OF THE NATURAL WORLD
Three hours after Charlie left for college, her parents stood in her blank bedroom, running their hands along the dust on her empty bookshelf.
“What do we do now?” Janie’s voice echoed against the walls.
Rob examined the tiny holes where Charlie’s posters had hung. “I think we’re supposed to take up fly fishing.”
“I don’t know how to fish.”
“We’ll learn.” Rob went to the window, which Charlie had always kept closed, and parted the curtains. Half the house was underground, built into a hill. Charlie’s window had been installed at the mark where underground became above, so the ground lay at the ledge’s level. At first the sun reaching through the window blinded Rob, but then he adjusted. A wolf’s yellow eyes stared back at him.
He called to Janie. She came to the wolf’s eyes. They were used to wildlife. Out on their stretch of twelve wild acres, bought before the area had been developed, they saw all kinds: roadrunners, deer, turkey, coyotes.
The wolf, gray as the carpet, his eyes yellow as though the sun behind him shone right through, pressed his nose against the glass, leaving a smudge mark like the ones their dogs left on the car windows when they brought them on vacations.
“Where are the dogs?” Janie said. She backed away from the window. “Rob, I’m going to find the dogs.”
Rob didn’t budge. Janie called through the house: “Orion, here boy, here Prancer.” Their collars jingled as they bounded from their hiding places. The wolf’s lips curled back, revealing his razor teeth.
“Janie, keep the dogs out of here,” Rob yelled.
“I locked them up.”
Rob hadn’t heard Janie enter the room again. He had read not to make eye contact with certain animals, and not to look away first if you did.
Behind him Janie spoke into a phone: “Yes, we have a wild animal problem here, possibly rabid. Yes, I’ll hold.”
Rob held the gaze for the full half-hour it took for Animal Control to arrive. Not even when the animal controller aimed his tranquilizer at the wolf did Rob look away. The wolf howled and thrashed and fell unconscious in the grass.
The animal controller thanked them for calling. “Many people,” he said, “would’ve taken the wolf out on their own.”
“The only gun we keep’s a BB,” Rob said.
“Must be trusting,” the controller said.
At dinner Rob and Janie recalled the controller’s comment and rolled their eyes. They were used to being thought strange in their Texas town: no guns, no dead things on the walls. There had always been a child in the house, and no material thing they owned was valuable enough to be stolen. Besides, they lived in the middle of nowhere. They didn’t lock their doors at night. They weren’t afraid of people.
But there was one thing they were afraid of. In the empty house they didn’t talk about it, but they feared that Charlie wouldn’t come home again. The first night, as they played Spades on the couch, putting off their troubled sleep, they tried not to stare at their phones.
The next morning Rob cooked breakfast as Janie slept, eggs and toast with butter, pecan waffles with cheap maple syrup. Charlie’s favorites. Janie woke to the sugar smell. They ate in silence. Neither of them remembered their dreams anymore, but they had dreamt of their daughter. She was their only child.
They avoided her room. It would be easier once the weekend was over and they busied themselves with work. Rob would return to the grocery, Janie to the local community college where she taught art. The monotony would help. Without it they finished their dinner in front of the TV and then walked as if in a trance to the empty room.
The growl crept in again. “He’s back,” Rob said, though it was impossible; Animal Control wouldn’t have released him from captivity. But when Rob opened the curtains, the wolf’s eyes shone through the solid dark.
“What is going on?” Janie said.
“I don’t know.” He let go of the curtains. “Call Animal Control again.”
Janie retrieved the phone.
“I think there’s more of them,” he said when she returned. “I heard more.”
This time Janie parted the curtains. A dozen wolves stared in, pressed close to each other like an army formation. Against the window, five squeezed close together, five nose prints on the glass.
They called the cops. The operator assured them someone would be out as soon as possible. “Don’t provoke them,” she said. “Don’t go outside.”
Rob and Janie crouched against the far wall. It was hot outside, but their bodies shook. They whispered, afraid the wolves would hear them. The two cop cars pulled into the driveway with the Animal Control van.
