The way Charlotte smiles, she may as well be baring her teeth. "So you two have met, then?"
I don't answer at first, the words stuck like claws in my throat. Thank god I'm not carrying anything other than a book pressed against my chest because when I look at Gretchen I want to crush something. She's shocked, like I am, but not nearly as upset. She's excited, of course—who wouldn't be, at their own book signing? I can tell it's excitement and not fear, because they hit my nose differently. After a lifetime, it's easy to tell them apart.
"Oh my god!" Gretchen squeals, standing up. How she manages to be this delighted to see me I don't know. She maneuvers around her agent, an amiable and confused obstacle between the two of us. She envelopes me in a tight hug. "Shauna, I can't believe it's really you!"
Charlotte is angry with me, and I assume it's because I didn't tell her that I knew Gretchen. She'll get on my case later, accuse me of lying to her. Maybe I did lie, one of those lies of omission that happen because if I say too much the muscles under my skin start to shift and twitch.
It's an honest wonder that I don't shape-shift right there in the bookstore. I guess my love of indie shops—the way they smell, their warmth, the size of them—outweighs my hatred of Gretchen. Instead, I pat at her back, a move that probably reads more like comforting than a signal it's time to detach.
"How excellent!" Charlotte says when Gretchen finally lets go. She whaps me in the arm playfully. "You didn't tell me you two—"
"Were roomies," I finish. My voice comes out stronger than I thought it would. "Right after college. Ages ago."
"We lost contact," Gretchen continues. "But you're here now! That's amazing!"
She squeals and hugs me again. She smells like strawberries & cream scented shampoo and whatever new perfume she's using. In spite of myself, I admit it's a pleasant scent. She has good taste.
"Are you free after wards, or do you have plans?” says Gretchen. “Oh god, please tell me you're free, we”—she glances behind her and gestures at her agent—“were just going to get something to eat after this. You're welcome to join."
Charlotte glances over at me with a raised eyebrow, and I think she feels betrayed. When I’d expressed interest in Gretchen’s book, Charlotte said that she could introduce us. She was close friends with Gretchen’s agent, she told me. I never told her an introduction wouldn’t be necessary.
My smile is less like baring teeth than Charlotte's. I have more experience in baring teeth, and when I do it it's far more intentional. I tilt my head, and wow, everything that comes out is far sunnier than I expect it to be. "I'm definitely free! But first..."
I hold out the book. The sides of the cover are pressed in slightly where I've gripped it. The Moon, and Other Beasts I Keep With Me. "Could you sign it for me?"
I transformed for the first time when I was fourteen years old. There are a hundred different stories that have been told about what the first transformation is supposed to be—painful torture, a sexual awakening, pleasant and freeing, terrifying.
I was excited, trembling for weeks as I felt the transformation stirring in my guts. I'd heard all about my siblings' transformations, re-tellings of their firsts that clashed hilariously with The Talk I got from both of my parents. My sister Jasika wanted to scare me with bad bedtime stories-she told me about pain, about bones cracking and skin splitting and jaws reforming. My brother Andre wanted to weird me out, fixating on the fur, the teeth, the cacophony that followed newly strengthened senses.
Neither of them told me about the way it felt to stretch paws and unfurl claws and throw your head back in the moonlight. No one told me about the way that a growl and a howl filled different places in my new chest. No one explained how nice it felt to just know the answers to questions because you could sniff out the truth instead of wondering.
I told Gretchen about all of this in a shitty one bedroom four years ago, while thinking her heartbeat told me she loved me.
Some people wonder if a werewolf's greatest nightmare is eating someone. For me, my greatest nightmare is being reunited with my ex over a perfectly human dinner, wondering how many passive aggressive statements about the reality of her new fiction hit I can make before I destroy my chances in the industry.
I'm not fantasizing about eating her, but a few of her agent's comments about the world-building might drive me to it.
I shouldn't have done this, I know. I should have turned Charlotte down when it came to the signing, should have told Gretchen I was too busy to join them. The thing is, I can only keep one secret, tell one lie, and that's covered by pretending what I am doesn't exist. That's my nodding and smiling along with the group when they talk about what a different take on werewolves Gretchen has, what an amazing understanding of her world she has, how it's almost something realistic...
