Orignally published in XVIII (Eighteen): Stories of Mischief and Mayhem.
I’m twenty years old before I finally get up the nerve to run away. I just walk like I’m going to the high school in a pair of Mom’s big jeans because that’s all I can fit around my baby belly. Big hoodie and a heavy backpack. I pass the school and no one stops me, and I’m surprised. Walking out past the parks and the courthouses, past the fancy Victorian houses and onto the old highway, I keep thinking someone will take me for a kid and ask why I’m not in school, get up in my face, see how I’m not right, scream maybe. They don’t.
I walk about five miles, all told, past the reservoir and up a steep hill and down again. I walk a bicycle trail between the highway and the burbling river. As I go, the rich people yell “on your left” and shoot past, or they come at me from the front and look at something else. I’m seen but not seen.
I sit on a bench by the bridge drinking the last of the water in my canteen. I think about food, decide to leave the granola bars for later, fill up the canteen with river water, think about catching a fish.
A rich-looking subdivision lies east just across the old bridge. Canyon Village says the sign, hot white light glinting off of a little fountain. The houses are low and painted dull shades of green and fawn and gray to match the high desert and foothills surrounding them. West, there’s just some dry land that used to be irrigated pasture and a couple of struggling trees. I sight something dark between the trees, and when it’s safe, I cross the highway and see it’s a roofline. I pull up a string of barbwire, heave me and my belly under the fence and head that way. Up a steep driveway and down again, I come to an abandoned house. Nothing special, just a little two-bedroom with a burned-out kitchen that’s never been repaired. The front door’s locked, but the back door glass is gone and the door unlatched. There isn’t much inside, but there’s some old clothes I can use for bedding. Just the place to have my pups.
I gather a load of the tee-shirts and socks and things and make a pile of clothes on the floor of a walk-in closet. I press into the clothes in each direction to make a sort of a nest. Thinking how warm I’ll be tonight, I unpack my backpack and arrange my things on the top of a little particle-board dresser, put my clothes in the drawers. A mouse pops out of the first drawer I try, and I run it out back and then just sit in the nest for a while, thinking to doze but I can’t.
After a while, I take off the jeans and hoodie. I hate seeing myself naked anytime except a moon night, but it’s especially bad now with the belly and all the teats swelling out. I’m not right. Long, long feet and I go up on my toes. My thighs are short little things that look like part of the hips, my arms and legs skinny like a wolf’s. All I can do is sigh, put on a sweatsuit. I’m good about not thinking of it once I’m dressed.
Before we moved to town, I’d go shirtless with my cousins, catching fish in the lake and running around the forest, nobody around but wolf-folk and all us pups. I had no teats then, just little buttons, but ten of them. Most folk just have six or eight. New people would always say something about that because there wasn’t much else about me they could praise.
If they were family, though, they’d know to talk about how smart I was. How I remembered my dad and his brother Aaron even though I’d been just a few weeks old when Aaron left and not more than six months by the time Dad followed. They’d tell how I climbed out of my crib at night to build things until Mom locked bars on the top. I couldn’t get at anything to play with then, so I’d lay there making up stories and songs, talking all through the night.
I remember doing that, too, and I wasn’t any more than a year, year and a half. Yeah, I was smart as a kid.
And everybody loved me. We had uncles and aunts and all sorts of cousins came over back then. They’d hold me on their laps, rub my belly and behind my ears while we watched T.V. They’d tell me how they had an old uncle or aunt back in the day or a friend of a friend—they’d all known somebody like me who got along all right. They didn’t mention how times had changed since then.
Somebody was always home with me in the day, Grandma and Grandpa if no one else. Somebody always teaching me out of a book or showing me how to cook or fix something, feeding me things that I liked. I was happy, and I never felt that different, you know? Of course it was always, “Mary can’t come into the store” or “Mary, you go to your room for a minute. Somebody’s coming down the driveway,” but nothing like how bad it was after the move.
