Pax Jon Klassen Sara Pennypacker A moving story of the extraordinary friendship between a boy and his fox, and their epic journey to be reunited. Beautifully illustrated by multi-award winner, Jon Klassen.Pax was only a kit when his family was killed and he was rescued by ‘his boy’, Peter. Now the country is at war and when his father enlists, Peter has no choice but to move in with his grandfather. Far worse than leaving home is the fact that he has to leave Pax behind. But before Peter spends even one night under his grandfather’s roof he sneaks out into the night, determined to find his beloved friend. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their journeys back to each other as war rampages throughout the country.A profound and moving story with stunning illustrations by award-winning illustrator, Jon Klassen, ‘Pax’ is destined to become a classic in the vein of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and ‘Watership Down’. Copyright (#ulink_b97b5bb2-9b2d-591d-a964-1bb142b385ee) HarperCollins Children’s Books is a division of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd, HarperCollins Publishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF The HarperCollins Children’s Books website address is www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) Text copyright © Sara Pennypacker 2016 Illustrations copyright © Jon Klassen 2016 Cover art © 2016 by Jon Klassen Cover design by Dana Fritts Sara Pennypacker and Jon Klassen assert the moral right to be identified as the author and illustrator of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780008124090 Edition © 2016 ISBN: 9780008158095 Version: 2016-01-31 Author’s note: (#ulink_47a00f1c-7357-5991-9907-87932e50de7e) Fox communication is a complex system of vocalization, gesture, scent, and expression. The “dialogue” in italics in Pax’s chapters attempts to translate their eloquent language. To my agent, Steven Malk, who said “Pax” – S.P. Epigraph (#ulink_e20e266c-164b-57f2-af63-921f6ff90ad3) Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Contents Cover (#ud2740868-5198-588e-a47e-4a5bf605a316) Title Page (#u6893baae-e3d1-5e5b-aff9-94ebbfcab66d) Copyright (#u3748099d-c621-5ac6-b630-a4acf2ceeb75) Author’s note (#uaafdd340-621e-5200-a844-3ab33cf5b6e7) Dedication (#u8722c71e-38d8-5791-9928-593997612f11) Epigraph (#u7cfbc8c9-d88d-5c97-974f-4d012822d760) Chapter 1 (#u446952f5-a4ae-5d62-b04f-997181e7a14d) Chapter 2 (#ud7546733-3811-518e-a053-72f6b36bc326) Chapter 3 (#u942f55b4-03d0-5054-b4b2-697de361bc7e) Chapter 4 (#ub21709e8-6109-5ee1-ba79-c8c7023e3320) Chapter 5 (#u42ef5838-f8e6-5373-b946-a23b75210c9b) Chapter 6 (#ud6bbb5aa-e2b7-5853-a381-e6ad121ef4ff) Chapter 7 (#u68f8d82d-e0ee-526b-9326-0baf0bbd8021) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 19 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 20 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 21 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 22 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 23 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 24 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 25 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 26 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 27 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 28 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 29 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 30 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 31 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 32 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 33 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 34 (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgments (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) About the Illustrator (#litres_trial_promo) Also By Sara Pennypacker (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) (#ulink_a95a953e-6e06-5a3c-9ad6-834818dcc4c8) The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first. Through the pads of his paws, along his spine, in the sensitive whiskers at his wrists. By the vibrations, he learned also that the road had grown coarser. He stretched up from his boy’s lap and sniffed at threads of scent leaking in through the window, which told him they were now travelling into woodlands. The sharp odours of pine – wood, bark, cones, and needles – slivered through the air like blades, but beneath that, the fox recognised softer clover and wild garlic and ferns, and also a hundred things he had never encountered before but that smelled green and urgent. The boy sensed something now, too. He pulled his pet back to him and gripped his baseball glove more tightly. The boy’s anxiety surprised the fox. The few times they had travelled in the car before, the boy had been calm or even excited. The fox nudged his muzzle into the glove’s webbing, although he hated the leather smell. His boy always laughed when he did this. He would close the glove around his pet’s head, play-wrestling, and in this way the fox would distract him. But today the boy lifted his pet and buried his face in the fox’s white ruff, pressing hard. It was then that the fox realised his boy was crying. He twisted round to study his face to be sure. Yes, crying – although without a sound, something the fox had never known him to do. The boy hadn’t shed tears for a very long time, but the fox remembered: always before he had cried out, as if to demand that attention be paid to the curious occurrence of salty water streaming from his eyes. The fox licked at the tears and then grew more con-fused. There was no scent of blood. He squirmed out of the boy’s arms to inspect his human more carefully, alarmed that he could have failed to notice an injury, although his sense of smell was never wrong. No, no blood; not even the under-skin pooling of a bruise or the marrow leak of a cracked bone, which had happened once. The car pulled to the right, and the suitcase beside them shifted. By its scent, the fox knew it held the boy’s clothing and the things from his room he handled most often: the photo he kept on top of his bureau and the items he hid in the bottom drawer. He pawed at a corner, hoping to pry the suitcase open enough for the boy’s weak nose to smell these favoured things and be comforted. But just then the car slowed again, this time to a rumbling crawl. The boy slumped forward, his head in his hands. The fox’s heartbeat climbed and the brushy hairs of his tail lifted. The charred metal scent of the father’s new clothing was burning his throat. He leaped to the window and scratched at it. Sometimes at home his boy would raise a similar glass wall if he did this. He always felt better when the glass wall was lifted. Instead, the boy pulled him down on to his lap again and spoke to his father in a begging tone. The fox had learned the meaning of many human words, and he heard him use one of them now: “NO.” Often the “no” word was linked to one of the two names he knew: his own and his boy’s. He listened carefully, but today it was just the “NO,” pleaded to the father over and over. The car juddered to a full stop and tilted off to the right, a cloud of dust rising beyond the window. The father reached over the seat again, and after saying something to his son in a soft voice that didn’t match his hard lie-scent, he grasped the fox by the scruff of the neck. His boy did not resist, so the fox did not resist. He hung limp and vulnerable in the man’s grasp, although he was now frightened enough to nip. He would not displease his humans today. The father opened the car door and strode over gravel and patchy weeds to the edge of a wood. The boy got out and followed. The father set the fox down, and the fox bounded out of his reach. He locked his gaze on his two humans, surprised to notice that they were nearly the same height now. The boy had grown very tall recently. The father pointed to the woods. The boy looked at his father for a long moment, his eyes streaming again. And then he dried his face with the neck of his T-shirt and nodded. He reached into his jeans pocket and withdrew an old plastic soldier, the