They’re Fenris too. Fenris like me. Suddenly, I’m not alone. Suddenly there exists a possibility, however slim, of being around people where I can be myself; without having to hide this huge secret.
At first, I’m furious that my mom didn’t divulge this information sooner, but the fury quickly gives way to curiosity and then excitement.
They’re Fenris too. Fenris like me.
I demand to know everything there is to know about my estranged family. My mom patiently describes them to me, strangers that may soon be part of my life. My paternal Grandfather, Kingston, overbearing and old-fashioned. My Grandma, Grace, distant and moody. My aunt, Abbey, my dad’s sister, who was once my mom’s good friend and who could cook up a mean lasagna. “She was the only normal one of the bunch. The only one I ever missed,” my mom adds.
She continues to list additional names that wash over me. It’s hard to keep all these faceless people straight in my mind. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll be meeting them soon.
They’re Fenris too. Fenris like me.
My mom warns not to get too excited, because they may not want anything to do with me. But I can’t help but feel hopeful. After all, we share a secret in common. Plus, whatever tension my dad may have left behind has nothing to do with me. I wasn’t even born! How could they possibly judge me for that?
They have to accept me. They just have to.
“Here we are!” my mom announces as we pull into the driveway of a little, nondescript gray duplex situated on a short hill overlooking the Valhalla train station. A train has just pulled in, announcing its presence with several loud blares of its horn. This, along with its screechy brakes, seems to ricochet off the neighboring houses like an industrial banshee.
“That’s not going to get annoying, or anything,” I grunt as I unfold out of the car like a piece of crumpled origami. I flap my arms and kick my legs, trying to get the blood flowing into my cramped limbs as I slowly turn three-sixty to inspect our new neighborhood. It seems quiet and suburban; several medium sized houses sit clustered close together, but with enough trees and bushes planted between them to give the illusion of privacy.
I gaze up to the top of the hill where our street ends, and the houses come to a stop. A wall of trees, mostly evergreens, rise up behind them, obscuring the sky with their branches. Having grown up in Venice Beach, the concept of forests is intriguing to me. Of course, Topanga Canyon and Griffith Park were nearby, but even among the trees there, it still felt like a desert. This feels like the kind of forest you read about in fairy tales – wild, and wet, and dark.
“So what do you think of Viking heaven?” my mom quips, referring to the town’s name of Valhalla.
Before I can reply, the sound of a door opening brings my attention back to our duplex. A middle-aged lady with crazy, wiry black hair and a broad grin emerges from the left side, waving as though we were old friends. “You’ve arrived!”
“Our landlady, Joyce,” my mom says with a wry smile.
As Joyce stomps down the stairs leading from the front porch to greet us, my smile fades and my blood runs cold. Out of the door and at her heels is an enormous German Shepherd, tail wagging. I take an involuntary step backwards, stumbling slightly. My mom casts a wide-eyed glance my way that seems to say, don’t move. As if I could, I’m practically paralyzed with fear.
Joyce is saying something, but I can’t hear a thing. Time seems to stop as the world blurs around me, bringing only the dog into sharp focus. It has caught onto my scent, has locked eyes with me from the porch.
Instantly, I’m brought back to the memory of the attack:
A flash of teeth.
Searing pain and so much blood.
The earthy scent of matted fur and the low, guttural sound of a dog’s growl.
Abruptly, I realize the sound is real and coming from the dog, whose body has gone rigid. Its ears have flattened, and its tail held stiff as its lips curl back to reveal pink gums and sharp, terrible teeth.
“Mishka, NO!” Joyce cries as the dog lunges towards me.
I shriek in horror and crouch in place, attempting to shield my face because I know from experience that running only makes it that much worse.
I fully expect to feel the hot slice of teeth tearing at my limbs at any second, but instead I hear a pained yelp and look up to see Joyce grasping the dog’s scruff in both of her white-knuckled hands. Her face is as pale with terror as mine is, but the dog has mercifully stopped its attack and now whimpers pathetically, rolling pleading eyes towards its owner. My mom stands nearby, her hands fluttering helplessly at her sides.
Joyce quickly drags the dog toward the front door, scolding it. The dog is now a different animal, hunched and cowering, her tail tucked between her legs as Joyce leads her into the house.