I couldn’t go outside when we moved to town, not at all.
Mom had got a promotion and a transfer and had to dress up every morning. She’d shave and dry herself, powder herself with talc from the Bon Marche’s perfume counter. She’d exhale and suck everything in to inch into a high-compression bodysuit, slip in the expensive falsies that looked like cuts of fresh chicken. Thick department-store makeup in neutral colors, tight gold hoops. She’d dress in a long narrow skirt and high heels. I’d watch her sometimes, tell her how pretty she looked.
And wait the ten or twelve hours until she came home, nothing but the T.V. for company.
She’d cry sometimes. She talked about going back home, but then she met a woman at work who wanted to go around on the weekends, and then she met Gary, and a few months later, we drove back home but only to have a wedding.
First time I thought about leaving, I was twelve. We’d been in town a couple of years. My cousin Bart had moved in, and he was fascinating. At home he wore eyeliner, a half shirt showing off the pierced nipples on his belly. His girl was nothing but wild hair and perfect legs, and they were always making out in his room with the door open ‘cause Mom wouldn’t let them close the door.
He’d crack up Mom and Gary and anybody who was over. He’d throw on a hoodie and go out and bullshit with the neighbor boys, take out the trash. Always had funny stories about the people at school. I never could go to school, of course.
I thought how much happier Mom and Gary would be with him for a kid. I could go into the circus, be an actor, something. I’d gone stupid by that time. Living in town will do that to you.
That girl of Bart’s, Melanie, she changed my life, I guess. She’d sit and color with me or play with dolls—whatever I wanted—and never say it as stupid or too young for me. That’s just how she was. She’d cook and talk with Mom, too. Just a sweet girl. She felt so bad for me she started bringing around people closer to my age, her sister and cousins. Up to then, I’d gone out on moon nights with Mom and folk like that, but soon I was running with the younger ones.
I’d find myself sneaking out when it wasn’t moon night to party in some garage or basement. That’s how I found myself in trouble that first time, running with wolves that Melanie knew.
The first night in the abandoned house, I open the front door and sit watching for lights to turn up the road, but no one turns. Around two or three in the morning, I think about the granola bars. Instead, I go on back to the river to fill the canteen. There’s a trashcan by the bench and at the top of it, a half bottle of Gatorade and half of a cheese and cracker snack pack. It’s all I need for dinner, but a scent catches me. I dig a little further and find a couple of bites of sushi from the grocery store up the road. I’ll eat it and not get sick, most likely. Never had a weak stomach.
I watch the river for a while and start to get scared because anyone could drive down the highway, late as it is. Mom and Gary are already looking. Aunts and uncles, cousins, other folk—they could be rolling into town any time. They’d take the old highway in—didn’t we always do that? I slink back to the house and close myself in as best I can, old chair blocking the door and all.
I can feel the pups moving, how many I don’t know. Up to ten, I suppose.
Melanie quit coming around not long after her and Bart’s wedding. I never saw her belly or heard why she was gone, but she showed up at a cookout at Grandma and Grandpa’s with a sweet little baby just like on a box of diapers. Melanie had always been so good to me, but that time she passed the baby around to all the relatives but me. When Mom asked, she said I might scratch it by accident, and everyone was quiet. Mom wasn’t too pleased.
I wonder now how many pups there were and what happened to them. What all did Melanie go through? Why didn’t she help me, later, when I had my pups? And why can’t she be with me now, or Mom, someone? I’m miserable that first night in the nest, warm and safe and miserable.
The days go by. I lie low in the yard and watch people go by on the bicycle path, mostly cyclists during the day but sometimes walkers in the afternoon. Women go by in pairs wearing tight exercise clothes. A man comes by a couple of times with a Samoyed puppy that looks up at him the whole time. He talks to it, makes it sit down and lay down. He goes in his fanny-pack for treats, and their scent comes meaty and velvety-rich.