fox’s favorite toy. The fox came to alert, ready for the familiar game. His boy would throw the toy, and he would track it down – a feat the boy always seemed to find remarkable. He would retrieve the toy and wait with it in his mouth until the boy found him and took it back to toss again. And sure enough, the boy held the toy soldier aloft and then hurled it into the woods. The fox’s relief – they were only here to play the game! – made him careless. He streaked toward the woods without looking back at his humans. If he had, he would have seen the boy wrench away from his father and cross his arms over his face, and he would have returned. Whatever his boy needed – protection, distraction, affection – he would have offered. Instead, he set off after the toy. Finding it was slightly more difficult than usual, as there were so many other, fresher odours in the woods. But only slightly – after all, the scent of his boy was also on the toy. That scent he could find anywhere. The toy soldier lay face down at the burled root of a butternut tree, as if he had pitched himself there in despair. His rifle, its butt pressed tirelessly against his face, was buried to the hilt in leaf litter. The fox nudged the toy free, took it between his teeth, and rose on his haunches to allow his boy to find him. In the still woods, the only movements were bars of sunlight glinting like green glass through the leafy canopy. He stretched higher. There was no sign of his boy. A prickle of worry shivered up the fox’s spine. He dropped the toy and barked. There was no response. He barked again, and again was answered by only silence. If this was a new game, he did not like it. He picked up the toy soldier and began to retrace his trail. As he loped out of the woods, a jay streaked in above him, shrieking. The fox froze, torn. His boy was waiting to play the game. But birds! Hours upon hours he had watched birds from his pen, quivering at the sight of them slicing the sky as recklessly as the lightning he often saw on summer evenings. The freedom of their flights always mesmerised him. The jay called again, deeper in the forest now, but answered by a chorus of reply. For one more moment the fox hesitated, peering into the trees for another sight of the electric-blue wedge. And then, behind him, he heard a car door slam shut, and then another. He bounded at full speed, heedless of the briars that tore at his cheeks. The car’s engine roared to life, and the fox skidded to a stop at the edge of the road. His boy rolled the window down and reached his arms out. And as the car sped away in a pelting spray of gravel, the father cried out the boy’s name, “Peter!” And the boy cried out the only other name the fox knew. “Pax!” (#ulink_e915bc6b-9ee1-5d54-bc3f-4b8118b26fa5) “So there were lots of them.” Peter heard how stupid it sounded, but he couldn’t help repeating it. “Lots.” He plowed his fingers through the heap of plastic soldiers in the battered cookie tin – identical except for their poses: standing, kneeling, and prone, all with rifles pressed hard to their olive-green cheeks. “I always thought he just had the one.” “No. I was always stepping on them. He must have had hundreds. A whole army of them.” The grandfather laughed at his own accidental joke, but Peter didn’t. He turned his head and looked intently out the window, as if he had just caught sight of something in the darkening back yard. He raised a hand to draw his knuckles up his jaw line, exactly the way his father rasped his beard stubble, and wiped surreptitiously at the tears that had brimmed. What kind of a baby cried about something like this? And why was he crying at all, anyway? He was twelve and he hadn’t cried for years, not even when he’d fractured his thumb bare-handing Josh Hourihan’s pop fly. That had hurt a lot, but he’d only cursed through the pain waiting with the coach for X-rays. Man up. But today, twice. Peter lifted a soldier from the tin and drifted back to the day he’d found one just like it in his father’s desk. “What’s this?” he’d asked, holding it up. Peter’s father had reached over and taken it, his face softening. “Huh. Been a long time. That was my favourite toy when I was a kid.” “Can I have it?” His dad had tossed the soldier back. “Sure.” Peter had stood it up on the windowsill beside his bed, pointing the little plastic rifle out in a satisfying show of defence. But within the hour Pax had swiped it, which made Peter laugh – just like him, Pax had to have it. Peter dropped the toy back into the tin and was about to snap the lid back on when he noticed the edge of a yellowed photo sticking up from the mound of soldiers. He tugged it free. His dad, at maybe ten or eleven, with one arm draped around a dog. Looked like part-collie, part-a-hundred-other-things. Looked like a good dog, the kind you would tell your own son about. “I never knew Dad had a dog,” he said, passing the photo to his grandfather. “That’s Duke. Dumbest creature ever born, always underfoot.” The old man looked more closely at the picture, and then over at Peter as if seeing something for the first time. “You’ve got the same black hair as your dad.” He rubbed at the fringe of grey fuzz banding the top of his head. “I had it too, way back. And look, he was scrawny then, too, same as you, same as me, with those ears like a jug. The men in our family – I guess our apples don’t fall far from the tree, eh?” “No, sir.” Peter forced a small smile, but it didn’t hold up. “Underfoot.” That was the word Peter’s father had used. “He can’t have that fox underfoot. He doesn’t move as fast as he used to. You stay out of the way, too. He’s not used to having a kid around.” “You know, war came and I went and served, like my father. Like your father now. Duty calls, and we answer in this family. No, sir, our apples don’t fall far from the tree.” He handed back the photo. “Your father and that dog. They were inseparable. I’d almost forgotten.” Peter put the photo back into the tin and pressed the lid down tight, then slid it under the bed, where he’d found it. He looked out the window again. He couldn’t risk talking about pets right now. He didn’t want to hear about duty. And he sure didn’t want to hear any more about apples and the trees they were stuck underneath. “What time does school start here?” he asked, not turning round. “Eight. They said to show up early, introduce yourself to the homeroom teacher. Mrs. Mirez, or Ramirez … something. I got you some supplies.” The old man nodded over to a spiral notebook, a beat-up thermos, and a bunch of stubby pencils bundled together with a thick rubber band. Peter walked over to the desk and put everything into his rucksack. “Thanks. Bus or walk?” “Walk. Your father went to that school, and he walked. Follow Ash to the end, turn right on School Street, and you’ll see it – big brick building. School Street – get it? You leave by seven thirty, you’ll have plenty of time.” Peter nodded. He wanted to be left alone. “Okay. I’m all set. I guess I’ll go to bed.” “Good,” his grandfather replied, not bothering to hide the relief in his voice. He left, closing the door behind him firmly as if to say, You can have this room, but the rest of the house is mine. Peter stood by the door and listened to him walk away. After a minute, he heard the sound of dishes clattering in the sink. He pictured his grandfather in the cramped kitchen where they’d eaten their silent dinner of stew, the kitchen that reeked so strongly of fried onions that Peter figured the smell would outlive his grandfather. After a hundred years of scrubbing by a dozen different families, this house would probably still smell bitter. Peter heard his grandfather shuffle back along the hall to his bedroom, and then the low spark as the television caught, the volume turned down, an agitated news commentator barely audible. Only then did he toe off his trainers and lie down on the narrow bed. Six months – maybe more – of living here with his grandfather, who always seemed on the verge of blowing up. “What’s he always so mad about, anyway?” Peter had asked his father once, years ago. “Everything. Life,” his father