It’s still watching; eyes like bullet holes, leaking inner light.
That look feels so familiar. We’re far from our old territory, I can’t let myself think of it as her, but why else would a fox have come to my rescue?
‘Tomoko?’ I ask.
The stare doesn’t flicker, but what did I expect?
I huddle over myself to try and stop the shivering. My hands are turning leaden, my cheeks burning with cold. Why does the night seem more miserable when I’m human? It’s not just the lack of fur, but something psychological, I’m sure of it.
Giving up, I wriggle deeper into the pile of black bags until my back comes up against the wall. Entrenching myself like this is possibly stupid. If they find me I’ll have to run, and fast. But surely they won’t look for me here, in some abandoned alleyway, wherever this is. I’m still hazy about how I’ve ended up here myself.
My thoughts are a flurry of pages, I’m left clutching fragments – Tomoko tiptoeing atop a fence; the yellow-toothed leer of Grandma Wolf; Mr Hughes, his face a furnace; and Buckley . . . Buckley, silent.
The disorientation has lodged in my stomach, almost a physical force. Like on teacup rides as a child, when I’d throw the full weight of my body against the wheel until speed turned the world soluble and its streak found new axis around Mum’s face; her blue eyes, across from mine, squeezed almost shut in sickened laughter.
And still the fox stares.
An unbroken look would have been a challenge from Tomoko but this feels more desperate than threatening. Could it be frightened of them too? It saved me after all. Though just the thought seems insane, let alone any answer to ‘why’.
A lump pushes inside my throat as if with the force of questions. Questions, regrets, pleas. Where did this need to speak come from? I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with such human quirks.
‘Did you come back for me?’
The eyes disappear, reappear – a blink. I lick my raw lips.
‘Blink twice if you understand.’
. . . Nothing.
‘I didn’t want to leave you. You do remember?’
No. Of course not. But I do. That night is seared into me, as indelibly as if I’d tried staring down the sun.
I wake to eyes.
Evening light falls between the floorboards, painting strips of a yellow hide and the tips of alert ears. Tomoko. Her musk mixes with earth and cardboard, grease and old blood – the smells of home.
I nuzzle my snout into my paws but, seeing me stir, Tomoko’s tail beats a greeting from the ground. I take one of her ears between my teeth and nibble until her panting slows. Her blood sugar smells low but the light is still strong; if we leave now we’ll get the best pickings.
I stand and stretch, tail pulling the line of my spine. Tomoko catches the hint and snatches up her doll, shaking it with a killing blow. She found it in a garden when she was still mostly cub; now its hemp hair is all chewed off, the face a haze of stuffing.
As she plays, I consider our options. It’s a Friday evening and good weather balloons inside my ears, perfect for scavenging at the park – burger remains, dropped chips, onion rings secreted in screwed balls of paper. But going to the park means visiting the humans later and the risk of losing an easy meal.
Sawdust drifts down from the floorboards; Tomoko is tossing her doll against the ceiling. At my look, she snatches the doll back up and chucks it over my head. Tomoko would prefer the park – burgers are a favourite of hers – but the gardens are more reliable.
Mind made up, I make towards the exit. Tomoko reaches it ahead of me, squeezing between the bricks in a scrabble of hind legs; she’s growing fast. I hunker flat and worm through after her.
Outside is a swamp of senses; raw nostrils and static, eyes wincing at the light. Then sound separates: the squeal of tyres, chattering children, birds screaming territory. Smells sing of mellow grass, crisp air, the syrupy rot of wood.
‘Evening. All good?’
Buckley. The slow sound of his breath has been inside my head since I woke. I scratch the swelling of a flea bite on my stomach.
‘Eh?’ he adds at my silence.
‘Yeah, fine.’ But greetings are hardly needed, it’s his absences that need announcing, the nights I wake to static on the intercom and the trapped loops of my own thoughts. ‘You?’
‘Good.’ He sips something, the sound pinching in distaste. ‘Though the coffee machine is broken again. This is like drinking burnt toast.’
I’ve used the machine in question a hundred times but right now I can’t even visualise it. Though only a mile from here, our Centre could be another universe.
