Part 1 of 2
After, they move. They travel hours and hours away, and Mom says it'll be safer here, in their little blue house on Meadowbrook Lane. No one will hurt you, she says. Not ever again, Reagan. You're safe.
Only Mom doesn't know about the wolf that lives across the street. The wolf moves like a man, talks like a man, picks up the paper in his boxers and drinks coffee like a man.
But Reagan isn't fooled.
It’s her third week in the third grade, and Reagan has to talk in front of the whole class. “My report,” she says, “is on wolves. Wolves are very dangerous animals. They’re attracted to little girls and the color red. They swallow their prey whole.”
There's a parent-teacher conference that day.
She meets Dr. McGinnis the next week.
Dr. McGinnis doesn’t have a stethoscope. She has a notebook instead, and she writes in it whenever Reagan says something wrong. “Can you tell me what it’s like, being swallowed whole?”
Reagan doesn’t like to talk about that.
“It’s bad,” she says finally. “It’s dark and wet, wet all over.”
“And what about the man, the man that hurt you?”
“He wasn’t a man,” Reagan says.
Dr. McGinnis writes that down.
The wolf on Meadowbrook Lane hosts the neighborhood Christmas party.
Reagan screams as Mom pries her away from the bed and roughly pulls a green dress with a big, green bow over her head. She doesn't have any red clothes anymore, not after burning her sweater in the bathtub and accidentally melting the shower curtain into oozing, pink plastic. “Please, baby,” Mom begs. “Dr. McGinnis says this is important. It's been months, since we moved here, and you haven't—you have to learn to socialize normally.”
That doesn’t mean anything to Reagan. Mom tugs at her wrist, dragging her from the room, so she bites Mom's fingers, hard.
Mom might have yelled once, but now she starts crying. Mom cries a lot these days. “Baby, it's okay,” she says, kneeling and pulling Reagan in close. “It—it was too far, to go on your own, I should never have let you—but I’m here now, okay? I’m here.”
Mom apologizes a lot and makes promises she can’t keep. She can’t protect Reagan from wolves when she doesn’t even believe in wolves. Reagan misses her grandma. Her grandma was there, in the dark. Her grandma knows what’s out there.
Reagan misses the man with the axe, too.
“We don’t have to stay long,” Mom says, standing. “Just for a little while. Maybe you’ll even make some friends!”
Reagan used to have friends. That didn’t stop her from being eaten.
The wolf has pale eyes and a scruffy chin, and he’s wearing a Santa hat on his head. He crouches down in front of Reagan, smiling so thinly she can’t get a good look at the size of his teeth. “Does the little lady want something to eat?”
Reagan steps back.
“Please forgive her,” Mom says. “She’s . . . shy. She’s been through a lot.”
The wolf looks at Reagan. He sniffs and his eyes widen; he is silent for a heartbeat, and she doesn't know how to read his face. Can he smell the other wolf on her? Does she still stink of his stomach juices? But then he smiles at Mom and stands. “No problem,” he says, glancing back down at her. “Maybe a little later, huh?”
He walks back to his other guests, mingling in the kitchen, and Mom turns and points to kids making a snowman in the backyard. Reagan refuses to join them. They wouldn’t let her anyway—they call her weirdo all the time at school. Besides, she doesn’t want to let the wolf out of her sight. His eyes wander, following children . . . but never the little girls.
Mostly, he leaves the kitchen to circle back to one boy, a big kid on the couch, maybe twelve or thirteen. He’s wearing a red sweater and laughing at everything the wolf says.
“Reagan,” Mom says. “What about him, over there?”
Reagan turns. It’s Eric, halfway inside the coat closet, playing all by himself. She likes Eric: he’s funny, and he’s always reading, and he did his animal report on the Loch Ness Monster. Reagan's pretty sure he had a parent-teacher conference too, but she doesn’t think he goes to any special doctors.
Eric’s the only boy who isn’t mean to her, and he has dinosaur toys. But—
“Go on,” Mom says, and pushes Reagan forward.
Eric smiles when she sits down and gives her the Stegosaurus to play with. The Stegosaurus is the best. She attacks Eric's Apatosaurus and forgets to keep track of the wolf. Maybe she forgets on purpose. Sometimes it's easier to play dinosaurs than think about boys in red.
