Oliver_Hart

A Long Way From Home

Mar 24th, 2020 (edited)
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  1. A Long Way From Home
  2. By Oliver_Hart
  3. Tags: [Heeler] [Blue Heeler] [HMOFA] [Rural] [Sci-Fi]
  4. Summary: A picture is worth a thousand words, and someone’s life.
  5. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  6. >You are Anonymous
  7. >You are a bland featured human, a pretentious college-student that’s the scourge of every parent’s bank account
  8. >You’d like to think you’re here today on some kind of soul-searching journey, Chris McCandles style (minus the dying)
  9. >What with your camera bag, your meager toiletries, and solitary change of clothes
  10. >But really, you’re on a bus, coasting out to the middle of fucking nowhere at 60 miles-per-hour (Speed limit is 75), you’ve got about $36 in cash, your phone is almost out of battery, and the fat lady next to you keeps farting loudly in her sleep
  11. >As the barren landscape slides by, endless cornfield after endless cornfield after endless cornfield, you begin to think that your solo photography trip out into the country was a mistake
  12. >With no planned route, no idea of what you want to photograph, and with the fading sunlight at your back, you hop off at the next stop, bag and all, the idea of calling your parents and taking a bus back home looming large in your mind
  13. >The bus put you right outside a gas station with a small diner attached at the far end, almost like an after-thought
  14. >Signs hint at a town just a few miles down the road
  15. >You walk through the doors and a wall of cool air washes over you
  16. >Feels good man, another hour on that bus and you would have smothered that fat lady to death with her own retarded ‘travel pillow’
  17. >Tired and kind of sore, you shamble weakly towards the diner and plop yourself and your gear down in an empty booth
  18. >You shut your eyes for a bit, just listening to the distant country moan of the in-store radio
  19. >Okay Anonymous, when you open your eyes, you’re going to start thinking of the next step. No more un-planned photographic adventures to bumfuck-nowhere
  20. >Secretly you hope you’ll be back in bed at home, but the shameful hope that this is all a really mundane dream only makes you feel less like a 22-year-old and more like a scared little kid
  21. >You really don’t want to open your eyes. The comforting bliss of darkness is all that’s keeping you from crying like a kid
  22. >Well, here goes nothing
  23. >On 3, okay?
  24. >1
  25. >2
  26.  
  27. >”Can I get you some coffee, or a pillow?”
  28. >Your eyelids peel open
  29. >A waitress, a real fucking movie-ass waitress in a blue uniform with a notepad and all is looking impatiently down at you, her canine eyes half-open
  30. >She’s an older looking Coyote, a little bored, wearing a purple bowtie in her rust-colored fur, like a super-model who had just cat-walked out of Wal-Mart
  31. >You blink a few times
  32. >Thought that waitresses only looked like this in movies?
  33. >”So, should I come back or…?”
  34. “No, no, I think I’m ready to order something to drink,” you stammer, snapping back to reality. “Can I uhhh… have some coffee?”
  35. >She feigns delight. “Sure can. Cream, sugar?”
  36. >You shake your head and smile nervously
  37. >”Just black is fine.”
  38. >She raises a questioning stare at you, as if to ask if you can ‘actually handle black coffee’
  39. >After a few seconds, she swivels on her heels and sashays towards the kitchen
  40. >You can’t help but watch her go, her tail swishing fluidly over her nicely padded butt, made all the more captivating by her hour-glass frame
  41. >She’s kind of sexy, in like, a really trashy, milfy kind of way
  42. >You’re not that kind of photographer, but if she offered, you’d have a hard time saying no
  43. >Ah, speaking of
  44. >You haul your camera out onto the table, hoping to at least take some artsy shots of the diner. It’d suck to come all this way and have nothing to show for it
  45. >Your camera is a cheap one (by camera standards at least), and because you’re fairly stingy, you still only have the kit lens for it
  46. >Which, on reflection, was probably a bad idea, because you have no idea what conditions you want to shoot in
  47. >Okay, take a few shots, check the bus schedule on your (almost) dead phone, and head home
  48.  
  49. >You pop your head out over the booth to get a look around for a good subject
  50. >Your gaze flicks around the cleanly-lit diner, scanning for someone...
  51. >And you come up empty
  52. >Wow, you’re really the only person here right now. That’s an odd feeling
  53. >”You a reporter?”
  54. >The waitress asks in a flat tone as she glares down at you, mug of coffee in hand
  55. >Startled, you shake your head
  56. “No, no. Just a college student out on a road trip, trying to see what I can see, you know?”
  57. >She says nothing and continues to cast silent judgement down on you
  58. >Without a dissatisfied grunt, she sets the coffee down and walks back towards the kitchen
  59. >You wonder what that was about? She seemed awfully pissed off about the camera thing
  60. >You quietly take a sip of coffee, but nearly spray it across the table when the painfully sweet taste of way too much cream and sugar passes your lips
  61. >She put so much in this mug that it’s practically white
  62. >You’re beginning to get the feeling that she doesn’t like you a whole lot
  63. >You snap a quick photo of her sweet, sweet backside as she saunters back over to the kitchen
  64. >The viewfinder renders in glorious HD the pear-shape of her body, dress tight against her frumpy butt, the rust-colored tail protruding just above the slope of her ass
  65. >It feels like you got some semblance of justice, and you still try drinking the shitty cream coffee just because you paid for it
  66. >Fuck you, you sexy milfy coyote lady. Fuck you
  67.  
  68. >After that you spend some time flicking through your photos
  69. >Bored with that, You start taking shots of everything, from artful compositions of the booth you’re in, to shitty blog shots of the “coffee” sitting half-consumed on your table
  70. >You’re so busy spitefully and boldly taking photos of everything, you don’t notice how much time slips away from you
  71. >Or that you’re no longer alone
  72. >”You a reporter from the city?” A voice from behind you causes you to nearly drop your camera (good thing you were wearing the neck strap)
  73. >A blue heeler is peeking over the top of the booth behind you, his light blue eyes curiously watching as you find the words to answer
  74. >You have none, but that’s okay, this kid is leading the conversation like a child steering a racecar
  75. >”Can I see your camera?” He asks, extending a thin arm over the booth
  76. >Well gee, that’s really fucking forward
  77. “Ummmm, no...” you offer in return. “I’m just taking some photos of some stuff before I head back home.”
  78. >”Oh, where you from?” His eyes light up, and a friendly smile widens across his face. “You from the city or something? You out here to write a story about meth?”
  79. >What the hell is up with this kid?
  80. >You tell him that you’re just a college student from the city, out on a photo project
  81. >And you leave out the part about getting cold feet and wanting to go home
  82. >When you’re finished with the explanation, the kid, who tells you his name is Jesse, practically leaps into the chair opposite of you
  83. >He’s… Well, a little too friendly, and it makes you uncomfortable
  84. >He might be trying to rob you, or he might be retarded
  85. >Heelers: friendly, intelligent, high energy, usually find good work out in agriculture due to their heritage and breeding standards
  86. >This guy must not have gotten the intelligence genes his breed is known for
  87. >He’s wearing a heavy flannel buttoned all the way up, some loose and dirty jeans, a pair of work shoes, and he smells like he’s been rolling around the fields for a few days
  88. >He leans eagerly across the table, extending the length of his thin body in order to peek at what you’re do-ing, and if it weren’t for the table separating you two, you’re sure he’d be touching you by now
  89. >You’re assaulted by his seemingly innocuous questions of ‘what’s this, how’s that work, you ever taken photos for magazines before?’ And you do your best to answer all of them, leaving you practically out of breath by the time the waitress comes back over
  90. >This guy is really reminding you of the fact that you’re an introvert
  91.  
  92. >The waitress returns, bearing an appraising scowl, especially when she finds you’ve suddenly gained a meal partner
  93. >”Jesse, you bothering my customers again?” She asks with a cold tone
  94. >The Heeler cocks his head, seemingly confused by the question
  95. >”Naw Lee Anne, my friend here...” he looks at you, suddenly remembering he forgot to ask you your name
  96. “Anon,” you answer, with a tone that says ‘I want to die’
  97. >Jesse completely ignores your verbalized plea for death
  98. >Yep, definitely retarded
  99. >”My friend Anon and I were just catching up over dinner.”
  100. >Wait, hold the fuck up, you didn’t say anything about dinner
  101. >Lee Anne shakes her head with disapproval
  102. >”Not if you ain’t got money this time. You got money darlin’?”
  103. >Jesse smiles
  104. >”Well, yeah, but my friend Ayynon said he was treatin’ me. So can I have a cup of coffee, some eggs n some bacon please? And uhhh, get my buddy Anon here a fresh cup of coffee, he looks like he mighta’ put too much cream into his. Clumsy hands. You know humans.”
  105. >Lee Anne glares daggers at you
  106. >”What a pal, a human buying a meal for Jesse. Ain’t you just so generous?”
  107. >You can’t be sure, but you can almost sense some heavily veiled sarcasm from your waitress
  108. >God you want to fucking die right now
  109. >Lee Anne sighs before sauntering off, muttering something about ‘Making friends with humans is gonna get you shot round’ here hun.’
  110. >The bell above the door chimes, but you pay it no attention
  111. >It’s going to take all of your focus to get through this uncomfortable encounter
  112.  
  113. >As Lee Anne takes her sweet time in putting the order in, Jesse turns back to you and grins, obviously very pleased with the way this whole evening is shaping up
  114. >You’re not grinning, you’re between strangling him and crying from the awkwardness
  115. >But who should you be mad at? The anthro who just invited himself to dinner on your dime, or yourself, for not saying a damn word about it?
  116. >Jesse smiles again, scrunching up his face
  117. >That dopey look with his tongue partly out makes you wanna punch his lights out
  118. >Guess you get to be mad at someone other than yourself for a change
  119. “Hey, that wasn’t cool, dude. I didn’t say I would buy you dinner,” you hiss at him
  120. >The dopey grin dissipates quickly
  121. >”Yeah but you didn’t stop me or say no, so-”
  122. “That’s not the point! The point is you don’t do that shit to people, especially if you don’t even know them!”
  123. >Jesse still looks confused as the words leave your mouth
  124. >Aren’t Heelers supposed to be an intelligent breed?
  125. >The words finally register, and he nods, already ready with an answer for you
  126. >”Well, we got dinner to get to know each other, right? No big deal. Out here mammals is a lot friendlier than you think.”
  127. “Yes big deal,” you sigh. “You get your food and then I’m leaving, okay? I gotta catch a bus back home.”
  128. >The Heeler cocks his head, trying to process your statement
  129. >”Back home? The buses don’t run this time of night out here. You heading west? You’re gonna have to wait at least a few days I bet.”
  130. >Your jaw drops
  131. “Are you fucking me?”
  132. >Jesse, who was taking a sip out of your coffee cup, practically chokes
  133. >”Fuck you? I hardly know you!” He says through sputters, ears flattening back against his skull
  134. >You swear you can almost see a crimson blush in his otherwise dark fur
  135. >“And just what kind of girl do you think I am?”
  136.  
  137. “Wait, what do you mean by that?”
  138. >”You know damn well what I mean. Look, I know I don’t have a lot of money, but if you think I’m doing any of that shit with you just because you bought me dinner, then I hope you’re into pain, college boy!”
  139. >His- You mean, HER hands tighten into fists
  140. >What the fuck is going on? He is a she? Is this crazy bitch about to assault you? Is a tranny about to kill you in some podunk little diner?
  141. >You look at the anthro across the table again, this time really studying hi- HER
  142. >She’s got black and gray fur that reminds you of salt and pepper, soft blue eyes, that are staring daggers at you, but that are alight with small traces of feminine charm and intrigue
  143. >And suddenly you can start to see ‘him’ as a ‘her’
  144. >Her facial features are soft and somewhat rounded (though to be fair you can’t tell most anthros apart), and her arms, when you last remember seeing them, were thin and wiry, either from a lack of nutrition, muscle mass, or both
  145. >Her clothes are NOT doing her any favors. They look two sizes too big, and they’re fucking filthy
  146. >Maybe she’s just really flat?
  147. >But you could maybe start to see her naked underneath
  148. >Your mind starts to wander to what this anthro-dog would look like disrobed
  149. >Hmmm, small pink nubs on her chest where her tits ought to be, boyish, almost stick-thin frame, bright pink slit between her legs-
  150. >You shake the thoughts violently from your head
  151. >Now is not the time to be fantasizing! This bumpkin might stab you! Or claw your face off! Or worse,
  152. >Your dick!
  153. “Shit, no, I didn’t mean...” your voice drops to a whisper, “fucking, like...actual sex… It’s just an expression that we use at school.”
  154. >Her shoulders drop, and she cocks her head a little
  155. >”Wait, you just say that stuff to random people?” She questions, scratching a spot behind her ears. “That’s the most retarded thing I ever heard, and I can’t even go to college.”
  156. “I guess it is,” you reply sheepishly. Now it was your turn to start blushing
  157. >She suppresses a laugh behind her palm
  158. >Yep, definitely a girl
  159. >”Besides, if anyone out here found out I was shacking up with a human, they’d drag us both down to the creek and shoot us like frogs without a second thought.”
  160. >Shoot us like frogs!?
  161. ”Are you fucking me?”
  162. >”Didn’t we just go over this? No, I’m not fucking you!” Her voice echoes in the empty diner, barely compet-ing with the shitty drone of the radio
  163. “No, no, that’s not what I meant!” You slap your head
  164. >You want to find the people who wrote your ‘Human-Anthro Relations' textbook and strangle them
  165. >They were dead wrong about heelers
  166. “What I mean is: are things that… bad out here? Like, humans and anthros still can’t associate?”
