The Boy Who Would be Fox
Part 1: The Demon Spreads its Wings
I’m not sure why the kids at my middle school liked Carly Ziegler. She could recite entire episodes of Futurama, owned a hideous rolling backpack (scoliosis. there was a back brace somewhere in that equation too), and wore Naruto headbands during our private school’s monthly Free Dress Day. She was the nerdiest nerd I had ever encountered in my entire life. However, she was the only person at school who would talk to me, so naturally, we were best friends.
Carly was adopted (along with her incredibly short and skinny little shit brother, Tanner). This probably explained why she and her “Greek life alumni” parents didn’t get along whatsoever. They forced her to go on family resort trips and do golf camps. Carly would always call me, talk my ear off about them, and never ask me how I was.
Her parents freaked out whenever she talked to somebody on the internet, which once included online chess. The ignorance was a double-edged sword, though. For a while, Mr. and Mrs. Ziegler didn’t know the iPod Touch they bought their daughter for Christmas did anything but play music. This enabled her to talk to internet dudes about BDSM (or at least what a middle schooler thinks BDSM is) until 2 AM. She online dated one of these dudes in 8th grade, ditching me for three months straight. Through extensive creeping, I learned that Ronan was a skinny guy with glasses and tight pants. Hot, right? Well, he was ugly. They met on RuneScape and I believe he lived in Tennessee. He and Carly both loved Naruto and he mailed her his fan art, as well as drawings of Carly and himself making out in steampunk lingerie/armor. It was weird.
Carly and Ronan started talking about whips and chains over their Xbox Live headsets while gaming, an act which I called “seXbox.” That word made her furious at me and I kind of loved it. Mr. and Mrs. Ziegler caught her seXboxing Ronan one night and they banned her from dating him. Carly and Ronan secretly stayed together anyway until he announced he was going out with another girl in Tennessee. She got angry and threatened to mail pipe bombs to his house.
At the beginning of seventh grade, a year before Ronan, Carly had a boyfriend from school named Derek. Fun fact: Derek and I dated in fourth grade. One time he attempted to kiss me in his pool. It was disgusting and I wriggled away. When Carly dated him four years later, he was just as disgusting. He was hitting puberty in an uneven way, with a deep voice and pseudo-mustache but the body and face of a ten-year-old. He said the word “actually” too much, and he was always spewing dorky internet references like “I can has cheeseburger.” Nobody laughed at those except for Carly and the teachers who probably thought “meme” was pronounced “meemee.”
Derek was always practicing piano when I dated him, but apparently the summer after sixth grade he went to Stanford piano camp and got even better. By eighth grade he had a YouTube channel where he did elaborate covers of Legend of Zelda songs. One of them had 120,000 views and Carly thought that was super hot. I checked recently and it’s up to six million. I’m pathetic. At the end of seventh grade, Derek’s family had to move to Montana. He refused to send her nudes, so Carly dumped him.
The summer before ninth grade, after Ronan, Carly put me on the backburner yet again with Diego, the “husky” guy who loved shooter games and ATVs. They met at a Fourth of July barbecue and apparently they were making out in the hosts’ master bedroom closet within two hours. Carly rode ATVs with him a few times and I hoped she would break a bone or three so she would suffer the consequences of liking Diego and depriving me of friendship. I distinctly remember that he and I did not get along whatsoever. If we were ever alone on Carly’s couch while she went to fetch giant marshmallows and Mountain Dew in the kitchen, Diego and I wouldn’t even look at each other. They broke up because he dyed his hair green and she thought it was ugly.
Even though Carly only had disastrous relationships like these, I was still insanely jealous. I was the type who bounced to a new crush every two months, putting all my faith in these guys who I pretty much had nothing in common with. None of them liked me back—I had acne, it was over five years before I would get my nose job, and maybe worst of all, my name was (and still is) Emily.
