Eric Freeze is an Associate Professor of English at Wabash College. He has published stories, essays, and translations in a number of periodicals including Boston Review, The Southern Review, and Harvard Review. His first collection of stories, Dominant Traits, was published last March with Dufour Editions.
Notable Story - Million Writers Award
It is inconvenient being a wolf.
Imagine this: spring, sitting in a desk when the stamens and petals of daffodils or day lilies or lilacs bloom, and the heady scent of pollen comes to you so strongly that your nose is full of it. You feel like you’ve shoved spray foam up your nostrils and your head is expanding like a pollen balloon. You can smell the pistils and the thin stalks of grasses and the small clovers like they were part of a spring cornucopia lining your desk. It’s stronger than you know how to say, because all the comparisons are human, and yet your wolf olfactory senses haven’t gone, nor have the field lice or the burrs that ended up in your hair. And, there’s this: you’re hungry.
“You haven’t answered me, Jason.”
You lift your head and drool connects you to your desk in thin strands like milk whites from a cracked egg, and Beth Geary and Gina Mars both say “ew” with their syrupy whines so loudly that Mr. Midge shushes them and you’re forced to respond.
“I wasn’t really listening.”
Mr. Midge sighs and he looks for a second like he’s going to cry. I don’t know why I intuit this because I am a wolf and human beings should be afraid, very afraid, but maybe it is my empathetic pack sense, my ability to know what others are thinking or feeling before they even know it themselves. And so it’s no surprise when he does cry, right then, and you can hear the students’ clothes rustling as they squirm and try to avoid eye contact. He sits down behind his desk and the ergonomic chair makes a shushing sound when it accommodates his weight. “Pointless,” we can hear him saying, and then he is logging into his computer and sniffling. Nobody in class knows what to do. They are titmouse-silent, probably thinking what is wrong? But not me; I’m awake and hungry. This beast is alive.
. . .
Outside, I want meat. Any meat. Something to stop the throbbing in my temples, to soak up my saliva. I think: venison, rabbit, squirrel, possum. Then the domestics: cat, dog, ferret, guinea pig, rat. Each has its own distinct flavor but I am not picky and the flesh of my schoolmates starts to look more and more appetizing. A friendship-braceleted arm of a first grader, smooth calves dangling from monkey bars like slabs of meat in a slaughterhouse. Once I look, I can’t stop. It’s Cardigan Whitmore I finally settle on: a ginger-haired gymnast who can put her feet behind her head. She is on the grass, bending her arms backward to touch her feet and she exposes her belly. For a moment, my wolf senses sharpen and filter out the pollen and fetid spring swamp smell and I zero in on little Cardigan—dumpy name for one so fit—and my body uncoils with panther-like agility toward my prey. My mouth is open, wet, and with a frenzied chomp, I attack her side and she falls to the ground screaming.
“Get the hell off of me you creep!” She is yelling—prey often resists—and I bury my face deeper into her and shake my jaws from side to side. Soon the flesh will rip and she will bleed. If she takes flight, she will be slower, more apt to stumble, and I will be upon her again. She knows this. She knows that if she lets me in for one more moment, her life will end and this induces an adrenaline panic. She needs out now, no waiting, it’s this next second or never. I catch a whiff of one of her Sketchers right before it smashes into my snout and then it’s all I can do to keep my sightline from wavering. She scrambles and I bound after her but wait! There are arms holding me and then someone stamps on my paw and I’m howling on the ground. Two people, three. A dog-pile on the wolf. The only area not covered is my face because even with all that weight no one dares come near my unsheathed incisors, the pointed teeth designed to rip and kill.
. . .
On my way to the school counselor I pass the infirmary and Cardigan is there, lifting her shirt and touching the teeth marks like she’s reading Braille. For now, I’m careful as a dog on a gentle leader. I’m in a foreign place and that makes me cautious. I sniff the metal lockers, the stale 70-degree air. It feels unnatural. My paws click on the linoleum, my panting echoes in the empty hall.
There’s a couch outside her door. It’s square, burgundy, stiff as industrial carpet. I curl up anyway, wedging my back into the corner. The adult with me, a student teacher, terry cotton polo stretched over an enormous gut, folds his arm and leans against the wall. No way that guy would survive in the wild. I could outrun him now. Two seconds and I’d be out to the playground again, bounding over the rubberized turf. But I am a patient wolf. When the time is right, I will strike.
“Jason.” The door opens and Mrs. MacDougall is standing there. She is lumpy and short with too-white skin and eyebrows and hair that look bleached. When she says my name, my ears go flat against my head and I slink off the couch. She will not break me. This nice woman will not break me.