  167. >Nodding, She takes another sip of your ‘coffee’
  168. >”I suppose so. It depends on where you are and what kinda skin you’re wearing. There’s towns out here where I wouldn’t dare visit, and there’s towns where you wouldn’t visit had you known’ little better. And then there’s places like Meeker, that are just… in between. This here is one of those towns where you’re probably better off not visiting, if I do say so myself.”
  169. “What do you mean by ‘in between?’”
  170. >Jesse nods and tilts your ‘coffee’ mug towards you
  171. >”You think that Lee Anne accidentally put too much cream in your coffee? Naw, she did that on purpose, and she’d probably do much worse if she didn’t think you had money.”
  172. >Which reminds you: You really don’t have any money
  173. >You open your mouth to tell her that you probably won’t be able to afford a bus ticket AND her meal, but she’s not listening
  174. >She rests her chin on her palm and stares off into the empty diner
  175. >”Things aren’t like your fancy college out here. People aren’t as kind, and nobody’s tip-toeing around no-body. Kindness is as rare as the rain these days. It’s easy to get lonely out here. Been dreamin’ of leavin’, but I know I’d never make it outside of this lil’ shitheap.”
  176. >You look around the diner, half expecting a pack of feral anthros to bust through the door and beat the piss out of you for not having fur
  177. >Christ, what kind of mess did you get yourself into? This isn’t exactly Deliverance shit, but you’re starting to feel like you’re way out of your element
  178. >You lean across the table, as close as you can get to her
  179. “Psst, is it true about the busses this time of night?”
  180. >She nods slowly
  181. >”Yeah, you’re stuck here until at least tomorrow, and it feels like it’s getting late,” she remarks, picking up your ‘coffee’ again and downing the last of it
  182. >You silently cringe as you watch it go down her gullet
  183. >Good god that must have be like drinking pure syrup
  184. >”Hope that food gets here soon, could use a good bite to eat,” she says as she digs her tongue into what’s left of the mug
  185. >”And some coffee. I need a pick-me-up.”
  186.  
  187. >As if on cue, your favorite trailer slut waitress appears, a plate of food and two mugs of coffee at the ready
  188. >Jesse hardly waits until Lee Anne is done setting the food down before practically stuffing her face
  189. >”Christ hun, at least let me put the plate down first,” Lee Anne groans. “When’s the last time you ate?”
  190. >Jesse looks up towards Lee Anne, her cheeks bulging, egg yolk running down her chin
  191. >She swallows hard (nice) and holds up two fingers
  192. >Lee Anne’s face twists up with disgust
  193. >”Ain’t your tweaker momma feeding you? Or she spending all that government cheese on more crank?”
  194. >Jesse stops her ravenous assault on the plate and stares down at the table
  195. >Oooh boy this is getting awkward
  196. >You want to say something, but you’re not sure what you could say in this instance
  197. >A look of confusion and hurt plays out across her usually cheerful and excitable face
  198. >The Heeler says nothing, just stares down at the table
  199. >Lee Anne clears her throat, and you open your mouth to call her a fucking bitch, but she’s too quick, and you’re too beta
  200. >”Well, if you ever need anything else to eat, try to bring another human by, maybe he’ll cover your meal too,” She smirks at you and hands you the check. ”Here Mr. Moneybags, bring that up when you’re ready or when she’s taken you for another ride.”
  201. >And with that crushing performance, the coyote spins on her heels and saunters off, a very proud and caustic grin spreading across her rust colored fur
  202. >You don’t know what to say, or what you could say
  203. >Jesse just sits there, looking hurt
  204. >You sit there in stunned silence, feeling conflicted
  205. >On one hand, that felt completely uncalled for on Lee Anne’s part, and on the other hand, you wonder if you’ve just been taken for a ride, as if this is something Jesse does all the time
  206. >You check the bill
  207. >$24, so basically you can’t afford to get back home if you pay this
  208. >Fucking hell
  209. >Your start to say something, but Jesse grabs you by the hand and drags you out of the diner
  210. >You try to say something when she drags you round back to where the dumpsters are, but as you open your mouth she clumsily shoves her tongue in
  211. >For a solid 15 seconds there’s this confusing silence where you, profoundly awkward, and her, profoundly inexperienced, tongue wrestle
  212. >It feels like you’re having a breathing contest, seeing who can go the longest without opening their eyes
  213. >You don’t know where to put your hands either, and neither does she, so you two basically just stand there like weird statues, trying to imitate what you think making out is supposed to be like
  214. >Do you…
  215. >Do you grab her butt or something? How does this work?
  216. >You’re about to make a move, but she pulls away quickly, leaving you breathless
  217. >She quickly wipes a trail of spit from her lips, her face bright red with heat
  218. >She clenches her eyes shut, sending tears rolling down her cheeks
  219. >”T-That’s for dinner, and… and whatever else you want, because I owe you, and…”
  220. >She’s trembling, and you’re not sure if it’s from embarrassment, sadness, or adrenaline considering she just forced herself on you
  221. >Maybe it’s all three?
  222. >”And I- I ain’t some kind of whore or anything, but I o-owe you for dinner tonight, and for being so k-kind...”
  223. >You can tell that she’s trying very hard to hold back tears, given that she pretty much won’t look you in the eyes
  224. >”We can go back to my place, or… wherever… My mom won’t care nothing, or about who I bring home,” she says, trying to wear a brave smile. “Besides, I swear I ain’t using you. I ain’t that type’a gal.”
  225. >Another moment of indecision
  226. >You realistically could say yes, because you haven’t gotten laid in like two years, and the last time was an awkward drunken hookup at a party you didn’t want to be at
  227. >And she tasted like vomit
  228. >But this feels almost wrong
  229. >And her on the verge of crying doesn’t help
  230. >You’ve never been great with women, so you just blurt the first thing that comes to mind
  231. “I want to go home.”
  232.  
  233. >She ends up fully sobbing, and whispers something about how she wants to go home too, but you’re too paralyzed with the feels to actually say something comforting
  234. >Does ‘there there’ even comfort anyone?
  235. >Before you can actually do or say anything, she gently presses her head into your chest and grabs you by your shirt collar
  236. >For the first time in what you imagine is a few years, you imagine, she allows herself to sob
  237. >You go for a hug, but settle for a hover hand
  238. >Jesus fuck why are you like this?
  239. >”I’m sorry,” she chokes out, unaware of your awkward attempt at comforting her
  240. >”I’m sorry for kissing you, and for using you, and for...”
  241. >This time you actually just hug her, because you honestly can’t stand to hear her like this anymore
  242. >You can feel a metaphorical pair of testicles drop into your literal sack
  243. >She hushes up, and you let her sob silently into your ratty old college shirt
  244.  
  245. >A few minutes pass, and when she’s finally done, she blows her nose on the collar of her old shirt
  246. >Eww
  247. >She buttons up her crusty denim jacket and steps back, trying not to look you in the eyes
  248. >”S-Sorry bout that,” she stammers
  249. >You tell her it’s okay. Not the first time an anthro dog has cried into your shirt
  250. >”Wait, are you kidding?” She slaps her head in disbelief. “In all the hurry I forgot to ask if you even had a girlfriend.”
  251. >”Or a boyfriend?” She says cautiously, “I don’t judge much. If you can’t tell, I’m not really in a position to be judging others.”
  252. “No, no,” you smile and shake your head. “I’m single as hell, and probably will be for the rest of my days.”
  253. >”You ‘n me both, Anon. You ‘n me both,” she sighs, rubbing her palm on the back of her neck
  254. >You can still feel the tension of what just happened between you two, but it feels somewhat dissipated by now
  255. >The moon is already well into the night sky, and with the crickets chirping a summer symphony, you decide that it’s at least 8 or 9 p.m.
  256. >Jesse notices too, and stifles a yawn
  257. >”Normally I don’t do this, but since I made you miss your bus home, would you like to stay the night with me?”
  258.  
  259. >Come home? With her?
  260. >Stay the night at a strange anthro woman’s ‘home’?
  261. >What could go wrong
  262. >No, fuck this, you’re going to see if you can sleep in the diner and wait for the next bus
  263. >You open your mouth to issue your declaration of independence, but the roar of an engine clips your speech
  264. >A pair of headlights open up on you, outlining your shapes in gold
  265. >Pressed against the dumpster, Jesse blocking the source of the light with her back, you can only see two thin shadows piling out of a shitbeater truck
  266. >Digitride feet
  267. >Heaving tails
  268. >Broad shoulders
  269. >Ears like black knives standing atop predatory skulls
  270. >These aren’t just anthros
  271. >They’re carnivores
  272. >You open your mouth to say something to Jesse
  273. >There’s a heavy crack that pounds off the diner’s back walls, like lightning striking on a clear day
  274. >Gunfire
  275. >Jesse gasps, squeals, and then tumbles forward, crashing into you
  276. >You manage to catch her in your arms
  277. >…
  278. >Holy shit
  279.  
  280. >”The bitch blocked my shot!” A deep voice groans
  281. >”Best body armor he’s ever had,” another voice adds with a hateful chuckle
  282. >You’re frozen
  283. >Jesse isn’t moving
  284. >This isn’t real
  285. >And there’s blood leaking out of her ratty flannel
  286. >And her tail is flat and limp
  287. >And this can’t be real
  288.  
  289. >How does someone die so quickly and so senselessly?
  290.  
  291. >”Knew we’d find Jesse hanging around the human.”
  292. >A coyote wearing light jeans, a dark red flannel and sporting a trucker’s hat steps into the light
  293. >Judging by the set of his shoulders, his height, and the youthful snarl etched into his pubescent face, he’s still a teenager, maybe just barely older than a pup
  294. >You imagine that if he were human he’d be sporting a fresh crop of acne
  295. >”Smelled your scent from a mile away, pinkie.” He narrows a scowl at you
  296. >He’s got a heavy wrench dangling from his right hand
  297. >A similarly young crocodile trundles into the light, cradling a double barrel shotgun
  298. >You swear your heart is going to leap out of your chest
  299. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!” You scream at them
  300. >You don’t know — the noise just exploded out of you
  301. >The anthros flinch at your voice, their sensitive hearing spiking
  302. >There’s a puddle of blood collecting beneath Jesse
  303. >She’s starts to feel heavy in your arms — like a bag loaded with buckshot
  304. >But you don’t want to let go
  305. >You can’t let go
  306. >You barely know this person and yet… you feel tied to her
  307. >At the very least, she saved your life
  308. >The croc cracks the barrel in half
  309. >A spent red shell jumps out into the air
  310. >You watch it arc in the headlights and crash onto the ground
  311. >”We’re just having some fun is all-“
  312. “FUN!?” You fire back. “You just killed her! What’s your idea of fun!?”
  313. >The two predators narrow their eyes on Jesse’s limp body
  314. >Her muzzle rests on your shoulder, and her blood is starting to get on your own shirt
  315. >”Ain’t nobody gonna miss her. Plenty a' heelers round these parts” The coyote says with finality and not a hint of remorse
  316. “Fuck you, she had a family,” you say, choking back tears
  317. >”Barely,” the croc adds. “Shane’s right. Ain’t nobody going to miss her. Her mamma’s probably OD’d by now anyway.”
  318. >”She don’t do nothin' round here ‘cept cheat and steal from people. We’re doing the town a favor.” ‘Shane’ the Coyote says. He spits into the dirt and stamps it out with the heel of his ratty tennis shoes
  319. >The two predators take a step forward
  320. >The crocodile, Bill, sets the barrel of his shotgun against his shoulder and aims down at you
  321. >His narrow maw curls into a smile
  322. >”You got five seconds to drop her and make this easy on yourself.”
  323. “Fuck you!” you sputter. “This is murder, don’t you care?!”
  324. >Okay, this time your actually crying
  325. >And why shouldn’t you be?
  326. >You never thought you’d go like this
  327. >You hold Jesse even tighter in protest
  328. >The coyote inches forward
  329. >”Nobody’s gonna care about a little human gone missing. Not in this town. You and Jesse’s all the same — trash that someone’s gotta take out.”
  330. >Big talk from two murderers
  331. >The coyote thumps his wrench into his palms as a show of force
  332. >”Mister either you let Bill take care of you, or I’m going to handle you with my wrench here. Now you got FOUR FUCKING SECONDS to drop the heeler and take it like a man.”
  333.  
  334. >A shotgun blast to the head is peaceful in its own way, you guess
  335. >It’s one millisecond of agony, and then darkness
  336. >Not so bad, right?
  337. >You feel your grip on Jesse loosening
  338. >And you’re about to drop her weight, when you hear her say, weakly, with a throat full of blood:
  339. >”Go. Run.”
  340.  
  341. >You drop Jesse into a puddle of her own blood
  342. >You don’t need any further instruction
  343. >Satisfied, Bill takes aim at you
  344.  
  345. >You swing your camera out of the bag right as Bill’s scaly fingers tense around the trigger
  346. >You hope to fucking God this works
  347. >You press down on the shutter
  348. >Anthros have sensitive eyes, right?
  349. >There’s a white flash from your camera, a blinding, digital explosion
  350. >And, right then and there, you duck, and roll to the side
  351. >The shotgun barks
  352. >The brickwork of the diner explodes above you, riddled with spray
  353. >And when the light fades, you hit the dirt, feet pounding, heart hammering, excess adrenaline surging in your veins
  354. >You set your sights on hiding in the tall cornfields, just a few feet from the diner
  355. >A quick check over your shoulders shows that Bill and Shane are stumbling about, half-blind, pinching their blinded eyes with their forefingers
  356.  
  357. >Did it work?
