You never lose when the full moon’s comin, not even against Oers.
Oers isn’t even Oers. She’s Oers in a Medium’s body. You’ve seen the Medium; how she fits all Oers’s six-five, three hundred pounds of beefsteak muscles and big fuck-off forehead horns into her when she’s five-two and tips the scale at 110, maybe, is a mystery to you. It doesn’t seem quite like… cheating, per se, but you figure if you showed up as a wolf, it’d be enough to disqualify you.
But that’s what’s fun about The Fights. There’s always someone bigger than you.
She uses that reach, tries to nail you one, and you get your arm up just moments before that right meathook of hers puts a crater in the left side of your skull. The bones of your forearm rattle like a loose muffler, but at least there isn’t a crater in the left side of your skull.
You miss Eun already.
Oers follows up wide left hook, a cudgel of a swipe, easy for you to weave under. You pay her back with a couple light jabs to the tummy. Almost playful. Not too hard, because trying to get in on her abs is like trying to pummel a brick wall stacked three deep. To her, you’re sure it barely tickles. That’s fine. We’re all here to have a little fun, blow off a little steam.
You were planning on breaking it off with Eun. You had already, kind of, in that way you do—by not saying anything and assuming they’ll get the idea.
Oers snuffles through her cauliflower nose and swipes both arms out for a bear hug. Her lips move, but her shout is nothing, not above the roar of the crowd. Stop wriggling, you little worm! Or something like that, you’re sure.
You’re clever about it. You start fights, make sure they know it’s your fault that it’s ending. The two of you are fundamentally incompatible.
Oer’s fun when she gets feisty. You wish there were a way to tell her that in the moment, because you know it’d piss her off twice as hard. Dancing out of her reach, almost all the way back to your corner of the cage, you use the space to drag in as quick and deep a breath as you can manage. Oxygen floods your system like fire and your brain gets light, bouncing gently around the parameters of your skull like a helium balloon. The blood-risen mark is pulsing on your back, you feel it pebbling all over your skin, testing the resistance of your flesh. One the eve of a full moon, there’s no way you could suppress it; in the fights, there’s no way you’d want to.
You’re fundamentally incompatible, with everyone.
Oers has a lopsided stance. She pokes her left shoulder too far in front of her right. You don’t tell anyone else about this because it makes you feel superior to have noticed it, because you like having an angle that no one else has. When she swings one of those meathooks at you, it’s easy for you to duck under it, get her in a clinch. Then, her height means nothing.
You also like the way your knuckles scream, when you nail her in the side.
Your forehead meets her nose and she stumbles back from the shock. Oers, impact-blind, swipes defensively with one of her great big paws, holding the other against her nose to staunch the bleeding. The blood-risen mark swells with the scent of fresh blood in the air. A tumorous lump feasting on your white-hot energy, swelling your skin, generating ichor and ready to burst. You step boldly into Oers’s reach, leaning back on her next swipe just far enough that on her nails graze your neck, to let her know how close she got. You cock back your arm, real showy, and decide it’s time to earn that prize purse.
Then you see her in the crowd. Well, to be specific, you see her dorky-ass Christmas sweater first. That’s how you know it’s her, because there’s person on the whole planet who’d wear a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sweater to The Fights, bright red LED of the nose like a beacon amid the gritty greys of yowling, howling fans.
What the hell? Eun? Here?
The When and Why and How that ought to follow those thoughts are forcibly preempted. First by the impact of Oer’s fist into your ribs, then by the impact of your face into the cage mesh.
The bar music was soft, that night. And you had stuck to the same drink for long enough that the ice melted, for once, and the whiskey grew sweet. You felt like you were in an old movie. Even though you hated those sorts of movies—so boring—it was fun to imagine, for some reason.
She sat down next to you, all of five foot with a bloom of glossy black hair and a beauty mark beneath her left eye.
No wait for an answer, flopping down gracelessly in the stool next to yours and pulling her hair back into a ponytail with a tie from off her wrist as she gave you the once-over. “I’m Eun-Ji.”
“Leona,” you say.
