Science Fiction evolution fox elevated animals Wolf slice of life

Don't Feed the Animals

By James L. Steele
Apr 22, 2021 · 13,346 words · 49 minutes

Dwdsv2

 

From the author: Originally published in Different Worlds, Different Skins volume 2 in 2010. This is my second paid publication. 13K words. Man, I was feeling this way in my 20s. I'm still waiting for a fox to rescue me. It's not too late.


“Don’t Feed the Animals” (published text, a few typos fixed)

by James L. Steele

13,300 words

originally published in “Different Worlds, Different Skins volume 2”

Monday

Winter arrived fast. The underbrush had retreated to make way for autumn. John could see a long distance into the forest through the bare branches. The forest floor was covered in old leaves. Fallen trees lay in every direction, and the holes their roots left behind were filled to the brim with leaves and topped with snow. Vines and ivy wrapped around the trunks and branches like ancient snake skeletons.

John was standing on the porch of his cabin, leaning against the rail. He picked up his coffee, took a sip and swallowed as he set the cup down. The coffee woke his mind up, while the view of the forest from his back porch calmed it. This time of morning it was more entertaining than early-morning television.

A sub-freezing wind blew. Branches clicked together. Trees moaned and creaked against each other. Leaves swirled around and piled against logs. John inhaled the cold, dry air full of the smell of decaying leaves. He let it out slowly through his nose as the wind gradually died down. He relished being able to stand in the cold, naked, and still feel completely comfortable. John’s winter fur was coming in thick and warm. He was proud of the way it made his chest look bigger, even if it was only fluff and no mass.

He stood on the porch in only his fur. His loincloth was on the bed. Since he was a pup he’d been taught it was indecent not to wear the cloth in the presence of others, but fur-bearing sentients didn’t need clothing to keep warm, so the minimal clothing was purely for the sake of the humans not wanting to see the offensive parts.

Right now there were no humans to offend with indecency, so he left the clothing inside. He liked being able to stand in the cold without clothes, perfectly comfortable. He came out here as often as he could to enjoy the feeling.

John looked at the watch hanging from his neck. He had to leave two hours early to get ahead of traffic, and it was time to go. He let the watch fall to his chest and regretfully straightened up on his digitigrade legs. He took the mug in a padded hand looked around one last time. Living so far out of the claustrophobic city only made winter that much more inconvenient, but John was so lucky to get this cabin. He liked living close to the forest. It reminded him of where he came from.

John was about to turn around and head back in, but a splash of moving color caught his eye. In a forest of earth tones and patches of white snow, bright red stands out, and his head zeroed in on the fragmented movement between the branches.

John squinted to get a better look. His eyes were no better than a human’s, so it took him a moment to make out what kind of animal it was. The skulking trot gave its identity away. There was a fox out there walking parallel to the cabin. John smiled and leaned on the banister again, straining his eyes to see it from such a distance.

John’s smile grew. John was an evolved animal. He worked with evolved animals every day. It was easy to forget that there were millions of unevolved animals in the world. Seeing foxes in the wild was special because there was no other way to see them. Foxes were one of the few species not to have evolved offspring. There was no such thing as a fox sentient.

The fox moved like its paws didn’t need to touch the ground. Maybe they didn’t; John couldn’t hear any leaves crunching. The fox hopped over a small tree partially hidden under the leaves. His tail didn’t follow, it stayed level while the fox jumped.

The fox landed with a crunch on a small pile of leaves. Its paw lifted, and was about to take another step when it halted, one paw still raised. It turned its head and looked at John. John could just barely see the face through the branches, an adorable expression in its eyes even from far away. John’s tail started wagging.

The fox tilted its head but remained perfectly still, poised to run at an instant but still curious.

John tilted his head in reply.

The fox swiveled his ears.

John swiveled his ears, grinning.

After half a minute of copying each other, the fox turned his body to match his head and trotted straight for the cabin.

Oh my God, John thought, he’s coming! He’s coming to check me out!

John’s tail wagged even faster. He set the cup down on the rail and tried to hold still while the fox weaved between the trees and hopped over rocks. The fox stopped just outside the tree line and looked up at John on the deck. John leaned on the banister and looked down at the fox. He held still except for his tail, which wouldn’t stop wagging.

“Hi,” John said. “Hi, little guy.”

The fox stood and stared. His ears swiveled and turned. It was cute. He gazed at the fox for a moment longer. The fox gazed back at him. After a moment the fox yawned, making him even cuter.

“Everything you do is cute,” John said, chuckling. “I’m so glad I got this cabin. I don’t care if it’s an hour drive to work. Sights like you are worth it.”

The fox sat down. He looked at John like he was the most important thing in the world. John felt more comfortable speaking in a normal tone of voice.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an animal,” John said. “First I married Jenna, then we both got our new jobs and we were in the city for years before we got a chance to move out here. That was only last year.”

The fox tilted his head from side to side while John talked, as if hanging onto his every word.

“So what about you?” John continued. “You have a den around here? Got a mate yet? Prepared for the bunch of little foxes on the way?” John’s tail wagged fast at the thought. “When you do, bring them here. At the rate I’m going Jenna and I won’t have any until we’re retired. We’re keeping the option open, but still. Just too busy... Hey, if you stick around long enough maybe you’ll see them. I’ll bring them out to you and have a barbecue! A family reunion, wolves and foxes!”

The fox still stared at him. John didn’t feel like he was talking to an animal. He felt like he was having a conversation.

“It’s funny to think that,” John said, “because I was born from wild wolves. Yeah. I was discovered by scientists 25 years ago this week, and I’m told I was the only evolved cub in the litter. My mother, father, brothers and sisters were all four-legged wolves. I’m one generation removed from the animals. That kinda makes you my cousin. So, from one generation to another.”

John lifted the cup in a toast and slugged the rest of the coffee. He lowered the cup as he swallowed. The fox was still looking at him, ears forward, eyes bright and attentive.

“I’m glad you listened,” John said, his tail lightly wagging again. “It’s important for neighbors to get along.”

The fox stood up and trotted for the stairs. John held still, moving only his head to follow the fox. The fox paused at the bottom step, took a cautionary sniff of the first step, then hopped up the stairs, claws clicking on the wood. He stood on the top step and peeked around the banister at John. His hind paws were still on the top step, his front paws were on the deck.

The fox tilted his head. Cocked his ears. Squinted.

“You’re brave.”

The fox hopped his rear paws up and stood completely on the deck, staring up at John, cute as ever. John’s heart melted. His tail started up again.

“Don’t go away,” he whispered.

Very slowly John straightened and backed up to the screen door, the claws on his feet lightly tapping the deck. He pushed the handle in and opened the door in slow motion. The fox braced himself to run, but otherwise remained still, watching John. John stepped backwards inside, and intended to close the door by the pads on his fingers. But the metal door handle slipped off his claws and slammed shut.

BAM

“Shit!”

clickclicklickclick—piff

John peeked through the screen. The fox was already in the tree line, running full speed. Less than a second later, the fox had become part of the forest.

John cursed himself, looked at the time, cursed the time, and walked to the bedroom. He picked the cloth off the bed and slipped it on.

John sat in his cubicle, one of a hundred on this floor alone, tapping away at the keyboard. On the desk built into the cloth partition was a computer modified with peripherals for padded hands and clawed fingertips. The chairs in the office had large gaps in the back for tails. John’s hand held an enlarged mouse with a special dips and molding for padded palms and fingers. The keyboard he typed on was layered with rubber to keep his claws from slipping, or in the case of some of his coworkers, piercing the circuitry underneath.

