I fell in love over a latte. No, not at first sight, although the leggy brunette caught my eye. But, before the clock ticked off another thirty minutes, my heart was hers, whether she wanted it or not.
My attraction wasn’t all about the looks. Guys latch onto those details too fast, forgetting the important stuff. With her, it was the book engrossing her attention (intelligent), the words of appreciation to the waiter (kind), the casual not fashion-obsessed dress (classy yet not indulgent), the peace sign at her throat (hippy cool), and the muscular yet elegant standard poodle stretched out by her feet (ooh rah!).
When I could pull my eyes from her—hidden behind sunglasses, of course—I honed in on the dog. I love dogs, having a definite simpatico with them. I’m no dog whisperer or any crap like that. I know them. And I, like anyone else, tend to have favorite breeds. If you’d been in the heads of a few, you’d get my meaning.
Let’s just say that fluffy lap dogs appeal to some people more than do the larger work breeds. Evidently, the gal and I shared a taste for the big guys. Intelligent, strong, and loyal. Sure wouldn’t say that about my mother’s Yorkie, even though he’s a sweet little guy.
Having concluded the stars (aka breed choice) practically fated us to be together, I should have introduced myself and learned my soul mate’s name, I know. But being me, that didn’t happen. I’m not exactly an eye-turner myself, being rather pale, frail, and in all ways bland on the surface. So, I’m shy. Fearful of rejection.
Whatever. Not the end of the world. I have other methods.
I lay my head on the table, closing my eyes. To all onlookers, I appeared to be napping at my sidewalk table. I brushed against the dog’s mind. I went gently, coaxing it to share space. I only wanted to use the animal’s senses, not take over its consciousness. Reassured, it stopped resisting.
The girl sensed its initial distress. “Are you okay, Brigitte?”
I/Brigitte almost piddled. Fortunately, despite the shock, “we” maintained bladder control. Because here’s the deal: Brigitte is my name too. I swear. At least my middle name. My first is Barbara, although my family calls me B.B. at my insistence. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been all pumped about it, but the coincidence sealed the deal. I thought, totally meant to be.
I took over a little more and set Brigitte’s tail to wagging. Being a tall dog, I nudged a hand and put my head on her lap. Oh, she smelled good. She scratched my ears, and I was in dog heaven.
My timing wasn’t so amazing, though. The server brought her bill, and she immediately dug into her purse, ready to go. I put my front paws up on the table to see better, but, to my disappointment, she pulled out cash. No credit card. No way to glean her name. Then she pulled me down with a reprimand for my brass and tugged at my leash. So much for my master plan.
I panicked, glancing at my slumped body. It lay out in the open, comatose and vulnerable, and I had seconds to make a choice, while it was in view. If I jumped back, I’d be disoriented for a moment, figuring out who I was, what I was, and where the hell I was, and I still had my own tab to cover. Meanwhile, the mystery woman was walking away, about to turn a corner, disappearing maybe forever? Argh!
So, I did what any love sick puppy would do. I tagged along. Thank god Brigitte’s owner made it to her house in twenty minutes. Plus I learned three things along the way.
One, she has a big heart.
Half-way there, on the edge of a small neighborhood park, some asshole was finger-stabbing a smaller, teenaged boy. The bruiser looked older and had at least a fifty-pound advantage.
“Come on, you chicken shit,” the big guy said.
Looked like he was intimidating the crap out of the boy. We stopped. The bully paused too. He tossed his head back and winked at my brunette. Maybe he thought she was impressed.
She wasn’t. Though smaller too by comparison, she walked toward him. I sensed her heart rapidly beating and smelled the adrenaline oozing from her pores.
“Leave him alone.”
“Say what?” The convict-in-training puffed up, menacing her in turn.
Funny how he backed off when I bared my teeth. He’d have to go through me first to get to her, and guess who had the winning odds? Not him.
“Why don’t you mind your own business, you…”
I clipped his words, lunging at him and growling my damnedest. I think, despite lack of a translator, he understood the words coming out of my mouth. Let’s just say I cussed like a salty dog. You know, like a sailor, though I know plenty on land who can hold their own with a rich vocabulary.
The bullied kid took off while dipshit admired my pearly whites. We left soon after, the poor girl shaking a bit and muttering under her breath.
Two, I got her address.
She lived in a brick rambler, only a couple miles from my home as the crow flies.
Three, a phone call en route answered my biggest question.
She had a boyfriend. Damn.
I had more questions but needed to get back to my body before someone thought to call an ambulance, despite the bright red medical alert bracelet declaring I had narcolepsy. Then I’d be screwed not knowing where my body was. I spied a sparrow in a nearby oak and switched. Fortunately, back at the café, no one was paying my shell much mind.
