How’s the coffee? Good.
Yeah, I know we’re a few miles out from the clan. That’s okay. It’s a pretty day, it’s a pretty lake. If any animals come here they’ll just be looking for a drink of water. Besides, being away from the rest of them isn’t too bad. The group’s getting too big for its own good. I don’t care what Greg says about staying in groups—he’s only a little older than you are, I’m over twice his age, and with all due respect to the kid I have a pretty good track record at surviving.
He says I’m just a lucky old son-of-a-bitch? Well, he’s right about that, too. Some of the gods definitely seem to like me.
All right. I know Jane’s been regaling you all your life with stories about the good old days. All the books, the magazines she’s carefully saved. I think you have a better idea of what San Francisco looked like forty years ago than you do how to clean a fish.
I’m not gonna horseshit you by saying life is better now, but she’s spent, what, maybe five sentences telling you what happened. And your mom was born afterit happened—Jane was pregnant with you by a couple months.
It began, for me, with a cab fare. You read about taxis, right? Airports? Traffic lights? Okay. No, I don’t think you’re stupid, I just don’t want to have to stop and explain everything. This is long enough without that.
Before that day, I only remembered the strange fares, the weirdos, but now I only remember that last one—a middle-aged woman you wouldn’t have given a second glance to. Five foot three, maybe five foot four, brown hair, cut at shoulder length. Glasses, thin black frames. A business suit.
I’d picked her up just after five in the morning, to get her to the airport—some business flight she had to catch, I’m sure, with the briefcase in one hand and the laptop in the other. Normally I didn’t do night shifts, but that night I was covering for Juan, one of the other drivers. He had a cold, flu, something.
So picture as much of it as you can. There we are just pulling away from the Hyatt, a few blocks away from it, heading to the Expressway. The sun isn’t up yet, so the sky’s dark. You’ve never seen what streetlights look like—it’s like a cold, pale yellow. That’s what all the streets are lit with, bright as twilight, dotted with neon and traffic lights.
The radio’s on. It’s been on. The last news break was talking about fires that had been springing up to the south, traffic tie-ups, unconfirmed reports of bombs, all within the last few minutes. I didn’t listen close.
I’m speeding up. The woman’s not saying anything. Most of them don’t. I’m figuring she’s going to be my second to last fare for the shift, that I’ll get one at the airport, take him wherever he needs to go and I’ll be free to get myself home and collapse into bed.
And then—then what I think is an earthquake starts, or a bomb going off down a cross street ahead of me, and I suddenly wish I’d been paying attention to the radio. There’s shaking, crashes, honking.
A moment later this rabbit barrels across the street, two blocks ahead, running like it has the hounds after it. And it takes me a second to react, because it looks impossible. Rabbits are, you know, little, right? Something darting out in front of you. But this one’s bigger than a goddamn city bus—at least as long as one but a good twenty feet high or more, and it had to have been ripping over the street at sixty or seventy miles an hour.
So I slam on my brakes, just as the rabbit slows down—its hind foot gets out from under it for a second because it’s stepped on a Miata. It kicks the car off, throwing it into a donut shop on the corner, and keeps going, tearing a cloud of rubble out of the street as it gets back to speed.
I turn to say something to the woman as she starts to scream. I don’t know what I was going to say—it sure as hell wasn’t going to be “don’t panic.” But I see she’s not looking to the left after the rabbit, she’s looking up and to the right. And the ground’s not just shaking, it’s pounding.
So I look up, too, and I see what the rabbit’s running from.
I’ve looked up at just about the last moment possible to tell that—another second and all I see is the leg, a furry skyscraper with a pawpad bigger than my taxi dropping toward the street. I shove the gear in reverse and floor it, but by then the paw’s already hammered into the pavement ahead of me—by the time my foot’s on the gas the pad is lifting up and the taxi is, too, just by a couple feet. We land and spin and the woman manages to get a couple more decibels in her scream.