He couldn’t get the fox out of his head. A wild fox had gone out of his way to meet him! Him! An evolved wolf! It filled John with a tingly sensation—the knowledge that he was looking at a creature that he was related to, and it was not a distant relation. Humans looked at apes and monkeys and only felt passing interest in them because they were thousands, if not millions of years removed from their ancestors. John was only 25 years removed from his animal ancestry, and for an animal to come to him like that was something special.

That adorable face framing those piercing, feral eyes lingered in the foreground of his thoughts all day. In spite of this, he still managed to code. Programming felt different this time. Exhilarating! He saw connections in the code like never before. Amidst lines and lines of variables, overloaded operators, polymorphism, and even recursive routines, he noticed errors forming while he typed and fixed them before they became problems buried so deep they would take months of debugging to track them down. He wrote sections in anticipation of changes he would have to make later. Code flowed from his claws like he had seen the project as a completed whole, already aware of future modules that would be integrated into the section he was writing now, and wrote his code with those changes already implemented. Code flowed like music for four hours. John almost forgot to take a lunch break.

In the breakroom on this floor, John still thought about the fox. He talked to Sara, one of his many human coworkers, about his encounter.

“It was an honor!” John said. “A fox coming up to an evolved wolf! They usually just run the other way, but this one came right up to me, and I didn’t even have food to give! I wonder if animals smell a difference between my scent and a wild wolf’s.”

“Like my dog?” Sara said.

Sara had a non-evolved beagle John was rather fond of, and the dog had never treated John as a threat, so there must be something different about his scent.

“Yeah, like him. There must be some kind of difference. Foxes always avoid wolves in the wild, but this one came right up to me! Damn, I wish my nose worked as well as a wild wolf’s.”

“I know what you mean,” she said. “I’ve seen a couple foxes in the city a while back. Probably scavenging trash. I got this weird feeling when they looked at me.”

“Weird? How?”

“They just gave me the creeps.”

“I didn’t feel anything like that! It was special to have one just walk right up to me! You’d think he’da been afraid of me but he just walked up to the porch and checked me out. Wish all days could start off like that! I’ve been on fire today!”

Sara stabbed her microwave lasagna and twirled another bite onto the fork. She lifted the fork halfway to her mouth and stopped. She was still and breathless for a few seconds.

“Sara?” John said. He waved his hand in front of her.

“Sorry. I was thinking about that day. It was a confusing feeling. For a while... nothing made sense. I was glad to forget about it.” She took a bite. “Just make sure you don’t feed him.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve heard foxes have been coming closer to the cities since the Evolution. Even closer in the last year. It’s not a good idea to feed them.”

“He’s gonna live by my cabin. Why not give him a little help?”

“I just don’t think it’s good idea. It creeped me out...”

She changed the subject. Obviously it made her uncomfortable, so John didn’t bring it up again.

After lunch John returned to his cubical and continued pounding out code. The exhilaration of a fox honoring him like that energized his mind and he coded for two more hours. He finished the module, two days ahead of schedule. He hit the COMPILE AND RUN command to test it.

No errors.

Not even syntax errors.

In a dazed stupor John watched the module run in the container application. He didn’t need to debug it. The thing ran perfectly the first time. The fox’s eyes flickered in his memory again and John laughed himself out of his chair.

Jenna had worked an early shift and was already home. She was on the couch in front of the TV, wearing her loincloth and nothing else. Like all animal sentients, she had no breasts to cover, at least she wouldn’t until, if ever, she became pregnant, so she wasn’t wearing anything over her chest. Many other female sentients did wear shirts, or pieces of cloth roughly shaped like clothing that looked like they were covering breasts, just help humans tell the difference. Even reptilian females wore them.

“Hi, John. How’s my big, strong alpha?”

John set his bag down by the door.

“The mighty wolf hammered out a module.” He unbuckled his loincloth and tossed it anywhere. “No debugging, no errors. Everything worked!”

He sat down on the couch next to Jenna and held her close.

“What about you?”

Jenna worked for a credit card company as a customer service telephone operator. It was even more grueling than John’s job because she dealt directly with customers. Computers at least did what you told them if you gave them the right instructions. You never got that kind of functionality from customers.

“I heard it nine times today. Person calls, complains about their bill, and I am the one to tell them that, yes, all of those purchases are theirs, the records are accurate, they really do have a balance of $6,000, pay now or die.”

“They’re hoping someone stole their identity,” John said.

“We should all be so lucky.”

There was a commercial on for a prescription drug that studies suggest may help play a part in keeping fur smoother, healthier and easier to manage. Ask your doctor if Pelitin is right for you. Most common side effects include...

“I felt great,” John said. “I saw a fox this morning.”

Jenna looked away from the TV. “Really?”

“Yeah. He sat down just outside the trees and listened to me. Then he came up on the porch and checked me out.”

“That is special,” she said. “Especially for a wolf.”

“Then I scared him away when the screen door slipped in my claws.”

She snorted. “Metal doors designed for bald, human fingers.”

“Ape-sentient,” John corrected with a grin. Jenna chuckled. The politically correct terms were hard to get used to. Nobody but the politicians and the press actually used them.

“I’m still kicking myself for that. But it was great. Seeing a fox that close made my day. I hope he comes around again.”

“Why did you open the door? Were you trying to let him in?”

“No, I was going to get some crackers.”

“You shouldn’t feed the animals.”

John blinked. “You’re the fifth person to tell me that today. Why?”

“If you start feeding them they won’t hunt for themselves.”

“Yeah, you’re right, but you didn’t see his face. How can you say no to a face like that?”

“Then you definitely shouldn’t feed him. A puppydog face is exactly how males sucker someone into marrying them.”

John held her tighter as the news came on. A charismatic panther faded onto the screen through the title sequence and brief, news-like theme music. His fur was so smooth and shiny it was an obsidian mirror—a look every sentient with fur tried to achieve. It wasn’t possible without a team of dedicated professional groomers.

“Good evening. As we all well know this week marks the 25th anniversary of the week that changed the world. It all started with lions in Africa, with multiple lionesses in multiple prides spread out over hundreds of kilometers bearing unusual cubs. Researchers observing them from afar assumed they were deformed and almost ignored them entirely. We have more on this special anniversary from our correspondent, Janet Spriggs.”

The screen faded to archived video of a pride of lions. The lionesses were huddled around a small group of cubs. A couple of them looked like they’d suffered a strange birth defect.

A charismatic woman’s voice narrated over the footage: “The adult lions did not seem to treat the cubs differently.”

The video showed a few cubs starting to walk upright on digitigrade hind legs. In spite of this, the normal, four-legged lions played with them just the same. The parents didn’t seem to notice either.

“Today we take the appearance for granted, but at the time the discovery was world-shattering. The apparently deformed lion cubs were in fact bipedal, with articulated fingers on the forepaws. Word spread quickly, and attempts were made to retrieve them. Over the next week that became known as ‘the week that changed the world,’ forty-two were recovered for study. And it did not end there.”

Brief clips of infant animals played as she narrated: “Crocodiles in Australia... Tigers in Asia... Jackals in Africa... Cougars in North America... Coyotes... Bears... Wolves... Reports of animals bearing young that looked human and were learning to walk upright poured in from all over the world just days after the lion cubs were discovered. Over the next five years, millions of animal offspring were recovered.”

The archival footage changed to various animal species in hospitals and research laboratories. Doctors and scientists were examining them, placing them in MRI machines, listening to their heartbeats, etc.

