One: Getting Kissed up to God
Sheila Halpern got her looks from her Momma, who died pushing her out. Died before, even, but still kept pushing.
“You’re the prettiest thing in the whole darn world,” her daddy told her the day he put her on the train for the St. Polycarp’s Home for Happy Wanderers, his age-soft teeth all chipped so everything sounded muffled. She was eight years old, lice riddled, and 90% liar like her daddy. He was beat-up and down and sideways—an egg with a broken yolk.
The day before, he’d killed two howlers with just his hands. Pressed his thumbs plumb-through their eye sockets and mushed their brains. Now the rest of the pack was after them, and so were the New Mexico Staties. Roadblocks and night creatures left them no time to vanish south of Juarez.
“I don’ wanna,” Sheila said. The ticket her daddy’d pinned to her t-shirt was starting to crinkle. Nobody’d be able to read it. They’d boot her right off the train and then she’d be solo forever.
“You gotta,” her daddy told her. He was looking all around the empty station, his jagged hands like cattle prods. Those hands had been through every violation—torn up by bull-drawn rope, split apart with corn lye, chewed by dogs and wolves and coyotes. By now they were swollen to the size of oven mitts, and she sometimes caught him rubbing them with wintergreen oil just to numb the hurt.
“Go now,” Daddy said, still prodding.
Up ahead were stairs that nobody was climbing. Past that, a lonesome ticket agent, sweltering in a red three-button coat. Nobody traveled or worked or did anything out here in the West unless they had to, and even then, they mostly rolled over and died instead. She and Daddy were different. They had each other, plus Momma watchin’ over them from heaven.
The train pulled into the station. Gnarly and sun-pruned travelers from Tucson looked out their dusty windows. To the north, lightning flashed. You could see it for miles, like a yellow cottonwood falling branches-first from the sky. Soon, hard rain would come. The kind that doesn’t cool nothing but the Joshua Trees.
“All aboard!” some guy shouted over a muffled speaker that echoed across the flat, dry West.
Sheila itched her lice. She and Daddy had been through this before—close calls, heated races into new towns, dyed hair and phony names. This was gonna be the same. He’d back down, hug her, tell her she was his one and only. No way he’d kept her alive all these years, just to kiss her up to God.
“Who’s gonna save me from the howling?”
He wiped his leaking hands on the backs of his jeans. “It’s a nice place for a good girl. You hide there. Don’ talk to nobody. Don’ trust nobody. I’ll git you when it’s safe.”
The engine started up. “Scat, Puppy,” Daddy said.
Sheila’s ears pricked. Even though it was broad daylight, she heard howlers on the hunt. It’s an empty sound that kinda sonics through your innards ’til your bowels shake loose.
“They’re here,” Sheila whispered. “No use my leavin’ now. You and me’ll just have to fight ’em to the death.”
Daddy didn’t have her good ears, but he trusted her when it came to the howlers. He shoved her on the train, then stood in her way so she couldn’t get out.
A hand clamped down on her shoulder. “Ticket?” a sweating man in red asked.
The sky darkened. The howlers took shelter under the mean clouds, loping on four legs toward the station.
The train pulled away. Sheila didn’t have it in her to scream. This was Las Cruces, a baby shithole in the giant outhouse of the West. So she just watched as four howlers circled her poor Daddy, and the whole, used-up world got small.
Two: Three Foster Homes, a Drowned Lady, and a Bad Habit
The trip East took four days and she slept with her face pressed to the glass, eating just peanut packets that came free and water from the bathroom sink. Her ninth birthday happened in the plains of St. Louis. “Dear Daddy and Momma,” she whispered once she figured out that nobody was gonna stop the train and surprise her with Hostess cupcakes, “You’re the worst parents in the whole world and this is the worst day in my whole life, even including the real day I was born and you died on me, Mom.”
Then she cried for a while and felt sorry for herself, which wasn’t her nature. By Portland, Maine, the conductor was happy to get rid of her. He pushed her off her seat like shaking Serano chile seeds loose from their fruit.
Sister Rita was waiting near the Amtrak Dunkin’ Donuts, holding a sign that read Sheila Halpern. She was skinny as pulled jerky and her pale cheeks and neck flapped like empty clothes.
