Davis looked back over his shoulder, partly into the sun. Bright orange light bathed the scene in a strange glow. It seemed fitting somehow.
"So I guess that's all she wrote, huh?" Davis said, atop his surveillance point. "Barken no more."
"Yup. Barken no more."
Beneath him lay the strange wasteland that had once been home, now nothing more than a ghost town. The exodus had started maybe a week ago, but now it was complete. There was nothing more but empty shells of houses, bereft of anything. Not even so much as a mouse remained.
"I can't believe it's over."
"Believe. You have your evidence right there in front of you."
Davis remembered the beginning of the end...
"Hi, Pierre? It's me, Sherry."
He remembered leaning forward in his chair as he'd heard a strange fatigue in her voice. "Sherry? What's wrong?"
"Oh, nothing's wrong. Well.. for here, something could be wrong. But.. well.. have you tried dogging lately?"
"Sure. Every night."
"I can't dog any more."
This was the first crack in the marble, and it had set a bell off in his head. Sherry had been in Barken for maybe a year. "You can't? Have you seen the doctor?"
"No, I.. I don't think it's like that. I've been talking to a few people, Pierre. I.. I think the magic's fading."
"I think this thing that lets us change.. it's going away."
"That's.. that's ridiculous. It's those ass hole scientists back again, that's all. I'll go work this out, you just rest easy."
"Well, that's the thing, isn't it? I don't miss it, Pierre. I was just ringing to tell you about that, anyhow, and saying my farewells. I'm going back to Portland tonight."
Davis sighed. "Okay. Drive safely."
"It started that way, didn't it? The ones who hadn't been here so long were the first to go."
"And so it continued.."
It had been a quiet morning. Too quiet. Quiet enough to bore everyone. The calls had begun shortly after lunchtime when the sun had reached its peak and the sand outside was something too hot to walk on.
Everyone was leaving. The same story: can't change any more, must be dashing, leaving tonight, all the best. They followed a tendency which had become all-too-familiar. The town was emptying out at a surreal pace. No hard feelings..
"Fuck this, someone's up to something and I'm going to find out what," Davis had resolved in the sea of ringing telephones. Jenny had watched him walk out the door and slam it, then she shook her head.
She'd said to herself, "The magic's going, Pete. It'll move all that much faster if you chase it." She sighed.
Pierre rocked back in his spot. "I drove around the town for hours looking for a reason. I couldn't find it but it only made me drive harder."
"It's a good thing you ran out of gas when you did, too."
"Hey, Pete," Randy said, gun slung over his back. "You out of gas, there?"
Pierre nodded. "Yeah. Been driving around in circles looking for what's causing this shit, but I can't find it."
Randy grinned. "What shit?"
Pierre sighed and hauled a Jerry can out of his trunk. "People are leaving. They can't dog any more."
"Oh," Randy said. He paused. "Doesn't mean they have to leave."
"But they are, Randy, they are. They're out of here. Back to Portland, back to St Louis, back to Denver, back to Maine, back to fuckin' anywhere but here, Randy. You'd think these people cared about one another beyond the dog but it's.." Davis had spilled a lot of the fuel onto the ground by now in frustration. He took a moment to collect himself. "..it's like the only thing they wanted was the magic. Now that's gone, who gives a fuck?"
Randy shrugged. "You'd stay? Barken ain't Barken without the dog, Pete. These people can be in any old town, they'd rather head back home. Don't worry, Pete. It'll work out."
Randy sounded more like the rationalising voice of this catastrophe to Davis than himself. "What are you saying? You could lose your dog next, Randy. Where would you be then?"
Randy shrugged. "I don't know, Pete. It hasn't happened yet." He laughed a little. "You know something? Of all the people in the town, you are probably the only one who's gotten worked up over this."
"Why shouldn't I get worked up, Randy? The town's dying."
"And how the hell do you give CPR to a town that's happy to die, Pete? You can't bring the dog back if it's gone."
"We've done it before." Davis's eyes started to flush through with brown. His hearing suddenly felt as if someone had uncottoned his ears. Randy sensed it and stepped back.
"When we did it before, people were getting stuck; the rules of this game are simpler, just a lot harder to swallow." Randy didn't want to tangle with Davis while he was dogging. Dogs were unreachable once they got angry. It betrayed something in Randy, for that period of his life, to disrupt the zen of Dog by changing out of anger.
