This past summer you shot up a foot. Your colors turned from sable to grey and then a half-measure from black. Danny and I marveled and wondered, what had become of our little silver son? That fluffy beast we had plucked from the woods.
When you were little, you used to curl up in the space drawn between the arc of my arms and thighs, and the days slipped away as you kicked and whimpered through dreams.
Where had those rounded ears and too-long legs gone?
By this fall, your wildness overpowered our own suburban dream. Endless taunts from other children had set you off again. This time, you lashed out with claws.
The sky was leaden the day we brought you home from school. The principal agreed it was the best thing to do.
“You tried,” she said as you sat there on the stool gnashing newly formed teeth. “He’ll soon forget what you’ve trained into him.”
On the drive home, I watched you in the rearview mirror. Subdued, you gazed out the window, your amber eyes hiding your feelings from us. When we pulled into the driveway, you opened the door and ran out into the woods.
We weren’t giving up.
“We’ll try, Beth,” said Danny, but I wasn’t sure he meant it.
* * *
You were a handful. A wild one. Our friends with their own natural – and much older – children had smiled politely and said they understood our motivations. That we had been so brave to bring you into the world of men and women. I’m certain half of them secretly thought we were fools.
“You’ve taken him from where he belongs. Wild boys shouldn’t live amongst men.”
Of all the comments, that’s the one that lingers. An elderly man at a bus stop. You were still a pup, mewling and overtired. He had offered to help me get the pram on, then saw you and recoiled.
“Who the hell is he to tell us how to live our lives?” said Danny sipping a beer that night.
We worked hard. We did our best to balance careers with the upbringing of a little beast. We kept the house locked at night. That’s what a real family does. Keeps the bad things out.
When you began to yowl and scratch at the wood, we unlatched the porch door so you could wander the yard. In the darkness before dawn you’d sniff at the trees, letting out howls and yips of a language half-formed.
* * *
Winter came and storms tore the leaves from the trees. I took a sabbatical, focused on making make the most of every day, knowing but not wanting to admit that I was losing you.
We binged on TV till you got bored of being inside. We went for long walks underneath trees that cracked with ice. Sometimes you would slip away and not return until morning, and then sleep all day.
When you were gone, I’d pull prickly burrs from your muddy sheets. Find bloody feathers or shreds of fur by your pillow. I would sit on the edge of your bed, willing my heart to be still.
One afternoon, we walked too far, and darkness fell under half a moon. I shivered and worried, but you knew the way back. Howls echoed around, and you held my hand tight, guiding me along hidden paths. Finally, we saw the house with Danny shining a torch, calling my name.
We ate a late supper. You didn’t say anything and barely touched your food. When I went to take your bowl, you bared your fangs and I flinched. The bowl crashed to the kitchen floor as a pattern of red beads appeared on my hand. Danny was shouting but the cuts weren’t deep. You were shaking, eyes wide with terror and your ears low. I said your name, but you knocked over the chair and went out the door, fleeing into the woods.
That night Danny and I sat on the couch and drank too much wine.
“When are you going to accept what he is?” he shouted.
I turned away, blinking back tears.
“We knew this was coming,” he said, reaching for me.
“You gave up on him years ago,” I whispered, and he stormed off.
I stayed up late swiping my way through photos on my tablet, and I sobbed.
I don’t remember going to bed, but I woke up late as sleet cracked against the window. Danny left a note of apology and I carried it as I walked the creaking floorboards to your empty room.
Had I already made your bed for the last time?
* * *
You left eight days ago. I have no more tears to shed.
I’m returning to work soon. For now, I have the house to myself.
I downloaded some papers this morning, getting myself up to speed with what’s been happening at the department. I went to the kitchen and poured a coffee. I leaned on the counter and looked at the fridge, still decorated with your paintings and certificates and photos.
The sun was bright outside, reflecting off a blanket of white snow. I moved to the porch door and something caught my eye through the glass. I opened it up and knelt, my breath steaming in the crisp air.
A pile of sticks and earth lay on the ground. Upon them, a half-frozen red blob nestled in patches of fur.
The heart of some small thing.
The wind rose, and the bare branches spoke. I stared into the woods. In my mind, you ran and leapt through the pathways and trails with a look that might be a snarl, or a perhaps, a smile.
Paul Alex Gray enjoys writing linear and interactive fiction starring sentient black holes, wayward sea monsters, curious AIs and more. His work has been published in Nature Futures, Liquid Imagination, The Arcanist and others. Paul grew up by the beaches of Australia, then traveled the world and now lives in Canada with his wife and two children. On his adventures, Paul has been a startup founder, game designer and mentor to technology entrepreneurs. Chat with him on Twitter @paulalexgray or visit www.paulalexgray.com