Crickets trill over the creak of cooling soil, evening peace only disturbed by the meaty sounds of Tomoko chewing on a worm. The lingering of musk tells me that the tom next door trespassed in the day, so I pad across to the crab apple tree and rub my bum against the trunk to renew the scent.
Above, the brown sun sinks in a yellow sky. Tomoko snaps up the last of the worm and follows my look with her ears; she can comprehend this world better than I can – she was born to it, after all.
As I watch, she freezes, ears twisted back in pinpoint, then launches into the thicket. I plunge after. The gossip of grass, ping of skyward grasshopper, then the fence rears and I leap.
Here, concrete; burnt rubber; spilt lemonade, sticky sweet. I lick the residue and patter to the edge of the road. Pause. Sniff. Look left, look right. The tarmac is choked with fumes but a look shows it to be clear. Tomoko tilts her head as I double-check. She knows the ritual but does she understand? I won’t be able to look after her forever.
In the garden opposite we creep into the tall grass to observe the patio. Voices pip through the wall, melody without words, but outside looks clear. I leave Tomoko hidden and cross the paving slabs to where burnt sky pools in glass.
A creature slinks out at my approach. It’s a lean beast, slender snout and pricked ears. The whiskers twitch as I consider it; strange, even now, to think it’s really me.
Glass squeals beneath my paw as I swipe down, once, twice, three times; whip into the safety of undergrowth.
Muffled voices. A chair scraped back over tiles.
They were waiting.
The door rumbles open on to tart tomato, grinding steps. Clink, china on concrete; the creak of straightening knees.
‘Ssh, you’ll frighten the foxes.’
Door snap. An inward breath. I bite Tomoko’s scruff to hold her.
One. Mustn’t trust humans too much.
Two. I know what they can be like.
Three. I was one once—
She breaks away with a bound and the garden fills with the sloppy sounds of her eating. Pasta. We couldn’t have carried this away to cache anyway.
I stand guard as she finishes, peering up at those high moon faces. The smallest condenses as it reaches out; misty haloes spread from the hands flattened to the glass.
The clattering of the dish tells me that Tomoko has finished. I whip on to the fence and into the next garden.
MINE MINE MINE
Cat. Piss graffiti up every surface, a fist to my nose.
I rotate my ears – there, the slurp of tongue on fur at the far end of the garden. My hackles rise but I resist the impulse to look; it will be attending to us as intently as we are to it.
Our ears turn to keep it in focus as we cross the garden; the licking doesn’t stop but I nose Tomoko through the gap in the fence first, just in case.
On the other side, the stench of urine is blanketed by a greasy fog – our meal has already been tossed on the lawn. We’re lucky the cat didn’t get to it first.
In the blinding smell, Tomoko pounces before I’ve even located the meat. Chicken bones; these would be perfect for caching but as Tomoko’s already started I allow myself one too – fatty gristle, melting on tongue, stomach loosening in relief. When human, I forget how quickly hunger becomes the norm.
‘I’ll fill you in as you eat,’ Buckley says. ‘Lauren’s messaged a couple of tasks she’d like wrapped up by the end of the night.’
‘Listening,’ I say, nearly choking on the chicken.
I grunt and continue gnawing. Even though sub-vocalising doesn’t use the mouth, it’s easy to get confused when eating.
‘OK. Well, most important job for tonight is finding a missing male. His tracker malfunctioned so we need you to sniff out which earth he’s denning at. Crystal is standing by with a new chip.’
At the mention of Crystal, I find myself thinking of the rubber and squeak of her Converse, their black fabric stitched with gold dragons that fly past my head with every step. I’ve met her as a human, but when I try to summon a face, all I come up with is the smirk of dragons.
‘One of our males?’ I say.
His pained tone confirms he knows what he asks. Yes, I’ll be able to find the male more easily than the other researchers but humans aren’t attacked for entering another territory.
‘Sorry. But Lauren says it’s a priority. We’ll find a way of distracting Tomoko while you’re working.’
I snort around my mouthful.
‘OK, there’s that. The second task we need to look at is’ – comms stutters as he flicks a pen against his chin, a habit that long ago moved past irritating into comforting – ‘the cub data. Ideally they’ll want to start data analysis of the diet by the end of the week, so it’d be great if we could wrap that up tonight.’
