Amelias mother brings home one of the runaways who hide out two miles north at the strip mall scheduled to be demolished in spring, a girl of sixteen, harelip and bushy eyebrows, a backpack filled with two stiff changes of clothes and an assortment of stolen rubbers, every color of the rainbow.
What will you name her? Amelias mother asks that night at the dinner table. Theyre eating rabbit stew again. Amelia looks at the runaway and the runaway stares back, driblets of rabbit-flecked broth collected at the tip of both girls chins.
I think that Ill name her Werewolf, Amelia says.
Amelias mother wipes both girls chins. The three eat in silence for several minutes, the perfect Os of their mouths sucking up the broth collected in their lifted spoons. Then Werewolf says, Try catching a buffalo or a really big stag, thats what you ladies need to do.
On Sundays, Amelia and her mother take Werewolf out to a field a few miles east of their house, where they throw a plaid blanket over the gold grass and brush fire ants from their legs and backs. Out here, the breeze whispering, Werewolf tells stories about the strip mall, how she would stand in front of the empty Halloween store in November, and then how she would stand in front of the empty Christmas store in January, waiting for the right man to pull up so she could at least keep warm for the night. Amelia says, If my headlights shined on you, Id think you were a mannequin escaped from her display case.
Would you pick me up? her sister asksbecause thats what Werewolf is becoming, not some fanged, howling creature that regarded everyone as food, but Amelias sister.
Amelia, please, her mother says.
In the weeks that follow, they dont go hunting buffalo or stags, but late one night Amelia does convince Werewolf to take her to the abandoned strip mall. They sneak out. Make the two-mile trip on Amelias dirt bike, Amelia on the handlebars, Werewolf on the pedals. The strip mall sits in the darkness like some ignored Stonehenge. Werewolf pulls her blue hoodie up so only her face shows, wears sweatpants, the cuffs rolled up high to show the loose fishnet stockings underneath.
They wait and they wait. Amelia finds a bench in the grass at the malls side, a few stores down from the empty Christmas Palace. Plenty of cars pull into the parking lot to approach them, and when they get close enough to spread their smells of gas and exhaust, Werewolf stands on the curb with her hands gripping her boyish hips. The headlights wash over her but the drivers dont stop. The moon hangs full and orange above the line of pines west along the interstate, their jagged silhouettes extending all the way back to Amelias home, the taillights of cars rushing by these trees, some of the drivers accelerating, probably with thoughts of the two girls theyd just seen, not werewolves or vixens, but two certifiable bunny-stew mavens.
Ten years from now, Amelia will have her degree in civil engineering. The strip mall will finally be demolished and shell help design an underpass for that part of the highway, a concrete canvas for delinquents to graffiti their hot-pink, cryptic yearnings. Eat Me or I Want to Eat You. But tonight the empty mall still stands with Werewolf posing on the curb.
They ride back like they came, but this time Werewolf peddles a little slower. At home, Amelia cant sleep, and soon dawn spreads her golden legs wide in either direction, the dazzling yellow rim of her sun rising, rising. Theyd never go back to the strip mall, not together, though some nights Amelia would watch her sister trail across the yard, peddling fast like she might be trying to outrun a tornado. One morning, Werewolf wont come back at all.
For years, Amelia will expect to spot Werewolf in the hallway, or Werewolf behind the blue shower curtain still wet on one side from the mornings shower, or in the attic, Werewolf in the kitchen cupboard, Werewolf on the windows other side, though itll always only be Amelias own reflection in the pane, half-visible against the yards silver maples. Her mother will buy her kittens that run away, dogs who seem to chase these cats ghostly trails. Shell let her daughter put teacups in the yard and fill them with tadpoles. Shell let her daughter do this until the entire property croaks, but then shell lock the teacups away, and even the toads will hop off to some other place. Standing at the window with her reflection, Amelia will realize what needs to be said, though she doesnt know who should say it: Your werewolf has gone.
Later, and I mean later, when Amelias back goes stooped and her hair turns gray, a package will arrive one afternoon. By that point, shell have known two men intimately, both deceased, and both of whom, when stripped, seemed to possess the mustiness of that night she sat for hours on the strip mall bench, the mushrooms, and honeysuckle, and stink bugs that buzzed past her ear. The return address wont show either of these mens names. Itll only say Your Werewolf. Amelia will cut through tape and bend back flaps, reveal a boxy cage and something inside panting and mewling, some baby dog just big enough to cradle.
The full moon will wane, and Amelia will find the smallest man shes ever seen draped on the cages floor like a wet rag, a person whos no bigger than her forearm. The gold bars will ensure hell never grow, shell think. Shell keep him locked in. His tininess will remain. Hell mewl. Hell mewl a lot, no words, just a continuous sound, high and guttural, a pitch somewhere between a babys wail and the rattle deep within a Dobermans chest when its teeth are bared. The tiny man will make his sounds even when Amelias in a different room. Hell sit in the cages corner with his knees tucked against his chest, his skin pink and smooth like bubblegum thats been chewed and spread under a table.
I didnt pick you up, Amelia will say to him one day. I didnt ask for you.
Shell even open the cages door and tell him that hes free to leave.
He will leave, but not far, and throughout the days, throughout the weeks, the months, the years, shell glimpse the tiny man in her yard, always pleased to note he hasnt grown an inch outside of his cage. Hell be climbing a trellis, or hanging from a palmettos spiky frond, or shell see his tiny pale ass disappear behind curtains of low-hanging wisteria. Shell watch him while shes sitting on the porch with a sweaty glass of pink lemonade.
On some nights the moon will fatten from a fingernail-sized sliver into something fuller, a pale heart, and she will find his tiny face on the pillow beside her, so that for a few seconds, as Amelia sloughs off her dreams, she will feel as though shes grown to gigantic proportions while the man beside her is normal-sized. Then, realizing this isnt true, shell sigh, and hell sigh. Theyll stare at one another, no mewls, no questions, no demands. Shell fall asleep. Later, hell be gone. Once the moon recedes, shell wait to see her tiny man, her werewolf, her window always open, the wisteria sneaking in on a breeze, a smell that will always remind her that shes no bigger than anyone else.