"So you two went to the same writing program?" Charlotte says. She is still hurt by my earlier omission, and so the whole dinner had become her trying to piece together my past with Gretchen. Again, I feel a little bad, but not enough to get up and leave. "That's so crazy!"
The emphasis on 'so' is annoying in a way I can barely handle. I pick up my drink-the only beer amongst wines and 'classier' options-and leave the neck of the bottle at my lips to keep from snarling. Yeah, I think, it's really 'crazy' how lives collide. So coincidental. So strange the effect we have on one another.
Gretchen's agent--Daphne, who is perfectly nice and has no idea what she's gotten herself involved in—is immediately intrigued. Or, at least, she's pretending to be for company's sake. "Oh yeah?" She leans forward in her seat. "What kind of stuff do you write, Shauna?"
She's sweet, I think, and I try not to harbor any ill will. I wanted to hate her from the moment I saw the original book announcement, but she doesn't know. Plus, she's got more than a few clients whose work I like, and her social media is all cat pictures and social justice.
I pretend to believe that if Daphne knew, she'd never have chosen to represent Gretchen.
"Oh, I'm…" I place my beer down on the table and cover the top with my thumb. I don't want to glare Gretchen down when I answer, don't want to scream that I don't write anything anymore. At least not since I saw the summary of Gretchen's books, since the air and the story were ripped out of my chest.
"I'm mostly doing freelance nonfiction right now. Maybe I'll get back to fiction writing at some point." Especially, I think in my mother's voice, considering how much money was spent on my schooling.
Gretchen frowns for a moment before beaming at me. She'd insisted on sitting next to me the moment that we found a table, so she's in the perfect position to squeeze my knee supportively. "Shauna is one of the best writers I've ever known," she coos, nodding her head for emphasis. "You should see some of her work from our MFA program."
She really doesn't care what she's stolen from me. I blush and put a hand over hers, counting to three before gently moving her away. The wolf paces in my belly, dozens of teeth bared.
I didn't tell my dad about telling Gretchen, but he found out anyway. He waited until the end of my visit home to tell me the truth, while he drove me to the airport.
"I was reading Publisher's Weekly," he started, and my gut got all knotted up. I knew where this was going. He was cut from the too-proud-of-his-daughter cloth, reading PW and other publishing news constantly. He seemed to think it was possible that he'd get news about my non-existent writing career from there rather than from me, regardless of how often I assured him otherwise.
I grunted in response, looking out the window at the sunset. It was a week after the full moon, and I had no desire to run, but I was suddenly hit with a strong need to get away. An importance difference.
"That girl, your old roommate, her name was Gretchen, right?" He was being careful, but I couldn't figure out if it's because he thought I didn't know or if it was to spare my feelings. "Walker, Weaver—"
"Williams," I provided. I bit down on the inside of my cheek because sometimes that stopped nausea. "Gretchen Williams." When I said her name, I saw it next to our old buzzer, when I wrote it on a sticker against the wall. I forced myself to see it in my own handwriting, because otherwise I see that Saturday afternoon where we both practiced our future signatures on printed copies of shitty first drafts. The well-rehearsed loops that she’d eventually scribble across the front page of her book, with a giant heart beside it.
He nodded, slowing down before a stop sign. He looked everywhere but me as I finally had the strength to look his way. "That's one hell of a story pitch. Urban fantasy, right? That's what they call the genre?"
"Paranormal romance," I corrected, mumbling. It was a technicality that he didn't understand and didn't ask for elaboration on.
Before he drove on, he patted my shoulder. It was supposed to be comforting, but it was heavy with the weight of his disappointment in it.
"I'll pay for a ticket for you to come back home for your birthday," he offered suddenly. He'd paid for the ticket before, of course--downside of having a barely employed daughter--but he'd never offered. Pity? Maybe. My birthday fell on a full moon that year, and that was always a big thing in our house, worthy of extra celebration. "Your cousins are gonna be around."
Andre was about to be a father. For a moment I smiled. Then I remembered that when his kid got to be one, or two, or three, Gretchen's book would come out. This book would be littered with truths from his baby's life before the baby was old enough to walk and talk and read. Maybe it was my fault for sharing these stories with Gretchen, when all I wanted was for Gretchen to understand who I am. To empathize.