As I get the taxi back under control as it careens backward, the street’s just exploding. I know you’ve seen the grand animals over the years, even been near grand wolves, but being out today is nothing like being at ground zero in a city was. A hind paw smashes down close enough to the taxi that if we weren’t going backward we’d have been flattened. The print shop on the closest corner, across from the donut place, is flying apart toward my taxi because the wolf’s paw grazed its roof. Dozens of horns are blaring, hundreds more on other streets, and people are starting to run down the sidewalks, out of buildings, out of cars they’re just abandoning. I smell smoke, and see there are fires in some of the places where the wolf’s been running. The rabbit’s trying to avoid buildings, but the wolf can just run through most of them—they’re barely ankle high to it.
The woman with the briefcase is curled up in the back seat saying “airport” over and over. Like I’m even going to be able to drive the way we’d been going—the road’s ripped to hell. If I’d been in a Hummer, maybe, but—hm? A big, wide offroad vehicle. Not important.
Debris rains down on the taxi for a second or so. The hood gets dented, the window by the lady cracks, the rear window cracks, but the big pieces miss us. Understand it’s like two or three seconds since the wolf’s gone by—I’m a slow storyteller. All this is happening fast.
I lose another second, maybe, realizing that the pounding I’m feeling is coming from more than one direction—no time to sit and recover, because it ain’t over, it’s just starting. I throw the gearshift to drive, spin the wheel and head back right into stopped traffic, my own horn blaring now. The woman uncurls and starts to protest, readjusting her glasses.
“It’s not a wolf, it’s a wolf pack,” I yell at her. I manage to just miss a Toyota that’s come to a stop in the middle of the road, the driver trying to figure out what the hell to do, and I skid into the right lane and floor it. I know the rabbit and the first wolf are to the right and behind me, but I can see other wolves—at least three—in the distance to the left. They’re way off but closing fast because of the speed. To me watching them run was like watching normal wolves on film with the projector slowed just a little—slightly off, yet they’re still probably making better time than a race car. And they’re heading toward the same place I am, right through buildings, like they want to cut me off.
But they’re not going to pay attention to me when they have food on their scale to chase, right? The rabbit must be running parallel to me, one street over. I’m trying to get the hell out of this nature special and instead I’m driving right into it.
I stand on the brakes as the closest wolf on the left runs in line with the buildings just one block over—the impact of the paws on the ground nearby is enough to shatter most of the windows, even crack walls. The business lady stops screaming a moment as she gets thrown against the seat back in front of her.
Then, sure enough, the rabbit appears, doing the same thing little rabbits do to get away from predators—zigzag around. It was ahead of the car to the right, and all at once it’s coming at the taxi, the first wolf thudding after it and the closest one from the rest of the pack wheeling to close in. The rabbit makes a desperate leap and I realize it’s going to land right where we are.
Everything kind of goes into slow motion for an instant.
I throw the car in reverse.
The business lady opens her door.
The rabbit arcs down.
All at once, the car lurches backward, the lady rolls out onto the pavement, one huge rabbit hind paw comes within a few yards of the hood—
And gets yanked away, as the first wolf’s jaws close on the rabbit’s head. The rabbit squeals deafeningly and kicks, and the car lurches back violently, even though the paw just brushes the taxi.
The woman’s getting to her feet. The suit she’s wearing is torn and she’s lost her glasses. “Get back in!” I yell, but she just stares up as the rabbit gets hauled into the air, past my line of sight through the windshield.
I roll down the passenger side window and look out, seeing both wolf muzzles around the rabbit, high in the air. The sky’s black and smoky, these immense predators are lit only from underneath, red and yellow from the burning fires. It’s a scene from Dante. The animals growl at each other, ripping, and golf ball size blood drops rain down over the taxi, the ground, the woman.
The first wolf—the pack alpha, I guess—yanks back and takes most of the rabbit with it, more blood sprays, and one haunch falls to the ground just four or five yards beyond the hood. The second wolf dips its head and goes after that, and it’s—it’s weirdly fascinating, the teeth bigger than I am. It laps at the blood, and the nose swings close to the taxi.
“Get in!” I yell again. She wails and pulls at the passenger side door, ignoring the open back door she came out of. I curse and reach for the door lock.
And then there’s just a view of teeth and tongue behind her as the wolf licks her up with the blood.
