You will never forget the joy you felt the night your father vanished. It was one of those times each month he ran wild, hackles raised, his whiskey breath ragged with hungers nothing reasonable could sate. Some of those nights, your mother locked you in the cellar, and you heard the fleshy hammer-falls of his fury. But this was one of those other nights, when he ventured out to the bar—he never said which. He went looking to vent his rage on whatever bikers or miners or meth cooks were within reach of his fists once he was running hot.
The joy at his going elsewhere slowly became dread as a man you loved despite his demons stayed out too late, and you listened to each passing car for the tinny rattling of his truck.
Sometime before dawn, your mother took the car out to go search for him and you got the idea he wasn’t coming back. She was still gone when you left for school, sick to your stomach with worry; and when you got back that evening, you saw her hunched over the Formica kitchen table piled with bills and the belt—that shabby grey-furred thing your father always wore that strained the loops of his jeans. Your mother’s shoulders shook as she wiped away her tears.
“Honey,” she said to you, and you saw in her eyes that her heart had been smashed like a whiskey glass. “Daddy’s not coming home. They say…they found this lying beside the road last night.”
You don’t remember what you said next exactly, just that you screamed and ran to bury your face in your pillow and hug the stuffed wolf your dad bought for you at the Yosemite gift shop when you all went last year.
The next weeks blurred in a patina of tearful memories and grief, recalling some fight or tender moment in every stretch of the house. The coroners never let you see him, saying it “wasn’t pretty.” He hadn’t been pretty in life either, just big and angry and strong, but you still loved him. Your mother wouldn’t pay for a coffin, reluctant to take money from second-notice bills to buy a fancy box for the little that was left of him, but the church chipped in, even though you hadn’t gone in months.
Neighbors brought food. Your mother stopped combing her hair. You contemplated shaving yours, hoping to shear away the pain, then remembered how he tousled your head fondly.
The funeral was short, expensive, and closed-casket, and the preacher talked a lot about heaven and hellfire, and then you stood there as adults you barely recognized came up and said how sorry they were.
Kids at school taunted you over your father’s death. You got sent to the principal’s office for swinging at Taylor Lindberg, who still torpedoed his fists into the side of your skull so hard your ears rang like a bomb had gone off. The next couple times you ran to the bathroom and wept. After that, you learned to bottle it up until you got home.
You stopped going home on weekends, got a job at the carwash down the street instead. On those weekdays you didn’t have work, you stayed late at the school library, puzzling over math and Latin textbooks, and getting lost in the pages of trashy teen-fic novels whose problems were over-the-top enough that you could actually escape your own for a bit. When you got home most evenings, the house was still empty. You blew your first paycheck on some new clothes and cigarettes, but the next few paychecks you cashed, hiding the crumpled bills where your mother would find. Whenever you two were together for more than a few moments, she looked exhausted.
Your mother started working extra shifts at the diner, and dating other men. One of them, Dale, actually stuck around. Dale smelled of cigarettes and talked incessantly about his pet Dobermans and football and about Jesus, which together formed his Holy Trinity. He joked how your mother “wore the pants in the family.”
She’d always worn pants, but she now also sported that hideous furry grey belt of your father’s. Each morning as she dressed she fastened it around herself like a talisman that held all her pain inside its magic circle while imbuing her with just enough rage at the world to survive through the evening.
Some nights, she went a bit crazy, and she beat her fists into doorframes like your father used to. The door to the house would slam shut and she’d storm out into the yard and start throwing dishes in the street and screaming at the moon, and her voice would crack and become unrecognizable. Month by month, it got worse. She stopped taking care of herself, not shaving even when she remembered to shower, and snapping at you for little things like chewing too loudly or leaving your homework on the table. But every month there was one evening that she turned into a downright lunatic.
On one such night, she didn’t come home. You stayed awake at the kitchen table, trying not to relive the night your father had vanished. It’d been almost five months. You did eventually nod off into your math textbook, dreaming of your family, happy and whole as you looked up at the night sky over Yosemite and listened to the howling of wolves somewhere in the woods below. When you woke, neck stiff, drooling all over page 204, your mother stood over the sink, scrubbing at her hands. She’d changed out of last night’s clothes.
