Sean Callahan, C’24
The transformation started in the morning. Or maybe it was hours ago, in the middle of the night, when I feltlike running laps and jumping hurdles. Hours ago when I should’ve been exhausted from Track and Field, asleep. I was lucky to finally get two hours of sleep after tossing and turning in my sea of sweat. I thought maybe this restless-ness was because of unfinished college applications, crumbled into paper balls and thrown into the wastebasket by my door. I thought that maybe it was because it was October, and my laptop search history was filled with questions about applying to the Army rather than college. Maybe it was because Mom didn’t know I wanted to do the same thing that had gotten Dad killed almost a year ago. Or maybe it was because I was crazy.
Mom shook me awake, singing happy birthday into my ear. She was already in her police uniform, hands on her hips, which were lined with her walkie and holstered hand-gun. I’d overslept on my eighteenth birthday. She ruffled my hair as I apologized. When I raised my head, Mom’s face froze the way it did when she saw something that didn’t make sense on the news or on her bills. Her eyes were glued to my face. She asked me if I was okay. When I assured her I was, I asked her what was wrong. Invisible words hid behind parted lips and swam around her vocal cords, begging to bubble to the surface. But her face suddenly lit up with a chuckle and she told me I needed to shave. Even though I rolled my eyes, stuffed my head beneath my pillow and gave her the finger, she offered me donuts and a drive to school before she went to the police station.
After she left the room, my thoughts returned to her reaction. Something had bothered her. I shuffled into the bathroom and turned on the light. Bushy stubble and long, dark hairs had erupted from my cheeks and around my lips. I was sure I’d shaved yesterday, but I shrugged and zipped off the hairs. I clipped the whisker-like hairs off with scissors. I left the fuzz on my hands, fingers, and arms alone, even though there was more than usual. I thought maybe it was just a part of being eighteen. Maybe Mom was worried about nothing.
At school, during lunch, my friends bragged about their times from yesterday’s race. I was too tired to listen. It was noon and it felt like midnight. They asked me what was wrong. I lied and told them it was just the race, that I had a late night, even though I’d tried to go to bed at nine-thirty. I lied that I had an all-nighter with homework, even though all of it was done before the race.
After lunch I was still hungry. Sitting in class, keeping me awake was the intense aroma of the teacher’s unfinished beef salad, lying in a trashcan on the other side of the room. When school was over, track practice brought me leaping to my feet. I finished the mile warm up in three minutes instead of seven. I made my mark just short of thirty feet on the long jump. Everyone wanted to know how much Red Bull I’d drank or how many steroids I’d taken. Of course I hadn’t used either.
As I walked home, my brain scanned through all the worries in my day. Empty college applications. Grades. The anniversary of Dad’s death coming up. What I wanted to do to honor him. What I wanted to do with my life. If life had a purpose beyond existing. The birds were chirping loudly, a bicycle was moving down the street and a child to the far left was on the sidewalk with her mother and dog and I just needed to get home to eat, but wait there were footsteps behind me.
Three boys from the football team confronted me as I entered an alleyway. Three “friends” I’d walked away from last year, because they weren’t worth my time. I even told Mom I didn’t want anything to do with them. Wrestling over a ball for state fame was not my idea of popularity. Tossing rocks at parked cars at midnight on the streets was not my idea of fun. Prodding freshmen girls for numbers or favors was not my idea of a joke. Now, they smiled, nudged me on the shoulder, circled me like feral hounds. They called me “homie” and asked where I’d been. I clenched my fingers into fists. Clenched my icicle-tipped teeth together behind my closed lips. I lifted up my hooded face. Benji asked, “You didn’t think I was done with you from last time, did you? What’s wrong Matty? Still moping about your daddy? Got a problem?”
I let out a low growl. “Yeah. I do.”
He tried to punch me. I side-stepped his attack and slammed my fist into his gut in one swift motion. Then I swiped his legs out from beneath him, and he fell onto his face. His two friends lunged at me from both sides. I kicked myself off one of the brick alleyway walls and slashed the closest guy’s face with my nails. He shouted angrily, clutched his eyes, and fell to his knees. I grabbed the incoming fist of the second guy. The muscles in my arms tensed. My nails dug into the top of his hand and fingers like little spears. Like claws. I shoved him off balance against a nearby dumpster. There was blood on their faces and hands and legs and chests, all because of me.
I ran out of the alley, across the street, between other alleys, and into my building, up the stairs, until I was in the apartment and sitting on my sofa. My breathing slowed. It was deep. It echoed like the subway that ran beneath the city. I looked down at my hands, my paws. I watched my claws sink back into the slits above my paw pads. The adrenaline that had pulled me through the fight was draining away, making my eyelids heavier and heavier until I’d fallen asleep.
