William J. Cobb
William J. Cobb is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Antioch Review, and many others. His three novels are The Bird Saviors (Unbridled Books 2012), Goodnight Texas (Unbridled Books 2006), and The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994), and his story collections are The Lousy Adult (Johns Hopkins UP 2013) and The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He's reviewed books for The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, and the Dallas Morning News. He teaches fiction writing at Penn State University, and lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
After the vaccine, in the early days of CivilWar II, people changed. Some became so fearful and soft-spoken you couldn’t hear them anymore. Skinny and furtive, you’d see them slink by you in Walgreens or Trader Joe’s, buying herbal tea and organic rice crackers, maybe some brie or gouda. Those were the Whisperers. They’d been shut in for so long they forgot how to talk. They would text each other in public places, even when sitting side by side. You might pass them in a public park, sitting on a bench, and not even know they were there. They still wore masks even after the pandemic, believing it was only a matter of time before the next one, that the air was trouble. They claimed the government lied to us all the time, about viruses and so much more, so who can you trust? They seemed to shrink and become hunched over, not open their mouths wide to speak, quote NPR if you asked them anything. I felt sorry for them, tried not to move suddenly or speak too loudly when they were around. I didn’t want to frighten them away. They were the Good Ones, at least.
Others went the other direction—lost hair, sprouted scales on their necks, grew long claws. Reptiles we called them—Reps for short. At first they wore collars and hats and mostly trimmed their nails. We’d all become accustomed to pandemic haircuts, so their scruffiness was seen as something of a Retro look—nostalgia for the bad-old-days of no one getting a real haircut, of spiky do’s and long beards, or harkening back to some bygone time of hirsute hipness. But scales? That’s a horse of a different color. How can you trust a Lizard Man to serve your burger or change your oil? Whisperers shied away from businesses that hired Reps.
A backlash set in. The Reps grew tired of hiding their claws and scales, hiding their opinions, and had anger-management issues. Reps were full of hate and proud of it. They staged rallies and burned health-food stores, shouting and shaking their fists, preaching Rep Power and harassing people in Whole Foods for no good reason. They shouted at anyone who looked at them twice, took to flouting their new skins and scaly tails. They embraced their new identity, wore T-shirts that said, REP & PROUD OF IT! SCALED IS SEXY! And they were, after their fashion. You knew you had some Reptiles in the neighborhood when you found egg mounds in the shrubs of your backyard.
Besides the Reptiles and the Whisperers there were the Furries, who actually constituted the greatest group of the Evolved, also known as the E-People. Furry become a catch-all term for anyone morphing into one or another odd mammal after their vaccine. Some were gray with rounded white ears and pink noses, like overgrown koalas. Others had dark hair and huge eyebrows, tall pointed ears and curly tails, bright red lips and big canines.
People took sides. The Reps disdained the Whisperers and scared them shitless, while the Furries thought the Reps were repulsive: Like who would ever touch such a thing? Whisperers mostly got along with Furries, though privately they accused them of being a tad obnoxious and decidedly horny. Suburban neighborhoods enacted ordinances banning howling and promiscuity in city parks and jogging trails. Reptiles hissed and spat at Furries, and Whisperers would slink away when they stumbled upon them in the produce section of an Albertson’s or Costco, licking each other’s necks and sniffing armpits and crotches.
Reps hated Norms—short for Normals—and when their candidates lost elections, they burned libraries and elementary schools, claiming the kids were being brainwashed into “conforming.” Norms tried to fight back by banning them from restaurants and supermarkets, due to the chaos they caused, but it backfired. Before long the Reps refused to obey laws anymore. The streets glittered with broken glass and the air howled with sirens. After the viral video of the Lincoln Park Massacre in Manitou Springs, Colorado, in which a gang of Reps in Ford F150 pickup trucks opened fire on a group of Whisperers having a picnic in a downtown park, people took sides. Facebook splintered into Facebook Blue and Facebook Red. A Scaled-Lives-Matter rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma—peopled mainly by Reptiles, with a mishmash of Furries and Norms counter-protesting—turned ugly, and before you knew it, CivilWar II was in full swing.