Despite the disorientation and mental fatigue, I returned to her brick home that night. It took three switches to arrive: a bird, an ant to creep in, and then Brigitte. Mammalian brains are the best for me. Insect brains the worst. That’s not a criticism of arthropods. Their central nervous systems are beautifully evolved for such a small scale, but rigidly structured, and it’s hard to track what’s going on in the larger world when a blade of grass seems monumental.
Once again in Brigitte, I realized the boyfriend was present.
“Give it a break, Anya…”
Finally! A name.
“… I had to go through that crap too when growing up. It’s practically a rite of passage,” he finished.
“Oh, so you’re saying bullying is okay, practically expected? Like the kid might have been deprived a learning experience without that ass threatening him? ”
“Bruce was after my little brother last year too.”
“And let me guess. You enjoyed your own little rite of passage.”
“Well, honestly, I wanted to knock the guy’s teeth out. But it’s pretty standard fare. What do you want me to do about it?”
Anya stared at him.
He held up his hands defensively. “Look, I’m not going knocking on the guy’s door. Of course, if he touches you, then I’ll kick the shit out of him.”
I doubted it. Anya tilted her head sideways as she looked at him with squinted eyes.
He laughed nervously. “Besides, you can hold your own. You’ve been taking taekwondo for years, right? Hope you didn’t waste your money.”
So much for chivalry, I thought.
Anya went quiet. After a few minutes of awkward silence, she spoke up. “Sean, it’s getting late. You should go home.”
He looked surprised. I laughed, but it came out a bark. At least he didn’t argue. Just grabbed a jacket and left.
I was all happy to have her to myself. I walked over, hoping for another head scratch, but she was distracted. She paced for a while, frowning and twisting her dark hair into knots, before sitting down at the kitchen table and violently typing on an opened laptop. I hoped the keyboard would survive her fury. Edging over, I studied the screen too to see what so captured her attention. She’d pulled up an address for a Bruce Helmsley. A cut and paste later, an interactive map showed directions to his residence. I pulled myself up to get a better look. He lived only a few streets over to the north.
“Brigitte, what are you doing? Get down!”
Then she wandered off to her bedroom, so full of lovely Anya smells, and pulled down a box from the closet. Rummaging, she extracted something that flashed shiny gold and tossed it on the bed. Being a dog with canine synapses, I wasn’t too quick on the take. I just sat there, happily panting and unquestioning, as she changed into black yoga pants and a matching top, pulled her hair into a pony tail, and, picked up the shiny thingy on the bed. As I watched, entranced, she molded a gold eye mask á la Mardi Gras to her face and tied it on. OMG. Totally sexy. I just figured that Anya had a creative side life, and I looked forward to the evening entertainment as long as it didn’t involve Sean in some fifty shades of sex play. Hey, I’m no saint.
When she started punching at the air and muttering under her breath, exuding anxiety, I realized something bigger was going down. My ears perked up. This was no cosplay.
“Rites of passage, my ass,” she said. “I’ll show that bastard right from wrong.” Was she doing a little word play there on “rite”? Man, she was growing on me.
She took one last glance at the hallway entry mirror, inhaled deeply, and opened the door. I tried to follow, but her leg blocked me. “Stay.”
I would be damned if I’d do so. I quickly nosed down a beetle, switched, and escaped under the door. I was losing time. Obviously, I couldn’t go far or fast on quarter-inch legs. Five minutes passed before I eyed another animal. I’d hoped for a dog or cat, even a bird, but a squirrel came into sight first. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that. Anya was looking for trouble, and I intended to be by her side. At least I had an address.
Anya was in showdown mode when I arrived. Somehow, she was in the house. I suspect it was by invite, not covert Ninja style, since the door was open. A good sign: the guy was an idiot. Did he fail to see the mask? Or did he only see tits? Please, come in and kick my ass.
She stood with a leg extended behind her, her hands balled into fists. The bully from the park stood before her, with folded arms and an amused look.
“…again, then I’m coming back,” she said, finishing some speech she must have rehearsed on the way.
“Seriously?” the asshole asked. “You think you scare me with your gold mask? You’re shaking, little girl.”
She really was. I admired her chutzpah since the scent of fear emitting from her suggested that challenging oversized tough guys didn’t come naturally. I briefly wondered what degree belt she had, and whether she’d had to fight to earn it. I had no idea how that all worked. Since I could have teeth, claws, and instinctual knowledge of where the jugular vein pulsed, I skipped martial art classes. I spent my adolescence trying on different skins.