  358. >Did you get away?
  359. >Another shotgun blast
  360. >Did he reload that fast?
  361. >You feel something sting the back of your legs
  362. >Then that stinging pain becomes a fierce, gripping agony
  363. >You stumble, trip, and are down for the count
  364. >When you look down at your leg, outlined in silver by the light of the moon, it’s pretty much shredded to shit and geysering blood
  365. >Shit
  366. >You fumble for your camera again when you see the wrench-wielding coyote bounding towards you
  367. >He leaps into the air with one powerful pulse of his legs
  368. >Shane brings the wrench over his head
  369. >Maybe you can-
  370. >He lands on your chest
  371. >And brings the wrench down on skull, shattering bone and-
  372.  
  373. >”Can I get you some coffee, or a pillow?”
  374. >Your eyelids peel open
  375. >A waitress, a real fucking movie-ass waitress in a blue uniform with a notepad and all is looking impatiently down at you, her canine eyes half-open
  376. >She’s an older looking Coyote, a little bored, wearing a purple bow tie in her rust-colored fur, like a super-model who had just cat-walked out of Wal-Mart
  377. >You blink a few times
  378. >Thought that waitresses only looked like this in movies?
  379. >”So, should I come back or…?”
  380.  
  381. >What the fuck
  382.  
  383. >”You a reporter?” She asks, eyes narrowing. “Because we don’t have need of a reporter in our town.”
  384. >Seconds ago you were getting your brain evicted from your skull outside the diner
  385. >And now you’re here, back in the diner
  386. >And it’s day time now
  387. >But how
  388. >Was it all a dream?
  389. >It’s starting to fade in your grainy imagination, wiping back to a clean slate, a constant running theater of incessant bullshit and noise
  390. >That memory — that dream — is drowning in the sudden sensory overload of this diner
  391. >The chimey radio
  392. >The smell of coffee and the acrid stench of stale cigarettes
  393. >The coyote waitress who clearly wants nothing to do with you
  394. >The feeling that you’re being watched and appraised
  395. >Think, you motherfucker!
  396. >Grab hold of a memory like a comet’s tail and hold on
  397. >You’d have an easier time holding smoke
  398. >You can only remember a few things: This girl named Jesse, and these two carnivores, and she…
  399. >You look up with a blank stare, mouth working but no sound coming out
  400. >”Alright, I’ll just bring some coffee back.” The waitress spins on her heels and starts walking back towards the kitchen, every footstep like glass shattering against the (relative) quiet of the diner
  401. >SHIT
  402. >You lost it
  403. >You were so close to retrieving that memory-dream-thing
  404. >Well, whatever. It was probably just a dream, anyway
  405. >You remember once when you woke up from a nightmare where you swallowed your tongue
  406. >The first thing you did was jam your hand in your mouth and try to keep it from slipping down your throat
  407. >Of course, you ignored your very obvious REAL tongue, at the time, fat and in the way
  408. >This was life or death
  409. >The point is: these types of dreams happen
  410. >They can feel real, but… they just aren’t
  411. >This is one of those dreams
  412.  
  413. >You pull out your camera and start poking through the pictures, none of them catch your interest
  414. >Mostly just shots of campus, some pictures you took from the bus window
  415. >Just gotta occupy yourself until the waitress comes back, because when she parks her plump, anthro butt right in front of you, you’re going to order some food
  416. >You need some right about now with how heavy your body feels
  417. >And when she leaves, you’re going to take a picture of her FAT ass
  418. >…
  419. >What? Nobody ever said you had good taste
  420. >Creepy, too, but you consider it revenge for her acting like a bitch
  421.  
  422. >As if on cue, the waitress reappears with a steaming ceramic mug of coffee and a lording, venomous smile
  423. >”Here ya’ go, hun. This’ll wake you right up.”
  424. >When she sets the coffee down your enthusiasm deflates
  425. >It’s loaded with so much cream and sugar that it’s practically white
  426. >She slaps her hands on her hips
  427. >”Anything else I can get you, Mr. News Man?”
  428. >With the way she cocks her head, you’re certain that there’s more than just cream and sugar in this coffee
  429. >You paint on a wide smile and thank her
  430. “No, I think I’m okay.”
  431. >”Good!” She brightens her tone to a high shine. “I’ll be back in a bit to grab your order.”
  432. “Great, thanks.” You sink in your chair
  433.  
  434. >You flick through your camera’s LCD screen and ready a shot
  435. >And then you pause on something
  436. >The waitress is on the screen
  437. >You blush
  438. >Well it’s not specifically her
  439. >It’s a shot of her sauntering away from your table, her fat ass on full-display
  440. >But the thing is
  441. >You just met the waitress
  442. >You don’t remember taking this shot
  443. >Is it cliché to say that ‘ideas start as small seeds buried in the mind’?
  444. >The bell over the door chimes a happy little sound, like the tiniest of hammers banging on a silver sheet of metal
  445. >You hear the waitress brighten her tone again. “Hey you two, need a table?”
  446. >You poke your head above the dividers between tables
  447. >A crocodile and coyote — both of them juvenile and covered in dirt/dust — saunter through the door
  448. >The coyote locks eyes with you for a steady second
  449. >It makes you feel uncomfortable, but you can’t place why
  450. >Still, you drop your body into your seat, camera strapped around your neck
  451. >You try to ignore the collision of neurons in your brain
  452.  
  453. >”You a reporter from the city?” A voice from behind you causes you to nearly drop your camera (good thing you were wearing the neck strap)
  454. >A Blue Heeler is peeking over the top of the booth behind you, her (and she is most definitely a woman, not a man) light blue eyes curiously watching as you find the words to answer
  455. >You have none, but that’s okay, this kid is leading the conversation like a child steering a race car
  456. >”Can I see your camera?” She asks, extending a thin arm over the booth
  457. >Well gee, that’s really fucking forward
  458. “Ummmm, no...” you offer in return. “I’m just taking some photos of some stuff before I head back home.”
  459. >”Oh, where you from?” Her eyes light up, and a friendly smile widens across her face. “You from the city or something? You out here to write a story about the meth?”
  460. >What the hell is up with this kid?
  461. >You tell her you’re just a college student from the city, out on a solo photo project
  462. >And you leave out the part about getting cold feet and wanting to go home, because that’s not intrepid
  463. >When you’re finished with the explanation, the kid, who tells you her name is Jesse, practically leaps into the chair opposite of you
  464. >You introduce yourself as Anon
  465. >She’s… Well, a little too friendly, and it makes you uncomfortable
  466. >She might be trying to rob you, or she might be retarded
  467. >Heelers: friendly, intelligent, high energy, usually find good work out in agriculture due to their heritage and breeding standards
  468. >She must not have gotten the intelligence genes the breed is known for
  469. >She’s wearing a heavy flannel buttoned all the way up, some loose and dirty jeans, a pair of work shoes, and she smells like she’s been rolling around the fields for a few days, so she definitely is doing some kind of manual labor
  470. >She leans eagerly across the table, extending the length of her thin body in order to peek at what you’re doing, and if it weren’t for the table separating you two, you’re sure she’d be touching you by now
  471. >You’re assaulted by her seemingly innocuous questions of ‘what’s this, how’s that work, you ever taken photos for magazines before?’ And you do your best to answer all of them, leaving you practically out of breath by the time she finishes up grilling you
  472. >This girl is really reminding you of the fact that you’re an introvert
  473. >”You know, I really want to go visit the city someday. Maybe I’ll visit your school,” she says, kind of absentmindedly
  474. >”I need to put some miles between me and this shitty little town, and I always wanted to be on a college campus.”
  475. “I’m sure you do. People here are kind of… rude?” You probe
  476. >”Only just to outsiders, humans especially,” Jesse says. She looks around briefly for theatrical effect, and then leans in close, narrowing her shoulders
  477. >”You picked the wrong town to stop off in,” she says in a whisper. “I’m tellin’ you this cause you seem like alright guy. You need to leave here as soon as possible.”
  478. “What are you talking about?”
  479. >And right at that perfect moment, that croc and coyote wander up to the table
  480. >”Jesse.” The crocodile’s voice is heavy with abuse. “You making new friends?” He raises an eyebrow. “Human friends?”
  481. >The coyote eyes you up and down, his cold, appraising eyes causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up. “What’s with the camera? He a reporter?”
  482. >”No, he ain’t a reporter. He’s just a-“ she turns to you
  483. >You feel her kick you underneath the table
  484. >Her powerful boots collide off your shin bone
  485. >You nearly yelp
  486. >”What’re you here for again?” She says with a modicum of urgency
  487. >You start to speak, but the look that Jesse gives you tells you that you need to choose your next words carefully
  488. “I’m a college student. From Fairmount?” You toss out your college like bait, hoping one of them will bite and this conversation will turn to pleasant, intellectual things
  489. >Which is obviously never going to happen
  490. >Why do they seem so familiar though?
  491. >Something about them makes your heart start to race
  492. >You desperately want to leave the diner
  493. >But why?
  494. >Fragments of that dream start to come back to you, but the tense silence is cut by the crocodile
  495. >”Sure you are, friend. We get lots of ‘college students’ out here in the sticks,” he says, leaning in close
  496. >There’s something strange about both of their eyes
  497. >Their dark pupils are outlined in blood
  498. >They look like they’ve been awake for days
  499. >The coyote’s rust-colored fur is completely tossed and unkempt
  500. >There’s even white powder sticking to it
  501. >The croc on the other hand has a white foam accumulating around his jaws, a sign of exhaustion in reptiles
  502. >They make even Jesse seem clean by comparison
  503. >At least her salt-and-pepper fur is brushed and her coat is shiny
  504.  
  505. >The pair don’t seem to care much about you
  506. >Instead they focus their attention all on Jesse
  507. >”Looking for another handout, Jesse?” The coyote says
  508. >The heeler shakes her head
  509. >”Nope, just making friends with someone. Says he’s skipping out tonight, so I figured I’d get to know our guest over a cup of coffee.”
  510. >She kicks you again under the table
  511. >You notice that her ears are plastered against her skull
  512. >”Says he’s skipping out tonight. Ain’t that right?” She repeats in no uncertain words
  513. >You nod for all you’re worth
  514. >Good work, that might have been the least natural thing you’ve ever done
  515. >No way they believed that
  516. >The crocodile gives you a devil’s grin
  517. >”We’ll be seeing you,” he says, before pacing off. “Have a safe trip home.”
  518. >The coyote lags behind
  519. >”Jesse,” he says
  520. >The heeler paints on a winning smile and even goes as far as tipping her head. ”Can I help you, hun?”
  521. >”Come see us later tonight.”
  522. >The smile never leaves her face
  523. >”Can I come see you some other time? How about tomorrow morning? Over bacon?”
  524. >”Tonight.” The coyote says, his voice firm, leaving no room for further bargaining
  525. >For a pup he sure puts on quite a show
  526. >He joins his partner on the other end of the diner, tail swishing aggressively behind him
  527.  
  528. >You switch focus to your camera
  529. >It’s a total crapshoot, but you think you remember why these guys creep you out so much
  530. >You flick through photos
  531. >Jesse scoots to your side of the booth, unconsciously crowding you into the corner
  532. >Her thin, rounded shoulder bumps into yours, and you can feel the heat her tight body is throwing off
  533. >It’s… a lot
  534. >She must sweat a ton
  535. >Or she’s really nervous
  536. >”You sure take a lot of pictures,” she remarks, clearly no longer worried about the two anthros who are just tucking in to their dinners. ”You should take one of me, I ain’t never had a proper picture taken of me.”
  537. “Shhhh, I’m looking for a specific on-“
  538. >And there it is
  539. >The last one in the camera roll
  540. >A night shot
  541. >An anthro crocodile one-handing a shotgun
  542. >A ratty looking coyote with a wrench, trying to block the camera’s flash from his sensitive eyes
  543. >Their pickup truck in the background
  544. >And at the bottom of the picture?
  545. >Jesse’s body in a blood heap
  546.  
  547. >Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space
  548.  
  549. >Of all the pictures you don’t remember taking, this one is the most damning
  550. >Dream or not, this one is… fucked
  551. >Jesse’s breathing turns hard and heavy
  552. >Her blue eyes widen as her ears droop like leaden folds
  553. >”W-Where did you get this?” She asks
  554. >…
  555. “I just… I don’t know.”
  556. >”Anon what the FUCK is this?” She’s shaking now, scooting out of the seat. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
  557. >Your free hand shoots out and clasps onto her wrist
  558. >She struggles
  559. >”Let go of me you fucking weirdo!”
  560. >You instinctively tighten your grip
  561. >Sure, not suspicious at all, right?
  562. >Your eyes meet for a quick second
  563. >You communicate all that you cannot in words with a quick glance over your shoulder…
  564. >…At the two anthros — the croc and the coyote — who are now staring over at your table
  565. >She sneaks her own glance, and then one back at you
  566. >You can physically see the internal monologue going on in her head
  567. >The play of words between the heartbeat and the synapse
  568. >And, thankfully, she elects to sit back down in your booth
  569. >You release your grip on her wrist
  570. >…
  571. >Why did you do that?
  572. >What did you get yourself involved?
  573. >What happens in that ‘dream’ that you’re so scared of?
  574.  
  575. >”Ya better have a good fucking explanation for what that is.” She jabs the camera with a clawed finger
  576. >The ‘dream’ is starting to crystallize
  577. >Pieces coming together, like the torn remnants of a photograph of some unhappy moment forever immortalized in digital and kinetic space
  578. ”I don’t have one,” you reply, trying to keep your voice a low hiss
  579. >”I don’t know much ‘bout photos. I know I’m a dumb hick from nowherseville. But that don’t give you the right to just… make creepy photos of me, okay?”
