The Wild Inside

We had to close up another building that day—bolt the doors shut, board over the windows, stop up the chimney and all the vents with concrete. Hank Parker came stumbling out of his house, gasping and cussing, dragging his two oldest kids by the arm while his wife huddled on the sidewalk with the three-year-old. As soon as Hank got clear, he was shaking the two kids, Lisa and Mikey, and giving them a dressing down like only a man who’s devastated and angry and shocked and ashamed all at once can manage.

Thin sunlight shone down on the Parkers’ neat one-story house, glinting off the clean-polished windows and making the butter-yellow siding look all warm and inviting. It showed off the perfectly cleaned and swept expanse of concrete that was the front yard, stretching flat and greyish white all around the house to where it butted up against the older sidewalk with its grainier surface and patched cracks. It was a shame to have to abandon such a nice place, but the Parkers should’ve known to keep watch on their kids.

I mixed fresh concrete in a barrow to one side, giving polite pretense to ignoring the verbal thunderstorm going on just a dozen steps away. From the shouting I gathered that Mikey’d been collecting leaves and flowers, pressing them into books—for a school project he said, like we didn’t all know that for a lie so awkward it was embarrassing. And Lisa’d been raising some tadpoles in a jar of water. Where she’d found them I’d like to know; leaves and flowers were scarce enough in these times, much less wild creatures.

The wet concrete went scush, scush back and forth in the barrow. I scooped up a bucket of it and started up a ladder another member of the containment crew had set up for me. I was the youngest member of the team, at thirty-eight, and the hardest labor fell to me. It was the proper way to order things, even if my muscles ached for days after, each time we had to do this.

It was always the kids. Victor and I never wanted children enough to go through the hassle of a surrogate or even adoption—and having watched the play of civilized life dwindling as we all hung on as well as we could, I was just as happy to never have had that responsibility.

Keeping the kids in line—that was the trick of it.

The bam-bam-bam of hammers added percussion to the howling, snarling, whining symphony at the foot of the yard when Ynez and Chris and Peter arrived with the old, reclaimed plywood sheets and nails for the windows, and got to their task. We were running low on plywood; in another year at most, we’d have to talk about completely dismantling some of the sealed buildings for materials.

I was pouring the sixth bucket of concrete down the chimney when the shouting near the sidewalk peaked to a crescendo before cutting off, as though someone had flipped a switch on one of the stereos only those of us over twenty could remember. I looked down at the Parkers and saw that Lisa was shaking her hand at her father, her ponytail bobbing in rhythm.

“It’s food!” she shouted into the aghast silence. “It’s good, it’s fresh, it’s wonderful! It’s right there to take and I don’t see why we can’t—”

Her mother silenced her with a hard slap across the face, then another slap at her hands sent four round, brown nuts bouncing tic-tic-tic-tic down onto the concrete.

I’d like to say I almost fell off my ladder, because it gives a dramatic beat to the story, but that’d be a lie. I stood there, my bucket dangling from one hand and the other hand locked around the top rung, because I’m not stupid.

I was shocked, though. I watched the nuts—hazelnuts, I think they were, although it was hard to tell from this far away—scattered across the yard, their dark, earthy brown like dirty stains on the clean cement.

Hazelnuts were from before. My mom had always bought five pounds of mixed nuts, raw in their shells, every year at Christmas. She’d kept the big bowl on the coffee table full, with nut crackers stuck into the mass and another bowl to one side for shells. We’d sit around, the adults on the couch and kids crosslegged or kneeling on the floor, talking about whatever, or listening to Christmas music, or watching TV with the sound cranked up so we could hear the dialogue around the sound of cracking shells.

Hazelnuts had always been my favorite.

I hadn’t had one in years, and the packages of powdered hazelnut creamer we still found sometimes weren’t the same. Victor made cookies or muffins sometimes, if the foragers came back with unspoiled flour or some kind of mix. The hazelnut powder in cookies or muffins almost reminded me of hazelnuts, more than the baked goods we could make without eggs or leavening reminded me of cookies or muffins, actually.

Real hazelnuts, though? They were dangerous.

Hank was shaking Lisa, with Mikey hanging off one of his arms. Nobody stepped in. Lisa was twelve, more than old enough to know better. Now the concrete yard would have to be scrubbed every day for a while, watched for any hint of cracks. We could lose the whole neighborhood if the wild breached the pavement.