The moon gets fuller. There’s something in the garbage can most nights, and after a week, I get brazen enough to strip and get down in the river. I catch a couple of fish and get my bath in the morning sunlight. The bicyclists don’t slow or even look my way.
I wish I had a T.V. I stole Mom’s e-reader. It’s packed but with like Middlemarch and Jane Eyre and modern romance novels that make me feel weird, like I want to party and run with the young people again even though I swore all that off.
I wish the full moon would come before these pups, but I’m starting to doubt it will.
Someone rode a quad around the house, and I just about shit my pants. They revved and rode around a long time before they left. I’d been in the kitchen about to finally break into those granola bars, and then I hid and tried not to make any noise, and then the pups started to get ready to come. I was calm and slow. I breathed and waited.
It took me all back to the first time. I was sixteen. Ought to have known better, Gary said, and Mom was mad as hell, but it smoothed out over the months in between so that we’d all started to talk about getting ready for the baby.
“Babies,” I said. I could feel for certain more than one of them.
Mom said, “Maybe. It’s possible, though I don’t think. . .”
Gary said, “Wolf babies don’t ever come in multiples.”
Like I didn’t remember my own dad’s twin brother. But things were weird just then and had been weird, and I didn’t talk back to them or ask any questions.
I guess I trusted them to help me through the birth and whatever happened after that, but they were out for a drive when I felt the pups coming—they hadn’t expected that to be the night.
I’m alone this time, too. I ease myself down into the T-shirt nest and pull the closet door shut. My skin starts to prickle with a rush of new fur.
When I lay on my bed that time, I shifted all the way into my beautiful self. I’d never done that at home, never except on moon night out in the forest. I remember feeling calm and slow, like now. I remember each of those beautiful pups coming out, the tiniest one first, and the next two quicker and cleaner.
I’m licking them, then and now. The first time, all three of them, tiny but mewling, had latched onto me.
And this time they keep coming. Three, brown-furred and strong, four, five.
I’ve never felt such peace and love.
Six is lighter, larger than the rest, seven is dark and grayish, eight and nine are just like the first ones. Ten didn’t make it, but I lick her tiny body clean all the same. I’ll bury her out by one of those struggling trees and bring it water and hope it will grow.
I lick at the pups until it seems I’ve never done anything else, until we’re all clean. They’re latched onto me, then sleeping. My own sleep comes without permission.
When I wake I’ve shifted back into what I am, and they’re all still puppies. Our nest is matted with clumps of my shed fur, and I rub the rest of it off as quick as I can. I’m starving, but I can’t get up. They’re waking slowly, coming to nurse again, not like those first three who never woke.
That day’s when I start eating the granola bars. That’s when I start to wonder what’s next.
By the time I shift again, the moon night, they’re all starting to have baby faces, all but the lighter one. You can tell she’s going to be all wolf. Her teeth are too much for me to stand already. The gray one, I can’t say. Sometimes I think he is starting to change, sometimes not.
It’s crisp and clear that moon night. The moon seems to fill half the sky, and everything’s blue and bronze and pewter. I run over just-damp hills. I have to run miles and miles for a deer. There are sheep closer, but I don’t dare.
All full and lumbering home, I’m lonely. I’m howling before I can stop myself, and that’s when I think I’ve made the fatal mistake, but still, no one comes, not on moon night and not at dawn when I wash off all the blood and fur in the river. Great clouds of buff-and-sable fur float away on the current, and I think how Mom and Gary and Bart and all the rest never have to shed on moon nights. They’re beautiful wolves and suddenly they’re beautiful women and men, or almost beautiful. Normal. It’s like what happens to them is some fantasy, some metaphor. Only for me is it a real and physical thing.
I am myself again now, cold river water stinging at bare skin. So overfull I feel about to puke, but wide awake. An early-morning cyclist flashes by without looking. For the dozenth time maybe, I cross the highway and go up and down the hill to the house in daylight. It’s too risky, this walk. I’m naked this time. Hard as I am on myself, I know I don’t exactly pass for a house-dog.
