The world puts demands on us. Endure this, it says. Survive this, it dares.
Except the higher powers, if there are any, have no understanding of who we are.
They arbitrarily deal out trauma, pain, and despair. With each survival the stakes grow.
It wasn’t enough that a freak twist of genetics gave me the painful ability to shift
into a wolf. Life had to deal hand after hand at me, giving me little time to adjust
or realize where the game would end. There had to be a catch. After years of finding
a sort of solace in the velvet of the night, my peace shattered with the appearance of
one of my own kind.
He was gray, darker over his snout and across his eyes. The tip of his tail, too,
was darker. A raccoon in a lupine shape. He caught me by surprise while I was stalking
a rabbit into the brush of the woods.
Wolves are native to parts of Tennessee, but the mountain parts, the wooded parts.
Not the muddy, scrubby piece of land next to my parents’ neighborhood that the home builders
had cleared, but hadn’t built on yet. He smelled different than the dogs from the neighborhood
and the wolves from the zoo. Deep and musky, like only a carnivore can smell, with an accent
of the woods. But he smelled like cheeseburgers, too. And lemonade.
He was definitely trouble. The life-changing kind of trouble. My hackles rose and I crept
around him stiff-legged, fur puffed out. He stood between me and my home, on land I’d considered
my territory since before I grew fur for the first time. And he wouldn’t leave.
The wolf stood regally, fur slick in the glimmer of the moon coming through the trees.
Tail high. A dominant, I thought, though before that moment I’d never put the stance and the
idea together. He let me stalk around him and slip into the cover of the few remaining trees.
The wolf didn’t move. He just stood, making sure I knew he was there. He wanted to be seen. I never
wanted to see another of my own kind. I wanted to hold onto the freedom of being alone and wild a
few nights each month.
Which of course meant I’d see him again.
I loped across the red mud and over the swollen creek that separated the developed and razed
sections of the same neighborhood. I dodged the pools of light under the street lamps because
the neighborhood association had rules about loose dogs. Or wolves.
My father had left the garage door open just enough for me to roll under it, into the cool dark
of his oversized workshop. I changed back into a human, or as human as I’d ever get, gritting
my teeth against the discomfort and ache of my body popping joint from joint, reshaping my frame
then healing it back into place. I dug spare jeans and a shirt from a cabinet that once held rags
and, ignoring the streaks of red mud that somehow made it all the way past the fur to my skin,
I slipped the clothes on before I ventured inside.
There was a time before I started turning into a wolf on the nights of the full moon. As far as
my mother and sister knew that’s all there was—an endless, routine-filled life of normalcy.
My brother? Well the first time I shape shifted, three years ago when I was almost sixteen,
it was to save him from drowning in the creek, when he’d fallen from a tree. I’d certainly remember
if someone had turned into a big man-wolf, or in my case, woman-wolf, and pulled me from a current
that was trying to drown me. But if he did remember, he never said anything. Those moments of
sibling sympathy and understanding we used to have ended that spring afternoon. Since then,
when he looked at me, his eyes filled with a coldness that I couldn’t melt.
My dad washed dishes in the kitchen when I entered. Mom was probably putting my little sister
Erin to bed. Daniel likely hid in his room, watching television and pretending to do homework.
Dad greeted me with a grin and a silly, soap-covered wave.
“How did it go? What did you do tonight?”
I get my looks from him: tall, a shapeless sort of skinny that my mother finds particularly
annoying on a daughter, and dark hair and eyes. I get the wolf blood from him too. He’s my only
confidant, sometimes my only friend, in the half life I live. Because he’s the only one who knows.
Yet I didn’t want to tell him about the other wolf. Not yet.
“Nothing really. I just ran around in the field. I found a rabbit, but it got away.”
“You’re muddy. You should try to sneak into the bath before your mom realizes you’re home.”
He’s a little jealous, I think. He doesn’t slip skins. His grandfather did. But I’m the first
in the family since then, as far as we know. But he seems to hope that he might become a wolf one night.
Out of everything I’ve done, being a wolf—the one I seem to have been born with, not achieved—garners
the most attention, and the most pride from him.
He gave me a kiss on the head, because he’s still tall enough to do that, before I slipped
into the cavernous house. Trying to avoid my mother came naturally after nineteen years. Daniel and
I used to ban together to support each other under her implacable attitude, but these days he seems
like a ghost in the family, and my little sister is Mom’s mirror. My dad is like an excitable
little boy when it’s just him and me, and an overruled shadow of my mother’s demands
when it’s not just us.
And me, I’m just the family werewolf.