I looked away, climbed up to the roof and poured my bucket of concrete into the chimney.

All the Parkers were screaming by then, their voices bouncing and clashing off the concrete ground, the metal siding, the glass windows, the plastered rock walls that ran all up and down the neighborhood. The discordant clash broke the orderly peace of the place, an aural mess outside to match the physical mess in their house. Their former house; the neighborhood association would have to find another place for them. Sunnyvale had always had mild weather; rain wasn’t likely, so with some clean bedding, they could sleep outside for a few nights. Maybe not comfortable, but it wouldn’t cause them any harm. It’d be a good lesson for the whole family, I thought. Give them a sharp experience of what an uncontrolled environment was like.

The crew and I finished our jobs some time after the dinner hour. Abe Koker was designated cook for the containment crew, in charge of making sure we got fed no matter how late we worked. The red plastic cooler sat open in one corner of his kitchen. It needed restocking; a glance told me there was only enough in it for one more meal, or maybe two if Abe stretched it.

He handed me a plate of spicy pickles stirred up with some spam crumbles and reconstituted raisins, a hunk of dense flatbread to dunk in the liquid laid across one side. I went back out front and settled on a blue plastic yard bench to eat. I’d never liked pickles before, but they kept well if they’d been made and sealed properly, and most of the vegetables we had were pickled, scooped out of dust-coated jars.

Victor came in before I finished my dinner. He sat down on the bench next to me and leaned against my shoulder.

“Damndest thing,” he said.

“Yeah.” I took another bite of pickled cauliflower and chewed. The fiery burn of the dried chile Abe added to most of the food he cooked covered whatever taste of spoilage might be hiding around the edges. Anyone who didn’t have a cast-iron stomach had died long since; those of us left could tough out food that would’ve closed a restaurant down when I was a teenager.

“We should’ve had kids.”

That stopped me in mid-chew.

“No one’s said anything, but people look, you know. Carl Tulliver was chatting to me about how lonely his sister Claire has been since her husband passed. They lost all three of their kids, and he says Claire wants a baby.”

I swallowed and said, “Plenty of men to give her one. Ricky Mendez has been living away from Eleanor for almost eight months now. Doesn’t look like they’re going to patch it up. Carl should toss Claire at Ricky, see what happens.”

“It’s not about specifics,” Victor said, a note of impatience in his voice. “When it started, we all had other things to think about. Once things settled, we thought we had a handle on it. But it’s been twenty years, nearly, and we’re losing kids. Most people were ignoring it—you don’t want to talk about something that hurt so many families—but you can’t pretend it away anymore.”

I huffed and took another bite of my pickles.

Of course I’d noticed. But we were together and I didn’t feel like bringing a woman into it.

“We wouldn’t have to actually be fathers,” Victor said, like he’d pulled the thought out of my mind. “Just . . . you know, donate sperm. If you’re really against actually having a kid. But we should contribute.”

I swallowed and gave Victor a side glance. “It won’t help.”

“No, likely not,” he admitted. “But it’s not about actually fixing the problem. It’s about living in the neighborhood, contributing. We shouldn’t shirk this, or be miserly about it.”

I knew Victor well enough to know he’d sunk his teeth into this. I avoided weeks of quiet arguments by saying, “Fine. You want to be a sperm donor, I don’t mind.”

He leaned over and bumped my shoulder again. “We need to fit in, be accepted,” he said. I knew he was right, but I hated disruption. Our world was built around clean, orderly routine. Anything different made me wince, as viscerally as a sour note.

I finished eating, then Victor and I walked over to the school for band practice.

Seventeen of us in the neighborhood had played instruments before, and managed to keep them working and maintained through the upheaval. We didn’t have enough power for the constant electronic entertainment I’d wallowed in as a kid, even when we could find a music player. If we wanted music, we had to make it the old fashioned way. I didn’t really mind. I’d been a band geek all through school, but finding a group of adults to play with was tough unless you wanted to commit to a city orchestra, or Have A Band and hustle for gigs. There never seemed to be enough time for that back when I was a newbie electrical engineer with a busy life ahead of me.