“Everything okay?” you asked.
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t it be?” There was blood in the water, on her skin.
Under her fingernails.
“Mom, what happened to you?”
She didn’t answer, just scoured skin and blood with dish soap that frothed like a rabid dog.
As Mrs. Jansen droned on in your first class about the Norwegian and Swedish migrants who settled the region, you drew pictures of the wolves at Yosemite in your three-ring binder, pretending to take notes. You dreaded going to math class because you hadn’t finished your homework, but then the intercom buzzed, paging you to the principal’s office, and you wondered what you’d done.
A man from the sheriff’s office awaited you there, his weather-stained uniform the sepia of old paper. He introduced himself as Detective Hawthorne, said he wanted to ask some questions, his voice attempting friendliness, achieving condescension.
“Questions about what?” you asked.
“You live alone with your mother, right? Just you two girls?”
“She was dating Dale Vanderbelt, wasn’t she?”
“Still? So you didn’t hear. Dale’s dead. He was found this morning, killed with his dogs.”
You didn’t know what to say. You realized your mouth was open, shut it, and tried to think of something not-incriminating to say, to suppress thoughts of the blood under your mother’s fingernails.
“What d’you think about that?” Hawthorne asked, and you heard the accusation in his syrup-sweet tone.
“I think it’s awful! What happened to him?”
Worry, doubt, excuses fluttered in your chest. You knew not to trust the sheriff.
“Your mother didn’t tell you nothing about it?”
“Seems poor ol’ Dale got himself killed by a wild animal. They found him and his dogs in the yard, all tore up, claw marks and tooth marks everywhere. Something big gnawed on him. Forensics says it’s a dog of some kind, but they’re trying to put a match on what kind could be big enough. We thought it might’ve been one of his Dobermans, but that didn’t check out. A wolf or a coyote or maybe a mastiff, but nothing’s quite fit the bill so far.”
You shifted uncomfortably at that moment. He looked at you hard, and then he took out his phone, showed you pictures (which had to be against some sort of rule) and you’ll probably be haunted by those gruesome images the rest of your life. After you’d puked in the trash can, the vice principal finally told him to stop fer Chrissakes, he’d done enough.
That evening, you skipped out on the library. You walked home along the train tracks, the warped ruts littered with empty beer bottles, soda cans, and heroin vials as cracked and broken as you were. You kicked a can ahead of you until it got lost in the weeds and you settled on another to kick.
To your surprise, your mother was home when you arrived, sleeping fitfully on the couch. A sticky note on the fridge informed you she wasn’t feeling well and had gotten her shift covered. To your surprise, there was food in the fridge, and you did actually feel hungry despite having been sick.
You looked at where your mother lay, traces of mascara smearing her cheeks. You put on a pot of rice, sliced up some vegetables and a couple marked-down chicken breasts, and tossed them in a pan with enough oil and teriyaki sauce to hopefully get rid of the taste of your own vomit. It sizzled and smoked. You stirred with a wooden spoon, and tried not to see Dale’s ruined face in the cut-up chicken.
“You’re burning it.” Your mother sat up groggily on the couch.
“No, I’m not.”
“Yeah, you didn’t use enough oil.” She came to stand beside you.
“Sure I did. I just put the teriyaki in a bit early, is all.”
“Let me help.” She took the spoon from you. “You need to stir like this to compensate, or else you can’t control how the heat burns up the smaller bits.”
“The sheriff sent someone by my school. They told me Dale died.”
Silence. Lip-quivering, white-knuckled, spoon-scraping-the-pan silence.
You didn’t want to hear what happened when your mother went out last night. But you needed to know. “Mom, what happened last night?”
“I don’t know.” The quake in her voice stuck in your chest.
