Fiction by Sidney Stevens & Art by Avani Patel
by Sidney Stevens
Lily paused on the cottage porch listening to muffled cries coming from underneath. She’d heard them that morning, too, on her way to the lab.
It was nearly dark now at 6 p.m. as October gave way to November, but still warm enough to be summer. She’d never completely shaken the sense of unreality that fall in northern Pennsylvania could look and feel like July—even now with the climate beginning to right itself.
Lily’s knees throbbed from walking home through the forest. So did her head. Why did she keep resisting the shuttle-pod Ayla had provided to ferry her to and from the research compound? Or her own aging solar-electric car? She was getting too old to walk so far.
The faint cries came again. Lily slumped to the cool stone steps, inhaling deeply for perhaps the first time that day. Maybe she was too old for work, too. If only she were home with savory sugar cookies baking in the oven-warmed kitchen and laughing children racing through in a raucous game of tag. It wasn’t a home she’d ever had with Liam or even wanted, but here it was now in her head.
She brushed it away before its barbed edges caught hold like a burr and strained forward to get a better handle on the sounds below. Even in the hush of dusk—silent maples, hemlocks and oaks towering like sentinels around the cottage—she couldn’t clearly make them out. Or didn’t dare.
Lily knew she should dig out her MISO to scan whatever was down there. Ayla insisted they carry one at all times, but she didn’t have the energy this evening to rummage through her bag. Even her thoughts hung motionless like weighted drapes.
“Imagine it, Lil—a chance to re-wild the earth.” Lily could still see Ayla’s hands forming an invisible globe, eyes glinting like azurite in the dim restaurant light.
“I’m talking about reintroducing gray wolves to the northern forests. Genetically pure gray wolves. No more coywolves.”
It was a big idea, even for Ayla, and still hard to envision five years later. A world without coyote-wolf-dogs. Of all the hybrids spawned when climate-altered habitats began bringing geographically isolated creatures together, coywolves were the most alarming. In some areas, they’d multiplied so fast that deer and other forest species were mostly wiped out.
“My god, Lil, they’re devouring kids in the suburbs now,” Ayla exclaimed. Shadows played around the contours of her deep-set eyes and in the creases of her jowl lines. “Sweetie, we didn’t end climate change just to leave recovery to chance.”
If only Lily had retired that night as planned. If only she’d heeded the whispered forewarnings of intuition or even her own voice of reason. Instead, she’d let the first stirrings of excitement take hold—a world bathed in luminous fairy-tale light, resuscitated and restored. Noble gray wolves roaming pristine forests. Coywolves eradicated. A golden age still possible.
“It’s time you revived endangered species like you always wanted,” Ayla declared, raising her wine glass. Lily agreed in the clink of crystal goblets, ruby liquid sloshing inside, calmed as always by Ayla’s pleasing words, her nurturing devotion. Just like 51 years earlier when she’d agreed to become Ayla’s research assistant.
Outside the restaurant, Ayla hugged her goodnight, uncharacteristically affectionate. “You’re the only one I trust for this.” Unblinking eyes watched Lily in the soundless evening. “It’s you and me again bringing the world back from destruction.”
Lily labored up from the steps and dragged herself inside the cottage. If a coywolf was underneath she’d be required to destroy it.
“Lights. Music,” she sighed, running a weary hand through white curls as the door locked behind her. The kitchen lit up instantaneously, and an Incubus song blasted on, her favorite band way back in college. She’d never gotten used to speaking orders to a house and had yet to send thought commands via the brain-wave feature.
Lily grabbed a bowl of soup from the fridge and placed it in her antique microwave. People laughed, but the thing still worked.
“Volume up,” she said weakly, wandering to the living room and sinking onto the sofa, allowing pulsing music to drown out all thought. The microwave beeped faintly, but she couldn’t bring herself to move.
She woke later to black silence. The music and lights had long gone off, and her head felt tightly wound inelastic. Lily ached to slip back into emptiness and pretend for a while longer that nothing was out there. But it was too great a risk.
