can tell. You get this look on your face when you get to let go. You get all confident lookin’ and then you fall apart, and I can almost see the filing cabinets in your eyes.”
They laughed together.
Contrary to expectations, the outside thermometer had pegged itself at thirty below for a few hours and then, around noon, started to drop even lower. They had eaten a late lunch. Amy asked if she could wash her clothes while she was here, and Dani had found her a shirt and pair of loose pants that would fit meanwhile. The temperature stayed cold through the afternoon.
Neither were keen to go outside and see just how cold, so they’d parked themselves on the beanbag with the catalog of folktale types.
Amy had said that she was going to teach Dani how to tell a story, but that was a thin excuse for a continuation of the sleepover atmosphere. What would be more ‘sleepover’ than telling stories and a friendly competition?
Dani was losing, that much was obvious.
“Alright, ninety one,” she said. “When someone is caught for their heart (or paw, or eyes) as a remedy — like one’s heart or fingers being the only cure to an illness — but convinces the antagonist that they left it at home.”
Amy grinned and launched right into the story. She would always win, so long as she could jump right in like that. “Oh yeah, that reminds me of one of my daddy’s stories. He laughed about this all the time, said one day, this cat came to him. One of those all black ones, the uh…”
“Yeah, that’s the one! Daddy would always say hi to this guy as he walked his property. He used to walk the perimeter of his property and make sure all was okay, but it got him to talking with all his neighbors.
“Anyway, one day, one of his neighbors takes a shine to his tail, says, Dang, you know, I wish I had that tail. My wife left me some years ago, you know, and I bet the gals would be all over me, I had a tail like that. Dad would laugh, we’d all laugh at that. Poor old Mister Lincoln, he looked like a shadow in every picture, like someone had cut out someone, wherever he went.
“Now dad, he can sense Mister Lincoln starting to get more insistent about things, and one day, on a hunch, he grabs a handful of soot from the fireplace — we hardly ran the thing these days, but the soot was still there — and rubbed it into his tail.”
Dani laughed, picturing Amy rubbing soot into her tail, turning the stripes all black.
Amy grinned. “So dad, he’s got this all-black tail. It was nearing night, so it wasn’t too out of place, but sure enough, once he runs into Mister Lincoln, out walking his property, the big old guy grabs dad by his collar, starts shaking him, asking for his stripes!
“Dad doesn’t know what to do, starts squealing, just as sure as I would.
“Well, didn’t take a genius to know Mister Lincoln was as drunk as he was plain. He thought he could grab the stripes off daddy’s tail and take them for his own. Maybe he’d put them on his face and gain some features. Maybe he’d put them on his paws, so he could always see where his hands were. Maybe he just plain wanted dad’s tail.”
“And he left it at home?” Dani asked, giggling.
“Of course he did! Dad, he told Mister Lincoln he left it in the trunk by his bed. No stripes today, sir, he said, kind as could be. Talk to me tomorrow, though, and I’ll hook you up!
“Well, Mister Lincoln, he looked pleased as peach, said that’d be real nice. Dad, he had something like ten stripes. Golly, Mister Lincoln would’a been able to do plenty with that!”
Dani clapped her paws gleefully at the story. “Wonderful! You’ve got the entire thing set up, right there. I feel like I get close so often, but I just don’t quite get it to stick the whole way through.”
The two were as two girls at a sleepover, stretched out on their fronts on a beanbag, a book propped up before them both.
It was Amy’s turn to laugh. “You do get close, yeah. You’re just missing mechanics. Like, y’gotta start telling little side stories, no more than a sentence long, to buy yourself some time. We don’t care what Mister Lincoln does with the stripes, but we make something up to give us time to, uh…stick our landing, I guess.”
“Yeah, I can’t even begin to think of how to do that.” Dani shrugged, stretching her tail out carefully and wincing. “If I don’t go into the story with the whole thing already written, I’m more than likely just going to run myself in circles trying to think of all of the archetypes.”
Amy looked as though she was cuing up a response to that, perhaps some list of improvements for Dani to follow. The otter interrupted, both of her paws clutching at Amy’s. She almost had the ringtail clocked. Shelved, cataloged, organized.
“You, see, you’re eighty one. Here you are, plowing through the world, and you’re doing really good. You find yourself on the road, and you got yourself some friends, or maybe just one. Just someone you’re traveling with.”
Amy shut down at this outburst, her expression going blank and her paws going slack in Dani’s.
The otter persisted. “You said, It’s so wonderful out now, I must be all set for the next year.
“But you were with someone, weren’t you? Someone at Open Door? He had a home, something he could offer, he could…” Dani trailed off. “Shit, I’m sorry. I went way too far, there.”
The otter tried to tug her paws back to herself, to withdraw. Drunk on storytelling was a new sensation for her. She hadn’t expected it would lead to such an overreach. She hadn’t expected it to drop her barriers around classification.
