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In the Cards

From Shifti
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Author: Posti
Lloyd almost threw the envelope away by accident – it was mixed with a wad of the advertising flyers that seemed to dominate the mail for weeks before Christmas. The bright red paper caught his eye just before he crumpled the lot up to toss in the trash, and he pulled it from the garish Holiday sale announcements. The address consisted of one word so blurred that he couldn’t make it out, and he blinked and pulled his glasses off to see if there was something on them. As soon as he did, the scrawled letters popped into clear focus – ‘JONAS.’

He blinked and put his glasses back on, only to have the writing blur and everything else sharpen. OK. This was different. And it was for him. Jonas was an alter-ego he often used online, though few of his local friends knew it. Curious, he settled in a chair and tore the flap open.

There were two cards inside. He instantly recognized one as a Yu-Gi-Oh game card - Fox Fire, depicting a cartoon fox with fire on the tip of its tail. Given his interest in both vulpines and Yu-Gi-Oh, it was a logical choice for someone to send. However, the card itself was pretty common and this one had been ruined. The flame had been crudely obliterated by an ink pen, and the word ‘Fire’ had been scribbled out.

There was also a business card which turned out to be from a local Karaoke bar called the Fox and Fiddle. He knew of the place, not far from the University. Someone had written on the back, and as with the envelope, he had to remove his glasses to read ‘TONIGHT - 11 PM – BRING CARDS’.

Lloyd frowned. Who could have dropped this off? The handwriting was no clue – if anything, it only deepened the mystery. He looked at the envelope again and then shook his head. Some kind of optical illusion, obviously. Then he grinned and shrugged. Easy enough to solve the mystery – all he had to do was be at the Fox and Fiddle tonight at eleven. Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble to pique his interest.

Or maybe they’d just wanted to subject him to torture. Tonight was Ladies Karaoke Night, and it seemed that the goal was to find the person who could sing the most off-key. Lloyd cringed as a girl with orange hair and a voice that rivaled fingernails on a blackboard thoroughly destroyed Olivia Newton John’s ‘Xanadu.’. He’d made the mistake of coming early, and between the bad singing and the monster TVs blaring sports events from every wall he was getting a headache. A quick check of the time confirmed that it was now ten past eleven, and he hadn’t seen anyone he recognized. Sighing, he fished out the business card out of his wallet to make sure he’d read the time right, lifting his glasses.

TOOK YOU LONG ENOUGH – FOLLOW THE FOX

He stared at the card a moment, trying to come up with any opportunity someone could have had to switch cards. The Yu-Gi-Oh card would have been easy, since he’d had it laying on the bar in front of him since he got here. But this one had been in his wallet. He verified that his money and cards were still in place, then frowned as he looked at the card again. Some kind of trick ink? FOLLOW THE FOX, JONAS

This time he dropped the card as if it had bitten him. What the Hell? Follow the fox? What fox? He glanced around, but the only vulpine shape he could find was the Fox and Fiddle animal caricature hanging over the bar. It wasn’t pointing in any particular direction, just grinning out at the patrons as it bowed a violin. Lloyd felt the hairs on his neck prickle as an idea popped into his head. Removing his glasses blurred the bar and the wall behind it, but the fiddling fox not only remained sharp, but grinned directly at him and pointed his bow towards the back. Then the caricature seemed to back out of the wall as if looking through a window and vanished.

A growing ache in Lloyd’s chest reminded him to breathe. Swallowing hard, he looked around. No one else seemed to have noticed the missing mascot. This made sense, when he replaced his glasses and saw the painted logo still in place. He wasn’t drunk, and hopefully he hadn’t gone crazy. So he could either ignore what he thought he was seeing and go home, probably to hide under the covers of his bed for a week. Or follow the directions on the card.

Well, he had to go to the bathroom, anyway. Lloyd stood up and stuck his wallet back in his pocket, then pushed his way through the crowd. There was a short hallway in the back that had doors to the men’s and ladies rooms, and a smaller version of the club’s logo hanging on the rear wall. He stared at the cartoon image, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and then pulled off his glasses.The fox remained still a moment, then grinned and winked at him, extending a paw out from the painted image. An arm followed, looking like a cutout from a comic book. “Ticket, please.” Its voice was deep and carried a British accent.

“Ticket?” Lloyd repeated the word dully, his mind working overtime to process what he was seeing. The fox nodded and gestured at his right hand. Looking down, Lloyd realized that he was holding the Fox Fire card. Still dazed, he automatically held the card up, and the flat digits folded literally around it and yanked it back into the picture. The fox flipped it over to examine both sides, and then nodded its head. “Just had to make sure. Hate to do this to the wrong person.”

Lloyd blinked. “Do what?”

Grinning broadly, the fox pulled a comically long old-fashioned nib pen from his coat pocket and held the violin vertically. As he fitted the writing tool against the instrument’s strings and pulled it back, Lloyd suddenly realized that the pen now pointed at him would make a very effective arrow. Giving a yelp, he stumbled back and spun around to run. Only to cry out at a sharp pain in his right butt cheek.