“Sheila?” she asked.
“Susannah,” she answered, because that was the name she’d used in Yuma, where her Daddy taught her to catch trout with just her hands.
Sister Rita looked her up and down, smiling sweetly, fingers weaved so tight they looked like albino worms. “Orphan cowgirl, you’ll be my special challenge,” she said.
You get a feeling about people the first time you see them that later, you forget. Susannah had a feeling: Sister Rita was bat-shit nuts.
Overcrowded wasn’t the word. St. Polycarp’s Home for Happy Wanderers had thirty beds and a hundred kids, with busloads more every day. Most got fostered out to trailers and lean-tos where they made some lady’s payday. The rest ran away, or else or became Rita’s house-broke pets, which probably wasn’t worse than death, but came close.
Susannah’s first foster was with Bonnie Sleeper on Winter Street in Sanford. Bonnie sold used books and clothes. She dated the guy at Jenny’s Garden next door, so her whole house was forever full of baby’s breath flowers, basically for free.
Susannah liked the set-up, especially because it was an easy walk to Sanford Elementary. The other six foster kids were a fun pack that stuck tight. She didn’t even mind Bonnie’s newborn twins that squawked all night.
But then her foster brother Mike climbed into her cot one night. “My own’s too cold,” he said. His hands jabbed at her like mechanical dough kneaders. The other fosters watched, like this was normal.
Susannah told herself it was no big deal. Easy peasy, dream of wheezy. But her skin had its own ideas. It started crawling like it was mixed with lice. When he got to her panties, the lice went crazy.
At the free clinic emergency room that night, nobody would believe it was Susannah—the bite marks were too sharp. “Canine,” the hand surgeon said. “Definitely dog.”
The next day, her skin and mind got into harmony. She stole two boxes of Ex-Lax and put them into the Bisquick pancakes she fried up for everybody’s lunch. They ate them and all got sick, even Bonnie’s sweet baby twins. “I did it,” Susannah declared, just so there wasn’t any confusion.
So she got returned to St. Poly’s, like one of those Barbie Dolls that’s supposed to be good until you take it out of the box and find out its elbows are bent forever.
“Of course you stuck up for yourself. You’re a fighter. The kind that doesn’t bend. Only breaks,” Sister Rita said when Susannah told about the touching. Then Rita scratched the hidden neck skin under her habit—all red and flaky like fish scales.
Back at school, the foster siblings spread word that Susannah was bad news. Worse, she couldn’t stop lying, even when nobody believed her. “My family’s ancient, like from the days Gods used to walk around like normal people, stealing fire,” she told Carole, the most popular girl in class, who pinned her hair back with ribbon barrettes and never talked much, just kinda sneered. “Did you know coyotes aren’t even animals? They’re cursed murderers and birth-defected. My Daddy hunts ’em.”
Pretty soon, Carole’s friends were listening, too. All those cool kids who walked together to the Mobil station and went sledding instead of doing afternoon chores. “You know how they have vampire hunters? Well, my family’s like that, only with tricksters,” Susannah said.
By now, the whole class was quiet. This was lunch time—napkins unfolded over desks, everybody sitting like their seats had glue. Even Mrs. Solomon was listening. Susannah could hear the titters. The excitement. She had them. They liked her.
“So basically, this is a warning. You keep teasing me, and I’ll feed ya to the werecoyotes.”
Everybody got quiet. A full two-seconds of awe. Mrs. Solomon started to say something, but then Carole snickered. The sound echoed like thunder in a desert. Then everybody was laughing. Even Mrs. Solomon.
Next thing, the kids were shoving her into her locker just for fun, then throwing a Medico up for a nonstop riot. She came home with a note taped to her back that Sister Rita pulled off. It read: “I’m an ugly Gaylord.”
Sister Rita squeezed Susannah’s shoulder, offered her enough sympathy to get her waterworks going, then said. “It’s okay to like girls. You just can’t act on it. We’ll hang this up, to remember our prostrations and humility.”
So there it went, Scotch taped to Sister Rita’s office door: I’m an ugly Gaylord. Only now, underneath, Sister Rita had written: Susannah Halpern.