Fourteen of us made it to the band room that evening. Bodies warmed the room a little, and it’d heat up more when the audience arrived. The matted carpet was a dirty grey-tan under our feet, but it was clean; we scrubbed it with detergent and brooms every other week. The folding metal chairs fought back against our butts, it seemed, but standing was worse. The candle smoke perfumed the air with a hodge-podge of paraffin and ancient perfume—vanilla and rose and jasmine and pine and pumpkin. Candles lasted if you didn’t burn them, and folks were usually sparing of them. Everyone brought candles on band night, though.

We had a great session. We messed around at first, practicing and trading riffs, trying new things. After the first hour, other people filtered in, to stand or sit around the periphery and listen. We moved into playing actual songs then, and went through a couple of sets, with a water break in the middle.

Music lets me focus on something else. It’s something that’s real, but not. You can’t see it or touch it, it’s just vibrations in the air. If you do it right, its effect is way beyond what “vibrations in the air” should be, but there you go. You can follow it into its own world. It’s transformative, and evocative. You can work it the way you’d ration your water, or you can play with it the way we used to mess with video games—vitally important and completely irrelevant, both, depending on what you put into it and what you wanted to take from it.

I needed to play that night. By the light of the hoarded candle ends, I threw myself into my trumpet and let myself just have fun. Victor could jam with his flute, and the two of us swirled around each other, teasing and challenging and practically having aural sex right there in the air above everyone. The other band members followed along and the fun multiplied. The clapping and tapping and singing of the people in our audience took it to another exponent, and we all rocked, defying the wild with our celebration of perfectly timed and ordered notes vibrating through the air.

Afterward, Victor and I volunteered to clean up. Everyone else left while we took our time cleaning our instruments and putting them away. Victor used a long-handled broom to scrub a few smudges of soot that candle smoke had left on the white ceiling. I polished a window that’d had three people sitting on its sill for two hours, making the glass shine clear.

We didn’t hurry. I’ll admit we paused here and there for some making out, because we might’ve been approaching middle age but we weren’t dead.

By the time we left, most folks in the neighborhood were in bed. There wasn’t much you could do in the dark—talking, singing and sex were pretty much it. So when I heard a light, rhythmic crunching over in the dark where the fence was, on the far side of the school playground, I put a hand on Victor’s arm.

Crunch-crunch-crunch, barely audible footsteps in the gravel, low but clear in the crisp night air.

I exchanged a look with Victor and we swerved in the direction of the playground fence, walking as lightly as we could. I steered us toward the deepest darkness; it wasn’t a direct line to the source of the sounds, but I was pretty sure I knew what was out there, and I didn’t want to have to break into an all-out run any sooner than I had to.

We followed whoever it was, timing our footsteps to match theirs, away from the school and between a pair of houses that’d been abandoned years ago, all the paved ground between the buildings open—we’d scavenged every backyard fence within a dozen miles years ago.

We crossed a street, passed through yards of dirty pavement that no one had tended in weeks. One patio was a mass of cracks and fissures, with twisted rows of plants growing through, like crazy hedges a finger-length tall. The houses themselves were sealed with plywood and bolts and concrete, holding off the invasion of the wild, but we didn’t have enough people to keep every bit of it clean and orderly, and this far away from the neighborhood there were cracks in our defenses.

I felt prickling fear run up and down my back as we walked through the living chaos. Anything could be there in the lightless spaces under the eaves and beside the chimney, or the deep shadows between houses where even the moonlight couldn’t penetrate.

Across pitted asphalt and badly patched cement, following the footsteps. The nearest inhabited houses were blocks away now, and every minute or so I heard a shred of voice blow past on the wind. I couldn’t distinguish words, nor recognize the voices, but I knew who was ahead of us.

Victor and I had longer legs, and eventually we could see the moving shadows ahead of us—a taller figure with a ponytail, a shorter figure carrying a long stick. In the twists and turns between buildings, I saw that both shapes had the humpbacked silhouette that meant backpacks.

Running away seemed like an extreme reaction for the Parker kids. Their parents had been mad, sure, but how did two kids expect to be able to su
vive on their own?

Dumb question—they were kids. Ten- and twelve-year-olds might be a lot more capable now than when I was that age, out of necessity, but they were still kids, which meant they didn’t think things through. Didn’t have all the info, didn’t have the judgement, and were likely to just assume things would work out the way they wanted.

