“Cry Wolf” by Taemumu Richardson

The rotted last step caved, and his claws screeched against the metal trailer side, like a key in a rusty lock. Still unbalanced since they docked his tail in prison. His heart drummed at the thought of waking the neighbors, but the only movement was his parole officer’s car pulling out—no lights, no siren, praise Moon.

Inside no bigger than a cell, oppressively hot and with a bitter reek of kennel. Stripped bare except for a mattress and a black-and-white postcard taped to the wall—a mountain pass in full moon. Not the first of his kind starting fresh here. They had moved on—there was hope, right? Fell down on the mattress, deadbeat, the fleas straightaway hopping. Sleep was some kind of mercy, and he dreamed of running, mouth full of the resinous taste of pine as he panted. But he woke in a sweat, roped in a noose of sheets the mattress didn’t have.

First week he crept outside only at dawn, to spray the boundaries of the allotment the trailer was chained to. Time came he couldn’t take one more crucible day hunkered in his cage, and that morning he padded silently around the sleeping cul-de-sac. Found some sort of straw bale house at number one—sensed dogs and gave a quiet growl to ward them off barking. Then a log cabin, bursting with the disturbing smell of fear-sweat within. A few lampposts progress at most, and already the bracelet was chaffing his hind leg. At the brick house he hesitated, unsure of his perimeter—made it almost to the end of the street before the sensor jolted electronic jaws like a gin trap. He bit down, to hold the howl back, took solace in the faint waxing moon. All up about five minutes of freedom. Limped back to the trailer, already fresh bleeding with graffiti. “Cry Wolf” it read—but whether command or challenge he did not know.

Couldn’t tell who. Maybe the farmer in the straw bale? Farmer brought his dogs across every morning to shit on the allotment. Breathe. The woodcutter? Crying aplenty at the cabin—one night so bad he contemplated knocking on the door, asking if he could help, if they’d let him in. He’d been relieved to see a taxi draw up and carry the wife and her two little suckling piglets away. What about Bricklayer? Bricklayer junior liked to practice football against the side of the trailer.

P.O. turned his transfer request down, reminded him of the tracking implant. All wolves tagged at birth by law. Overkill reminder, hobbled as he was.

Come full moon he railed the bracelet, tore a howl from himself trying to turn the corner. Don’t fight what you can’t change. Be a good neighbor. He walked small, kept his voice low, avoided eye contact. His paws wore and cracked. Neighbors gathered to whisper and threw dark looks. Now he stayed in his trailer and stared at the postcard.

Next P.O. visit brought the letters, a stack of world-weary army and prison-issue stationery. The prison stuff in the trajectory of foreign wars, all return to sender. Forwardings the other way plotting his own civil war. On top a thick vellum envelope, embossed, and two moons old. Closest thing to a father he ever had, all twisted in a dirty rubber band.

P.O. said, “Corrections hadn’t updated your forwarding address. I’m very sorry…” Trailed off looking at the flies buzzing round a pile by the trailer steps, courtesy of number one. The end of the sentence was down there somewhere too, and in the end the P.O. just hoisted the little bundle with a grunt, like a deadweight.

“Can I see my advocate?” Only just managed a whisper—tried to add “please,” but the word wouldn’t follow.

Anyhow it didn’t seem to matter this once. P.O. took off like a man freed, almost tripping over himself on the way to the car, saying he would arrange it.

Inside the trailer, fully groomed, he slit the story from beginning to end. The letters to him were mostly redacted off the face of the earth—dear brother, dear brother, then a Morse code of terror and loss, all gritty from the deserts of a thousand wars. In the end the only certainty being eldest brother buried in the shifting sands of strange territory. Was each grain once a mountain? Hope was running short to believe that might be so.

Come night he took the envelopes out into the moonlight, to the scraggly copse—just a few broadleaves trying to survive in a triangle of concrete. Collected up the beer cans and wind-blown plastic bags. The hardpan dragged at his claws, made his shoulders work, but gave way to the rich smell of loam, and he dug deep into the soft earth. There he buried the envelopes, then lifted his neck and sang the old songs silently. He left the ground looking undisturbed, as only a true tracker could.

His advocate from No Lone Wolf arrived the next day. Not the god-botherer type (at least they gnawed theirs not his), with her torn ear and hefty steel nose-ring. No one else leading her around by that thing. He’d met her a few times. She was a big football fan, had put two and two together on account of his unusual surname. So they talked about his little brother mostly, she recounting play by play of the finals the night before. He borrowed pen and paper, kept the explanation brief. She cried a little, touched his foreleg. The first touch since his docking—that he could remember anyway.

He took to the trailer to write,

Dear Furball,

Just found out yesterday, mix-up with my mail. Sorry I couldn’t be there with you all. No words, only peace.

Corrections have given me a nice little place in a good neighborhood. Settling in.

Watched you on TV last night. Mountain lifts your every step for sure.

All my love forever.

When he pressed his nose to the paper, he struggled to raise his head again.

Then one morning a change in the weather—the sow from the brick house was so sorry—Junior’s ball on the roof, could he help? Next a moment of confusion on the tiles—no ball. He was just calling down the chimney when a siren and blue lights brought realization. His bracelet fired. He fell.

Lying on the pavement he caught snatches of the litany,

“all huffed up…abusing my dogs…”

“…prowlin’ and howlin’…had to send my wife and piggies away…”

“sniffing down the chimney…scared for our lives…”

Broken good, without doubt, but still enough shine left to crouch for one last wild run—to be himself if only for a step or two. Lay down again for Furball. The wind was picking up, and he knew what came next. Then the sky shattered, the first drops of rain frying on the pavement as they dragged him to the patrol car.

Taemumu Richardson is a graduate of Odyssey Workshop. Her work has been published in Takahē Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A first-generation Kiwi of Fijian-English descent, she lives in Te Upoko-o-te-ika-a-Māui / Wellington, where she works as a GP.