“I know your name.” Her canny reply came with a complimentary smile. She thought she had something on you. “You’ve got a reputation.”
She knew your name, but what she didn’t know was that half the girls on campus had used some variation on that line, that smile, when introducing themselves to you.
“I’m going to tame you, Leona.”
You looked down at your drink, fidgeting the tumbler so the dwindling ice cubes clinked against one another. “A lot of girls say that.”
“A lot of girls aren’t me.”
A lot of girls say that too.
The conversation dangled for a breath. When you looked back up at her, you found her eyes riveted cooly to yours. She reached out to brush the shaggy hair out of your face, and her smile bloomed, bright and earnest.
What a fear you always had, that conversations dangled would be forever so.
You groan, hand flopping off your stomach and thumping on the concrete as a million dwarves hammering out a million broadswords on a million anvils inside your head brings you back to reality. You recognize the cool metal of the locker room bench beneath your back. “Shit.”
“Shit is right.”
You sit up with a start—bad call, but too late now—and rock forward, holding your head in your hands. “Eun? What are you doing here?”
“Well, you stopped returning my calls.” She twirls her car keys around her finger. “So I took matters into my own hands.”
“Ach,” you groan, and grab at your bruised side.
“Here, let me help you.”
Your hands are still shivering as she undoes the tape. Your knuckles ache so bad every time you flex your fingers, like they were meeting that returning blood flow for the first time. “I’m fine.”
“If you call a six-pack of split knuckles and a fractured rib or two fine, then yeah, you probably are.”
If it were you, alone, you’d just pour whiskey on them and roll over into bed, falling asleep enjoying the stinging pain, and wondering if it actually did anything—y’know, disinfection-wise—or if that was what people did for show in the movies.
“How’d you find me?”
“Like what, you’re some kinda super spy?” She chuckles, lifting your arms to get you to wriggle out of your tank top.
That startles you back to your senses better than any broken rib could. You fold your arms over your chest. “Don’t… I…”
She tilts her head. “C’mon girl, I’ve seen you naked.”
You shake your head, suckle your lower lip into your mouth. “Not like this.”
The blood-risen mark consumes your thoughts. The goosebumps tingling on your back tell you how far it’s spread. If she saw it, she’d know what you are. There’d be no mistaking it. How would you explain it off? A bruise? A weird birthmark? Good luck. On the eve of a full moon, anyone would recognize that mark spreading over your skin.
“Leona…” Her hand rests feather-light atop your wrist. You shiver, but you don’t pull away. “I’m going to wrap your ribs now, okay?”
You snap your attention to her fingernails, painted candy-cane colors in celebration of the upcoming holiday. She’d asked if you had any plans, subtly implying that she’d like to be involved in them in that way girls always do that’s just passive enough for you to worm your way out of answering.
You think about that, as hard as you can, as she tugs your shirt up into your armpits. It’s better than acknowledging that Eun is a promising medical student, and pretty much the smartest girl you’ve ever met, who’s currently exhibiting no signs of trying to convince her supposedly human patient suffering from, at the very least, a couple fractured ribs, to head to the nearest emergency room…
“Anyway,” she says, as she tenderly winds the athletic bandage around your chest, I asked around, figured out where a girl like you might spend her Friday nights—which is, apparently, getting the shit kicked out of her for fun.”
“For money.” You cup a hand over the growing purple spot at your side, just beneath your sports bra. “And I don’t usually lose.”
“Well you sure did tonight.”
When you hold, her eyes hold you. Until you look away.
You sit in silence, obedient, as she wraps the athletic bandage around your torso, holding the back of your neck with both hands, and weirdly self-conscious about how bad you must smell after a night of getting the shit kicked out of you. Sweaty and musty, fuckin’ foul.
It’s something to focus on.
An inadvertent bit of pressure against the bandages makes you wince and pull away. Her lips purse, and she lets off a soft breath, but says nothing. So neither do you.
It’s not until you’re out on the street, sucking in lungfuls of the cold evening fog for courage, that you manage to clear your throat—twice—and say:
“I’m good from here.”
