I remember the day they brought me home, after the meat wagon hauled my worthless mother’s body away. Meth overdose.
It was my thirteenth birthday.
My new parents were distant relatives I’d never heard of. They were kind and understanding and they even had a nice house. Two stories, my own room, the works.
I hated it.
After living with a mother who resented my existence, it all felt so strange.
I also had a sister now, the same age as me. “I’m Cassandra,” she beamed, “but everyone calls me Cassie.”
“I’m Russell,” I said.
She reached out to hug me but stopped short, like a too-friendly dog that wanted to jump up and lick your face but had just recently been trained not to. She apologized, saying that she’d never had a brother before. I said it was okay, I’d never had a sister before. She hugged me anyway, digging painfully into the bruises still fresh on my back.
It was a nice place but there were some odd things about it. I’m not talking about being given things to eat without having to ask for them or the abundant supply of clean clothing or my parents’ annoying habit of wanting to talk to me all the time. No, it was the other things.
Like the fridge in the garage full of meat (we didn’t eat all that much meat), or how the rooms smelled like dog (we didn’t have one), or how mom always told Cassie to “be careful” when we played together.
Then one day, mom and dad said they were taking Cassie on a camping trip. I couldn’t come. Girl Scout stuff. I was going to be alone that night. Mom and dad looked like they felt bad about it. I told them I was used to it.
When they came back the next day, Cassie looked tired, worn. I asked her about it but she said she was fine.
It sounded too much like how I used to tell my teachers I was fine. It made me feel cold and hot inside all at once.
I remember rushing down the stairs.
Mom and dad were in the living room. I planted myself in front of them.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong with Cassie?” I said a lot louder than I intended.
Neither of them seemed surprised by it. They just looked at each other. I mentally dared them to lie to me.
“Sit down, Russell,” mom said. She looked almost sad.
That’s when they told me about how they had to take my sister out into the mountains during the full moon because she hadn’t learned to control the Change yet, like they had.
There was something different in their eyes right then — sharp, dangerous — that made me believe it. Then mom hugged me for a long time and told me everything was going to be okay.
Afterward, I went upstairs to my room and sat on the floor against my bed and decided that it would be a good idea to count the loops of thread in the carpet. I’d gotten past 200 when Cassie came in.
“I know why your room smells like dog,” I said.
She blinked. “Oh.”
We looked at each other. Silence hung in the air between us.
I turned on my video game console and held out a controller to her.
I don’t remember what game we played that night, only that we stayed up until two in the morning playing it.
Time passed. With each of Cassie’s “camping trips” I was reminded that I was different, that there were things here that I could never be part of. There was a gap and I was on the wrong side of it.
It was stupid. My parents were good people. I even liked my sister in spite of myself. I knew I shouldn’t feel the way I did, but I couldn’t help it.
I guess Cassie noticed.
I remember sitting on my bed.
“What’s bothering you, Russ?” she asked.
“Nuthin,” I said.
“It isn’t ‘nuthin’. I can tell.”
I mumbled something and stared out the window.
She sat down next to me. “Come on. You can tell me about it.”
I was only going to tell her enough to make her stop asking, but once I started talking, the words just came tumbling out.
I told her how I asked mom and dad if they could make me like them. They said they could, but they wouldn’t. They wanted me to be normal. But I didn’t want to be normal. I didn’t want to be the outsider. Not again. I wanted to be part of a family! This family! I tried to say more but I couldn’t get it out through my painful-tight throat and the tears and the snot.
“Don’t cry, Russ,” she said.
I felt her hand on my shoulder. She looked sad. I wiped my eyes dry.
“Let’s go talk to mom and dad,” she said.
“They won’t listen,” I said.
Her mouth set. “Yes, they will.”
We walked downstairs together and stood in front of the dining room table where dad was sitting and mom was setting out dinner.
“Come sit down and eat,” mom said.
“We need to talk first,” Cassie said, a little unsteadily. It was okay. I felt a little queasy myself at that moment.
“What about?” dad asked, a look of concern creeping upon his face.
I held out my right arm, showed them the bite marks made by canine jaws. The veins standing out around the bite were proof that the Change had taken hold.
Mom dropped the goulash. Dad’s eyes got big. Cassie seemed to shrink.
I took Cassie’s hand and gave it a squeeze to reassure her that everything was okay, that I wanted this.
In that endless moment of silence, I knew there would be hell to pay. That was okay. We would get through it, somehow.
We were family.
Kevin Rainak spent far more time daydreaming as a child than was practical. Now, when not unleashing his imagination on unsuspecting readers, he enjoys techno music, roller skating, playing the piano and exploring wild, deserted places. He currently resides in California but he timeshares a castle in the sky with a kitsune, a werewolf, two AIs and a dragon who leaves the toilet seat up. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.