  580. “Think about it Jesse — I just met you. There’s no possible way I could have made this up. And look, it’s night in the photo!”
  581. >You point out the details on your LCD screen
  582. >Jesse, still struggling, purses her lips and furrows her brow
  583. >There’s a slight pause
  584. >You hear the sound of forks and knives playing off a nearly empty plate
  585. >The tinkling sound of ice in a glass, like bones rattling together
  586. >Whatever happened in that ‘dream’ it ended with you and Jesse dying
  587. >And those two predators now nearly finished with their meals?
  588. >They were the ones who killed you both
  589. >”So now what in the hell am I supposed to do? Are you saying this isn’t something you made up?”
  590. >That’s a good point
  591. >What ARE you supposed to do now that your dream is starting to bleed into reality?
  592. >You don’t have a plan
  593. >But you do have a choice:
  594. >Fight?
  595. >or flight?
  596. >You look down at the untouched coffee cup, isolated on the table
  597. >It’s so loaded with cream and sugar that it’s pale
  598.  
  599. >Flight
  600.  
  601. >You know what you’re going to do?
  602. >Put a million fucking miles between yourself and this hick town
  603. >And especially between you and this dumb heeler
  604. >TONIGHT
  605. >Let the chips fall where they may
  606. >This ain’t about you
  607. >Whatever’s going to happen will have to happen to Jesse and Jesse alone
  608. >But how do you get out of here without a car?
  609. >You hop out of the booth, bags slung over your shoulder
  610. >Jesse follows quick behind you
  611. >Shit, gotta ditch her FAST
  612. >The sun is starting to go down, draining golden light out through the diner’s windows
  613. >…
  614. >Windows
  615. >An idea rattles around in your brain, having to do with windows and your escape
  616.  
  617. >”You never answered me and- hey! Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
  618. >She’s quick behind you, following in your footsteps
  619. >”You ain’t even paid for that coffee yet.”
  620. “I’m just going to bathroom,” you say in a rushed breath
  621. >”Bathroom? Mister this ain’t the time to go listenin’ to your bladder. I wanna see that photo again.”
  622. >FUCK, why is she still behind you?
  623. >You walk into the gas station portion of the diner and scan for the bathroom
  624. >The plan is simple: go to the john. If there’s a window, climb out of it and see if you can hitch a ride back to town
  625. >If there’s not a window, just take a piss, come out, reevaluate
  626. >A blue sign above the doors lets you know there is indeed a restroom at this gas station
  627. “Seriously, I’ll let you take a look after I’m done, okay? I just wanna go pee.”
  628. >”Fine! Go piss! But I’ll be waiting. And when we’re done we’re gonna talk about what’s on that camera!” Her voice booms in the small gas station
  629. >You blush hard
  630. >Fuck, people are going to think you’re a pervert
  631. >And worse
  632. >They’re going to know where you went
  633.  
  634. >The bathroom is… cleaner than you expected
  635. >Guess it doesn’t get used much
  636. >As for its layout, it’s got one stall, two urinals and…
  637. >A frosted window at far end of the bathroom, the orange light of sunset pouring out onto the floor
  638. >It’s as if the heavens have opened up and a host of heavenly angels have conspired together to offer you this one-way portal to freedom from Hicksville
  639. >You start to pull open the window, but it’s stuck from years of disuse
  640. >You dig your whole body into the effort, channeling all 150 pounds of your being into your grip
  641. >The window starts to budge, just a crack though
  642. >But it’s enough to let in a slant of light
  643. >And that’s enough to give you hope
  644.  
  645. >Until you hear noise outside the bathroom door
  646. >”Hey, Bill, LET GO YOU ASSHOLE!”
  647. >It’s Jesse
  648. >”You’re hurting me!”
  649. >Heavy footsteps approaching the door
  650. >The sounds of struggle sharp against your ears
  651. >Heart beating in the tin drum of your chest
  652. >The door flies open
  653. >And you duck into the stall, hitching the lock
  654. >”Where’d he go, Jesse?” A gruff voice commands
  655. >Definitely reptilian. Definitely Bill
  656. >There’s the sound of boots scuffling on the dirty floor
  657. >”Where’s your reporter friend?”
  658. >You jump up onto the toilet and keep low, so it looks like the stall is empty
  659. >And yet locked?
  660. >God this is bad
  661. >All you can do is… wait and watch
  662. >And listen
  663. >”He’s not a reporter,” Jesse says, taking deep gulps of air. “How many times do I gotta say that!?”
  664. >She sounds winded
  665. >Then there’s a dull thud, the sound of bruised scales pounding into soft flesh
  666. >Jesse yelps, her voice reaching an octave that sends your heart plummeting
  667. >From your vantage, standing on the toilet, you look under the stall divider
  668. >You see Jesse go down, head pounding off the bare floor
  669. >One bounce
  670. >Then two
  671. >A trail of crimson carves its way down her muzzle
  672. >Blood
  673. >”Don’t FUCK with me, mutt. I know a reporter when I see one, and I know why he’s here.”
  674. >Jesse tries to sit up
  675. >The crocodile, Bill, stamps his heavy boots into Jesse’s chest, pinning her to the floor
  676. >You watch as the heeler wheezes and struggles, having a lungful of air expelled in one cruel motion
  677. >She reminds you of a bug with its legs ripped off
  678. >The way she squirms, desperate, feral, trying so hard to comprehend her own pain
  679. >”You squealed about the ice, didn’t you? You told that reporter what we got going on here and now he’s going to bust the whole thing open.” Bill seethes. “All so you can get outta town. But you ain’t gonna leave, little girl. You’re stuck here, just like the rest of us.”
  680. >The sound of Jesse choking…
  681. >It’s making you shake, isn’t it?
  682. >That’s right
  683. >You can feel yourself start to vibrate and pulse, tension and terror running in equal measure throughout your wired body
  684. >And this is all before you saw the knife in Bill’s hands, gripped so hard that his knuckles are glowing white
  685. >”You stupid bitch,” he says. “You stupid, stupid bitch. You’ve put us all at risk. Just give him up to us. You know what’s in it for you if you just tell us where he went.”
  686. >The heeler struggles and kicks her legs, but Bill is too sturdy
  687. >You can see the jagged edge of his hunting knife dangling just above her throat
  688. >Holy fucking shit
  689. >You’re about to witness a murder
  690. >Holy
  691. >Fucking
  692. >Shit
  693. >If you stay silent, they might not hear you
  694. >You might still be able to get out of this
  695. >He’ll kill her and leave
  696. >You escape out the window and book it
  697. >Even that makes your stomach turn
  698. >”So I’m going to ask again, doggie. Where the hell is the reporter?”
  699. >Jesse sucks down a fragmented gulp of air and rolls her bloody head to the side, facing under the stall
  700. >Her eyes open up
  701. >And your terrified gaze meets her own
  702. >…
  703. >There’s a quiet second, punctuated only by the rapid beating of your heart, where the two of you stare down each other
  704. >You, too shocked to even communicate anything
  705. >And her, wide-eyed and confused
  706. >You can see something flitting behind her eyes
  707. >More than just the brunt spark of recognition
  708. >Gears are turning
  709. >Gears that power a mechanism so vast and incomprehensible that it has no physical form
  710. >In just a second you can see a quick mind spring into action
  711. >But that second ends as abruptly as it came about
  712. >”ANSWER ME,” Bill growls.
  713. >She blinks twice at you, turns her head up at Bill, and says with a cough:
  714. >”I have no idea where he went.”
  715.  
  716. >In life we’re given choices
  717. >Handfuls of diverging paths that span a person’s timeline, some converging, some collapsing, like old abandoned buildings in factory towns run dry
  718. >All choices, for as diverse as they might seem, with their infinite outcomes, reduce down into two options:
  719. >Fight
  720. >Or
  721. >Flight
  722. >Right?
  723. >Can things be that simple?
  724. >Can you separate the human experience into two camps with just the edge of a knife?
  725. >Are you flight?
  726. >Or are you fight?
  727. >There is no third option
  728.  
  729. >You’re quick on the latch
  730. >Bill never saw you coming
  731. >With a feral yell, you cut loose and leap off the toilet like a madman
  732. >You explode out of the stall, careening through the air
  733. >Your target?
  734. >A big, dumbfuck crocodile
  735. >Who could probably snap your neck with his jaws
  736. >Forward you fly, into the jaws of death
  737.  
  738. >You are fight
  739.  
  740. >You wrap your arms around him as your momentum carries you through the air
  741. >You knock Bill off of his feet
  742. >Good GOD this guy is huge
  743. >His torso must be twice the size of yours
  744. >Still, you caught him off-guard, and so this roughly 300-pound lizard goes down with you, the knife swinging wildly in his right arm
  745. >Jesse gasps, sucking air into her lungs now the croc’s weight is off her chest
  746. >There’s a solid *thump* as the back of Bill’s head slams into the sink, chipping the porcelain
  747. >His eyes collapse in on themselves, like two bloodshot stars suddenly going dark
  748. >Lights out
  749. >His tremendous body comes to rest on the floor with you sprawled out on top of him
  750. >”Anon?” Jesse coughs as she tries to stand
  751. >It takes her a few shaky seconds, but with your help, she’s on her feet
  752. >”Thank you kindly,” she says with another choking cough. “But you didn’t have to do that.”
  753. “What the hell do you mean? He was going to kill you!”
  754. >”I had the situation handled,” she adds with a sheepish smile
  755. “So that’s what you call handling the situation?”
  756. >”Well now we’re really up shit creek. I had it handled.”
  757. “And I’m here to tell you, you did not have this handled.”
  758. >“If he ganked me they woulda’ left and you coulda’ gotten away. But now we try to go out and Shane’ll probably crack open your skull like a peanut. And,” she points down at Bill, who is still down and out, “he’s going to come ‘round here pretty soon.”
  759. >She picks Bill’s hunting knife off his body and mounts his body
  760. >“Let’s light this candle.”
  761. >Wat
  762. >She raises the knife over her head, light blue eyes set on Bill’s padded throat
  763. >Instinct forces your hand
  764. >You catch her arms mid stab
  765. “Jesus, wait a second,” you say in a low, urgent voice
  766. >”Wait? Why wait? This prick tryda’ cut my throat. Was just ‘boutta return the favor.”
  767. “Because… shit. We can still get out of this without murder charges. How about that?”
  768. >She shakes you free
  769. >”I reckon that in about 30 seconds this scaly bastard is going to wake up, or his tweaker pal is going to barge in on us. I may not be smart enough for your colleges, but I don’t see any alternatives other than to cut this green bastard’s throat and get the jump on Shane.”
  770. >You clutch your head
  771. >Holy fuck
  772. >You need to think
  773. >She’s crazy
  774. >Everyone’s crazy
  775. >This is crazy
  776. >Wasn’t this supposed to be a dream?
  777. >You feel the sun at your back
  778. >A bird song floats in through the barely-cracked window
  779. >Ah
  780. >Right
  781. >You tap Jesse on the shoulder and point towards the window
  782. >She puts two and two together almost before you do
  783. >”But I’m keeping the knife,” she declares
  784. >And that’s fine with you
  785. >Self-defense? That’s fine
  786. >Straight up murder? Leave that to the universe
  787.  
  788. >With the window open you toss your bags out first
  789. >Jesse slips out with anthropomorphic grace
  790. >You throw one last look at your shoulder for reassurance
  791. >Bill is still down for the count
  792. >Satisfied, you climb out the window and put two feet on solid dirt
  793. >Jesse is waiting for you
  794. >She pockets the knife
  795. >Alright, plan-
  796. >Jesse grabs you by the arm and rushes you around the back of the gas station/diner
  797. >You hardly have time to grab your bags before she’s got you pressed up against the brick construction of the gas station
  798. “This is your idea of a hiding spot? Just a few feet away from those lunatics?” You say with a hiss. “We need to get back on the road and flag down a car-“
  799. >She hushes you
  800. >”You’re talkin’ too loud there city boy. Just hush up for a second while I think of sumthin’.”
  801. “I already did the thinking for us: we start walking down the road and flag down a car-“
  802. >”Where do you reckon you think you are, Anon? Ain’t nobody stopping for hitchhikers out here, specially not a human. Less they’re trynna skin ya.”
  803. >She does have a point
  804. >The wildlife — save for Jesse — hasn’t been all that friendly since you arrived
  805. >Come to think of it, why is she being so friendly?
  806. >What the hell does she get out of protecting you?
  807. >…
  808. >Her grip on you tightens, sending live wires of pain running up your arm
  809. >You can feel her claws burrowing their way into your skin
  810. >You flinch
  811. “Jesse, relax. You’re hurting me,” you say
  812. >Like a bear trap springing open, she releases her vise grip on you
  813. >”S-Sorry,” she says. “Just a nervous habit.”
  814. “You’re fine,” you say, rubbing your arm
  815. >She actually managed to leave impressions in your skin
  816. >You guess that she was a few more seconds from drawing blood
  817. “Think of a solution?”
  818. >She nods earnestly, ears springing up
  819. >She points towards a cornfield just a few feet away
  820. >Its green stalks are nearly twice your height, and dense as well
  821. >They sway in the blue dusk pulled by the gentle wind
  822. >You flatten your tone
  823. “Got any better ideas?”
  824. >”What’s wrong with hiding out in the corn fields? I know my way ‘round. There’s a country road nobody uses just on the other side of this field.”
  825. “And then what, just live off corn?”
  826. >”We jus’ lay low for awhile, that’s all I’m saying.”