Then the blast of a gun sounded, another, another, another, until twelve—Rob counted them—rang out. Rob went to the window. The controller and several policemen dragged the bodies into the back of the van, and when they finally piled the wolves in they called Rob and Janie out.
“Have you been feeding these wolves?”
“Of course not,” Rob said.
“Did you try to keep them, as pets? Have you provoked them? Could you have fed them by mistake?”
“No, officer. I don’t think so.”
“Wolves don’t attack unprovoked,” said the officer. “These wolves don’t look rabid. Rabid wolves are lone wolves. And they don’t look particularly hungry either. I don’t know what you’ve done to make these wolves act like this, but you better cut it out. Cause we aren’t gonna be able to come round every time they’re at your window.”
Rob shrugged. “Thanks for coming out.”
“Controller here says you don’t own a gun?”
“Well, you might think of getting one.”
“Thanks. We’ll consider it.”
That night, Rob and Janie barely touched their reheated Chinese food. They were fossils holding onto a lost life. Why had they never gotten a gun? Why weren’t they rushing out to get one now? They wished they wanted to cook, but they had no one to impress.
The night sweats came over Rob and Janie as they slept, the dogs stretched at their feet. They rose together and paced the room.
“Let’s open these windows,” Janie said. “I’ve got to get some air.”
She pulled the curtains back and opened the window. The air that rushed into the bedroom burned her hand. Falling back onto the bed, she pulled the clothes from her body and discarded them on the floor.
“So hot,” she said.
“I know.” Rob undressed, fell beside her, touched the skin of her belly, despite the heat.
“We’ll make more,” Janie said. “Not to worry. We’ll make more.”
They pressed together as if all they needed was more sweat to cool the body. They fell into rhythms. The heat blew in. They stared into one another’s eyes, but the closeness reminded them who they had been before Charlie, and Janie turned her face to the window. She screamed.
It wasn’t a wolf but a baby buffalo wedged in the window, mouth open, a creature straight out of Charlie’s history texts—Life on the Plains. Janie pushed Rob off, put her feet on the floor, then her knees. His teeth were blunt, the hair above his eyes raised like two thick brows. He moaned, and Janie recognized the groan as the groan her husband made in his sleep, on his back, when gravity was too heavy for him.
Janie crawled on her knees to the window. The buffalo was frightening, so unexpected, but she wanted to be near it. She placed her hand atop its tongue. Its jaw unhinged with her weight, but the buffalo didn’t move. It groaned again. The bones that once held the jaw in place showed now. The jaw hung unmoving. The buffalo did not blink.
“You’re hurting him.” Rob pulled her hand from the buffalo’s mouth.
“What are you doing?”
The buffalo turned and ran, and Rob darted from window to window, opening the blinds as the buffalo passed. Its jaw flapped against its chest. Wolves followed at its haunches, low to the ground. Janie shut and locked the bedroom window, backed into the bed, and sat as the strange monsters disappeared down the drive. In the distance, the animal emitted one small whimper of death.
“Don’t worry.” Rob stroked her hair, the skin of her naked neck. “It’ll end. Whatever this is will end.”
He had to say something. To say nothing would leave them as helpless as children. If he didn’t know how to fix this, he didn’t know his place in this house anymore. If he couldn’t fix this, there would be no house.
“I know,” Janie said. “I just want to know what’s going on.” Janie’s arm fit right around Rob’s shoulders. She let his head fall on her chest. “We’ll figure this out.”
The natural world monsters were familiar. Not only from their appearances on nature world documentaries—Janie housed a hazy recollection of their appearance in her daughter’s morning stories. The nightmares are worse. Charlie unable to sleep for weeks. Every time I close my eyes. An overactive imagination, Rob and Janie told her. Go back to sleep.
The dogs weren’t barking like they usually did when animals appeared in their yard. Rob had nodded off after the creatures had gone. They imagined the carnage, their grass torn from its roots from the weight of chase and catch. When Rob’s breath steadied, Janie crept from the room on her toes. She went outside into the muggy air, dew in the process of forming. The door creaked like in a black-and-white horror flick. Twigs snapped in the distance.