"Fuck you and your Buddhist shit, Randy," Davis growled, teeth affecting a sharp point while his face started to contort outwards into a snout. Randy looked blankly. It was the old story. Davis was too used to being a warrior for his tribe to let this go without a fight. Randy would be it.
"Pete, don't make me shoot you." Randy unslung his gun and with the grace of an eagle swung it down to point at Davis's forehead, which was starting to fur over. "I'm not looking for a fight but you know I'm a killer by trade."
"You bastard," Davis growled, fully dogged and ready to lunge. Randy swung the barrel of the rifle up and pierced Davis's dog-ear with a bullet which hit the sand behind him. Davis yelped and put his paw over his ear. Slowly, the dog gave way to the man, clothes tattered and ear bleeding profusely. Shivering.
Randy slung his gun over his shoulder again. "It gave me no pleasure to do that, Pete, but that was a game you couldn't expect to win. I had a gun in your face but you kept on anyway. It grieves me that what's likely to be the last bullet I fire from this gun was aimed at my best friend. But that's how it is. I'm not going to shoot a rabbit on the way home just to ease my conscience."
Ever since Randy had started up his esoteric reading, he'd been like this. Not like he was going down the middle of the street shooting people, but he was just this unshakeable pillar of calm. It was unnerving to Davis. It was a war they were fighting against the fuckin' Fundies. Lives had been taken. There had been bonds created which were just dissolving without a care. "Randy, what the hell has gotten into you?"
"It's not what's gotten into me, just what I've gotten out of me, Pete. For the last month, there have been five occasions during which I've drawn my gun. Five. I've used it once. On you. The rest of the time it's just been plain desert. I've been killing rabbits by hand, of course, but defending the territory? There's nothing to it. Nobody comes any more."
"I know that," Davis stammered. "It's been good times for us, no psychos to deal with. Time enough to get the school built and staffed. Time to build Barken up into a decent-sized town. And now look, everyone's running away because thy can't dog any more."
"Then that's how it is. You can't force them to stay." Randy opened the passenger door of Davis's car for him. "Come on, I'll take you back to the station, we can talk there."
"What about my ear?"
"It's healed already."
Davis touched his ear in the spot where it had been shot through. It had healed.
"Being shot through the ear must have given you food for thought."
Davis rubbed his ear. Little flecks of blood were still stuck there. "Food for thought more than what I was going to do to Randy. His weird New Age attitude was starting to piss me off but it did remind me some battles weren't worth fighting."
"But this wasn't even a battle."
"It was to me. I stood to lose everything. My dog, my people, my town.."
"And who were you even fighting with?"
Davis sighed. "It seemed like I was fighting with whatever Randy had sided with. Much less Randy now I think about it."
There were all but the old timers left by the time Davis had considered packing up his things. Randy was saying his goodbyes.
"There's still a need for good law enforcement people out there, Pete. You're one of the best, don't forget that." Randy put his shades on and was just walking out the door.
"Is there life after Barken, Randy?" Davis had said. "Can someone.. live through this and still go on somewhere else?"
Randy put his box down and put his keys back into his pocket, then took his shades off and wiped his brow. "Pete, what everyone here's experienced won't soon be forgotten. But life goes on. It will just have to. It can go on, most importantly of all."
"Randy, what aren't you telling me?"
"Pete, if life wasn't meant to go on here then it wouldn't. People would be getting all depressed about this and losing their minds over it."
"Like I am."
"Like you are, yes. But people are walking out of this town without really.. missing it. At all. Don't you think there's a reason that's happening as opposed to the local suicide rate hitting a record high? The town's farewelling us, Pete. That's all there is to it."
Davis looked down at the chair where Jenny had sat for years. It was vacant, polished to a shine by the seat of her pants. "I don't feel like it's right for me to leave. Everyone else is going and I want to just run away, but it's like there's something I have to do before I go that's taking its time to present itself."
Another car went past the station on its way out of the town. The sound of cars had been constant for most of the week but by now, it was trickling down to the occasional drop, like a water tank slowly emptied of water giving up its last reserve. "Then stay," Randy said. "Stay."
Davis laughed at the irony of it all, being talked to like a dog. He barked with surprising depth and hugged Randy tightly. Randy smiled and held him. "It's been a pleasure working with you, Sheriff, but this dog's ready for some new action."
"Say, Randy... can you still.. ?" Randy was a long-time Barkener, surely if anyone could still shift it would be Randy.