With every shred of will, she hobbled outside, guided by the light beam of her MISO. The blue-black sky was already lightening in the east as she crouched on stiff knees to peer under the porch. Phantom 3-D shapes appeared on her MISO display. A coywolf mother and two pups.
DNA on the pups showed 35 percent gray wolf, 63 percent coyote, and 2 percent German shepherd. No vital signs on the mother. An irregular black blotch on her head indicated a gaping wound. Likely from a hunter or maybe a laser drone still in use until the gene-editing program was fully operational. Poor thing had crawled here to protect her pups—and die.
Lily heaved herself under the porch, grunting with each inch forward on old elbows and knees. Eyes glowed in her light beam. She stretched out a hand, but the pups bared tiny white teeth and huddled closer to their lifeless mother. Just as Lily suspected, half the creature’s skull was blasted off, and she was nearly hairless with ghastly patches of red, scabby skin stretched tight over her bony frame. Was she descended from one of the gene-edited coywolves they’d released to pass on deadly genetic mutations?
Lily shuddered. No one had predicted the monsters now wandering fields and forests, emaciated and deformed, covered in cancerous growths, teeth jutting grimace-like from bony jaws, crying in agony. Lily squeezed her eyes shut. No means of eradication was perfect.
The closest pup inched toward her, and Lily ran a hand over it. No scabs beneath its downy fur. No deformities that she could feel.
“How are you still alive?” she whispered, gathering up the wooly bundle, so wolf-like. The other pup wriggled over and pawed her arm.
Probably escaped a bad life somewhere. Nana’s voice floated back from long ago—the summer of 2006 when Lily turned 13. Not much to look at, she said, offering canned tuna to a stray tabby cat that had wandered out of the piney Florida woods behind her house. Nana had welcomed many creatures during Lily’s years there—a bedraggled coonhound, assorted lizards, a broken-winged owl, and even a pregnant goat from a nearby farm—but this was the sorriest sight. His ribs poked through matted mackerel strips, puss oozed from his eyes and nose, and his right ear was mostly gone like someone had torn it clean off.
Everything deserves to keep living till its natural time to go, Nana whispered, wrapping the cat in a soft quilt and carrying him inside.
Lily buried her face in pup fur, inhaling the scent of wild woods and nighttime. Beautiful babies with no chance at life. She’d done her best to make it all humane. Behind her, dawn glowed orange-pink through the trees, and she backed out from under the porch clutching a pup in each hand. She’d deal with their dead mama later.
The shuttle-pod arrived promptly at 8 a.m., but Lily walked past toward the forest path. She needed time to think. A crow called in the distance, its keening caws emerging from silence, then ceasing into stillness again.
She glanced back at the cottage, perfectly nestled among the trees. Ayla knew her taste too well. Hopefully, the pups would remain undetected in her closet all day, fortified by the milk and soft blankets she’d left for them.
Lily ducked into the woods, crunching on the sun-dappled path. A familiar leadenness settled in, a disquieting sense of not being where she belonged, still trapped on a dying planet. But why? Their childhood world was returning, just like Ayla said—the one before monstrous hurricanes wiped away whole communities, before fires torched vast forests before the sea rose and drowned cities, before droughts claimed whole continents. Before Liam’s heart couldn’t handle the extra load from high-heat days and finally gave out.
If only Lily could wander off the path and sit for a while. Feel the embrace of living things around her. She wanted to believe the world was saved. She’d given up everything—a regular life, a career shielding creatures from extinction—to follow Ayla.
Hadn’t they exceeded their grandest hopes after decades of pushing, finally convincing world leaders—really Ayla had—to end fossil fuel use for good? Wasn’t there now earth-wide clean energy powered by an array of solar-paneled satellites? Weren’t all vehicles electric?
But would Ayla’s new world finally relinquish human control to embrace ancient earth rhythms? Or lose its way again?
Lily stepped into the bio-scanner and on through the ReWild gate. The compound was surrounded by high walls designed to detect any movement, even the smallest gnat. No unauthorized visitors—human or animal—could enter, and no gray wolves being bred inside could escape. They were to be released only after all coywolves were extinguished. Ayla was adamant.