“Listen, honey, I blacked out last night. I-I didn’t get drunk or high or anything like that. I just…I’ve been so worn down with everything, and then last night, it was like, it was like all of a sudden, I had energy, and anger, and I just couldn’t stay inside a minute longer. I went to walk off some steam. Except I didn’t. It gets a bit fuzzy there. I went to a bar, and no, don’t look at me like that. It wasn’t the one your father used to go to. But I think someone must’ve spiked my drink— I just remember feeling even hotter. And then I was screaming and struggling and I woke up with blood under my fingernails and a sick feeling in my stomach. I don’t know what happened. You know I could never do anything to hurt him. To hurt you.” Don’t you? asked her eyes.
Oil popped and hissed in the pan, and your mother turned down the heat.
“Careful,” you said.
“I know what I’m doing!”
“Were you…?” You let the question hang there, the horrors less real if left unnamed.
“I don’t think so. But I don’t know.”
Nausea filled you, a helpless shaky fear that made you want to cry. You sucked in a deep breath and reached to get down plates, saying, “I just can’t take much more, Mom. I mean, first Dad went nuts, then you, and now I’ve got police coming into my school asking if you killed your boyfriend.” Your hands shook, and your mother reached to help you, your hands knocking awkwardly into one another.
CRASH! The dishes smashed to the floor and you both stared at the shards of broken crockery.
“I…” she faltered.
You stared a long moment, then knelt down to start picking up the pieces. “I got this.”
She turned off the stove’s eye, bent low to join you on the floor. “Here, let me help.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I can do it.” You scooped shards of dollar-store china into one cupped hand, careful not to prick yourself.
She mimicked your movements, hands shaking. When had her hands gotten so hairy? “No. No, I can—” She dropped a piece beneath the counter, reached to get it, flinched. A bead of red dotted her finger as she pulled the shard back out. “I didn’t kill Dale.”
You looked at her then, the hard frown lines of her face, the burrows beneath her eyes. You decided then. “I know you didn’t.”
But the words tasted false against your tongue.
You spoke little over the meal, letting sitcom re-runs from your mother’s childhood fill the silence.
That night, you frowned into your math homework before shoving it aside.
Detention the next day for bailing on math class made you late to your job at the car wash. The manager, Sanjay, sat you down in his office and lectured you for thirty minutes about your responsibilities.
Then Sanjay reached for you, and for a moment you just knew he was going to grope you with those shriveled old hands of his, but he just put his hand on your shoulder, and said, “I know you’re going through a lot right now, but understand, I need more from you if you’re going to work here.”
You nodded, and worked the rest of your shift filled with a guilty feeling you didn’t quite understand.
A few days later, the rusted pickup moved like a hearse through the deadness of rush hour traffic. Your mother’s yellow fingernails dug into the wheel.
The funerary chapel was a cramped pillbox of scuffed pews and gaudy chandeliers that hung too low and buzzed from shoddy wiring. Despite the tiny space, you felt how empty the place was, less than half the people who turned up for your father’s service. An elderly couple with Dale’s thick-necked features; three men with callused hands who shifted uneasily in ill-fitting suits; a hollow-eyed blonde near the front whose picture Dale kept in his wallet. She was arm-in-arm with a kid who looked just like…
You looked down, sidled into a seat in the back. Five minutes later a preacher entered, or maybe a minister. First the Lord’s Prayer, then his attempt at a eulogy. He admitted he didn’t personally know Dale but believed Dale had tried to be a Godly man. You lost count of all the “hells,” “Satans,” and “brimstones” in the next hour and a half, his tone making you feel like you needed a bath, and maybe some aloe vera to treat the hellfire-burns. You remembered all the blue, green, and yellow highlighter marks in Dale’s black faux-leather Bible, the tender wear of its spine—
“Shut up!” Taylor Lindberg stood in the aisle, glaring at the brimstone preacher.
He cleared his throat to speak again, but Taylor wasn’t done. “You shut up! You didn’t know him! You said it yourself! So quit talking about him like you’ve got the right! Telling us he’s going to hell, as if you know! As if you’re so sure?”