Amy clutched at Dani’s paws, shaking her head. It was a confused gesture, a sad gesture. “No, you’re right. He’s down at Open Door.”
Ears pinned back and whiskers sleeked in against her cheeks, Dani continued haltingly. “You didn’t…you didn’t prep for the winter because summer was easy. He had, so he kept you in his debt.”
The ringtail’s grip tightened around Dani’s paws.
There was nothing the otter could say to continue.
“So he pulls me aside, he says we just need to keep ourselves warm.” Amy’s voice is quiet, hoarse. “And that sounds good to me. But I have to do something in return, so I think to myself, Aha, I’ve got a plan.”
Dani returned the squeeze of paws. Amy wasn’t looking at her any longer, staring toward the blank wall with a smile that’s more rictus than jolly.
“Don’t worry. I’ll hold up the roof, I tell him. So I hide myself away up in the attic, tell him I’m doing something useful, when all the while, I’m making sure I can get away without giving him everything he asks.”
There was a silence between them, then. True silence. Neither had anything to say, and neither could offer any path forward.
It took a good five minutes for the moment to pass. Amy’s expression cycled through vacant amusement, thinly veiled anger, and despair. Dani, frozen where she was with the strained tail, could only hold on to the ringtail’s paws and hope that she hadn’t fucked up too badly.
“That–” Amy coughed, clearing her throat and sitting up. “That got a little too real. Alright if we switch to a movie or something?”
Dani nodded and bowed her head, gesturing in the direction of the shelves of DVDs. “Take your pick.”
Dani stayed silent through the movie. Amy had chosen a thriller, something with enough action to hold their interest without demanding it. Not too actiony, not too cerebral.
The ringtail had shrunk in size, Dani noticed, all her confidence drained away. The jokey story-telling exercise really had gone too far, and although she stood by her assessment, she realized she probably should have been a bit more careful of providing it.
All of that openness she had grown over the past few hours, all of that was slowly unwound. She had built up this stanchion of confidence, only to find she’d planned the bridge in the wrong spot. She hadn’t had a goal in this sleepover storytime, but even so, she’d fucked it up.
She spent her time pretending to leaf through the book of motifs and tropes. Amy sat where she had been, watching the TV over Dani as the otter poked through her book. She didn’t have quite what it took to look Amy in the eyes.
Perhaps I should find her a place to go, she thought. Perhaps this whole thing was a mistake. We don’t know each other, neither of us know how to share.
And yet they stayed there. Amy watched her movie, and Dani’s eyes traced lines of text without reading them.
Dani perked up enough to watch the climax of the movie, canting her ears back enough so that the movie isn’t all she heard. She’d seen it dozens of times already. She was more interested in Amy’s thoughts than in the movie itself.
The denouement of the film was swift. A proper thriller, she decided long ago, should leave several threads hanging. Explain too much, and you get a detective story. Explain too little and you get…well, a mess. You get her life. Too many things independently explained which do nothing to provide a sense of the whole.
Amy seemed to melt beside her, slouching first toward one side, then stretching her legs out, and finally slipping down onto the beanbag. It was more of a collapse than a deliberate movement, but at least it was something.
“You okay?” Dani asked, setting her book down off to the side.
Nothing but the sounds of the ringtail settling into the beanbag bed. It was her bed, even. Dani’s was around the corner in the bedroom.
The otter carefully squirmed onto her side, doing all she can not to tweak her tail more than she already has. She’ll need to get up to use the bathroom a some point, but for now, she considered herself stuck.
Might as well fix this, while we’re at it.
“You okay, Amy?”
Dani hesitated for a moment before murmuring, “Is that your name now?”
“No, that’s my name. Just Amber.”
The ringtail’s voice was flat, her eyes downcast and even then focusing on nothing. It hurt to listen to.
“Did I go to far?”
“No, you’re fine.”
Dani watched the way Amber’s eyes went in and out of focus. They never shifted the direction in which they were looking, but it was still plain enough to see the focus shifting.
“You want to know something?” Dani asked.
The ringtail lifted her gaze enough to look at Dani properly. “Mm.”
“I don’t think your story is eighty one, like I said. It’s fifty eight.”
Amy–Amber’s ears tilted back. Short, sharp condemnations.
Dani pressed on all the same. “You’re the one who sees something on the far bank that she wants. You have a goal, something you could really desire. Not just a passing fancy.”
Amber’s expression softened.
“So you think, Ah, there we go! Just what I was after. But it’s on the far bank, right? So you look around and you see the crocodile. He’s a good kid, you know. The type of person who would try to do right by you, even if he doesn’t get the whole story.
“Well now, you’ve got a means, and you’ve got a goal, but you don’t have the influence to make it happen. So you sit down by the crocodile and you say, Great day out here, really nice. And he says, Yup. And it’s not great and all, but you know it’s gonna take a while to sway the crocodile’s interests to align with yours.