had answered. “He got worse after your grandmother died.” After his own mother had died, Peter had watched his father anxiously. At first, there had just been a frightening silence. But gradually his face had hardened into the permanent threat of a scowl, and his hands clenched in fists by his sides as if itching for something to set him off. Peter learned to avoid being that something. Learned to stay out of his way. The smell of stale grease and onions crawled over him, seeping from the walls, from the bed itself. He opened the window beside him. The April breeze that blew in was chilly. Pax had never been alone outside before, except in his pen. Peter tried to extinguish the last sight he’d had of his fox. He probably hadn’t followed their car for long. But the image of him flopping down on the gravel shoulder, confused, was worse. Peter’s anxiety began to stir. All day, the whole ride here, Peter had sensed it coiling. It always seemed like a snake to him, his anxiety – waiting just out of sight, ready to slither up his spine, hissing its familiar taunt. You aren’t where you should be. Something bad is going to happen because you aren’t where you should be. He rolled over and pulled the cookie tin out from under the bed. He fished out the photo of his father with one arm slung so casually around the black-and-white dog. As if he had never worried he could lose him. Inseparable. He hadn’t missed the note of pride that had entered his grandfather’s voice as he’d said that. Of course he’d been proud – he’d raised a son who knew about loyalty and responsibility. Who knew that a kid and his pet should be inseparable. Suddenly the word itself seemed an accusation. He and Pax, what were they then … separable? They weren’t, though. Sometimes, in fact, Peter had had the strange sensation that he and Pax merged. The first time it happened had been the first time he’d taken Pax outdoors. The kit had seen a bird and had strained against the leash, trembling as though electrified. And Peter had seen the bird through Pax’s eyes – the miraculous lightning flight, the impossible freedom and speed. He’d felt his own skin thrill in full-body shivers, and his own shoulders burn as though yearning for wings. It had happened again this afternoon. He had felt the car spin away as though he were the one being left. His heart had quickened with panic. Tears stung again, and Peter palmed them with frustrated swipes. His father had said it was the right thing to do. “War is coming. It means sacrifices for everybody. I have to serve – it’s my duty. And you have to go away.” Of course, he’d been half expecting it. Two of his friends’ families had already packed up and left when the evacuation rumours had begun. What he hadn’t expected was the rest. The worst part. “And that fox … well, it’s time to send him back to the wild anyway.” A coyote howled then, so nearby that it made Peter jump. A second one answered, and then a third. Peter sat up and slammed the window shut, but it was too late. The yips and howls, and what they meant, were in his head now. Peter had only two bad memories of his mother. He had a lot of good ones, too, and he often took those out to comfort himself, although he worried that they might fade from so much exposure. But the two bad ones he’d buried deep. He did everything in his power to keep them buried. Now the coyotes were baying in his head, unearthing one of them. When he’d been about five, he’d come upon his mother standing dismayed beside a bed of blood-red tulips. Half of them were standing at attention, half of them splayed over the ground, their blossoms crumpling. “A rabbit got them. He must think the stems are delicious. The little devil.” Peter had helped his father set a trap that night. “We won’t hurt him, right?” “Fine. We’ll just catch him, then drive him into the next town. Let him eat someone else’s tulips.” Peter had baited the trap himself with a carrot, then begged his father to let him sleep in the garden to keep watch. His father had said no, but helped him set an alarm clock so he’d be the first to awaken. When it went off, Peter had run to his mother’s room to lead her outside by the hand to see the surprise. The trap lay on its side at the bottom of a freshly scraped crater at least five feet across. Inside was a baby rabbit, dead. There wasn’t a single mark on its little body, but the cage was scratched and dented, and the ground all around clawed to rubble. “Coyotes,” his father said, joining them. “They must have scared it to death trying to get in. And none of us even woke up.” Peter’s mother had opened the trap and lifted out the lifeless form. She held it to her cheek. “They were just tulips. Only a few tulips.” Peter found the carrot, one end nibbled off, and threw it as far away as he could. Then his mother had placed the rabbit’s body in his cupped palms and gone to get a shovel. With a single finger, Peter had traced its ears, unfurling like ferns from its face, and its paws, miraculously tiny, and the soft fur of its neck, slick with his mother’s tears. When she’d returned, his mother had touched his face, which burned with shame. “It’s okay. You didn’t know.” But it wasn’t okay. For a long time afterward, when Peter closed his eyes, he’d seen coyotes. Their claws raking dirt, their jaws snapping. He saw himself where he should have been: keeping watch in the garden that night. Over and over, he saw himself doing what he should have: rising from his sleeping bag, finding a rock, and hurling it. He saw the coyotes fleeing back into the darkness, and he saw himself opening the trap to set the rabbit free. And with that memory, the anxiety snake struck so hard that it stunned Peter’s breath out of him. He hadn’t been where he should have been the night the coyotes killed the rabbit, and he wasn’t where he should be now. He gasped to fill his lungs and sat bolt upright. He tore the photo in half and then in half again and pitched the pieces under the bed. Leaving Pax hadn’t been the right thing to do. He jumped to his feet – he’d already lost a lot of time. He fished some cargos, a long-sleeved camouflage T-shirt, and a fleece sweatshirt from his suitcase, and then an extra set of underwear and socks. He stuffed everything into his rucksack except the sweatshirt, which he tied around his waist. Jackknife in his jeans pocket. Wallet. He debated for a minute between his hiking boots and trainers and decided on the boots, although he didn’t put them on. He looked around the room, hoping to find a torch or anything resembling camping equipment. The room had been his father’s when he’d been a boy, but aside from a few books on a shelf, it was clear his grandfather had cleaned all his things out. The cookie tin had seemed to surprise him – an oversight. Peter bumped his fingers over the spines of the books. An atlas. He pulled it down, amazed at his luck, and flipped through it until he came to the map that showed the route he and his father had travelled. “You’ll only be three hundred miles away.” His father had tried to bridge the silence of the drive a couple of times. “I get a day off, I’ll come.” Peter had known that it would never happen. They didn’t give days off in war. Besides, it wasn’t his father he was already missing. And then he saw something he hadn’t realised: the highway snaked around a long range of foothills. If he cut straight across those instead of following the highway, he could save a lot of time, plus reduce the risk of being caught. He started to rip out the page, then realised he couldn’t leave his grandfather such an obvious clue. Instead, he studied the map for a long moment, then replaced the atlas on the shelf. Three hundred miles. It looked like he could shave off a hundred of them by taking the shortcut, so say around two hundred. If he could walk at least thirty miles a day, he could make it in a week or less. They’d left Pax at the head of the access road that led to the ruins of an old rope mill. Peter had insisted on this road because hardly anyone ever used it – Pax didn’t know about traffic – and because there were woods and fields all around. He’d