Charlie used to crawl into their bed. They’d wake to her weight pressed between them, her warmth overheating the room, her arms folded at her chest as if she thought they wouldn’t see her if she guarded her body. They’d shake her awake.
“Nightmares,” she’d say in her groggy frog voice. “Can’t I sleep with you?”
When she was younger they’d let her. When she was older they hesitated. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little old?” But they didn’t mean it, and when she would begrudgingly return to her own bed, they would feel a cavity in their chests.
They’d forgotten who they were. When she was born, she became their whole world. The nightmares scared them more than they scared Charlie. They hugged her too tight, They shielded her. They didn’t want to scare her away from the world, but they didn’t want to push her into it either. They wished their daughter could stay with them until she was gray, but they had to let her go. She was smart. She needed a new home. She needed a city in which to fold out of herself. But now, without their daughter, they weren’t parents, not during the long days, not without her there.
In the woods wolves waited. But Charlie had dreamt of other monsters, of skeletons in dark rooms with no doors. In the yard Prancer stood guard, growling. From the woods these skeletons emerged from the trees, half-skin, half-bone, a menagerie of creatures from Charlie’s ABC books. A for alligator, its scaly skin peeling back more and more with each slide forward over the rough dirt. B for the bear struggling on bare bone feet to hold up what was left of its innards, guts hanging in its arms. C for the wildcats with bone-claws protruding from their paws, loping across the yard yet more menacing for their uneven grasp of the soil.
Janie ran toward Prancer, shooed him from the forest. “Go on, get out of here. Inside.” Prancer turned, reluctant, and ran up to the deck. She did not see Orion. What she saw was the monsters. Up close. They were so real, no wonder Charlie could never sleep on her own. What was left of their fur hung rotting from their skeletons, their colored patches silk-shiny.
“Why are you here?” she asked. They were close enough to hear their breath.
They moved in her direction. What else could she say? She didn’t know an incantation to banish nightmares. She couldn’t just wake up. The dream had gone on too long. She grabbed a rock. She hurled it. The bear wobbled closer, raised up so tall it cast a human shadow. The shadow creaked as it came near.
“Run,” Rob called down to her from the patio. “Get away!”
She looked up at her husband and back at the monsters. She wouldn’t run. She threw another rock; it hit the alligator’s skull. Janie turned her back on the monsters. Her husband held the BB gun in both of his hands. He aimed it and shot. The BBs smacked against skin and fur and bone. One bounced off her arm. The sting sent heat through her veins. She sunk to the ground. She couldn’t fight a nightmare.
Worse, she felt she understood them. They looked at her with the same want in their eyes that had been in hers, in her husband’s. They missed Charlie. They tried to go with her, but she didn’t need them anymore. They too didn’t know who they were without their Charlie there.
Charlie brought her friend home for the weekend. It had been two weeks since she’d seen her family, though she’d already learned enough about the world to have been gone a year.
“My parents are pretty nice,” she said. What particulars did she want to tell her friend? That they always thought she was something she wasn’t? Naïve? That, though they’d had eighteen years to prepare, she still wasn’t sure they had been ready for life without her?
Charlie pulled into the drive. Charlie walked across the trampled grass to the broken stone pathway to the front door. She paused to examine her mother’s uprooted flowers. The stairs’ wood had cracked on the sides, where the handrails were. Mud tracks led to the door.
“What happened?” Charlie’s friend asked.
“No clue,” Charlie said. She rang the doorbell. The sound echoed through the house like a howl.
Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam‘s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 70 publications such as Fairy Tale Review, Masters Review, and Uncanny as well as in six languages. She was the featured author at LeVar Burton’s Dallas LeVar Reads event. She’s been a finalist for the Nebula Award, placed second for Selected Shorts’ Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize, and won the Grand Prize in the SyFy Channel’s Battle the Beast contest; Syfy turned her story set in the world of the Magicians into an animated short. She also curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth.