by LaTanya McQueen
It started with a tickle in his chest, almost like an itch, until the feeling grew. He found himself opening his mouth wide, his lungs filling with air, the muscles in his throat constricted, and then it came. A howl, deep and guttural. He felt the vibration against his vocal chords. He imagined it as a response to a dream, perhaps still part of the dream itself, and so he got up from the bed and stretched and then went into the kitchen to find his stepmother.
At the entryway of their kitchen he made the noise again. It was so loud his stepmother turned to face him, a look of startled surprised briefly overshadowing the age lines on her forehead and in the corners of her eyes.
“What is that? That sound? Is that you?”
He nodded his head.
“What’s wrong with you?”
He didn’t answer. He looked at the kitchen table where she’d laid out a bowl and a box of cereal for his breakfast. He went and sat down and filled the bowl to its brim.
His stepmother stood up and went to the fridge. “We’re out of milk,” she said, handing him a glass of water. He didn’t respond as she poured the water onto the sugary flakes.
“Hurry and eat up,” she said, and at this he took the spoon and scooped into the already sogging flakes. Before the spoon reached his mouth he felt the urge. His stepmother’s gaze focused on him as he tried, with all his might, to force it away. Frowning, his brows furrowed, he gritted his teeth in the hopes of suppressing it. The spoon still in midair, he slowly, ever so slowly, moved it to his lips, but the moment he parted them, the sound he couldn’t contain filled the small room.
When it was over his stepmother continued standing there staring. “You’ve got school soon,” she said and left him to eat.
He thought nothing of what had happened, convincing himself it was just a fluke impulse, like an unquelched burp suddenly resurfacing. That is, until an hour later on the bus ride to school, the urge came once again.
His stepmother was called that afternoon to come pick up her son. That’s how the principal had put it―your son, not realizing that, technically, he wasn’t hers. She felt the slight impulse to correct him but hesitated, decided against it, then felt guilty for thinking it in the first place.
She had not wanted to be married but she met a man and had fallen in love. She had not wanted a family but he had a son. She had not wanted to be a mother but then he died. Now she was cutting through traffic to pick up the boy that was not her own, a boy she had not known long enough to even consider being hers, yet he was.
The principal told her he howled in class and she stared him down like he was kidding. Uncomfortably, he pulled on his shirt collar and wiped sweat from his neck and told her how he wouldn’t stop.
“Howling?” she said, although she knew. He had done it this morning. She had not known what it was, what to call it, but the principal had given it a name and she knew that’s what it was. A howl.
“He’s been doing it all day,” the principal continued. “Even when his teacher tells him to stop he still does it. He says he can’t help it.”
He looked nervous, unsettled, and she realized that the last time she’d sat in this office was shortly after her husband died. The principal was uncomfortable then too when he’d told her she should expect her son to act out in some way and that she should prepare herself for it, but then weeks went by and he was the same boy as he always was—mild-mannered, quiet, a dreamy sort of kid who seemed content enough in his books and games rather than talking to her or anyone else, and so she left him alone, and then months went by and she forgot there was anything she should have been looking out for.
“Our nurse checked him out and she said he was fine physically, so it’s got to be, you know, something else.”
She nodded, understanding his implication, and he smiled with relief.
“Here’s some materials for you to consider.” He handed her a stack of pamphlets. Helping Children Cope With Grief. Teaching Your Child About Loss. The Grief Journey of A Child. She remembered these from before. They were still sitting where she’d placed them—cluttered on top of the fridge next to old bills and expired coupons she’d kept and forgotten about.
“I trust you’ll take care of all this and get him the help he needs. We hope to see him again once he’s well,” the principal said, and from his tone she knew he wasn’t wanted otherwise.
A howl is a cry of pain. It is a sound of rage, of distress. A howl is often a symptom.
