“I love you.”
The words escape my lips before I realize what I am saying. I hold my breath as a wave of sheer terror overcomes me. My skin ripples, my teeth ache.
Jeff and I still haven’t exchanged the big “L” word yet. I’ve been meaning to save it for whenever we might be together in person again, or at least until he said it first.
But there it is.
The silence on the other end of my iPhone feels infinite. With each passing millisecond quicksand sinks into my chest, a sickening chasm. But then Jeff’s voice returns, almost inaudible. “I love you too, Winter.”
The sinking feeling transforms into a somersault of pure joy and elation. I can’t help but let out a nervous laugh as Jeff chuckles shyly in return. What a sense of relief. It’s finally out in the open! We may have only been dating a month, but I feel like I’ve been waiting to exchange those three magical words ever since I first laid eyes on Jeff, over 3 years ago.
It’s a dream come true.
We eventually say goodnight and hang up, but I can’t stop grinning like a fool as I pace excited circles around the motel parking lot, somewhere in mid-Ohio in mid- September. The frigid air is a far cry from the balmy Los Angeles weather I’m used to, but I don’t even feel the cold as I replay Jeff’s words in my mind over and over again.
Finally, my adrenaline rush fades, and I quietly return to the room. My mom is fast asleep, her jagged snores cutting through the dark. It doesn’t bother me. I lie on the starchy pillow and smile at the ceiling and the intermittent blink of the fire-alarm. It’s hard to drift off to sleep, but when I finally do my dreams are filled with a joyous mix of bright colors, soothing sounds, the smell of Jeff’s cinnamon breath, and the taste of his ocean skin on my tongue.
But, of course, I can’t even have that.
Because she always takes it away. Just when I start to feel good about something, just when things start to go my way, she invades my dreams to haunt me, to put me in my place.
She has a wicked smile and a lenticular face that shifts between frostlike beauty and sunken, corpselike horror. Her hair is the color of dried blood and floats around her ever-changing face in gauzy, web-like strands. As always, she is flanked by black skeletal wolves, their eyes glowing like lanterns in the purple twilight. In this dream, I’m not a girl, but a Fenris. My tail is curled between my legs, my ears flattened against my head, as I regard her with a mixture of fear and reverence. A pale, soft hand reaches out, beckoning me, and I go to her trustingly. The wolves watch with glistening eyes, poised with muscles tensed.
When I’m finally within her reach she snarls and, in a flash, a thin silver chain is around my neck, choking me, cutting into my flesh. The purple slash of her mouth opens and she shrieks words at me – sharp, angular sounds that I do not comprehend. My inability to understand seems to anger her further and, with a dreadful baying, the wolves pounce upon me in a blur of fur and fangs, smothering me in chilling blackness.
I howl in fury and fear and wake in sweat as cold as marble.
“Oh, God.” The bed sheets are twisted around me. I thrash out of the covers, my pulse thumping like a drum, blood thrumming painfully in my ears.
“Not now, not now!” I whisper, kneading my hands furiously. But it’s already starting to happen.
“Mom!” I yell, and she leaps out of her bed and to my side in an instant, one cool hand on my shoulder, the other fumbling for the bedside light.
A click, and the lamp illuminates the room. Even now, after all this time, I see fear in her eyes as she struggles to repress her horror. “Oh, Winter!” she moans. “Please, not here!”
“I’m trying, mom!” I grit my teeth and try to fight the ache in my bones, try to quell the shaking.
“Shh, shh,” my mom says gently as she takes my hands in hers, massaging my fingers. “Say it with me.”
“Fingers… fingers… fingers,” I grunt against a thickening tongue. “I have fingers, not claws. Fingers, fingers, fingers. I have hands, not paws.”
It takes everything I have, in addition to my mom’s soothing voice, her human touch, to keep me from submitting to the Change. It’s exhausting to fight it, but ultimately so much better than the alternative. I win this round.
I stagger to the bathroom to vomit.
“Are you sure you’re ok?” my mom asks, knocking lightly on the door. “Coast is clear?”
“Yes, mom,” I say, annoyed with her, despite all her help and concern. “Go back to bed. I’ll be out in a bit.”
I stand, wiping my mouth as I stare at myself in the mirror. My usually tanned face looks pale and drawn, my brown eyes are bloodshot, my shoulder-length blonde dreads stick out at weird, messy angles. I look like a hot mess. Or rather, just a mess.
I brush my teeth to get rid of the taste of bile in my mouth and marvel, as always, at how flat and herbivorous my teeth are. Someone looking at me would probably take me for your average 16-year-old Venice Beach hipster. They would never suspect that I could turn into such a beast. It doesn’t even make sense to me.
My hand drifts to the pendant at my breast, clutches it like an anchor. It’s during weird times like this, under a fluorescent light in a shitty motel bathroom, that I miss my dad the most. He would know what to do. My mom does the best she can, but she only knows so much. She’s not a Fenris.
She’s not a freak like me.
The night before my mom and I left L.A., my best friend, Dreya, Jeff, and I met at Dockweiler beach for a little bonfire farewell party.
My mom even let me stay out way past my curfew. Maybe she was just being generous, or maybe she felt guilty about tearing me away from everything I loved so she could pursue a new editorial job in Valhalla, New York.