The wind brought shreds of stressed voices back to us, along with a quickened patter of sneakers on concrete. I expected them to swerve off the street and duck between houses again, try to lose us, but they just tore straight down the block, heading in the direction of the old mall.

We might have longer legs, but Victor and I were a lot older, and kids’ve always had energy to spare. Their small shapes grew closer at first, gaining detail in the moonlight, but half a minute later they were gaining again, and I could hear Victor gasping for breath next to me.

I pushed on, not willing to lose two more kids for the neighborhood.

The street we ran down spread wide enough for six cars, and up ahead I saw an intersection like a city plaza. The asphalt river ran between islands of concrete, mountains of stucco and steel and siding rising up, square-edged, on either side. There was an older shopping center—a few short blocks of city streets lined with shops—just this side of the larger and slightly newer mall. Rustic and twisty, designed to make it seem bigger than it was, Lisa and Mikey likely thought they could lose us there. They might be right.

The bigger shadow, Lisa, put on some extra speed and dragged her brother into the shopping center. They vanished around a corner; Victor and I got there as fast as we could, but there was no one in sight when we rounded it.

“Keep looking,” I hissed, trying to be quiet while panting hard. “We’ve got to find them.” I waved him on down the main drag while I took the first turn to the right, between what’d been a drug store and a shoe store.

I remembered working with the containment team, sealing up the shops right behind the foragers who were hauling everything out, everything that might conceivably be useful some day.

The decorative wooden pillars that held up the clay tile roof extending out to the edge of the sidewalk from the rows of stores had been engulfed in ivy. Without regular maintenance, wood cracks and weathers. We’d torn it all off when we sealed the structures, but ivy is fierce and voracious, and without constant battle it’ll always regroup and surge forward into any territory it can claim. The ivy on the shop walls, under the awning, got little sun; straggly and thin, it left only a bare garrison to hold its captured walls. I stayed in the street, well away from the wild greenery, but that just meant I could see where it covered the pillars and the roof, dark and thick, mounds of the stuff.

I felt my skin crawl just being near it. Any greenery was creepy, but ivy? It was made to strangle, and it could have anything lurking in it, hidden by the leaves. Bugs? Even wild animals? What were the kids thinking, choosing such a place to hide?

Maybe they thought we wouldn’t follow them?

I was creeped out, yes, but it made me that much more determined to find the kids and get them away.

I stopped and listened. I heard Victor calling. That’d just let Lisa and Mikey know where he was so they could avoid him. Once he was done with his shouting, though, I heard the pet-pet-pet sound of running sneakers on asphalt coming from the south, in the direction of the mall.

That made no sense. The older shopping center was infested with the wild, but kids at that in-between age were often less wary than they should be. I’d expected them to try to lose us here and then dash off to one of the surrounding neighborhoods, either east or west. The mall, though, was surrounded by open expanses of asphalt. Its old parking lots were easily patched, so nothing grew there. They provided no cover. I rushed on south, expecting to see Lisa and Mikey as soon as I got clear of the shopping center.

Sure enough, they were just dashing around the leftmost corner of an old anchor store, dark shadows against the dirty beige stucco, stark in the moonlight.

Footsteps pounded behind me and a glance over my shoulder showed that Victor had figured out where the action was. He was still a block and a half behind, though; the night air carried sound so well I’d hoped he was closer.

I rounded the corner, pivoting with one hand on a lamppost that creaked and left my palm gritty. There, Lisa and Mikey hunched near where the store entrance used to be.

I thought they’d given up—run out of juice, maybe—and I slowed to a fast walk, sucking oxygen in heaving gasps. Then I heard a sharp creak and Lisa vanished. I squinted into the darkness, trying to see whether she’d just moved into a deeper shadow, or maybe crouched down behind her brother, but I couldn’t see any sign of her. Then Mikey ducked down and he was gone too.

Inside. They’d gone inside.

I shouted for Victor and ran up to where the kids had disappeared. The whole side of the building was dark, but when I got within arm’s reach I could see that the plywood nailed over the wide doorway had been pried up. The very bottom looked like it hadn’t been nailed at all, and when I tugged on the lower corner, it pulled a few inches away from the wall. There still wasn’t enough clearance for me to get through; the kids would’ve barely fit.