It didn’t help that we weren’t all one-hundred-percent human anymore. Trans took on a whole new meaning. It wasn’t brother killing brother or sister killing sister, when you had Reptiles stalking Whisperers and Norms taking up arms against Furries. You might identify as a Normal, but if you had to shave your back and trim your claws just to “pass” as a Norm, well . . . hard to know what to do. Or who to fight for.
Like most people, my wife and I tried to stay out of it. We figured it would all pass. Times had been crazy for years and we were all holding our breath, like living in a drought and waiting for rain, staring up at the sky for signs—forked-tongue lightning strikes, mare’s tail clouds in the morning, the smell of dust. Then Sabrina started to change too. But she wasn’t a Rep. Never Sabrina. A sweet woman with curly red hair, pale skin and freckles, if push came to shove she was more of a “Let's bake them a loaf of banana bread” type of gal. One day she woke up early and I found her on the patio, rubbing her forehead and blinking, saying, “Something's the matter with me, Will. I'm feeling kind of funny.”
She shook her head. “Funny as in weird.”
Touching her forehead, I felt a warm glow against the back of my hand. We wondered aloud if the virus was coming back, or there was some new bug in the air. She told me she felt fine the night before. Now her mouth was dry and her ears felt like they were burning. “I’m not a hundred percent,” she added. “I don't know what it is, but something's off.”
I wondered if I cursed her. Years before I bought her a tank-top with a fanciful illustration of a unicorn riding a bicycle, leaving a trail of stars in its wake, with the legend BE MAGICAL. That’s silly, of course. Only the thing about the changes that followed the vaccine? They always seemed to reveal your true self. If you had a tattoo of a skull or a bloody knife on your arm, or a Confederate flag maybe, odds are you’d end up as a Rep. The gentle and good-hearted? They tended to go Furry.
When I picture Sabrina in my mind’s eye, I feel an odd, itchy sort of love coming on, like carbonated bubbles fizzing beneath my skin. That look she gives me . . . . That little smile she makes when I kiss her neck. So what if she’s “different”? She’s the one I love. I don’t care what she changes into. A chitinous horn projecting from the peak of her forehead? Big deal.
Half-horse, half-woman? She’s still Sabrina.
“Those people out there,” she whispers, talking into the pillow. “They don't matter, do they? I know they say that all lives matter, but those people? I don’t think they matter at all.” When I’m done she stands up and puts her cowgirl hat on her head, the one with a hole cut out to fit her new horn. Gives her hips a shake, and me a smile. “They are not a part of my world.”
She’s bigger now, too. She can carry me anywhere. She turns her head to the side, so that only one large dark eye is watching me, and says, “You want to go for a ride, cowboy?” A Hermit Thrush lands on an aspen branch right above Sabrina. She tosses her mane and whinnies. She loves their calls, and since she’s semi-horse now, seems to have an eerie connection to all the other forest creatures. The thrush sings and preens, thrusting out its mottled breast, the aspen leaves trembling all about it, like tuning forks to its song.
Not everyone likes Sabrina’s new look. The leader of the Colorado Freedom Militia, Frank Skravek—ringleader of the Red Rebel faction—is a former colleague of mine, polygamist, and all-around hothead. A Norm with ties to various splinter Reptile groups, he claims that Furries and Whisperers are ruining our school systems and gene pool. He wants to put all of them in internment camps, proposes forced sterilization to keep the human population “pure.” His support for and by Reps doesn’t make any sense, of course, but nothing he says does, so go figure. Rumor has it his third wife is actually some kind of Lizard woman, but he keeps that hush-hush. Bald and burly, Skravek carries a gun in a hip holster at all times. Preening like a Dead-Eye Dick.
