by S.N. Dyer
I saw him first in the doctor’s parking lot, as I was going to the hospital for an emergency. He had big brown eyes like a puppy and curly blond hair. He trotted up, stopped about ten feet away, took a filthy thumb out of his mouth and asked hesitantly, “Mama?”
He wasn’t in too bad condition, meaning he’d just been abandoned. “Well hi, little guy,” I said. “What’s your name?”
He just looked at me gravely. He was very cute and if I’d been on the way out I probably would have taken him home with me. I like blonds, I already had a couple at home. But I was in a hurry. I thought about locking him in my car, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t housebroken.
“Look, just wait around till I’m through, okay?” I asked, knowing he didn’t have enough language skills to understand, and then went up to the ICU. It was a mess, as I’d expected, and I’d pretty much forgotten about the toddler until I got back off the elevator in the parking lot. “Hey, kiddo, you there?”
He wasn’t, so I hunted about for a couple of minutes and then went home. I hoped someone else might have found him, but I’d been around long enough to know it wasn’t likely.
Life went on. I saw other feral children in the garage, there or at other hospitals, skulking in corners and scampering away. The city put out traps occasionally, but we all knew how miserable the homes were, and didn’t encourage catching the kids. Poor little things, abandoned during the critical periods for development of reason and language and socialization, doomed never to develop the skills of humanity. Stunted by malnutrition and neglect. If left alone, they seldom survived long—the few that did make it to adolescence, usually in the far south where winters weren’t too bad, became menaces and could be shot on sight. How many mothers said to their kids, “Change those clothes and comb your hair, do you want a cop to think you’re feral?”
If caught, they were like wild animals, as dangerous to themselves as to others. Likely to bite off your hand, or to chew off their own in order to escape. So they had to be drugged to the point of semi-coma and tube fed, and usually died fairly soon of pneumonia or blood clots.
I’d heard that a few of the more liberal states had tried natural habitats, letting ferals live in wild communities in fenced-off abandoned neighborhoods, trapping and fixing them if they made it to puberty. Most of those colonies sooner or later developed diseases and had to be fumigated to keep contagion from escaping. Noble experiments that failed.
But what can you do, if people don’t use birth control and can’t afford to raise their kids? Then natural law takes over.
About six months later I was in the lot again, weekend rounds for the group. It was fairly empty, and I saw something going through the trash can. It saw me, jumped out, and froze.
It was the curly haired little boy. He was a bit bigger now, though nowhere near where he should have been at two, and filthier. He had the bulging stomach and prominent ribs of starvation.
I ignored him, and took the elevator. But on the way back I stopped in the doctors’ lounge and got a pint of skim milk and some cereal, all I could find. I left them next to the trash then sat in my car, watching. After a couple minutes he scurried out from somewhere and grabbed the food.
After that I began leaving him food regularly. He got to the point where he’d come and get it while I stood there, and eventually I was able to get pretty close. He began to look healthier. One day he sounded like he had bronchitis, so I left little cups of cherry flavored antibiotics and hoped he’d drink them.
Of course I didn’t go to that hospital every day, and only every fourth weekend, and my partners just weren’t willing to leave food. “You can’t feed every stray,” they said. “Call Feral Control, maybe he’ll be adopted if he’s that cute.” When I did drive into the lot, he seemed to recognize the sound of my car and would come running.
I never really knew where he spent most of his time. At night that winter he kept warm by crawling onto cars that had just driven in. That left greasy marks on the hoods, annoying the other doctors. Some of them knew I was feeding the child, and they complained to me.
“Hey, he’s wild,” I’d say. “I can’t tell him to stay off your car.”
He was getting tamer. A couple of nurses had been leaving him food occasionally, but after I set down bowls they began putting out food daily. Now that he wasn’t always hungry he seemed to crave attention. He’d run up and ignore the food, wanting me to talk to him or pat his head. But I was always in a hurry. Sometimes I’d see the nurses with him, talking and teaching him a few words. It made me a bit jealous, but when he saw me he’d always trot over to greet me.
I spoke with my kids’ pediatrician about him. “Don’t even think about it,” he said. “Some people do adopt ferals, but they’re a full-time job and never turn out well. They don’t talk or understand, they always stay wild. So when they’re full grown they’re dangerous, and no matter how hard you try, eventually they have to be locked up. Or put to sleep.”
I’d seen movies about it. One had this guy who brought a kid home, and finally had to shoot him while the feral teen was raping his daughter. The message was clear. Only family values separate us from the beasts. Ferals are wild animals. Don’t mess with them, it will only break your heart.
I spoke with my kids too, and they were horrified by the idea. It was gross, it would embarrass them, they wouldn’t help. In fact, they strongly implied they’d cause him bodily harm. So I just kept on bringing him food.
One of the nurses stopped me in the hall one day. “I’d like to adopt the little guy, but you know…”
I understood. “Take him to the doc, I’ll kick in for a check-up and shots, and get him fixed.” You had to castrate them, to prevent aggression, later.
She finally did it. He was tame now, with people he knew, and you could pick him up—though he was so dirty and full of vermin and squirmy that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to do it. She fed him some chloral hydrate I’d taken from the pediatric diagnostic lab, waited until he’d fallen asleep, put him in a box and took him to the doctor.
The parking lot seemed a lot emptier after that. Other ferals came, never for long. They’d sicken and die, or just disappear over the winter. I saw one crouched beside a car one day, coughing horribly. She was probably about five years old, only half the size she should have been, like a small brown doll. I came to within a few feet of her. She looked up, too sick to run, and the terror in her eyes when they locked with mine was the terror of a wild beast caught in a trap. I froze, and in a moment she had gone.
I got a Christmas card the next year from the nurse. She’d named him Feral Flynn—my pediatrician said it’s the commonest name, and everyone is surprised to hear it’s already been thought of. She’d enclosed a picture of him, well-fed, well-groomed, playing with a ball. He’d been easy to toilet train, she wrote, and had learned almost forty words. The doctor said he was better off than most because he’d been abandoned later, so that he’d had some brief exposure to language during its critical period for formation. There was hope that he’d be trainable and eventually able to live in a sheltered workshop.
I’m glad he got a good home. But sometimes still when I go into that parking lot I get out of my car and I stop, and I miss the sound of little feet running to greet me.