I mumble something that could be taken as agreement and spit out a splinter of bone. In practice he’s just described a night of skulking through enemy territory and sniffing faeces, but it’s all straightforward procedure. As long as I’m careful and Tomoko is safe, everything will be fine.
With my bone finished, I wait for Tomoko to finish hers. The garden is already thickening with shadows and the composted tang of exhaling vegetation. The slurp of the cat’s grooming has stopped, replaced by the grate of claws on wood. I lift my snout to the flight of a passing moth, listen to muslin wing-beats blend into sky.
‘It’s hard to imagine sometimes.’
‘Hmm?’ Buckley says.
‘This job. When I’m out here, it can feel like it’s not, well, real.’
‘Sounds like you’re going native.’
I flinch, despite his teasing tone.
‘The other night, curled in the den, listening to the rain, I thought . . .’
‘I thought, that maybe this is all there is.’
Silence, my hackles rise. Then his voice returns, touched with warmth.
‘That’s not true. I can promise you that.’
I pull my lips into a grin. ‘But maybe I’m imagining you too. Everything I think I know – sub-vocalising, transducers to the auditory cortex – it could be pure fantasy. You could be a crazy voice in my head.’
‘I prefer the term neuroengineer.’
Tomoko’s ears flick at my barked laugh but she doesn’t pause in her crunching; she’s used to my oddities by now. I crouch next to her and feel the warmth of her sharp ribs. It seems impossible that only four months ago she was a stranger, a tiny bundle of fur nestled to her mother’s stomach. My nostrils twitch with the memory of the den’s oily stench, the hot ghost of pigeon on my tongue as I stared at the squirm of cubs. But no vixen likes adults in her birthing den; she flashed teeth and I dropped my offering and ran.
A bone lands in the flower bed, and I look up to see Tomoko gape a toothsome yawn. Time to move on. I lead the way to the allotment carrying the leftovers. Tomoko scampers round in widening circles, tossing a bulb she’s found, but as I start to dig the cache she pauses to watch. Bones deposited, I paddle the earth into a loose mound and dribble pee on the spot. Despite the smell of food, this should trick the rest of the family into thinking that the cache has already been emptied. Buckley’s too kind to comment on the poor scientific practice, he knows how I feel. Whatever the ethics, Tomoko’s still small for her age; I can’t let her starve.
Turning to go, I stop. My hide tingles with the bristling of hair – we’re being watched.
I sniff and listen. Nothing out there I can sense and yet I’m sure of the feeling; it’s been coming over me increasingly often of late. Another fox perhaps? I flare my nostrils again, but having a good nose doesn’t automatically mean I can understand scents. If it is a fox, it’s not one of our family.
Perhaps I’m just imagining things, or perhaps I’m not the only one bent on interloping tonight; although the smell isn’t recognisable from neighbouring scent markers either. It could be homeless; in which case it would be cruel to grudge it our cache. Life without a territory is harsh, not to mention short.
Tomoko squeals as she miscalculates a catch and the bulb hits her on the nose – she’s obviously not noticed anything amiss. I snatch it up so that she follows, nipping my flank, as I make our retreat.
Back on the pavement we trot past towering dustbins, breathing in their maggoty ambrosia, though the stench is too dim for any of the lids to be open. Tomoko finds a plastic bag and guts in to the stench of vinegar. Biting the wrapper brings salted fireworks to my tongue. I work the paper to stodge and snap for more but Tomoko dances out of the way. At my second lunge, she leaps to meet me. A scrabble, then we’re leaping round the flash of each other’s tails, miming bites and batting with paws. A wop on the nose leaves me reeling and she bounds over the fence. By the time I shake my head clear she’s at the other side of the garden, tossing the paper teasingly.
There’s a pause – back at the Centre he will be eyeing the time – he could say no, but instead he laughs.
‘Go on then.’
I jump down, grass liquid beneath my paws. It’s thrilling to just run, to run and run and run.
I was a girl once. Went to school. Did homework on the Tudors and differential equations. Wore stifling grey tights. Grew into a teenager. Left school for a job.
Tomoko blunders through a flowerbed, perfume weighed with manure, the pip of a fleeing mouse.