The slam of the door is my signal to relax, though I’m still quaking like jelly as my mom rushes over to me. “That was scary,” she says, breathless. “Are you ok?”
“No!” I snap. Now that the threat has passed, I feel deeply embarrassed for my cowering reaction. But I can’t help it – it’s practically a reflex by now.
“You’re telling me we’re moving in next door to… to that?!” I cry, fighting tears. “You know how I am with dogs!”
“I know! I know,” my mom says evenly, holding her hands out bracingly as though I were the beast needing taming. “Honey, I chose this place because Joyce allows dogs! It’ll make things easier in the long run… you know, in case we ever need to explain the noises.”
“I mean, we could always say we’re dog sitting,” she explains with a weak smile.
She’s not taking this seriously, and that only adds to my fury. A nauseating feeling slides over the surface of my skin, like oil on water.
I flex my fingers quickly. Fingers, fingers, fingers. You have fingers, not claws.
My mom places a cool hand on my wrist, breaking the spell, and smiles at me reassuringly.
“It’ll be ok, you’ll see. This will be good for you… it’ll help you manage your phobia.”
“It’s not a phobia!”
“Well, whatever it is, dogs can sense your fear and that’s why they act that way.”
“Mom, stop blaming me and taking their side all the time!”
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a pit bull or a Pomeranian. Dogs act weird around me, usually staring me down or barking and growling. My mom may think it’s because they can smell my fear, but I know it’s more than that.
They can smell me.
We’re still arguing when Joyce returns, red-faced and breathless. “Oh my gosh, I am so, so sorry!” she cries. “I really don’t know what came over Mishka… she never acts like that, I swear! Are you ok?”
I grunt in response and Joyce wrings her hands nervously. “Really, I’m so embarrassed.”
“It’s fine,” My mom says, stepping forward to shake Joyce’s hand. “Animals are hard to predict sometimes.”
Joyce nods, still looking troubled, but takes my mom’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Winnie. I’m sorry it wasn’t under better circumstances.”
“It was memorable at least! This is my daughter, Winter,” my mom says, nudging me forward.
“Winter, what an unusual name! Very pretty, though! And just in time for the season!” Joyce says, with a weak chuckle.
I force a smile. I’m all too used to people commenting on my hippie name with various puns and jokes.
“You must be tired, especially after all that excitement, so I’ll let you get settled in. Let me know if you need anything.”
Compared to the vibrant and quirky Venice beach bungalow my mom and I left behind, this place feels bland… But it does have a big unfinished basement with a washer and dryer, and my mom is thrilled. “This will make a great Change room!” she says cheerfully, as though she weren’t discussing a prison to contain me during my episodes.
We also have a little fenced in grassy yard along with a back patio and a lonely little charcoal grill, waiting for summer.
Stepping out, I hear Mishka on the other side of the fence, snuffling loudly, scraping against the wood. Horrified, I quickly retreat inside.
“You’re ok,” my mom says, patting my back, the incident already well behind her. “Come on, let’s unpack the car.”
I trudge after her. She just doesn’t understand. But why would she? No one does.
Later that night, I lie on my inflatable air mattress and stare at the unnatural shadows cast on my wall by the orange glow of a streetlamp outside. It all feels so weird and unfamiliar… as if this is just another night in a motel. The moving truck has to yet to arrive with our stuff, so the room is bare, and cell-like. An empty canvas that doesn’t yet feel like home.
I have an east-facing window that looks out towards the end of the street where the wall of trees beckons. It’s just so different from living in Venice, where I could fling open the windows and taste the salty sea air and hear the commotion of cars, drum circles, and people skateboarding down the street. Everything here seems so… still. So devoid of life.
I’m just about to doze off when the ringing of my cell phone jolts me awake just after midnight. My heart leaps.
“I wanted to call you as soon as I got off work!” Jeff’s voice exclaims on the other end.
“Here I am going to bed, and your night’s just getting started.” I sound wistful, but in reality I can’t stop smiling. I just love hearing his voice.
“Hardly. I’m beat. Work was shitty today. It’s weird without you here.”