I started pulling hard, and heard more nails loosening and the wood giving way—crack, crack, crack.

Victor came pounding up, gasping for breath. “What—whadyou—doing?!”

“The kids went inside. We have to get them out. Help me.”

“Crazy!” Victor huffed, but he got his hands on the edge of the plywood and yanked with me.

It was probably less than half a minute before the board gave a final snap and hinged outward, leaving a gaping hole.

Light streamed out. The air that puffed out of the gap was humid and slightly warm. The floor just inside rose up higher than the threshold of the old door, thick with dirt and loam, leaves and twigs, and in the light that seemed to be glowing softly from every direction at once in there, I could see little things with lots of legs moving around, over the twigs and under the leaves.

I could feel adrenaline pumping through my veins and sweat dampening the back of my neck. This was wild, the wild inside, the wild we fought to keep out of our houses with constant maintenance, watchful vigilance, scraping away every blade of grass and sprout and leaf. This . . . this was lost.

I swallowed hard and crawled inside, scrambling to my feet as soon as I could, hopefully before any of the crawling bug-things got on me.

Inside, I looked around and almost lost my balance.

The door was still behind me—I looked around and checked and saw Victor’s head poking in—but it was just a hole in what looked like a cliff face. The ground I was standing on sloped sharply down starting just a step or two away from the hole. Huge trees and dense bushes grew all around, softening the slope and whatever gouges and gaps there might be in the . . . well, the cliff face.

In front of me the land was gashed by a narrow canyon, running farther than I could see right and left. It was only about a hundred or so feet across, but there was no way over, no bridge, nothing at all that looked constructed. Everything I could see was leaves and fronds and blossoms and grass. A bird went swooping out of an overhanging tree and down into the canyon where it vanished beyond the lip. Something with grey fur skittered up the trunk of a tree farther on.

“Do you see the kids?” asked Victor, his voice hushed. “Any sign?”

Right, the kids. I looked down, figuring I could pick up their tracks with the ground all soft. Sure enough, there were two sets of impressions. They weren’t sharp like on dusty concrete, but a long, ovalish depression in the leaf litter that repeated alternately right, left, right. The tracks headed off to the left, around an outcropping that bulged out from the cliff where the door was, then vanished. I took a couple of steps, following the tracks, moving slow and deliberate. The outcrop was patchy with feathered lichens and the occasional tuft of velvet moss. A grey bulge suddenly scuttled away—it was a lizard, but I’d thought it was a piece of the rock, and when it moved I jumped.

Bright green birds with scarlet heads launched themselves up off the rock over my head and dove down at me, the whole flock of them. I hollered in fright and ducked down with my arms curled over my head. From my crouching position I could see a fuzzy worm of some kind crawling up my pants leg with a sickening, undulating sort of movement. I dashed it off with my hand, then scrubbed my hand on the fabric of my pants.

A snake appeared, dangling from a branch, its forked tongue quavering at me, like it was tasting the air, trying to taste me. A shivering wave of terror gripped me and I turned and fled back to the door.

Shoving Victor aside, I crawled through, back out to the clean world where nothing wanted to crawl on my body.

“What is it? What’d you see?” Victor was back on his feet, poised to either run or grapple something.

“It’s lost,” I said, shoving the plywood back into place over the door. It wouldn’t be enough, of course. “It’s completely wild. We need to seal it, and not just plywood.”

“But the kids—?”

“They’re lost,” I said. I felt like I had a rock in my throat, or that snake, something slithering down and down and down into my belly so I couldn’t swallow, couldn’t breathe. I leaned against the broken plywood sheet and tried to catch my breath, slow my slamming heart. “I’ll stay. Go get the team—wood, bolts, concrete, everything. We need to seal this tonight.”

Victor nodded, his face all grim, down-turned angles. He gave me a hard hug, then trotted off.

I stood there with my back against the door. I hoped the kids would come out, that Lisa or Mikey or both would come to their senses and come home with us. I hoped, but I knew it wouldn’t happen. It never did. Still, I waited there, hands spread to feel for knocking, listening for voices, footsteps. I waited and listened until Victor came back with the others, and we started pouring concrete.