The guy advanced on her. Anya jumped in the air, one leg extending and meeting his chin. He staggered, obviously surprised, and went red with anger. Now, realizing he’d underestimated the masked girl, he evidently felt like he had to amp up, and he withdrew a switchblade from his sock in classic bullshit style. Totally loco West Side Story. Who keeps a knife tucked away for the odd confrontation? Someone either totally paranoid or just looking for trouble.
I lost it. My newly protective sensibility toward Anya and my little squirrel brain exploded in a rodent frenzy of gnawing incisors and needle-like claws. I climbed the nearest curtains and launched at the bully, rabbit kicking his throat and attacking his face. He dropped the knife to flail at me. After a minute or so, he managed to swat me off, sending me flying into a wall.
I shook myself off, momentarily stunned.
I almost went back in but saw Anya standing in shock. I felt mildly ashamed, trying to calm my little fidgeting claws as I stood upright, but then she smiled. “See?” she said, addressing the asshole. “I told you something bad would happen if you didn’t change your ways.”
Whoa. She totally turned a freak squirrel attack to her favor.
The guy’s face was a shredded mess, and one clenched eye appeared to be bleeding. He cowered now, the tables turned.
“And by someone a fraction of your size. That’s poetic.”
“That didn’t rhyme,” he mumbled.
I sidled up next to her in solidarity, before realizing the preposterousness of that visual. Embarrassed, I ran into the darkness to dart up the nearest tree and waited instead. Done with her task, Anya soon appeared. She walked out underneath me and headed home. I stayed a few minutes longer to make sure he didn’t follow, and then shadowed her from above.
She fell asleep that night with a smile on her face, the picture of an angel. Back in Brigitte, I lay next to her and stared at this increasingly fascinating woman. Generally, I try to get back to my body within four hours, but I lingered and basked in her presence.
Not only was I in love, but I realized I’d just experienced the most interesting night of my life. Blood-pounding exhilaration mixed with a little do-goodery. I mean, maybe that jerk-off would stop hurting people. If nothing else, he was totally pharm’ed with a taste of his own medicine. And, better yet, a little vigilantism made Anya happy.
I hoped it would happen again…
Armed with Anya’s name, I soon learned more about her. On paper, she seemed pretty ordinary. She worked in the lobby of a local bank, she liked iced chai and bran muffins, she walked Brigitte each night, and, better yet, she broke up with Sean (sayonara! I know, I’m a brat).
As to her newly launched crime-fighting career, the odds of Anya finding another bully seemed slim with her being a respectable bank teller by day. Plus, she immediately settled back into her routine, to the extent that I worried that night would be our one and only hoedown.
Two weeks later, I figured out how to make it happen again.
With my voyeuristic excursions in the skins of the town pets, who knew more dirt on the people around us? Me. Duh. I knew how awful people could be behind closed doors because I was the fly on the wall, so to speak. I heard the nastiness they screamed at each other, saw the back-handed hits and forward-thrown punches, felt the searing pain from a kick to the ribs. And worse. I’d just never figured out what to do with that information. Until now.
So, I sent an anonymous tip to Anya. A little heads-up on another bully.
Anya studied the note. She paced a lot that night but didn’t act on it. So, I sent a victim’s name and some details. Then another.
About a week later, she donned her costume again.
That time she didn’t need me, though I lurked nearby in feline form. She knocked the guy on his back with a foot sweep, stood with one leg on his chest, and read him the riot act.
“Who are you?” he asked.
She had a quick answer. “The Gold Mask. And I’m watching you.”
Being my catty self, I contributed my bit. I padded up to his prone figure and swiped him once across the cheek. Then I sat and cleaned myself, not wishing to be sullied.
I closely followed the late night news after these encounters. Nothing. Not one report of a masked woman, a crazed squirrel, or a slapping tabby. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed, but it looked like the guys were keeping their female butt-beatings to themselves. Maybe it was for the best. Anya risked the most from exposure.
We paid a visit to another bully before I tipped Anya about a guy beating his dog. This round, she took a little more time to plan and placed an order on the internet. Meanwhile, I made a point of checking out the neighborhood dogs between Anya’s place and the next target’s to see who had weak points in their fencing, and found an elegant Doberman with the legs of a gazelle.
Anya polished her shtick on the night of the visit to the dog beater. On this fourth outing, she also grasped that the odd animal showing up was to be expected. No doubt it puzzled her why, but, as I approached her as a Dobie, she paused to ask if I was coming along for the ride. I nodded my black and tan head, and she smiled.