But I know Skravek. He’s a swaggering example of short-man’s complex. I suspect his genitalia is undersized but that’s for his multiple wives to lament. He is and always will be a dinky-dick loudmouth with a six-shooter. With his handlebar mustache, he’s like a balding Yosemite Sam.
Lines are drawn in The Springs, where we live. You know where you can go, what shops and stores to avoid. The big-box stores are Reptile territory, while the health-food stores and Native Grocers are Furry and Whisperer turf. When you get to places like Chick Fil-A and Panda Express, bets are off. Starbucks are decidedly in the Blue camp, while Dale’s Liquor stores are favored by the Reds.
Sabrina and I, we try to keep a low profile, but we run into Skravek and one of his Mrs. by accident at Los Potrillos, our favorite Mexican restaurant. It’s disputed territory between the Reds and the Blues. Sabrina and I are on the patio, sipping margaritas and watching as the waitress mushes our table-side guacamole, when up walks Skravek and his leather-skinned wife, Wanda. She’s otherwise known as Walmart Wanda, famous for driving a Black couple out of Walmart back in the old days, accusing them of shoplifiting. She’s wearing capri pants, a floppy shirt to cover her rotund torso, flipflops and a gaudy gold necklace that looks retro Aztec. They get seated at a table not far from us, and before you know it, she’s glaring.
We ignore them. Chow this good? We can put up with some glares from Reds. Sabrina is wearing her cowgirl hat and a strapless dress with a pattern of bright yellow sunflowers, and I’m thinking the Lizard Lady is probably jealous, with all her glaring, and what can you do about that? Stay at home?
We’re starting to sip our second ‘rita when Lizard Lady appears in front of us, wobbling slightly and jutting out her chin, telling Sabrina, “Take off your hat.”
Sabrina frowns and shakes her head. “Um . . . No?”
Wanda smirks. “That’s what I thought. You know that wearing a hat indoors is considered rude, don't you?”
Sabrina tells her she likes the hat. “It feels good on my head,” she adds, blushing. “My hair’s a mess.”
“I bet,” smirks Wanda. “But I think there’s more to it. I think you think we don’t know what you are. You think you’re getting away with something? Well you’re not."
Sabrina sips her margarita, looks down at her plate of enchiladas, and suggests that perhaps all that thinking must be hurting her tiny, shriveled-up brain somehow, you think?
Lizard Lady looks ready to strike. She opens her mouth and I tell her we’re just trying to eat our dinner in peace. Would she please leave us alone?
“I know who you are. Or what you are. You’re a Furry, is what you are. Something weird is what you are. And we don’t like your kind.”
“What kind is that?” asks Sabrina.
“The horsey kind.” Before we can even react, she reaches out and thumps Sabrina’s horn, which sticks out of a hole in the forward brim of the hat. “You know what I’m saying. Do I need to spell it out for you, Trigger?”
I don’t even know what to say or where to start, but find myself standing up, scooting back my chair. Wanda thrusts her wrinkly neck out and rummages in her purse. “Don’t you take another step toward me.” She pulls out a handgun and points it. “I’ll shoot. I swear I will.”
About that time Colonel Skravek appears behind her, his belly leading the way. He’s bald and burly and is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, the de facto off-duty uniform of all Norm Supremacists—his handgun, of course, obviously visible on the side-leg holster he sports, what gives him a DEA agent look.
“Now, now,” he says. “Wanda? Put the gun away. We don’t need any trouble here. Wilson is all right. Let’s try to get along.”
“John?” I say. “We’re just trying to eat our dinner. She came up to us.”
“Yes, I see that.” He sighs, his belly pushing the red-and-yellow Hawaiian print forward. “You’re fine here, Wilson.” He pauses, and sighs dramatically, like he’s trying to be the reasonable one. “Only problem is, your wife. She’s another story.”
“You know it and I know it. So don’t try to play dumb.”