She had not cried when her husband died. Perhaps it was the shock of it—his body tangled in their hedge branches. He had stumbled out here late at night, as he was prone to do when he couldn’t sleep. His breath fogged in the cold air as he blew into his hands for warmth. How long he’d stood there she would wonder, how long did he stare out into the shadowy darkness before his chest seized and he fell into the grass? How long did he cry out, waiting in pain for no one to come? He died there, in the cold, alone, and sometime after he died the wolves that lived in the woods ventured out and picked at his body, eating the fleshy part of his stomach and limbs.
In the morning, noticing the empty space next to her, she got out of bed to look for him and saw the horror outside. The blood-stained grass. The dried bits of what was left of his entrails scattered across the lawn. Her husband’s flesh gnawed on like jerky, the bones broken–some of the bones even taken by the wolves as a snack for later.
Had he known? That morning, her first instinct was to look for him, to make sure he had not gone outside and seen. She went to his bedroom and was relieved to see he was in bed asleep. At least he had not seen, and that was the comfort she kept with her as she pulled on the curtains and called the police.
She had not cried then or on any of the days after. Instead she focused on getting through the days, on what was left to do, and there was so much to do. She had not known what she was capable of until she was forced to do it, and now there was this boy, this boy not her own but now suddenly was, and with him came morning trips to school and packed lunches and parent-teacher conferences and homework help and bedtime stories and all the other things her husband had mostly done. Now here was someone who needed her in a way she’d never known to be needed. She did not cry because she felt it an indulgence she no longer had.
In the car she watched as he fought back sniffles and it struck her how he could hold back tears but not this strange sound that had caused all this in the first place.
“I’m sure it’s just a temporary thing,” she said as she pulled the car out of the parking lot and onto the road. “I’m sure in a matter of time it’ll go away.”
His stepmother hadn’t known but he’d seen his father that morning. He wanted to tell her he had seen what had become of him, but he didn’t know how to say the words. Every time he tried they just petered out.
He did not know how to tell her either about what had happened at the playground at recess. How after the teachers had crowded together like they always did to gossip about their day, a group of older kids sought him out as he sat on the grass away from the others, far enough away to they wouldn’t hear the little howling sounds he tried his best not to make. They crowded around him in a circle to block those outside from seeing as a few in the middle took turns punching him in the chest and stomach. “Dog boy!” they yelled over and over again. “Dog boy needs a leash!” As two of them held back his hands, another took a jump-rope and tied it around his neck. “Dog boy can’t escape now.” They kicked and spit as he tried his best to choke his urge to howl, but still it came, fueling their fire. They left him huddled on the ground, bruises forming underneath his clothes, and laughed as the teachers whistled for them to line up and he was still there curled into a ball, too afraid to even move.
She had thought about getting rid of him, telling him she was unfit and abandoning him at a group home for orphans. She’d found one in the city and on a hot afternoon she drove there to see, parking her car at a butcher’s nearby. The worker inside eyed her through the glass as she jaywalked across street to the home. There were patches of dried grass among the dirt.
A group of kids were playing along the corner. She glanced at their steely-eyed faces as she passed by. They snickered under their breath and she knew it was directed at her. She didn’t belong here, she knew, and the closer she got to the entrance of the home the more she knew her stepson didn’t either.
Before driving home, she went to the butcher’s. She bought five pounds worth of steaks, bloody and cut fresh from the cow.
“Maybe you should start trying harder to control it,” his stepmother suggested later at dinner. He howled between spoonfuls of clumped macaroni and cheese.
“I don’t know how.”
He hadn’t touched his steak. She’d decided to cook them rare, tenderly unwrapping each one from the brown paper and dropping them into the skillet. She’d cooked them all and they sat untouched in a pile in the middle of the table.
“You need to eat something other than macaroni and cheese,” she said, nodding toward the steaks.
“I don’t want anything else.”
“I made them for you.”
“Thanks,” he said, but continued scooping macaroni from his bowl.
“Wolves eat meat.”
“I’m not a wolf,” he said apprehensively.
“You howl. Wolves howl. Unless you’re a dog, but dogs can eat meat too. Are you a dog?”
