The Rest of You Is Out of Place
by Matt Thompson
Issue 1: Grotesque | 1800 words
Embroidered Creature #12, from the series Things That Go Bump in the Night by Allie Cheroutes
The fox people come around here every night: snuffling, pulling at the bin bags with their teeth, making that weird high-pitched bark. If I look through the blinds right now, I know I’ll see Peter staring back up at me with those yellow eyes of his, his brow furrowed as if trying to recall the specific details of our past life together. And, beside him, Selma, who used to live in the flat below us. These days she resides in the cellar of the derelict house two streets along, the one that used to be owned by Mr. Jayasuriya.
I can hear him out there too.
When the whole thing first began it seemed more of a curiosity than anything; people, undifferentiated by class or race, somehow remodeling their own DNA profiles to those of animals: dogs, hippopotami, sandpipers; even, in a few rare cases, clams. Not that anyone ever turned into one of these creatures completely. They just started to take on some of their features: a black, wet dog’s nose; a feathered breast; chitinous shells that could withstand the vicissitudes of any climate you cared to name.
There was never an official explanation I was aware of. Soon, though, the number of new cases lessened. Those that had been affected started to lose their identifying marks, shuffling back to their previous lives with an embarrassed sigh of relief. Jonathan from the flat next door had grown a fine set of whiskers that would twitch at the sight of cheese or chocolate. Before he returned to normal he told us of his night terrors, his dreams of splashing through endless, stench-ridden tunnels that culminated in him thrashing about on the floor or attempting to gnaw through one of the bedposts. I heard him some nights, and always felt it was a fate I would wish on no one.
“Nicholas,” he said to me after it was all over, “sometimes it feels like I’m still there. Like I’ll always be there.”
“But now you’re back for good, Jon,” I replied, in an attempt to lift his spirits. “You’re one of us again.”
Some, though, didn’t change back. Like the fox people.
No one knew why. For sure, they grew fine sets of ears, russet red and alert to the slightest whiff of danger. The rest of their bodies looked somewhat out of place as a result, but it didn’t seem to bother them much. Other than their appearance, they were capable of leading perfectly normal lives, as were the vast majority of the afflicted (apart from the clam people, of course, but that’s another story). But not only did their faces become pointier and their pelts become thicker, they started to mimic vulpine behavior in their day-to-day habits. It wasn’t uncommon to find them rooting through recycling bins or digging holes under fences with their bare hands, the better to fashion secret runs through garden after garden.
Our neighborhood, for some reason, became the epicenter of their population explosion. Peter and I often wondered whether there was a reason for that. Urban foxes, certainly, are a different breed from their country cousins. Cities seem to bring out behavioral patterns in them you’ll find in no other creature. Half feral, half dependent on humans for their very survival, they occupy a strange place in the natural hierarchy, somewhere between vermin and co-conspirators.
But in this nondescript London suburb? Maybe it’s best not to ask the reasons why. Maybe the answer would bring something to the surface that should have stayed concealed. When Peter joined their ranks I mourned, in my own way—for what good it did. Things were never the same from the moment I woke one night to see him creeping from the bedroom, whining and scratching like he had already spurned his birthright. He spent longer and longer away, until the day came I had to admit that he was lost to me for good. The fox people had claimed another.
The actual foxes that had lived in the area for decades soon took the hint and sloped off elsewhere. I felt sorry for them, almost, and I sometimes miss seeing their primitive attempts to find food. That’s the problem now: the fox people are too intelligent. Not for them the gnashing of molars at the plastic lid of a wheelie bin. Nor a headlong dive into the piles of black garbage sacks that restaurants leave out on the pavement overnight, swiftly followed by a Peri-Peri-laden sprint to the sanctuary of their hovels.
No—these beasts have higher standards than that, when they feel like it. You can see them at the supermarket sometimes, hanging around outside with their feral, pleading eyes fixated on shopping trolleys and stuffed bags. They seem to like chicken the best, unsurprisingly, although most anything will do. They’ll even enter shops sometimes, offering to the till clerks bundles of bank notes they’ve snatched from unsuspecting ATM users. The security officers or floor managers chase them away, of course, but the next day they’re back, their haunting stares sending shudders of guilt and disgust through anyone unfortunate enough to encounter them.