go back and find Pax there, waiting, in seven days. He wouldn’t let himself think about what might happen to a tame fox in those seven days. No, Pax would be waiting at the side of the road, right where they’d left him. He’d be hungry, for sure, and probably scared, but he’d be okay. Peter would take him home. They would stay there. Just let someone try to make him leave this time. That was the right thing to do. He and Pax. Inseparable. He glanced around the room again, resisting the urge to just run. He couldn’t afford to miss anything. The bed. He pulled the blanket off, rumpled the sheets, and punched the pillow until it looked slept on. From his suitcase he took out the picture of his mother he’d kept on his bureau – the one taken on her last birthday, holding up the kite Peter had made for her, and smiling as if she’d never had a better present in her life – and slid it into his rucksack. Next, he pulled out the things of hers that he’d kept hidden in his bottom drawer at home. Her gardening gloves, still smudged with the last soil she’d ever lifted; a box of her favourite tea, which had long ago lost its peppermint scent; the thick candy-cane-striped kneesocks she wore in winter. He touched them all, wishing he could take everything back home where it belonged, and then chose the smallest of the items – a gold bracelet with an enameled phoenix charm she’d worn every day – and tucked it into the middle of his rucksack with the photo. Peter surveyed the room a last time. He eyed his baseball and glove and then crossed to the bureau and stuffed them into the rucksack. They didn’t weigh much, and he’d want them when he was back home. Besides, he just felt better when he had them. Then he eased the door open and crept to the kitchen. He set the rucksack on the oak table, and in the dim light from above the stove, he began to pack supplies. A box of raisins, a sleeve of crackers, and a half-empty jar of peanut butter – Pax would come out of any hiding spot for peanut butter. From the refrigerator, he took a bunch of string cheese sticks and two oranges. He filled the thermos with water and then hunted through drawers until he found matches, which he wrapped in tinfoil. Under the sink he scored two lucky finds: a roll of duct tape and box of heavy-duty garbage bags. A tarp would have been better, but he took two bags with gratitude and zipped the pack. Finally he took a sheet of paper from the pad beside the phone and began a note: DEAR GRANDFATHER. Peter looked at the words for a minute, as if they were a foreign language, and then crumpled the paper up and started a new note. I LEFT EARLY. WANTED TO GET A GOOD START ON SCHOOL. SEE YOU TONIGHT. He stared at that page for a while, too, wondering if it sounded as guilty as he felt. At last, he added, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING – PETER, placed the note under the saltshaker, and slipped out. On the brick walk, he shrugged on his sweatshirt and crouched to lace his boots. He straightened up and shouldered his rucksack. Then he took a moment to look around. The house behind him looked smaller than it had when he’d arrived, as if it were already receding into the past. Across the street, clouds scudded along the horizon, and a half-moon suddenly emerged, brightening the road ahead. (#ulink_28b12a04-5a26-55ef-9cee-57d10228e761) Pax was hungry and cold, but what had woken him was the sense that he needed cover. He blinked and edged backward. What felt like the comforting bars of his pen gave way in brittle snaps. He turned to find the stand of dried milkweed stalks he’d wedged himself against a few hours before. He barked for Peter and remembered: his boy was gone. Pax wasn’t used to being alone. He had been born into a squirming litter of four, but his father had disappeared before the kits had even learned his scent, and soon after that, his mother had failed to come home one morning. One by one, his brothers and sister had died, leaving his the only heartbeat in the cold den until the boy, Peter, had lifted him out. Since that time, whenever his boy was gone, Pax would pace his pen until Peter returned. And at night he always whined to come inside, where he could listen to his human’s breathing. Pax loved his boy, but more than that, he felt responsible for Peter, for protecting him. When he couldn’t perform this role, he suffered. Pax shook the night’s rain off his back and headed for the road without even stretching his stiff muscles, straining for his boy’s scent. He couldn’t find it – the night’s winds had swept the ground clean of any trace. But among the hundreds of odours rising on the early morning breeze, he found something that reminded him of his boy: acorns. Peter had often scooped up handfuls and sprinkled them over Pax’s back, laughing to see him shake them off and then crack them to get at the meat. The familiar scent seemed a promise to him now, and he trotted toward it. The acorns were scattered around the base of a lightning-struck oak a few full-bounds north of where he had last seen his boy. He crunched at a few of them, but found only shrivelled, mouldy nubs inside. Then he settled himself on the fallen trunk, ears trained for any sound on the road. While he waited, Pax licked his fur dry and clean, taking comfort in the lingering Peter-scent he found there. Then he turned his attention to his forepaws, painstakingly cleaning the many cuts in their pads. Whenever he was anxious, Pax dug at the floor of his pen. He always shredded his paws on the rough concrete buried beneath, but he could not control the urge. In the week before, he’d dug nearly every day. When his paws were cleaned, he curled them up under his chest to wait. The morning air pulsed with the noises of spring. The long night before, they had alarmed Pax. The blackness had quivered with the rustle of night prowlers, and even the sounds of the trees themselves – leaves unfurling, sap coursing up new wood, the tiny cracklings of expanding bark – had startled him over and over as he waited for Peter to return. Finally, as dawn had begun to silver the sky, he’d fallen into a shivering sleep. Now, though, the same sounds called to him. A hundred times his sensitive ears pricked, and he almost sprang up to investigate. But each time, he remembered his boy and stilled himself. The humans had good memories, so they would come back to this spot. But they relied on sight alone – all their other senses being so weak – so if they did not see him when they returned, they might leave again. Pax would stay beside the road and ignore all temptations, including the strong urge he felt to head south, the direction his instinct told him would lead him back to his home. He would stay at this spot until his boy came for him. Above him, a vulture cruised the thermals. A lazy hunter, it was searching for the lifeless shape of carrion. When it found the red-furred form of the fox, motionless but giving off no odour of decay, it circled lower to investigate. Pax registered an instinctive alarm at the cool flicker of V-shaped shadow. He jumped from the trunk and scratched at the dirt beneath. The ground seemed to answer with a distant rumble, like a growling heart. Pax stretched high, the danger from above forgotten. The last time he had seen his boy, there had been vibrations like this along this very road. He tore over the gravel shoulder to the exact spot where his humans had left him. The vibrations grew to a roar. Pax rose on his haunches to be seen. But the source was not his boy’s car. It was not a car at all. As it loomed up, it seemed to the fox to be as large as the house his humans lived in. The truck was green. Not the growing green of the trees all around, but a dull olive, a colour death might wear when it claimed these trees. The same dull olive of the toy soldier the fox had cached in the milkweed stalks. It stank of diesel and the same charred metal scent that had clung to his boy’s father’s new clothing. In a cloud of dust and sprayed stones, the truck charged past, followed by another and another and another. Pax bounded away from the road. The vulture soared up and