When I get back, the pups are wandering around the bedroom, but they come straight at me. They all want at my mouth. They won’t leave it, and before I can think, I’m puking up deer and they’re licking it off of the floor. I think what Mom would say if she saw this. I’m ashamed but not ashamed enough to stop doing the trick for them. They want at it so bad.
Not too long later, they want milk, all but the lighter one and the gray one. They don’t wake, and I grab them and put them on me. They suck for a minute and go off to sleep again. That’s when I count: light, gray, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
Light and gray, it’s not like they’re full. It’s like they’re stunned. Light, when I look close at her mouth, she has something dark in her fur.
And nine didn’t make it. I crouch in the kitchen, run my hands over his blood-matted fur. I want to think something got in here, a fox or a dog, but I’d have smelled it. Something happened between the pups while I was gone. It was the light one, had to be. Those sharp teeth.
Gary’s words come back distorted: “This is why wolves don’t ever have multiples.”
Or why they’re not allowed to keep them, or why there was only ever one like me around. I feel I am about to understand something. To keep thinking of it right now, though, will make my head hurt.
Instead I think how I’m not leaving the pups again, and I think how I can handle things, but next morning I lay low in the yard and see Melanie’s big blue truck parked by the entry to Canyon Village, just a few feet from my garbage can and my bench. She just sits there and finally moves onto the highway.
So she has found me. Probably somebody saw me or heard me and posted something about it online. It’ll be days—at most—until Melanie tells Bart or Mom, if she hasn’t already. Me and the pups have got to leave this place, but I can’t think where to go or how.
What has it been, three weeks? Twice that? I take the pups outside to get warm, to see them clear. Their faces are all smooth now, all except for the light one, but fur still grows down their backs to their little tails. Not a one of them is going to be a diaper box baby like Melanie’s. They’re all going to be like me.
It’s then I know for sure that those other babies didn’t just die there on my chest in the night but that someone—Mom, Gary, even Bart—someone must have come in and pinched off their air. It must have been something like that. A mercy, they probably thought.
Watching the pups now, out in the sunlight, I know something else: babies like Melanie’s are not the best ones. Folk think they’re pruning off the weak ones, but what they’re really doing is saving the weak ones and sacrificing the strong ones, the smart ones. I start to cry out of self-pity thinking how strong and smart I was when I was new like them, before I got trained to be different.
There is a man who bicycles along the river sometimes who’s not like the others. He stops and sits on the bench by the river and reads from a thick book before he crosses the bridge and turns into Canyon Village. Glasses and a tight little beard. He could be a professor or something, maybe a scientist. I go into daydreams about the life my babies could have in a house like his. I think of leaving some of them there with a note to tell him all the potential they have. He’ll teach them and they’ll grow up to be some sort of superheroes, some great ambassadors of the folk.
And the light one, what could she be, somebody’s house-dog? She’d murder them all in their sleep and slink off into the night. I smile an ashamed smile thinking of it, stroke her thick coat.
If there’s one thing I was taught, it’s that you can’t trust people. I’d just as soon hide the pups in a hole as trust a person with any one of them.
Folks are coming, soon, and they’re going to . . . I don’t know. They’re going to murder these children? Could they do that, at the age they are now, with their beautiful faces? They couldn’t take so many and hide them away like they did with me. Maybe send them off to a half-dozen different relatives to hide? That’s the best I can think of, but still it makes me cry.
The babies claw around in the dirt, smelling everything. After ten minutes exploring, they doze, but there’s such wisdom in their faces even then. I pick up a little pink hand and stroke the fur on the back of it. The hand squeezes my finger like it’s made to do.
They don’t have people names, but they’re all individuals. Sleepy and Crabby, Toughie and Tootie, Runt and the Piggy, and of course Light and Gray. Gray’s face changed later than the others, but now he looks a lot like Dad.
