Through six linked erotic stories, Chasing Tail explores the realm between human and animal, order and chaos, civilization and nature–the realm to which shapeshifters belong. The characters learn, love, and lose as they navigate their wild, yet inescapably human society, in which nothing–politics, romance, sex–is simple.
Table of Contents
- Channeling Chiron
- The Eagle and the Austringer
- Old Bones
- Strange Creatures
Julie Cox has a novella and eight short stories published, half of which are with Circlet Press. She lives in Texas with her family, menagerie, and stunted garden. She likes to make things, fix things, and take things apart. Publications and other bits can be found at www.juliecox.net.
“Waylaid” by Julie Cox
Joey rubbed his eyes, fighting off drowsiness, that sinking lead weight. He sat up straighter in the too-comfortable driver’s seat, breathed deep, and drank the last of his gas station coffee from the thin foam cup. He made a face; it wasn’t any better cold than it had been hot. He turned on the radio, but he couldn’t find anything fast enough to get his adrenaline going, and he was sick to death of every CD he owned. He should pull over somewhere, he thought; the sleeper bunk behind the cab called to him. He must really be exhausted, if that paper-thin cot was appealing. He wouldn’t stop on the side of the road, though. He’d tried that before, and a snake had wound itself up inside the engine. The memory of that burning stench was enough to make him at least try for a civilized, snake-free area.
He saw a hint of neon float up out of the darkness on the road ahead. As he approached and the moss-laden trees thinned, the lights grew brighter and more numerous. A bass line thumped along, half heard, half sensed like the vibrations of the earth under a massive, plodding beast. The neon sign read “Cloud Eight Bar and Grill.” Joey pulled into the parking lot and leaned on the steering wheel, taking a measure of the place. It might have been an old barn at some point, or it might have been constructed to look old. The corrugated tin roof certainly looked sad enough, and the wood on the narrow front porch sagged treacherously. The lights were bright, though, and the parking lot was packed. A trio of pretty girls disembarked from an old pickup and went inside, laughing. If they were comfortable, he decided, it must not be too bad. After all, in this part of Louisiana, it was probably the only place within miles to dance and drink with a crowd. He packed the old paranoia away and got out. He’d have just one beer, to justify his presence in the parking lot and to shake off the stiffness from driving his semi for so many hours at a go.
The bar was smoky, dark, and jammed full of people. The music coming through the cheap speakers was raspy and twanged, loud enough to drown out every voice. Pretty young things danced in the middle, the seemingly endless energy of youth driving them through song after song. The next layer of dancers out were middle aged–divorcees looking for their next ex, plump rose hips after the loss of their bloom. Along the edges of the dance floor the wallflowers lurked, looking for a partner, or hoping to be found. And then Joey’s usual station in such a place–the men and women at the dark oak bar, perched hunching on the stools like tired buzzards, concerned not at all with the mating ritual of the dance. They were there on drinking business.
Joey sidled up between two seats and asked for a Coors.
“Really? You look like a Budweiser kind of guy to me,” said the bartender, a fat, bald man who reminded Joey ridiculously of one of those inflatable children’s toys that were weighted at the bottom, and who sprang back up whenever they were knocked down. He smiled impossibly wide.
Joey had no idea what a Budweiser man ought to look like, or why he fit the bill, but he shrugged. “I don’t care for horses,” he said.
“Are you kidding? Those things are huge.”
The bartender laughed and got him a Coors. “Don’t see many new faces around here.”
“Just passing through,” Joey said, and handed him a few bills before turning back to the crowd. He gradually became aware that the people on either side of him were staring. He met their gazes, one after the other, but neither seemed inclined to look away. The woman smiled, wide and toothy, before Joey broke off the staring contest and edged off toward the wall of booths.
