Fiction · 02/11/2015

Howling

Ian laid down to sleep on the grass and when he woke up he was human again.

Lana had laid his clothes out in the usual grove: a tie, a button-up shirt, and slacks. Nestled next to the clothes were his loafers, cashmere socks balled up inside. He dressed quickly, although his hands were no longer used to buttons. The belt, too, was hard to loop with his lack of finesse. He only really remembered how to put on the loafers — Lana had carefully explained to him which one went on which foot the day before. It had taken hours. He much preferred paws.

Ian dug through the pockets of the suit, digging out a ticket stub — round-trip — to Raleigh. The other pocket contained a small baggie filled to the top with peanuts.

The path out of the grove and through the forest was well-worn by Ian and, he suspected, by others like him. Lana had rested a walking stick against a tree near the beginning of the path.

“Hello, can you give me a ride to the station?” Ian practiced saying to himself as he walked along the path. His voice was weak and guttural. “Here’s my ticket.”

“Yes, that’s right, I’d like a ride,” he said, trying on a different voice that startled him slightly. It sounded much like his father’s. “Sorry to bother you. Sorry.” Lana had stressed politeness to him — please, thank you, sorry.

“Not a lot of people are all that polite,” she’d warned. “But I’d rather you weren’t one of those people.”

Ian couldn’t keep his hands away from his face as he spoke. He ran his palm up and down his cheeks and marveled at their smoothness. He patted his nose — feeling for its flatness — crinkled his brows, folded his mouth. He bared his teeth and laughed and what he must look like. Not dangerous, but friendly.

Where the forest ended Ian shed the walking stick, his legs stronger and his arm tired. A busy road was only a few feet away from where the trees receded. The road had not always been there — before its creation Lana had driven Ian to Raleigh herself. But Lana had tired of driving him every month, and so it fell on Ian to master hitchhiking.

Cars came and went every few minutes so Ian could afford to be picky. A teal VW Bug, with a bicycle secured on the top, stopped in front of him as soon as his thumb flicked out. The older woman inside motioned for him to get in.

“Thanks, ma’am,” said Ian, pleased at the evenness of his voice. “I need a ride to the station.”

“I figured,” the woman said, pressing lightly on the gas.

“Not a lot of women stop for hitchhikers,” he continued.

She nodded, but said nothing.

“Where are you going with your bike?” Ian asked. Conversation was flowing much easier than he anticipated. He supposed that all those questions he hadn’t been able to ask during the month had remained jammed somewhere in his throat.

“Home,” she said. “I went biking at the lake this morning.”

Ian had never learned to ride a bike and so didn’t know what to ask. “The weather was lovely this morning,” he said. He never really thought of the weather except for those days when he was human.

“It was,” the woman replied.

Ian studied her face as they lapsed into silence, this time with finality. Her skin was etched with wrinkles, especially around her forehead and eyes, but her mouth was relatively free of lines.

He turned to the window after enough time had passed that his staring would turn from merely impolite into an actual offense. That was one of the things he hated most about being a human — social mores.

The trees were gone now, replaced by low and flat fields he’d run over many times before. And soon those, too, were gone and replaced by buildings he had never entered. The train station came into sight and the woman dropped him off with a “Goodbye”. She drove away slowly, as if reluctant, but didn’t look back.

“One ticket, please,” he said to the ticket booth girl. His practice had paid off. The words were smooth and unfolded quickly. “To Raleigh.”

As he hurried to the train, he found himself remembering all the nuances of being human. The way your joints would creak sometimes, the way you needed to stretch out your fingers. The way little sounds like the ticket booth girl’s gum snapping could annoy you to an almost unfathomable level. He found himself feeling more and more like a human with each new nuisance. As he slid into the greasy booth, he felt at peace in his body for the first time since that morning.

Ian removed the peanuts from his pocket and began eating them one by one, enjoying the way they cracked on his square teeth. A young girl was sitting across from him, a swaddled baby on her lap. She was watching Ian eat the peanuts as she bounced the baby up and down. Neither she nor the baby were smiling.