Wanda starts to open her big fat yap and spew some kind of half-baked anti-horseperson dogma, and that’s about the time I hiss, “Look behind you.” When Skravek turns and glances behind I lunge and get him in a headlock, yank his pistol from the holster and point it at Wanda. Her mouth is open and flapping right about the time Sabrina slaps her upside the head with a plateful of enchiladas, gooey with green tomatillo sauce.
Skravek twists and turns, bangs me against the wall. I jam my middle and ring finger in his eye sockets and smash his cue-ball head against the image of a peasant taking a siesta in the wall mural behind our table. Sabrina stomps Lizard Lady with her red cowboy boots a couple times and her gun skitters across the floor, where I snag it, now disarming both of these crazy-ass Second Amendment types, and when we slow down to take a breath, notice an entire dining room of wide-eyed Norms ducking and cowering behind gaily decorated tablecloths, so I shove Skravek once more for good measure and head for the parking lot.
Some people think probably that a unicorn is nothing more than a horse with a horn in the middle of its forehead, but there’s more to it than that. At least for Sabrina, who has morphed into a Uni, there is.
The horn is now six inches long, swirled like a fancy soft ice-cream cone topper. She likes me to touch it at night, in bed. I rub my cheek against it, kiss her eyelids and soft black eyelashes. I’ve got scratches and band-aids but what the hell. It’s what we do for love, right? She’s made compromises, too. The masks were our inspiration: Remember when we were all hiding behind them? Decorating them with slogans and colorful patterns? She cut a hole in her favorite cowgirl hat and made it fit nicely, so it’s not all that obvious. Some people stare, sure, and do a double-take. But most don’t make a fuss. Like I said, after the vaccine, people have changed. She’s not the only one out there who, in the past, might have been called names.
She’s my Freak and I love her for it.
Her attitude is different, too. She’s more defiant than ever. Not one to put up with crap from halfwit anti-maskers like Wanda Walmart et al. Driving home after the fight at Los Potrillos, she says, “They’re going to come for us, you know. I think it’s time we arm ourselves. And I don’t mean with slogans, either.”
We hightail it to a friend's cabin in the forested slopes of Hermit Mountain, but she doesn’t like hiding out. “What’s that saying?” she asks me one night, shaking her mane and eating a carrot from my palm. “Live free or die?” she asks, somewhat half-heartedly. “Sounds rather fatalistic, doesn’t it?”
We try to keep our sense of humor. One day Sabrina tells me, “A rope walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry, Darlin’. We don’t serve ropes here.’ So the rope goes outside and reaches up, musses up her hair, really messy you know, and then goes back in. Bartender says, ‘Aren’t you the rope who was just in here?’ Rope shakes her head and says, ‘Sorry. I’m a frayed knot.”
I laugh and tell her that’s a good one.
“That’s me,” she adds. “I’m changed but just a little, you know? Am I the same person? No, I’m a frayed knot.”
For two weeks we hide. Sabrina keeps evolving. Her horn grows another inch and she’s bigger now, stronger and more powerful. For some time now—when she thinks I’m not looking—she drops onto all fours to move around the house. On her hooves. Her tail and mane are longer now, and she’s all muscle. She worries that I won’t love her anymore. But I do. Even more.
A friend on the outside texts me a tipoff that the Bethany Brigade has found out where we live and is headed our way, led by Commandant Karen. Armed with AK-47s bought online or stolen from their alcoholic, camo-wearing hubbies, they have close ties to Skravek’s Mad Dogs, a militia crew of misfits too fat and dumb for the Navy Seals, a squad who take the idea of being “Weekend Warriors” to the extreme. We fill backpacks with down sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and as much freeze-dried food as we can carry, and hurry out the back door.
Sabrina plops onto all fours and arches her back, tells me to strap them on. At first I balk but she’s got a point. She can carry way more weight than I can now. So with straps and pads, I get her loaded. We’re soon out the back yard and not looking back. I’m carrying a Remington Model Seven bolt-action rifle that a friend donated when he heard we were in a jam. It’s got a short barrel and reminds me of the ones the apes used in the original Planet of the Apes. The sling bites into my neck and keeps banging the stock against my hip.