I gradually lowered my standards, only for these “lower bar” guys to reject me too (or just act like I was so gross that I didn’t even bother pursuing them). I hoped endlessly that I would find someone to go out with. It didn’t matter to me if he was crazy, I just wanted somebody. I felt like I deserved it after putting up with Carly’s BS (and BDSM) for so long.
Carly and I both convinced our parents to let us attend the local public high school and escape the uniformed wrath of St. Francis of Assisi, which was the original plan. Right at the beginning of freshman year, I met Nathan Moore. We sat next to each other in English and talked about the records on the wall. Mr. Watts had a bunch of albums that I was super into, like Wish You Were Here, Synchronicity, and Revolver. Nathan was all over them. This made me confident that he could be mine for the picking, because if there was one thing I could hold my ground on, it was music. Carly had horrible taste and listened to KISS and Linkin Park. She didn’t stand a chance against this musical bond Nathan and I shared.
Act 2: The Demon Wraps Its Wings Around My Body
Something about Nathan seemed generic, like a teenage boy in a deodorant advertisement. He had shaggy brown hair and only wore skate brand t-shirts. He wore skate shoes too, the ones with padded tongues, and plaid shorts (keep in mind this was 2008), which I seriously got the heebie jeebies from. But he had a lot to say, and we could fall into a conversation about pretty much anything.
He gave me his number the day of Open House Night. With my parents out of the way, I punched in his number on my flip phone. We had one of those conversations where you start twirling your hair and three hours are suddenly gone. Topics included what aliens might look like, original ways to customize pancakes, and just about everything you could say about unibrows.
Here’s the thing: if I said the name of a band I liked, Nathan would say he liked them too. I thought I was so totally lucky to meet someone who was also obsessed with generic classic rock (which I didn’t realize was not special at all until way later). But then he burned me a bunch of CDs. Along with the little Sharpie stars drawn all over the surface, there was also Sharpie writing with horrors like “Gorillaz – Plastic Beach” and “Fleet Foxes – Self Titled.” Plus, when I put the CDs in my computer, they were all blank and the songs were all called “Track 1,” “Track 2,” “Track 3,” and so on, which made me profoundly uncomfortable. I still told him I liked the CDs, though, since I was desperate.
One Saturday, we hung out. My mom drove into his street and braked right in front of him. He was attempting to do ollies on his skateboard and sort of miserably failing at it.
Nathan lived on the left side of a two-story duplex. The interior had been freshly painted with chocolatey brown paint, and the furniture looked like it was trying to copy a Pottery Barn Teen catalog. He had a beaded curtain in front of his closet, partially concealing his 30-plus skate shirts. I laid on his bed and put on his “newsboy” hat, acting like I was flirting but in reality having no idea what I was doing. We got bored and walked outside, and soon enough we ended up at my old middle school.
Despite all the rich people tax dollars going into local education, my mom had barred me from going to the nearby public middle school, Salmon P. Chase, also known as Salmon. She had heard grocery store gossip involving girls manipulating each other until they had breakdowns and boys shitting in each others’ backpacks. However, Nathan described Salmon as cliquey at worst. Either way, I was coerced into attending Holy Trinity Academy, and everything about it was horrifically mediocre. I don’t think I retained one single fact I learned there (I cheated on half the tests, but still).
Some of my classmates went because their families were Catholic. Some other kids went because they were delinquents and their parents thought the nuns could straighten them out (it didn’t work). As far as I knew, Carly and Derek (remember him?) were the only other students who went there because their parents needed them to avoid the wrath of Salmon. And I guess it worked. Carly fit in, and while the kids made fun of me here and there, nobody manipulated me until I had a breakdown or shit in my backpack.
After Nathan and I pressed our noses against the windows and contemplated the freshly paved asphalt, I remembered the church had a cemetery behind it (Holy Trinity had a gigantic church next to it. What did you expect?). So we hopped a couple of fences until we were on a long downward slope. Before us was a desolate plot of land with dying grass and scattered headstones.