“You’re joking, right?” She’s got her fingers wrapped up in the stretchy spiral of pink plastic on her keychain, stretching and twisting it around at her side while she speaks. Her smile is canny, unflappable, as she puts her other hand on her hip. “I practically had to carry you out of the building. Let me drive you home.”
The hair on your neck bristles. You look away. “I said I’m good.”
“Suit yourself.” She makes a show of cupping her hands behind her back and turning each step down the sidewalk into an extravagant kick, and soon she is gone down the street. You lean against a streetlight, hold your bruised belly, and watch the blob of her shape as it grows ever more formless, receding into the evening mist.
She looked at you with dismay, that girl. And though it was definitely that girl who distilled such a fear from your blood, in your dreams she wasn’t any particular person. The amalgam of a hundred different woman who could’ve done it to you, if you’d let them. Their lips glistening and pink. Covered in mouths. All laughing at you. Covered in eyes. All blinking in terrible asynchronicity, a wave of judgement which spills over your tortured body—half burning flesh, half mongrel fur.
It wasn’t all that painful, the change, but in your dreams it rent your skin in jagged patterns and tore the muscles from your bones. In your dreams you were reborn, just as bloody and horrible as you’d always been, to face yet another month.
You made it home by yourself all right, it just took an hour or so longer than it used to, since you stopped every two blocks to lean against some grimy building, panting and out of breath.
The nerve of her. It pissed you off the next morning even more, when you didn’t have the headache to distract you (you’d taken enough aspirin to kill a horse). Offering you a ride home when it was her fault you got your ass beat in the first place. If she wanted to help, she should’ve paid you back for the prize purse her showing up unannounced cost you.
You spent the morning watching sunspots rippling on the ceiling. The air was cold and hard on your bruises, so you kept the duvet all the way up to your ears. Even when the sun turned bloody, slinking closer and closer to the horizon, you still held out hope you’d be able to make it on your own. You screamed at your frayed body to obey you, because the alternative was that much worse.
It wasn’t until you couldn’t sit on the toilet and take a piss without whimpering like a beat dog that you absolutely knew… that you decided you had to…
“Look.” You exhale so hard it crackles the phone in your ear. “Can you drive me somewhere tonight?”
An hour later, she’s in your living room, leaning forward with her hands cupped between her legs, smiling like the last little ray of sunshine this town will ever see.
“I’m Eun-Ji. It’s nice to meet you, grandma.”
“I’m not your grandma,” your grandma says, rustling her decaying body up in her armchair with the best posture she can manage. “I’m miss Morales.”
“Well it’s a pleasure to meet you, miss Morales. I’m Eun-Ji.”
Grumpf, comes the sound out of her phlegmy throat. “Heard you the first time.”
That all being said, by the time you come back with the tea and already they’re getting along like pigs in a poke, Eun sitting in the armchair opposite your grandma’s with her feet up under her butt, casually as if nobody told her no one’s sat in there since your grandpa died.
“What do you do? School?”
With a glance and an upwards nod, Eun notes your presence, hovering awkwardly in the kitchen door with the tea tray—the nice one, the silver one. Then back to grandma. “Medical student, yeah.”
“Atch, a doctor! She brings home a doctor when she can’t even get herself out of bed and go to class. Leon-che!” Her withered fingers seize your wrist as you’re setting the tray between them, almost splashes camomile tea everywhere. “How come you haven’t gone back to school!”
You dissuade her grip with a fidget of your arm, run a hand through your hair. “Grandma, I told you like a hundred times. What’s the point? The city’s losing three more blocks this winter alone.”
“So maybe you become an engineer and fix it.” She flops her head sideways to glance knowingly at Eun. “She’s good.” An abrupt nod. “With her hands.”
Eun smiles behind her teacup. “You don’t say.”
“You gotta be more than good with your hands to be an engineer, grandma. You have to be…”
What? Smart? Worth something? Able to commit to anything for more than a week?
The blood-risen mark begins to itch all along your back.