On her desk she has a bowl of M&Ms. They are the new kind with pretzel centers and when she sees me looking she slides the bowl forward. It is red and full of glucose goodness. I thrust out my paw and snatch a couple, sending some over the lip and skittering across her desk. My jaws clench and bite.
“So what is this Jason? You a wild child today? Some sort of animal?”
Wolf, wolf, wolf, I think. I am a wolf. I turn my snout to the air and howl.
“A wolf, then. Or a coyote. But you wouldn’t choose that, would you Jason? So tell me, how did you come to be a wolf?”
My mouth is open when I chew, a loud mastication like peppercorns crushed in a mortar and pestle, winter boots crunching in new snow. It is the only sound. I can hear my epiglottis shift when I swallow. I want to tell this woman, I do, about the dream I had last night, about meeting the great she-wolf in a thicket of trees outside my house. She was large as a grizzly and her fur was loose and in folds like a Shar Pei, giving her the wizened ancient look of a savant. Her eyes were like twin vortices, drawing me in, hypnotizing me. When she inclined before me, bit the skin on my hand, I felt an electric surge through my body and I knew I had been transformed. There was a credo to follow now, rules. She was my queen and I was part of her pack.
“We can’t have kids attacking other kids, Jason,” Mrs. MacDougall says.
More silence. Shards of M&Ms cling to my lips.
“How do you think it made Cardigan feel?”
“Hungry,” I say. I grab another pawful of candy.
She sighs and gets up from her chair and turns her back to me. “Let me read you something, Jason,” she says. She slides out a drawer from her filing cabinet and pulls a manila folder. “A couple things. One is by your teacher, Mr. Midge, and the other is by your mother. What’s interesting about them is that they say such wildly different things. One claims you are an angel, a true help at home, that you’re considerate and thoughtful given your family situation. ‘The man of the house,’ your mother says. Then there’s this description about a boy who is reticent, patronizing, a constant disturbance. I talked to Mr. Midge this morning and he is near his breaking point with you. How do I reconcile these two people, Jason? Can you help me out here?”
I stop chewing. The she-wolf will speak through me now. She will tell Mrs. MacDougall about the pact I have made and then there will be no more questions. I open my mouth. “The two people are one,” I say.
“I know that, Jason. But I can’t have you acting out during school. Could you try to be more like you are at home? Assuming that’s what you’re really like. We could always send someone over to see how you’re doing.”
“Gnarrr,” I say.
. . .
My route to my house doesn’t smell right; something is masking the usual squirts of urine left by the Grange’s dog and it’s not the pollen-laden air doing it this time. I slink around the brick school, keeping below the line of windows and when I get to the corner I wait until the scrum of kids disappears into minivans and hatchbacks. Snot-nosed Ruthie and a younger kid from grade three are all that’s left and I wonder if they’ve heard about my wolf attack and seen the canine bites on Cardigan’s hide. I’m still hungry, though the M&Ms are still in my bloodstream, which makes me jumpy, but it cuts the hunger just a bit, it really does.
I sprint past them, my lupine bounds taking me around the corner and down the green strip that bisects our community. The smell is still there, reminding me of the pleather booths at Fast Eddie’s, lime sherbet in a bowl. And maybe breath mints? The scent is stronger now and I almost blow it when I see Mr. Midge walking with my mother at the corner of Ash and Mackenzie. I’m behind a silver oak and the bark is like a great loofa pad that I rub against my body. Frissons of relief. Midge stands at the corner and watches my mother go, bye now, and he soldiers in an about face and goddammit if the bastard isn’t smiling. I would take him down but I’ll need a pack if I don’t want to have to bleed the guy and chase him until he passes out for good. So home it is.
Mom is toasting bread when I come in and they pop up and I unsling my book bag. She’s already there with a glass of milk when I approach the table cautiously and then perch on one of our splitting melamine chairs. I paw at the square of toast until Mom slathers it with jam. I hold down the corner with one paw and then rip into it with my teeth.
“Easy,” she says.
I’m not chewing the food much. Jam coats the toast so the fragments slide down my throat. I point my chin to the ceiling and give her the long soulful howl of a lone wolf after a kill.
I’ve finished the toast and Mom slouches and puts her head in her hands, both cream elbows on the table. She sighs and for a while I wonder if Midge has said something to her because she is usually bubbling after getting out of school, so happy to see me, all flapjacks and rainbows after being stuck with mewling kindergartners all morning. I wonder what the she-wolf would have me do. The night before, she sat on her haunches and told me about the sin of our fathers, how hate and anger and rage were the bane of the wolf, how often we were misunderstood. Compassion and loyalty, she said, are what we are about. And then she bit me.