“As research continued, the animals began picking up on language, confirming beyond all doubt that this mutation was not merely physical. Now, a quarter-century after it began, scientists attribute the event to the once theoretical evolutionary mechanism of punctuated equilibrium.”

The archival footage ended. A scientist in a lab coat appeared. His title bar read “Doctor George Preston / Biologist.”

“We had been debating for years about evolution,” said the scientist. “We could agree that evolution happened, but nobody could agree on how or why, and if it happened in the past, why wasn’t it happening now?”

The reporter’s voiceover muted the scientist. “The sudden evolutionary leap happening right in front of mankind’s eyes finally brought the mechanics into focus.”

The scientist’s voice rose to the foreground again. “What we’ve concluded is that evolution is like a storm cloud building up static electricity slowly and gradually until the cloud builds up enough energy and lighting strikes. Genetic variation had been accumulating for thousands of years until it finally passed the threshold to manifest itself. Apparently it happened to apes first. It just took more time for the rest of the animal kingdom to catch up, so to speak.”

The interview cut to more footage of young, human-like animals in hospitals and research labs. Some of them John and Jenna knew by name.

“The ‘human’ form seemed to be the end result of all genetic variation,” the reporter narrated. “Science fiction writers predicted the ‘animal sentients’ would become an enslaved, sub-level population oppressed by an arrogant and terrified human race. But the unthinkable happened...”

The next jump-cut showed more recent scenes of animal sentients on assembly lines, working beside humans.

Tiger-, coyote-, crocodile-, lizard- and deer-sentients were sitting in classrooms with human children.

Working cash registers.

Working on computers.

Playing tennis for major leagues.

Standing in formation in the military.

“...they were welcomed. There was no discrimination. No fear for safety. The entire world opened their hearts and homes to these newcomers to intelligence, willing to help them adjust.”

The screen cut to another interview with a man dressed in a brown sweater, titlebarred “Philip Landing / Psychiatrist.”

“It is strong evidence of the Collective Unconscious,” he said. “The human race as a whole shares a memory of this moment of the dawn of intelligence. Subconsciously we recognized what had happened to the animals, and it brought all those memories back. We understood what was happening and it filled us with compassion instead of fear.”

“Now, twenty-five years later, no one can imagine it any other way.”

The news report faded to the panther.

“We have more retrospective on this world-changing event throughout this historic week. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.”

The screen faded to another prescription drug commercial.

“God, that panther’s hot,” Jenna said, slapping a hand on John’s thigh.

John chuckled and kissed Jenna on the neck as the news faded to commercial. He glanced around the cabin. He was thankful he and Jenna could afford it. He’d gone to college to get two degrees in IT and she’d gone to college for a degree in customer service, and they’d both landed very good jobs. They were fed, their marriage was happy, no health problems. He was looking forward to Friday; their friends and coworkers were going to meet and celebrate the Evolution. John was proud of how well they’d done.

Tuesday

It’s amazing how the hours fly by when you’re doing something you’re good at, John reflected as he drove home. John had been thinking about the fox all day again, and the code flowed as easily as it had yesterday. He almost forgot to take a lunch break again.

He pulled up the driveway and stepped out of the car. As he did, he caught sight of a spot of red and his eyes were drawn to it. The fox was sitting in front of a tree about ten meters away, staring at John. John slowly closed the car door. He gritted his teeth when it latched, but the fox did not run away. Relieved, John stood up straight and stared back, smiling at the sight of those cute ears and a face that could halt a nuclear war.

The fox lowered his head and waved a paw. John smiled and waved back. He turned and walked inside to an empty house. Jenna had a late shift and she wouldn’t be home until almost midnight. John tore open a bag of chicken strips, poured a few onto a pan and slid them in the oven. They’d be ready in about twenty minutes.

While John waited, he turned on the TV. The news was on again, continuing the reflection of 25 years after the Evolution. John zoned out during the report.

This special report dealt with the outpouring of letters, emails and phone calls 25 years ago to laboratories and hospitals, offering to adopt the newly discovered animal sentients and raise them as their own. Millions of ape-sentients felt it wouldn’t have been right for them to grow up in labs and hospitals. They deserved real homes. No politicians, scientists or humanitarians urged anyone to do this; the people of the world did it entirely on their own.

“We just felt like we had to do something to help,” said a teary-eyed mother who adopted a cougar-sentient 20 years ago. “When me and my husband were married, we decided we didn’t want children. But when we saw what was happening to these animals, we both felt this... need. We wanted to help them. It changed us. Once we brought her home we knew nothing would ever be the same for anyone.”

After the commercial break, the network switched to other news. A jackal-sentient reporter was live in the Middle East where the threat of nuclear war kept the region in constant chaos and fear. The reporter covered the most recent failed peace talk. Behind him, people were holding machine guns and firing them in the air, protesting against the Jews or the Arabs.

The fox’s eyes lit John’s vision like twin wildfires. They popped his zone and suddenly he was alert and watching the report.

As it concluded, it showed footage of a gunfight in the street. A gazelle- and a hyena-sentient were firing rifles at an off-camera target, smoke billowing from the chambers. A couple humans were firing right alongside them.

John had been hearing reports on the Middle East for years; the news reported the violence as though it was something new for as long as he could remember. He’d never really paid much attention to it...

Until now. The animal sentients who had been raised on the Jewish side fought for the Jews as though they’d been around since Abraham’s time. Those raised on the Arab’s side fought for the Arabs as though they’d always been involved. There were gazelles and hyenas on both sides, fighting each other.

But why? It wasn’t their fight—they should know this—yet John couldn’t remember anyone raising this point. John felt a little itchy, but by then his dinner was ready and the food was an excellent distraction.

Wednesday

Jenna didn’t get home until 1 in the morning, and she only had four hours to sleep before it was time to get up for work again. This morning John kissed her, tried to talk to her, but Jenna didn’t say anything more intelligent than a grunt. She worked shifts like every week; they were used to it.

She kissed John goodbye and departed in her car for work. John had waited up for Jenna so she wouldn’t have to suffer alone. He nearly dozed off while putting the key in the ignition, and again a minute later while backing out of the driveway.

He drove, eyes still half-closed. A familiar color on the side of the road caught his attention. The fox was sitting on the shoulder, looking at the car as he approached. His head followed as he drove by. John couldn’t look away.

When he passed the fox, John’s gaze drifted up to the rearview mirror. The fox was still looking at him, head tilted in that adorable way that melted his heart. The eyes seemed closer than they should be. John couldn’t turn his eyes away until he lost the fox behind a slope.

John was wide awake.

Two humans, three wolves and one cougar made up the managers. Five humans, one wolf, two coyotes, a raccoon, a cougar, a bobcat and one lizard made up John’s team of programmers. The main topic at the staff meeting this week was the company-wide software upgrade that was going to take place on Thursday, and the preparations they needed to take to backup their critical files. By the time the meeting was over it was lunch time and John’s team stayed together in the breakroom on their floor.

“It’s about time we got a software upgrade,” Eric said. “Been coding with the same OS and IDEs for eight years, and they were outdated five years before that!”

Everyone agreed it was about time. They were designing the next generation of software on equipment that was obsolete two generations back. Eric’s comment sparked familiar work-bashing jokes. These did more for team-building than any seminar the company paid employees to attend.

Eric was probably the only lizard living in this entire biome. Lizards were native to the desert climates, but he had said this was the only job he could get, and if it meant putting on six coats and three pairs of pants just to get to his car that’s what he had to do.