away with a single beat of its wings. (#ulink_1b17c107-83a1-5be6-b87d-3405d315fc5a) Not hunting for his grandfather’s torch – that was the first mistake of the trip. The moon had lit Peter’s way for maybe two hours before it had drowned beneath thick clouds. He’d stumbled along in the dark for another hour before giving up. He’d slit open the sides of a bin bag to make a long mat and cut the other to wear as a poncho against the cold mist, and slept beside a culvert, his baseball mitt for a pillow. Actually, “slept” was a wild overstatement, and when the first low sun rays stabbed his eyelids, he’d awakened cold and wet from whatever dozing he’d managed. His first thoughts were of Pax – where was he this morning? Was he wet and cold, too? Was he afraid? “I’m coming,” he said out loud as he rolled the bin bags back into his pack. “Hold on.” He ate a stick of cheese and a couple of crackers, slugged a long drink of water, then laced his boots and climbed up to the road. He was stiff and sore, but at least his anxiety had relaxed its grip. He probably hadn’t travelled much more than seven or eight miles, but there was still a whole day before his grandfather would get home from work and even suspect he was gone. According to the atlas map, he probably had another twenty miles to go before hitting the highway. After that, he could turn west for the shortcut anywhere that looked promising. He’d sleep deep in woods tonight, out of civilisation, the riskiest part of the trip behind him. He wished he’d paid more attention as he’d driven with his father the day before – mistake number two – but he only recalled there’d been a single sleepy town right after they’d exited the highway, and then stretches of woodlands broken only by occasional farms. Peter walked for five full hours. Blisters formed on his heels, and his shoulders ached from the rucksack. But every step brought him closer to Pax and the home he should never have left, and he felt hopeful. Until a little after noon, when he hit a cluster of buildings that passed for a town square. Immediately, it seemed every person he passed was eyeing him suspiciously, wondering why he wasn’t in the school he’d noticed a little while back. When a woman dragging a toddler stopped to stare outright, Peter pretended to study the window display in the hardware shop beside him. In the glass, he saw his reflection, and the remnants of his hopeful mood melted. His hair was tangled with leaves, his sweatshirt streaked in mud, and his nose reddened with what promised to be a full-faced sunburn by the end of the day. The kid in the window looked like a runaway – one who hadn’t prepared very well. He sensed the woman moving on, but before he could leave, a shadow loomed over his shoulder. “Need something, young man?” Peter looked up. A man in a blue jacket emblazoned with the shop logo stood in the doorway, smoking. His arms were crossed over a sagging belly, and his hair was a thinning grey, but something about the way he was peering down his nose reminded Peter of a hawk he’d once seen searching for prey from the top of a cedar. He pointed to the window. Peter looked back at the display – seed packets and gardening tools. “Oh, no, I was just … uh, do you sell torches?” The man cocked his head and eyed Peter while he took a drag on his cigarette, and again Peter was reminded of the hawk. Finally he nodded. “Aisle seven. No school today?” “Lunch break. Got to hurry back.” The man stubbed out his cigarette and followed him inside, hovering nearby while Peter chose the cheapest torch on the rack and a pack of double As, and even shadowed him as he checked out. Outside, Peter let out the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. He wedged everything into his pack and headed back to the junction. “Hey, kid.” Peter froze. The man had followed him outside. He yanked a thumb over his shoulder. “School’s that way.” Peter waved and smiled, trying to act dopey, and changed direction. At the corner, he risked a glance over his shoulder. The man was still watching him. Peter took off, sudden trickles of sweat chilling the back of his neck. He didn’t stop running until he reached the school entrance, then cut through the parking lot. All he wanted to do was hide for a couple of minutes – maybe crouch between a couple of pick-ups – and figure out an escape route. But beyond the parking lot and the utility buildings, he saw something a whole lot more appealing. A baseball diamond carved into the lime-green spring grass. And tucked along the third-base line, facing away from the school, an empty dugout. Peter stood at the top of the rise looking down at the sight. He argued with himself for only a minute. He’d like to be moving, for sure, making time. But what if that guy had called the police? Hitting the road would be risky. Any time he rested he could easily make up at night, since he had a torch now. And he was suddenly tired – bone-dead tired. Mostly, though, it was the way the field looked so welcoming, as if it were inviting him in. Peter always felt good on a baseball field. And maybe that was a sign – he didn’t think he believed in signs, but after the coyotes last night, he wasn’t sure he didn’t. Peter adjusted his rucksack and loped down the hill. In the dugout, the familiar mingled scents of leather, sweat, and stale bubble gum wrapped around him like a hug. Peter hurried into his other set of clothes and rubbed a handful of clay-red dirt through his hair – when he left here, he sure wasn’t going to look like any description the police might have. He filled his thermos from a water fountain, drank it all down, and filled it again. As he wriggled under the bench, he smiled, realising that Pax would have chosen this same spot – protected, but with a good vantage point – if he wanted a rest. An hour, that was all, and then he’d cut behind the school and pick up the road again. Enough time that if the police had been called, they would lose interest. He arranged his baseball glove and lowered his head. “Just an hour,” he murmured. “I won’t even close my eyes.” (#ulink_67a02a18-fef3-59f5-9c63-722d90c03776) This is my territory. Pax was so startled that he nearly toppled from the oak trunk he’d been drowsing on: all day he’d been keeping watch and seen nothing larger than a grasshopper, and now here was a bright-furred vixen. He had never seen another fox before, but he knew: younger and smaller and a female, but fox. Instinct told him also that the way she held her ears and tail erect meant she expected his submission. I hunt here. Pax felt an urge to run back to his crude nest and press himself into the remaining stalks, as if retreating to his pen, but he resisted it – what if his boy came back and he wasn’t here? He flattened his ears to show he meant no threat, but that he would not leave. The vixen paced over, and Pax drew in her scent – as familiar as his own, but also exotic. She sniffed and bristled in distrust at the human scent on him. Pax had been born with that same instinct as well, but distrust is no match for kindness administered consistently and unmeasured, especially in creatures new to the world. Pax had been only sixteen days old when Peter had rescued him – a fatherless, motherless curl of charcoal fur, his eyes barely opened – and it wasn’t long before he’d come to trust the quiet, gangly boy who’d brought him home. The vixen poked her pointed snout in to sniff him more closely and bristled again. The scent is my boy’s. Have you seen him? Pax shared the most important features of his human – the naked round ears; the towering legs, so improbably long that Pax always feared he would topple over when he ran; the black curled hair that grew to different lengths, then became short again. No humans are here, but they are approaching. Just then, Bristle’s head rose as if jerked on an unseen wire. Her ears pricked, trained on a slight rustling in a nearby tuft of broom sedge. Her rear began to twitch, gathering energy. She sprang high and then, paws tight over her black nose, dived into the grass with a flash of white-tipped tail. Pax sat up, alert. In a second, Bristle’s