  827. >It’s not ideal, of course, but it beats getting stabbed
  828. >Or shot
  829.  
  830. >Summer brings spiced winds, even at night
  831. >You glance about you, drinking in the length of the corn stalks, the rolling hills, the empty road, the stars pin-holing the night sky like a scattering of winking diamonds
  832. >Your trip through the corn fields was short-lived and left you with bugs all over your skin, so you’re glad to be out in the open, secluded by the waving shoots of corn
  833. >It’s just you, Jesse, and the light of the silver moon to keep you chattering as the two of you trek down this dusty country road
  834. >”Getting tired college boy?” Jesse swings her head over her shoulders
  835. >You’re starting to lag behind, the weight of your bag and camera gear holding you down
  836. >She gives you a toothy smirk
  837. >”Us heelers, we don’t get tired. We just run all day and all night, like a truck on the highway.”
  838. >You jog up behind her, sweat pinning your shirt to your back
  839. ”Even an engine has to stop for gas sometime,” you wheeze
  840. >That’s enough to get her to slow her roll
  841. >”Well, you got a point there. Ya know,” she says with a slight pause, “my house is just a few more miles down the road-“
  842. “MILES?” You say, though you’re too winded to make more than a gasping sound
  843. >”What’s wrong?” Need a drink? Some food?”
  844. >Maybe you do. The last thing you had to drink was that shitty coffee. You’re running on empty
  845. >The heeler pauses, narrows her eyes, and glances around
  846. >”I think I know where we are,” she says, surveying the cornfield. “’Least, I think so.”
  847. “Oh, well that’s reassuring.”
  848. >”Don’t you get all dispargin’ on me now, we got plenty of road to go. But you’re right — I’m starting to get some cotton mouth myself. And if I’m correct, there should be a water spigot ‘round here.”
  849. >How in the hell can she tell? It’s corn as far as you can see
  850. >”I think it’s… right over here.”
  851. >She weaves her fingers into yours, and before you even have a chance to protest, you’re practically slung through the field
  852. >She’s a good few paces ahead of you, dragging you behind her like a child drags a toy behind her
  853. “Hey, hold on for a fucking second!” You protest
  854. >Her laughter booms throughout the cornfields. A handful of crows wing off into the sky
  855. >Honestly, you have no fucking idea where you’re going. You can’t see anything ahead of you except her backside and… well… corn
  856. >She must have not heard you, but you’re too tired to fight
  857. >You let Jesse tug you through the veritable forest of corn, until you come to a clearing — a crop circle of some kind
  858. >And at the center of it all is a small shed, which is buzzing with noise — probably an engine of some kind to pump water around the filed
  859. >Attached to the edge of the shed is life itself: a small faucet
  860. >Jesse’s eyes lock on almost instantly
  861. >”See, didn’t I tell you? Spigot. Right there.”
  862.  
  863. >Jesse lowers her head and uses a free hand to crank the faucet on
  864. >She laps greedily at the water as it waterfalls into the dust and dirt
  865. >And…
  866. >You whip your camera out of your bag and swing it into your hands
  867. “Hold still,” you command, aiming down the viewfinder
  868. >You crank up the aperture to compensate for the darkness
  869. >Jesse stiffens up, water still trickling into her hungry mouth
  870. >”W-What the hell are you doing?” She says, spilling a mouthful of water
  871. “Don’t worry about, just keep drinking.”
  872. >She giggles as you snap a few pictures…
  873. >…And then wretches and gags, spewing water out of her throat
  874. >You check the LCD screen at the back of the camera and you’ve got a few great shots of blue heeler lapping at some water, her over-sized flannel shirt slipping past her shoulders, jeans barely clinging to her thin body…
  875. >…and then you’ve got a great many shots of water geysering out of her nose, eyes pinched shut, body retching forward
  876. >Laughter explodes out of you
  877. >Fuck it, you don’t care who hears you right now
  878. >Jesse clutches the side of the shed and sputters water like an engine failing to kick over
  879. >You laugh even harder
  880. >She throws a middle finger (paw?) over her shoulders while you bust a gut
  881. “Sounds like you’ve got a… DRINKING problem,” you say, as the audience hurls tomatoes at you for making such a shitty joke
  882. >”I can handle my liquor, this water here jus’ caught me off guard’sall”
  883. “Alright alright, I’m just teasing.” You flip your camera around your back and approach the shed
  884. >Still coughing, Jesse steps to the side
  885. >You notice she’s managed to absolutely soak the shit out of her shirt — turning it nearly translucent
  886. >Silvered in the moonlight she looks…
  887. >Like a goddess
  888. >She wears the night so well
  889. >And, soaking wet, you can see the way it outlines her delicate curves, tracing her shape with powdered light
  890. >She’s feminine to be sure
  891. >She just stands there, perfectly slouched, leaning one arm against the shed
  892. >You finish taking a long, careful drink
  893. >But you notice she’s not looking in your direction anymore
  894. >She’s taken her hand off the shed, and instead has wrapped both arms around her shivering frame
  895. >You stand tall in the twinkling darkness and focus your gaze on her
  896. >”Jesse-“ you start
  897. >She looks at you, her blush glowing crimson in the darkness, like a spangled banner of red stars against the blackening night sky
  898. >”What!?” She barks. “I’m c-cold’s’all.”
  899. >You slacken, unsure of what to do with yourself
  900. >There’s a silence between you two Jesse trembles in the darkness, and you let the water drain out of the spigot
  901. >…
  902. “Wanna see some pictures that I took?”
  903. >Her face lights up despite the cold
  904. >”SURE!”
  905.  
  906. >You click through your camera roll, which is like a stop-motion film
  907. >First it begins on campus, last fall
  908. >Bright colors
  909. >Auburn and gold
  910. >You remember when you took this one
  911. >You were exploring campus for the first time, so it’s a series of shots of you making your way from your dank dorm room to the quad
  912. >Jesse leans in intently, the smell of wet dog radiating off of her
  913. >She’s still shivering, so you let your shoulder bump into yours
  914. >”Holy crap,” she says, as you scroll through pics of your quad
  915. >There’s people — anthros and humans all mingling with one another as easy as fish breathe water
  916. >She settles on a panorama of the quad, which is encased in red brick buildings on all sides
  917. >In the center of the shot there’s a huge oak tree
  918. >The leaves of fall drift on the autumn breeze
  919. >It’s one of your favorite shots, actually
  920. “I took this on my first day up at uni.”
  921. >”No kidding? What was it like?”
  922. >You throw your gaze upwards and search the clear skies for an answer
  923. “I guess… it’s kind of like constantly feeling like you have to throw up.”
  924. >”Oh, like when you’re sick. I get it.”
  925. “Yeah. You’re entering a new stage in your life and leaving everything else behind so that you can grow and — hopefully — make some decent cash on the side. It’s scary.”
  926. >Jesse lets out a puff of air
  927. >”Not like I’d know. I was born and raised in this little town.”
  928. “You mean you didn’t move out here?”
  929. >She rolls her eyes, but you get the feeling the gesture wasn’t directed at you
  930. >”Move out here from where? Another Podunk shitheap little town? Yeah. I been stuck here all my life. All I know is corn, meth, and speciesm, in that order.”
  931. >You feel… uncomfortable
  932. >What do you say?
  933. >You flick through more pictures on your camera, desperately trying to find meaning and significance in them so as to distract from the sudden somber atmosphere
  934. >They’re mostly of college life
  935. >Shots of parties you didn’t want to be at
  936. >Some work from class
  937. >A low whimper escapes Jesse
  938. “What’s wrong?”
  939. >She hesitates
  940. >”It- It’s just… damnit,” she exhales loudly and forces her eyes upward, latching on to the full moon. “You don’t know how good you got it.”
  941. “I know I got it good. I got it too good, actually.”
  942. >Jesse puffs a jet of air from her chest. “Whaddya mean by ‘too good’? No such thing as too good.”
  943. “God damn right I got it too good. I’m too insulated where I’m at in life. Too comfortable to change.”
  944. >”You don’t want what we got out here, Anon. Trust me, you stay comfortable and happy in your little bubble.”
  945. “You want to know what the bravest thing I’ve ever done is?” You say, speaking over Jesse
  946. >”Fuck someone without wrapping it?”
  947. “It was coming out here on my own. No plan, vague goals and very little money. And now I fucked myself over.”
  948. >You barely planned things as it is, but now that you hear it out loud…
  949. >Man, it was really stupid to come out here
  950. >You turn your focus back on your camera
  951. >And out of the corner of your eye?
  952. >You see Jesse fidgeting with something
  953. >You turn your head
  954.  
  955. >Jesse is halfway out of her oversized flannel
  956. “What the hell are you doing?!” You say, but all she does is give you a curious glance before returning to fiddling with her buttons
  957. >”I’m getting cold because this shirt is wet,” she says. "I'm problem-solving."
  958. >A shameful blush creeps over your face
  959.  
  960. >”Now what were you saying? About doing something stupid?” She says, flinging her shirt out in front of her
  961. >When you look over at her again she’s only in her pair of jeans and her bra
  962. >It’s plain and dark, but stands out nicely against her gray fur
  963. >Seeing the gentle heave of her chest, you wonder why you first mistook her for a boy
  964. >Or for someone that gives a shit about social grace
  965. >She slides comfortably against the shed and into the trampled corn stalks
  966. >You can see her panting hard and heavy, thick pick tongue lopping out of her mouth and hanging between her teeth
  967. >How can someone simultaneously be hot and cold?
  968. “I-I guess I did something stupid by coming out here… without a plan or anything. Getting myself involved in God knows what.”
  969. >”Yeah but if ya think about it, it wasn’t all that bad.” She nudges you with her shoulder. “You got to meet me. And you got some funny pictures.”
  970. “Yeah but I only got like a handful.”
  971. >”Three good ones from what I saw.”
  972. >Shit, she’s right
  973. >You thumb through your photos again, and stop when you get to Jesse choking on water
  974. >You can see the artistic value there — it’s kind of a statement, right?
  975. >The plight of-
  976. >”Hey Anon, can I ask you a favor?”
  977. >Probably a good thing that Jesse cut off your pseudo-intellectual ravings
  978. “Sure, what’s up?”
  979. >”C-Can you…” she points at the camera. “Can you take some more photos of me? I ain’t never had a photo taken of me before you come along.”
  980. >…
  981. “Seriously?”
  982. >”C’mon!” She throws her hands up in the air. “You think we got photo people out here? You’re probably the only person in miles with an actual camera. C’mon, I wanna be famous,” she says
  983. >You think for a second, holding the camera at chest level
  984. >Should you really be doing this right now?
  985. >What, with being hunted down and all
  986. >For ambiguous reasons
  987. >Fuck it
  988. “Jesse, before I do this, I have questions I need answered.”
  989. >”Questions?” She tilts her head. “What kinda questions?”
  990. “Why?”
  991. >”Why what?”
  992. “No, that’s my question. Why are we being hunted? Why me? What’s this all about?”
  993. >”Oh, right.” Her tone slowly deflates as her eyes lower
  994. >She digs her feet into the trampled dirt
  995. >A warm summer breeze cuts through the stalks
  996. >It lightly tosses the shag of her fur
  997. >”It’s easier when I tell it like this: you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thems two fucktards and their buddies and everyone they ‘work’ with? They all got their ideas mixed ‘round. They think you’re some kinda city reporter here to crack open their meth operation they run outta the diner.”
  998. >”But I’m not. I’m not a reporter. I’m,“ you clench your fists, “just a dumb fucking college kid. I’m not capable of even turning in a school project on time, let alone busting open a drug operation.”
  999. >Jesse puckers her cheeks up and launches a wad of spit across the field
  1000. >”I told you, they’re too fuckin’ stupid to understand that. I’m pretty stupid myself, but these two make even me seem like I could go to college. Like you.”
  1001. “It’s not that hard,” you say, though you’re not speaking loud enough for her to hear you
  1002. “There’s only two sides in this shitheap town of ours,” she continues, “Mammals on crank and mammals makin’ it. There ain’t no room for a third.” She turns her head to face you, her eyes heavy
  1003. >”That means you.”
  1004. >Of course it means you
  1005. >Otherwise they wouldn’t be out looking for you
  1006. “It’s so funny.” You stand up and shake your head lightly. “I remember waking up in the diner from the strangest dream. One where you and I both died. I hope it’s not prophetic.”
  1007. >”How’d we bite it?” She stands up with you and stretches out her spindly arms
  1008. >A yawn that morphs into a near-howl escapes her
  1009. >You won’t admit it, but your eyes are drawn to her smooth and shiny coat, especially her stomach
  1010. >The minute she looks over at you, you pry your eyes off her glossy coat and force them back onto the camera
  1011. >You click through a number of shots of potato chips and floor tiles that Jesse obviously took while she was in the bathroom
  1012. >Then one catches your eye
  1013. >It’s a selfie of Jesse, the last on the roll
  1014. >She’s smiling wide, her eyes are half shut, teeth polished and clean
  1015. >…
  1016. >You feel sick to your stomach
  1017. >You can’t believe you were going to ditch her back there in the bathroom
  1018. >After she stuck out her neck (literally) for you
  1019. >Are you really scum, and she is the perfect center of the universe?
  1020. >No
  1021. >She has to be getting something out of this
  1022. >But what?
