With a sigh, Sierra set down a cardboard box filled with a meager collection of personal belongings and fumbled in her purse for a house key. A movement in the bright evening sky caught her eye as something floated gently down toward her, twisting and turning in the faint currents of air. She watched it as it danced on the wind, flashing color as it spun. It was a brilliant blue-green feather, perhaps six or eight inches long—but a feather from what kind of bird? Surely there were no large birds in Northern California with plumage that bright.
She gazed at it, momentarily distracted from her gloomy thoughts. Then she tossed her black braid over her shoulder and opened the lock. She stooped to pick up the open box. As she straightened, the feather spun and came to rest on the contents of the box, nestling comfortably between a coffee mug and a name plate that read “Sierra Carter, Public Relations Manager.” Well, she thought bitterly, I won’t be needing that anymore. As the feather settled, seeming to sparkle slightly in the evening light, Sierra heard a single chime, like a crystal bell. She looked around, but certainly no one was out on the street ringing bells. She looked down again at the feather. Despite her miserable mood, she was drawn to it. It really is beautiful, Sierra thought. Maybe it’s from an escaped parrot or something.
She shouldered the door open and walked down the short hall to her kitchen, setting the box on her kitchen table. She sighed heavily and poured herself a glass of wine, its fragrance redolent of wild berries. She tilted her wine glass to her lips but before she could take a sip, her phone rang. She heaved another sigh and answered it. It was Kaylee, who worked at Black Diamond as a marketing manager.
“What’s going on?” Kaylee asked. “I saw you walking out to your car with Clancy Forrester.” Kaylee’s voice was always warm, as rich and dark as chocolate mousse, but now she also sounded a bit mischievous. “Something going on there that I should know about?”
Squelching an impulse to sigh again, Sierra replied, “Yep. I was with Clancy all right. He was perp-walking me out of the building. I got laid off. Fired. Whatever.”
There was a stunned silence at the other end of the phone.
“Laid off? Fired? Is this a joke?”
Sierra emitted what she hoped was a bitter laugh.
“No joke. Mark called me in today and said there was a ten-percent layoff across the board. I just happened to be ten percent of Marketing, I guess.”
Another silence greeted this statement.
Kaylee said carefully, “I haven’t heard of anyone else being let go. That doesn’t sound right.”
“He said it was a layoff. And they’re giving me a severance package,” Sierra said. “It’s actually a really nice package. Mark specifically said it wasn’t a performance issue and it wasn’t personal.” Her voice held the slight upward swing of a question.
Kaylee was quiet for another moment.
“You know, I did hear something, but I didn’t think too much about it at the time. I wonder if it’s connected somehow.”
“What?” Sierra asked impatiently. “What did you hear?”
“About BDSC hiring an outside agency. Is that something you knew about? I assumed you did, being in PR. I didn’t pay too much attention at the time.”
“Agency? You mean, a public relations agency?” Sierra asked incredulously.
Sierra went on, “I haven’t heard a word about it. Why would they hire an outside agency? It’ll cost them a ton of money—way more than they were paying me. That just doesn’t make sense!”
Kaylee’s voice was a verbal shrug.
“Sorry, doll. That’s what I heard.”
“You don’t happen to remember the name of the agency, do you?”
“Nope. I can find out, though.”
Sierra slumped into a dining room chair.
“Yeah. I don’t suppose it matters, but I’d like to find out. I worked for an agency before I came to BDSC, you know. I know most of the agencies that handle high tech.”
“You’ve mentioned that before. Called Rapper, or something? I gathered you didn’t like it much.”
“It was called Clapper & Associates. And yeah, you’re right I didn’t like it. Long story. But I liked my job at BDSC. Oh, well—easy come, easy go.”
“I’ll miss you, girl,” said Kaylee. “We’ll need to get together more, now that we won’t be seeing each other every day.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” Sierra said, feeling a bit awkward. “We can still stay in touch.”
But she didn’t quite believe it. In Sierra’s experience, people in Silicon Valley were too busy to make friends outside of work. She knew people with spouses and children, but because they were always working, she wondered how much family life they could possibly be enjoying.
“So, have you thought about what you’re going to do now?”
“Erm, no. Not really. I’m still in a state of shock over the whole thing. Find another job, I suppose.”
“Well, I’ll give you a great reference,” Kaylee said. “I thought you did a wonderful job on the XLP-1099 launch. And I enjoy working with you, too. You’re a great team player.”
“Thank you,” said Sierra gratefully. “You have no idea how much that means to me right now.”
“Do you want company? I could bring a bottle of wine and…”
“No. thanks, Kaylee, I really appreciate it, but I’d be lousy company right now. I’ll be better in the morning, but right now I’m just kind of beat.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow, then. In the meantime, I’ll nose around here and see if I can find anything out.”