That night Susannah wrote an entry in her school diary she was supposed to keep. It read like this:
Every thing I told you guys 2day is tru. You should know that no thing will ever hurt me because Im all ready sick in my heart for my Daddy-Momma. When I cried in the locker it was an acident. Its like flies on a broke horses ass—he swings his tail, shure, but only outta habbit.
I hope you drop ded for laughin at me, Missus Solomon.
Good night diahrea diary,
Susannah Halpern, wich isn’t even my real name, you jerks
Four months after Los Cruces, Sister Rita found Susannah a second foster home. By then, she’d been thinking about running away. But she kept hoping her daddy was alive. Sister Rita was the only way they’d find each other again.
The new house was in Camden with rich people. Everybody smiled on the outside and dressed pretty, but when you talked to them, you got the feeling they hated you. The parents were always whispering about the kids. Always disappointed or looking to find out who’d spilled juice or tracked dirt or left open a window. All that contention felt like somebody playing steel guitar with Susannah’s organs.
She knew it was rabid stupid, but her nervous teeth got the better of her brain and she started biting herself—hands at first, then arms, too. Her tiny canines punched through below-skin bloodwebs to make red bruises, which her foster sister reported, so her foster parents made her stand in the corner, which didn’t stop her from biting, so they always made her stand in the corner, which made her always bite herself, which got her returned, because she was bringing everybody else down.
Because it used to be a mill town, Sanford had this river called the Mousam that Susannah sometimes sneaked out at night to visit. The sound it made was laughing during full moons, crying the rest of the time. Once, she saw an older version of herself inside it—baggy eyed with a beat-up face. In the reflection, she was wearing a nun’s habit.
Another time, she saw her beautiful Momma, who was hairy and sleek as a cat. Her eyes were sharp green Sprite bottles, just like Susannah’s. She wanted to dive in.
“Is Daddy with you?” she asked.
Momma just kind of stared up from the bottom, like she was so deep in it that she couldn’t hear. Pretty soon, she was gone, and the crying lady was back. The crazy one, who was always trying to pull people in.
She’d been gone from Las Cruces eight months. Back at St. Poly’s, the Gaylord note now had creases, like Rita’d been carrying it around in her wallet.
“You ever hear from my daddy?” Susannah asked one night while she was mopping the rectory floors with vinegar.
Sister Rita scratched her scales so that neck dandruff rained polka dots over her habit. “My ugly orphan, of course not. He’s dead.”
The third place Sister Rita found happened nine months after Las Cruces. A Sanford junkyard doublewide full of kids and drunk people. Susannah stayed quiet and cleaned up the poop. She changed baby diapers and laughed a lot with the three other ten years-olds, but didn’t drink cough syrup with them, because it made her head hurt.
Their last name was Halpern, too, and everybody in the family had bad teeth. The mom and grandmomma had both died from incisor infections. They also lied a lot, and were bad at the lottery. They weren’t so different from people she’d met on the road with her Daddy, only none of them was her Daddy.
It was August—hot and wet. Sleeping at night felt like climbing into a cat’s mouth. And then one night, she heard that Rottweiler barking so long it got her stirred up. Her skin felt like it was on fire. So she sneaked past everybody sleeping on floors and drooled-upon couches. Not even the babies stirred, cause of the NyQuil.
The dog belonged to the trailer park, so everybody and nobody fed it, which made it mean. Woof! Woof! Woof! It barked so long she felt like she was gonna scream. She got down on all fours and tried to reason with it, which turned out to be a him with giant man-parts. “Hush! You’re makin’ me crazy!”
But he didn’t see the virtue of her words. So her brain turned off and her skin took over. All she saw was white like the hottest part of a fire poker, and she bit him in the neck until his blood rushed out.
She got caught blood-faced and in the act by her foster uncle. The whole thing made the newspapers, which was exactly what her Daddy’d warned against. The howlers can read, after all.
Sister Rita called Susannah into her office on the first day back at St. Poly’s. “Sweet cowgirl, we can’t find a place for you. Not after what happened with the dog.”
“That’s okay,” Susannah said. “My pop’s comin’ for me. He’ll pay you back for my keep, then some. He’s got a system with the lottery.”
“My lovely ugly,” Rita told her, then pulled a long, thin branch out from behind her desk. “It’s a sin to lie.”