“Can I have one?” she asked. She had a thick but untraceable accent.

“Of course.” Ian handed her the bag and she popped one into her mouth. “Is that your baby?”

Her eyes widened. “No,” she said, flecks of peanuts shooting onto the carpet. “I’m the nanny. His parents are in the dining car.”

“I didn’t know there was a dining car,” Ian replied, glancing down at the peanuts. “What are they serving?”

“Steak, I think,” the nanny said, still bouncing the baby methodically.

He ate another peanut, crunching down on it too hard with his back teeth. “They didn’t give you food?”

She shook her head and reached for a handful of peanuts without asking. “No. They said they would bring me back something later.”

Ian smiled. “Oh, well it’s not like you deserve to eat. You’re only taking care of their baby.”

The nanny laughed, her mouth hanging open even after she’d finished.

Ian fell asleep after that. When he woke up, the nanny and the baby were gone. On the floor were his spilled peanuts, plus a few shells. He cleaned them up as best he could, Lana’s advice repeating itself in his mind. An older couple stepped over his arms and hands as he cleaned and took the nanny’s seat.

He sat quietly as the older couple talked about their grandkids, until finally the train reached Raleigh.

Taxies were queued up in front of the station and Ian slid into one. He looked up at the cabbie and found himself too tired to talk — the idea of having to give directions, or discussing the weather, it was all too much.

“Here,” he said, scribbling down the address on a piece of paper that had been shoved into the cabbie’s cup holder.

“This is far,” the cabbie said. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. I have the money. Just go.”

Ian let himself sink into the seat. Outside the streetlamps were turning on slowly, their light incongruous with the fact that the sun was still in the middle of setting. He watched as the driver shifted in his seat, psyching himself up to talk.

“Where are you from?” the cabbie asked, his eyes looking somewhere beyond the road. Ian wanted to tell the cabbie it was okay for him not to ask or care. But if Lana were here she would want Ian to answer. She would tell him that to answer was to be human.

“I’m from a small town a few hours away from here,” Ian lied. “You wouldn’t have heard of it.”

“You’ve been to Raleigh before?”

“Yes. I’ve been here a few times.”

Satisfied that he had attempted some light conversation, the cabbie fell back against his seat. “I’ve lived here for a while,” he said. “But I’m saving up to move.”

“To where?” Ian asked the window. He shifted so his forehead pressed up against the glass just a little bit harder.

“Los Angeles. My brothers live there,” the cabbie said as he made a sharp turn into an otherwise open lane. “They picked L.A. and I picked Raleigh. I should’ve listened to them.”

“Why’d you pick Raleigh?”

“Because I thought it would be a good place to raise kids. But I never had any. I guess I should have planned for that, too.”

Ian pressed his forehead against the glass even harder.

The cabbie talked about L.A. the rest of the way, but Ian hardly heard any of it. He thought of Elijah, he thought of the scenery spreading out before him, and he thought of Lana alone in her cabin.

They pulled up to the house and Ian paid the taxi driver. “Sorry for talking your ear off. You’ve just got one of those faces, though, you know?” the cabbie said as he started to pull away. Ian nodded.

His parents’ house was just as he remembered it. The manicured lawn that stood in contrast to the ramshackle exterior. He hurried to the porch and knocked on the front door.

There was no answer. He stooped over and checked under the mat for a note.

Ian:

Elijah’s having a Little League game today. Forgot to tell you last time. Here’s the address and the time, hopefully you can make it. If not, go ahead and fix yourself something to eat. I put all of Eli’s school pictures in an envelope for you on the counter.

— Mom

Ian folded the note and slid it into his shirt pocket. His stomach rumbled, but he turned away from the house and began a slow jog to the elementary school. He had been there only once before, on Elijah’s first day of kindergarten, but he had remembered the route by heart in case he ever needed to go again. It also helped sometimes when he tried to imagine Elijah’s life. It felt better to know the little details.

It was also just a pleasure to run — he pretended there was grass on either side of him. He pretended his shoes were just padding on his paws.