“What’s wrong, John?” Eric said, noticing John hadn’t spoken once all day, even during the staff meeting.

“I was thinking about the Evolution,” John said. “You how the reports keep saying that it changed the course of history forever?”

The lizard nodded.

“Have you noticed that no one’s said exactly what changed?”

“What hasn’t changed?” Eric said, gesturing to the lunchroom, full of a mix of humans, canines and felines of at least five races each. “Twenty years ago it would’ve been all humans. Now look. It’s like we’ve always been here.”

“That’s my point. I saw this report last night on the Middle East. While they raised evolved animals as their own children out of compassion, they were still fighting each other. And they’re still at it. Why didn’t that change?”

“Whoa, John. You’re getting a little too deep. Have you been feeding that fox that’s been hanging around your cabin?”

John had told everyone about the fox by now. “No, but I saw him this morning. I can’t get him out of my head.”

Eric nodded vigorously. “I had that same feeling. Saw a few foxes a while back and my head started swimming. Almost got into an accident ‘cause I was driving.”

“You think it’s the fox?”

“Just don’t feed him, he’ll go away eventually and so will that weird feeling.” Eric resumed griping about work and coworkers and managers. John’s head was still swimming.

John’s headlights shined on something at the side of the road. At the sight of a pair of glowing, yellow eyes he slowed down in case the animal was about to cross. A moment later the headlights revealed the color red, and the outline of the fox’s body formed around the eyes that were looking directly at John. He was sitting in the exact same spot as this morning.

John’s foot released the accelerator and he slowed to a crawl. His whole body went limp. He tumbled into the fox’s gaze and was joined to him at the eyes. The fox’s head followed as the car passed and it continued in the rearview mirror until the fox was lost behind the hill.

When he was alone on the road again John shook the hypnotic feeling out of his head. Maybe everyone was right. As long as he didn’t feed the fox, this feeling would go away.

John walked in the door, took off his loincloth and necklace watch and set the bills on the table. After dinner John made the budget while he waited up for Jenna, who had another late shift. The gas bill had gone up. The electric bill had gone up. His car insurance premium had also gone up. He punched the equal sign with his claws. The calculator coldly told him that this week he’d have to dip into savings again.

John began writing the checks, like he’d done every month or so. He wrote three checks. Suddenly the fox’s eyes rose up in his memory. That energetic feeling that kept him coding all day Monday lit his mind up, and his thoughts drifted to something he never really thought about before. He’d had to use the savings account to make up for a shortage last month, too. And the month before that. And the month before that. Their combined income just barely kept the bills paid every month, rarely with anything leftover. It was a miracle if they had $25 a week to spend on something they actually wanted to buy.

John dropped the pen on the table. He leaned back from the budget and sighed.

“Two college degrees to get a programming job,” he said. “A degree in customer service for Jenna to get a job at a credit card company. Shouldn’t we be prospering?”

The budget didn’t answer. The calculator remained stoic.

Then another connection formed. He hadn’t noticed it before, but college really didn’t mean a whole lot these days. Employers wouldn’t even hire you as a cashier unless you had a two-year degree in customer service. Even fast food service required a two-year degree. Many people were in school until they were 30 just so they could get a minimum-wage job. His degrees in programming had not advanced him, like they would have years ago. They had only raised him up to the break-even point.

John didn’t want to think about it. He got up and turned on the television, hoping to get the fox out of his head. The late news was on (during the 25th anniversary of this world-changing week, the news was the only thing on). The report was of the murder of an ape-sentient in the city. An elk-sentient was suspect of the crime; traces of his fur were found at the scene and he was now in custody.

After the commercial break there was another report on the Evolution. About how the schoolchildren had reacted to animals joining their classes. It featured many interviews with people in their late twenties and early thirties reflecting on those early years. Their reaction was that it never occurred to them to think of the newcomers as anything but friends. Even the teachers of the time felt the same way. There was simply an outpouring of compassion as the collective memory filled the human race with love and acceptance. “It was truly the week that changed the world,” the reporter concluded.

The next three reports were of murders in the city, followed by two knifings, six car crashes, the latest celebrity sex scandal, and a major food manufacturer was cutting 130,000 jobs to stay profitable.

John’s ears flattened against his head. The fur on his back rose. He turned the TV off and stared at the blank screen for a while. The fox’s eyes stared back.

Thursday

John pulled the parking brake and turned off the ignition and the headlights. The only light came from the porch light and the dim glow of the lamps inside the house. Work had been boring. The upgrade had taken all day and during that time John had to busy himself with paperwork. For being a “paperless office”, John had a lot of paperwork to catch up on. He unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car. He slammed the door shut and walked up the driveway.

Something moved in the shadows. He stopped and looked to the side.

The fox was approaching. He was lit only on one side, and seeing half a fox walking towards him was eerie. The half-fox trotted up to him, stepped over John’s paws and trotted away.

Just before the fox entered the tree line he stopped, turned his head and looked back at John. His face was dimly lit by the porch light; the glowing eyes were all John could see now. After staring at him for a moment John saw a shadow move that might’ve been the fox’s tail wagging.

...follow...

John shook his head and walked up the steps to the porch. He unlocked and opened the door. The fox was still looking at him. John waved to him and went inside.

Jenna was already asleep, recovering from her grueling shifts. John put dinner in and turned on the TV again, knowing it would only be the news.

The report on now was an update on ape-sentient Dennis Lawford, a senator accused of taking bribes. The next report was an update on the three CEOs (one human and two canines) charged with fraud and embezzlement of company funds.

Fed up, John turned off the TV and slouched. The eerie, glowing eyes suspended over half a body lingered in his temples. On Monday, when the fox showed such interest in him, it had been an honor. Now it was getting creepy. He tried to think about something else, but before he could, his mind started wandering.

It was another night he wouldn’t see his wife. He hadn’t seen Jenna in days. They’d been married a year and they routinely went entire months without seeing each other, and even then it was just long enough to sleep together before it was time to get ready for work. He couldn’t remember the last time he and Jenna actually had time together.

Because there was no time. Weekends were busy with groceries and housework and chores. The last time they took vacation together they had to use it to get car work done and take doctor appointments because they couldn’t afford to lose work to get these things done. There wasn’t enough money in savings to actually go anywhere special.

For his entire adult life John was either recovering from getting off work, or preparing to go to work. They needed the eighty hours a week combined income or they wouldn’t have enough, and God help them if he or Jenna got sick and missed more than a day of work. It would throw their budget off for two solid months. Whatever happened to having a life?

“The event that changed the course of mankind,” John said in a charismatic panther voice. “Life as we know it has never been the same. The Evolution raised the animals from ignorance and it just fucking changed everything.”

Friday

At 4:30PM John sat down at his computer, double clicked on the IDE icon and, after a ten-minute wait, opened the project. He looked at all twenty documents of code. They contained thousands of lines of interconnected routines written by a dozen people. They had made it all work together. It was just starting to take shape.

The upgrade was complete. Every computer in the company now had the latest operating system on the market, and the newest IDE for programming money could by. Unfortunately the new operating system took up so much RAM and processor speed that the computers took ten minutes just to load the IDE. If management had looked at the system requirements they would’ve seen that the computers couldn’t handle it. Now it was too late.

Company-wide, systems were bogged down with an operating system that sucked up so many resources and ran so many programs in the background it made them unusable. Programming was impossible. Management estimated six months before they could upgrade the hardware so the computers would actually be able to run the software.