Before she could even wonder what was happening, Sister Rita bent Susannah against the desk and pulled down her panties. Slapped her butt cheeks hard with the switch.
Then she righted her again, kissed her forehead, and gave her a chocolate calcium chew treat. It all happened in maybe eight seconds.
“Take it,” Sister Rita said, holding the foil-wrapped candy, all breathless and excited and flush-cheeked as a junior at prom.
For the first time in a long while, Susannah’s skin and head went in opposite directions, and neither won. She looked at the candy. Bared her teeth. But couldn’t bring herself to bite.
Three: Two-Dollar Love
Nine months after Las Cruces, a good thing happened: Susannah’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Melton, drowned in the river. Then a bad thing happened: The howlers started up. She could hear them at night, all distant and far away. That was how they hunted—in big circles that narrowed and narrowed until suddenly you were trapped.
On the first day back at school, she had a new teacher—Ms. Canis from New Mexico. She had smooth skin like the throw-away paper from a sticker.
Since the kids were all the same as last year, everybody still hated Susannah. Only now, they’d read in the Sanford Sentinel about how she’d bit a junkyard dog to death. Even before the Pledge of Allegiance, they were calling her animal.
Animal, go crazy! Animal, where’s your collar?
Animal, you got a black cooter or do you die it blonde?
All through it, popular Carole sneered like a remote control dictator. The kids were drone fighters and she was this silent pilot a billion miles away. Susannah wondered if maybe she ought to act like an animal and start biting them. Or lift Carole by the ankles and jump rope with her.
“You stop or my zombie Momma’s gonna drown you,” she said.
Carole giggled. She’d traded her ribbon barrettes for complicated Princess Leia donut braids. “I didn’t know animals could talk!”
Ms. Canis came out from behind her desk with this long, wood pointer. Another beat stick, Susannah guessed. This was how grown-ups out East laid down law.
Ms. Canis banged the stick across her desk hard enough to break it in two. Everybody shut up, right then and there.
After recess it happened again. Carole pinched Susannah’s wrist. “Bark, dog, bark!’ she hissed.
Even though it got whispered from across the room, Ms. Canis heard. Her big ears pricked. She got up, shoving desks as she walked, like a tornado, until she reached the two of them. Then she hurled Carole’s unicorn Trapper Keeper through the window. Crash!
Glass dangling and still falling, Carole crying along with a bunch of other kids, Ms. Canis smiled like a pacifist. “Starting out orphaned puts you ten miles behind the rest of the world, and you have to be a marathoner to catch up. You kids ought to show some compassion.”
The kids stared. Ms. Canis pulled shards loose from the sill with her cardigan. “So we’ll keep this quiet, won’t we? Because I know where all of you live.”
The kids laughed, but not ha-ha. Scared laughed.
“Are you a marathoner, Susannah?” Ms. Canis asked.
Susannah waited for the snickers, but everybody was too hopped up on freak-out. “Uh,” she said.
“Can you run for your whole life?” she asked, like there was a secret in there someplace. Like she was talking about Daddy and the road and all those ranches where they’d earned their biscuits cleaning stables.
Ms. Canis tapped a shard of glass against her palm like she wasn’t afraid of a little blood. “Better figure out what you’re running from, Pup.”
People stopped teasing Susannah after that. They stopped talking to her all together.
By now, it was a year since Las Cruces. At St. Polycarp’s, things were the same. Sister Rita kept her close and sometimes whipped her but mostly gave her calcium chocolates. Orphan life was starting to feel normal. Bad normal.
“You hear from my daddy? He ever send word?”
Sometimes Rita said he was dead. Sometimes, it was jail. Sometimes she didn’t know where he was, because he didn’t care enough to keep in touch. “But I want you, sweetie. I want you like you’re my own,” she always said.
Around Christmas, the howlers closed in on Sanford. She could smell their pee on park benches, the school hallways, her bedroom window. On good days, she guessed they’d found her because of the junkyard dog, on bad ones, because her Daddy’d betrayed her.
The first to die were Susanna’s foster family with all the kids, even the baby twins. Their beds got eaten up along with the bodies, so pictures showed cheap mattress fillings unstuffed and mixed with baby’s breath flowers.