I couldn’t blame her for everything though, not completely. She did say I could stay with Dreya until the end of the school year, and even through summer, if that’s what I really wanted. The offer was tempting… so tempting, because it would mean I could spend more time with my friends, with Jeff. But none of them, not even Dreya, knew about my Change, and I wasn’t about to risk their lives or sanity by telling them about it either.
The truth is, I just don’t think I can handle it without my mom at my side.
Dockweiler beach was chilly that night as we huddled around the bonfire, looking out over a swath of gray ocean and gray gulls. Dreya, known for her explosive freckles, and a temper to match, had managed to procure a flask of whiskey that she passed between us. It tasted awful, but it warmed my insides, and gave me a pleasant glowy feeling as I snuggled against Jeff.
“I wish you could have stayed at least until your birthday,” Dreya said with a sigh. My birthday fell on Halloween, and we always planned something epic to celebrate, but this year would end that tradition.
Despite it all, the uneasy truth weighed upon us… regardless of my move, goodbyes were inevitable after our senior year, when we’d set off for college, or dead-end jobs, and our separate adult lives. None of us knew what the future held. I was just the first to break away from the structure of our tightly knit group, and we all secretly feared the day when it would break apart even further until it crumbled completely.
But I didn’t want to think about that as I nestled in Jeff’s arms, warmed by the fire and wishing the night could go on forever. Eventually Dreya gave me a knowing look and got up to leave, saying she had to get home before it was too late. We exchanged sniffly goodbyes and swore to text each other every day, and visit each other soon.
And then it was just me and Jeff laying next to a fading fire. It was only 10:30; I didn’t have to be home until midnight. “I have an idea of what we can do until then,” Jeff murmured, nuzzling my neck.
We had made out plenty in the past month, trying to make up for lost time, but we stopped short of sex. Despite how desperately I loved Jeff and desired every inch of him, a part of me wasn’t ready. Everything had happened so fast… after I had announced I was moving, he kissed me for the first time, and our relationship sprung out of nowhere. We were like starving lovers, devouring each other with urgency, constantly aware of the clock that ticked over us, counting down the weeks, the days, and now the hours and minutes to my departure.
My heart ached for a slower love, one that has time to develop, one that can grow and unfurl into something beautiful and mature. I didn’t want to rush things just because I was leaving. I wanted it to be just right.
Jeff tilted me back onto the beach blanket and kissed me tenderly all over my face, my neck, the scar on my collarbone. I ran my fingers through his soft brown curls, memorizing his face by touch – his long nose and bowed lips, the faint stubble on his chin.
His hands fluttered over my body – I could smell the scent of his perspiration mingled with his desire, he still seemed nervous at times, unsure of where to touch or how long to linger in any one spot, or perhaps he was just anxious to touch everywhere all at once, desperate to feel every bit of me before it was too late. I enjoyed his eager and nervous affection, his puppydog desire to please. I too let my hands roam over his body, over his slender frame, his long torso, and cute ass. I adored him, I wanted him. Still, once things began to get too hot and heavy, I stopped him. “Not yet,” I whispered.
“When?” he replied breathily. “This is our last chance.”
“No, it’s not,” I said firmly. “We’ll be together again. We need something to look forward to.”
He didn’t seem convinced, but drew back with a heavy sigh. I loved him even more for being so respectful.
So we just held each other under the moonlight, realizing there was nothing more either of us could say to each other – words simply weren’t enough. We shivered as the fire died and the wind misted us with fragments of the ocean and the unknown.
Vibrant, changing scenery blurs by our car window, but even though I’ve never seen trees so alive with color, I feel nothing but gray inside.
My mom tirelessly attempts to coax me out of my funk through the force of her enthusiastic chatter, or by blaring her favorite, mostly obnoxious music that even my iPod headphones can’t block out. I don’t want to sing along with her. I don’t want to play “I Spy”.
Finally she says, “Winter, this moping has to stop.”
Anger flares inside me and my first instinct is to snap, “You’re not the one losing everything you love!” But then I stop myself, because she did lose my dad and I know he was everything to her.
But before I can think of a less hateful thing to retort, she says, “Look, I know this is hard. But there’s something about moving to Valhalla that may cheer you up.”
My interest is piqued, but I cross my arms stubbornly. “I doubt it.”
“Alright. Never mind, then.”
“Ok, fine. What is it?”
My mom’s expression shifts from playful to uncertain. “Your father’s family… they’re from the area. At least, I assume they’re still living here.”
I bolt upright in my seat. “Are you serious? Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
I’ve never had contact with anyone from my dad’s side. I know almost nothing about them, and they’ve never reached out to me either. My dad cut ties with them after he married my mom and they moved out to L.A before I was born. I never really felt like I was missing out because my mom’s side, full of boisterous aunts, uncles, and numerous cousins, more than fulfilled the extended family quota in my life.
“I didn’t want to get your hopes up,” my mom says apologetically. “Your father didn’t exactly leave his folks on the best of terms, and they never really accepted me into the family either. I can’t say they’d be welcoming if we showed up on their doorstep.”
I slump back into my seat. “Well, that’s nice. Thanks for cheering me up.”
“Well, there’s more.” My mom’s voice sounds harder; so unlike her usual breezy tone. I look over to see that her body is rigid as she grips the steering wheel. She dreads telling me whatever’s coming next, and it makes my stomach twist.
“They’re Fenris too.”
© 2010-2014 Tania del Rio
This article was written by Tania