The client for the application John’s team was designing was not happy with the prospect of delays, and withdrew the contract using an escape clause that no one but the client knew was in there.

John took one last look at the only tangible proof that he’d been alive for the last four months. He right-clicked on the main document. He pointed to the DELETE command.

click

John leaned back in his chair and sighed. He almost cried.

Every time management tried to improve something, they ended up making it worse. His last three projects were cancelled by some manager who didn’t understand what the projects were for, and just assumed that because they were small, they must not be important. John looked back and realized that he’d spent the entire year preparing for meetings that were unnecessary, boss visits that didn’t happen, and pouring his soul into tasks that were overlooked, underappreciated, taken for granted, or cancelled. Looking into next year, he only saw more of the same.

John was on the road home again. Like an annoying song, he hadn’t been able to shake that weird, energetic feeling that thinking about the fox induced in him. Monday and Tuesday he had an outlet for the energy, but without something to do, the energy pooled inside him, and his mind wouldn’t shut up now. Hadn’t shut up in days.

Jenna was already home when John drove up, and she was ready to celebrate. John had been looking forward to it all month. In the past he and Jenna had driven to the city to be part of the celebration, but as the crowds grew it got too dangerous. So a bunch of coworkers and friends agreed to meet at “the bridge” and make their own celebration.

The bridge was on some deserted back road off a back road off a back road. It was a filthy place. The guardrails, trees and even the road itself were covered in graffiti. The swampy forest the road cut through looked dead in the faint light.

About thirty showed up, all but two were natives to the region. Wolves, humans, cougars, bears, bobcats, lynx, a few raccoons and weasels and deer, a lion, and Eric (dressed in layers and jealous of the fur, just like the humans).

Everyone was out of their cars, drinking. John had planned on drinking himself sick, like he had on every anniversary of this week, even before he was legal, but tonight he just held his beer and wandered around until he finally leaned against his car and watched his wife get drunk with the crowd in the middle of the road. Pretty soon they were falling over each other, laughing at nothing, getting louder while talking about less.

“Guess you won’t need me this year,” said an African accent behind him. John recognized Anton’s voice without even looking at the lion. He was one of the designated drivers, and he happened to work in networking with John’s. He wore only the standard loincloth, and unlike most lions Anton kept his mane braided behind his head, giving him a feminine appearance, especially in the dim moonlight. On anyone else it would’ve looked ridiculous.

“I want to join them,” John said. “But I can’t.”

“I heard about your project. They just don’t pay us enough for the shit we gotta put up with. And they still expect us to keep working. Any bets they’ll blame us when other projects start falling behind? How in God’s name does anything get done in the world?”

Straight men turned homosexual when drunk, and a few of the humans were trying to peek under loincloths. The canines were more than willing to take them off. Soon, everyone was tossing their loincloths in the air and dancing around. It was funny, but John slouched lower against the car, still holding his unopened bottle.

“Anton, have you been watching the news?”

The lion nodded.

“Have you ever wondered what’s changed? I mean, we joined the human race. And this is it?”

“Meaning...?”

“Dennis Lawford is about to resign because of corruption. Others are facing charges, too. People are complaining that the government hasn’t done a thing. Same with the UN. Are they surprised? It’s like that every year! Nothing ever gets done! That didn’t change.”

Anton folded his arms and leaned against the car. “Some things never do. Nothing we can do about it.”

“Yeah.”

Jenna was flirting with everyone but John knew she didn’t mean it.

“You know I have a good job, a wonderful wife, money in the bank. Everything was okay. I was happy. But ever since this fox moved close to the cabin... It just looks so different.”

“I saw a fox the other day, too,” Anton said. “You’re right, they have a stare that makes you cringe. Just don’t feed it.”

John glared at Anton.

“What?” said the lion.

“Every time I tell someone about this fox I get told not to feed him. How is that going to help that my wife and I never see each other, we don’t have time to do anything but work, we’ve been living to work for a whole year and when was the last time you heard of someone who actually knew what they were doing?! Does anyone?!”

Anton smiled and slapped an enormous hand on John’s back. “Welcome to life, John. Just don’t feed the fox. It will go away and you’ll feel better.”

Anton turned to watch the drunks again. The humans were so drunk they were trying to take their clothes off, too, until they remembered it was cold. Anton winked at John, slipped his loincloth off and set it on the hood. John smiled weakly and removed his. He set it on top of the lion’s and the two watched the drunks with detached amusement.

“Makes... the whole week worth...” Jenna said in a tipsy slur. If not for the seatbelt John strapped her in, she would be folded up under the dashboard by now.

“Completely.”

John put the car in park, pulled the parking brake, got out and helped his wife out of the car. He walked her to the house. Just before he got to the first step John stopped short. The fox was sitting in front of the door.

John’s tail wagged. Jenna staggered in place and mumbled while John held her up. The fox stood up, perked his ears and stared deeper into John’s eyes, shaking his own tail.

...it’s okay...

John couldn’t look away. He walked his wife to the door. John got the feeling he was falling deeper into those slitted eyes. The fox didn’t sprint away at the sight of two wolves lumbering towards him; he stayed close.

John and Jenna stood at the door. The fox was still there, blocking their way. John found the house key on the ring and held it out to the door. As he unlocked the door he looked down at the fox, feeling a strange, unfounded need to explain his actions to the fox. Like he wanted to ask if he had permission to go inside. It was absurd, because John knew his first question should be why this fox was standing so close to them, but that wasn’t what he wanted to ask.

John pushed the door open. The fox side-stepped out of the way just enough for John and Jenna to walk past, but still looking at him. John couldn’t break the stare. The fox made him feel anxious, energized... and queasy.

John carried his wife inside. Although the fox was still outside John still felt him staring. Just sitting there. He helped his wife to the bedroom and laid her safely on the bed. John walked back to the front door.

The fox was sitting on the doormat, looking in. He tilted his head. ...come closer... He turned his ears. ...it’s okay...

“Why do I keep thinking that?” John rubbed his temples as he walked to the door. The fox did not move as he approached. Eventually he was paw to paw with the fox, and the fox just stared up at him. It’s okay, come closer, it’s okay, come closer. John shook his head but he couldn’t stop thinking it over and over.

“No food here.” He closed the door. The thoughts did not stop.

Saturday

“Oh, God what a night!” Jenna said as she stumbled out of the bathroom and into the living room where John was waiting. “You should’ve joined us! That was fun!”

John had been thinking about the fox since he closed the door. He had dreamed about him. He woke up with the fox on his mind. He saw the fox’s face right now. His mind was racing and he couldn’t calm it down.

“You threw up twice after we got home,” John said, trying to think about something else.

“I did? Musta been great!” Jenna sat next to him. He handed her a plate and she immediately began shoveling the scrambled eggs John made into her muzzle.

“After a week of customers I needed that,” she said with a full mouth.

“Yeah,” John said. “Now we have two days until we get to do it all over again.”

“Sucks. But it pays the bills.”

John’s ears folded back. “It pays the bills... Oh, by the way. Remember Lawrence, at the party? He works in programming with me? He called earlier. He woke up this morning and guess who was in bed with him.” Jenna paused eating. “Anton.”

Jenna laughed and spit half-eaten egg on the plate. She snorted and giggled. “I called it! What did I tell you? I knew they were going to do something!”

John laughed, too. He watched Jenna eat for a little while. About five minutes later he couldn’t hold it in. “Jenna. Does anything seem strange?”

“What’s strange?”