Kaylee hesitated for a second and then asked, “So, what about Clancy? I thought maybe…”
“No, Kaylee. Nothing happened. He said he was sorry to see me go and was really polite and carried my box of personal stuff to the car. Do you really think he’s interested in dating someone who was just fired?”
“Laid off. That’s different.”
“No, it’s not. Anyway, I’m getting a headache. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay, doll. Take care.” And then Sierra was alone with her worries.
Sierra slumped at the kitchen table and looked around her. The tidy kitchen with its granite counters and cobalt blue accents, usually a source of quiet pleasure, only reminded her that she needed to find another source of income to be able to pay the mortgage. The severance package from BDSC would last for perhaps four months, but only if she were careful. She sat quietly in the darkening room. Her mind, like a stubborn moth against a windowpane, repeatedly battered itself against the question of “Why?” Surely there had to be employees at BDSC who were less valuable and less productive than Sierra Carter. And how had they hired a PR agency without her hearing even a whisper?
Maybe it really was something personal. She had always wondered where she stood with Jenna Simmons, BDSC’s president and CEO. Sierra had been careful to get as much personal publicity for Jenna as she possibly could, knowing the woman’s appetite for the limelight. Sierra had been responsible for getting some of Jenna’s coverage in the newspapers and on television. Jenna’s ubiquitous presence on the Internet was largely due to Jenna herself; she was a relentless social media user, and she never allowed her staff to “front” for her online presence.
But Jenna, who displayed a beautiful grin and sparkling charm in front of a reporter and a camera, was an enigmatic personality when the world wasn’t watching. As outgoing and personable as Jenna seemed to the world, her eyes were always cold. They were odd eyes; most people with blue eyes had depth to them, with rings of darker color and tiny lines radiating out from the pupil like miniature sun flares. Jenna’s irises were a flat, cornflower blue, like the painted eyes of an antique doll. They conveyed no emotion, and Sierra—who was good at reading people—found Jenna impenetrable. Sierra had never known if Jenna was pleased with her performance or not—but as no one else seemed to know what Jenna was thinking, she had refused to fret about it.
Maybe this was all Jenna’s idea, Sierra thought. Jenna took advantage of this layoff to get rid of me. Personally. Does that even make sense?
Eventually, her mind wandered and Sierra found herself thinking about dinner. Her stomach rumbled, and she regretted not stopping for take-out food on the way home. Foraging in the refrigerator, she found leftovers that weren’t discernibly moldy, heated the food in her microwave, and ate without tasting a thing.
After dinner, she sat down again at the kitchen table, enveloped in gloom. The blue-green feather, still perched atop the box, caught her eye. Eagerly grasping at something unconnected with BDSC, being fired, or finding another job, Sierra plucked it from the cardboard box and began rolling the shaft between her fingers, idly wondering what kind of bird had shed such a beautiful feather, and speculating on why it seemed to sparkle as it caught the light. It looks as though it were frosted with silver dust, she thought.
She located a magnifying glass in her odds and ends drawer and looked closely at the fine barbs. Even under magnification, she couldn’t see what made it sparkle. She really didn’t know what to do with it, but it was too pretty to throw away. Finally, she took it upstairs to her bedroom and tucked the feather into a carved wooden box where she kept an assortment of random things she liked—colored rocks, a green glass frog, a ruby crystal drop from a chandelier that she had found in an junk shop.
Then she went to her garage workshop. The garage was full of storage boxes, tools and equipment, leaving no room for the car, which took its chances on the driveway outside. Sierra’s secret passion and ambition was to design and make jewelry for a living. As it was, she sold enough at art fairs and the occasional gallery to pay for tools and materials, but it was her public relations work that paid the mortgage. She had never mentioned this particular ambition to anyone at BDSC (except to Kaylee, of course). Anything less than the appearance of complete devotion to BDSC and all its works was decidedly career-limiting. At least I’m doing something about my dream, she often told herself. It’s not just wishful thinking.
Overnight, a colony of wispy little spiders had constructed a web between her workbench and a bookcase where she kept her design journals and reference books. Sierra shooed the spiders away from the web and ruthlessly destroyed it with a rag. She was sure the spiders were glaring at her from the sidelines as she destroyed their handiwork, but she told them firmly that they were lucky she didn’t squoosh them as well. She tried to avoid killing them, although she drew the line when it came to black widows in her house. Even the most dedicated arachnophile would kill a poisonous spider lurking in one’s lace unmentionables or the pantry.