It’s a second, at most. The tongue sweeps up her back, then along my hand as it flicks back into the mouth with her. The brief touch pulls me forward and I grab the seat with my other hand.
And then she’s gone. I hear the swallow.
The wolf starts licking over the taxi, broad sweeps where the blood has landed. I slide down in my seat as the vehicle rocks violently. Another couple seconds and the wolf sniffs at the window, at the still-open door. I can feel the breeze created by the suction and know it’s smelling me.
Then the wolf nudges the car’s side with its nose, what looks like so light a motion, and the taxi flips over. I’m rolled onto the roof, which is on the ground, all the crap in the cabin like coins and old styrofoam cups bouncing off me. All I can hear and feel is the pounding of impossibly huge paws from all directions. I squeeze my eyes shut, hoping a paw will just come down on the car and I’ll die quick instead of being pulled out and eaten alive.
But the pounding goes away.
It’s not much quieter without it. There are screams and sirens all around. I can hear a helicopter getting closer. And there’s the sound of my racing heart over it all.
It seems like hours but I imagine it’s probably a minute at most. I can’t open my door, but I can crawl out the passenger side. The wolves are gone—when I stand up I can see them in the distance, moving slowly. There’s at least six of them.
Some of the sirens are closer. A police car gets around the corner and stalls in rubble, and two officers leap out. One runs toward me, gun drawn.
Then, abruptly, there’s more of the shaking. A last wolf, maybe smaller than the others—like that’s saying a lot—trots over buildings from another direction, right toward me. This wolf’s solid black, and it looks like she’s stepping around the rubble and the stores and crap that’s left standing. Even though it looks a slow gait, the wolf’s nearly on top of me almost as soon as I notice it.
The running cop raises his gun and changes his direction to intersect the wolf. Of course, it’s just looking at the rabbit haunch, you know? Just trotting along. It plants a paw on the other side of the closest building to the cop—I don’t remember what it was, but it was only a couple stories high, a storefront.
So the cop stops by the building like it’s a great cover. The wolf pauses, glancing down at the store, and it politely picks it way around the building. It plants the paw right on the cop as he’s raising his gun. I gape up—it’s obvious the wolf didn’t even notice. It’s still going for the rabbit.
I’m still just gaping, leaning against a tire on the taxi. I’ve about lost it—it’s all I can do to keep from laughing, as terrible as that sounds.
The wolf takes another step, and lowers her nose to the rabbit, sniffing. Meanwhile the other cop barrels up, screaming and firing his gun. He’s obviously lost it, too. He manages to get the wolf’s attention, though. She bares her teeth, swinging her muzzle toward him and growling. And the cop just falls over in a faint. I think he’s wet himself, too.
She lets the growl fade and resumes sniffing at the rabbit, then—and to this day, only God knows why—she lifts her head slightly, turns and looks straight at me. Not just in my direction, but eyes fixed on mine.
When I was a kid, years before that, I’d been to a wildlife center and met some captive wolves. I looked into the eyes of one. If you have any soul, you’ll see intelligence looking back at you. Not like ours—not completely knowable, but not completely alien, either. As a kid I knew that wolf was measuring me, deciding what he thought of me, if my place was above him or below.
I feel that again. But I’m looking into golden eyes bigger than I am this time. My knees get weak after a few seconds and it takes all my will not to fall to my knees. My place definitely isn’t above her.
Then the wolf lifts her head, turns, and dashes after the pack at a full run.
Now I finally have time to think about what’s going on.
Without having lived in a city you can’t understand how incredible this was. We had monster movies, but it took Godzilla a while to trash Tokyo, you know? You figure he’s at least spending a half hour lumbering around pushing over buildings. And that’s all you saw on camera, mostly. But I’m standing there looking around as the sun’s just coming up, and I realize it was way too neat in those movies. Everywhere I look there’s literally a goddamn smoking ruin. Rubble. Broken glass. Crashed cars. * Flattened* cars. Power lines down, traffic lights knocked over, fire hydrants spewing water out all over—it’s like all the utilities were connected and they’ve all blown. It looks like I’m standing in the middle of footage from a war.
And from the time I heard the first wolf to the time the pack omega ran off, it’s been three, four minutes tops.