“We’ve done nothing but work for a year, we never see each other, and what do we have to show for it? If we had kids we wouldn’t have time to raise them.”

“That’s what daycare’s for. Mandi says she hasn’t seen her husband or kids in three years. They both work and they don’t make enough to pay their bills. They’re in debt.”

“Children grow up in daycare because no one has time to raise their own kids. They’re too busy... Trying to break even all their lives. And that’s all they can do. Their whole lives. Just doing this... year after year. Have you ever thought about that? Doesn’t it bother you?”

“Why should it? I think we’re doing well.” She finished her eggs, got up and walked to the kitchen. From there she shouted, “I’m going shopping with Mandi today. I’ll pick up the groceries while we’re out. You wanna come?”

“No thanks. I need to catch up on sleep.”

“Time to grieve, right. I’ll stick to the budget and I’ll be back tonight.”

“See you then.”

There was much drinking, cheering and confetti as the symbolic week drew to a close. Reporters were live in all time zones and in every major city as they held fireworks to celebrate the event that raised the animals to humanity’s level. The week that changed the world. In previous years John had been thrilled to celebrate along with them.

During the cheers and music, the phone rang and John answered. It was Jenna.

“Hi John, I told Mandi about the fox,” she said. “She wants me to tell you not to feed him. When the fox goes away you won’t be confused anymore. Everything’ll go back to normal again. Just don’t feed him. Love ya.”

She hung up. John sat with the phone to his ear for a minute before he hung up. He fell asleep on the couch as the celebrations continued.

Scratching at the door woke him up late at night. He sat up and looked over the back of the couch. The fox was standing on his hind legs, scratching the screen door and peering inside.

“You are cute,” John said as he got up. “But you’re not getting any food.”

The fox’s ears fluttered and he scented the air inside the cabin. John’s heart melted again. “I know what you’re doing. You know you’re cute, and it won’t work...”

...it’s okay, come closer, it’s okay, come closer, it’s okay...

John shook the thoughts out of his head again and closed the door. Through the door he heard the fox step down and trot across the deck, down the steps and back into the woods.

The only sounds now were music and fireworks from the TV. John turned and watched from across the room. Humans and animals hugged, shared drinks and danced in the streets.

“Why are we celebrating?” John said as he walked to the TV. “I don’t see any improvement.” He was just about to turn the TV off when that handsome panther appeared on the screen. In the upper right corner was a picture of a red fox.

“Before we take a break we would like to pass on a note of warning. For reasons unknown more and more arctic, kit and especially red foxes are being seen close to populated areas around the world. They seem to be approaching people without fear, and experts warn that if one approaches you, do not feed it. They will eventually go away.”

John turned off the TV and stared at his reflection in the blank screen.

Sunday

The claws on John’s feet clicked across the wooden deck. The clicking sound changed pitch as he walked down the steps to the cold ground. He walked away from the cabin and into the trees, stepping carefully so he wouldn’t step in a hole filled with leaves or snow. He had to walk carefully because he was carrying a platter. On the platter was a fully-cooked, cubed sirloin steak.

After a few dozen paces he looked over his shoulder at the cabin in the distance. He couldn’t stop his tail from wagging as he set the platter down on the cold dirt. John took a few steps back, then sat down cross-legged. The ground was nearly frozen, and he wasn’t wearing his loincloth, but he didn’t feel a thing through his fur. His tail wagged, brushing dead leaves around. He felt like a third-grader covertly defying his teacher by chewing gum in class, and he giggled.

Not five minutes after he sat down, a red and white head peeked around a tree a few meters away. John didn’t even see him approach—the fox just appeared. John smiled and held still, but his tail kept wagging. He willed it to stop but it was useless to try to control it.

“Hi again.” The fox’s head tilted, cute as ever. “I was just going to bring crackers. But then I figured if you’re going to feed a fox, feed him good.”

John expected the fox to hesitate and approach cautiously. He expected to have to toss him some pieces to get him to gradually come closer. He expected the fox to be wary...

The fox hopped from behind the tree and trotted straight up to the platter. He bent down and sniffed the steak, then picked up a cube, chewed it a couple times and swallowed. He licked his lips and looked at John.

John’s tail was wagging furiously. “Even the way you eat is cute.”

The fox dropped to his stomach, grabbed another cube, chewed casually and swallowed. The fox ate a few more pieces like this, then looked up at John, bent down and grabbed another cube. In a way he couldn’t quantify, John was deeply honored.

“Everyone keeps telling me not to feed you, but I don’t want you to go away.”

He was not distracted by John speaking in a normal tone of voice. John uncrossed his legs and stretched out. The fox paused, eyed John for a moment, picked up another cube and ate again.

“I have a house. A good job. Education that got me a job. By everyone’s standards I’m doing all right. But the more I think about it, the less sense it makes.”

The fox regarded John for a moment without eating. With the fox so close and in plain sight, every uncomfortable connection that had been vague and fuzzy all week suddenly focused like sunlight through a magnifying glass. The energy finally had an outlet.

“We joined the human race! We’re not animals anymore, we’re sentients! Now we can do all the things they get to do! Like go to work year after year and earn just barely enough money to keep going to work year after year. Push paperwork nobody’s going to read. Hunt down bugs in code. Dedicate our lives to a bunch of projects that get canceled.”

The fox had not made a move for the steak.

“Shouldn’t the murder rate have gone down? The fighting in the Middle East stopped? Corrupt leaders a thing of the past? Managers start making intelligent decisions? Shouldn’t we know what we’re doing by now instead of wandering through life, trying to survive and making the best of it? This is the way things were when it was just humans. It got worse since we arrived. Why didn’t we influence the system instead of getting caught up in it? Shouldn’t something be different?!

“And you know what scientists are saying now? In another thousand years the animal sentients will lose their fur and start walking flat-footed. We’ll keep evolving until we’re bald and clawless, just like what happened to the apes. But they think we might still have snouts.

“Am I the only one who sees what this means? If the human form is the end result of evolution, and if our brains are evolving right along with our bodies, is this the end result of intelligence? Thousands of years of evolution to bring the animals out of the forest and this is all we can think to do? We caught up with the apes to do this?! No, something’s missing.”

The fox was halfway through the steak. John hadn’t noticed when he began eating again.

“I’ve tried to explain it to so many people but they don’t think anything’s wrong. Even Jenna just accepts it. Hell, I accepted it until last week. How many years would’ve gone by like this before I noticed? The world wants me to forget, but forgetting these things won’t fix them. I keep wondering why. Why was I born evolved and my brothers and sisters not? And now that I’m here... is this all I’m supposed to do with my life?”

Come closer. The thought twinkled like a lonely star on a cold, miserable night. This time it was more comforting than intrusive. Come closer. They were his thoughts, he recognized his own mind, but he didn’t mean to think them.

The fox tolerated this much, John thought. Maybe he won’t mind. John placed his hands on the ground, lifted himself and moved forward a little. The fox kept eating. John picked himself up again and scooted closer. Still no fear, and the twinkling thoughts now gave off friendly warmth. John scooted closer again. He was right up to the platter, touching distance of the fox. John smiled in disbelief.

“I guess that’s it. We’re just as clueless and confused as they are, so we wander down the same paths the apes did. No wonder we didn’t change anything. Maybe foxes were smart by staying animals.” The fox stopped eating and stared at him with bright, happy eyes. “Thanks for listening again. It’s nice to have a neighbor I can talk to.”

Eat.

John blinked.

The fox took a cube in his teeth and held it out over the platter.