Lily stole into her office at the end of a quiet hallway. She loved this tranquil wing with its view of the wooded 100-acre wolf preserve. A cardinal, brilliant crimson, cracked sunflower seeds at the birdfeeder outside her window. They were returning.
Lily spun around at the sound of shuffling in the hall. Ayla hung in the doorway, every wrinkle on her face deepening into an immense grin. “It’s official,” she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. “Loretta had her pups last night!”
Lily assembled her lips into a smile, but no words came out.
“Just some trouble sleeping last night,” Lily mumbled. “I’m fine.”
“Well, then come have a look—I’m bursting!”
Lily followed Ayla through sterile hallways. Every joint ached from crawling under the porch.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” Ayla cooed, pointing Lily toward a kennel window where Loretta lay nursing six pups. “A near genetic match to Henry.”
“Amazing,” Lily murmured. She prayed Ayla couldn’t hear the deadness in her voice. Poor Henry, betrayed by his genetic purity—95 percent gray wolf. They’d captured him near the Arctic and kept him cowering in a cage for months, extracting sample after sample of DNA so they could re-engineer the genes of coywolf embryos to replicate his. Isolated and tortured, he finally willed himself to die. Lily could only grieve in silence.
“You’ve been absolutely key to our success,” Ayla, said, slipping an arm through Lily’s. Her skin felt cool and alien, and Lily struggled not to pull away. Time would tell if the gene-edited embryos implanted in Loretta and others became perfect gray wolves. Or something unintended.
Lily glanced at Ayla’s rapt face, hating the gulf between them, so wide she’d never glimpse the other side again. These pups were gorgeous, but so were hers. Her pups’ eyes were no less heart-stopping, their wolf beauty no less breathtaking. They were every bit as alive. But in the microscopic strands of their DNA, deep in their genetic blueprint, they were galaxies apart and sentenced to annihilation.
“Gotta run, Sweetie.” Ayla’s eyes had already drifted off, ever focused on the next thing.
“Go ahead,” Lily said, waving her on. “I’m going to stay awhile longer.”
As Ayla’s footsteps faded, Lily wandered over to the supply room, peering through the security door at shelves of specially formulated pup formula. Within reach, but unreachable. Lily’s breath left steam on the glass.
The pups tumbled from the closet, nearly knocking Lily off balance. She sank to the floor, allowing them to lick her hands and face. Small but strong. Joss and Finn, named for Nana. Josephine.
They scrambled after Lily to the kitchen where they each drained a bottle of pet store puppy formula. It dribbled down their furry chins, drenching their paws.
“Poor hungry girls, no mama to love you … me either,” Lily whispered. “You’ve got me now like I had Nana.”
Later in bed, as Joss and Finn snuggled against her, a lump rose in Lily’s throat. She expelled a single hard sob like a dislodged peach pit.
Nana’s house rose from the dead. So real Lily felt the sag of Nana’s old cane rocker on the screen porch and the sun-warmed floorboards beneath her bare feet as they discussed hens and fence repairs and whether she was old enough for an iPhone—ever careful to sidestep her mom’s overdose and the massive grief they shared.
Joss stirred and Lily stroked her full, round belly as Nana’s old eyes watched in the darkness.
They said people still lived down in the abandoned world, her old world with Nana. Lost souls holding on to what they owned, fringe folks eking out existence away from a world that had betrayed them. Old electric facilities long silenced by storms and floods. No solar infrastructure to power the living. No stores or supplies or civilization.
Nana’s fingers smoothed back a strand of Lily’s hair and traced down her cheek. She’d survived for years, engulfed in expanding ruin. Lily hadn’t visited much. Her work came first. The world needed her.
Had Nana felt like this? So alone it ached in every bone?
Life decides for itself what forms to take, Nana said softly. You might not like the shape or color, but only life can choose the best way to continue. Your job is to love the choice.
“But, Nana, things got messed up—we had to do something.”
Nana shook her head and slipped into the night.
“Lil, Sweetie, we need to talk.”