head reappeared, and in her jaws was a wood rat. She leaped clear of the grass, bit through the rat’s neck, then dropped it to the ground. Orphaned before he’d been weaned, Pax had never eaten raw prey. His hunger rose at the blood-scent, and so did his curiosity. He took a cautious step closer. Bristle growled, and Pax retreated to watch from a safe distance. He grew hungrier as she crunched bites. He thought of the brimming comfort of his kibble bowl, the pleasure of Peter’s hand-fed treats and the ultimate reward: peanut butter. He needed to find his boy. His boy would feed him. Before he could ask about the approaching humans, Bristle picked up what remained of the rat – a single hind leg with its long tail – and stalked off with it dangling from her jaw. Pax watched as she wove her way between the grass tufts, becoming only flashes of flame and white. Leaving. He was swept by the memory of his humans’ car roaring away in its stinging spray of gravel. Just before she slipped into a fringe of ferns at the wood’s edge, she paused to glance at him over her shoulder. At that moment, a sharp snap from the fallen oak startled her. It was followed by a red streak of fur that hurtled from the dried foliage, flew over the weeds, and landed on her back. Pax flattened himself. He could hear the vixen’s yips as she scuffled with her attacker, but they sounded more irritated than afraid. He poked his head up. Bristle pounced on a ball of fur and bit it hard. To Pax’s surprise, a smaller, skinnier version of herself unfurled at her paws. Pax was stunned. Never had he suspected that foxes might soar like birds, whose swooping arcs were not like any movement he himself could achieve. The little fox flipped to his back and gave his belly in submission, but this seemed only to make Bristle angrier, her chattering now punctuated by jabs and nips. Pax bounded over, overcome by curiosity. The skinny fox startled at the unfamiliar human scent and looked over Bristle’s shoulder. His eyes widened when he spied Pax, and he scrambled to his paws. Friendly, heannounced to Pax; brother but not littermate of the vixen. Play! Bristle bared her teeth and snarled at her brother. Dangerous. Stay away. Pax ignored Bristle’s warning posture and met the greeting. Friendly. You FLEW! BIRD? The little fox bounded back to the fallen oak, then sprang on to its trunk. One fork of the dead tree angled up. The small fox walked lightly along its length. He looked down to make sure Pax was watching. Pax dropped and tucked his paws under his chest, but it was hard to keep from leaping on to the tree to try it himself. He had climbed the walls of his pen, of course, but he’d never been higher than its six feet. His brush twitched. The vixen stalked a few steps away and then dropped to the ground. She rolled on to her side to gaze directly up at her brother, her love for him obvious now. He was the runt. He’s small, but he’s tough. I don’t want him with me when I hunt. But he follows me. She tossed her head and growled at Pax, as though blaming him for her brother’s play. The runty little fox stepped out along the branch, tail poised for balance, then coiled himself and leaped out over the heads of the earthbound foxes. He landed in a clump of burdock beside the road and then burst out covered in burrs. He tore around in mad circles, as if soaring had filled him with an excess of joy that had to be spent through his legs, and then flung himself on to the ground to roll out the rest. His sister pounced on him. Too close to the road! While she pulled the burrs from his coat, she scolded him for the recklessness of his flight. But Pax marvelled at it – a good five full-bounds he’d travelled without touching paws to ground. He would try the feat himself one day. When Runt managed to get to his feet, he lowered his head and nuzzled his sister. She knocked him back to the ground, only mock-rough this time, and then sat on him, pinning him down. He struggled a little but never really tried to upset her, and he protested only meekly when she began to groom him. Pax settled himself a respectful distance away. After a while, her brother now properly subdued and her irritation spent, Bristle retrieved the morsel of rat and dropped it in front of him. She lay down and began to lick her paws, then to clean her face with them. Pax edged closer, so low that his belly brushed the ground. The company of these two young foxes drew him, whether he was welcomed or not. Bristle stretched out in a patch of slanting sunlight. Her damp cheeks glistened like the pumpkin-coloured wood of the table where Pax’s humans ate their food, brilliant against the white of her sleek throat. Pax looked over at Runt, who was sniffing the spot where Pax had slept. His coat markings were identical, but not as vibrant. His fur was sparse and tufty in places, and his hip bones protruded at sharp angles. He reared back suddenly and pounced in mock attack. Pax watched as Runt tossed the toy soldier into the air and then pinned it down, over and over. He had done the same thing as a kit. He trotted over and joined the game, and Runt welcomed him as though they had played together since birth. Bristle got to her feet. Bring it here. Her brother ignored her for a moment but then, as if he had been judging the limits of his sister’s patience, he loped over and dropped the toy at her paws. Bristle issued a throaty rattle at the soldier. Human. Leave it. Home. Now, she ordered her brother. Runt leaned in to Pax and braced his forelegs. Bristle sprang back tonip at her brother. He stinks of the humans. Remember. Pax was startled by the image she communicated to her brother then: a cold, howling wind; a mated pair of foxes, struggling with something that reminded Pax of his pen – steel, but with jaws and clamps instead of bars. The steel jaws and the snowy ground were smeared with blood. Bristle tipped her head to assess the sky and sniff the breeze, which carried the threat of thunderstorms from the south. Home. Runt lowered his tail and began to follow his sister. But then he turned back to Pax, inviting him to come as well. Pax hesitated. He didn’t want to leave the spot his humans would return to. But dark clouds were rolling in, and just then, thunder boomed in the distance. He knew his boy would not venture out during a storm. He didn’t want to think of getting drenched by the side of the road. Alone. He tucked the toy soldier into his cheek and set out after the two foxes. Bristle turned when she sensed his presence. One night only, Human-Stinker. Pax agreed. He would follow his scent back to the road after the storm. His humans would come for him then. And once he found his boy, he would never leave his side. (#ulink_c1302979-4dbe-568c-bcd0-5c229ab8f06a) Peter recognised the sounds before he was fully awake: the footfalls of a herd of just-released kids, their hoots, the thumping of their eager fists into gloves. He scrambled out from under the bench and grabbed his stuff. Too late: twenty boys and their coach were streaming down the hill. Up at the parking lot, a bunch of adults were overseeing the dismissal, and some of them wore uniforms. His best option was to join the dozen or so kids who were already scattered over the bleachers, heads bent together in clusters of two and three, and blend in when they left. Peter climbed the bleachers to the top row and dropped his pack. A kid watching a baseball practice – nothing could be more normal, yet his heart skidded. Below, the coach started lobbing fungoes into the field. The players were mostly the usual guys you expect to see on a ball field, all muscle and shout. Peter found the one he wanted to watch: a small kid with a straw-coloured crew cut and a bleached-out red T-shirt, playing short-stop. While the rest of the players scrambled around like puppies, this kid was a statue, hands poised waist high, eyes glued to the coach’s bat. The instant wood smacked cowhide, he sprang. Somehow he managed to reach every ball that came anywhere near his territory, even though he was so short that he looked like someone’s tag-along kid brother. Peter knew he