We laid on the hill on a bed of small yellow flowers. I could feel the grass poking through my leggings.
“Nathan…” I said, “Will you hold my hand?”
“Sure,” he said.
As I took his hand that needed to be slathered with moisturizer ASAP, I realized that I wasn’t actually all that into him. Something about him seemed too boring and easy. Clouds rolled by overhead, and we stayed there for a good while.
We walked around the cemetery, still holding hands. Then, out of nowhere, I found myself kissing his knuckles.
“Emily, you can’t do this. It will ruin the friendship!” he said, trying to fight back a smile.
“Whatever you say, Nathan.”
The oldest headstones were over a century old. We put flowers on the markers of Frank and Sophronia.
“The dead can do good things for you,” he said.
We walked back to his room and sat on his bed, where I tried to hold his hand again.
“Emily, forget it! If you do it now, you’re just gonna want to do it more.”
“All right, fine,” I said.
While he was in the bathroom, I glanced at his computer screen, where I saw a Word document open.
“We must run to the Deep Cerulean Forest”! spoke Rathaniel.
“But that is no safe place for us wolves! I heard that is where the inteligence devouring moles reside”, spoke Lunehowl.
“But where else will we run to? The Hazel-Lipped Hunters have shown they will do anything to seize our Hearts of Orb”! spoke Rathaniel.
I looked at the bottom of the document. There were around 400 pages. Single-spaced.
“Oh,” said Nathan, suddenly appearing behind me. “That’s just something I’ve been working on.” He grabbed the mouse and closed the window. I decided that I had already maxed my quota for asking him to do things he didn’t want to do, so I collapsed in defeat onto his bed. He took a seat in his desk chair and looked out the window.
Despite this awkward encounter, he called me the following night. We discussed dessert trends, moon landing conspiracies, and fireplaces. As it turns out, there’s a lot you can say about fireplaces. About fifteen minutes’ worth.
“So there’s this racing game called Sonic R,” he told me.
“What about it?” I said, laying on my bed and fidgeting with a paperclip.
“You have to complete the game 100% and then play as the Tails Doll on Resort Island. Then you have to tag characters in a certain order. Then you go inside a bathroom at 11 PM, turn off the lights, listen to this song from the game called Can You Feel The Sunshine backwards, and then you’re cursed.”
“Did you do it?”
“Yeah, a couple months ago. I saw a red light right in the mirror, which is the Tails Doll’s blood diamond. So I’m positive that I’m cursed.”
“And now what?”
“I think bad luck is gradually beginning to appear in my life. Recently I got a C in my photography class even though I put in a lot of effort. And recently some drawings I had pinned to my wall started to disappear.”
“Maybe the cleaning lady took them,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s her,” he said. “Isa’s a really nice woman. Plus, I know for sure that my hat disappeared from my floor overnight, definitely not when she was here.”
“Can you undo the curse?”
“I’m sure there’s something that can be done. I’ve been consulting spirits through my Ouija Board for answers, but me and people online can’t find any antidotes yet. Spirits communicating through my friend’s Ouija Board told him that blackthorn oil might be involved.”
I thought this was weird, but I abandoned the thought as we started talking about names. I was forced to admit my full name was the oh-so beautiful and exotic “Emily Nicole Greer.” His full name, he told me, was “Nathan Patrick Renard Moore.” I asked him what he would change his name to if he had to pick any other.
“I would definitely choose Cassius,” he said, pronouncing it cass-ee-us and not cash-us like the former name of dead boxer Muhammad Ali.
“Why Cassius?” I asked.
“I just like it. Also, I traced my family back to the Roman era, and I had a relative named Cassius.”
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“They have those websites that let you do it.”
“I went to a site like that once, and they wanted me to pay like five hundred dollars to even look at my family!”
“I got a free gift certificate,” he said.
“Oh cool,” I said, totally believing him that time.
