Perhaps all anyone needed to know about Oak Shade Street was that the city had cut down every oak tree on it over a decade ago. The street was the usual near-downtown litter of apartment buildings designed by paint-by-numbers systems in a fight to see which one could be the drabbest along with two-decade old homes that apartment developers circled hungrily. Not every yard was unkempt but that was pretty much the way to bet. The street ended at Oak Park which boasted a small copse of birch trees that local lore called a corpse of trees. At least three bodies had been buried in it in a single decade. though people always claimed it was more even as they fought attempts to have it bulldozed down.
The street had lost their oak trees, but were determined to lose nothing else.
The playground was a rusted out shell no one has used since a pedophile moved into the neighbourhood – even if it had been a couple of neighbourhoods away, never proved and the bearded man had left after having his house spray-painted twice. Some stories claimed he moved to a bigger city and became a department store Santa Claus, but that is hardly a surprise. It is the nature of stories to grow with the telling, and like rivers stories tend to grow crooked and follow the path of least resistance. Everyone knew the park was a bad place and no one had to say why any longer.
The park the street had fought for sat empty, and the local animals migrated to it but even they stayed away from the birch trees. People who took notice of that – and there are people who notice many things, even if they do not realize they noticed them – assumed the stories they had been told were right and thought no more about it. And so the park was half-buried in fall leaves when the boy came walking out of it. The boy was bare foot and devoid of hair, his eyebrows pale suggestions, hints more than facts and he wore jeans and a t-shirt that laundromats had long ago turned a dull grey.
There was no dirt on him nor his clothing and he walked slowly, testing each step with a foot as if expecting the leaves to conceal more than earth beneath. He crouched down slowly at the edge of the trees and ran his fingers through the leaves as gingerly as one might prod broken glass and let out small, hoarse gasp of surprise when his hand came away unwounded. Something crossed his face that was far too wary to be hope and the boy stood again, turning slowly back to face the trees as though pulled by some force.
“You can remain in the world.” The voice was assured and calm, but the boy still spun about to face it, his unmarked hands raised protectively in front of himself. The speaker was a fox, though to say that says nothing at all. The fox was as red as any fox that had ever been, the fur on his feet darker than shadows. His chest was snow-white and his tail was the envy of all other foxes, and many other animals as well.
“Oh,” the boy said hoarsely, and whatever caution he carried with him was lost. The boy’s eyes widened slowly: they were the pale green of things seeping from wounds, eyes which seemed bruised, felt hollow, looked empty until he took in the fox. “Oh,” he said again, and the fox seemed to accept such statements as only his due.
The boy crouched, held out a hand toward the fox but pulled it back slower and just stared in soft silence until the fox began to feel almost uneasy; there are many things that foxes will accept, perhaps a great deal more than people do, but worship is seldom one of them. “I am called Reynard Fox,” the fox said with a smile that was all sharp teeth.
The boy said nothing.
“You may have heard of me?” the fox said.
“No? I don’t –.” The boy bit into his lower lip, slow panic building in his face.
“I trust you have a name then, boy?” Reynard Fox said.
The boy gulped, steadied himself a little. “Boy.” The word seemed to push back panic and he repeated it again in his hoarse voice.
“That is your name,” the fox enquired after a short pause, though it was well within his nature to inquire as well.
“Yes.” Boy smiled then, and the smile transformed his face; even the fox drew back from the gentleness behind it. “I was in the woods,” Boy continued, and cleared his throat, though it remained no less hoarse, “but not those woods.”
“I know; have a care, Boy. To speak of it gives it power,” the fox said. And then, because he was a fox and it may well have been true: “To not speak of it gives it more power still.”
“Oh.” Boy scratched his scalp with his left hand, pulled it away and ran both hands over his head slowly, as if it belonged to a stranger. He stared down at his hands, flexing them slowly. “Hands should have lines on them. Fingertips have whorls. Mine don’t?”
“One does not leave the Wasting and not leave some things behind,” Reynard Fox said, and the gentleness in his voice was as close as he could come to the kindness of Boy’s smile.
Boy licked his lips. “Wasting,” came out in a soft whisper, as though he was tasting it on his tongue. “I ran. I ran so far the world changed. Then I ran further still and I don’t know how. I don’t know if I ran. I don’t know if I walked. I don’t how how I made it back,” he added, softer still.
The fox merely sat, bushy tail twitching gently.
“Help?” Boy asked.
“I am Reynard Fox; it is not a safe thing to ask me for help.”
“Anything is-is better than the Wasting,” Boy got out, words falling into each other. He said nothing else, wasn’t capable of articulating more.
“There are worse things than the Wasting,” the fox said, but so soft that it is possible Boy never heard; even hearing, he would not have believed. The fox stood then, teeth and eyes bared in a smile. “Come.”
Boy trembled all over; the woods, what was beyond them – something other tugged at him, but the fox was real and kind – sharp-toothed, but Boy took that for an honest kindness. And he stood in turn. And walked one step. And then another. And each that followed was easier as they walked away from the birch trees of Oak Shade Park.
Boy came to a halt in the small parking lot at the edge of park, toes trying to dig into asphalt. “This isn’t the Wasting. This isn’t a trick,” he breathed.
“How do you know?” the fox asked, with nothing cruel behind it.
“The Wasting paves nothing over,” Boy said, and even Reynard Fox said nothing more to that.