Bounty hunters and Staties came with guns. They shot a bunch of wolves and dogs, but didn’t track the coyotes, probably because when they’re not hunting, they just look normal like anybody else.
The next to go was the rich family from Camden. They got gored, then the outside of their house painted in blood. More hunters came. People talked about spraying poison with crop dusters, only they couldn’t figure out how to make it okay for people, too.
In January, Susannah got a late Christmas present from Sister Rita: a new wardrobe from charity that fit her well and looked like new. For every dollar it cost, Rita lashed her. Susannah held to the backs of her legs and wondered if other people were happy, or if they just lied better. Then she passed out from the pain.
When Rita was done she scratched all under her hot, heavy habit. Skin flaked like desert snow. On the desk, Susannah saw this letter opener made of silver that she could plunge into Sister Rita’s cold, shitty heart. She thought about that as she gnawed her calcium chew. Thought about how her head and skin were all messed up these days, because she wanted to kill Rita, but she loved her, too.
“It’s time for some new lessons,” Sister Rita told her, still scratching, only further south, like her between-legs were made of lice. “You’re ready for phase two.”
Susannah’d known just one girl who’d been Rita’s pet this long. She got out by tying her neck with a sheet, then throwing herself out St. Poly’s window.
Around the feast of St. Nicholas, school let out for a half day because of the snow. It came down in white puffs like liquid clouds and wasn’t nearly so cold as she’d feared. The rest of the kids headed out for busses, but Susannah figured she’d walk around. Maybe beg for change at the Mobil, get a Rainbow Slushy. Tell Rita to fuck herself and run away, even if it meant she’d never see her Daddy again.
“I’m glad you stayed. I brought you something,” her teacher Ms. Canis told her. Then she handed Susannah a fancy box from Target. It had tissue paper and she inhaled the new, unspoiled-ness of it.
“What?” she asked.
“To wear,” Ms. Canis said. She had brown hair that was gray at the roots and her fingers were always bitten down, but she kept herself fit, her teeth sparkling white. She ate fruit and vegetables and nuts like a squirrel. Healthy on the inside—dumpy on the outside, which was pretty much the opposite of Sister Rita.
Susannah picked the present up. It was a silver chain—or at least, painted silver with a kind of pod on it that smelled like dried weeds. It felt electric, sort of, like the live wire around a chicken coop.
“It’s supposed to help you keep your head and skin in agreement so you have control of both,” she said.
“I don’t like it,” Susannah lied. “It’s ugly and stupid and I don’t know what you’re showin’ it to me for.”
Ms. Canis smiled. “That’ll be all.”
Susannah got up and started out.
“Take it with you.”
Susannah kept going. Ms. Canis followed her with the thing. “Take it.”
Susannah didn’t turn around. She was crying and didn’t want nobody to see. When people do nice things, it’s awful. Feels like your heart is all rotten and full of puss, and they’re scraping on it. Maybe they wanna clean it out; maybe they just like puss.
That night at St. Polycarp’s was like the rest. Cheese sandwiches, Pepsi, and Grandma’s brand chocolate chip cookies for desert. Then Sister Rita beat her thirty lashes. When she was done, she took off her shoes and socks so Susannah could see her smooshed big toes and blue-green leg veins. Her whole body was flaking like a coat of cheap paint.
“You hear that story about the woman who drinks the blood of the young, and stays young because of it?” Sister Rita asked.
Susannah nodded, because anything else would earn more lashes.
“Wrong answer,” Rita said, then lashed her thirty more.
The howling came real close that night. Susannah propped herself on a blood-stained pillow, opened the window and listened. Maybe her Daddy’d been wrong and they weren’t so bad. Maybe she didn’t care, because getting et up might be a relief.
They came right up. All four, with a big Momma behind them, watching over. They were half-grown, had to stand on top of each other to reach her window. The smallest and lightest nosed through the opening and licked her.
She shut it fast and squeezed her eyes tight. Shoved the pillow over her head while they howled, and the rest of the orphans cried out in fear. But still, she kept her arm unwashed for a day, palming where the little werecoyote’s tongue had gone, sweet and gentle as a family kiss.