himself wasn’t the kind of kid you’d expect to find on a ball field, either, and he was even less at home in the dugout with all the shoulder punching and trash talking. But a baseball field was the only place where he felt he was exactly where he was born to be. The feeling that brought Peter was something he had never even tried to describe to anyone else – partly because it felt too private, but mostly because he didn’t think he had the words to explain it. “Holy” came the closest, and “calm” was in the mix, but neither was exactly right. For a crazy minute, Peter sensed that the short-stop understood about that holy calm, was feeling it too, right now. The coach had taken the mound and was tossing puffballs. The batters were hitting sharp liners and grounders, and the outfielders were finally paying attention, or at least facing in the right direction. The short-stop was still the one to watch – he looked like he was stitched together with live wires, gaze steady to the play. Peter recognised that kind of concentration – sometimes his eyes would actually go dry because he forgot to blink, so focussed was he on every move of every player – and knew it paid off. Like the kid in the red T-shirt below him, Peter owned his territory on a ball field. He loved that territory right down to the cut-grass, dry-dust smell of it. But what he loved more was the fence behind it. The fence that told him exactly what was his responsibility and what wasn’t. A ball fell inside that fence, he’d better field it. A ball soared over it, and it wasn’t his to worry about any more. Nice and clear. Peter often wished that responsibility had such bright tall fences around it off the ball field, too. When Peter’s mother had died, he’d gone for a while to a therapist. At seven years old, he hadn’t wanted to talk, or maybe he just hadn’t known how to shrink that kind of loss into words. The therapist – a kind-eyed woman with a long silver braid – said that was okay, that was perfectly okay. And for the whole session, Peter would pull little cars and trucks from a toy box – there must have been a hundred of them in there; Peter figured later that the woman had cleaned out a toy store for him – and crash them together, two by two. When he was finished, she would always say the same thing: “That must have been hard for you. Your mum gets in a car to go buy groceries, a regular day, and she never comes home.” Peter never answered, but he remembered a sense of rightness about those words, and about the whole hour – as if he was finally where he should be, and there was nothing else he should be doing except crashing those little cars and hearing that it must have been hard for him. Until one day, the therapist said something else. “Peter, do you feel angry?” “No,” he’d said quickly. “Never.” A lie. And then he’d gotten off the floor and taken a single green-apple Jolly Rancher from the brass bowl by the door, exactly the way he did at the end of every session – that was the deal the kind-eyed therapist had made with him: whenever he’d had enough, he could take a sweet and the session would be over – and left. But outside, he’d kicked the sweet into the gutter, and on the way home, he’d told his father he wasn’t going back again. His father hadn’t argued. In fact, it had seemed a relief to him. But not to Peter. Had the nice therapist known all along he’d been angry that last day, that he’d done something terrible? That as punishment, his mother hadn’t taken him to the store? And did she blame him for what happened? A few months later, Peter had gotten Pax. He’d come across a fox run over by the side of the road near his house. So soon after watching his mother’s coffin lowered into the ground, he’d felt an unshakable need to bury the body. As he’d looked around for a good place, he’d found the den, filled with three cold, stiff kit bodies and one little ball of grey fur still warm and breathing. He’d tucked Pax into his sweatshirt pocket and brought him home, and said – not asked, said – “I’m keeping him.” His dad had said, “Okay, okay. For a while.” The kit mewed piteously all through the night, and hearing him, Peter had thought that if he could visit the kind-eyed therapist again, he’d smash those toy cars together all day and all night, all day and all night, forever. Not because he was angry. Just to make everybody see. Thinking about Pax made the old anxiety snake tighten around Peter’s chest. He needed to get moving again, make up some time. The practice was breaking up now, boys loping in from the field, shedding equipment as they streamed past the dugout. As soon as the field was clear, he dropped from the bleachers, pulled his rucksack down, and hitched it over his shoulders. Just as he set out along the diamond, though, he saw the short-stop. Peter hesitated. He should take off, try to blend in with the stragglers leaving the school grounds. But the rest of the team had left this kid to bag up the equipment and walk back alone, and Peter knew how that felt. He picked up a couple of balls and handed them over. “Hey.” The boy took the balls with a cautious smile. “Hey.” “Nice play. The last liner? That ball had hair.” The boy looked away and scuffed at the dirt, but Peter could see he was pleased. “Yeah, well, the first baseman made it look cleaner than it was.” “Nah, you planted that ball. Your first baseman would be lucky to catch a cold by himself. No offence.” The boy gave Peter a real grin. “Yeah. Coach’s nephew. You play?” Peter nodded. “Centre field.” “You new here?” “Oh … I don’t live here, I …” Peter nodded his head vaguely south. “Hampton?” “Yeah, Hampton, right.” The boy’s face closed. “Scouting before Saturday’s game? Jerk.” He spat and walked back to the dugout. As he left the school grounds, Peter congratulated himself on his quick thinking, covering his runaway tracks. But somehow he felt kind of bad anyway. Somehow he felt lousy, actually. He shrugged the feeling off – what was it his dad said about feelings, something about a quarter and a cup of coffee? – and checked his watch. Four fifteen. He’d lost over three hours. Peter pressed faster, but when he came to the town square again, he crossed to the opposite side from the hardware shop and forced himself to walk at an even pace past a library, past a bus station, past a café. Then he counted off a thousand steps before he risked lifting his head. When he did, he checked his watch again. Four fifty. His grandfather was probably packing up his stuff now. Peter imagined him walking to his rusty blue Chevy, fitting the key into the ignition. And with that image, his anxiety struck, knocking the breath right out of him. He scaled a low wooden fence and dropped into scrubby brush. He pushed in a good safe thirty feet, until the saplings rose up taller than he was, until his anxiety let him breathe right again, before turning to parallel the road. It was rougher going now, but fifteen minutes later he reached it: the highway. Peter shadowed the entrance ramp, crouching low, then, at a break in traffic, ran down the culvert, scaled the chain-link fence, and dropped to the other side, his heart beating hard. He’d made it. He loped into the trees, keeping an eye out for a likely place to cut west. And in just a few minutes, he found one: a dirt road running perpendicular to the highway. Well, not much more than an old wagon path, to be honest, but it was heading in the right direction and would be easy walking even at night. He turned in. For a short while the trees beside him grew denser as he walked, and only birdcalls and squirrel rustlings broke the silence. Peter realised he might have seen the last of civilisation for a while. The thought lifted him. But a few minutes later the road turned a corner and began to run along an old pasture dotted with gnarled fruit trees in ragged bloom. A stone wall bordered the field, and a low barn stood at the far corner. There were no lights on in the barn, no car or truck beside it. Still, Peter’s heart crashed. The barn looked freshly painted, and some of the roof shingles were the raw pink of new wood. This was the road to someone’s