I stop eating and lick my paws clean and then kneel before my mother and lay my head on her lap. She sighs and for a moment I wonder if she is crying too but then her hand is in my hair and what passes between us is its own kind of language, the way she stops and picks at something—a scab or tiny lodged piece of gravel—before smoothing the hairs back into place. Her fingers comb and weave, saying, there now, lone wolf, good wolf, you are here with me and you are all I need in the world.
. . .
At night I nest in my covers and curl my body so my snout nestles in my hind legs and I dream of the she-wolf again. This time she is on a bluff overlooking the prairie. Gusts pull her Shar Pei features wind-tunnel-tight over her enormous body. I come up behind her, fighting the wind until I reach her shadow and the air slackens. She turns, smelling me, and her bunched fur flaps around her like a loose cloak. It is time, she says, though not with words. She speaks straight into my mind. You need to be a boy again. The world is not ready. I want to pounce away but I know if I leave her shadow the wind will carry me, scrape me off the surface of the prairie with one swoop or lift me into the air like a kite. I cower, flatten my ears, and she licks my paws where she had bitten me only days before. I awake covered in human sweat and it is four AM and I have wet the bed for the first time in years. I am ten and so over this and I know if I don’t clean it up that Mom will try to do it before school and that will make her late and me late and we will both be irritable. There is part of me that wants to hide what I’ve done so I spray some Febreeze on the spot before snapping off the fitted sheet and flipping the mattress over. I get new sheets and put the old ones in the wash and I throw in a few more clothes so the sheets have some company—nothing out of the ordinary here—and then I remake my bed. It takes me a while but the room is wolf-messy and I am a decent boy now and Mom is sleeping. There is nothing else to do so I do it, I clean my room, and I slide into bed depressed.
. . .
Mr. Midge puts on a movie the next day. It’s a short film about a planet where it always rains. Kids line up in goggles and Speedos to get their daily dose of radiation. One kid is from Earth and she tells stories to the other kids about the sun and how great it is. They don’t believe her. One day every nine years the rain is supposed to clear up and the sun will come out but none of these kids has ever seen it so does it really exist? The kid assures them that yes it does but when the day finally comes, it is raining. The kids take her into the basement during recess and lock her in a room with barred windows near the ceiling about the size of heating vents. A bell rings and the other kids bolt, locking the door behind them, and the girl tries to open the door, banging and crying until she crumples to the floor.
At this point, I look up and notice that Mr. Midge has somehow, discreetly, left the room. We’re on our own but all the kids are either zombified by the film or they’re sleeping at their desks. Hunh, I think. If I were still a wolf I’d have pounced from my seat and devoured Sissy Bagerone.
In the film, the rain stops. The cloud cover slowly parts, sunlight beginning to touch the land in swaths of light. The children all wander outside, stunned. They all forget about the girl because it’s the sun! The sun! And I’m not talking hazy, peek-through-the-clouds sun. This is bold, Arizona desert sun. It comes out full and the whole world is in motion. A flower opens its petals so it’s the size of a French horn. The kids roll down hills and chuck handfuls of grass in the air, all while the girl, alone, tries to jump up to the grate, to at least see what the long-anticipated day is like. The sun moves and a whole season takes place in minutes. The flowers curl up, the children tire of their play, and clouds crowd the sky. The girl, resigned to being stuck, the children deaf to her cries, sits on the floor and holds her hand in the slices of light coming through the grates. She turns her hand, feeling the warmth of the sun, until the light fades and the first drops of rain begin to fall.
The room is quiet and nobody is really sure what to do. The DVD has stopped—the credits aren’t long—and the projection screen shows the title menu, and finally Stephanie who sits at the back stops it and the screen goes blue. There is still no teacher and I feel a pulling urge to be at the front of the class, to give the other students something to look at, to give form to their silent questions. But when I stand up, my head appears watermelon-big against the blue background and I’m startled by the shadow. It’s proof, there in black and blue, that I am indelibly human. No wolf cranium or elongated snout, no moss-like fur. I hold up my hands, amazed at the thin fingers, the opposable thumb. I twist my hand so it’s perpendicular to the projection and I pull my index finger back and cock my thumb so my hand looks like a dog’s head. I move my pinky up and down. “Woof, woof,” I say.
Mr. Midge opens the door and comes in and turns off the projector. “Back in your seat, Jason,” he says. “Can’t leave you for even a couple seconds, can I?” I shrug and sit down and he winds his way through the desks to the front of the class.
“So what did we learn from this little video?” Midge asks.