It wasn’t any better over there. Leaning against the wall, everyone who passed him looked at him long and hard… and smiled. It would have been okay if it were just the girls, if surprising. With several days’ worth of scruff on his face, in need of a shower and bleary-eyed, he wasn’t at his best. Some girls liked the bad boy look, with his boots, tattoos, and hair in need of a cut, but it was not a universal taste. But now, it wasn’t just the good girls on the lookout for a badass time who smiled; it was the middle aged women, the old men. They all smiled. Wide. Toothy. He couldn’t escape that word; it echoed through his mind every time he saw a new flashing grin. Toothy.
He finished off his beer and looked for a trash can to put it into. He found one, filled to overflowing, and set the beer bottle on top. He turned and bumped the shoulder of someone sitting in a booth. A girl with coarse black hair and a pale, pretty face looked up at him and, to his relief, didn’t smile. Instead, her eyes fluttered wide, and her mouth opened in surprise. He stared down at her, then said “Sorry,” and started to move away.
“What’re you doing here?” she said.
“Leaving,” he answered.
“You better!” She wasn’t angry.
“Yeah,” he said noncommittally, and headed for the door. His heart sank; it was closed, and the bald bartender was locking it. He turned back to the girl; his heart sped up. How long had it been since he’d really been afraid? How longer still since he’d been afraid, and not quite known why?
“Is there a back door to this place?”
“Yep,” she said. She walked toward the bathrooms, and he followed. The crowd watched them, and Joey tried not to watch the crowd back. Each step took a long time. Down the row of red cracked-vinyl booths, around the corner, under the neon “Exit” sign to a hallway. Five doors. Two to the bathrooms. One to the office. One to the kitchen. One escape. He walked down the hall, toward that last door, following the one woman here who didn’t smile.
The music stopped, smack in the middle of “Bad Moon Rising.” Joey looked over his shoulder. Smiles had been replaced with hungry grins that stretched back farther than any human mouth should. Soft, peach skin grew hard and coarse, like a bed of river stones. He saw scales, and claws, and hissing tongues, and viper fangs, and reptile snouts. The men, the women, the girls and boys of the club crowded toward the hall, still cautious, still stalking, their mammalian movements giving way to a collective reptilian slither. The nearest man flicked out a forked tongue, tasting the air ahead of him. A pretty girl in a halter top opened her jaw all the way back to the hinge, her teeth a row of short, stubby spikes. She hunched low, watching him with an unlidded eye that had swung around to the side of her face. She snarled; she charged. The tension broke. The rest of the crowd surged into the hall behind her. Joey ran.
He hit the door at a run, past the dark-haired girl, and tumbled down the steps into the parking lot. He was on his feet immediately and skidded in the gravel around the stinking dumpster in the back, only to turn right around and try the other direction. A roaring half-reptile woman, still in her green print dress, lurched after him. No good; a trio of massive serpents came around the corner of the building.
“Relax!” a voice yelled in his ear.
This ridiculous command spun him around, and he stared into the face of the dark-haired girl, her eyes now a peculiar polished amber. She grabbed him by the shoulder with a long-nailed hand–no, a long-clawed hand.
“Relax and it won’t hurt so much!”
He just screamed. She rolled her eyes back and a wave of shuddering heat came off of her. He screamed again, this time in unspeakable pain, but his voice faded into nothingness, shrank as he shrank, and the world expanded around him, until it seemed that he was a tiny creature in a land of giants. Bipedal alligators, lizard-men, coiling, sidewinding snakes, and towering over him as the monsters converged, an enormous black fox.
The fox scooped him up in its mouth and ran. Their flight was swift, and he could hear nothing but the roar of the wind past his ears, his huge paper-thin ears, and his heart felt like it would burst with terror, if the sharp teeth digging into his fur–his fur?–didn’t kill him first.
Then he fell to the ground, and though it seemed like a long way, the impact didn’t hurt. He bounced. He rolled onto his stomach, paralyzed, and looked up at the fox. She grinned her vixen-grin down at him and laughed as only a fox can. She nudged him with her nose, and again that shivering heat. And he was himself again.
He sat curled up on the ground while the girl with the dark hair laughed, wiping away tears. The events of the evening railed against his mind, until at last he had to accept them as they were and face the present. The first thing he did was scowl at the girl.