You’re ready to sprint out the door, but you suppress your desire to escape until the two of them have slurped down at least half their tea. Yours is untouched, still, when you make a show of glancing at the wall clock. It’s almost sundown. “Grandma, we gotta go.”
“Don’t tell me when it’s getting late.” She pivots her scowl from you to Eun. “You should teach her how to respect her elders, like you do. You’re a good girl. Leona used to bring home such nice girls, when she was little. Then all of a sudden—”
A snort, thick and sticky with her reproach. “And make her go back to school. She should be an engineer, not getting beat up to pay my rent.”
“I’ll do my best,” Eun says.
The Crumble starts over mile back from where the actual earth starts crumbling—though of course what constitutes “The” Crumble is subject to ongoing cultural and political redefinition. And regardless of all that discourse, it just keeps going on and on, expanding its radius every year. In five years, The Fights will be part of The Crumble, in less than a decade, your grandma’s place will too, probably.
Even city folks give the Crumble a wide berth. Here and there, a squatter or two will pick up in one of the empty houses, but mostly its wasteland. People say they hear strange sounds, see strange things out there. You swear once you saw a girl who looked like a bowl of gelatin ate a cat skeleton and squeezed itself into a leather jacket—but you were high, so who knows.
It’s the perfect spot to come out and be alone.
Only this time you’re not…
“It’s not as scary as it looks.”
“Did I say it looked scary?” Eun clicks the driver-side door shut gently, gazing across the rows and rows of darkened houses, overgrown front lawns, and places where tremendous trees have grown where they shouldn’t, as if seeded by a careless god. “Where do you think all these people went?”
“The city relocates them.”
“C’mon, you believe that?”
You shrug. “I guess not.”
She’s swinging this plastic bag with a blue cartoon kitten’s face stamped on it as you cut across familiar alleys. It was sitting in the passenger seat when she picked you up. You asked what it was, but all she’d did was smile, and drum her fingers on the steering wheel, and say, “You’ll see.”
Over the years, you’ve planned your perfect route to your spot. Time and human hands have degraded the fences of these depopulated houses enough, and the desire trails of passing animals did the rest.
Even though you thought you’d swallowed the embarrassment of needing her, each time your body reminds you it all floods back in, over you, at once. It ruins your favorite pass-by places. The root as tall as your knees, she lends you a shoulder. The half-bath that, with two of its walls crumbled away, is now officially a half bath, where she catches you as you nearly stumble through a cracked graveyard of collapsed ceiling tiles in the dark. They weren’t there last month, you will your eyes to say to her. She doesn’t notice, focused on the skeletal structure of the next McMansion, just one yard over, its exposed struts ominous, like the ribcage of a terrible, wayward whale in the twilight.
It’s strange, to lean on Eun. She’s so much smaller than you. You wonder how she can bear it.
There’s a hill far enough in where you can see the cliffs—and the lights that shine under the water in the deep, deep dark—without your nostrils being assaulted by the salt-water stink of the ocean. That’s where you like to do it, so every month since you found it, you have. Right by a colossal tree with the diameter of your grandma’s bedroom.
There’s beer cans scattered everywhere, like the sites of little micro-rituals, around the perimeter of the tree. A couple burnt-out joints too. Some of their labels are more faded than others, some are encrusted with so much dirt you can’t see the labels at all. You’re suddenly self-conscious, like bringing a girl up to your room for the first time and realizing you never cleaned up last month’s pizza boxes.
Only you’ve never had that experience, because you’ve never brought a girl up to your room.
Her fingertips run over the gouges in the wood of the great tree. Long scars marked with your claws, age has lacquered them to a porcelain white. One mark for every month since you started having to come out here on your lonesome, back when you were twelve. You felt bad doing it at first, until you realized, with how big that thing is, it couldn’t be worse to it than a mosquito bite to you. You liked that, thinking of yourself as small. It helped.
With a rustle, Eun finally deploys her package. From the bag she produces…
A chain lead and a cheap fabric collar, both with the tags still on.
The mark bristles over your skin in a wave, claiming every inch your back can give.
“You don’t need that. I would never hurt you.”