Sierra pulled out a package of silver clay and opened it. Inside was a small gray lump that looked exactly like something dropped from a potter’s wheel. Sierra knew that when it was shaped and fired in her kiln, the gray clay would be transformed into pure, shining silver. It was easy and fun to work with, but she used it in her designs sparingly, as it was expensive. She rolled out a flat sheet of the clay. When she had a smooth, even surface, she pressed a small leaf firmly into the clay. Removing the leaf, she examined the impression critically. It was a clear, crisply textured copy of the original.
Humming to herself, she carefully removed the excess clay. She smoothed tiny flaws from its surface with a rubber tool and put the leaf aside to dry. She planned to fire the leaf in her kiln and set it with garnets to look like berries. It would make an attractive pendant.
Sierra abruptly realized she had not thought about being fired once during the past hour or so. In fact, she was feeling distinctly better, for no good reason. It was getting close to her usual bedtime, but she certainly didn’t have to get up early, and she wasn’t tired anymore. She cleaned up her workshop and returned to the kitchen. Feeling somewhat at loose ends, she poured a glass of wine and went to the living room to watch television.
“…against recycling, Mr. Fanshaw?” a sleekly groomed man was asking, peering earnestly into the camera and not at his interview subject. The scene shifted to a round-faced man with a disgruntled expression. With his pursed little lips and frowning brow, Sierra thought he looked like a giant baby about to throw a tantrum. A tag at the bottom of the screen read “Charles G. Fanshaw, Citizens Against Recycling.”
“It’s an outrage!” the round-faced man said, in an aggrieved tone. “I’m not going to separate my glass from my plastic and my paper from my metal. I’m not a garbage man! The whole idea is an imposition on a free people!”
The camera shifted back to the reporter.
“But what about the landfill problem, Mr. Fanshaw? Or the masses of waste twice the size of the continental United States floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?”
“Have you ever seen this mass of waste in the Pacific Ocean?” He didn’t wait for an answer.
“Of course you haven’t. You haven’t ever seen a unicorn or Santa Claus, either! Urban myth, that’s what it is…”
Sierra switched channels, shaking her head. Idiot, she thought. Acting like a baby just because he’s supposed to recycle his trash. I don’t know why I ever watch that channel, anyway. She found another news program and sat back to watch, but this story was about the building of new nuclear power plants.
Sierra addressed the television aloud, fuming.
“What about the nuclear waste, which will be deadly for hundreds of thousands of years? What is wrong with these people? No one seems to be paying attention here. We’ve got a PROBLEM, and no one is doing anything!”
Realizing that watching the news was just upping her anxiety level, she switched it off and went upstairs to bed. Lying awake in the dark, she tried not to think about getting fired. She tried not to think about looking for a new job. She tried not to think about continents of floating plastic, or about nuclear waste. She tried not to wonder why so many people didn’t seem to see what was happening right in front of their eyes, as the wild places of the earth vanished. She was not entirely successful, but eventually sleep claimed her.
Sierra dreamed about her mother, who had died eight years previously. They were walking together on the beach, and she could smell the salt spray and hear the roar of the waves. Instead of shells and dried-up kelp bladders strewn on the sand, there were treasures––carved stone boxes, mirrors set with jewels, swords with runes etched on their blades. Her mother said, “He sent you an invitation. Did you get it?”
“Invitation?” Sierra was puzzled. “No, I don’t think so. Who sent me an invitation?”
“You must respond to the invitation,” her mother said, patting her on the shoulder as she used to do and kissing Sierra’s cheek. “It’s the polite thing to do.”
“What invitation?” Sierra asked, confused. “Who…?”
But her mother had vanished. Sierra looked down at a green and blue feather in her hand and began to cry. But then she was typing at her computer in her cubicle at BDSC, and she received an email. The email said, “Everything is not what it seems. Or nothing is what it seems. Take your pick.”
When she woke up, all Sierra remembered was the dream of walking with her mother on the beach, something they had done many times together, and she felt sad. Missing her mother made her think about her father, who lived nearly five hundred miles away in Los Angeles. She thought she should call him soon. They didn’t see each other as often as she would like. Yes, she must call him soon—but not to tell him she had been fired. She knew it would only cause him anxiety, and there was nothing he could do.
Sierra washed her face and went through the rest of her morning ritual, which had the benefit of bringing her to full awareness, as she was not a morning person. She went downstairs and stuck bread into the toaster. She shuffled to the front door in her slippers to fetch the newspaper. Opening the door, she was startled to find herself confronting a man who had just raised his hand to knock at her door. This left him with his fist raised at about Sierra-nose-level, and she ducked instinctively. This maneuver brought her face-to-face with an extremely furry face with a long nose and bright, yellow-amber eyes. Sierra jumped back and moved the door defensively between her and the invaders.
“Oh, sorry, Ma’am,” said the man on her doorstep. “Are you Sierra Carter?”
