Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
The change always starts at the back of DeShaun’s neck, and it takes everything not to claw the beast out — to not let it peel him open along his spine like pages of a book.
The cabbie is apologizing over the bachata playing on his radio. “BQE’s never like this at sunset.” He looks in the rearview mirror, obliviously sympathetic. “It’s kennel time usually. Everybody clears out.”
On the driver’s side of the partition, DeShaun sees the cabbie’s portable kingdom. A mini Guyanese flag — red, black, yellow, white, and green — hangs from the rearview mirror. Below it, a prayer card is attached to the empty cellphone mount on the dashboard. There is an assortment of knickknacks along the dashboard as well. A Yankees bobble-head, a wind up toy whose plastic tentacles wriggle as they drive forward, and a suction cup that must have been attached to another toy at some point.
DeShaun’s laugh is strained as he squirms on the peeling leather seating. He thinks of his skin unfurling like the torn leather rubbing against his jeans, except what’s under DeShaun’s skin is far less inviting than foam padding.
DeShaun looks at his phone. He is pushing it in terms of time; the yellow-orange-purple sky scolds him for his recklessness through the tinted windows. It isn’t DeShaun’s fault his birthday was the night before, or that it’s only his third moon, but it is his fault he’d crashed at his girl’s house, climbing out of her bed in the late afternoon, nursing a hangover. He should have been at the kennel an hour ago, long before he started feeling the beast twist and slither under his skin, pacing and snarling in his brain.
The cabbie’s sure DeShaun isn’t a registered werewolf because werewolves don’t hail cabs only a few hours before the full moon. Werewolves don’t hail cabs because no one with sense will pick them up. But DeShaun isn’t thinking today.
Today he is aflame in his own skin. It’s made worse by the lack of air conditioning; the windows are open, but the wind flowing through the cab is warm and humid. Or maybe it’s actually a pleasant evening, and the heat is all fur-under-flesh. Maybe it’s the smokiness of heavy incense coming through the cracks in the partition from the open front windows, curving back into DeShaun’s space. Frankincense hits DeShaun’s nostrils and he leans forward in his seat, his forehead against the partition, behind the cabbie’s head. The world’s worst central air system.
The cabbie continues chattering. “—a real dead time for fares, you know? I mean, especially for longer trips. Everybody’s already where they need to be. The Midtown Kennels are usually full up around 3:30 or so this time of year….” He trails off for a second, and DeShaun thinks the man may have realized he’s talking to a disinterested party.
Instead, the cabbie picks up again, as if he suffers from the compulsive need to chat that sometimes bubbles up in people stuck in a small yellow vehicle for ten plus hours a day. “You ever seen the Midtown Kennels? They do tours of the place on the new moon, you know—”
Yes, DeShaun knows. He took the tour in elementary school, just like everyone else who went to school in the city. A bunch of fifth graders paired off in the buddy system, fidgeting as the entire process of kenneling was explained. Get the tour done while they were pre-puberty, before even the born werewolves felt the heat and the rage of the change. Make sure all the little kids know enough information about the registration system just in case.
DeShaun and his buddy — Chris? Kyle? Something with a hard cah sound he is struggling to remember right now — looked at the cushy kennel sections, one per werewolf, and then down at their small, brown hands. They looked back up at the kennel administrators and how closely they watched this fifth-grade class, as if the kids might figure out a way to steal the plush carpets and padded wallpaper. Even if they’d been werewolves, even if they ever got bitten, the procedures at Midtown Kennels weren’t going to apply to kids like them.
DeShaun responds, although he intentionally keeps his voice low and mumbles. A trick he’d learned from Gabe in group a few weeks ago, to keep the edge of a growl from being noticeable. “Yeah, uh huh.” Only slightly less eloquent than usual. Certainly not the sound of a man whose empty stomach, like everything else, is threatening to double in size. Not the sound of a 19-year-old whose hunger fills his mouth while a cage of teeth ache around it.
He catches himself tugging on the sleeves of his hoodie. DeShaun wills his hands to stay hands instead of claws, uncurling his fingers one by one. They’re gross with sweat and he wipes them across his pants, deliberately pressing his palms flat as he drags them across the denim.
“You ever wonder how much one of those places cost?” The cabbie wonders out loud. He’s not really talking to DeShaun — better not be, anyway, because this is the last conversation DeShaun wants to even think about. Ever. “We pay taxes— ” The cabbie takes a glance in the rearview mirror again, just as DeShaun drops his head back on the headrest. “I pay my taxes, I mean, and for a facility like that, that’s a lot of money, I figure. Money that could be going in my pock— ”
He’s still talking, and DeShaun tries to count things to keep the beast from ripping the man’s throat out. He counts the yanked-out fibers lining the roof (how they’d get stuck in his claws if he ripped the roof off). He counts the fine cracks in the supposedly transformation-strength partition (how he knows if he lunged forward, it’d shatter). He counts the number of bumps on the highway (how he knows that if he shifted, let the beast grow to full size and split the car in two, he’d be fine as parts of it screeched away along the highway, but this man would shut the fuck up).