Taylor’s mother was hissing, trying to shut him up, but Taylor threw her off and then spotted you again in the back.
“And you! What are you doing here? You killed him! We know you did it, you whore!”
Your mother recoiled in her seat as if the words themselves had teeth. Taylor kept screaming.
You sat unmoving in the car beside your mother as she sobbed like an abused puppy into arms folded across the steering wheel, and you stared at the shaggy belt that pinched her black dress to her waist, knowing who the real beast was, having a pretty good idea what the source of it all was.
The next week your grades slipped as you fought not to go crazy. Darkness meant nightmares of your father beating your mother with his belt; your mother arguing with Dale outside his Doberman kennel until she ripped the still-barking head from one of the dogs, put it over her own head, and devoured Dale; of the moon, wide and round, seeping from the sky and into you.
You awoke with knots under your navel and blood ruining your sheets, a heavy dark flow. You went to the bathroom for a pad, and while there, stared at yourself in the mirror a long while. Your eyes in the mirror seemed to glow amber, your pupils like dark moons covered by overcast skies.
After lunch the next day, school let out early for a sports game. You texted Sanjay that you wouldn’t make it into work, trying not to think of how you were letting him down.
You headed out back of the football field and along the road that flanked the old deciduous woods with their garbage-pocked underbrush, then turned at the fork to follow a narrow path down through the cul-de-sacs of factory-made Colonials with their scruffy porch stoops that gave way to a tangle of single-wide trailers. Dale and his dogs had lived here amidst the various black and immigrant families, and some way-too-obvious meth labs.
You’d never actually been to his house before, but you knew the address.
Dale’s trailer was a single-wide, painted the same generic off-white as the others, his yard bordered by a rusted wire fence that held in plastic lawn furniture and discarded dog biscuits. The gate was open, the lock already broken either by the police or one of the more opportunistic neighbors.
You crept across the yard, studded with stale dog turds and ripped paw prints. Some of these were larger, deep furrows gouged into the earth. The door was open on its hinges, and despite the afternoon’s sunlight, you cringed at the darkness within, the rows of parallel rents stark against the door’s faded wood.
Edging forward, you squinted through the dim. The place had been stripped bare, patches of unnaturally clean wall hinting at what might have been taken. Soft linoleum creaked beneath your feet. Dale had died here.
Your eyes had adjusted enough to spot the blood—brown gore dried across the walls like the silt in a riverbed at low tide. You thought wildly of the blood on your sheets at home. And it rose in you then, from your stomach to your mouth.
The scream was a faint whimpering thing that died only half-born in your throat, caught in the hands clutched to your mouth.
Running out of there, you crossed the threshold where your foot caught on the uneven floor, and you fell, sprawling out on the porch.
You wanted to just curl up and cry, but the need to get away—far away—was stronger. But there, caught in the doorway, was a tuft of grey shaggy hair, of a color and thickness you knew all too well.
Bleeding knee or not, you bolted, one foot falling over the next in your hurry to escape, and you did not look back until you reached the end of the street, panting, but not dry-mouthed. Because the thing that had risen in you when you saw Dale’s blood, that had stayed with you even amidst the fear and pain, was a stomach-growling salivating hunger.
That night you arrived home as the sun hung low in the sky and the moon climbed above the tree line. The truck was in the driveway, and your mother was silhouetted against the curtains, limbs maniacally jerking. There were no dog turds in your grass, uncut and long-since gone to seed. But for the first time, you noticed the pattern of furrows in the soil: paw prints tore up the earth.
The hair you’d seen matched the belt, but not the hair on your mother’s head. You clung to this fact, peering at her through the curtains again. The belt had done this to her, so you could save her—had to save her, willing or not.
“Mom,” you called, climbing the steps, your pocket knife concealed in your hand.
A low rumbling growl responded, raising the hairs at your nape and rolling through your muscles into the hollows of your bones.
Another low growl, longer and even fiercer.