Act 3: The Kiss of Death
Nathan and Carly ended up meeting. He and I had been friends for about a month, so I figured I could introduce them without her stealing him (wrong). They met during lunch and started talking about some dumb game called Star Fox. Within weeks, I learned that they had been talking on the phone regularly.
I kept hanging out with them at lunch and on weekends, pretending everything was normal. One evening, Carly and I watched Futurama at my house. Once the DVD ended, a relaxed silence wafted over room. Then she dropped this: “I can control my dreams and go to Cartoonland.” I was immediately filled with intense jealousy. I had always wanted to lucid dream.
“That’s amazing,” I said.
“And Nathan and I talk to each other in our dreams!”
“Oh,” I said, my chest beginning to tighten.
“We have to summon each other while sleeping by calling upon an element from the other’s true identity. He summons me by reciting the Futurama theme song with his mental orchestra.”
“Sounds like Futurama is really the key to your heart,” I said, not really having anything else to say.
“Do you want to know how I summon Nathan?” she said with a self-congratulating glint in her eye.
“What is it?”
She paused, letting me know she was about to say something important. “I summon him by calling his true name. I say, ‘Cassius will reign.’”
“What will Cassius reign over?”
“All that comes in his path. From the teachers that hex him with low grades he doesn’t deserve, to the Tails Doll that tries to destroy him, and finally, all members of society who disrespect him.”
“So you guys hang out in your dreams?”
“Almost every night. We ride magic carpets and throw banquets where we invite all the animals!”
“That sounds, uh, fun,” I said, slightly relieved that they weren’t having dream sex.
And so there it went: Carly was obsessed with a guy and leaving me behind yet again. The only difference is that I got my hands on him for a couple weeks first.
I briefly considered trying to steal back Nathan from Carly, so I listened to more of his CDs to see if we actually had a special musical connection. No dice. The band “Pendulum” just sounded like rapid-fire drums with highway noises in the background. Then there was also Shit Robot, a name that Nathan repeated often because he thought swear words automatically made everything more awesome. Every time he said “Shit Robot,” I just pictured a robot short-circuiting due to being covered in poop.
I started to worry he would find out I hated his music. Then we would be done for sure, and I would have completely lost Nathan to Carly. Plus, he would probably get furious. I remembered one particular incident when we were walking to the parking lot after school got out.
“I bet if you listened to one Fleet Foxes song, you would like it,” Nathan had said to his friend Sammy.
“I mostly listen to the Beatles, and that’s good enough for me,” said Sammy.
“JUST LISTEN TO THE SONG ‘WHITE WINTER HYMNAL’ BY FLEET FOXES,” Nathan shrieked.
One cold morning at school, I heard someone call my name. “Emily!” I turned around, and it was Nathan, running toward me. “I got us a surprise!” He looked excited, yet also trying to maintain composure.
“What is it?” I asked, intrigued. I wondered what in the world he would have gotten me on this random Monday morning. Cookies? A book with a title like “Chef Cats”? Balinese jewelry? I truly had no clue. And then he said it.
“Tickets to Pendulum at the Observatory!” he exclaimed, pulling out printed Ticketmaster papers from behind his back. My heart fell into my stomach. Instead of a gift, he had actually given me the most awkward social situation I had ever been in.
“But I hate Pendulum!” I blurted.
His face quickly changed, contorting into a shocked, hurt look. “But I bought these just for us! And my mom!”
I folded my arms and tried to keep my expression hardened. “Sorry Nathan, I—I just don’t like them!” I tried to soften the blow: “It sounds like highway sounds with rapid-fire drums in the background!”
“Now who am I gonna give these to?” he said, thrusting his arms out.
“Why don’t you ask Carly, your Cartoonland lover?”
“Maybe I will!” he fired back.
“Have fun!” I said, and stormed off.