home. Worse, it might lead to a bigger road the atlas had been too old to show. In any case, it wasn’t a shortcut across the hills. Peter dropped his pack and sank into a narrow jog in the stone wall, exhausted and starving. He tugged his boots off and peeled down his socks. Two bad blisters throbbed on each heel. They were going to kill when they broke. Peter dug out his extra pair of socks from the bottom of the rucksack and worked them on over the first pair. He rested his head back against the rough stone, still giving off a little warmth from the day’s sun, which was now hovering just over the line of trees, bathing the field in a peach-coloured glow. He pulled the raisins out and ate them one at a time, taking small sips of water in between. Then he opened two packets of string cheese and took four crackers from the sleeve. He ate as slowly as he could, watching the sun over the orchard, surprised to find that he could actually mark its sinking movement. How had he lived twelve years and never known this about sunsets? Peter laced his boots. Just as he started to rise, he caught sight of a deer, which bounded into the orchard from the woods beyond. He held his breath as the orchard filled – fourteen deer in all. They began to graze, and a few nibbled delicately at the low branches of the trees. Peter squatted back down, and the closest one, a doe with a spindly spotted fawn beside her, turned her head to look directly at him. Peter raised his palm slowly, hoping to let her know he meant no harm. The doe moved between Peter and her fawn, but after a while she dipped her head into the grass again. And then the clear twilight air was split by the screech of a saw biting through wood from behind the barn. The herd startled in unison and peeled away into the darkening woods, their white tails flashing. Before she bounded off, the doe sent another look straight at Peter, one that seemed to say, You humans. You ruin everything … Peter took off. Back at the highway, half the cars had their headlights on now, and it seemed they were all trained directly on him. He ducked off the road. The ground there was spongy and smelled of peat. He was just debating about risking the flashlight when his foot sank with a splash. He grabbed an overhanging branch and pulled himself out, but it was too late – he could feel cold swamp water seeping into his boots. Peter cursed. Not bringing more socks – another mistake. It had better be the last of the trip. And then, clambering back to higher ground, he made another, much worse, mistake. His right foot caught on a root and he fell. He heard the bone break – a soft, muffled snap – at the same time he felt the sharp stab. He sat panting with the stunning pain for a long moment. Finally he pulled his foot free and unlaced his boot, wincing at each motion. He eased down the wet socks, and what he saw made him gasp: his foot was swelling so fast that he could actually see it. Peter rolled his socks back up, nearly crying out at the pain it caused, then gritted his teeth to work his foot back into the boot before it could swell any more. He crawled to a tree and pulled himself upright. He tested his weight on his foot and nearly collapsed again. The pain was far worse than anything he’d felt before – it made the broken thumb feel like a mosquito bite in comparison. He couldn’t walk. (#ulink_7df2c919-75e6-580e-bcd3-e3fcfa059096) Pax squirmed in pleasure at the solid, warm weight of another’s body nestled against his. Half awake, he sniffed to draw in the comforting scent of his boy. Instead of human, though, he found fox. He woke fully then. Curled against him, snoring, was the vixen’s brother. Runt whimpered and fluffed his tail over his snout, still asleep. Pax pulled himself up sharply. He had no practice at dominance, but the situation left him no choice. Go back to your den. When Runt tried to nestle into his chest, Pax nipped him on the shoulder. Runt shook himself awake and rolled to his feet. He didn’t duck his head in submission, and he made no move to leave. Play, his position invited instead. In other circumstances, Pax would have welcomed the good-natured little fox’s company. But he had no interest in tangling with Bristle again, and in fact he had no interest in anything besides getting back to his humans. Pax fetched the plastic soldier he’d cached and dropped it as an offering, then warned him away again. After a final pleading look, Runt took the toy in his mouth. Pax followed him out and watched until he slipped into a hole a few tail lengths away. When the thunderstorm had hit – short but violent, with whole sheets of sky splitting open in wrathful cracks – Pax had worked his way into the shallow entrance of an abandoned den not far from the one Bristle shared with her brother before taking measure of his surroundings. Now, in the pale light of the half-moon, he took a moment to survey them. The hillside faced south. Here the roots of the trees seemed to claw at the sandy soil like the brown knuckles of clenched fists. Tucked among them, Pax saw three den entrances. Above this hillside, the forest rose to the north and west, back to the road. Below, a vast grassy valley sloped away. It was an ideal location: the hillside perch provided little cover for approaching predators, while the line of trees protected the foxes from the north winds. The meadow smelled abundantly of life. As Pax took all this in, a tension deep within him loosened. It was the same way he’d felt as a kit when, after he’d pushed his food dish to the farthest corner of his boy’s nest room three times, Peter had finally understood to leave it there. Away from the cold north wall, and with a view of the door where the father entered, sometimes in anger. Safe. But this place was not safe for him. Bristle had warned him that in this same meadow lived an older fox and his mate. He was already facing a challenger from outside and would not tolerate the presence of another lone male. And just then Pax saw a movement below him – a broad-shouldered alpha with black and grey fur emerged from the brush halfway down the slope and marked a sapling beside him. The big fox began to groom, but with a paw still to his ear he suddenly pricked his snout into the breeze. Pax bolted up the hill and plunged into the forest undergrowth. He picked up his own scent easily although it had rained hard. Stopping only for quick licks of water from the leaves, he followed it back to the road. There, Pax caught the lingering scent of the military transport caravan from the day before, but no other traffic had passed since then. He settled himself on the fallen oak trunk again to wait. Morning brought the shimmery buzz of insect clouds and the chatter of waking birds, but still no traffic sounds on the road. As the sun rose hot and dry, it burned off the rain droplets that had hung from every green shoot. Pax was aware of his hunger now, but his thirst was worse – he’d had nothing to drink since leaving his humans’ house. His throat was parched and his tongue swollen and thick. He felt dizzy whenever he shifted his position. A hundred times a thin scent of water drifted past him, but he never considered abandoning his post for its promise. His humans would come back here. He dug his claws into the wood and strained for the sound of a vehicle on the silent road. An hour passed, and then another. Pax dozed and woke and remembered, dozed and woke and remembered. And then the wind brought news of something approaching. A fox. The same male he’d seen earlier, the one Bristle had warned him about. The fox’s gait was deliberate, showing neither hesitation nor wasted energy. The way his greyed coat draped his frame announced that he was old. As he drew close, Pax saw that even his eyes were clouded grey with age. After offering his scent, Grey settled himself on the grass beside the fallen trunk. He made no move to elevate himself, indicating that he meant no threat. You carry the scent of humans. I lived with them, once. They are approaching. A sudden hope rejuvenated Pax. Have you seen my boy? 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