“Marcus Tamotsu,” I wrote on the job application, feeling the pen break just as I finished the last scrawl. I was pressing down too hard—gripping the pen with too much angst. I tried to relax my hand and carefully add the date with the broken pen, curbing the urge to scribble angrily across the whole paper.
Every job application I’d come across had begun to include a “loyal citizen” section that required swearing to uphold the views of public consensus, which included loyalty to our Wolf Protectors and a promise to inform on anyone who might be suspected of consorting with the violent predators of the Forest.
My father was a doctor. A surgeon, to be specific. He had sewn up countless Ostrich-attack victims. Because of his trust in me, I had known since childhood that the saliva in the wounds was not always that of a bird. The jagged open wounds and missing limbs were sometimes the result of sharp canine teeth. Sometimes there was even wolf hair in the wounds.
I looked up from the job application and saw myself in the decorative mirror behind the secretary. Straight black hair hung over my forehead the way Asian hair will if left to it’s own devices. My face was strong, if dissatisfied in appearance. I was dressed well, in light gray slacks and an expensive, dark red, pima cotton button up, open at the throat. On my feet I wore Magnani leather leisure shoes.
I didn’t look like I needed a job. I looked like a 21 year old heir of a large estate in Singapore. But in an attempt to avoid returning to the university for my Masters degree, I was applying for a hotel security systems job. Security. I sighed bitterly and looked back down at the job application.
I hated the lie. I wanted to speak out against the public opinion that the Wolves were our protectors from the Bright Ostriches. But my dad said I’d just get myself killed. He made me promise to keep my mouth shut. Most of his colleagues were wolves, including the Director of the Caring Wolf Hospital.
“Why?” I questioned him, every year when Kara and I had to start school again. “Why do we tolerate the lies?”
“Some of it’s true,”
“The Ostriches really are dangerous. And all the Wolves aren’t bad. In any case, they won’t hurt you if you just do as you’re told.”
“But why do we do as we’re told?”
I pressed him.
“Why do we pretend to be free if we’re not?”
“We are free!”
Dad contradicted irritably.
“As free as anybody can be. The world isn’t perfect, Marcus. Take care of your sister.”
And that was my life: Pretend. Pretend. Take care of my sister. Pretend.
I crushed the broken pen in my hand and smiled blandly at the secretary who looked up, startled at the cracking sound. She was human, at least.
“Do you feel safe?” I asked her without explanation.
“What do you mean?” she responded, looking decidedly uneasy at the mangled writing utensil in my hand.
“Do you believe everything you see on TV?” I changed my tactic, trying to appear harmless and friendly.
“Of course not!” she laughed. “The shows are all made up, everybody knows that.”
“But the news,” I persisted. “Do you believe the news?”
“What do you mean?” She hesitated again. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Yeah,” I sighed, “Why wouldn’t you?”
The secretary stared at me, her expression blank. Then she smiled and reached for my application, making a note on it and filing it in a drawer of her desk.
“We will call you in a few days, Mr. . . Tamotsu. Thank you for stopping by.”
Even though I had dressed well for the day, I had still taken my bike so that I could stop for Kara on the way home. Picking up my sister from school was a tradition that I would not break for any dumb job interview. I waited near the bus stop for Kara.
My younger sister was a brilliant artist, but she could get lost in her own bedroom. Her head was always in the clouds, where she imagined a perfect world full of perfect people. I dreaded the day I might not be there to protect her when she woke up to reality.
“See you tomorrow!” I heard Kara calling to her friends as she ran down the wide concrete steps of the school. She was dressed in her own eclectic style, wearing bell bottom jeans under a short, but traditional Japanese dress. Her hands were splattered with paint from art class, as they usually were, but her nails were perfectly manicured and lacquered a pale shade of pink. Kara’s shoulder-length hair was dark and straight like mine, but her face was lighter and her eyes were round and hazel like our mother’s. She put on her backpack and climbed onto my handlebars where she perched, as she always had, since I was seven and she was five.
“Marcus,” she blurted, before we were out of hearing distance, “Megan likes you. She asked me to invite her to our house this weekend so she could hangout with us. She made me promise not to tell, but then told me I should tell you she told me not to tell.”
“I think you just told me.” I said dryly.
“I was supposed to tell you, silly.”
“You were supposed to tell me she told you not to tell me— oh, never mind. Which one is Megan?”
“The cute one,” Kara said. “The one who wears big earrings and red lipstick.”