In Spanish class, I fantasized about Carly secretly hating Pendulum along with me. I envisioned her rejecting the tickets, or going to the concert and hating it. I wanted us to despise Nathan and his music together and decide that our friendship was more important than any guy. However, the next day at lunch, I learned differently.
“I am SO FUCKING EXCITED for the Pendulum concert,” Carly said to Nathan, grabbing and shaking his shoulders. “Last night I listened to Girl in the Fire for FOUR HOURS STRAIGHT.” I tried sitting down and acting like everything was normal. Carly and Nathan yapped about anime, and they wouldn’t make eye contact with me unless I spoke to them.
Despite this encounter, I sought them out at lunch the next day since I had no one else to sit with. This time, Carly was sobbing and clinging onto Nathan.
“What’s new, Dream Communicator?” I asked.
“IT’S COMING TO REAP MY SOUL!”
I turned to Nathan. “So, can you tell me what’s going on?” I asked.
He scowled. “She did the tagging sequence on Sonic R and listened to Can You Feel the Sunshine backwards,” he said.
“You know,” said Sammy, “I listened to Can You Feel the Sunshine backwards last week, and the Tails Doll has NOT cursed me yet.” Sammy had awkward posture and wore a digital watch. He was one of the nicest people I had ever met, but he had no idea how to socialize. Seriously, the digital watch said it all.
Carly sobbed at him, grasping onto Nathan. “You don’t know what it’s like! You haven’t even completed the game and done the tagging sequence!”
“The Tails Doll is real,” Nathan snapped at him, shielding Carly with an arm. “Look it up online.”
Nathan began spitting out facts in English class, obscure ones that you couldn’t prove false on the spot. Stuff about the Ottoman Empire and the mental capacities of dolphins. When Mr. Watts announced that we were going to write sonnets one day, Nathan announced, “Oh, you mean the one with the pattern A-B-A-B-C-D-C-D-E-F-E-F-G-G?” His sonnet was about pendulums. My anger built slowly, but surely.
During one unit, we had to write short stories. I attempted to write a “gritty” story about a band on the road in the 70s who contemplates the impact of the Vietnam war. It was terrible and I accidentally made a character use a cordless phone. While our class was working on the stories in the library one period, I approached Nathan and asked, “So, what are you writing?” hoping he would say something idiotic.
He turned his face away from me. “It’s in French.”
“Oh, really?” I said. “Mr. Watts is going to give you an A plus for transcending the whole English language.”
“No,” he said, pointing his nose in the other direction. “Just the title.”
I peeked at the title page on the screen, which read “Le Renard.” I hopped on the next computer and typed in “renard” into Google Translate. I was greeted with the word “fox.”
I rose up from the seat. “YOU LIED,” I shrieked. This was the final straw. “YOU DIRTY LYING BASTARD. YOUR MIDDLE NAME ISN’T FOX. IT’S JUST PATRICK.”
I’ve gotta give him some credit—Renard does sound like it could be a real name. Similar to Bernard or Raymond. Mr. Watts came over and insisted that I calm down.
“You don’t get it, Mr. Watts!” I emphasized. “He lied and said his middle name was Fox!”
“You are so inconsiderate,” Nathan said. “Why did you do this to me while my grandmother is dying of cancer?”
After my mom drove me home that afternoon, I biked straight to Carly’s door and rang the bell. I decided I was going to chew her out once and for all. Her tall, fat, bald dad answered. Mr. Ziegler was somewhat rich because he owned four restaurants, at least half of them a “bar and grille.”
“Oh hi Emily!” he said. I felt sort of bad for him. Little did he know, his daughter was about to be brutally emotionally attacked. “I’ll go get Carly for you.”
Carly appeared with a surprisingly innocent look on her face. “Emily? Hi!” It was that same cheerful attention she gave me when she wasn’t obsessed with a dude. I hadn’t prepared for this. It’s almost like I was expecting a cardboard cutout to be there so I could yell at it and take off, feeling victorious. But now, I had to express my anger to a real, breathing human being.