“That was funny, was it?”
She steadied herself. “No, not really. But I have to laugh.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
“Hardly a way to talk to someone who just saved your life.”
Joey replayed the last few minutes in his head and realized that yes, she had just saved him, even if it had been in possibly the most undignified method by which one could be saved.
“Did you have to turn me into a mouse? You did turn me into a mouse, right?”
“A rat. All the better to carry you, my dear.”
He thought on that, then said, carefully, “Thank you.”
“That’s better. You’re welcome.”
He wanted to disbelieve it all, wake and find it a dream, even if upon waking he found that he had fallen asleep at the wheel and had crashed his semi into a tree and was bleeding out all over the floorboards. Surely anything would be better than this universe-twisting place when men and women mutated into vipers and alligators, where fox-women carried his rodent-self away to… where was he?
He looked up, really looked, and saw an overgrown lawn dotted with large rocks. No, not rocks… tombstones. He groaned.
“It’s one of the few places they won’t go.”
“Perfect.” He stood up, and realized with a jolt that he was naked. “I’m naked in a cemetery. Usually I would find this interesting. But lady, I want to get back to my truck and get the hell out of here.” And put on some clothes. He would feel so much safer with his clothes on, even if it was just an illusion of safety.
“I hate to break it to you, but they’ll have trashed your truck.”
“Goddamn it–can we go look and make sure?”
“You really want to go back there, cowboy?”
He thought for a minute, then shook his head. “No, I guess not.” He pointed at her, a most undignified gesture. “Hey, you’re naked too.”
“Nice of you to notice. That’s the thing about shifting–you get a big shape, you rip your clothes to shreds. Better to be little, and hop right on out of them.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Baby shifter, why don’t you come back with me to my home for the night? We can talk, you can sleep, you can borrow some clothes, and if you want, you can be on your way tomorrow.”
There was an implication in the tag end of that sentence. If he wanted. If. There was not a possibility in his mind that he wouldn’t want to be on his way, right now if he could. But naked in the dark in a strange forest populated by monsters? He would have to cling to his rescuer and hope she hadn’t saved him with the idea of making a meal of him herself.
He walked behind her through the long, dew-wet grass of the cemetery. He had to admit, it was a nice view. She had a wonderful ass, round and white as the moon; it looked smooth and soft and inviting. Not like those stick-girls whose ass couldn’t hold up a pair of jeans. He looked up to see her glancing over her shoulder, a coy half-smile in her eyes as she caught him looking. He averted his eyes and muttered, “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry for looking at what’s right in front of you,” she said. “I’m not.” She gave him a significant glance. Under different circumstances, he’d have been aroused. Tonight, he was too busy with shock and horror–for the moment.
Her home was a small trailer that adjoined the cemetery, probably where a caretaker should have been living. The outside was forbidding, but the interior, once she flipped on the lights, was warm and inviting, if dim. It was tiny, with barely enough room to walk around the unmade bed to reach the bathroom on the far side, or the kitchen on the near side.
“Home sweet home,” she said. She tossed him a quilt. He wrapped it over his shoulders and perched on the edge of the bed while she put a kettle on the stove for tea. He told her, in quiet stops and starts, about how he’d ended up at the bar in the first place.
At the end of his short tale, he said, “I’m Joey.”
“Aubrey,” she answered, and brought him a cup of smoke-scented tea. She sat on the bed, casual as anything. Her nakedness, her lack of concern, seemed inhuman to him, unsettled him, even as he admired her curves, her skin. He took a drink of the tea; it was good. He didn’t usually drink tea, but he would drink this.
“What was it you called me earlier?”
“I called you a baby shifter.”
She walked her fingers up his quilt-covered arm. “I shared my magic with you, when I changed you into a rat. I wouldn’t normally do so casually, but I liked the look of you. If you want it, you can keep it, make it yours, be a shifter yourself. Haven’t you ever heard of a werewolf?”
“I’m gonna be a werewolf? Like, changing under the moon, chasing down people, allergic to silver kind of werewolf?”