I’d often hang out at the café to read or do homework during Jeff’s shift. I loved watching Jeff dart around, expertly making lattes, wiping tables, and charming the old bohemian ladies who were regulars at the café. It made me proud to see him act so responsibly; so different from the way he was at school. Now and then he’d squeeze my shoulder as he passed by my table, or bring me a cappuccino, a heart shape swirled into the foam.
“I miss you so much already,” I say, blinking furiously to stop tears from forming. I don’t want to cry right now. I don’t want him to know how sad I am.
“I miss you too. I’m already saving up so I can come visit you!”
“That would be awesome! But I have to warn you… there doesn’t seem to be much to do around here.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’d just want to see you. We could do nothing and I’d be happy.”
“Nothing? Are you sure about that?” I tease.
I can hear Jeff’s breathy chuckle on the other end of the line. “Well… maybe not ‘nothing’.”
I can’t stop grinning as we discuss the possibilities.
“Night, Jeff. And… I…I love…you,” I say, deliberately this time, testing it out. But unlike the first time, when it felt so natural, the words tumble awkwardly from my mouth and make me flush.
“You too!” Jeff replies, and the line goes dead.
The following silence is like a blow to my gut.
“You too” feels emptier, falser. Maybe Jeff doesn’t really love me after all. Maybe he just said it because he felt pressured to. Even saying the words “I love you” to Jeff tonight felt fake, like trying on a new outfit that isn’t me.
Doubt begins to seep into me like poison, creeping into my gut. I press my face into my pillow and beg for sleep to stamp out the uncomfortable feelings that are building inside me.
She visits me again that night. Each time, it feels so familiar, like I’ve done it all before, but I can never quite remember what happened the last time, and so I always approach her with renewed trust. Her red hair snakes around her face as though underwater or charged with static electricity, beautiful and horrifying all at once. She smiles bitterly at me as I cower at her feet, and I worry I’m displeasing her.
I cast a nervous glance at the enormous skeletal wolves that lurk around us, circling, panting, watching, and I press low to the ground, my ears flat against my head, hoping to escape their notice. I feel her cold fingers under my chin as she forces me to turn toward her, to look directly into her coal black eyes.
Then she sneers, nails digging into my face, and spits strange, jagged words at me that make no sense, but sound like a taunt. She is mocking me. I’m reminded of my cowardice in front of the landlady’s dog and feel deeply ashamed. Now sticks are raining down around me, pelting my skin and landing crisscrossed in angular patterns across the dirt. The shapes look familiar, almost alphabetical, but their meanings are frustratingly just out of reach.
With a bony finger, the corpse-woman points at the fallen sticks, but I can’t make sense of it. I look to her helplessly. She hisses.
The silver chain is now around my neck and I whine piteously as she yanks it, burning it into my flesh.
I wake at once, gasping and tearing at my throat, my air bed pitching unsteadily beneath me.
“Just a dream. Just a stupid, psycho dream,” I whisper to myself as I flop back onto my bed. I try to slow and steady my breathing. Instead I feel like crying. My empty room feels so strange, the trees that stand outside feel so dark, so alien. My gut twists in dread. I’m frightened to be here. But why? I can’t say.
I remember my phone call with Jeff, the “you too”, the uncertainty that followed. But even though I try to recapture the joy and hope I felt the other night, all I feel now are sorrow and homesickness.
What am I doing here? I should be home with Jeff and Dreya under the California sunshine. I’m so angry that my entire life has been upended. Angry at my mom for taking that stupid job, angry at myself for being too afraid to stay in California, even angry at Jeff because I doubt he’s missing me right now as much as I miss him. Everything was perfect. And now nothing seems right.
I begin to shake and my breathing gets more labored. I’m having a panic attack. And panic attacks usually lead to one thing.
“Fingers, fingers, fingers,” I whisper, clenching and unclenching my hands. I’ve been doing so well at holding off my Change lately, but something in my body is betraying me. Something in my body wants this Change, needs it.
“Nooo… please,” I whisper miserably, but it’s too late.
Even though I know what to expect by now, it still feels so strange. My vision distorts – the colors change, growing more intense as my head starts to spin. I feel like I’m high, like when I tried pot with Dreya. Then come the frightening noises in my head. The low whispering voices, primitive and harsh, that grow in intensity – until they explode in a guttural cacophony of sound in some ancient, beastly language I don’t understand.
