Because it’s coming out next week and I haven’t posted a scrap of it yet. I’ve read from it at conventions, but nothing’s online. So here you go, a little segment I like to call “Alexei Tells A Story.”
Above the sink and stove, the two small kitchen cupboards were closed, their white paint chipped enough to show the brown wood below in a pattern like rot, though the wood smelled clean and fresh if Alexei put his nose next to it. If Meg had been cooking, the kitchen overflowed with the smells of oil and butter and (usually) fish, unless she opened one of the small windows; if she had not been cooking, the strongest smell was the grease that accumulated underneath the cupboards over the stove. Now the kitchen smelled of fish and salt and dish soap, and splashing sounds echoed from where Meg stood over the scuffed, dirty sink.
Alexei’s claws clicked on the cool tile floor as he walked up to the black-furred otter. “Hey, fox-boy,” she said, scrubbing at her plate with a sponge over soapy water. “I have a new drink recipe I want you to try.”
The fox stopped and sighed. “I would prefer—”
Meg held up a paw. “I know, I know. But I’m trying to make this drink that’s, like, special for you. It’s got local flavor and Siberian flavor and I just need someone to tell me if I’m making it right.”
“All right.” Alexei picked up a dishtowel and the clean, wet saucepan.
“You don’t have to dry,” Meg said. “That’s what a drying rack is for.”
“I don’t mind,” he said, wiping the water carefully away. “How was dinner?”
“Fish cakes and noodles and plenty of soy sauce,” she said. “I expect ‘Top Chef’ to call any day now.”
He grinned. “It smells good. Salty. What is ‘Top Chef’?”
“The salt is the soy. ‘Top Chef’ is a reality show…”
“Oh. Like ‘Survivor’.”
“Kind of. Except they have to cook. I have it on my computer if you want to watch sometime. It’s pretty good.”
“Sure,” he said to be nice, though he hadn’t really enjoyed “Survivor” when he’d watched it with his friends in Samorodka. He put the dry saucepan up in the cupboard and picked up the plastic spoon. A grain of rice was stuck in the gap in the handle; he poked at it with a claw.
“My vampire fox friend hasn’t seen it either. You can watch it with us when he comes to visit,” she said.
He nodded. “When is he coming?”
“In a couple weeks. I told Sol. He’ll sleep on my floor, don’t worry about it.”
Alexei smiled. “We can leave if you would like time alone.”
She turned, paws soapy, and scowled at him. “We don’t need time alone. He’s just coming to see the apartment.”
“Uh-huh.” Alexei grinned, and Meg splashed water at him. He jumped and wiped his fur with the towel. “Does this mean you are going to be a vampire too?”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe in that crap.”
He glanced toward Sol’s room, and Meg saw the look. “Even him,” she said, lowering her voice, because even though Sol had started playing music, he had good canid ears. “I don’t know what he thought he dreamed with that painting…”
“His eyes,” Alexei said softly.
She shook her head, and then held her fingers an inch apart. “Maybe I believe in it this much. But people just believe what they want to believe. Our minds are more powerful than we give them credit for. You have to remember what’s real and what’s not, or else you just lose yourself in the shit you want to be real and you can’t find your way back to be any use to the shit that actually is real.”
“How do we know what is real?” he said. “How can we know that there is not more to be seen? In Siberia, we believe that our ancestors watch over us.”
“I thought ancestor-worship was an Eastern thing.” She squinted at him.
“‘Worship’ is like in church?” She nodded, and Alexei shook his head. “It is not like that. Here…” He thought. “My host family, their grandparents had died years ago. They went to where they are buried and put flowers. Kyree—my host mother—she sometimes talked to her mother as if she were alive.”
“Not everyone does that.” Meg finished washing her plate and shook it, then slid it into the rack. “My grandparents died like ten years ago and I don’t even know where they’re buried.”