I reach into the cab and get my cell phone out. For a moment, I’m hopeful. I turn it on and it works. But there’s no service.
So I start walking. I get a few blocks away, and things don’t look much better. I’ve been seeing bodies, injured people—mostly hurt and killed in traffic accidents, not by the wolves.
As I’m walking, there are more and more people joining around me, but all keeping at safe distances, not looking at one another. Half of them don’t look like they’re seeing what’s in front of them at all. There’s the noise of a crowd ahead, finally, and we make our way into it, a throng gathered around police. Paramedics and volunteers are running around trying to bandage people, get them onto blankets. There’s a near-constant buzz of hospital helicopters coming and going, airlifting the seriously hurt.
I try to get an EMS worker to let me call home, but they say their phone lines are down, too, and I’m going to have to wait. Let me tell you, it was a real long wait.
About an hour after I get there, I see a squadron of jet fighters go past high overhead. Some of the crowd cheers, but I’m just thinking, about goddamn time.
It’s afternoon when I get in touch with Jane, and that’s because I see her across a barrier, run to it, and manage to get the cops to let me go past.
She’d driven into town—as close as she could get—that morning, and it’d taken her that long to get near me. It was about a two mile walk back to where she’d been allowed to park.
Now, that’s when I start thinking about how impossible this should be. She didn’t see any of these giant animals, except on the local news before it got cut off, and she thought it was a joke at first. We talk a little on the way home, but only after we’re well past the city, out toward where we lived and things still looked like that had the day before.
When we get home it’s nearly sunset. All of the local TV channels are off the air except one, and it’s showing some stupid sitcom, I don’t remember. Just like nothing insane was going on. So we check CNN. That was a national news network.
They’re showing a piece about giant wolves, but it’s not in our city. It’s in what’s left of Boston. And then it goes to the foxes north of—Biloxi, I think it was. Unconfirmed reports of a giant bobcat somewhere else.
Then it goes to a scientist talking about how it’s all flatly impossible, giving the quick overview. He never gives a direct answer to the reporter pressing him with, “So how is this possible? Just what is going on?”
Your grandmother looks at the screen and says, “Armageddon, I think.”
Things are almost normal that night. The power goes out a couple times, but for less than a minute each time. The water pressure is uneven. I go to bed, but I can’t quite fall asleep—whenever I close my eyes for too long I’m seeing fires and raining blood. I wasn’t a religious person back then, but “Armageddon” sounded pretty much on the mark.
Yeah, there’s some coffee left. Here.
So where was I?
Sometime around four or five in the morning—the clock was blinking because the power had gone off again after we were in bed—I dreamed I heard howling. Then I realized it wasn’t a dream.
I went to the window, opened it, looked out. Nothing. The sound was faint but I couldn’t mistake it for anything else. This is common stuff to you—and to me now—but that’s the first time I’d ever heard wolves howl, normal or grand. I stood there looking out at the night, and wondered how far away the pack is, and what happened to the fighter jets.
The next morning brought an answer, sort of. The jets “engaged” the wolves and chased them, and managed to kill one of the pack and wound three others, at least one seriously. And then they ran out of missiles.
But, they did succeed in driving a half-dozen enormous, terrified wolves right through another populated area. CNN had footage of what’s left. You could actually make out a few pawprints in that mess but it looked even worse than the city did.
CNN’s broadcast became all giant animals, all the time. A constant parade of scientists giving more detailed explanations of why this couldn’t be happening, and some trying to come up with theories as to why it was anyway. Universities and research centers scrambling to put together observation teams. Emergency management guys being grilled about recovery plans and what they’ll do if their city is next. National Guard captains and military commanders giving their defense plans.
Guys from federal Wildlife Services showed up, too, babbling about working with “defense authorities”—from what I can tell, they were the guys who wandered around the west poisoning coyotes and shooting them with machine guns, and they figured they could just move up to surface-to-air missiles or something.
But that’s what nearly everyone thought those first few days.
That afternoon I called the cab company to ask if I should bother coming in, but I didn’t get through. Most of the phone lines into the city were gone.