Sierra nodded, noting that he had called her “Ma’am” and not “Miss.” Men had shifted to calling her “Ma’am” a few years ago, and it never failed to annoy her. He was wearing Silicon Valley’s standard bright-young-engineer-going-to-work uniform: jeans, running shoes and polo shirt emblazoned with the graphics from his company’s latest product introduction. What made him distinctive was the fact that he was standing on her normally man-free doorstep, and that he had a largish coyote at the end of a stout rope.
“I found your dog a couple of blocks away and thought I’d better bring him back to you.”
“I don’t have a dog,” Sierra said ungraciously. “And anyway, that’s a coyote. I’m surprised he hasn’t bitten your fingers off.” Amazingly, the coyote was sitting quite peacefully by the man’s side. It looked at her with bright eyes and wagged its tail. The wag looked a bit stiff, as though it had been practicing in a mirror.
“Arf,” said the coyote. It didn’t bark. It said, “Arf.” The man didn’t seem to notice this oddity.
“Look, lady, I don’t know what your deal is, but it has a tag with your name on it,” the man said. As he bent to pull the tag forward, Sierra saw that the coyote––was it a dog?––wore a beaded collar, woven with geometric patterns of red, black, yellow and blue that reminded her of Southwestern Indian work. She cautiously bent to inspect the engraving on the silver tag:
111 E. Belinda St., Sunnyvale, CA
Stunned, she didn’t resist as the man thrust the rope into her hand.
“OK, I gotta go to work now. You shouldn’t let your dog run loose like that. You’re welcome,” he added bitterly. He turned and strode away.
Sierra looked at the animal, which stared back with interest. It was a coyote, no doubt about it––she had seen many of them when she went hiking in the hills. It was the size of a border collie, but with a wild, sharp, un-doggie face. Its fur was thick, buff and gray with long, dark guard hairs and a slight ruff around the neck. It was slender, with pricked ears and those amazing bright amber eyes, so different from the warm brown eyes of most dogs.
The coyote stood up and walked calmly through Sierra’s open front door. Sierra followed it and shut the door behind her. Part of her mind was screaming that she had just allowed a large and probably dangerous animal into her house, while another part was explaining in a reasonable tone of voice that the coyote was clearly not vicious, it had a collar on––a very nice collar––and seemed well behaved.
Upon which, her brain screamed, “Why does it have a tag with my name on it?”
No reasonable answer immediately occurred to her, so Sierra walked into the kitchen and rummaged in a cupboard to find a suitable water bowl, reasoning that if the coyote had been running around Sunnyvale, it was probably looking for food or water. The coyote followed close behind, which did not relieve her misgivings. As she looked for a bowl, it sat on its furry haunches and watched her attentively. She found a heavy stainless steel mixing bowl, filled it with water, and set it on the floor, near the sliding door that led into her back yard. She stepped back and eyed the animal. The coyote rose and walked over to the bowl, claws clicking on her tiled floor. It bent to lap the water once or twice, then lifted its head and stared at her again, drops of water falling from its muzzle.
Maybe it was a dog. It didn’t look like a dog, but it was acting like one. Perhaps it was some kind of exotic new breed. People in Silicon Valley went in for that kind of thing, she knew, having seen her share of briards, Bedlington terriers and catahoolie hounds in the area. Sierra went to her home office and sat in front of her computer. The coyote followed her, pacing calmly behind.
“Let’s see what Google can find on coyotes,” she said aloud to the animal. She wished it would stop staring at her with those strange eyes, eyes that followed her every move.
Several minutes into her search, she hadn’t learned anything new about coyotes. The photographs confirmed that the beast sitting next to her was, beyond any shadow of doubt, a coyote. She did find a site dedicated to coyotes with an interesting question from one of the site’s visitors:
“My sister was driving near her home in Utah, and she found what she thought was a dog that had been hit by a car. She put it in the back seat and took it to a vet. The vet said it was a coyote, not a dog, but he fixed it up and she took it home. It seems very gentle and friendly, but I’m worried. Is it dangerous to keep a coyote as a pet?”
The answer was worrisome:
“It is not only dangerous, but illegal to keep a wild animal as a pet. Your sister should not have taken the coyote home. Coyotes are wild animals, and they are not safe to keep as pets. I strongly advise your sister to contact the local animal rescue people and have them relocate the coyote away from human habitation. Coyotes who become used to humans are the most dangerous, as they lose their natural fear of humans, and are likely to attack if they are threatened or think the person has food.”
Sierra did not share this observation with the coyote. It sat there, panting gently, eyes never straying from her. She pushed her chair back from the desk, and the animal leaped to its feet, giving her an adrenaline rush. Sweat broke out on her forehead.
Aloud, she said, “What on earth am I going to do with you?”
“Well,” said the coyote, displaying rows of white teeth that seemed sharper than they should be. “You could start by giving me breakfast.”