There was no disbelief. John knew what he heard, and he acted on it before he could question it. He slowly reached with his hand and tried to take it, but the fox leaned his neck back and growled. After a tense pause, the fox offered the cube again. Eat.

John began to reach for it again, but he stopped himself. Something about the look in the fox’s eyes. A disapproving look. Friendly correction. But... no... No it couldn’t be correction. The fox probably wasn’t used to anyone taking something from him with a hand. John got the feeling that there’d only be one way to take food offered by a wild animal.

John opened his mouth, leaned forward and took the cube with his teeth. The fox gently let go and John chewed the cube. As the fox straightened up a new thought happened: good, good, you’re very close.

John shook his head furiously—someone else was trapped in his head and thinking these thoughts for him. When his eyes focused, the fox was holding another cube out. Now there was disbelief, but John pushed it aside and just enjoyed the moment.

The fox fed John a few more cubes this way, and then he took a cube and ate it himself.

Eat. This time the fox did not feed him. He was about to use his hand to grab a cube, but he caught himself. John bent over and took a piece with his teeth. The fox did not object, and he ate snout to snout with the fox for a while. But the position was cramping his back. John felt that he would insult the fox if he used his hands again, but how could he eat without hurting his back?

And then he remembered. John turned himself over, no longer afraid of startling the fox, brought his legs up and lay on his stomach. His hips and knees popped. He hadn’t folded his legs like a dog since grade school (his teachers and adopted parents discouraged it), but he still could. Lying like this, his back was straight, his weight was evenly distributed, and his head was at plate level. He ate comfortably using only his mouth.

Very good.

John kept eating. This time the thought made him feel warm and happy. He didn’t want to disrupt that. John let the fox eat the last cube of steak. Then the fox raised himself to a sitting position. John raised his head and looked at the fox. They were eye to eye.

You catch on quick.

John’s muzzle cinched up in confusion.

The fox lowered his head, licked his lips and then raised it fully again, never taking his eyes from John’s. As he did, another feeling rose up in John’s mind: do you understand me?

John shook his head around, trying to shake the second presence out. “Where’s this coming from?”

The fox cocked his ears. As soon as John saw it he thought: there’s a chance for you.

John’s ears bloomed, trying to hear a voice that wasn’t there but he sensed should be coming from the fox. The fox rose to his paws and turned around. Follow.

The fox trotted away.

Before John could question it, he rose to his feet. He tried to stand up, but his legs refused to straighten. He stood on all fours for a moment, trying to stand up but he couldn’t remember how to get his legs to straighten. He knew he could, but his legs wouldn’t lift him. John screamed in frustration but no words came out. I can’t stand! Oh, God I can’t stand up! John tried to say something but the words wouldn’t come out and he thrashed around and screamed.

As he did he saw the fox running through the trees. John’s hind paws moved. Then his front paws (hands) followed in rhythm. He was running on all fours, something he had never done. His mind fought it. It felt clumsy and unstable and even as he ran John tried to stand so he could run normally. But the longer he ran on all fours the more natural it felt. The clumsy feeling faded, and his mind became as comfortable with it as his body. He forgot about how he was running and kept the fox’s shaking tail in sight.

The fox ran for a long time before he turned around and stared at him. John wanted to ask him what was going on, but at the moment he couldn’t think of the words. The fox sat down and pawed the cold earth in front of him, bobbing his head and folding his ears.

I’ve been trying to get your attention for a long time.

John couldn’t answer. He didn’t remember any words or how to move his mouth and tongue to form a reply. In his confusion he sat down and snorted.

The fox blinked and flicked his ears. Why did you wait so long?

John held a hand up to his face. These disembodied thoughts were like pebbles rolling around in his head. The effort to make a response was so great that he had to speak through clenched teeth. “What... are these... ?!”

The fox stirred. As he moved about in place a thought rolled around John’s head: NO, NO! Don’t do that! You’ll slip away again! Don’t make those sounds.

John nodded. It had been painful and he was glad to stop trying.

Good. Now

The fox stood up, turned around and lifted his tail. John stared for a moment. His first reaction was repulsion, and he leaned back from the skunky musk coming from the fox. But as he looked at the source of the scent... as his nose got used to it... it changed. Instead of the stink of a male fox, he began to smell... age. It wasn’t just a stink anymore. There was something else there—information!—and it pulled his nose forward. The fox’s tail lifted.

John had never sniffed anybody before, and he felt silly at first. But as he took in the scent his nose opened up to the thousands of layers hidden in that broad, male musk he thought he knew.

He was an old fox. He’d seen three winters, met four vixens, had ten pups and been over the entire country. There was a vague sense of salt in his scent, and it told John that he’d seen the ocean. He smelled where he’d been, he knew what he liked to eat, what other animals he’d met in his life. His entire life history was in his scent. Why didn’t I smell this before!!?? He drank it, and by the time he was done he knew the fox better than he knew himself.

He returned the gesture, and the fox took John’s life in. With the greetings out of the way, they looked each other in the eye again. The fox’s ears bloomed and his tail wagged. He was smiling. You’re remembering. Good. So few ever do.

But... remembering what? What had he forgotten?

You’ll see. The fox backed away and looked around. The trees were bare, but many were... the kind that didn’t shed their leaves. He couldn’t remember the name, but he remembered the smell. John panted, trying to spit out the word he couldn’t remember; it was on the tip of his tongue—

Don’t try to remember. Explore.

John tried to stand up again but something was wrong. His body kept telling him he was already standing but his mind told him he was on all fours. He panicked again, but as he moved around all four legs began to cooperate and his mind settled into it. He couldn’t believe he was getting used to it. When the panic was over and he was still on four legs, the fox looked on with great approval that made John feel proud.

He didn’t quite know where to go. The fox told him to explore, but what was he supposed to see? The trees were pretty sparse here, there were some fallen trees and broken, rotting branches everywhere...

The tree ahead of him. It was one of the trees that didn’t shed its leaves. For a flicker of time he tried to think of the tree’s name but realized that the textured waves of scent coming from the tree were far more descriptive than any name had ever been. He was still a dozen paces out when he caught hundreds of overlapping scents. They were new, and he had to know who they were! His nose carried him to the base of the tree and took in the scents of wolves, foxes, bobcats and many others who had marked it. They were not just smells anymore; they contained identities, life histories, stories. It was like meeting them in person. Some of the fainter scents he had to lick to get a whole story, and even then there were gaps. Gaps that gnawed him—he wanted to know these animals better, and he snorted in frustration.

John lifted his head from the trunk and looked back. The fox was walking towards him, but not the same walk as before. It puzzled John and he lowered his head.

He stopped a few paces away and sat down. John turned completely around and sat down, too. For only an instant he felt like he was sitting unnaturally again, but as soon as he felt it his mind settled into the sitting position as easily as his body had.

You’re the first one to come back.

The mysterious thoughts were not as distant or uncomfortable as they had been. They were getting stronger, easier to understand. John tilted his head to one side.

You will understand soon. But you’re still not ready.

John’s head moved. For the first time he wanted to say something and the words came out of his entire body instead of his mouth. Ready for what?

Good, good! You’re learning how to speak! The fox smiled with his ears and tail. The approval made John happy. He liked earning the fox’s approval. I can’t tell you yet, but they’ve been waiting for a very long time.

But... I’m not speaking. I can’t remember how. Oh... oh, God

Don’t try to. You’ll lose all the progress you’ve made.

John’s ears went back as he thought that he didn’t want that to happen. This was so exciting. All these smells around him he never noticed before.