He nodded. “Yes. But in Siberia—in Samorodka, I know—it is much more common. We thought there was a house where an ancestor came back as a ghost, but also my sister and myself remember our great-grandmother and we think she would like to try to help us escape. She was born in Baranowicze, which was then Lechia, and she fled into Siberia when the war started.”
“Which war?” Meg asked. “They were having them every ten years for a while.”
“World War Two,” Alexei said. “Nineteen thirty-eight.”
“I thought they didn’t persecute foxes.”
Alexei lowered his ears. “Foxes with proper coloring. Great-grandmother was a cross fox.”
“Fucking hell.” Meg lifted a paw to her whiskers, the black dye in her fur. “So she went to Siberia?”
“She stopped in Samorodka because she…” He frowned. “She twisted her ankle so that she could not walk. Sprain, is this right?” Meg nodded, and he inclined his head, searching for words. It was harder to tell the story because he could hear Prababushka laughing in her cracked voice, the Siberian words so familiar that he had fight to speak in a language Meg could understand. “My great-grandfather was the son of the doctor. He helped take care of her and they stayed. She said that it was the happiest time she ever sprained an ankle.”
“She could have sprained her ankle in any town, though,” Meg pointed out. “She might still have met someone, and then someone else would be here telling me this story.”
Alexei shook his head, annoyed that he was telling the story badly. Prababushka would scold him, would tell him to start again. “She had a small doll from her grandmother, who had died the year before. When they were traveling through Samorodka, the doll slipped from her paws. She tried to catch it, and…” He mimed twisting his ankle. “So she always said that her grandmother’s spirit made her stop to meet Dmitri—my great-grandfather.”
Meg smiled. “It’s a nice story, but it’s still just putting meaning into randomness. What about you? You’re running away from a horrible place and you ended up here. What ghost did that?”
“Perhaps I am not meant to stay here,” Alexei said. “I have not met a…” The word ‘husband’ didn’t sound right. “Special person.”
“I mean,” he said quickly, “someone to build a life with. And anyway,” he added before Meg could argue more, “I may still have to return.”
“You can’t go back. They’ll fuck you up. It’s just getting worse back there for gay cubs, y’know?”
“Not only the gay ones.” Alexei thought of Cat. “But I will say prayers to Prababushka that I may remain. That is what I mean. We do not put our ancestors in churches, but we say prayers for them and thanks to them.”
“Whatever works.” Meg washed out her glass and one of Sol’s and put them in the drying rack. “I guess it’s no stranger than praying to a guy who died two thousand years ago and nobody knows what species he was and he wants you to eat part of him.”
“Does your vampire fox not want to eat people?” Alexei said, to tease her.
“He drinks fake blood,” Meg said. “It’s fruit punch.”
Alexei laughed. “So everyone believes in something strange. Who can say what is true?”
“I can,” Meg said. “It’s whatever I can touch, what stays the same from one day to the next. I never saw a ghost, I just saw Sol acting weird and then somehow screwing up his eyes. My vampire fox friend says there are chemicals on the Internet you can get that change your eye color.”
Alexei started to shake his head, then said, “Your vampire friend, does he have a name?”
Meg scowled. “I call him Athos, but that’s not his real name.”
“Are you going to learn his real name before he comes to visit?”
“You sound like Sol’s mother,” Meg said. “I trust him. I talk to him just about every day.”
“I only ask,” Alexei said, “because of what happened to Sol. Not the ghost, the real world.”
“Sol believes in a lot of things I don’t. Ghosts. Nice people. Love. I’ll be okay. He won’t try anything.”
“Okay.” Alexei smiled. “You will tell us if you need help?” He picked up the plate she’d put in the rack and wiped it dry.
“Of course,” Meg said, “but I won’t need help. What about you? Bringing anyone over we should know about?”
“You do not believe in love,” Alexei said, teasingly.
“I believe that you believe in it.” She shut the water off, but left her paws in the full sink, moving them back and forth, eyes half-closed as she turned to smile at him. “So I’m trying to respect your beliefs. Not be too biased, you know? So?”
Alexei shook his head. “No. I do not think so.”