She still doesn't eat at the party. She has to wait forever, even after Eric and his dinosaurs have already gone home. Mom finally says they can go, and makes chicken strips for dinner. Reagan chews and chews and chews them until they are nothing but mush. She has to make sure they are dead. She has to make sure nothing comes back to life inside her.
A week later, the boy in red goes missing, and no one ever sees him again.
In the spring, Dr. McGinnis asks, “Reagan, what do you think happened to Jason Zeigler?”
She doesn’t want to know, not really. She just wants Reagan to say all the right words. “Jason’s daddy took him because he wasn’t going to see Jason anymore because there was a divorce and stuff.”
“What if a monster took him?”
“There aren’t any monsters.”
“Hm,” Dr. McGinnis says, tapping her pen against her notebook. “Let’s talk about the hunter.”
“He saved me,” Reagan says. “He’s good.”
Dr. McGinnis writes that down. She leans back in her chair, looking at Reagan like she's a thing that needs rearranging. “Do you still dream about wolves?”
Reagan doesn’t, or not very often. She dreams about Grandma sometimes, rocking in her chair and murmuring words no one else understands. Mom says she’s sick, and when Mom says sick, she means crazy, some kind of crazy that only old people get. Grandma lives in the nursing home now, far, far away with all the other old, crazy people. Reagan isn’t allowed to see her.
“Sometimes, I dream about wolves,” Reagan says. “They’re really scary dreams. I cry, sometimes. But I don’t dream about them as much as I used to.”
Mostly Reagan dreams about the hunter, the man in the black hood and black half-mask who carried a bag of stones across his back and a bloodstained axe in each hand. He’d used those blades on the wolf’s belly, carefully carving Reagan and her grandma out, and then placed the rocks where their bodies had been.
The newspeople call the hunter a dangerous vigilante. Reagan looks up the word. They think vigilante means murderer. She thinks it means a hero who kills, a hero with sharp teeth.
She decides not to tell Dr. McGinnis that, though.
The hunter keeps a blog, when he’s not carving little girls and old women from the bellies of wolves. She finds it during summer break, when other kids are swimming or going to camp. They call me a monster, he writes. But there are real monsters you should fear, killers that prey on children, creatures that can't be killed by ordinary means. Rocks are very important, Reagan learns. You can cut a wolf down with an axe, but you can only keep him down with the heavy weight of stone.
Reagan spends all summer collecting rocks and hiding them around her room.
People leave messages for the hunter, calling him crazy or asking for help. The hunter rarely responds, but what else can she do?
Red Hoodie: Hunter, I’ve found one. He killed a boy last Christmas. Can you come? Please, will you come?
He doesn’t come.
Grandma dies after Thanksgiving, only a week before Reagan's tenth birthday. Mom doesn't let her go to the funeral. Instead, she writes a report about magnets. Magnets are really boring, but she works hard on it anyway. She hasn't had a special parent-teacher conference since last year and that means Mom cries a lot less than she used to. If Reagan could make a friend, Mom might never cry again.
Reagan still doesn’t really want friends. Most of the kids in her class are dumb. They care about stupid things and fear what can’t actually hurt them and are repetitively, pointlessly cruel to one another. Eric's different, of course. He still gets into trouble sometimes because he reads about the wrong things at the wrong times, and he's always running late. But he's never mean to anyone, and he has all these freckles on his nose. Last month he made a special Valentine's Day card with dinosaurs on it just for her. Reagan finds herself watching him when she should be reading her book or listening to the teacher or thinking about wolves. She likes Eric. She likes him a lot.
But bad things happen when people get distracted, when eyes are elsewhere and there's no one left to stand watch.
Reagan begins fifth grade, and things start changing. She starts changing.
First, it's her boobs. They aren't much to look at, but most girls in her class aren't even growing bumps yet. Mom buys her training bras in almost every color and Reagan pretends to be excited, but she's not, not about that. She is excited about her email. Finally, finally the hunter has written her back.
Hunter: Watch, but don’t engage. Tell me if your wolf takes interest in one particular child. Will come when able.
Reagan reads it over and over, feeling safe for the first time in years. She has someone on her side, someone who knows. The hunter will come back and save her.
But that’s when the dreams begin.