When he got to the elementary school Elijah was sitting on the bench. Ian watched him for a while from the edge of the crowd as he and his friends shared sunflower seeds. While the other boys spat their seeds onto the ground, Elijah carefully picked them from his mouth and placed them back into the plastic wrap in such a delicate way that it made Ian smile.

After a few minutes, Ian tore himself away from watching Elijah and looked for his mother and father. They were sitting towards the side of the bleachers, both happily taking pictures of Elijah sitting and chatting to a teammate.

“I didn’t think you would make it, son,” his father said in lieu of a greeting, his eyes focused on his phone’s camera.

“How’s Lana?” his mother asked as she patted the seat next to her.

“She’s fine,” Ian said quietly. He sat behind her instead. “She sends her love.”

“I don’t understand why she doesn’t come down here more often,” Ian’s mother lied.

“Has Elijah been in the game at all?”

His father hunched over his phone to adjust the lighting. Ian watched his back shift as he said, “Eli played for a little bit. He dropped the ball earlier when he was playing outfield. I told his coach not to put him out there.”

“Poor Eli,” Ian said as he watched Elijah’s teammate turn to talk to someone else. Elijah just sat there, expectantly waiting.

“You’re leaving before he finishes, right?” Ian’s father asked as he raised his phone once more.

“Yes.”

“Why can’t he stay? We’ll just tell Eli that Uncle Ian is here to see him.”

His father grunted. “Aren’t you done with that, Marie?”

“Why would I be?” Marie asked in a hushed tone. Ian looked over at the family nearest sitting nearest to them. They were utterly absorbed in the Little League game. “Ian still needs to see his son. I know you don’t like what happened, Duke — ”

“It didn’t happen to him. It was his choice,” Duke said, stretching the word out as far as it would go. He finally turned to face Ian. “I don’t know why I should structure my life, and the life of my grandson, around a stupid decision my kid made.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Ian protested weakly. He knew his father was right. They watched the rest of the game in silence. A few minutes before it ended, Ian felt himself get up and jump down from the bleachers. Neither his father nor his mother protested.

“Can I use your phone to call a cab?” Ian asked. Duke handed him the phone.

Ian’s finger hovered over the call button, but instead he began flicking through the pictures. There were pictures of Elijah from the game, pictures of him at his birthday party with ice cream smeared across his face. There was him at the pool, Elijah holding up a science project, Elijah playing a pirate in the school play. Ian mentally inserted himself in each one or pretended he’d taken them.

“Did you call?” Duke asked and Ian, startled, pressed the call button.

“Can you just mail me the pictures?” he asked his mother. She gave him a wary smile in response.

Ian waited for the cab alone on the curb.

“The train station,” he said as soon as he got inside. Ian had deliberately left off the ‘please’.
The cabbie, an older man with his hat pulled down low, nodded and the two sped off. Ian watched the Little League game disappear through the back window. He said a silent prayer that Elijah would hit a homerun and then he fell asleep.

They arrived at the train station right as he woke up. He stayed awake only long enough to buy a ticket and board the train.

The transformation started as soon as Ian had begun crossing the forest, the morning sun rising behind him. The light poked through the trees and shone off the leaves, but Ian didn’t notice. He was still sleepy — he always was when the transformation was about to begin.

Ian stripped when the fur began growing back in and thought guiltily of Lana. She’d purchased so many dress shirts and loafers because he never remembered to take them off beforehand. Ian tossed them over his shoulder and, when his paws came in, held the loafers in his teeth.
Ian was fully transformed when he came to the glade. Lana was sitting on a log, quietly embroidering a gift for Marie.

“How was it?” Lana asked as he came closer. He dropped the loafers at her feet and she smiled. “Thanks for remembering.”

She reached out to pet him but he flinched and reared up on his hind legs. “Was it that bad?” she asked, her voice catching a little.

Ian wanted to reply, but he couldn’t. Instead he let out a deep and bitter howl. Lana didn’t ask any any more questions after that.

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Ashley Burnett is a writer and student living in California. Her work has previously appeared on The Toast.