You entered the kitchen then, and were confronted face-to-face with a beast, shaggy with wild fur, larger than any person, hunched as though unsure whether to walk on two legs or four. If its jaws were elongated lupine threats, the teeth that filled them were a tearing promise. Pale yellow eyes glowed as the creature stared back at you.
It was not your mother, this thing with breath that stank of sour meat, who eyed you like a sacrificial victim.
Your grip had been sweaty and weak on the knife, but you felt the pull of the moon in your veins, filling you with a lunatic adrenaline that kept you on your feet.
You brought your knife’s point inches from the beast’s snout, but the creature nosed forward, shrugging the blade aside effortlessly, pushing into your chest and forcing you down toward the ground. The knife clattered uselessly to the floor as you landed on your back beneath the creature whose growls now changed pitch. You braced yourself for a killing blow, but it only looked down at you, all teeth and eyes.
Staring up at it, you saw no sign of your mother, just a savage hunger. You braced yourself for the pain of death, unwilling to look away.
The beast stepped over you, exposing its sagging belly, six canine nipples, and a band of particularly thick hair.
It sidled past you, and you stared up, watched it cross into the night.
And you could let it, too. Let this thing go out, and you’d be free of its menace. But in the morning, that thing would be your mother again, and enough of her was left in there that you had just been allowed to live.
Heavy steps cracked in your front porch and the wolf’s tail twitched out-of-sight.
You picked up the knife.
You clattered down the steps into the moonlight, your lips pulled back over grinning teeth as a howl rose in your throat.
The knife slashed through fur and flesh. Blood misted your hand, and the wolf howled, its voice drowning yours as it knocked you to the ground. But this time you kept hold of the knife. You charged the wolf even as it charged you, both of you keeping low to the ground.
It leapt, and you ducked lower, slashing up. Hot droplets splashed your face. You tasted copper, and kinship.
The form that fell, mixing its blood with the moonlight on the ground, was a pale, naked middle-aged woman— reduced, shriveled and scarred with life’s hardships, and now, helpless.
On the ground between you two was the belt, ugly, hairy, transformative. It lay in two shrunken pieces, its buckle unfastened, the knife having ripped through it like tires through roadkill. You eyed it, and your mother, one hand clutching a red wound below her ribs, eyed it too.
And suddenly, you were rising, knife still trained on your mother as you bent low to lift the halves of belt.
Your mother’s gaze locked yours, her hand still pressed to the cut you’d made, half her face hidden in the tangles of her hair.
“Mom?” This was it, wasn’t it—you’d brought her back. “Mom, let’s get you inside, okay?” you tried again.
Her visible eye was narrowed, her mouth thin with what could only be anger. She said nothing, only lunged for the ruined belt with both hands.
So you ran.
That was almost three months ago, and you’ve finally stopped running. No one knows you in this town—and you like it that way. You curl up behind the trash cans when there are no beds in the youth shelter. You’ll have to decide what to do. Not too much longer until summer. You won’t have to lay quite so low to avoid being taken up for truancy—you could maybe find a job. You look older than you are, certainly feel it.
You know you can’t go back. You saved your mother, and she’ll never forgive you.
At your lowest moments, you take out the two grey strips of fur that were a belt, feeling their dirty shag against your skin, and you wonder if the belt’s power was in its circular completion—and so is now broken—or if, like people, it has a power that endures no matter how broken it has become.
You have not put it on, do not plan to, but you can’t bring yourself to discard it. It’s the last scrap of home you have left. Odd, how a broken belt binds you to your family.
Every night you wait for the dreams to return. There’s that liminal moment before sleep takes you when your breath stills at the edge of consciousness, when you remember how moon entered you, and you can almost hear your mother and father howling at the night sky. Then you fade into sleep, and when you wake, you remember nothing, but all the same, you check under your nails to make sure there’s no blood.
Theo Kogod is a writer, scholar, and wanderer. His work has previously been published in Diabolical Plots, and in the magazine 3Ft Left where he served as Resident Writer. He has lived in Greece, Japan, and throughout the United States, but currently resides in North Carolina with his spouse, two cats, and a small mountain of books.