It’s pink. Hot pink.
“You think this is to keep you away from me?” Eun laughs, deft fingers clicking the links of the chain against one another. “Nuh uh, babe. This is to stop you from escaping me.” With a click, the lead joins the collar. “I said it, didn’t I? I’m gonna tame you.”
It has cartoon paw prints on it.
Your back bristles with fur not yet sprouted. “You think that’s cute? You think you’re the first girl who—”
Click! goes the collar, right around your neck.
You duck your head, and test its clearance by sneaking a finger underneath. “It’s too tight. It’ll rip…”
Her fingers slip underneath, to meet with yours, and brush your skin. “Then we’ll make it looser.”
It never occurred to you, that it might work like that.
You were eleven and it was the first time you’d ever told a girl you’d liked them. At the time, you weren’t even a hundred percent sure what it meant to say something like that. You were already friends. Best friends.
But your body got hot when you saw her buck-toothed smile or thought about holding her pudgy hand. It seemed somehow important, to say it, and to say it right.
You were showing her how to climb a tree. Something about being that high up made you feel daring, and tall. You looked down at her, and said something like:
“I like you, Jessica.”
When she didn’t immediately say anything back, your body, on instinct, went into overdrive. All that pleasant warmth grew into stifling heat, swelling your throat shut and causing your eyes to water, as you looked down at hers, which weren’t watering and yet, seemed to tremble. A sensation was ballooning up your chest. You thought you must be happier than anyone else who ever lived, and for some reason that made you terrified and miserable.
How badly, you just wanted to touch her.
You reached a hand out to her, only what came into view wasn’t your hand. It wasn’t any hand. It was a claw. Thick with silvery fur and fingers ending in cruel talons, sliding through the air like a knife, to slice the girl with the twin braids, your best friend, whom you liked so much.
You let out a yawp, hugged it to your chest as if you could stifle its hungering instinct. In response to your sound, time caught up with her. She bleated, like frightened livestock, slid down the tree, and escaped the yard.
That was the first day you felt like that. Out of sync with the world. From that day on, your body grew sallow and slow, your gut swollen around a bolus of sadness you were too weak to digest.
She tips her chin towards you. “You’ve barely touched that beer.”
You’re too embarrassed to tell her that you didn’t realize it was nearly 10% alcohol when you grabbed it from the bodega, so strong that even a sip trampolines around in your stomach. You tolerance plunges near the full moon—usually, that makes things easier.
It’s late enough that the moons almost at apex, and it still hasn’t happened. Some childish part of you wants to believe that it won’t happen. The change comes slower when you’re nervous, when you’re scared, you know that.
You keep spooling up your courage to ask her to leave. To say Thanks for the help, I’m all set and wave her off. But every time you open your mouth, you find the words have left you.
Soon, the night is cold enough to force even someone like you to cast off your prodigious fear of intimacy and huddle together with a pretty girl for warmth. It feels right, to lie back in the grass with someone, have your arm looped around her waist, and her head moving with your chest as you breathe in mild sighs, synced with the timing of her breath, as she spoke to you about nothing, fingers idly clicking the chain of the lead that ran down from the collar and pooled in shining silvery links between your breasts.
The moon winks at you through the broad leaves of the tree above. A tingling, that’s all you get. Your body revs into motion, sloughs off its aches and pains, and begins to twist. A spastic wriggle spills through your fingers. Eun, half-dozing, lifts her head. “Is it happening?”
You shuffle the arm behind your back. “Whatever happens.” You swallow. “Please don’t be afraid of me.”
She tucks her fingers around your ear. Draws you half up to sitting, in a roman recline. You eyes watch as her hair shimmers in the twilight, as she pulls it out of her face and back behind her. She leans in.
How brittle your skin feels. Sharp and vulnerable, like broken glass.
Her breath spills warm like fire over your frozen nose. Before you realize it, you’ve grabbed her. That muscled arm with thick fur. Already, cruel claws sink into her vulnerable flesh. You want to hide it, but you can’t let go. You’re revving on instinct now, there’s barely any of you left. Your head nudges forward, lips parting, but she chokes her grip on the chain, keeping you at the shortest lead possible, her mouth denied.