“Uh-huh. You want to get some ice-cream at the park before we go home?”
“Sure!” Kara was easily distracted. “Hey, did you get that job?”
“Maybe. They’ll let me know later.”
“You don’t sound happy about it. Are you mad you didn’t get another full-ride scholarship to the Wise Wolf University?”
I laughed harshly. “Nope. Not sad about that one tiny, little bit.”
Kara fell silent and I regretted being out-of-sorts with her. I leaned the bike against a tree and bought our ice cream cones at the truck near the park entrance. Kara waited by the fish pond.
“One chocolate-dipped double-scoop for the lady,” I said in a cheerful voice, handing her the cone with as sincere a smile as I could manage.
“Marcus. . .” she said with her sweet-but-scolding face that reminded me so much of our Japanese grandmother, “I know you. And I can tell when something is bothering you. Come on. Out with it!”
We ate our ice-cream cones in silence for a few minutes, and Kara waited for me to think. It was a beautiful day. By all appearances the world was what it should be: safe and orderly.
“Safe and orderly.” I said aloud.
“It all looks so safe and orderly,” I repeated, gesturing with my ice-cream at the park in general. Kara’s straight black brows raised questioningly.
“That’s good, right?” she asked.
“The thing is — it’s not.”
“I know,” she said quietly, surprising me.
“What do you mean, you know?” I asked dubiously.
“I know we’re not safe. That the world is a mess. I’m not stupid, Marcus. I can see just as well as you that life is full of constant jeopardy.”
As Kara said this, she continued to eat her ice-cream with a leisurely enjoyment that contradicted her words.
My silence caught her attention and she looked at me, adding simply, “I just don’t see the point in stressing out about it. I want to enjoy life as long as I can and focus on the good things.”
I sighed. She had a point. What could I do anyway? If I got the job, and saved my money until I had enough, maybe I could move out near the perimeter and find out what was really going on. Or I could get a railway job. I bet they saw things nobody would believe.
“Well?” Kara elbowed me. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. But, we better get going.”
“Aren’t you even going to tell me what’s going on with you?” she frowned.
“I can’t remember which one is Megan,” I explained, winking at my sister.
That night I couldn’t sleep and finally put on sweats and a black hoodie at 4 AM. I just wasn’t tired enough to rest with all the questions knocking around in my brain. Outside, I wheeled my bike onto the road. No one was about. Not even the Protectors.
I pedaled down the road, faster and faster, feeling my heart begin to pump and pound. It was a good feeling—a real feeling. The edge of town came into view and warning signs were posted every few feet.
“Only inclosed motorized vehicles.”
“Beyond the perimeters you must stay in your automobile at all times.”
“In case of emergency dial, 555.”
Like a madman I pedaled right past all of them. I rose to my feet, absorbing the bump, bump of the railroad crossing. It was exhilarating to cross that line. Out ahead of me lay the unbroken darkness and silence of the forest. I squeezed the brakes and came to a stop, standing with my back to the city, gazing into the unknown.
“I want to go camping like Grandpa used to,” I said aloud. “And fishing. And I want to walk around in the forest in the snow and climb a mountain. Like, a big one.”
My voice sounded loud in the darkness, but partly it was the things I was daring to say aloud — things nobody admitted to openly.
Behind me I heard a surprised bark. I had awakened a night guard. Fear surged through me. I was alone in the darkness and a Wolf was coming to find me. In my peripheral vision I saw the beam of a flashlight scan the forest line. I had surely been seen.
With a blast of adrenaline I pedaled uphill, beyond the tree line. The danger behind me made the danger ahead seem less imposing. A car started in the distance and it’s engine grew louder. They had not used the siren. The Protectors didn’t want to wake anyone in town.
Grimly, I envisioned the remains of my body laying on a surgery table in front of my own father. I could no longer stay on the road.
I turned my bike sharply and pedaled over the bumpy ground, deeper into the darkness of the trees.
“What am I doing? I’m crazy!” Some part of my brain was protesting.
“Hide - go further, go faster!” A deeper intuition told me.
The Protector car stopped on the road near where I had left it. Bright lights bounced around me as they searched the trees for any sign of movement. I stopped behind a tree, unmoving, trying to quiet my gasping breath.
“City-humans,” my mind echoed, turning over the phrase. This implied there were forest-humans too. “One of Them,” he had said. I was like one of Them in the way I trusted the forest.
I couldn’t say I trusted the forest. In fact, now that the Protectors were gone, I was feeling spooked by the unfamiliar darkness of my surroundings.