Covering my ears, I hunch over as I feel my spine involuntarily arch. Pain and pleasure mingle together as my bones begin to pop and snap into place. I start tearing off my PJs, but I’m too slow, and my hands have become clumsy, formless things, studded with claws that tear at the very clothing I’m trying to save. The fabric begins to rip around my expanding form.
I stumble from my room and bang on my mom’s door.
“Maaaa–!” I try to call her name, but what comes out is just a bleat, an animal noise. Her bedroom door flies open, and she takes one horrified look at me.
“Come, quickly!” She grabs my forearm and roughly drags me through the hall, and down the stairs to the first floor. My skin tingles like static as fur pushes through my skin, a million dots of sensation cascade along the lines of my body, needlepoints of sparkling light, and my nose elongates into a snout, my entire face pulling and stretching in an awful, luxurious way.
“Please, please try to be quiet!” she urges as I start to growl involuntarily. She slams open the basement door and we practically hurtle down the stairs into the dark. The concrete is cold against my bare feet and I hunch over as fangs push thickly through my gums, and my sense of smell explodes into a thousand fragments, both familiar and new. I smell the plaster of the walls, the mildew growing behind the washer and dryer, the flowery detergent from the last load and, most of all, my mother. Her soft skin, buttery and moist.
No, no, no! I tell myself, averting my eyes even as I have fleeting but terrifying visions of sinking my teeth into the tender flesh between her neck and shoulder, to crunching her delicate finger bones in my maw, feeling them snap and fragment around my tongue. NO!
But I am hungry. So, hungry. My stomach clenches in fury.
“Stay here!” my mom gasps. “I’ll bring you meat. Just try not to howl or make too much noise!”
She bolts upstairs, her nightgown flying behind her, and I hear the door slam shut. I’m trapped. I pace the floor in a rage, I hate it here. I hate myself here. The walls seem to close in on me, the cement feels cold and smothering. All the artificial smells here offend me and fuel my anger. Only the promise of meat keeps me under control. Meat, meat, meat.
The wait feels like an eternity. My mind spirals into famished misery as my thoughts turn more and more to bloodshed, to violence. I am not a killer. I remind myself. I am a monster, but I am not a killer.
I start to dig at the cement, my paws scrabbling on the floor, my claws raking the surface into dust. I’m digging to distract myself from violence, digging to get away, digging to bury myself in darkness.
I’m going insane.
And then I hear the sound of a door opening. My mom creeps down the stairs, bringing with her the tantalizing scent of fresh blood. Her trembling arms hold several packages of raw meat.
Oh, the meat. I can hardly wait for it. It’s all I can do to resist pouncing on my mother to snatch it from her as my stomach clenches in desire.
She tosses the packages at me, not wanting to get too close, and I leap upon them, devouring them in hungry gulps. The chicken cutlets and raw steak are unpleasantly chill having been recently pulled from some grocery store bin. I long for something warm and still pumping with life. But this will do.
I am not a killer.
I finish the last of the meat, my lips smacking as I lick traces of blood from my maw. I feel much better now, more sane, more in control.
My mother, who left the room while I ate, has returned with a bucket of water. She seems visibly relieved to see I have been satiated. I gulp the water down thirstily as she plugs a sound-maker into the wall. Soon, soothing sounds of the ocean fill the tiny room.
“You ok?” she asks, tentatively reaching out a hand. Since I can’t speak, we’ve found other ways to communicate. If I still have an urge to bite her, I will growl and she knows to step away. But if it’s safe, I will place my nose in her palm, which is what I do now.
She slumps to the floor, pulling me onto her lap. Her hands comb through my fur, scratching me behind my ears. Her gentle touch keeps me calmer and more under control.
“Oh, Winter,” she sighs. “What happened?”
She knows the Change is almost always brought on by an emotional episode.
“You’ll learn to control this,” she assures me. “It’ll be ok.”
I close my eyes and let out a long breath as her fingers sift through my mane. As always, I’m reminded of the Tarot card for Strength, which I have tucked into my journal. It depicts a woman gently holding open a lion’s mouth. She’s fearless, even smiling a little as she tames the fearsome beast. My mother is this woman.
And I’m the beast.
© 2010-2014 Tania del Rio
This article was written by Tania