  1023. >You open your mouth to ask, but catch yourself
  1024. >Her eyes are sparkling as you wield your camera about
  1025. >It’s not love, or affection
  1026. >You look down at your screen
  1027. >And it’s on that photo you took, of Jesse’s body, of Bill and Shane
  1028. >You clench your teeth
  1029. >That look is blind loyalty
  1030. >She has a reason, but maybe she doesn’t know it yet
  1031. >”So? In that dream of yours?” She begins
  1032. >You step out into the middle of the field
  1033. >You aim the camera at her, a lump swelling in your throat
  1034. “Ready?” You say, silently thanking the moon above
  1035. >Everything has a bone-white glow
  1036. >She strikes a quick pose
  1037. >”Ya never answered me,” she adds with a giggle
  1038. >You focus your lens on her
  1039. >She splays herself out against the shed in a faux dramatic pose
  1040. >Tonight you bury that picture
  1041. >It was just a dream
  1042. >All it was
  1043. >”How’d we die?”
  1044. >Just a dream
  1045. >But you still see her dead in a heap, blood leaking from her body
  1046. >The look on those two predator’s faces
  1047. >Some pain you cannot shake, real or not
  1048. >So you tell yourself
  1049. >You press the shutter
  1050.  
  1051. >Crows arc into the sky
  1052. >Jesse lights up as your LED flash triggers, throwing her shadow on the shed behind her (even though most professionals say to never use your flash)
  1053. >The two of you watch the birds wing off against the moon, silent and as still as glaciers
  1054. >They look like shadows
  1055. >And that’s all they’ll ever need to be to you
  1056. >Your heart is pounding, but that’s only from the noise
  1057. >You swear it’s not because there’s a cute anthro woman with her top off standing right in front of you
  1058. >You’re startled is all
  1059. >”Did you get that one?” She laughs. “Because I think I had my eyes closed. Damn birds spooked me.”
  1060. >Jesse hears it before you do:
  1061. >The crashing through the brush
  1062. >Her ears twitch, as if jolted with electricity
  1063. >Her wet nose twitches
  1064. >It’s not one mammal
  1065. >It’s not even two
  1066. >A chorus of voices rise out of the field
  1067. >Crashing, slashing, yelling, shouting and howling, the deafening approach of some someones
  1068. >And then they fall silent, just short of your vision
  1069. >Your heart pounding in your ears is the only thing you can hear, and even that becomes quiet
  1070. >The tense and push and pull of blood in your veins sends you shaking, fingers still glued to the camera
  1071. >Those noises
  1072. >They came so close
  1073. >And now they’re gone
  1074. >If Hell is the absence of God, then the absence of sound is Hell’s ambient volume
  1075. “Jesse.” You don’t bother to lower the volume of your voice
  1076. >What good would it do now?
  1077. >She’s crouched, predatory, hunting knife in her right hand held out like an extension of her own arm
  1078. >Her chest heaves
  1079. >You wish you had half of her sense of smell or hearing
  1080. >There’s a snapping sound behind you
  1081. >You turn around in a flash, heart racing
  1082. >You expect to find Bill or that coyote.”
  1083. >”Jesse?” A timid voice squeaks
  1084. >Standing at the edge of the clearing is a heeler pup, clad in a heather-blue shirt three sizes too big for her
  1085. >It reaches her ankles
  1086. >One of the pup’s ears is missing, though the stump of it is still there
  1087. >You try to control your breathing, taking slow, even puffs
  1088. >It’s just a pup
  1089. >A pup that somehow knows… Jesse?
  1090. >”Kira?” Jesse lowers her knife. “Kira what the hell are you doing out here? And why don’t you smell right?”
  1091. >”Jesse!” She cuts loose with a triumphant cry
  1092. >The little heeler pup bounds forward through the clearing
  1093. >She blurs right past you, paying you no mind
  1094. >Instead, she leaps through the air, catching Jesse at the waist
  1095. >The pup throws her arms around Jesse and squeals with joy, eyes pinched shut
  1096. >Jesse absorbs the force of what must be her kin by bracing against the shed
  1097. >You just stand there, dumbstruck
  1098. >The sound of rustling in the corn stirs your attention
  1099. >You see… shapes…
  1100. >Shadows drifting among the stalks
  1101. >But the closer you look, the better you’re able to piece together their features
  1102. >Short, Salt-and-pepper fur with a coarse top coat
  1103. >Long muzzle slightly parted in apprehension
  1104. >Thin, athletic frames
  1105. >Long, silvery tails with another healthy coating of fur
  1106. >Light blue eyes glimmering in the moonlight, the color of glacial cores
  1107.  
  1108. >”Come on out, we found her!” Kira shrieks, unable to keep the excitement from exploding out of her
  1109. >She channels her excess into her swiftly fanning tail, which is beating like the outboard motor of a boat
  1110. >You swear, she could probably fly with that thing
  1111. >Jesse claps her palm over Kira’s mouth and issues a sharp hush
  1112. >”Kira, I need ya’ ta’ hush up listen very closely, okay?” She says
  1113. >Kira nods excitedly
  1114. >”Who all is looking for me?” Jesse casts her wary gaze about the corn field
  1115. >She slowly lifts her palm from Kira’s mouth
  1116. >You can see the older heeler’s muscles tensing
  1117. >Not to run, but to fight off anything that might want to hurt her kin
  1118. >”Well let’s see… There’s Cody and Jessup and Wyatt and Claire and Laurabell and Mildred! We all come to find you when you didn’t come home,” Kira says
  1119. >The shapes in the corn step forward into the moonlight
  1120. >It’s as you expected
  1121. >Heelers
  1122. >Lots and lots of heelers
  1123. >Each one of them just at the fringes of the clearing
  1124. >Each one of them eyeing you warily, none of them stepping too close to you
  1125. >They all look about Kira’s age and size, except one, who’s probably a few years older
  1126. >She’s nearly Jesse’s size
  1127. >She locks eyes with you and scowls, her fangs shimmering
  1128. >”Jesse!” The heeler says, jabbing a clawed finger at you. “What’s with the human?”
  1129. >She starts forward
  1130. >Her claws look like black razors at the tips of her fingers.
  1131. >”Is he with you?”
  1132. >You ready your camera in case you need to blind her
  1133. >”Laura, Laura,” Jesse peels away from Kira and races to your side. “Let off the gas girl, he’s fine.”
  1134. >’Laura’ stops just short of you, still letting a growl roll out of her chest
  1135. >Jesse takes you by the hand
  1136. >You feel her thumb gently smoothing over your sweaty fingers
  1137. >It starts to calm you, soothes your rapid heart like an organic benzo
  1138. >”Christ babygirl, ya’ can’t just fly off the handle like that anymore,” Jesse says in a lecturing voice “I thought I learned you better.”
  1139. >”Well I’m sorry,” Laura throws you a sideways glance. “First you go missing and we gotsta come find you, and then we find you half-naked in a field with a human?”
  1140. >The way she says ‘human’ sounds like she was spitting poison from her mouth
  1141. >”Everyone just cool it,” Jesse says, addressing the now circle of heelers who’ve closed in around you. “This here is Anon, and he’s my friend. And he’s-“
  1142. >Laura takes a quick step back, wide-eyed
  1143. >”Jesse, is this him?” She gasps
  1144. “What do you mean? I’m me-“
  1145. >Another voice cuts you off: Kira’s
  1146. >”Yeah Jesse is he the one?”
  1147. >With one swift motion you free your sweaty hand of Jesse’s grip
  1148. “What the hell are they talking about?” You say
  1149. >”A-Anon listen, we can talk ‘bout this later, okay?”
  1150. >NO
  1151. >THIS IS EVEN WORSE THAN NEARLY GETTING STABBED OR SHOT BY THE COYOTE AND THE CROCODILE
  1152. >”Keep yer’ voice down, all of you,” Jesse hisses. “Ya’ll shouldn’t have come out here lookin’ for us.”
  1153. >”We had to,” Laura says, eyeing you up and down. “Mamma and Pa didn’t come home last night.”
  1154. >”Shit,” Jesse says with all the cadence of a deflating kickball
  1155. >Her tired head droops
  1156. >”Alright, alright. I promise everyone, I’ll answer all of ya’ll’s questions later, okay?” She lifts her eyes and smiles at you. “I’ll do my best to tell you everythin’. But we can’t stay here. Not right now.”
  1157. >”Yeah, we heard,” Kira says. “You gone and really made the boys mad now.”
  1158. >The precocious pup wraps her tiny fingers around your own and gives a gentle tug
  1159. >You watch as she appraises you, as if deciding for herself that you’re a rational, intelligent mammal, just like herself
  1160. >”’Course I did,” Jesse says, voice barely floating above a quiet, somber prayer
  1161. >Laura grabs Kira and pulls her away from you despite the heeler’s indignant protests
  1162. >”Well, come on then,” Laura says, cradling Kira close. The older mammal locks her steady eyes with yours. ”We best get home before someone less pleasant than Kira finds us.”
  1163.  
  1164. >Jesse’s house is…
  1165. >Well it’s certainly not what you’re used to
  1166. >See, you live in a nice, cushy dorm out in school
  1167. >Everything’s wrapped in plastic and bubblewrap for you
  1168. >Christ, you even have a dining hall so you don’t have to cook anything beyond microwaving popcorn
  1169. >Jesse’s house is the antithesis of the college experience:
  1170. >It’s the embodiment of everything your chiding liberal arts professors say you should have compassion for
  1171. >It’s ground zero for poverty in America
  1172. >The minute you enter, you feel a deep sense of brokenness, even as you’re swarmed by malnourished heeler pups picking at your clothes and grabbing at any exposed skins
  1173. >You sink into a ratty arm chair in the family room while all the noises of poverty whip themselves up into a hurricane in your ears:
  1174. >Unattended pups
  1175. >Angry, discordant growls, screaming
  1176. >Somewhere a forgotten TV talks to itself, likely the cable news piped in from stolen wires
  1177. >The miasma cigarette smoke wafting in chunky clouds offends your senses
  1178. >It stings your eyes and nose
  1179. >Jesus, there must be at least three generations of heelers living here — that’s at least 16 mammals under one tiny roof
  1180. >When you approached it on your long walk, it small from the outside, but that’s because it stood alone in a pasture, just a leaning home with peeling white paint collapsing over the course of a decade
  1181. >But now that your inside, it feels even more claustrophobic
  1182. >And warm
  1183.  
  1184. >Jesse appears at your side
  1185. >”Just… get comfortable here for a second. I gotta go take care of something in the basement.”
  1186. “Am I sitting in someone’s bed?” You ask
  1187. >Figured you’d move if you were
  1188. >It’s getting late so maybe someone is trying to get some sleep around here, despite the noise
  1189. >”I-I know it’s not the fanciest place,” she stutters, a touch of embarrassed red heat peeking through her dark fur, “but it’s home for now. Just sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
  1190. >You open your mouth to say something, but she’s already gliding easily through the milling crowds of her kin
  1191. >You watch her descend a set of stairs into what must be the basement
  1192. >There seems to be a hierarchy
  1193. >The pups all gather around you, the lone oddity in the house, wide-eyed, tales wagging, jockeying for a spot
  1194. >They fire off questions a mile a minute, which you try to answer, growing more and more tired with each incessant yip
  1195. >You see where Jesse gets her spunk from
  1196. >The older heelers hang out near the fringes of the group, leaning their wiry bodies against walls or supporting beams
  1197. >Laurabell is among them
  1198. >This caste hasn’t said anything to you since you got here, but they’ve been watching you in between lungfuls of cigarette smoke
  1199. >As if they’re waiting for you to slip up, hurt one of the pups, or say something out of line
  1200. >And everywhere light blue eyes trained on you, glimmering from dark corners or stairwells
  1201. >You sit up in the chair
  1202. >It sags under your weight
  1203. >The minute you stand up, the older heelers, -- Laurabell in particular -- peel off the walls
  1204. >You’re starting to figure it out: you’re not getting out of here unless Jesse escorts you out
  1205. “What’s Jesse doing?” You ask
  1206. >Christ you can feel one of the heeler pups trying to get into your camera bag
  1207. >You gently pull it closer to your body
  1208. >”She’s busy,” Laura says rather coldly
  1209. >She digs her claws into her unkempt fur and scratches an itch, still maintaining eye contact with you
  1210. >A challenge
  1211. “Can I go talk to her? I have some questions for her.”
  1212. >”Didn’t you hear her?” Laura snaps at you. “She said to get comfy here.” The heeler nods towards the chair you were just sitting in
  1213. >”So do what Jesse says and there won’t be problems.”
  1214. >Right
  1215. >You ease yourself back into the chair without a retort
  1216. >Don’t want problems, not when you’re severely outnumbered
  1217. >”Don’t worry ‘bout Laurabell,” you hear a familiar voice to the right of you
  1218. >You look down
  1219. >Kira peers up at you, her eyes shimmering with curiosity
  1220. >You peel your eyes away from the stump of her right ear
  1221. >Hopefully she didn’t notice you staring
  1222. >”She’s just mad ‘cause she don’t like outsiders.”
  1223. >”Outsider and a human,” Laura takes a long pull on her smoke. “Ain’t no good gonna come of this. Mark my words.”
  1224. >The older heeler peels herself off the wall and wanders deeper into the house
  1225. >Kira climbs up on the couch arm, her nose wrinkling
  1226. >”You smell good,” she says, her eyes half shut. ”Do all humans smell like candy?”
  1227. “I don’t know about that,” you say, now acutely aware how obvious your scent must be to all of them. “I don’t know what humans smell like. Our ears and noses aren’t as good as yours.”
  1228. >”Ear,” Kira says, matter-of-factly. She points to the stump of her ear. “I only gots one ear.”
  1229. “Ah, yeah, my mistake.”
  1230. >Kira leans in uncomfortably close
  1231. >”Ma clipped it off when I was gettin’ into the shop downstairs,” she says in an excited whisper
  1232. >Wait, downstairs?