My choice of skin was useful. The man’s shepherd mix, though limping, still attempted to protect him. I felt awful—for myself, the Dobie, and the shepherd—that I had to fight him until I could switch into his mind. In the chaos of snarls, lunges, and bites, it was damn hard to focus. I had to retreat and let the Doberman take over to make the leap. Once I switched out, the Doberman got its bearings and eagerly left the scene, a little worse for wear.
At that point, Anya was standing over the abused dog’s shitty owner and telling him how it was going to be. He started to sit up, but she looked to me, while pointing at him. “Throat,” she said. I obliged. I walked over and gently placed my opened jaws over the man’s neck, while emitting a low growl. When he started to struggle, I bit in. He yelped.
“I’d stay still if I were you,” Anya said.
He relaxed, at least as best as he could, given the circumstances.
She then pulled out her new toy: an electric branding iron. She plugged it in a nearby outlet. High heat soon emitted from the head of the iron, glowing a dull orange. The head wasn’t very big, only a couple inches at its longest, but when she tested it on the wooden surface of the coffee table, it made an impression on the furniture, as well as the man. His eyes grew large.
Anya told him to extend his arm. Naturally, he was reluctant. The shepherd and I encouraged him. He squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered.
The process took all of thirty seconds, with the smell of burnt hair and flesh assaulting my sensitive nose. The man’s scream was also unnerving, but Anya stood firm. “I’m the Gold Mask and, as you can see, I’ll always be watching you. Hurt another dog, and I’ll hurt you.”
The man stared at his seared forearm. In miniature, no longer than an inch and a half, was a raw replica of her mask.
I howled with delight. Then, for effect, I whizzed on him.
I was nervous what the man might do to his dog after that, so I stayed inside its skull and followed Anya home, hoping she might adopt the poor fellow. She told him/me on the way she couldn’t though, because the brutal owner would find him and then her. She called the police instead and reported the cruelty.
I didn’t blame her, but I felt responsible for the animal. I went to the local shelter later and adopted him myself. My mother wasn’t thrilled, but her Yorkie was. And, despite the abuse he endured, Whiz was a gentle boy, and I enjoyed having a friend who was excited to see me when I came home.
Fast forward to today.
I’ll skip the play-by-play action on all our good deeds. Basically, I sic’d The Gold Mask on every bastard I could find who beat and molested the weakest of us: children, animals, women. They were going down.
After the application of some street justice, Anya would turn the police loose on the worst via her own anonymous tips. The uniformed officers showed up at their doorsteps to escort the losers downtown, letting the formal justice system take its turn.
I was even aware of an embezzler, but Anya just sent some incriminating paperwork that a little bird found to the woman’s employer. Of course, others misbehaved—vandals, adulterers, shoplifters, et. al—but I narrowed our focus to the cruel.
Somehow, we’ve continued to elude the notice of the authorities. Maybe it’s because the perps don’t want to admit to the young woman knocking them down, or the animal at her heels that alternates between rabid and strangely calm and aware. Of course, they want to avoid the connection between us and what they’ve done… probably because they file it away in some crevice of their brain so they can live with themselves. Yet, there’s no escaping the mark of shame The Gold Mask left to remind them.
I find it hard to believe the scars have gone unnoticed by everyone else. Sure, when I see any of these guys on the streets, they always wear long-sleeved shirts. They have no clue as to the larger club in which they belong. But haven’t the police and jailers noticed a strange fad amongst those most craven of criminals in their custody? Do they just turn their heads?
At least one of these assholes ran his mouth. A rumor is on the streets. A couple of times I’ve overheard “The Gold Mask” in conversations, but it’s like something people heard on the wind. “What’s that?” Nothing definitive. No one seems to know that there is a hero among us, let alone that our hero is a woman, all of 5’ 8” with a heightened sense of justice.
I’m proud of her. She’s beautiful and quietly fierce. Again, on a lunch break from my job, I sit across from her on the sidewalk fronting the café, admiring her from afar. Yes, I’m in human form, in my pallid body that I rarely exercise.
I find myself feeling a little braver today. Perhaps Anya has rubbed off on me in some way. I want to say “hi,” maybe introduce myself. Too bad I don’t have Whiz by my side. She’d recognize him and maybe that would provide a nice segue into something more.
I tuck a strand of blonde hair behind my ear and pick up my cooled latte.
“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
She looks up from her book and smiles.
I doubt she’ll ever reciprocate my love, but the arrangement I stumbled on is more than satisfying. I’m her partner in crime fighting…with our own brand of justice.
First published in SIDEKICKS!, March 2013 (ed. by Sarah Hans, Alliteration Ink); republished in Heiresses of Russ 2014: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, August 2014 (ed. by Steve Berman, Lethe Press)