“I always find myself thinking of the far bank, of what that would bring me, what I could gain by being there. The croc frowns. Each bank is the same to him. The river is as valid as land, when it comes to crossing.
“All I think about, the croc says. Is how I’m going to meet someone. Come to a river, and you’ve got a one dimensional dating pool. I can’t meet anyone across the river I can’t meet on this side. The river’s not that wide.”
Amber was grinning outright, though she stayed quiet to let Dani finish her telling.
“And that crocodile, well, you know he was kinda of an asshole. All he was thinking about was what he’d get out of the deal. Sometimes that’s good and all, like you want to get to the other side too, right?
“Still, you’ve got goals other than just Hey, just looking for a lay.”
Amber’s grin gets tight, a bit mean, but no less earnest.
“So you give it a bit of thought, and you duck off down the bank, and you put your hard-earned basket-weaving skills to use, and you come up with a present for the crocodile.
“Tell you what, buddy, you say. I know a bunch of folks on both sides of the river. I’ve got a guy on the other side, he says he knows someone. I think she’s even on this side of the river.
“The croc laughs, and comes back at you with. Why don’t you just send her my way, then?
“Well, it’s not that easy, duh. I don’t know the girl, I just know my guy, he says he knows all sorts of these girls. You give this big, exasperated sigh. Look, just get me over there, and I’ll get this all sorted out. We both want that, right?”
The ringtail was fully engaged now, laughing and rolling her eyes and nodding along with Dani.
“You can always tell when a guy’s just after one thing, so you just need to point it out to him. Anyway, that’s what you’ve done, and your friendly croc bud helps you across the river. That shit’s deep, and you could swim, but that’d suck.
“Crocodile dude drops you off at the far shore, and sure as shit, you’re closer to where you want to be. Sweet, thanks, you say. My buddy here, he says that you’ve got someone already waiting for you on the other side. She’s heard all about you, if you know what I mean. See? there she is now!
“And you point across the river. There, just across on the other side, poking just out over the water, is the snout of another crocodile! Well, your dude, he gives you the biggest thumbs up and tackiest wink one could manage, and starts back across the river with your blessing.
“That’s your crocodile on the other side, after all. You made her out of reeds, built up from whole cloth, and now here you are, where you need to be. What your dude does with his very flammable wife is up to him. You’ve done your part.”
Amber laughed outright at that last bit, and Dani grinned happily in response.
“I’ll give you an nine out of ten on delivery on that one,” the ringtail said. “You sold me at the end there, but at the beginning, it sounded like an apology.”
“Yeah.” Dani grinned sheepishly. “I’m sorry, Amber.”
“It’s cool, I swear.”
“So what about the story?”
“Oh, that gets a ten out of ten.”
Dani laughed. “Oh yeah?”
“Of course! I think your earlier story was true, too, but this one’s better. I got here, didn’t I? I got what I wanted.”
The otter went quiet at that, tilting her head. “How do you mean?”
Amber shrugged. “I got here. I made it across the rockies, and I have a few more, uh…rivers to cross, but I got here with a bunch of help.”
Dani nodded, waited.
“It cost a lot. More than I want to say. But I can move on from that.”
The otter gathered up the ringtail’s paws in her own and gave them a squeeze. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I think so, yeah.” Amber nodded. “He’s too interested in experiences, rather than people. He can go off and get more of those, while I get what I want.”
Dani nodded, and let the silence linger on. Finally, she screwed up the courage to add, “You can stay here, too, you know. Long as you need.”
Amber laughed easily. “Thank you. You’ve done so much for me.”
“Does that make me your crocodile?” Dani shot back, grinning.
The ringtail didn’t respond verbally, but leaned in and give Dani a kiss.
The otter froze. It was completely out of the blue, though perhaps some part of Dani suspected it was coming. The tension had been a thing, of course, but had always been on her end. She hadn’t expected a homeless girl to be giving her a kiss, no matter the stories that surrounded it.
All the same, the otter relented, shifting more onto her side and ignoring the twinge in her tail. When presented with a kiss, there was no further categorization to be done. They were kissing, and that was that.
The moment shifted and so did Amber, leaning back away from Dani. The otter plastered her whiskers back against her muzzle. She couldn’t hide just how much the kiss had affected her, but she could at least distract from the fact.
“Tell me your name.”
Amber smiled. It was a soft and kind smile, open and honest. “Amber.”
“I’m not going to wake up to a different name, am I?”
“Would you like to?”
Dani laughed. “Probably not. If your goal was to subvert me organizing everything too much, you did it. This, though–” and she leaned forward to give Amber another kiss. “I’d like to hold onto this.”
The ringtail smiled, looking happier than before with nose nearly pressed in against Dani’s. “‘Amber’s real. That’s my true name.”