Lloyd gasped and twisted around to see the cartoon pen sticking comically out of his rear end. Well, it would have been comical if it wasn’t HIS rear end. He grabbed at it, but the tip seemed to be caught on something and he couldn’t pull it out. Curiously, the pain had vanished after the initial impact, and even tugging on the makeshift arrow produced nothing more than a pulling sensation.

“Allow me.” A flat paw wrapped around the barrel of the pen and jerked it out suddenly, creating a splatter of liquid that Lloyd was sure had to be his blood. Crying out, he stumbled away from the cartoon animal that was now a full figure standing in front of the empty painting. The fox twirled the pen in his paw, and then stuck it back into his coat pocket with a grin. “No use crying over spilled ink.”

By this time Lloyd had already been frantically examining the wounded area as best he could, and came to the same conclusion when he saw the reddish-brown stain on his hands. “Ink? Are you crazy? You shot ink into me? It could be poisonous! It…” The young man blinked, realizing he was chastising a cartoon character. Come to think of it, the stains looked wrong. Not just because they had already lost the gloss of wetness, but the stained area was perfectly smooth and unblemished. He lifted his hans up – the palm and fingers could have been sculpted from russet-colored latex, with no indication of pores, blood vessels, or hair. And then they started to change shape! His fingers shrank in, palm swelling out with rough pads, leaving him with a large paw that bore a close resemblance to those of his attacker. As he gaped at the cartoony appendage, muscles in his back and legs cramped enough to throw him forward and he nearly did a face-plant on the hallway floor.

“What’s happening to me!?” Lloyd’s body jerked as his arms and legs went into painless but very disconcerting convulsions. He gasped at a sudden flash of intense heat that didn’t seem to injure him at all – except for apparently burning away all of his clothing. “I’m naked!” His voice cracked, something that hadn’t happened since puberty, and stayed in the higher pitch. “What’s going on?”

The fox grinned and leaned against the wall with its forelegs folded casually over its chest. He was completely flat, like a paper cutout. “I’ve put you in touch with your inner ‘toon. And don’t worry – there’s nothing left to see down there anyway.”

Huh? Twisting around Lloyd stared back at himself, and had to agree. From the waist down, he appeared to be as featureless as, well, a cartoon. His legs continued to change shape, reforming quickly into recognizable animal hindquarters. This included a tail that he realized he could both feel and move, and which also lost color at the tip until it turned pure white. The configuration was quite familiar, and when he looked down at his hands, now matching forepaws, they had also turned white.

“I’m turning into Jonas?” It was a statement more than a question. Jonas was a reddish-brown, non-morphic cartoon fox. As he stared down, he could see a hard edge form, darkening into sharp, clear black lines. Thinner lines appeared where different colors met, giving him the look of a 3-dimensional drawing. “But he’s not real! He’s just a cartoon!”

The other cartoon fox grinned and reached out to grab Lloyd’s nose, yanking it hard. “Hey!” Lloyd shook his head, feeling a lot of things suddenly shift around. His voice was now high and cute, almost a boy’s but not quite. Curiously, his glasses remained steady even though his ears were now triangles at the top of his head and his nose and mouth jutted out in a full muzzle. The reddish-brown color flowed down to the solid black nose at its tip, with lines along the top and white sides that swept down his neck. “You can’t do this to me! I’m a human!” Lloyd felt a mix of horror and fascination, not sure if he was more scared that this was real, or that it was a mental breakdown in progress.

The fox chuckled and shook his head. “Oh, not human any more, that’s for sure. You just need to lose some weight.” And with that he stepped forward and grabbed Lloyd’s head with both of his flat paws and began to roll him up! Lloyd gasped and tried to pull away, but his body was flattening out into two dimensions too quickly to make much of a struggle. Everything went dark, and then he felt a twisting sensation followed by a sudden release of pressure. The room snapped back into focus around him rather literally as the fox shook him out like a towel and then let go.

Lloyd’s very existence was rocked to the core, and it took him a minute to grasp several basic changes. He felt weightless, yet full of energy. He didn’t feel hot or cold, nor the pressure of his paws against the carpeted floor. But he wasn’t numb – there was sensation of being that went far beyond simple touch and temperature. Twisting his head around, he was both shocked and yet expecting to see the paper cutout body of a cartoon fox, a pen and ink animation drawn in midair. How could he be flat? Looking forward he could make out his muzzle, and looking down brought forepaws into view. But when he turned them sideways, they vanished behind a hard black edge.

The other fox grinned and then jumped back into the picture frame, turning to extend a paw back through. “Come on! You belong in a place where rules and expectations don’t apply, where you can do or be anything you can imagine!”

Lloyd stared at the offered paw and then back towards the bar just outside the hallway. Sounds of people and music were muffled now, and the three-dimensional figures that crowded the room beyond looked like parade floats, balloon figures that drifted about, bumping into one another as they made empty conversation. Could he really have been part of that world just minutes ago? Then Jonas gave a happy yip and grabbed his new friend’s paw, leaping into the frame and the new world beyond.