“Those are just stories. This… this is the reality.” She held up her hand, and muscles moved under her skin like water. Soft black fur grew from her fingers, and her nails swelled to canine claws as he watched. Then she stretched her hand, like she’d had a cramp, and everything slid back to a human hand, just as if it had been made to do so.
“Jesus,” Joey said.
She picked up his hand, set the tea aside, and brought his hand to her breast. He breathed in sharp, but she held his hand in place.
“You do it,” she said.
“Just do it.”
He stared at his hand, his rough, dark hand on her moon-pale breast and the nut-brown swell of her nipple. He concentrated, thought about what he’d just seen, and felt his thumb joint slide back along the bone of his wrist. He thought claws, and his nails narrowed, squeezing in on themselves. It was like moving muscles he’d never thought to move before; they obeyed just like any other part of his body. He slid his hand lower, caressing her breast with a half-turned paw, the beginnings of awareness stirring in his groin, before jerking his hand back out of her grasp.
“What?” she asked.
“Those things in the bar– The snakes and the crocodiles–”
“Alligators. No crocodiles in North America. At least, none at Cloud Eight.”
“You’re going to make me into one of them. They were mindless creatures.”
She looked impatient. “Don’t be silly. You fell into a nest–water moccasins, mostly. But I’m not one of them, and you aren’t either. Individually they’re not so bad, but in a mob… well. You saw.”
“What were you doing there, then?”
She shrugged. “I am a swamp fox. I can go anywhere I like, including into their dens, and they don’t care to stop me. You… you were a tasty morsel, an unfamiliar trespasser. But you become a shifter in and of yourself, apart from me, and they won’t want anything to do with you. I promise–they won’t even recognize you.”
He thought about this and nodded. “What have you made me into?”
“I told you–I shared my magic with you when I changed you. It’s in your bones and your hair and your skin and your blood now. For a short while, you can be anything you want to be, like a young tree can be bent to a new shape. You pick a form soon, one form, and that will be all you can become, forever.”
“I don’t have to be a rat, then.”
She shook her head. “No. I don’t recommend it, considering how many things eat rats. Don’t have to be a fox either.” She drew the edge of the quilt away from him. “Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like to change what you are? To make things smoother, or stronger, or… bigger?”
“Never had a problem in that department,” he said, a touch of machismo in his voice.
“I don’t doubt it,” she purred. “In any case, whether you pick a shape to take or not… I hope you’ll at least try it while you have the ability to do so. Not many people get the chance.” She moved closer to him, her eyes moving over him with evident pleasure. “And I would so love to show you how; I rarely have the chance, either, to share pleasure with another like myself.”
He let her pull the blanket back. Her fingers trailed up his tattooed arms, past the Celtic knot cuffs around his wrists, the twisting briers, the sash with his military information, the phases of the moon, the runes that appeared in his dreams. She ran the pads of her fingers over the paw prints that trailed down his chest, around a Leo symbol. She pressed her chest to his and kissed his throat, and he shivered as she traced a trail of black, feline spots down his spine and across his shoulder blades.
“There’s more to you than there appears on the surface,” she observed.
“That’s true of anyone.”
“Some more so than others.”
He sighed deep and tilted his head back, baring his throat. She nibbled along the soft skin, mindless of the few days of scruff along his jaw. She smelled like honeysuckle and cool earth. He circled his arms around her waist and drew her close. It had been so very long, and the insanity that had engulfed him since the neon lights of the bar appeared in the darkness seemed to naturally lead here, to her, to her trembling breath and sharp nails. There was no propriety, no hesitation or demure guilt in her eyes as she pushed him back onto her bed and kicked the last folds of the quilt aside. She would take from him what she wanted, and laugh for joy in the morning without a thought…
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When the shapeshifter community of northern Arkansas is rocked by a string of disappearances, individuals aren’t the only ones in danger. The entire community’s way of life is in jeopardy, but this new threat brings some shifters together in ways they never expected. Alone, they are targets; together, they are strong. As they discover, the hardest part is finding the courage to let another in.