Her whiskers bristling from the close contact, Dani smiled. “What power does that grant me, knowing that?”
“What power would you like?” Amber grinned.
“Seeing through walls, maybe?” Dani continued. “Precognition? Pyrokinesis? That might be nice with it being this cold.”
“And dangerous, probably.”
It was Dani’s turn to laugh. “Okay, yeah, probably.”
The ringtail propped herself up on an elbow, resting her cheek in her paw. “Okay, how about company, then? I can give you the power to not be alone, at least for a bit.”
“I don’t know if that’s a power, really, but I’m more than happy for it.”
Amber shrugged and grinned down to the otter, “Good. I don’t feel very powerful. I don’t grant wishes or anything, but it’s good to be here.”
“Mm,” Dani agreed.
Amber paused, then laughed. “And this is the point when you kiss me again.”
And so Dani did.
The otter would ever be herself, and she owned that. It was her place in life to classify the things around her, and so she took up the reins and did as she was built to do.
Amber, her fur was soft. It wasn’t pillowy or silky, but it did fall into the category of soft, similar to the way silt was soft.
F.S03 — fur, soft, dry and smooth.
The ringtail was small — she barely fit in Dani’s clothes, and the otter wasn’t large by any stretch of the imagination. But one can wear oversized clothing in a number of ways. Amber didn’t seem young, like a girl wearing her father’s clothes. She didn’t seem like someone wearing ill-fitted clothing. She was just comfortably two sizes smaller than Dani, and was wearing that clothing while her clothing was being dried off. That had to be a trope of its own.
C.Sm.03 — clothing, small, by necessity (cute).
Sometimes, one comes out of the shower smelling not just clean, but bearing the Scent of Clean, patented and trademarked. Amber had just come out of the shower earlier in the day, but she smelled…not clean, but of herself, with nothing standing in the way of that.
Os.C.10 — odor (self), clean, pleasant (not perfumed).
She was responsive to Dani’s touches. She didn’t arch or buck her hips or do anything so silly, but neither was she totally passive. Dani felt that she could drag her paws down along the ringtail’s sides and front, and trust that she would continue to feel that confidence. Not eager, but willing. Not slack, but still. Not passive, but soft. Available and open to Dani as the otter moved against her.
R.5.05 — responsiveness, consensual, familiar.
Nose twitched, ears perked, paws touched. Dani explored and investigated, gleefully categorizing as she went. Amber was middling ticklish, more quiet than not, and prone to stretching when touched. When they interacted, they were neither verbose nor silent, neither shy nor bold; just a comfortable commingling that was sensual enough to be labeled as such without being lewd.
Dani ignored the twinges of pain in her tail as she moved. It was more important to find the ways in which they fit together than to hold her tail still. There are things, she knew, that she would regret the next day: stretches, actions, words. Each of those was duly labeled and set aside.
The otter focused instead on the things that made them both feel fulfilled. They were both all-in on this, they were both moving together, and that left her path clear: there were a limited set of choices she could make, and she made them.
By the time the two of them settled down together once more, panting and laughing, Dani knew that her classification of Amber had been wrong from start to finish. The act, the moment, the motions — those had all been tagged and labeled, described and delineated.
The ringtail: not at all.
Amber had come into her life through both of their actions, as well as circumstances outside their control. Along each step of their journey, each had made choices and taken actions that wound up here, with each tangled in their own clothes, and both tangled with one another, sharing pleasure and breath.
Every step of the way had been noted and slotted into its own comfortable box.
Dani, as a person, was easily classified, but Amber…she was wholly uncategorizable.
When Dani awoke early the next morning — very early, far before her alarms — she was alone. Amber was gone.
When she thought of the last few days, she wasn’t totally surprised. The parable from the night before had been accurate enough: Amber had gotten to the other side of the cold snap. Dani would be left grappling with the Amber-that-was, the Amy and the Alex and the Anne, for a while yet.
Not surprised, but not happy. She had set aside that hindbrain need to categorize and order her life for someone, and now they were gone. Maybe that was good, though. Maybe she needed a bit less order in her life.
She clumsily paced her apartment for a few hours, that Tuesday. The university was still closed for the remainder of the cold snap, though the temperature was now well above zero. She suspected it was more of an issue about the boiler than the temperature. Either way, she was still all wobbly from the strain in her tail.
She made coffee.
She took a nap.
There was nothing she could do to follow Amber. There was nothing she would do to follow her. Amber had moved on, and Dani was left to deal with what remained. Dani could no more follow her than the crocodile could. She was bound for the other shore, for more loneliness and more dreams.
She put a movie to playing.
She cleaned the kitchen and picked up all the blankets on the beanbag.
She slowly reorganized her life around this Amber-shaped hole, and the only thing left missing was her catalog of folktales.