I was wide awake after hours that felt like minutes. It was pitch black, and my mind twisted and turned. I scratched my face, then stroked the smooth fur and fluff that coated my face. I was sore in my upper rear, as if I’d sat on concrete too long. There was a bump there. Or a bone, growing. A tail. Then I saw dried specks of blood on my claws and remembered what I’d done.
I had my hood up and my head lowered as Mom came back from work. She sat down beside me. I didn’t look up when she said my name, or tell her how school went, so she scratched my back gently. She hugged me and told me she knew about the fight. That Benji’s father had called, threatening to press charges against her son for “assaulting” his son. He threatened to find her if she “didn’t do something about her little animal.” Mom asked me if I wanted to talk about it.
I lifted my head, pulling off my hood. Mom gasped and turned her eyes away. She cursed herself and forced her gaze back to me. My little furry ears flattened and I sighed. “He got on my case about Dad. I was going to let it go, but he went after me.”
“I shouldn’t have ignored what I saw this morning, I didn’t think…” she whispered. She grabbed my paws, rubbed her fingers along my paw pads and against the sides of my claws. “Honey, this isn’t good. You need to tell me these things.”
“I know, I know. But it’s happened before, Mom.” I said this, but I knew before I hadn’t grown claws. In the days after we got the note that Dad was killed by an IED, the fur hadn’t grown this thick. Even on the day I severed ties with my old football friends, when—after Mom told me the night before that someone threw a brick through the passenger side window of her cruiser—Benji told a similar story of how he accidentally hit a cop car. Even when I punched him square in the nose and put a target on my back, burned by the loss of Dad, the fangs didn’t grow.
“Not like this. Not even after Dad.” Mom said “Have you been thinking about him?”
I crossed my arms, and dipped my head to the ground. I waited for her to interrogate me further. To make me admit why I really punched Benji. To make this day more difficult than it needed to be. But she just reached over and massaged my paws again. “That’s okay. Let’s get out of the house for a bit, buddy. It’s your birthday.”
We had New York-style pizza at a diner, a few blocks away from home. I took a pair of gloves to hide my paws, and kept my hood up. I forced myself to take small bites, keeping my head down. The silence turned into small talk. As we dined, Mom told me about a motorcycle chase her patrol went on. We laughed about stories of crazy inmates and school. We talked about what was going on with the rest of the family in Brooklyn. Grandpa and Grandma finally got a new dishwasher after four months of Mom’s nagging. Dad’s little sister, Lily, came out as gay. Aunt Ruth planned to retire with Uncle Dick up in Boston, and their kids were finally all in college. All except one.
“Tim’s enlisting with the Marines, isn’t he?” I asked.
Mom chuckled. “He says he is. But I’m not convinced Ruthie likes the idea. Tim’s a smart cookie. He should’ve been an engineer.”
“Maybe he doesn’t think he belongs in college.”
“Well, he doesn’t belong in Afghanistan either.”
I clenched my soda glass, raising my head and shoulders up like I did to Benji. “You always act like Tim is a joke. Ever since he said he was going to basic. What is your issue?”
Her voice tightened. “My issue is that he is going to get himself killed.”
“That’s his choice.” My fingers were gripping the glass as tight as I could squeeze, without risking breaking it.
“Well it’s a stupid one.”
I stared at her. My jaw quivered. I leaned back in my booth, my mouth ajar. Rage swirled in my stomach. I shot up from my booth, slammed my glass through the window like a baseball. I swept off every dish from our table and stalked away down the aisle of broken glass and pizza, knocking my hood off in the process.
Mom called, “Honey wait!”
“Piss off!” I hissed over my shoulder, then raced out the swinging door.
I ran until I was at the graveyard, at his grave, just outside the first skyscrapers of the city and beside the last suburban neighborhood before the city. I sat by Dad. Ten minutes passed. This time I didn’t hide behind my hood. I grieved as the fur melted off my face and hands, inch by inch. It floated into the air in little fuzzy flakes. I hated Benji, but I wish I hadn’t done something so stupid. I was afraid Mom wouldn’t accept me if I told her about my future, but I wish I didn’t have to hide things from her. I wish things would be okay. Back when Dad used to come home during the summers. Back when he wasn’t deployed. Back when I was sure I knew who my friends and family were. Back when I knew they understood me and what I wanted.
“I knew you’d be here.” Mom stood beside me, a few feet away. “I kept hoping we wouldn’t have to come here today. Thought I could avoid it.” She sighed. “I’m sorry I said that, Matt.”
“I just want you to listen to me.”
“I’ll try to do a better job.”
I put my head against her shoulder, now free of the fur that captured my body. I held her rough, calloused hand in my clawless, sweaty hand. My fear and anger were slowly floating away with the last flakes of fur. “Mom. There’s something I have to tell you.”
She nodded. “I know you do. But you’ll tell me when you’re ready.” She put an arm around my back. “There’s cake in the fridge you know. I think it’s calling your name.”