"Hell of an imagination on that Gretchen girl," my father grunted, and it sounded like my grunt. "It's a good thing y'all broke up. Never felt right with you dating..." He paused, considered his words, and kept driving. "A white girl."
That wasn't a lie, at least.
Worse than not caring I realize, was that maybe she just doesn't get it.
Charlotte and Daphne abandon us a few hours later. Daphne has a pile of work tomorrow, and Charlotte may have as well— but more than that, I think they catch on to the fact that Gretchen and I were more than roommates. I catch Daphne, before she leaves, taking Gretchen aside and checking that everything was fine. Gretchen, with that same damn smile and nod that she's had all night, tells Daphne she's glad to see me, to not to worry so much.
The other women give us our space, and I stew, wondering if Gretchen wants my company or if she's thinking about her next book.
After dinner, we end up walking, only a few blocks from my apartment. We initially talk about everything in Gretchen's life as I artfully avoid mine. She tells me about the ups and downs of getting published, about all the sensitivity readers and editing and 'nitpickers'—her words, not mine—that have touched the book. She's proud of how much of her original manuscript she's managed to keep. She's fought hard for it, she tells me, because she thinks it's an important story to tell.
"It doesn't bother you," I tread so carefully, so very, very carefully, "that..."—It's not your story, I think—"that you're telling it like a fiction story?"
"All writing is fiction," Gretchen responds, and the authoritative tone she takes is the same one that she'd get back in class, discussing the nature of creativity. "When you get down to it, that is. You're fixating on one part or another, you're weaving a story off of the parts you think are most interesting...it's like how you can read about a true unsolved mystery, written by two different authors, and by the end of each book, you're convinced a different person did it. Same facts, different story. Different fiction."
I feel ghost limbs where I should have claws, bound up tight underneath skin that resists splitting and stretching. "But it's not an unsolved mystery. It's not fiction...not really." I wish for my claws, so that when I grip the spine of her book they skewer it. "I read an ARC."
Gretchen's heart skips, and it's not love. Her smile quivers like my jaw aches, but it bounces back. "Yeah?"
"Charlotte got me one," I explain. "Thought about having you sign that, but..." I sigh heavily, trying to breathe out instead of snarl, instead of roaring. "God, Gretchen...she's me. Did you think I wouldn't see it?"
Gretchen stops walking, and the click of her boots stops. Which is fine, because they're replaced by details that she's probably forgotten that I register: her heartbeat pounding, the salt-smell of sweat and nervous energy, the way her breath quickens. It's almost like the night that she found out about me all over again, except then I was naked, and now I'm a different kind of naked, all my truth on the page for the world to see, but under her name.
"Oh, come on!" Gretchen finally exclaims, dismissing me with one of those little laughs of hers. "You and Ariel are two different people. She's just also a werewolf—" I stare at her, and the night brightens for a moment. Gretchen's breath speeds up a little more, and I wonder what my eyes look like, whether they're brown or amber or some shade in between. "It's true! If you read it, you'd know."
"I did read it," I said. "I just told you that." Is she not listening, does she not believe me, or is she really missing the point?
Gretchen came into the basement of the building and caught me transforming three months after we'd moved in together. She was scared, freaked out, all the things you'd expect—but she brought me a blanket when she realized I was naked. I thought that meant something.
I thought it meant something too, when she forgave me for keeping my secret my secret. I'd tried to tell her before, I pointed out, right before we decided to move in together. We'd been watching horror movies and I started to tell her but she thought I was just being weird and trying to spook her. I was embarrassed by her squeal and laugh, so I went along with it. She told me she understood, and as her heart thumped, hard but steady, I believed her.
I told her who I was over the next few months of our relationship. I told her about being then suddenly fourteen and knowing the change was going to come. I told her how Jasika changed at 12 and Andre not until he was 16. I told her the truth of how the transformation only hurt for a minute, and even then, it was more discomfort than anything. That it never felt like becoming something else. That once I'd done it, I'd felt whole.
I told her about my family, my pack, and even though we decided to keep that she knew from my folks, I had her meet them, too. I saw her searching, curious eyes picking apart their words, their mannerisms—noting the silent communication. I thought it was her adjusting; I told myself it wasn't because she was trying to file the details away.