An owl hooted and I gasped aloud in spite of myself, dragging the bike back toward the road. I imagined something huge and sinister chasing me and I ran, trying not to completely panic and cry out in fear. Back on the road I laughed at myself and tried to shake off the uneasy feeling. Now what?
Getting back into the city unnoticed was going to be tricky. The only entry and exit from where I stood was back over that same railroad crossing which would probably be watched. Anyone on a bike (not an approved conveyance outside city limits) would surely be noticed and picked up for questioning.
However, I had an idea. If I biked along the tracks, heading south, there would eventually be another railroad crossing into the industrial side of the city. Chances are, no one would be watching that crossing until after daylight.
Two miles of bumpy railroad ties later I came to the next entrance into the city. Here, the tracks were suspended over the rural edge of the forest on a bridge that abutted a docking area for the city’s factory sector. I braked as the bridge came into view, realizing I would be in danger of getting run over by a train if I was caught on the bridge. Or I would have to drop into the forest below. I peered down the tracks, my ears straining for the sound of a train coming in either direction. There was only deep silence. But my scrutiny did reveal one disturbing fact: a warm light bathed the eastern horizon. The sun was rising.
It was now or never. I pumped the pedals, softening my knees to absorb the rhythmic bump-bump of the ties coming faster and faster as I sped across the bridge. A light switched on at the dock, then another and another.
I told myself.
Speed right across and just keep going.
I pulled up on my handle bars, making the jump over the tracks and onto the dock and leaned forward to put all my effort into speed.
“Hey!” I heard a shout from the nearby shadows of a large metal building.
I didn’t pause or glance toward the voice, I just kept going down the street and made a sharp turn into an alley on my right. A wolf barked behind me, and then another, but I turned again, and again, until I was thoroughly lost on my own path down allies and side streets. I never would have expected so many dark allies to be brightly lit.
At last I turned down an unlit alley, and there I braked to catch my breath and listen. Other than the thundering of my own heart, I heard no sounds of chase. I had made it safely into the city. Now it was just a matter of laying low until the sun was fully risen. I got off the bike and leaned it against the alley wall, trying to normalize my breathing. Burning up from the extreme effort to escape, I pulled off the black hoodie and draped it over my bike.
The early sunlight vaguely lit the alley wall before me. Directly across was a painted depiction of the forest. A ghostly human face peered out from behind the dark tree line, looking fearfully out at the furiously barking protectors. It was so surreal, I stopped breathing altogether. Had someone observed me hiding in the trees this morning and come to this alley and painted the scene? I reached out and touched the paint. It was cold and dry. It was flaked with age. It was old. In fact, the face was that of a girl. I shook myself and turned away to look at the rest of the wall.
There were large scrawled messages, tiny inscribed messages, and vivid imagery in multiple layers on the old cement block wall. I read them with growing fascination.
Wake up and walk out. . . Not as seen on TV. . . Skills is $ on the other side. . .I was a sheeple, now I’m a people. . . If you’re wondering what’s real, you might be waking up. . . Take some seeds with you. . . Anyone still here is your enemy. . . Wait at the hollow beech tree between. Freedom is out there. . .
A protector car pulled up next to the alley and two officers stepped out and started toward me. To my surprise, I was completely calm. The sun had risen, and traffic was moving on the street beyond. I had every right to be here. But. . . surreptitiously, I knocked the hoodie off of my bike and left it where it lay.
One of the protectors was human and spoke up, gesturing at me to stop as I walked past them.
“Good morning, sir. Can I ask you a few questions?”
“I’m in a hurry,” I said, looking at my watch impatiently.
“What are you doing in this alley?” the Wolf protector asked. “And how long have you been here?”
“I’m passing through,” I said. “Is there some problem?”
Both of the officers appeared to lose confidence in their quest and looked at each other questioningly.
“Where are you going?” The wolf asked.
I looked beyond them and saw a coffee shop across the street. “You guys want some coffee? I’m going to pick up some coffee and would be happy to treat you.”
Instinctively I answered all of their questions with my own questions or statements. In high school I had learned this technique kept teachers and peers from running over me. Somehow it asserted that I was in control.
“We’re going to have to ask you to come in to the station for more questions,” the Wolf said after an awkward silence.
“He’s wearing a red T-shirt — not a black hoodie,” the human officer protested. “There are hundreds of guys riding bikes to work this morning.” There was another awkward silence. Then the human officer added, “I’d like some coffee.”