Earlier this year one of their number, a medical student from the nearby halls of residence named Yu Seo-yeon, plunged beneath the wheels of a truck when she made a mad dash for an abandoned chicken wing on the opposite side of the main road. No one touched the corpse for weeks. I think we all had a superstitious feeling about it. Lamentably, her ears protruded vertically from her flattened skull on the roadway until the local council saw fit to send a cleanup crew round. They would spring back up every time a vehicle drove over her remains, like a car antenna or a mechanically equilibrious children’s toy. The fox people would go quiet when they were near, as if their comrade was listening in to their yelpings and yippings, passing judgment on their every utterance as she waited, wherever she was now, for the Wheel of Life to turn and find a new home for her immortal soul.
I twined a bunch of daffodils round the nearest lamppost as a memento mori. The plastic wrapping’s still there, or most of it, flapping in the gusts of air from passing cars. Last month I saw Peter there, gazing at it with a pitiable expression on his face. He, bless him, still remembers me. I know this because he scrawled my name onto a scrap of paper and shoved it into my hand with a forlorn honk. What could I do? I led him to the supermarket and left him outside while I bought the cheapest, stringiest-looking fowl I could find. He snatched it from me and scampered away without as much as a by-your-leave—not that I was expecting one.
I think that he and Selma have mated. I should be jealous—it’s not just an illicit affair, but a slap in the face to everything we ever held dear as a couple. Disloyalty, I’m finding, has a peculiar taste when the adulterer has abandoned their entire species. But I can hardly be angry when all I’d have had to look forward to would have been endless days of pelt grooming and tooth filing, futile culinary experimentation, and vacuuming up molted hair.
I guess we were never going to last. When Jonathan popped round a few days ago for a chat, he put it into context. “Thing is,” he said, “once you’ve gone, you can’t come back, as the song has it. I mean, I did. But Peter… ” He sighed, as if in mourning for the life he could have led, had he had the strength of character to go through with it. “Peter,” he concluded, “never seemed comfortable in his own skin.”
I couldn’t argue with that. How well I recalled angst-ridden evenings of existential introspection, endless weeks of black moods and bitter sighs. That was before he became one of the fox people, even. Nowadays he just gazes up at my window and whimpers. Some nights I’ll see them scuttling along the banks of the canal, across the main road and into the woods on the other side. They form themselves into a parade; at its head, Mr. Jayasuriya, the property owner. Behind him, Mrs. Esposito, who used to run the pizza restaurant round the corner. Next comes Peter—we’d been paying off a joint mortgage before he jumped ship. And, bringing up the rear, the lumpen proletariat: Selma, Joan from the estate opposite, a couple of others I don’t recognize and the homeless guy who used to patrol the pavements with one trouser leg pulled up to reveal his sores.
His life, at least, doesn’t seem so different. When they head for the woods he’s always the one who starts the hooting and cheeping. Sometimes I almost wish I could join them, just for a night or two. Simplicity is a virtue, or so we’re told, but their life is as simple as it gets: forage, eat, fornicate, survive—if you can. Who among us couldn’t say there’s some appeal in that?
I suspect I’m not the only one. I could swear that one or two I’ve seen have merely jammed plastic fox ears over their own, and physically they’re no different to how they ever were. Maybe they’re coming here from all over nowadays; a diaspora of scavengers, skulking on the periphery of their new society until they can find a mate when breeding season arrives.
A chittering bark comes from outside. The snuffling sounds recede into the night, and I risk a peek through the slats. Selma and Mr. Jayasuriya are loping away towards their tunnel under the fence. The homeless guy is close behind, a baked bean tin clutched in the remnants of his left hand—the parts that haven’t become paw yet. Peter lags to the rear. As the light from my bedroom falls across the lawn, he turns.
Our eyes meet. He narrows his and turns back to his life, sniffing out scent trails in the grass, lifting his tail to mark his territory, his pointed ears trembling at the sound of a motorbike exhaust. Tomorrow, maybe, I’ll try and follow them. If I can keep up. I’ve already marked out a good spot for a den, beneath a burnt-out car someone dumped beside the canal six months ago. Just as an experiment, you understand. No commitment. Nothing necessarily permanent.
I shape my mouth to bark, then remember where I am. Instead, I settle down beneath the blankets for what may be the last time, give my ears as good a scratch as I can manage, and turn my thoughts to where my next meal might be coming from.
Matt Thompson lives in London, from where he writes speculative fiction and plays speculative music. His stories have been published or are forthcoming at Aliterate, Black Static, and Kaleidotrope, among others. He can be found online at matt-thompson.com, and on Twitter at @24wordLoop.