A mile from our cabin we link up to the Colorado Trail, that cuts across the state from Denver to Durango, which leads us to Desperation Point. It’s a cut through the mountains, steep and rocky, unusable for the ATVs of the Bethany Brigade and the Mad Dog Militia. The only problem is we have to pass the Scenic Overlook on the way, and that’s where they’ve congregated to try to head us off.
We take a switchback route up Hermit Mountain. On its slopes is a steep, narrow corridor through the rocky outcrops above the Overlook, just wide enough for us to fit. Sabrina’s tail switches wildly when we hear the angry buzz of a squadron of ATVs and drones zooming below us. They roar into the parking lot and all climb out, looking uphill. One fat guy sprays the cliffs with his 47. We’re pinned down. Bullets zing and rocks clatter all about. Sabrina crouches behind a boulder and weeps, asking why don’t they just leave us alone?
After random shooting, one woman sets up a laptop on the hood of an OHV and keeps pointing up in the sky. They’re trying to access the video feed of their drones. Another militia idiot sprays lighter fluid on the dry brown grass just below our cliff and lights a fire. With the ongoing drought, everything is dry and ready to burn. But there are clouds above. The sky’s getting darker and the wind gusts catch the flames and black and gray smoke swirls up to our perch, making us both cough.
As the drones swoop and buzz above us, we crouch behind a sandstone wall. We have to cross that open zone and get through the mountain pass, or they’ll drone-bomb us, burn us out of our hideout. I lock a cartridge into the bolt-action Remington and squint, looking through the scope at the ragamuffins known as the Militia. They’re a motley crew, snacking on bags of Cheetos and Doritos, swigging beer, laughing and joking. Unaware that the cross-hairs of my rifle are skimming over them one by one. Then I reach Skravek himself. He’s on a cellphone, dressed in camo and an Army Surplus helmet, circa the Iraq War. I lay the crosshairs on his chest and get ready to squeeze the trigger, when Sabrina says, “Wilson? Don’t. You can’t.”
It starts to rain. The sky is deep blue and purple with mammatus clouds above the peak. Bolts and forked tongues of lightning against the sky like breaking glass. Thunder rolls and more lightning. My back is already getting soaked.
I pull the stock tight against my shoulder again, and steady it, squint and steady the scope, get the crosshairs back on Skravek. My heart speeds and I let out a long exhale, hearing Sabrina whinny in the white noise of my mind’s buzz. I can do it. I can strike out one for the cause.
“Wilson?” she whispers. “You’re not a Reptile.”
I grunt and lower the gun. Sabrina gets to her feet and shakes her mane, swishes her tail. “Hurry now. Before they see us.”
The rain pounds our backs, cold and drenching. We head straight across the open zone and as far as I can tell the militia nitwits are too busy cowering from the storm to notice. Some no doubt are checking their Instagram and Facebook feeds and posting photos to brag about how bad and bold they are. The rain gutters in torrents down the trail and we’re slip-sliding through the wet gravel until we hear the staccato bursts of semiautomatic weapons again. Bullets whine and zing off the granite cliffs and we duck and cover but keep rushing until we reach a copse of ponderosa pine.
The silhouettes of burnt pines against the ashy sky look like enormous black feathers. Sabrina is afraid of fire and starts to balk, but I tell her to just keep her eyes closed and I’ll lead the way.
So here we are. At the end of our rope and wishing it will never end. That we’ll never face that moment when we reach the frayed knot, in a bar or on a mountainside. We head on up the trail. Ahead of us, low in the sky, the clouds break and a sliver of sunset guides us like a cosmic wink.
“Are we there yet?” asks Sabrina. Almost, I tell her. Soon we’ll be out of this darkness. Soon we’ll be safe. I’ll rub her horn and nuzzle her withers. Soon we can be ourselves again.