“There are werewolves in this neighborhood, you know,” Brianna says calmly. She is nine and she is sitting on her bed.
“That’s such a fucking stupid thing to say,” Hunter says. Hunter is thirteen, he is Brianna’s brother, and he likes the way swear words taste in his mouth. He says this to her with his head under Brianna’s bed, where he’s looking for a wiffle ball that he can’t find. “Those are just dogs. You’re such an idiot. I can’t believe what an idiot you are.”
Brianna doesn’t make a move to smack him or wrestle him or start crying or anything like that. She’s very calm and contemplative, a skinny-limbed, sixty-pound Buddha.
“No, it’s true. I hear them. It’s not dogs, I know what a dog sounds like. They don’t sound like dogs and they don’t sound like people, and that’s how I can tell. You shouldn’t be scared of them—they’re not the bad kind.”
Hunter takes his head out from under the bed and sneers at her.
“You’re so stupid. You got choked when you were born by your own umbilical cord and it gave you brain damage. I know, Mom told me.”
It’s true—about the cord, not the brain damage. Brianna is a little strange, but not in that way. She knows that she was legally dead for almost one full minute when she was being born, and she knows this scares Hunter. Almost everything scares Hunter, actually. That’s why he has to swear so much, because he thinks it distracts people from how scared he is. Brianna likes acting a little spooky in general, but this is why she especially likes acting a little spooky around Hunter.
“You can think whatever you want,” Brianna tells Hunter as he slams through her closet, now rooting through piles of her little shoes in the search for his ball. “But I know. I don’t go out in the backyard at night because I’ve seen them. I see them all the time.”
Hunter thinks being thirteen makes him a man, even though he technically flunked out of bar mitzvah prep class and had to just have a pool party for his birthday instead. And so when the last thing she says makes his skin prickle a little, he gets angry.
“You are such a cunt,” he says. Brianna has no idea what that word means and continues to stare at him blankly. “Do you have my wiffle ball?”
Brianna gives him this look where she looks exactly like their mother when she’s disappointed in him. Being on the receiving end of his mother’s disappointment is probably the only thing Hunter and actual men have in common, really.
“What would I do with your wiffle ball?”
If you want to get technical, Hunter, right now, is actually a lot more scared of girls than he is of werewolves.
There is a rampaging animal loose in Hunter and Brianna’s housing development. It digs up plants and tears down laundry and kills birds and shits all over everyone’s lawns. A lot of people think the culprit is “Cissy,” a lost dog from two developments over. The whole town has been plastered with Cissy’s missing posters all summer, and the sight of her owner pushing through everyone’s yards with a flashlight, calling her name at night, has become commonplace. Her owner has even been on the five o’clock news, tearfully flashing a formal portrait of her. She’s getting more of a search-party effort than the runaways from the city who sometimes end up in town, who usually only get one missing poster tacked up at the Stop ’N’ Shop, next to some poster about a community-center cooking class.
But Cissy’s owner is adamant that Cissy isn’t the one causing all this trouble. Cissy is a good dog, he says, and even if she wasn’t a good dog, she is a meek dog, a scared dog. She is a pet-store dog, not meant for anything but a quiet life of belly rubs and special vitamin supplements to make her coat glossy. She’s an Irish setter with long, deep red hair, like Julianne Moore. Cissy is a good girl but she’s dumb, he says. She doesn’t have it in her to go rogue.
Hunter is in the backyard one afternoon, playing wiffle ball by himself with a T-stand, his Oakland A’s cap cocked to one side to keep the sun out of his eyes. The ball rolls across the yard, which is almost all dead grass, and down toward what he and Brianna call “the creek.” It’s not really a creek—it’s a drainage runoff for rainwater, near the woods, and it has been dry almost the entire droughty summer. Hunter runs over to pick up the ball, and finds it next to a crushed, empty can of Fanta. Hunter loves Fanta. He drinks it all day, rides his bike to the town library and buys a can from the soda machine out front when his mother cuts him off at home. I don’t remember drinking a Fanta down here, Hunter thinks, trying to think it so quietly that maybe the rest of his brain, the parts that get scared, won’t notice that he thought it.
Every house in the housing development has woods behind it, making the woods just a big circle, with a definite beginning and end, not like those big, sloppy woods you find in other places. This should make them less scary to Hunter, but it doesn’t, really. Brianna plays in there by herself all the time, disappearing for hours and then merrily popping up in a neighbor’s backyard across the development. Hunter tells her that their mom said not to play in there anymore, because she tracks pine needles into the house afterward—which does sound like something their mother would say, but is definitely something that they both know she didn’t. Brianna mostly just plays Little House on the Prairie games by herself in the woods, but whenever Hunter tries to get her to say what she does out there, she just shushes him like someone might be listening. She knows the woods aren’t actually dangerous, but she still thinks it’s a good idea for him to stay out of them.
Hunter practices wiffle ball in the backyard all summer long, because he secretly thinks he can get really good and then join the baseball team in high school and have something to do and someplace to be. He starts to find more crushed cans of Fanta in the creek bed. He knows that he is not drinking Fanta in the creek bed. He quits drinking Fanta for a while, switches over to grape soda, just to make sure that they aren’t his crushed cans that are getting tracked into the creek bed by the wind or Cissy or something.