  1233. >You grab Kira by the waist and lift her off the couch and back onto the floor
  1234. “Is that what’s down there? Is there some kind of shop in the basement?”
  1235. >”Sure is! Jesse and Ma and Pa take care of it. They don’t want us goin’ down there, but I did, and-“
  1236. “What kind of shop is it? What do they sell?”
  1237. >Kira stares up at you with a wide-eyed expression, mouth working, but no sound coming out
  1238. >”I dunno!” She says at last. “It just smells real bad down there sometimes an’ we can’t go down there.”
  1239. >You’re about to ask her another question when a Jesse appears out of nowhere and scoops Kira up in her arms
  1240. >”Kira, you botherin’ Anon here?” She says, stroking the pup’s fur
  1241. >”Nah-uh, we was talkin’ is all!” Kira squeals. “I wasn’ botherin’ him none!”
  1242. >Jesse plops Kira down on the floor
  1243. >”Now run along, alright? Anon and I got some stuff we need to talk about,” Jesse says
  1244. >Kira opens her mouth to say something, but screws her mouth up tight when her older sister flashes her a stern look
  1245. >Kira bounds off, quickly lost in the shuffle of anthros, like a small wanderer in a forest of redwood trees
  1246. >”Come on now, let’s get somewhere…” She drifts off
  1247. >she tugs at her collar and looks around
  1248. >Her wide pink tongue lops out of her mouth
  1249. >Beads of saliva roll of its surface
  1250. ”Let’s get somewhere quieter. Less mammals,” you say, already rising out of the chair
  1251. >Jesse nods and issues a weak smile
  1252.  
  1253. >You end up in what must be her parents’ old room
  1254. >It’s the only one not buzzing with activity
  1255. >There’s a large, unmade bed in the center of the room, the impressions of two bodies pressed into the sheets
  1256. >Annnndd not much else
  1257. >Clean or dirty, all of their clothes are corralled into a few laundry baskets or crusty piles
  1258. >Thankfully, there’s an open window, carrying in drafts like puffs of air from heaven
  1259. >You two sit on the floor by the window, facing one another, outlined in the moonlight
  1260. >She stares hard at you, trying to decode your exhausted expression, looking — like any desperate mammal would — for something lurking beneath the surface
  1261. >She wants there to be a deeper meaning — something that you know that she doesn’t
  1262. >But there isn’t
  1263. >You’re just… lost
  1264. >No ulterior motive beyond surviving the night and escaping back to civilization in the morning
  1265. >No deeper meaning
  1266. >You’ve got no shark beneath the waves
  1267. >But she does
  1268. >No need to broach the subject
  1269. >Just go in for the kill
  1270. >You’re done waiting
  1271.  
  1272. “It’d be awfully kind of you to start explaining some stuff to me,” you start. “What did your family mean when they said ‘Is this him’?”
  1273. >You’re starting to feel like you’re being used for something
  1274. >”That’ll come later tonight, I promise.”
  1275. “No. Not later. Not in the future. Now.”
  1276. >She nods
  1277. >”I can sense yer frustrated and confused right now. But if you just hush and listen-“
  1278. “Back there in the diner, in the bathroom, do you remember what you said?”
  1279. >”I… I don’t think so,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Do you remember what happened back there?”
  1280. “I… I remember lots of things. Things that I shouldn’t remember. Things like dreams that don’t feel like dreams. That sorta stuff. In the bathroom, with a knife to your throat, you told Bill that you didn’t know where I was.”
  1281. >”What’s your point?”
  1282. “The point is, you knew exactly where I was. Why’d you lie? Were you trying to get killed?”
  1283. >Silence
  1284. >Well, relative silence
  1285. >The chaotic din of the house is only muffled by floorboards
  1286. >She throws her head to the side
  1287. >”What the hell kind of questions are those?” She asks, her voice a low hiss
  1288. “Because I need to know why you’d die for me.”
  1289. >”What?” She looks taken aback – hurt. “I don’t-“
  1290. “If I didn’t save you, you’d have a knife in your throat.”
  1291. >She flinches back, and, consciously or unconsciously, she places a hand lightly at the hollow of her throat — right where the knife would have plunged
  1292. >You feel your voice rising in tandem with your frustration, glowing red hot in the center of your chest
  1293. >Maybe you’re just tired, bereft of the gravity of sleep drifting in some vacuum where only your wants and needs exist
  1294. >Sovereign
  1295. >Or maybe this is the right thing to do
  1296. >Fuck it
  1297. “So I ask again, why am I so important to you? I barely even know you.”
  1298. >…
  1299. >She’s not saying anything
  1300. >She just looks…
  1301. >Defeated
  1302. >She’s dropped her head into her lap
  1303. >Her ears are plastered against her skull, and her tail is flat on the floor
  1304. >Blood thrums loud in your ears
  1305. >Your heart beats one step ahead of your feet, it seems
  1306. >But you’re not going to apologize
  1307. >You really, really need to know
  1308. >And who cares? After tonight you’ll never see her again
  1309. >She lifts her tired eyes to yours
  1310. >”Not everyone who needs saving knows they need it.”
  1311. >She steadies her gaze
  1312. >”You want the honest-to-Jesus truth? All you gotta do is look around you. What do you see?”
  1313. >You slowly pan around the room
  1314. >It’s… well… it’s a room
  1315. >Disheveled and filthy, but a room nonetheless
  1316. “What am I looking for?”
  1317. >”You really don’t see it? Hear it? Feel it?”
  1318. >She pulls her knees tight against her body and hooks her arms together
  1319. “No, I just see a shitty room. Can you get to the point?”
  1320. >”I’m trynna explain this in a way we can understand — why I need you to help me.”
  1321. “Well I appreciate you risking your neck for me, but you really don’t have to do anything. Next plan of action, I say, is we wait out here, and when dawn breaks, I hop on the bus outside the diner.”
  1322. >She turns her head to the side and fixes her blue eyes on the moon
  1323. >”You ever have dreams? Because I have a dream almost every night.”
  1324. >”And in that dream,” she continues, “I always bite it. Shot in the back. Stuck in my guts. Hit by a car. Something always gets me. And every night… every night I have this dream over and over again. Sometimes when I wake up, I don’t even know I’m awake. I’ll check my body for bullet holes. I’ll start hollerin’ if it’s a really bad one. My family hates it.”
  1325. >She chuckles lightly
  1326. >”Lately I’ve started to feel like I’m in… in a dream that repeats itself, over and over and over again. Every day is the same, and even the nightmares are startin’ to run together. I’m just stuck, is all. So when you showed up, I thought you could change something ‘round here. Be the answer I needed.”
  1327. >Huh
  1328. >Dreams that feel real?
  1329. >What the hell is she on abou-
  1330. >”You ever have dreams like that?”
  1331. >Without thinking, you nod slowly
  1332. >”I thought you did. I could tell the minute I met you.”
  1333. >Her form sags as she rests her chin on her knees
  1334. >Her eyes start to fall, pulled down the weight of the day
  1335. >”Can I ask you about those dreams?” Jesse says wistfully. “The ones that don’t feel like yer dreamin?”
  1336. >She sounds exhausted
  1337. “Why?”
  1338. >”Because,” she yawns. “Our ride is coming in tonight and I need something to keep me up
  1339. >OUR RIDE?!
  1340. >You’re getting out of here sooner than you thought!
  1341. >You check the clock on the night stand
  1342. >It’s exactly 11:00 p.m.
  1343. “Sure,” you say, excitement settling into your chest, lighting up your nerves. “You’re not the type that thinks dreams have any deeper meaning, right?”
  1344. >”Guess it depends on the dream.”
  1345. >You hope she’s wrong
  1346. >Dreams can’t be prophetic
  1347. >They’re just dreams
  1348. “What if I told you I had a dream with you in it?”
  1349. >She raises an eyebrow
  1350. >”What kinda dream?” She playfully nudges you with her elbow as her tail spins up. “Anything ‘fun’ happen in that dream?”
  1351. >You feel a touch of color grace your cheeks
  1352. >God sometimes she’s too forward
  1353. “No, nothing like that,” you shake your head. “Actually, the opposite.”
  1354. >And you can’t remember much more than Jesse’s death, besides the two mammals who did the killing
  1355. >You don’t want to admit it, but you’ve come to have a modicum of respect for her, so you refrain from telling her the crux of the dream — the part where she’s shot dead by the carnivores
  1356. >She’s given you her home, and almost gave you her life
  1357. >Maybe her reasoning is a little misguided, but that’s okay
  1358. >When you get out of this town, what if she came with you?
  1359. >Gah, don’t be a dumbass
  1360. >She can’t. Where would she even stay?
  1361. >Maybe there’s some other way of ‘saving her’ that doesn’t involve bringing her from her home?
  1362. >If you could even call it that
  1363. “That dream really got to me. It felt so visceral. So real. I swear to God, it happened,” you say. “When I woke up I was in the diner again. I swear I smuggled a picture out of that dream.”
  1364. >Wait
  1365. >The picture!
  1366. >You could show her again, explain the dream to her
  1367. >How you shouldn’t have this picture to begin with
  1368. >…
  1369. >But why?
  1370. >Why dig in to that?
  1371. >You swore you’d bury it, and you intend to keep that promise to yourself
  1372. >Jesse jolts upwards, eyes shot wide as she peers out the open window
  1373. >You follow her gaze
  1374. >A pair of headlights is rumbling towards the house, cleaving a path through the encroaching darkness
  1375. >”That’s it,” she says, and you can’t help but notice the slow cadence of her voice, like a funeral procession
  1376. >You stand up and ease away from the window
  1377. ”Is it them? Did they find us?”
  1378. >”No,” she looks up at you with a weak, half smile. “That’s your ride out of here.”
  1379. >…
  1380. >Is this real?
  1381. >This is so sudden
  1382. “How come you didn’t tell me about this earlier? I didn’t know you had a way to get us out of here.”
  1383. >”C’mon Anon, you gotta go. They’re waiting for us outside.” She nods towards the door
  1384. >You pause
  1385. “So that’s it, isn’t it?” You whisper
  1386. >”What’s it?”
  1387. >The car idles outside, you can hear its heavy engine thrumming and sucking down gasoline
  1388. “I guess this is goodbye.”
  1389. >She stands up
  1390. >”Not quite. I’ll see you off.” She grabs you by the arm and starts to lead you downstairs
  1391. >The mood downstairs is… different
  1392. >Everyone comes to a standstill when they see Jesse descending the stairs with you in tow
  1393. >For whatever stupid, bullshit sentimental reason, you feel a lump bulging in your throat
  1394. >You’re getting emotional? Over this?
  1395. >Like you said earlier, you barely know this mammal
  1396. >So sack up, pussy
  1397. >You swallow hard, like you understand what’s happening
  1398. >Kira follows closely behind you guys as you approach the front door, which is a screen door hanging just barely on its hinges
  1399. >Jesse doesn’t seem to notice her younger sibling following in your clumsy footsteps
  1400.  
  1401. >You’re standing on the porch, Jesse at your left, Kira at your right
  1402. >The headlights from the truck that’s pulled up to the house blind you, so you throw up a skinny arm over your eyes, leaving just enough room to squint at the truck
  1403. >”Ready Anon?” Jesse asks in a somber voice. “Ready to get out of here?”
  1404. “Who’s taking me home? Friends of yours?”
  1405. >Her grip on your arm tightens
  1406. >She doesn’t answer
  1407. >God she must really be broken up about you leaving
  1408. >She wanted you to save her, right?
  1409. >Wake her up from the dream she’s been living in?
  1410. >You turn to face her
  1411. “Why don’t you come with me?”
  1412. >One, last, final effort
  1413. >She points her eyes forward, fixed on the idling truck
  1414. >She won’t even look you in the eyes before you go?
  1415. >”I can’t go with you,” she says at last
  1416. “Why not?”
  1417. >The passenger side door to the truck opens with a rusted creak
  1418. >You turn your head back to see who’s going to be taking you across the state on nothing but the goodness of their hearts
  1419. >A crocodile steps out of the cab and into the headlights
  1420. >A bolt action .22 rests in the crook of his arms
  1421. >Your heart sinks
  1422. >Jesse’s grip tightens
  1423. >You recognize that gator
  1424. >Bill
  1425. >He smirks that ugly, hateful grin that will forever be etched into the crevices of your skull
  1426. >”Hey there, Jesse.”
  1427. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  1428. “What- what’s going?” You try to take a step back
  1429. >Jesse holds you in place, her feral claws digging deep into your skin
  1430. >”You know,” he starts to load his .22, “for a dog, yer’ not very loyal. One phonecall’s all it took.”
  1431. >He yanks back on the bolt and chambers a round
  1432. >”I did my part of the deal,” she says, voice simmering into a low growl. “Now hold up your end and leave my family alone.”
  1433. “So that’s how it’s gonna be?” Your arms and legs feel numb, as if submerged in glacial creeks
  1434. “This whole thing was just an act, wasn’t it?”
  1435. >It all starts adding up in your head, the realization hitting like a baseball bat to the face
  1436. >’Be the answer I needed’
  1437. >’Is this him?’
  1438. >’Later tonight’
  1439. >”No sudden moves, Anonymous,” she says, still glaring straight ahead, eyes fixed on Bill — or more closely, his gun
  1440. >A vicious wind whips itself up
  1441. >It pushes Jesse’s fur up
  1442. >You can tell she meant that apology
  1443. >It doesn’t sound like she wants to do this
  1444. >”You’re going to leave my family alone?” She shouts, voice barely arcing above the roaring of the wind
  1445. >Bill sets his rifle down into the dirt. “You did yer’ part bringing us the reporter.”