The second night was quiet, except for the new sound of Guard patrol vehicles rumbling past neighborhood streets. In some ways that was as disturbing as the wolves.
The next morning, footage from Minneapolis was all over the news. There hadn’t been attacks in that area, but the Guard there was on alert. I guess they’d been on alert in all cities. When a wolf pack showed up there, the Guard was ready for them.
The problem was, when the ammo started flying, the wolves didn’t run.
Mind you, CNN didn’t show us that. They reported the attack and showed dramatic but fuzzy pictures of missile tracers going off and wolves in the distance, and they reported that the Guard didn’t completely hold the wolves back and that there were some casualties.
Now, I don’t know who got the home footage out and I don’t know exactly what happened to the Guard. National news networks were showing edits of it by evening, but the local access channel had one of those crackpot conspiracy theorist shows late at night—-and they played a longer edit. It was somebody in the city, starting outside a coffee shop, with one of those little digital cameras. The camera was shaking as the film started, with the camera tilted up, focusing on a wolf trotting—-slowly and deliberately—-through the city.
It was moving slow, off in the distance, going straight down a street, eyes fixed on what was below it. Every few seconds its head dipped down and tossed back, and it threw something into the air. On the third throw I realized it was methodically taking out Jeeps and army trucks. The damn thing had figured out what was shooting at it. The wolf was bleeding from a half-dozen spots, it looked like it had a gash the size of a small canyon in one flank, it was limping—-but there weren’t any more shots being fired at it. The camera couldn’t see the squadron running down the street in front of it, but I bet they were out of heavy weaponry, out of morale, and just about out of time.
Then the camera turned, focusing on a traffic accident right outside the coffee shop. Cars were skidding through the intersection, a bus was slamming on its brakes and trying to pick its way around the mess.
And the camera tilted up as a reddish wolf paw dropped down, crushing a couple of cars like walnut shells. The wolf didn’t care—-it was stalking the bus.
The camera stayed focused on the bus as wolf jaws snapped down to either side of it and pressed. I felt the sounds of metal crunching and glass shattering as its teeth punched through the metal—-I realized it could nearly fit the whole bus in its mouth if it wanted to. The driver opened the door but by then the bus was already in the air and rising.
“It doesn’t think the bus is food, does it?” my wife said, staring at the screen with me.
About five seconds passed by, the wolf growling, looking uncertain. It sounded like static on the camera’s little mike. One person leapt out the door and landed on the ground, fifty or sixty feet below.
The wolf stopped growling and set the bus down, carefully, drawing back, looking between the bus and the guy who’d hit the pavement. Then it raised a paw, put it on the very rear of the bus, and pressed down slowly. Drinks used to come in thin metal cans. It sounded a lot like one of those being crumpled.
People started scrambling, tripping out the bus door, screaming. The wolf lowered its head quickly, blocking the camera’s view. A couple seconds later, it lifted its head, and the passengers who’d escaped were gone.
It looked at the bus from both sides, then pressed the paw down again and crushed a little more of the bus.
“Son of a fucking bitch,” I said. “It’s figured out how to get the food out.”
It took another stamp on the bus before more passengers lost their nerve and broke, maybe hoping they’d get past the wolf’s muzzle. They didn’t. It managed to impale one lady on a lower tooth, and the cameraman—-who must have had balls of steel to stand there watching all this—-zoomed in on her still-kicking form as the wolf tried another paw-stamp on the bus, licking her out of its teeth absently.
Jane screamed and started to cry, and I turned off the TV.
Well. The next morning I got as much in the way of storm supplies as I could. The grocery clerk said they weren’t having a run on anything much; people said the army was being called out, that they figured the president would authorize anything up to and including nuclear weapons. It’d all be finished soon. After the video I knew better, though. The predators were adept at hunting, and we were ten thousand years out of practice at being hunted.
That first month was the ugliest. Some of the grand prey animals—-not just rabbits, but mice, squirrels, even deer—-had decided that cities made great nesting places. The Guard was good at keeping them away, but if they killed them, they ended up with a hundred tons of steaming carrion—-which pretty much guaranteed grand carnivores.
