Linda held her coffee cup and leaned toward the darkened window above the sink, tracking the yips and shrieks of hunting coyotes, a crazy zigzag of sound that rose to a kind of feral laughter as they shredded some poor jackrabbit or hare. She strained to catch a glimpse of the action but saw only dark outlines of saguaros and creosote against the lesser dark of night.
She enjoyed dwelling among the animals in the shadow of the Catalinas, and she had grown accustomed to their constant sounds: quail calling their mournful love songs, Inca doves crying, ‘no hope, no hope,’ woodpeckers rapping out wild rhythms on the roof, and at night the coyotes, nighthawks, and owls. Some mornings she rose early to watch a local herd of javelina rooting through last night’s dinner scraps by the big bowl of water she kept out there for them. Lately, though, mornings had found her sound asleep, as the nights no longer gave her any rest.
For once, she was a little glad she hadn’t yet found work in Tucson’s depressed economy. She was no good for anything by day. It was all she could do to get out of bed by noon. It wasn’t that she couldn’t sleep, she avoided it, guzzling coffee and staring out the darkened windows, trying to keep her eyes open. When sleep did overtake her, the dreams came, and she couldn’t bear them. Not exactly nightmares, they were filled with confusing images. Sometimes she was running from something, sometimes chasing something else, and sometimes she simply spun in blackness, just a spot of awareness in vast nothingness. What tied them all together and made them so horrible was an overwhelming sense of dread. She would wake then and feel something watching, the rest of the night, those eyes on her – not evil, not hateful, but cunning, hungry, predatory.
She’d lucked into the little adobe when she first arrived here. Friends of friends were desperately trying to unload it and no one was buying. Their mother had lived in the house for decades, a scrappy old lady, fending for herself to the end, but her end was a mystery. She had disappeared one day in June and though her tattered clothes were found in the wash weeks later, no trace of her body had ever been recovered. Linda assumed she had simply died in the garden and been eaten by the animals, but the neighborhood rumor mill had created a mythos around her disappearance that had evidently kept most buyers at bay.
Linda saw herself as a pragmatic city girl. She wasn’t swayed by the stories the neighbors told. Instead she fell in love with the quirky little place and bought it outright with a portion of the inheritance she now still scraped by on. Within weeks she’d packed up her things and left San Francisco for good, seeking a quiet life. She’d looked forward to ending her own days as a scrappy old lady in the desert. But recently, the dreams had come and now she sorely missed her condo in Hayes Valley and the constant company of human voices and Muni busses on the street below.
The coyotes had started up again. Linda was sitting on her bed in the loft above the living room, her laptop open in front of her. She looked out the window hoping that from this higher vantage point she might be able to see them, and she did, dark shapes in the wash, dashing amongst the cactus and scrub. She was exhausted on the inside but physically jittery after a full pot of coffee. It was a horrible feeling, but it beat the alternative. She watched as the pack converged on a spot in her front garden, and this time she heard the rabbit scream, its death cry rising along with their triumphant chatter. And something hit her window. Briefly illuminated by her bedroom light, the face of a coyote, contorted in triumphant glee, its umber eyes fixed on her own. She dropped her coffee cup and yelped as the hot liquid burned her crossed legs. Wisps of white smoke rose from her laptop and the screen went dark. She flung herself back, for now more concerned with her smoking laptop and the mess on her mattress than with what she’d just seen.
Hauling her sodden bedding down the ladder from the loft she realized the impossibility of what she had witnessed. Coyotes couldn’t jump that high. Surely her over-tired, caffeine-wired brain had conjured that vision. Her laptop was ruined and her bed was going to take time to dry, and she still had most of the night to get through.
A neighbor had given her a book, insisting she read it, but Linda had had no interest in the silly thing. With nothing else to do, she picked it up. Skinwalkers: Myths or Monsters? With its lurid cover and ridiculous concept, Linda was almost embarrassed to look at it. This was what her neighbor thought had taken her home’s previous owner. A malevolent spirit with the power to assume the shape of any animal whose skin it wore. Linda’s neighbor said the old lady had believed such a thing was stalking her. She had chalked that one up to dementia, but now she wondered. She skimmed the book for any reference to flying coyotes. Finding none she leaned back on the couch and made the mistake of resting her eyes. The dreams came again, a frenetic mishmash of images, desert scrub, light and dark, her bare feet pounding dust and rocks, cactus spines and thorns ripping at her flesh, her body torn, tossed in the air, spinning, falling.
She awoke in full-fledged panic. Heart racing, she paced the little cottage like a caged animal, feeling eyes on her, not through the window but with her in every room. Patient, quiet, hungry eyes. She started another pot of coffee, pulled her bedding from the washer and stuffed it into the dryer, comforted a bit by its familiar mechanical sound.
She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was in the cottage with her. She caught glimpses of shadows where shadows should not be. Low, dark things that disappeared when she looked in their direction. Half realized images edged around her as she stood in the center of her living room, clutching her coffee cup, turning and turning, trapped. She had to escape, had to go somewhere. Perhaps a neighbor, but she couldn’t go pounding on someone’s door at four am with tales of shadows and wet coffee stains on her pajamas, and she wouldn’t climb the ladder to her loft, to that window where she had seen the impossible vision of a coyote. The shadows were getting bolder, now skittering out of view when she turned toward them, not disappearing. She could feel them closing in. Something darted at her from behind the couch. She dropped her coffee cup and ran out the front door and onto the street.
Above her the Milky Way stretched like a banner hung between the lofty crags of the Catalinas to the west and the lower, rolling Rincons to the east. Something large and dark flew over her head. An owl, she told herself. She stuck to the middle of the road, illuminated by yellow streetlights, heading toward the brighter lights of town. The shadows paced her along the edges of her vision. She broke into a run, her bare feet slapping the pavement, her robe flying out behind her. She could feel them at her back, a swarm of darkness darker than the night, like the swirling spaces between the stars. She could hear them, first distant and familiar, just coyotes, then closer, beside and behind her. She could hear their claws ticking on the pavement, their heavy breath, their yips of glee. A shadow darted across the street in front of her and then another and she changed course, racing off the road and into the brush and cactus, down one of the many washes that crisscrossed the desert, each breath now tearing through her chest, her bleeding feet failing, tripping on thorns and stones, and finally she fell. She felt them on her, she felt her skin torn, the muscle and sinew pulled apart, and then she felt nothing, just falling through darkness, spinning in nothing. Nothing.
The hot sun beat her awake as it rose above the mountains. She lay still, with her head in the dirt, watching a covey of desert quail strutting and bobbing around her. Her mouth was full of dust, her hair matted against her skin, but she felt no pain. In fact she felt rested for the first time in months. She rose, shook herself, and trotted into the brush, her paw prints the only evidence that she had ever been there at all.
“Among the Animals” first appeared in Shifters, a charity anthology produced by Hazardous Press, in 2013.
Susannah Carlson lives in Sunnyvale, California, where she founded and facilitates two critique groups, one in poetry and one in fiction, and does her best to earn enough to stay. Her poetry and fiction has appeared in Sequoia, Narrative Story of the Week, Sparkle and Blink, Sixfold, Read Short Fiction, and Pebble Lake Review, among others. She can be found on Facebook.