  1446. >HOW
  1447. >MANY
  1448. >TIMES
  1449. >MUST
  1450. >IT
  1451. >BE
  1452. >SAID
  1453. “I’m not a reporter!” you cry. “For fuck sake Jesse, don’t do this!”
  1454. >But it falls on deaf ears
  1455. >Jesse pushes you forward with impressive strength
  1456. >You stumble off the porch, landing face first into the scrub grass and dirt
  1457. >Your camera bag swings out in front of you and absorbs the brunt of the impact
  1458. >Everything feels…
  1459. >Numb
  1460. >You close your eyes and internally admit defeat
  1461. >You got played, used
  1462. >In a way, you really did save Jesse
  1463. >It sounds like you paid off some kind of debt for her
  1464. >But now there’s the small matter of your mortal coil
  1465. >You don’t want to die
  1466. >Fuck it, you could rush Bill
  1467. >But he’s a croc
  1468. >And a big one at that
  1469. >He could probably tear you apart with his claws alone
  1470. >Times like these you wish you were a bear or a lion
  1471. >You clench your teeth
  1472. >This is all her fault, whether or not she wants to do this
  1473. >She saw an opportunity and took it
  1474. >Yeah?
  1475. >Well so do you
  1476. >One last act of defiance
  1477. >You roll over in the dirt to face Jesse…
  1478. >…Who stands statuesque against the tempest
  1479. >But in the light, you can tell she’s crying
  1480. >Good
  1481. “Hey Jesse?!” You cry, scoring your own throat with the volume
  1482. >You can feel the venom dripping off your voice
  1483. >She looks down at you, practically an emotional wreck
  1484. >God she really doesn’t want to do this
  1485. >Fuck her
  1486. >She made her choice
  1487. >And though it won’t mean much, this’ll make you feel better
  1488. >You hope she’ll dream about this every night
  1489. ”In that dream I had about you?”
  1490. “You died.”
  1491.  
  1492. >Jesse’s mouth drops open to say something, the start of an apology
  1493. >There’s a tremendous noise, louder than anything you’ve ever heard in your life
  1494. >Jesse stumbles backwards in a spray of blood, bracing herself against the pillars of the porch
  1495. >Kira rushes to Jesse’s side
  1496. >”SISSY!” Her tiny screams are whisked away by the wind
  1497. >Jesse looks down at her stomach, palm pressed over her seething wound
  1498. >She lifts her bloodied paw to the moonlight, turns it over, and then presses it lightly against her guts
  1499. >Her legs start to tremble
  1500. >She locks eyes with you, tears streaming down her face, cutting clean lines through her scruff
  1501. >”I’m sorry,” she says with a cough of blood. “I just wanted to protect my fami-“
  1502. >Another bullet catches her in the chest, knocking her off her feet
  1503. >Her limp body slams in the siding of the house
  1504. >She ends up on her side
  1505. >The raspy sound of blood and air churning together in her lungs, combined with Kira’s shrieks flood your veins with concrete
  1506. >You want to move, but can’t tear your eyes from Jesse’s body
  1507. >And from Kira, tugging at her arm
  1508. >And then the dam bursts
  1509.  
  1510. >Legions of heelers rush from the house like a horde of feral wolves
  1511. >It occurs to you, while watching an enraged pack of canines spill from that shitheap of a house, that you’re between them and their prey
  1512. >And you can hear Bill loading another shot
  1513. >Anon: between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, about to be pulverized into primitive particles
  1514. >Bill shouts something, but you can’t hear him
  1515. >You jump to your feet and tear off towards the house
  1516. >Why the house?
  1517. >Because, it may be boarded up plywood, it’s still cover
  1518.  
  1519. >Another shot rings out
  1520. >A car door slams
  1521. >Another gruff voice joins the fray
  1522. >More shots
  1523. >The sound of frenzied screaming, whimpers, the guttural roar of a crocodile
  1524. >It’s all behind you as you ascend the porch steps
  1525. >You throw open the door to the house
  1526. >It’s dark inside, and were it not for the moonlight, it’d be pitch black
  1527. >But your eyes are drawn to something: Kira is standing by the basement door, shaking like a leaf
  1528. >When her sensitive eyes lock onto you, she throws herself at you
  1529. >Oh God
  1530. >Kira’s covered in blood up to her elbows
  1531. >Her tiny body collides with your leg, like a small boat crashing into a cruise liner
  1532. >”Anon, you’re going to protect us right?” She says, looking up at you with bloodshot eyes
  1533. >”Jesse said you were going ta’ save all of us.”
  1534. >Another gunshot
  1535. >You reflexively curl your body over hers
  1536. >Kira claps her palms over her ear
  1537. >The sound of glass shattering draws your attention
  1538. >Its pitched staccato is sharp against your ears; your heartbeat goes tumbling again
  1539. >Because it’s glass on the other side of the house
  1540. >There was a crocodile, right?
  1541. >But what about the coyote?
  1542. >Heavy footsteps pound on the kitchen floor
  1543. >You probably don’t have much time
  1544. >You scoop Kira up into your arms and throw open the basement door, making sure to shut it lightly behind you as you ascend the stairs
  1545. >Don’t need someone following you down
  1546. >Thankfully the lights are on
  1547. >You flick them off as soon as you reach the bottom of the stairs of the unfinished basement
  1548. >It’s like being in the skeleton of the house
  1549. >Sure, it’s a shitty house, but at least the walls were finished and coated in drywall
  1550. >This is just wood and concrete down here
  1551. >Oh
  1552. >And the meth lab
  1553.  
  1554. >Meth labs don’t look like you thought they would
  1555. >it’s just a series of card tables and plastic buckets, discarded bottles, glass jars and clear plastic tubing standing tall like polluted forests on top of the tables
  1556. >But man
  1557. >There’s a lot of it
  1558. >And to make matters worse, there’s absolutely no ventilation down here
  1559. >The air instantly feels heavier than usual
  1560. >Wetter, weighed down with noxious chemicals in the process of becoming something eviler than their constituent parts
  1561. >Kira struggles out of your arms
  1562. >”Jesse says I ain’t allowed down here!” She squeaks
  1563. >You hush her as quietly as possible
  1564. “Kira, we need to be really quiet, okay?” you say, perhaps a little too loudly
  1565. >You kill the lights in the basement and push Kira towards the corner of the room
  1566. >She ducks under a card table, shaking it as she does so
  1567. >An open jar of fluid spills all over her head
  1568. >The foul-smelling liquid soaks into her fur
  1569. >SHIT
  1570. >It smells like gasoline
  1571. >Then you hear a sound worse than gunshots
  1572. >The sound of creaking wood
  1573. >Of footsteps above you, isolated from din of chaos
  1574. >How can it be so loud outside, ripe with gunshots and death, and yet so painfully quiet inside this house?
  1575. >You’d rather have needles slammed into your ears then listen to the squeal of ratted floorboards
  1576. >They move further and further away from you
  1577. >You breathe a sigh of relief
  1578.  
  1579. >And then the door to the basement squeals open
  1580. >A silhouette looms at the top of the stairs, impossibly dark against the darkness of the house
  1581. >Shadows on shadows
  1582. >It all comes flooding back to you, the images from that dream
  1583. >They return in fractals
  1584. >Digitride feet
  1585. >Ears like black knives standing atop a predatory skull
  1586. >The silhouette starts down the stairs, an oblong shape dangling in its limp right hand
  1587. >Might be a bottle of some kind
  1588. >It leans heavy against the walls as it descends, until at last it stands at the bottom of the stairs
  1589. >Its breathing is heavy and ragged, like its throat was shot and lungs collapses
  1590. >You see its free hand go to its gut
  1591. >…
  1592. >Is that… Jesse?
  1593. >Couldn’t be
  1594. >You saw her bleeding on the porch
  1595. >Whoever it is, doesn’t look like they know you’re here
  1596. >That’s for the best
  1597. >Without warning, Kira crawls out from under the table and starts forward
  1598. >You catch her by the arm
  1599. >”It’s Jesse!” She says in a hush “I can smell her. She always smells like cars.”
  1600.  
  1601. >The silhouette draws its hand away from its stomach
  1602. >The click of a flint wheel sends sparks flying into the darkness
  1603. >A thin seed of flame goes up
  1604. >Wavering, but still holding on
  1605. >Your heart catches
  1606. >An open flame? This much fuel down here?
  1607. >You need to stop this
  1608. >Turns out, you don’t have to
  1609. >It lifts the item in its right hand towards the flame
  1610. >You only realize what’s in its hand when it catches fire
  1611. >It’s a rag, stuffed in a bottle
  1612.  
  1613. >“I ain’t your sister, sweetheart.” The coyote — Shane says
  1614. >The now burning rag throws the coyote’s shadow against the basement wall
  1615. >It looms 10 feet above you, like a giant ready to stamp your life out
  1616. >It’s then you notice that Shane’s hand goes back to his gut
  1617. >Blood puddles all around him
  1618. >His face, in particular in speckled in blood
  1619. >All the hard, angular features are either clawed up or slit open with glass, knives, claws, bottles
  1620. >But here he is
  1621. >”Ya’ know, I almost didn’t smell ya’ll down here — what with all this gas and chemicals. Normally humans light up like theys Roman candles. But I get ta’ thinkin’ lately—maybe there’s more at work here than just ordinary mammals. Maybe it’s not that I just got lucky, but that some higher power wanted me ta’ find ya.”
  1622. >You can hear the sound of claws scampering across wooden floors upstairs
  1623. >Sounds like there’s mammals up there
  1624. >”How ‘lucky’ for me, to have found you right where I was fixin’ to take a swig of this and breathe some smoke.”
  1625. >His coughs a hoarse wind of blood all over your shirt
  1626. >He lifts the Molotov cocktail into the air
  1627. >More gunshots boom in the night
  1628. >Think of something quick
  1629. “Shane, listen. If you drop that bottle, everyone of us is going to die.”
  1630. >The coyote’s arm goes slack
  1631. >But he still holds the flaming bottle in his hand
  1632. >Blood slips down his face from a gash in his forehead
  1633. >”My name…”
  1634. >He cocks his head
  1635. >”Where’d you learn it?”
  1636. >Yeah, that’s a great question
  1637. >Where did you learn his name?
  1638. >Think back
  1639. >Because the answer is broken, dangling from your neck
  1640. >Your camera
  1641. >That ‘dream’ you had
  1642. >Fuck, this could be everyone’s life here. Think of something good
  1643. >Don’t tell him it was a dream
  1644. “Bill told me. He said you’d know when to stop. After you got Jesse.”
  1645. >Laughter rolls out of his sagging chest
  1646. >Thick, rib-sucking laughter
  1647. >”Jesse was only part of the move tonight,” he says. “You ain’t been spared in Hell like we has.”
  1648. >He locks eyes with you
  1649. >”You don’t know shit.”
  1650.  
  1651. >The bottle burst open at his feet
  1652. >You throw yourself on top of Kira
  1653. >Your eyes slam shut
  1654. >There’s a tremendous flash of heat
  1655. >You can feel it on your face
  1656. >For a fraction of a second, between heartbeats, it feels like you’re facing towards the sun
  1657. >And then the pain comes
  1658.  
  1659. >The details of what happens next aren’t important
  1660. >A house’s foundation practically saturated in flammable liquids?
  1661. >A Molotov cocktail loaded with gasoline?
  1662. >Yeah, draw your own conclusions
  1663. >Because the most jarring part of all of this isn’t the heat or the explosion or burning to death
  1664. >It’s that fucking waitress, lording over you like she knows she’s better than you are, asking:
  1665. >”Can I get you some coffee, or a pillow?”
  1666. “Just a coffee, is fine,” you say as you sit up in your chair, blinking away the feeling that you’re on fire
  1667. >She feigns delight. “Sure. Cream, sugar?”
  1668. >This again
  1669. “Black is fine.”
  1670. >The waitress, wearing a badge that says ‘Lee Anne’, gives you a polite smile that says, ‘Honey you don’t look like you can handle black coffee.’
  1671. >”I’ll be right back,” she says despite her doubtful smile
  1672. >She turns on a heel and saunters away
  1673. >The camera around your neck is heavy, like a millstone, its presence constant
  1674. >Think, motherfucker
  1675. >What happened wasn’t a dream, that much is certain
  1676. >And it all comes back, sharp as glass against your skin
  1677. >Bill and Shane
  1678. >And most importantly
  1679. >Jesse
  1680. >The waitress places a ceramic mug of coffee in front of you, sharply rousing you from your daydreams
  1681. >She saunters off again without a word
  1682. >Damn
  1683. >You reach for the cup, but hesitate
  1684. >Last time it was practically all cream and sugar
  1685. >You look in the mug
  1686. >What the fuck?
  1687. >It’s a light brown, approaching orange
  1688. >Last time it was pretty much a pearly-white
  1689. >Sure, you’ll never be able to taste what little coffee there is in here, but that’s not important
  1690. >It’s different than last time
  1691.  
  1692. >Plan:
  1693. >You slam the ‘coffee’ down your throat
  1694. >It tastes sickly sweet, but with a hint of bitter coffee that actually kind of compliments the rest of the washed out tastes
  1695. >You power-walk your way to the door, acutely aware that you haven’t paid yet
  1696. >The bell chimes above you, heralding your escape
  1697. >Nope
  1698. >Fuck this
  1699. >The door slams shut behind you
  1700. >You’re done with this bullshit
  1701. >You’re halfway out into the middle of the road, ready to flag down a passing car, when you hear the bell in the diner ring
  1702. >”Hey mister, what are you doing out there in the middle of the road!?”
  1703.  
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