CNN was shifting to being relentlessly upbeat. No nuclear weapons—-pundits explicitly talked about what a stupid idea that was, which relieved me—-but plans for everything from giant traps to poison bait to out-and-out military engagement. Beyond that, they went into grand plans about how they were helping out allies—-we weren’t the only country dealing with the outbreak. And I realized they were treating it as a war. They gave not only every fatality on the animals’ side but detailed the wounds. For casualties on our side, though, they were as vague as they could get away with.
A couple of the local channels were back on and they were even worse on their news snippets, and padded things out with fluff—-and homages to famous entertainers who were suddenly presumed dead. I think in Los Angeles and Hollywood their first experience with grand predators involved ringtail cats. We don’t get them around these parts. By the grand scale’s standard, they’re small, but they’re great hunters, very clever, and just liked screwing with things.
Most nights we heard the wolves in our area. They hit the city again six days after their first appearance. The power was out for three days, the water was out for a week.
When the power came back on, the cable television still worked, but all the local channels were off the air. They never did come back.
After a few days I’d stopped trying to get in touch with the cab company; with no city streets to drive around in, it wasn’t a very high demand talent. Most of the gas stations were rationing gas, anyway, unless you were with the Guard or the military, and you were only allowed to drive in an emergency.
And I mean “allowed”—-things are pretty free now by default, and they were when I was growing up, but they were getting less and less for a while. When the cable came back on I learned that the entire country was in a “state of emergency”—-a nice, polite, American way to say martial law. That’s something else you’ve only read about in books. Feel lucky. Armored personnel carriers rolling through the streets and a curfew was being imposed. Convenience stores and groceries weren’t getting new shipments in regularly. If you were on the street after dark, you risked getting arrested. I was told that in most cities, there were blocks you weren’t allowed to go through unless you lived there or has business there.
I’d been talking with neighbors daily—-something I hadn’t done in the past, but it was about all there was to do if you didn’t want to sit in front of the TV watching panic and tempers rise worldwide. I hadn’t known most of the families in the area beforehand, except by sight. I was kind of the group pessimist, in their eyes, but half of them were of the “we’ll nuke the wolves” mindset and they didn’t want to hear a taxi driver telling them he thought things were already past the point of no return. I did make one permanent friend then, though—-another realist, your godfather, Steve. He’s the one who dubbed that first day “Metamorphosis Day.”
I guess it was less than a week after that when one of the grand ones found our town. It was in late morning—-daylight—-but I recognized the pounding.
Your grandmother stayed inside, but I went out to see if it was coming our way or not. I figured it was another wolf.
But it wasn’t—-it was a coyote. It was leisurely strolling down the street and pawing at houses with a single front foot, delicately scraping off roofs and walls. After each kick it would pause, and sometimes its head would dip down to eat whatever—-whoever—-it revealed. I figured it was probably killing as many people by accident as it was exposing or scaring out, but it only needed enough for a meal..
I ran back in the house. “Get in the shed,” I screamed, grabbing your grandmother’s hand and yanking her after me. She started screaming, too, yelling “What’s going on?” But she followed.
The tool shed I had was a little aluminum structure with a broken door. When we got into it she stared at the coyote and said in a tiny voice, “Are you crazy? It’ll see us!”
I hissed, “If we stay in the house, we’re as good as dead It won’t see us here.” What I was worried about is that it’d smell us, not see us.
About ten seconds later we couldn’t see the coyote, because the house was blocking our view of it. Then we just had a view of a huge brown paw curling over the roof, claws bigger than I am digging into the side of the house—-and we heard a horrendous crack. A couple seconds later a black nose dipped into the rubble, poked around, lifted.
Then the coyote turned its attention to the next house.
Your grandmother started sobbing quietly. I held her until we couldn’t hear or feel the coyote’s footsteps anymore. After that night she stopped talking about what was going on. I don’t mean that I think she’s blocked it out; she’s a fighter in her own way. But her way is just enduring.
Steve’s house was on a different street. We ended up staying with him the rest of that month, recovering what we could from the wreckage of our home.