Lily hadn’t noticed Ayla entering the open-air hub behind the main building and hastily deleted the 3D satellite image on her MISO.
“Sweetie, things are gone from the supply room … I saw you on my monitor this morning … What’s going on?”
Lily stared out at the wolf preserve, pressing her hands together so they wouldn’t tremble. “They’re just babies …”
“Who? Lil, what are you saying?”
“Coywolf pups. Under my porch. Their mom was killed.” Lily could barely hear her own voice.
Ayla dropped beside her on the work lounge. “Your heart always was too big, Lil. I’ve often envied you—but we have to do what’s best for the world.”
Lily closed her eyes. “What if it’s not for the best?”
“Sweetie, you know hybrids are genetically inferior … Their DNA hasn’t been perfected over eons of evolution … My god, Lil, you know all this … This is your program…” She struggled for the right words, a measured tone, straining not to raise her voice. That was Ayla’s weapon, and it had served her well.
“But they’re so small.” Lily murmured.
Ayla crouched on the floor in front of her and squeezed her hands. A look of impatience and incomprehension worked across her face, then melted into something like agony pulling at her jowls and eyelids.
“Sweetie, please just bring them tomorrow and Luca will handle everything.”
Lily watched Ayla like she was a screen image, muting her colors and potency. She had to. Ayla was too vivid. Too certain.
“Please, Lil,” she said. Her voice was softer now, almost pleading. As though there was a choice.
Lily swallowed words she didn’t dare speak.
Clutching Joss and Finn under her rain poncho, Lily shuffled out to the car. Thank goodness it wasn’t fully self-driving like new models. Its vehicle-to-vehicle communication system could be turned off.
Lily stood listening as rain pattered gently around her, then placed the squirming pups in the cage she’d secured in the back next to a large rolling backpack full of food and supplies. She almost gagged as she wrapped their mama in a plastic tarp and slid it in beside the cage. Then she hastened back into the cottage, hands shaking as she removed her poncho, smoothed her hair and commanded, “Ayla.”
“I was just thinking about you,” Ayla chuckled as she glowed to life on Lily’s MISO. “You look much better this morning.”
Lily blinked back tears. “I’m taking the day off,” she said, struggling to plump her words with cheer. “Give me till tomorrow, and I promise to handle everything.”
“Understood,” Ayla said. Her voice was gentle, calm. She believed her. “You’ve been working hard, Sweetie. Enjoy your day. A cozy one to curl up inside.”
“Thanks for being my friend.”
“Always, my dear.”
“I know,” Lily said, bracing against the counter and the free-falling sensation that swept through her like wind.
“Off,” she ordered and watched Ayla fade away. Then she popped out the power chip and shoved the disabled device in her bag. She’d circle up north to bury it and the mama coywolf before heading south.
Joss and Finn whimpered as Lily climbed in the car and flipped on manual-drive.
“Shhh, girls, there’s a long way to go.”
They’d drive until the roads were no longer navigable and then continue on foot. Ayla wouldn’t suspect anything for another day. By then Lily hoped to disappear.
The satellite image she’d deleted showed Nana’s house still standing.
Been here so long I’ve gone wild, Nana used to say. It’s the call of life…strong and certain.
Maybe they wouldn’t survive. Lily felt the pull of 72 years, a lifetime spent saving the world. The pups might carry lethal mutations. But life still called—strong and certain—to save herself and her girls and what love remained in the tatters of her human blueprint.
There would be no perfectly recreated world, not with Joss and Finn in it. They would go wild together, making possible a perfectly ungovernable world where all chosen shapes were loved, where the call of every life was strong and certain.
Sidney Stevens is an author of fiction and nonfiction with an MA in journalism from the University of Michigan. Her short stories have appeared in The Centifictionist and Waymark Literary Magazine. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Newsweek, New Works Review, Sure Woman, and a new anthology called Nature’s Healing Spirit from Sowing Creek Press.
Avani Patel is a New York based artist and her work is about fantasy in nature. “I want to dedicate this to my mother who recently passed away. She was a strong woman who never gave up.”