The next day, the newspapers announced another bunch of coyote murders. This time in the trailer park with the dead dog. Everybody got killed, even the babies and the old people. Not a single Halpern left in all of Sanford. It was like the howlers were eating up Susannah’s trail, so nobody’d know there’d once been a girl who got dumped on a train.
Cops came to St. Poly’s, asking to talk to Susannah because they’d figured out the coincidence, but Sister Rita told them they needed a warrant. Then she locked her office door and held Susannah tight as a tick under skin while Susannah stared at the letter opener, wishing she was somebody un-broke.
That Monday the amulet was on her desk at school. She tossed it in the garbage first thing. Ms. Canis shrugged and kept up her lesson about the dust bowl that happened because everybody fenced in their cows and it ruined everything. “But the Old West is coming back,” she told the class. “Civilization is an idea, and so is savagery. The former crests and collapses, the latter persists in light and in dark. A hundred years from now, we’ll hunt in tribes again, and our tall buildings will house only death. Humanity itself will die out, leaving dominion of the Earth to the things that are wild.”
She talked like that sometimes. Especially when the moon was full.
At recess, Susannah sat by herself. Imagined where she’d go and run away to. Back West, probably. A ranch or horse farm. Or maybe that other tribe. Maybe the howling.
The girls that day played married, walking down the aisle with boys they crushed on, then sharing Doritos and SweeTarts like a proper reception. The cool ones talked about kissing. Susannah wiped her hairy chin and thought about her liar daddy, who’d told her she was pretty.
She booked it after class, went straight home where Sister Rita was waiting. “You killed all of them, didn’t you? All those families I assigned you. God told me.”
Susannah nodded, because if she denied it, she’d get beaten. Sister Rita pointed at two packed bags. “Take my things to the car. We’re leaving here.”
Susannah didn’t hesitate. That’s how far gone down the well she’d fallen. She picked up Rita’s leather satchel and started out. Dropped it inside the old Saab that everybody called the Jesus Mobile because of all the bumper stickers and rosaries. The satchel opened up and on top was a bunch of letters bundled together with red ribbon. The first was the Gaylord note, the next had a picture of Las Cruces.
“Deer Susannah,” the Las Cruces card read inside. “I love you very much. Please take this money and buy yerself something that matches yer eyes.”
There were more. She opened them, one by one. They were postmarked from the New Mexico county jail. They all said they had money, but they didn’t. Then came the last letter, from a warden, saying that during transfer to maximum security in Baltimore, her Daddy had escaped. This was two days ago. They said they thought he’d come looking for his daughter.
Suddenly, Rita was at the driver side, opening the door. She started the car and waved for Susannah to sit. Then she saw the letters. “Sneaky, sneaky. I know what’s good for you,” she said with that crazy smile.
She leaned across the car, like to reach up and give Susannah a slap. What happened next, Susannah didn’t know. She blacked out.
It felt like Crack! Crack! Crack! lightning in the sky. Her head and skin stuck together again and made electricity. Her whole body thrumped and throbbed. She got low. Everything changed, even her eyes and smell and the beat of her heart.
And then the car was shaking, and glass all over, and the sharp, shocked sounds of Rita’s screams. And blood. So much blood.
She woke up in a strange bed that was low to the ground, wearing Ms. Canis’ amulet. Something sizzled in the next room and she staggered there. It was empty except for a steak in a frying pan, and a couple of scientists talking on the radio about polar ice caps.
“That’s the thing,” Ms. Canis said from behind and Susannah didn’t turn, because she knew somebody’d washed the blood off and kept her safe from the police.
“Coyotes survive anything. We mate with dogs. Wolves. Lawyers. The rest of the world is limping toward apocalypse, but we keep getting stronger.”
Ms. Canis passed Susannah, flipped the steak with a fork, then threw it on the floor like that was where food belonged.
“You’re the one broke my family?” she asked. The shirt she wore was two sizes too big. Something that probably belonged to the real owner of this house.
While Susannah watched, Ms. Canis changed. She got hairier and her nose elongated. She didn’t turn full animal—just something smart and lowdown, in the nightlike in-between.