Then pressure rushed out his ears. The shock made him whine, his head popped... and he now heard mice sleeping in the ground under his paws. He lifted his hand, bent down and smelled the ground. He smelled five mice down there... I never knew my hearing was so bad. I never knew mice smelled like anything.

Do you want to know more?

John’s entire body moved and said, Yes! This is amazing! What else is there?! Why hasn’t anyone mentioned this before?

The ones you were with have forgotten.

What about my wife? Can you show her, too?

The fox’s posture suddenly became chastising, and John lowered his head in apology. Don’t think about them. They’re all too far gone to be saved. I came for you.

John nodded. He didn’t want to offend the fox, especially if it meant he’d lose his clear nose and ears and forget how to understand his movements. I want to know everything!

The fox shifted himself in reply. You’ll catch on quickly.

John’s tail wagged. He felt like a child. Everything was new and exciting. He’d been standing, walking and sitting on all fours and he wasn’t even concerned that he couldn’t remember how to stand upright. This was actually more comfortable. The fox’s tail wagged in approval, like a teacher smiling at the ignorance of a student who is eager to learn. The fox got up. John got up to all fours and danced from paw to paw, eager to follow him anywhere.

The fox turned around and walked. John walked at his side.

They traveled together for days. John was so curious about everything and the fox never once told him to hurry up. He let him do as he pleased, wander wherever he wanted and he followed. Sometimes he nudged John in a general direction, but John always veered away to smell something new, or listen to a sound he’d never heard before. The only time the fox was ever cross with him was whenever John tried to think about something in the blurry part of his memory. The fox always knew when John’s thoughts were starting to drift back to the time in his life where everything was dulled, and that’s when he corrected him. John was happy to receive his correction. Listening to the fox’s guidance opened his ears up even further, made his nose even more sensitive. John thought his senses had woken up on that first day. He hadn’t felt anything compared to now.

Everything was familiar. The smell of a waterfall. The sound. But it was more real now. Before, in a time he couldn’t remember consciously anymore, everything was cloudy. Dull. Muffled. He had seen, smelled, heard and tasted the world on the surface. Compared to what he could sense now, he had lived his life in a tiny bubble made up of only what he could see directly in front of him, unaware of everything going on around him.

The fox opened his world up. Now John didn’t just see a waterfall, he smelled the lands the water had flowed through. He smelled the animals that had walked in it, knew their lives as if he’d actually met them. He didn’t just see or smell a tree, he smelled the ages through which the tree had lived. He knew the wounds the tree had suffered in fires, the branches it had lost, shared its pain. Snow was not just snow; it contained tiny packets of scents from faraway places, faraway creatures, and taking in the scent was like going there and seeing these lands and meeting those creatures for himself. The experience was so fascinating he had to smell and taste everything, but there was so much information that it was overload, and he cried many times because he wanted to take it in all at once but he couldn’t handle it.

Every time John felt like this, the fox was there to comfort him and tell him not to let it stop him. As far as John could remember, the fox was the only creature he’d ever known. He thought he remembered others in some distant, cloudy past, but all of that was slowly becoming unimportant. John was so glad for the fox’s company. He had the wisdom and patience of a tree that has lived for a thousand years it seemed, and he was honored that such a creature cared about him.

The fox led him to a particular spot and told him to explore it. It was a curious place. A clearing with a strange scent. John padded around the whole area. Everything had that smell on it. It was familiar, and he recognized it as something from the foggy part of his memory. He was prepared for correction and he lowered himself while the fox approached him.

Do you recognize it? the fox’s gait said.

What is it?

A scent you are to avoid. It is the scent of confusion.

Is that... why my mind was so clouded?

The fox sat down. John remained on his stomach, but raised his head to be at the fox’s eye level.

Yes. You were born horribly deformed, both in the body and the mind. It’s a massive deformity that affects an entire generation once every few thousand years. It cripples the bodies and dulls the senses of the afflicted, limiting their perspective so much that they can’t sense the world and how everything is connected. They can’t sense each other, or their place in the world, and it causes them to believe they are apart from creation. It dooms them to wander their whole lives confused about what they are and what life means. They get used to it, and they try not to think about it, but the confusion is always there. And in their confusion they convince themselves that they must achieve something for their lives to be worth living.

This sounded so horrible. I’m one of them?!

You were. For the first generation it is possible to overcome the deformity. Foxes try to help as many of you as we can before it’s too late. The first time it happened, we saved thousands of apes from the curse. But the ones still on the other side feared us, thinking we were luring them to some horrible fate. They learned to fear what is natural. This only added to their confusion, for if you fear what is natural, what is there not to fear? The former apes have hindered our progress greatly this time by passing this fear to you.

John whimpered. In a flash he remembered what it was like on the other side. John reached and licked the underside of the fox’s snout. Don’t let me go back to that! I don’t want to forget this!

The fox licked back. You’re well past that now. Not long and you will be free forever.

John couldn’t thank the fox enough for relieving him of that terrible confusion. The fox comforted him a little while longer, and then he stood up and led him away from the cloudy scent. John was glad to leave it. Around that scent there was ambiguity, confinement and fear. Away from it, there was clarity.

Now the fox led John in a nearly straight path. This time there was no stopping, no wandering. His nose had grown so sensitive he hardly needed to get up close to anything to smell it. He learned to take in the scents, sounds and textures of his environment just by breathing and walking.

He no longer needed to smell the snow to visit those distant lands. He was aware of them all the time. He didn’t have to smell or taste the water to know the animals that had walked in it. He was aware of them constantly, and he knew them as well as he knew the fox.

Days passed, and his senses began to do more than just observe his surroundings. They extended his consciousness to include everything above, below and around him. His awareness increased by the day. Ten kilometers, fifty, a thousand, until he forgot what a kilometer was, and eventually he wasn’t just aware of distant lands. He had lived in them for years. Decades. Centuries. He was not merely conscious of animals on the other side of the world. He really did know them from birth. He cared about them. He was part of their families.

And then, after countless days of traveling, John realized something.

They knew him.

The wolf stopped. He couldn’t tell if the scents of the world were on the outside, or coming from him. Sounds no longer came into his ears, but out of him. He saw the world as a whole, from one side of the ocean to the other, pole to pole, every plant and animal on the ground and in the air. He lived in all places, knew all creatures living and dead; the past, present and future merged into one entity. The world made sense.

The fox stood still. “Right on time,” he said. His movements were so clear to the wolf now that the fox had a distinctive voice in his head.

“They’re waiting for you.” The fox turned to the side and gestured over the hill.

The wolf touched noses with the fox and walked up the hill. He looked back once. The fox simply waved his snout. Go on. The wolf took the last few steps and looked down the other side of the hill.

There was a wolf pack down there. Their scents hit him right away. Scents he had forgotten. He began to cry.

“Mom! Dad!” His tail wagged so hard he couldn’t keep balance.

“Son!” Two old wolves slowly rose and ran to meet him.

Tails began wagging and the other wolves jumped to their paws and ran up the hill as he ran down to meet them. Brothers. Sisters. Their sons and daughters. Everyone remembered him, and their noses were all over him taking in his life—a life the wolf could no longer understand and they were just as baffled by. They were vaguely aware that his body was malformed and different from theirs, but the scents were right and that was all that mattered.

The wolf sensed himself in the world. His place. Nothing was missing anymore.

This story originally appeared in Different Worlds, Different Skins v.2.


Data?1525209577
James L. Steele

Sci-fi anthro dark stuff