The hunter is there, standing above her. She’s tied to the bed; she can’t escape. The white sheets beneath her are covered in blood and clumps of fur, and her belly is split wide open. The hunter sets the stones inside her stomach. She sinks and sinks and sinks—
Reagan wakes up then, shaking. She rolls out of bed and examines herself in the mirror. Her teeth don’t seem any bigger. Her ears are the same size too, but there's hair on her legs that shouldn't be there. She attacks it with scissors. In a week, it grows back.
She cuts it down again and goes to her computer. The hunter's last entry was twelve days ago. It says only that the streets of Milwaukee will be safer that night. Milwaukee is a very long way away.
Reagan logs in. Red Hoodie: Hunter, how does someone BECOME a wolf?
The hunter doesn’t respond.
There’s a boy dressed up as a devil, and the wolf is touching him too much.
Reagan goes to all the holiday parties now, even if Mom has to work. She promised to keep an eye on the wolf, and she means to keep her promise, although sometimes her eye strays to Eric too—he’s dressed up as a robot this year. She tries not to get distracted. This wolf is so much smarter than the one that swallowed her. For almost two years, she’s seen nothing suspicious—he blends into the crowd, says all the right things. Children trust him with their secrets.
The devil-boy is telling him one right now.
Reagan isn’t close enough to hear, but she knows what a secret looks like. The wolf nods, murmuring. His hand rests on the boy’s back. The boy doesn’t notice—the wolf’s touch is familiar to him.
The boy is in trouble.
Reagan pulls out her cell phone, goes to the hunter’s blog.
Red Hoodie: You have to come NOW.
When she looks up, the wolf is looking over the boy's shoulder, watching her.
She tries not to swallow, even as her fingers clutch tighter around the phone. This isn't the first time he's stared at her for a moment too long—Reagan thinks he knows what she’s becoming, maybe knew even before she did. He doesn't know about the hunter, though. He can’t know about that; he can’t—
The wolf glances back down and smiles, reaching for the boy's face. His thumb hovers over the boy's lips, slowly brushing away invisible crumbs. Reagan takes a breath and looks back at her phone. There’s a new blog post from the hunter.
Can’t talk long. Police are on to me; have to run. May not make it. Never doubt: the wolves are real, they are out there, and they are coming for you.
Alone, in the middle of the wolf's house, Reagan tries very hard not to cry.
By Thanksgiving Break, the devil-boy is gone.
“How well did you know Aaron Parker?”
Reagan shrugs. “Not very. He was older than me, middle school. I guess he’s run away a bunch of times before.”
Dr. McGinnis nods. “You’ll be in middle school next year,” she says. “Sixth grade. Are you nervous?”
“What else scares you, Reagan?”
This is the tricky part.
“Sometimes,” Reagan says, “there are monsters in my dreams. But they’re just dreams, and I don’t have very many anymore. The man who hurt me, he was a kind of monster, but really, he was a man. And he can’t hurt me anymore.”
Dr. McGinnis sets the notebook aside. “Reagan, I think you’re making excellent progress.”
She might be making progress in therapy, but outside of it, everything only gets worse.
Her period begins at the end of summer, dark red blood ruining her underwear and pajama pants and bedsheets. There's hair under her arms, on her legs, in between her legs, and it only grows back darker and thicker than before. Mom buys her tampons and razors and real bras, and tells her everything is fine. Everything is not fine. Reagan dreams of flesh and wakes up hungry. She dreams of stone and wakes up cold.
She gets taller, not very tall. Her hips get wider. Her boobs keep growing. They’re uncomfortable and get in the way of everything, but boys seem to like them a lot. She sees them sometimes, looking at her, fingers twitching at their sides. She knows what they’re thinking, how they want to touch her, all of her. Sometimes, she wants to touch them too, just to see what it feels like, to know if their skin is different from girl skin, if their lips are as soft as they look.
She thinks about touching Eric most of all.
Eric has gotten taller too, much taller than Reagan, but his hips are narrow. His whole body is. He joins the swim team in November and Reagan goes to all the meets, even some of the practices, where she sneaks glances while hiding behind the stands. Eric glides through the water gracefully, like some kind of sea creature returning home.
She’s not the only one watching him. The wolf is there too. The wolf is always there.