The power was out again after the coyote went through. We saw the Guard that evening, and the Red Cross, setting up emergency shelters in a neighborhood park. The tents were almost overflowing. It’ll just be temporary, they said. The power will be back in days, we’ll be able to find better shelters, we can get new houses built in no time with charity workers.
“Don’t put all those people in one place,” Steve told the man.
I remember the Guard commander then, too, a reedy little man with glasses. “We’ll be protecting them,” he snapped.
“How’s the war going?” I asked quietly.
He got a pained expression, then said, “It’s going fine. We’re fighting animals, not soldiers.”
My wife and I only had one portable radio and it couldn’t pick up much. One of the AM stations had taken to broadcasting CNN, since there wasn’t any point in running blathering right-wing call-in shows when there weren’t any working phone lines at the studio. The broadcasts sounded as patriotic as they did a few days before, but they were getting grim, the patriotic tone sounding almost sinister. They’d stopped interviewing scientists about possible explanations—-now it was just about how to kill them, or at least drive them off. It was becoming clear that there were thousands of the giants across the continent. The harried government was under seige from inside, everyone accusing everyone else of incompetence, of too-timid responses, of failure to crack down on looting, of not using “national resources” properly.
Steve listened in with us the first night we stayed with him, and afterward he said, “They’re just not getting it. The rules have all changed since Metamorphosis Day.” That was the first time he used the phrase.
“Yeah,” I said. “How do you mean?”
“Scattered around, we’re not going to be that interesting to carnivores the size of mountains. We’re slow and puny—-and really, really tiny. But if you shove a lot of us all together, we’re easy meals.”
“So you think we should all scatter?”
“Every last one of us.”
My wife said, “Metamorphosis Day. When everything changed?”
Steve shook his head, and rubbed his beard with one hand, the way he still does. “I was thinking of the Kafka story,” he said, “where a man turns into an insect. It seems to me that we’ve all done that now.”
Steve was right about not putting everyone in a group. I don’t know what got into the refugee camp two nights later. There weren’t any bodies left and there wasn’t even that much blood. We were learning the new rules the hard way.
We never got power again.
By the end of that first month I don’t think there was a single store open. Most of them had been looted despite the Guard—-hell, some had probably been looted by the Guard.
One of the last things I heard on the radio was, incredibly enough, a football game, n some city that was trying its damndest to pretend life could go on as normal. The sports announcer switched from describing the game to describing the panic when two fox pups climbed into the stadium and started pouncing around. From what I could tell—-the announcer was getting pretty incoherent toward the end—-momma and poppa fox were teaching the kids to hunt.
I think the military was arriving, but one of the pups found the announcer. His last words were “nice doggie.” It was funny until the ripping sounds started.
The following day, CNN signed off the air “indefinitely.”
Well, the rest isn’t much to tell. Your grandmother was pregnant with your mother before all this started, but not so far along that she couldn’t make the trip out to the country. We left the morning after another coyote raid—-I don’t know whether it was the fourth or fifth, but it was pretty clear we didn’t want to stay in that territory. I think it was a caravan, on foot, of nearly a thousand people, bringing everything they needed to and lots of things they shouldn’t. Tents, supplies, books, momentos—-whatever they thought they needed to survive and whatever they thought would remind them of what they were leaving.
We hit an armed checkpoint once. The reedy Guard commander was there, and there were a lot of folks with Army uniforms, big guns and yellow armbands. They ordered us to turn back. Some started to, until I marched up to the Guard commander myself.
“Look me in the eye and tell me the cavalry is on its way, that we’ve turned some corner,” I said. “Tell me what’s going on anywhere else in the country.”
He remained silent. One of the guys with the armband said, “There’s been a coup.”
“And you’re in charge?”
The guy with the armband nodded.
“And now what?” I said. “Tell me what’s left for you to be in charge of. Tell me you guys with the pretty armbands aren’t just hoarding your ammo seeing how long you can pretend there’s still a dividing line between city and wild. Tell me you think you can hold off a fast death under a paw or down a throat the rest of your lives.” Some of the men around him flinched. “And even if you do, look me in the eye and tell me you don’t believe staying here and parading around congratulating yourselves for being in charge means anything other than a slow death by starvation or disease.”
He spat, and looked away.