Randy shook his head. "Not for a while now. Longer than I knew about everyone else, dogging's just become.. obsolete for me."
Davis's face wore a veil of light shock. "You're kidding."
"I would have been the first one, Pete. First one to give away the dog."
"I didn't know it was a matter of giving it away."
"It was for me. Maybe not for all these other folks, but it was for me." Randy put his shades back on and picked up his things. "Take it easy, Pete."
With the long, fading sound of a motor drone, Randy was gone.
"I walked through that town all night and even after the sun came up, looking for people who hadn't left. Even Rhonda had packed her bags and gotten out of there, though. All these faces and names, they were all gone. My heart was empty." Davis lit a cigarette and puffed the smoke out in a long stream that coned out into the air, getting weaker as it left his mouth.
"Then you saw me up here, and we talked. And we're still talking."
"Why are we still talking?" Davis said.
"Everything that was Barken is inside you now. You are all that is left. The last shred. Pretty soon not even the buildings will be left. There will only be you. And you have a choice of what to do now, a choice that wasn't given to the others. You of all people are left with the strong sense that this is still home. You felt like leaving, certainly, but there is more to your story than simply going and letting it end all there. Perhaps."
"The choice between staying here and going away?"
"After everything, yes. Will you stay here, this ground granted to you in return that you keep it, or will you go and forge a new life for yourself?"
"Choosing between the wilderness and civilisation, then?"
The coyote-woman nodded. "Exactly."
The sun softly set below the horizon, its golden disc swallowed up under the hills.
Pierre Davis had the night to think about it. It was a cool night, and the sky was so jewelled with stars it shocked him to think he'd never noticed so many. So many stars would have at least left a memory in his mind that he'd never forget. Winds blew across the houses, barely visible despite the veritable blaze of light overhead. Tumbleweeds and desert sand, and the black silhouette of the hills.
It was beautiful, no mistaking that. But was it home? Davis felt no need to leave. His mind was nothing but opportunity: the present did not exist for him in those short hours over the night. A little distance away, the coyote-woman slept.
He hadn't slept as the sun rose. The coyote-woman awoke a little distance away. Davis had barely budged from his spot. Was she a ghost? It didn't seem to matter.
"So, you are still here," she said.
Davis nodded. "It's my choice to stay."
She leaned forward, seeming to grow in size a little. "Then you will stay." She leaned forward and kissed Davis on the forehead.
Davis felt queasy. It was a queasiness he hadn't known. It was almost as if there was some knowledge he had of a sweeping, great change coming to pass on the world, but he couldn't tell anyone; they'd just have to see for themselves. He started to feel unfamiliar to himself. He looked at his wrist, which was starting to bristle outward with fur. But it wasn't his fur. It wasn't the fur he'd known all these years. It was the fur of another. He quickly tried to strip off his clothes but it felt as if his body was rebelling, or telling him he couldn't. Or that it didn't matter what happened to his clothes. He wouldn't need them. A sharp sensation above his tongue, the likes of which he hadn't known either, started to creakily pull his face forward. All along, some force in his blood told him to keep calm, and just let it happen. Everything would be as he wanted it.
His vision muted, started to pick out different things now like movement instead of colour. He felt his eyeballs shrink in his skull, and his brain began moving around in his head. His head was shifting around, the bones starting to liquefy almost, soften, so they could move around to a new place. His ears pricked up and made the familiar journey up in a most unfamiliar way. Now he could feel the teeth in his mouth point and prick, and he could feel for spreading out from his crotch to his belly, not quite tickling the way it used to but almost as if it was being unwilfully forced out of his skin. He could feel his tail bone start to ache and prepare to insert a few more vertebrae into his spine. Muscles and glands swelled up and formed under his skin. The changes at first had been distinct but now everything was moving in a solidly defined direction, course set for keeper of the land.
The coyote woman looked at him kindly as the energy across his being abated. That energy of change. Now, there was just a coyote where he had sat, tattered rags of clothes around his body which she proceeded to tear and loosen from him. He walked on new but old paws around in a circle, then looked down at the town, somehow recognising it for what it was. And the spirit of home wailed softly along the desert sands as the last of the buildings vanished into the dust.
They ambled down the hill in pair and sniffed the ground for these curious scents they caught a whiff of up on the hill. But even they had vanished. The land was as if nothing had been there, no human had set foot there, and there was only the main road left, cutting through the desert southward, the land of the coyote.