DeShaun absolutely doesn’t count the pennies taken out of his shit job check to go to publicly funded facilities. He doesn’t count the extra zeros added to the Midtown Kennels’ budget by donations from the Manhattanites who want luxury even on nights they can’t possibly remember. He doesn’t count the number of goddamn motherfucking stupid asinine words the cabbie uses in his spiel about how maybe only werewolves should have to pay for kennels. How if they’re going to be chi-chi then let them pay for it.
“You know your exit off the Deegan?”
DeShaun clenches teeth that feel as if they push back. He hasn’t seen pictures of himself shifted, but he’s seen other werewolves. Pictures of them, YouTube videos. In his sophomore year of high school, Nadine proudly showed off the pictures her mother took of her first transformation. The Williamsburg Kennels had fully transparent cells for ‘the shifted,’ made from real transformation-proof glass. Nadine said non-werewolf family members came to all the firsts, snapping pictures and videos of their little monsters.
DeShaun calls all his former classmates at that private school little monsters. He tries to use it less with the werewolves but, honestly, the transformation didn’t make them any less monstrous.
“Your exit,” the cabbie repeats.
Oh, the cabbie thinks he’s stupid. It’s not just the darkening sky that makes DeShaun have to swallow the snarl twisting the corners of his mouth. For a moment, it’s lighter in the cab, easier for DeShaun to see. His vision fades to normal almost as quickly as it sharpened and only then does he lower his head, his chin hitting chest. When he looks up at the cabbie’s reflection in the rearview mirror, his eyes are brown, and that’s a small mercy.
“No, I don’t— ” He wants to tell the man no, he doesn’t fucking know the exit, if he did he’d probably drive to where he needed to go. He’s only had to go to the kennel three times — one to register, and two full moons. If the cabbie asked him to smell his way to the kennel, to search out where all the uptown werewolves had shoved themselves, that would be an easier proposition than figuring out maps and street numbers and highway turn offs.
DeShaun starts to sniff the air to test his hypothesis, but the nose full of itchy frankincense reminds him where he is. He rubs his nose with the back of his sleeve to hide what he’s doing and lets his head loll to the side. His cheek, slick with sweat, sticks to the back of the seat immediately. He regrets the action but doesn’t readjust; if he readjusts, he’s going to look at the cabbie’s reflection again.
“I’ll figure it out,” the cabbie says breezily.
DeShaun looks at his phone, fingers twitching as he struggles not to grip the case too tight.
“We’re almost there, I think.” He starts humming the song on the radio. He hums off key, and the discordant notes are an assault on DeShaun’s ears, a crescendo in this personal hell.
If DeShaun gets out the car and runs, he’ll get to the kennel faster. He can’t get out the car. Once he steps outside, the breeze will be too much, running through the ghost of fur that hasn’t yet emerged. Along a beast’s spine and down to his thighs and calves. He looks down at his jeans and, even through them, it’s like watching the silhouettes of fish in a pond as his legs decide what they want to be, how the joints want to bend.
His feet hurt in boots that are supposed to be a half-size too big, for moments just like this.
Right off the highway there’s turn after turn, and it’s his head, not his stomach, spinning. This part is still new to him, this foggy headspace between human and feral. He learned about it in school — the rage, the violence, is a byproduct of the energy going into the change, the bodily explosion taking place. The textbooks didn’t mention the way the beast chokes you as your vocal cords become something meant for another body, another size, so you cough and you dry heave and your chest fills to bursting with energy; how you’re filled to breaking but hollowed out and starving and there’s no way this human body can contain all of this hunger and anger, not while some meatbag is hitting every bump in the road and droning on about how many resources people like you take up in this city. The fucking meal on wheels doesn’t know he means people like you but you hear people like you in every sentence, until those are the only three words you can hear. Until all of those words blend together and the world becomes so sharp and clear and fuck if the night doesn’t look bright from this end of the car….
“This is it, my man,” is what DeShaun thinks the cabbie says, and it jolts DeShaun back, temporarily, into this all-too-tight human skin. Rubber-banding back from near-feral has him dizzy, and he looks up at the rearview mirror again. This time it’s amber eyes, not brown, meeting the cabbie’s gaze.
The cabbie’s gregariousness wavers. His heartbeat pounds as he turns the music down, as the car slows to a stop in front of the Kingsbridge Armory. It hasn’t been renamed anything special — they hadn’t even gotten the courtesy of being called the Kingsbridge Kennel. The renaming’s supposed to come in two years, when the renovation happens, when it becomes more than a heavily sealed space where they shove DeShaun and everyone else with the misfortune of having to use a kennel that relies solely on public funding.
The taste of adrenaline on the air drowns out the incense smoke. “Didn’t realize there was a kennel up here,” the cabbie stammers.
DeShaun jams the cash through the open partition. The cabbie jolts at the sight of DeShaun’s arm — at the gray of the hoodie, the brown of his skin, and the shifting movement underneath his flesh. The cabbie takes the money, silent for the first time. DeShaun climbs out of the car on two legs even though he wants to be on four, as the human attendant at the door hurries him along.
The last words DeShaun manages sound something like, “No one ever does.”