“Your choice. Waste your bullets by shooting us, let us pass, or join us.” I walked past him with Jane and Steve, and after a couple seconds the crowd started to follow. About half the soldiers did, too, some with still-working trucks and Jeeps.
The size of the group was an obvious horror to Steve. He wanted us to break up into groups and get into forest cover. The group did fragment, but a big chunk stayed together, and I think less of them made it than the rest of us. It’s hard to know what happened to all of them.
I think we probably ended up in a dozen encampments, and we sure hadn’t escaped starvation and disease. We probably had a higher mortality rate as we were trying to figure out what the hell to do now than the first Europenan settlers did.
But we had a few people who knew how to farm, a few people who knew basic medicine. And unlike those first settlers we started out trying to live with the land, not against it. I’m not trying to make us out to be noble about that—-this time around we didn’t have much of an option.
And, again, Steve was right. The grand carnivores may not leave us alone, but we’re not that interesting. Most of the grand herbivores weren’t interested in us to start with, and you know they’re reasonably careful now that we have enough space to exist with them.
So here we are. Hunting the animals on our scale, cultivating what we can, moving season to season. Your mother was born after that life started, and your father was just a kid when we migrated out of the suburbs. Now we’ve made it another generation, and for you these are just stories. You’ll never know most of the things I miss. But you’ll never know most of things I don’t miss, either. The air and water’s probably cleaner than it’s been in a century, the food we have is fresh, and when I was your age I’d never seen a night sky as clear as the one you’ve lived under all your life. They might be small silver linings, but they’re there.
You can still go to what’s left of the city I worked in. It’s a couple days’ hike from here, and there are places the cover isn’t very good, I imagine. I’ve never done it but I know people who have. They say that it’s a lot wilder, in both the good and bad senses. You can live there without automatically being on the wolf dining menu—-but you might find your neighbors are nasty enough you’d rather take your chances with the carnivores.
Oh. That wolf who stared at me. I’ll tell you my secret about her.
A lot of us like to watch the grands from a distance, even though it’s against clan rules—-the rules are a safety precaution, because that distance can get real short in a hurry. But I’ve seen you watch giant deer graze treetops you were too close to, just staring up in awe, so I know you understand what I mean.
The wolves we hear howling a lot are the descendants of that original pack, I think—-I don’t know if there are any original members left. The first spring after Metamorphosis Day, I was walking a few miles from here, at the forest edge, and saw all the wolves but the pack omega walking against the horizon, right at sunset. I was so intent on watching I didn’t hear the omega coming toward me from another direction until she was less than a quarter-mile away.
I backed slowly toward the trees, then froze when I saw her ears move. She changed the angle of her walk slightly, coming right toward me, and I froze, hoping she wasn’t really noticing me—-and that she wasn’t going to step on me by accident.
It’s really difficult to hold still when a pawpad that big seems to be falling right toward you. When it hit the ground the claw was in arms’ reach of me.
I looked straight up, and met her eyes again, and she slowly lowered her head.
I can’t tell you quite what I was thinking then. I was pretty sure I was about to die, but I wasn’t afraid.
Her nose came down to within a few feet of me, and she sniffed. Then she just remained still.
I straightened up very slowly, leaned forward and touched the wolf’s clawtip, then rested both hands on it.
We both stayed still for a while. Then she lifted the paw up slowly—-although the motion still knocked me over—-and she walked away.
I saw her again a few times a year since then for about a decade, and every so often she walked up to me, just like that, and waited for me to touch her paw before leaving. No, I don’t know why. I think she decided I was her pet bug.
About a decade ago, when Steve was just perfecting his wheat beer and we’d probably tested a few batches too many, he said he figured the whole thing came down to the way mankind always thought about nature as something you fight with, beat back, make war on. Man against nature. Over the twentieth century we’d stepped up the battle by a couple orders of magnitude. We could be here another few hours just listing a small part of all the ways we were whomping Mother Nature’s ass. Finally she decided that if we were determined to have a war, we’d get one.
Like I said, I wasn’t religious, but I’ve gotten that way. I think we are back in a time when gods are walking the earth. They’re just not our gods.