The wolf is the swim coach.
She tries hard not to know what she knows, but it becomes impossible to deny. This thing she's becoming . . . it stirs inside of her all the time now, at school, at home, alone in her bed with nothing but her hands in the dark to keep her company. She hates it; she’s ashamed of it; it’s wrong, but there her fingers are, on the inside of her thighs, and she explores, reaching, massaging what’s inside her. She holds her breath as long as she can and shakes under the sheets.
She smells sweat and wet fur and barely gets to the bathroom before she vomits.
“Twelve years old,” Dr. McGinnis says. “Almost a teenager. Do you have any plans?”
Reagan does. She’s going to school. After, she’ll wait until swim practice starts and watch the wolf watch Eric. Then she’ll ride her bike home and eat cake for dinner. Mom said she’d try to leave work early, but she won’t get home before ten; she never does. She’ll text, though, probably apologize twice, and do something big this weekend to make up for it. Maybe they’ll go to the beach. Reagan likes the beach, even when it's cold.
In her daydreams, the sweet ones, the ones that hurt the most, Reagan imagines asking Eric along. They could whisper secrets into seashells and chase each other across the sand and maybe, just maybe, he would forgive her for the terrible thing she was. He would even love her for it, the way he loves all strange things, the way he himself is strange. They could be strange and wonderful together.
But monsters cannot be wonderful, and monsters should not be loved, and Reagan doesn’t know how to stop it. She doesn’t know how to wish it all away.
“Nothing big,” Reagan says and tries to mirror Dr. McGinnis's smile.
The wolf doesn’t try anything at swim practice. It happens after, and by then, Reagan’s too late.
She’s heading to her bicycle when she sees it, Eric walking with the wolf to a car. Eric’s dad isn’t there. She doesn’t know where he is, but he’s not there, and Eric’s opening the passenger door; he’s getting inside, and the wolf is slipping behind the wheel.
Reagan yells but she’s too far away. Eric doesn’t hear her. Neither does the wolf because, for a wolf, his ears are awfully small. The car pulls out of the parking lot and takes off, far faster than she can run. She runs anyway, though, pulling her helmet out of her backpack. She jumps up on her bicycle and pedals as fast as she can.
She can’t catch the wolf, of course. The car's already turning on Main Street, driving long out of view. If he's taking Eric somewhere far away, somewhere secret, she’ll never find them. But maybe he wants to take Eric somewhere familiar, somewhere he’d feel safe. That’s what Reagan would do, if she were a wolf.
(She is a wolf. But there’s no time to think about that now.)
Reagan’s pedaling so hard that her lungs start to burn with all the air trapped inside her chest, but she doesn't stop, not to think, not to breathe, not until she hits Meadowbrook Lane.
It's near dark by the time she gets there. The street is deserted—all the children have long since gone inside, where it's light, where it's safe, and their mothers and fathers are there to watch over them. Reagan stashes her bike and helmet in the garage and stands, alone, staring across the street. She flips her black hoodie up and crosses the road, sneaking around the side of the house and slipping into the backyard.
She can’t use the sliding glass door—too obvious—but one of the upstairs windows is half open. Without a ladder, there’s only one way: Reagan scrabbles up the oak tree whose twisted limbs snarl close enough to nearly scratch the paint off the house.
It's not easy—wolves aren’t natural climbers. Her sneakers slide against the bark, and she bites her tongue to keep from screaming as she almost falls from a tree branch that's barely strong enough to hold her weight. She hastily clambers over to the roof overhang, banging her knee against the shingles, and crawls across to the window, pushing up the glass pane and ripping apart the mesh screen with ease. Her nails are long and curled and so much sharper than they ought to be.
She sticks her head through the window to look inside, and her cell phone buzzes, startling her. She takes a breath, pulling back, and digs it out of her pocket. Mom. Just checking in baby sry couldnt get night off luv u maybe bowling tomorrow?
Reagan swallows against the tightness in her throat and blinks as everything in her vision turns blurry and wet. She doesn’t want to think about tomorrow. She isn’t sure there will be a tomorrow.
He’s going to catch me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to KILL ME—
Sounds good, Reagan texts back. Love you, Mom.
She scrubs at her eyes, turns off her phone, and slides into the house.