“Carly…” I said, taking the plunge, “I’m not happy with you.”
“Why is that?” she asked. She placed her hands on her bony hips, making her long freckly arms stick out at awkward right angles.
“You’re just a total personality slut.”
“What?” She appeared surprised and slightly furious.
“You don’t have sex with dudes, but you seduce them with your nerdy interests, one after the other!”
“Well who are you to judge me, JEALOUS BITCH?” she hissed.
“I’m just pointing out what an insane SLUT you are,” I yelled.
“I’m not as completely insane as YOU are, Emily. You can’t control your emotions and get the facts straight. You’ve never been able to, and definitely not NOW!”
“I can too. Who wouldn’t freak out if you’re fucking delusional and you think you can be wolves and talk in your dreams!”
“You don’t understand what it’s like, you ignorant little shit! The dreams of Nathan and I have transformed into a battleground against the Tails Doll. We fight every night, throwing swords and firing bullets and screaming at the top of our lungs.” She pounded her fist against her chest.
“There’s that Tails Doll bullshit again. How do you believe in something that 99% of people would think is totally made up?”
“Well if you think the Tails Doll is so FAKE, then why don’t you just SUBJECT yourself to the curse?”
“I’m out, Crazy.” I turned around and began to storm off, only for Carly to yell after me: “Oh no you don’t! Do you want me to tell Nathan about how you used to eat your hair in seventh grade?”
Suddenly, I found myself following her into the house, up the stairs with the plush carpet and mahogany handrails, even though I probably wouldn’t have cared at all if Nathan knew that I ate my hair in the seventh grade. Her dad stared at us from downstairs, manhandling an expensive-looking vacuum cleaner.
Carly pushed me inside her bathroom and reached her hand in, snapping off the lights.
“Wait—what the hell are you doing? Are you seriously doing this?” I asked to no response.
She slammed the hollow wooden door (all the identical houses in our neighborhood cost around $800,000, but the doors were still hollow for some reason). I sat on her bathroom counter, waiting, wondering if I should throw the door open and dash out like a football player. Then, from the other side of the door, through a tinny laptop speaker, I heard it. It was obviously “Can You Feel the Sunshine.” It was bright and catchy, but also backwards, with all its surreal reversed drums. I could just feel Carly making a snide facial expression on the other side.
“I thought you had to beat the game and do the tag thing first!” I yelled through the wood that was possibly plastic painted to look like wood.
“There are multiple ways to activate the Darkest Curse!” she yelled back.
After it was over, she opened the door, holding her closed laptop under her arm. “How does it feel?” she said with a smirk.
“I still think it’s fake, I said, storming past her toward the stairs.
“YOU WILL SEE!” she yelled as I made my way down the stairs and toward the front door. “YOU WILL REGRET YOUR WORDS AND ACTIONS!”
I grabbed my bike and pedaled away furiously, the breeze tossing my hair.
I found myself with a lot of free time. If I wasn’t busy dealing with Carly, how would I even fill up my days? How did I even fill up my days when she ditched me in middle school? I couldn’t remember, but I knew that this time I’d better figure it out, since I had a feeling she wasn’t coming back.
I began to build a small universe of ways to kill time. I became obsessed with movies and decided that Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick were my personal saviors. I watched a lot of Ken Burns documentaries—I got through Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz in the span of one month (and came out really loving Herbie Hancock). These things were comforting. But I was lonely.
Sometimes I couldn’t resist hating Carly and Nathan again to pass the time. When I got bored of re-reading Coraline at lunch, I spied on them. Carly held Nathan’s hand and nuzzled his shoulder, and he reluctantly nuzzled back. Sometimes she danced the robot and wore a shirt referencing Rickrolling, and sometimes he came to school in fox costumes. It was obvious now: these were people I could never actually be friends with, and I was better off alone. I never heard from either of them again.