“Please.” The plea bursts through the tightness of your throat. Your lips scrape open air. “Please, kiss me.”
Her fingertip, against your lips. “Not. Yet.”
You start to cry, openly, like you did when you were kid, as your face begins to morph.
You are shaking, trying to push her away even though your fingers are locked so hard into her top you can’t believe you haven’t torn it to pieces. You are shaking. “Leave, please. I can’t stop it.”
The heels of her hands goad into your cheeks, she silences you with a whisper of breath. “You don’t have to.”
This time, with her lips so close to yours, she does. At the last possible moment, she kisses you.
A whip-crack of energy ripples through your body. You bristle. You burn.
She is astride you now, rocking her crotch against your thigh. She strokes her fingers through your eyebrows as they grow long and thick. Over your nose as it flexes and pulses, breaking into a snout.
Your clawed hand grabs her, pulls you to her. With a moan, she cinches the leash, hard. Her knee grinds down into your crotch, and you howl.
You throw her to the ground, face down in the dirt and grass. Your hips join to hers, slam forward, and drive her face down into the dirt. You mount her, claws shredding her shirt, tracing lines, bright, bold, and red in the moonlight, down her flesh beneath. She takes a fistful of grass for traction, so she can match your thrusts, and her other hand doubles the wind of the chain around it, yanking you down by the neck, into her. You roar. Your body shakes and you are alive. You pound against her with insensate lust. Nothing but desire to plunge, to purge, to feel.
Your hips batter hers, and she squeals. At first you think it’s fear, and that stirs hunger in your blood. When you realize it’s delight, you float back into your body, and tranquility washes over you like warm water on your skin.
She takes you by the face, cantilevers you to the ground, somehow pinning you with her weight. Her hips move smooth and fast against the muscles of your leg. She is wet. She is kissing you, on your head and at your ears and between your eyes. She braces her hands against the back of your skull. Rubbing you with fingers. Groping around your pointed ears and twisting them until you howl with pent-up energy. Kissing you with lips moist and drooling. Smearing your nose with her wetness. Her breath is like the exhaust of a forge, and every time her hands tighten around you, she pulls herself deeper into you, and you deeper into her, until your bodies threaten to break and reform, merge and complete each other, suffer and… and… and…
Her face buries against your neck. Muffled by your fur, she screams out your name. Except she can’t get it out. Leo—! Another frantic thrust of hips and cunt. Then Leon! And she drives herself against you once more, taking fistfuls of your fur and screaming into your neck. You hold her, arms shaking as bad as she is, burying her into your muscles, threatening to crush her, but even that doesn’t stop her. She beats her body into yours, tugs the chain in wrenching counterforce to each thrust of her hips that you can’t believe she doesn’t tear the collar right off your neck, and digs her teeth—flat teeth, human teeth—into the corded muscles of neck, and even that can’t muffle her scream of:
You realize that no one’s ever said your name, when you were like this.
The sky threatens snow, and in winter, even in here up high on this hill overlooking the cliffs, the air is humid and heavy on your skin and hard on your bruises. It’s the worst, waking up the morning during the cold months. The loss of all that fur always leaves you colder than you expect. It’s the only time you really miss it.
She curls against you like a pet might—or a child? Not that you’d know—spooning you with her small body and clinging you to her with arms and legs. Her breasts and stomach swell against you back with her breathing, that’s how close she is, and every inhale compresses skin against skin, activating your bruises. It’s the kind of hurt you like best.
The kind you’re most comfortable with, anyway.
She is so precious, in your arms; small, and plump, and indescribably beautiful. A flicker of warmth you hadn’t noticed before radiates from her core. The flutter of her lips as she breathes through her mouth in her sleep. Even the little speckles of dirt clinging to her skin here and there. You’re too sore to move, and she’s too peaceful to wake. So it’s an even deal, like that. You hold her loosely, at the small of her back, and wait for the sun to burn the morning mist away.