When I assured Gretchen that she wouldn't be in danger during the full moon, she sat with me. I have never let another person besides my family see me shift. I don't think I ever will again, either—because I let her see that horrible in-between, that place in a transformation where I am two creatures at once, where I am this beautiful Me and the person I have to be while I am human. I let her hand touch my fur, hold the sides of my face as I sniffed hers, let her see what happened when I am alone. Safe.
I cried from joy when the sun rose.
And then I read it all in a poorly edited advanced reader copy, and she made it painful. Not in the physical senses: thanks to Gretchen, I’m reminded of my stolen story when my skin starts to shift. At dawn, I’m reminded how mortifying it is that the world sees a warped version of my truth. The story she wrote had all the physical descriptions I'd seen in my cousins, in my parents, but twisted into something that made the reader cry, but for all the wrong reasons.
Now, it hurts to think of.
She's not listening now, though; she's defending herself. "Yes, I was inspired by the things you told me, but it's not about that. It's more about me than you."
I want to be able to laugh, but sounds that are both human and feral clog my throat and make it impossible.
"I started it after you told me everything, because I needed a way to process it all. Understand. That's what it's about—the trauma of the world being so much bigger than—"
"That's not your trauma!" Gretchen stops breathing for a minute. Good I think spitefully. Maybe if her voice and her breath and her heart pause for just two seconds she'll hear me. She'll listen.
I feel my hand before I realize that I'm hitting my own chest; I hear the choked thickness of my voice before I realize I'm crying. "It's mine, Gretch. It's fucking mine. And now—" I take a step back from her, and I feel the weight of her book in my other hand like a brick, weighing me down. I still lift it to her, needing her to stare at that cover, at the model that stares back and looks nothing like me but is everything like my story. "And now I can't even tell it."
"You always told me you weren't going to—"
"And you think that's good enough?" I shake my head. "This is my world, and I spent years figuring out how to tell my story. Fiction or not, metaphor or not...and now, when I even try, you know what I get?"
"Do you?" I shout, and there's a rumble curling around the ends of my words. They come from a different chest, one that threatens to reshape and reappear. The fact that I want to shift doesn't hurt; the fact that I couldn't does.
I open the book and start flipping through it. It takes me a few seconds to find what I was looking for.
"This? This is me and Jasika. And this?" I find another page. "This is why I couldn't get my book published, Gretchen. Because when I tried to write about transformation, every single person that read it thought it was too much like your book."
Under my skin my muscles warp and bones threaten to become like clay.
I don't know what she sees, I don't care, but I know it scares her. Maybe it's the transformation on the rise; maybe it's the fact that she knows I'm telling the truth.
"Because my reality is too much like your fantasy, Gretch.”
Gretchen is at a loss for words and backs away from me. She looks around for an escape. "That's not my fault, Shauna—you're a good writer, there are other stories out there."
"But this one is mine!" I snap. "And you butchered it. I wanted..."
It had taken me so long to figure out what I wanted to write. Much longer than it took me to grow used to the way the moon felt along fur, or how it felt to run on all fours.
"I wanted to write a book that other werewolves could find. Maybe...maybe get inspired. But your story? Anyone who reads that and knows werewolves knows you took it. Knows that no one will listen."
It would be like howling and never hearing another pack member respond. I stumble, momentarily losing my ability to keep balance as my body aches to drop down on all fours. My clothes feel tight, too warm. The moonlight is brighter now, or my vision is sharper, or maybe a combination of the two.
"Daphne and Charlotte know I was with you," is Gretchen's only, threatening reply. No apology, no regret.
I don't think she hears me at all, and that's why I drop her book. That's why the sound of the spine cracking against the concrete is loud in my shifting, pointing ears. It's why my outfit splits at all the seams and down the middle as I grow. It's why I don't say a word, and instead I let my mouth stretch, warp and make room for all of my teeth.
I lean forward and growl, and she's backed herself up against the wall. I exhale with a hot snort; I know what she sees now, I know the story she's weaving. The fact, the truth, the lies and the fiction of it. And I know the smell of her fear, how different it is from the excitement in the bookstore.
As she takes flight, I know she won't tell this story.
But I might.
Follow Danny on Twitter @weredawgs.
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