“It’s generations. On and on. We’ve mixed for thousands of years. Your mother was more human than most. Dangerous because of it. You two legs are all heart and no instinct. You change because of the moon or a bad mood. We’d kill you if you weren’t so smart—there’s no way we’d have crossed the Mississippi without you.”
“My momma watches over me,” Susannah said.
Ms. Canis let out a throaty click. “If anybody, she does. More than the other pups, you take after her. It’s what they call an evolutionary leap.”
“Momma was perfect and beautiful,” Susannah said, and for some reason, just the mention of Momma’s name from somebody who used to know her started the waterworks.
“She was ugly. But she loved your Dad so much that her tubes knit back together. She bore you pups even though her hips weren’t wide enough for those big, human brains. You’d think that kind of sacrifice would have made you kids ease up, but you were worse than the coyotes. You chewed your way right out her womb.”
“That’s a lie,” Susannah said.
Ms. Canis laughed. “You think so? Either way, you belong with us. I was your momma’s half-sister. I raised your five sisters like my own. We’re your family.”
Ms. Canis started to gnaw on the meat. The sound was familiar. Susannah’d dreamed it during full moons. Outside, the howlers started. She couldn’t tell if they were laughing or crying.
“We’ll go South, I think. New York. The park there has a feeding ground.”
The amulet stung Susannah’s neck. Underneath, her heart blood felt like it was pooling.
“What’s different about you is that you can live among them. They smell you’re not right, but they don’t know it for sure. It’s why you never fit in, but they don’t kill you. You don’t fit in with us, either. But we’ll take you.” Meat was all in her teeth. Susannah saw that it wasn’t cow steak. A bloody black habit hung in shreds on the doorknob.
“I always wanted a momma,” Susannah said. “To show me things and to love me.”
Ms. Canis bit the meat in half and threw some in Susannah’s direction. It was hand gristle. “That necklace makes it so you can’t change when you wear it. You mostly-humans need that to get by.”
Susannah nosed the meat. Five half-grown howlers appeared in the doorway. Just pups. They looked like her, only wilder. The smallest nosed up next to her, then pressed its head down by her feet in submission. Susannah didn’t think. She licked the thing’s forehead, then pushed it toward food.
“Go now, pup,” she said, like soul memory.
Now all the howlers were munching—calm and quiet and heading toward satisfied. Susannah bent down. They made a space for her like she belonged inside it. She’d never had family dinner. Never known anybody with thick brows like her. Ugly like her.
But then she smelled the hand meat. It stank of pretend holiness and she knew she couldn’t stomach it. Didn’t want it stuck inside her. Because then she’d grow up one day and be just like Rita. Like Canis. Saying things that don’t mean nothing. Pretending your wants are law.
She imagined her momma, like womb memory. They’d lived together in a cabin and drank snow. She’d hidden inside her Momma’s chest and listened to her death breath even after the rest had gone. Mourned her, like a part of herself had been severed. Susannah’s head and skin resolved into the same thing. She wasn’t conflicted. She knew what she loved, and what she didn’t. The blood was pooling and the amulet burning, but that didn’t mean nothing. She tore it from her neck.
The change happened fast. Ms. Canis growled with wide, shocked eyes. And then she wore no expression at all. Susannah was young. Spry. Half crazy from the year she’d spent without her daddy.
A jugular is an easy thing once you’re set on it.
She used Canis’ dead body as a shield from her sisters. Biting, tearing. Everything white as the pups went mad in their way. It was orphan against orphan.
She didn’t hear the shots that made them drop: one, two, three, four, five. They whined in a desolate way, their bodies changing back to hands and feet and full, pink lips. Even the little one.
And then, in the doorway with his shotgun, stood Daddy. One year missing, scarred-up so bad this time he’d lost his face. But you can smell the people you love, the people who love you.
He picked up the amulet and handed it to her. “This was your mother’s,” he said. Then he looked down at the mess and shook his head. “That’s something we won’t forget.”
She was still changed, on the floor. Feeling shamed that he could see her like this. All animal.
“Come on, Sheila,” he said, holding out his ragged hand.
She got up slow, waiting until she could walk on two legs like she belonged. They went north over the border to the horse farms in Canada. It wasn’t easy, but they made their way like they always had. Like she hoped they always would.
© 2012 Sarah Langan.