“The little girl didn’t have any friends,” Sissy says. She sits near the front and I wonder if she can tell that everyone can see when she raises her hand, which seems like an awful lot if you ask me. But then other children raise their hands. So they were paying attention! I have a thought, a very deep one that reminds me of the day my father left us. Everyone is commenting on the girl and her dashed dreams, but in my mind she had it easy. No question she’s the one to feel bad for, like when she walks out into the rain at the end and she gazes up with her horse teeth exposed at the sky. It’s the others who are going to have it hard, the ones who accused her of never having been to Earth, the ones who locked her in the basement. The guilt enough to drive them all mad. So I raise my hand.
There are still a couple hands up but then Henry says the kids were bullies and bullying is wrong and now it seems like every other kid has something to say. Mr. Midge asks Beth Geary, just to the right of me, what she thinks of bullying and people are jumping on the bully bandwagon now and why is everyone ignoring me? I have had my hand up for five minutes, no, ten, and my triceps are aching enough that I have to use my other arm to help prop it up. Bullies are bad, bullies are wrong, bullies are what give public school a bad rap, oh but they exist in private schools, just ask my cousin, and why do kids bully anyway? Where does it come from?
Here are some of the answers from my class:
They are insecure.
They are bigger than other kids.
They have crappy home lives.
They are acting out things that have happened to them.
They don’t have any friends and so they think it will make them cool.
No, that’s not it, they think they’re already cool.
They’re deranged or crazy.
Yeah, like they think they can attack people and get away with it.
It’s at this point that I realize that Mr. Midge and the kids are talking about me but I’m still raising my hand, waving it about like a truce flag. I’m not a wolf anymore! Last night the she-wolf came into my dreams and told me that I wasn’t ready! They are all oh-so-wrong and had they been me, been able to see the wolf with her folds of fur, heard the words in their minds, they would know. I’m a traffic cop, a kid flagging a plane, and finally even Mr. Midge can’t overlook my flailing much longer and he calls on me.
I sigh and push up on my desk so my back is perfect-posture straight. I want to say that the bully is acting out of yearning, out of loss. That he will carry his guilt around like a stone. But instead I say, “If she wasn’t such a wimp, kids wouldn’t bully her.”
“Oh, is that right?” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Blame the victim.”
There are only about five minutes left in class but no one but me seems to be watching the clock. Even Sissy Bargerone has turned 180 degrees. I feel like the radiating sun and the other children are all basking flowers. Mr. Midge cites the dangers of my mentality, how blaming the victim justifies countless human atrocities, from bodies thrown in pits in the Holocaust to date rape to animals poached in the wild. And everywhere the same reason that they somehow deserved it, somehow brought about, “effected,” he says twice, their own grisly fates. All the pain in the world, he is saying, could be condensed into the slick sentence I had just uttered, me, hellion Jason Shelby, and can’t I see how I am killing my mother?
“What?” I say.
“You just can’t treat people that way, Jason,” he says. But he’s not done. The children are alert and silent in their desks. “You are a monster.”
The bell rings and some of the children get up even though they’re slower than usual, subdued. I know what they’re feeling: they shouldn’t be leaving. They are unsure because it is a new emotion, this empathy. Midge has crossed an invisible line of conduct and they don’t know what it means. They feel it is somehow wrong but the ringing bell rouses them from their seats and into the hall where class and race and age collide and bounce about like an elementary school mosh-pit. Midge is still talking to me, yelling how I will become an abuser, or worse, a sociopath, and don’t you walk away from me now, I want to talk with you, but I am fleet-footed even without the wolf, and besides my peeps need me.
Outside it is full spring, nearing summer, and the Magnolia tree is full. I breathe it all in, wondering what nuances are lost on me now—the tree like some perfumed soap or the traces of possum or jackrabbit all merged into one single spring scent in my nose. In short, it smells good, human good, and it isn’t long before the first kid, Henry, comes up to me and says, “That was a little harsh.” Other kids gather around, Steph and Sissy and even Cardigan, who should know better, and they haven’t ever seen anything like it, a teacher losing his cool like that. And what was he even talking about? The guy was crazy, pure and simple, and it’s Henry who suggests filing a complaint. Naw, I say, no big deal. But the kids are already weighing the concept, as though there’s some magic comment box like in a cheap restaurant that we can mutually address to right our wrongs. Really, I say. He had his reasons. I’m cool with it. Halfway through recess, my mother appears through the school’s swinging double doors and I can see and hear Midge behind her. Her expression is angry and sympathetic all at once, her eyes squinting, bunched so crow’s feet and lines crease her brow. She reminds me of the teacher in the film after realizing the girl was lost, pained for the meaning of her absence. Midge holds the door open and watches her bound toward me, the ring of children opening wide to accommodate her. And suddenly I want to be a wolf again, inconvenience and all, if not just to stop this human ache, the worry, the unfairness of a life gone wrong.