The Fanta cans appear a few more times after he switches flavors, and then they turn into crushed grape soda cans, smoothed over the old Fanta cans, like fossil layers. Hunter’s swing is getting pretty powerful now, but every time he loses a wiffle ball in the woods he just begs his mom to go buy him a new one. One day she tells him this is ridiculous, she isn’t working hard all day at two jobs so that he never has to play with a ball that is a little dirty or worn. She jumps up and says they are both going to search the woods right now, before the sun goes down, and bring back all his lost wiffle balls and he is going to use them over and over for the rest of the summer, no matter what. They go out to look and don’t find a single one.
The word on the street is that Cissy has escalated—she has now started attacking other dogs. One night, the people at the end of Long Hollow Road let their dog out into their backyard to pee, and she comes back with a big gash in her face. They rush her to that emergency pet clinic on I-95 and the doctor tells them she got in a fight with another dog. The people on Long Hollow Road say, “This dog is seventy-five in dog years! She doesn’t fight, she was attacked!” The man who lost Cissy says that Cissy wouldn’t know how to attack another dog even if she wanted to.
The casualties start to pile up. The dog park in the center of the development starts to look like a tiny emergency room, with so many dogs with neck cones, with sad little bandages around their feet. No one lets their dogs off leash for the rest of the summer. The people in the development demand that the town animal control office find Cissy and put her down—she must be rabid! But despite several nighttime raids with searchlights and those long sticks with the loops at the end, no one can find Cissy. The night of the last raid, the animal-control guy gets in his pickup truck and tells someone’s mom, “Probably raccoons.” They print the same thing in the newspaper, pretty much. They do catch a lot of raccoons, but nobody knows if it’s helping, because people will barely let their dogs outside now.
One night, Hunter wakes up and hears a very soft howling. It sounds just like Brianna said—it’s not a dog, but it’s not exactly like a person making dog sounds, either. Hunter gets so scared, he starts crying. He gets up and walks down the hall, to take a pee and calm himself down. The house is stone silent, and then he hears the soft howls coming from Brianna’s bedroom. He bursts in, and for one second, he feels crazy with adrenaline, like those men who can carry armloads of shrieking children out of a burning building. He will save her.
He then sees that it is Brianna making the howling noises, her face pressed up against the glass of her bedroom window, looking down into the backyard. Hunter’s passionate devotion immediately turns to rage, and he hits Brianna very hard in the arm without saying anything. Brianna makes a face that is repentant instead of shocked. “Sorry,” she says to his back as he storms out of her room. “We were just talking.”
By the end of the summer, Hunter practices wiffle ball in the front yard and will not go anywhere near the creek bed. But if he did, this is what he would find: fifteen crushed cans of generic grape soda, thirty-one crushed cans of Fanta, an empty bottle of Old Spice aerosol deodorant from the practice shaving kit his mom got him, a Pokémon doll that he still secretly played with in the basement, and a shredded Oakland A’s wash cloth that Grandma Angela sent him for his birthday instead of a check, because she was so mad about the bar mitzvah thing. Brianna quietly left each of these items on the back porch in the evening, as the sun was going down, confident that no one would miss them. She didn’t avoid giving the supplies to the werewolves in person because she was afraid of them—she just thought they might want a little privacy. That was why they seemed to come out of the woods and into their yard at night, to get some time alone, away from whatever other things they share the woods with. Brianna wonders if maybe being afraid is something she’ll grow into, when she gets a little older.
Brianna and Hunter’s mom goes in the backyard one Saturday afternoon—she likes to relax by thinking about what she would do if she ever got enough money to really landscape—and she sees the creek bed. She yells, “You kids can’t just throw all of your shit back here, you know! This isn’t a garbage dump!”
Brianna and Hunter’s mom works nights over the summer, and she thinks Hunter is old enough to babysit now. Hunter complains, but he doesn’t really have anything better to do. One Friday night, she tells him she’ll be home late, later than she’s ever been before. Hunter yells at her that he is sick of having to look out for Brianna, she’s such a little loser, but really, he hates having to go to bed without his mother in the house.
Late that night, he tucks himself in, but can’t fall asleep, and he is wide awake two hours later when Brianna knocks on his door. “Come look,” she whispers. Hunter gets up and wordlessly joins her as she walks to the window in her bedroom. In the light from the full moon, they see, in their back yard, a dog and a boy.
The dog is lying on the ground, bleeding hard from its neck, which has been gouged open, and the boy is hunched over the dog, holding it, his face buried in the dog’s glossy maroon fur. A bloody-pawed raccoon looks on guiltily for a moment, and then scampers off. “There they are,” says Brianna, plainly. “One of them is hurt now.” The boy in the yard leans his head up now, and howls mournfully in a voice that shouldn’t come out of a boy’s mouth or a dog’s mouth. The moonlight catches on his long, deep red hair and his Oakland A’s baseball cap, before he runs back into the forest, alone.