I was a mouse once. Nibbled the juicy bubbles of berries. Let it go. Let it go.
Next garden, the hard reek of dog. Tomoko dodges within range of its leash, weaving from the snapping jaws, but I can do better.
‘No!’ Buckley says but I’m already thrusting out hind legs—
I was a bird once. Flew over cities, saw the secret patterns of land.
Teeth snap but I’m over the fence and away. Its thinning barks chase us between the houses.
‘One of these days you’re going to get mauled.’
Buckley’s rebuke would be more sincere if he wasn’t laughing. Tomoko whines and sprints down the embankment, across the tarmac, gold beneath the street lights. I race after; grass, pavement, road—
My tail prickles. I turn.
There. Back in the hedge – a shadow, the glint of fur, two staring eyes.
A roar, light erupts, wheels squeal
I am wrong.
Pain. A world of hard angles, so bright it burns. My ears are clogged with quiet, I claw at them, feel soft flesh. And my paws – furless, beige, spotted with blood. I’ve been hit. Fuck!
I wrestle against my snares but hands seize me; the loom of a pale face – human. Oh fuck!
‘Kit . . . Kit!’
Buckley’s voice breaks through my panic and I stop struggling. Just our cubicle. Just Come Home.
‘You’re OK. You’re OK.’ I can feel the jog of his heart through his chest. ‘It was just the fox Ressy. You’re OK.’
‘I was—’ But my voice breaks, I haven’t used this throat in a week.
‘It was a car,’ he explains. ‘The Ressy died almost instantly.’
The car. The crunch of my body hitting the bonnet; a sound that isn’t meant to be heard – not that loud, not that close. And agony – so intense it negated itself, screaming into silence . . . into here.
It all happened so fast that I wonder. Wonder whether these memories can be real. Like standing beside a window as it bursts, fragments dispersed with such speed that it feels that . . . the irruption must not have been of it, but me.
‘Look at me, Kit. Look at me.’ Buckley’s hand is on my cheek, the conviction in his eyes willing me back into the moment, here, with him, and my mind is so claggy, this body so removed, that it takes me a long moment before I shirk the touch, look away, down at the hands in my lap. My hands. Human hands.
I try to stand but Buckley gently pushes me back.
‘Tomoko,’ I say. ‘Tomoko!’
‘Is fine. She was safely across the road.’
‘She’s alone,’ I say.
His face is pained but he isn’t cruel enough to voice what I already know. There’s nothing I can do for her. Not like this.
‘She’ll be fine,’ he says. ‘Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.’
He busies himself with removing my CP cap. My scalp tingles as the probes retreat, followed by the kiss of air. I watch, unmoving, as he untangles me from the snarl of tubes and wires. The JumpPyjamas are spotted with blood – the skin of my left elbow is torn where the fluid drip came out in my panic.
Buckley cringes as he notices, his look darting to the door. The window of our cubicle is a hard square of black.
‘The night nurse will be along soon,’ he says. ‘Let’s get you up.’
With his help, I stumble off the JumpPallet and into his chair. The screens above flash red. ‘Trauma threshold.’ ‘Signal failure.’ ‘Death.’ The visual feed, a snowstorm of static.
‘Buckley . . .’
At his gesture, the screens black out.
‘You’re fine.’ The weight of his look wills me to believe. ‘Listen to me. You’re going to be fine.’
‘Here. Put pressure on this while I get the First Aid.’ He presses my hand against the tissue and ducks beneath his desk. I watch him rummage, trying to blink the fireflies from my eyes. In my ears, the sound of distant sea.
‘The other fox?’ I say.
‘Tomoko is fine. I promise.’
‘No. The other fox.’
‘What other fox?’
‘The one following us.’
His frown deepens.
‘I saw—’ I begin. But what did I see?
He squeezes my foot and ducks back to his search.
I saw . . . a watchful shadow. The flicker of flame. A fox, and yet it almost reminded me of – of what? The thought has already slipped from me.
Buckley emerges with the First Aid, pulls out plaster-tape. When I rub this face I find the touch numbed. He says something, but I can’t find any words in it.
I let the hand on the tissue slip, watch blood trickle free. Red snake over pale skin, coiling in the creases of a palm.
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