They’re all growing so fast, but Light especially is older than she has any right to be. I’ve never seen anything like her. She rolls in the dirt and gets up sneezing. She tussles with the gray-furred baby and comes in to where the others doze around my legs. Right in front of me, she starts to gnaw at Tootie’s shoulder, makes her wake up with a shriek and there’s a little bead of blood. I stroke the hurt baby with one hand and with the other pick the light puppy up and hold her to my chest, sink my nose into her beautiful fur.
I’m just so tired.
I can’t take them home. I think of walking them to the woods, but how far would that be? I think about leaving them here and going for—what? Help? No one can help us.
But you can’t just give up, can you? I pack the bottom of the backpack with parts of our nest, and I put on a clean-ish pair of pants, put on the hoodie. Seven pups go in the backpack, and I’ll have to hope they don’t smother each other. The light pup I’ll carry to keep the others safe from her.
I walk out into the front yard and there, by the side of the highway, Melanie’s sparkly blue truck is pulling over. Another will pull in, and another, and my people will rush up here to take care of family business, but as I’m frozen there, Melanie gets out and helps her little daughter out the driver side. They go to the back of the truck and take out a big bike and a little bike. Melanie puts a helmet on the little girl, and they ride away.
They look like the people who come here every day, clothes a little brighter, maybe, but otherwise the same. There’s something strong-smelling in the truck, and I know that she’s left it for me. She couldn’t bring it up to the house because she had the girl with her.
When I can’t see them anymore, I start down to the truck. The backpack’s impossibly heavy and shifts with their weight, and the angry noises they make. I know I’m defeated. This walk down to the highway is the worst one of all, as I think of cars coming in from every angle and live a hundred different horrible outcomes, but mostly it’s the dread of someone loved and trusted coming in—Gary or Mom or Bart or even one of those laughing uncles—someone coming in and taking away the last of my illusions about what folk are.
The bright day, dead grass and dread, dread, dread with every step, but at the same time, the smell is clearer. Deer jerky, a lot of it. The light pup smells it too, and she’s fighting to jump out of my arms.
I lean in the truck window toward the box full of wrapped jerky. I am going to just eat it, just let the pups in it as well, and we’ll just sit here like caught mice until someone comes along. It could be folk from home or the police, or the subdivision people, Melanie—it doesn’t matter—except I see the keys with their little rabbit foot keychain just hanging there in the ignition, and on the car seat a brand new phone, and in the extra cab are two plastic carry boxes with holes in the sides and locked gridded doors. I’ve still got Light against my chest, and she’s screaming, and I’m taking the rest of pups out of the bag and getting them in those cages, rushing, rushing. I’m in the driver’s seat and trying to remember a time five or six years ago when Melanie tried to teach me to drive out on the forest roads around Grandma’s.
Oh God, Melanie. Why did you think I could still do it? The pups are all screaming. They’ve never been caged before. The truck’s hot inside, the jerky so thick in the air, and I finally have the thing on. It lurches forward, and I find the brake. I calm myself. Slow and calm. A glance at the phone. There’s a message on it: You don’t have much time. They’re coming. I just got here first.
A bicyclist is approaching, and he does have his head turned toward me this time. Maybe it’s because the truck’s so blue. He’s taking in how wrong I am, and I can count on one hand the number of times a person’s seen me so clear. I give him a smile as he comes close, and he loses balance. Maybe he rides into the bench, maybe into the river. I don’t see. I am easing onto an empty highway, hands at ten and two, and I do remember. I am moving faster, and the pups—because I’m calming, because of the stress they’ve just had—they’re quieting. I relax my hold on the light one, and she lays by the side of my leg.
We move past Melanie and her pretty baby still riding their bikes. I don’t wave. If she does, I don’t see. I don’t think we can go to Grandma’s. It won’t be safe. I don’t know where we’re going, not at all, but I do know I’m finally getting the fuck out of town.