“Then what are you?”
“A boy who howls,” she said, refusing to hide the irritation in her voice.
He was a boy who howled and he did it throughout dinner. He howled while doing his homework. He howled and howled despite her pesterings for him to stop. “If it’s just an urge it shouldn’t be that hard,” she told him.
“I don’t know how.”
He was not a liar, she knew. He was a good boy who did as he was told. He had never gotten in trouble when his father was alive and after his behavior had been even more perfect, if possible. He was the kind of boy teachers favored—always saying what needed to be said and nothing further, always doing what was expected, cordial and considerate and kind. At parent-teacher conferences they would smile at the mention of his name and tell her how proud she must be. She would nod while taking the packet of assignments they’d give her, a stack of completed homework sheets and stories written in painfully clear handwriting and sketched drawings from their free periods.
Yes, he was a good boy, and because of this she knew he wasn’t lying when he told her he couldn’t help his howling. Still, each time she heard the sound her body clenched up. Here was a problem she couldn’t solve, didn’t know how to if she tried.
“Go outside and howl there,” she finally said and so he did. He stood on their deck with its chipped paint and the weeds growing so long that they came up through the cracks of the wood and scratched against his bare feet. He stared out at the glowing fireflies and waited, and when the howl came he let it out, loud and wailing, into the dark.
Inside the house, she listened and hoped for an eventual quiet. She hoped that his voice would give out and he’d have to stop. She hoped his weariness would solve the problem.
She was weary too.
While he was outside she lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings in the air. It was a habit she’d had when she was younger, had quit for over a decade, but the yearning had crept over her again in the recent months.
She felt the burn of the smoke in her throat and chest. It soothed her, this slight pain, numbed her.
She remembered the day after the funeral, that first morning of their new life together, he had asked her what she was going to do with him. “What do you mean?” she’d asked, and he said he wanted to know if she was going to send him away. There were his grandparents in Phoenix who lived in a retirement community. There was also an aunt in grad school in Idaho who she’d only talked to once, briefly, on the phone on Christmas.
“Why would I do that?” she’d asked him, perplexed.
The truth was if there had been the possibility she would have considered it, and the guilt of that truth made her insides ache.
“It’s okay,” he continued, not answering her question. “It’s okay if you want to.”
“I don’t,” she said in the most assertive way possible and hoped that as she convinced herself, he’d believe her too.
Outside, the boy that was not hers arched his back and lifted his head to the moon. This howl felt like a shriek and she shook hearing it. He howled again, this one louder.
It did not take long before there was a knock on their door.
“Your dog is causing a commotion.” The cop grumbled.
“It’s not a dog, it’s my son,” she told him, surprised at her own words. The cop didn’t notice, instead taking out the little pad of paper and a pen from his pocket.
She pointed in the back to the boy. The cop gave a sideways look at him standing in the corner. “Is that you making all that noise?” he said, his voice slightly amused.
“He can’t help it,” she explained further.
“Can’t help it, you say?” The cop raised his eyebrows. He was smiling, and it was this that made her realize he was flirting with her. “You saying we can’t help our urges?”
“He can’t,” she said.
“Well, help it or not he’s disturbing the neighbors. I’m going to have to fine you for a noise violation.”
She took his ticket and after he turned to walk away she clicked the door back into place. She looked at her stepson, expecting him to howl again then and there but he just stared back at her, gulped, and tried not to cry.
Through the night, each howling wail pierced her heart. She heard him in the next room despite his own attempts at muffling the sounds and so she went in and picked him up and carried him to the car. When sleepily he asked where they were going, she shushed him quiet, pulled the blanket up to his neck, and kissed the tip of his nose.
She drove while he slept on the backseat of the car. She drove, not knowing where to go at first, just knowing she had to go somewhere, all the while he made little yelping noises while shaking in his sleep. Finally, she stopped the car and turned off the engine. “Wake up. We’re here,” she said softly before getting out.
Before them was the deep, dark expanse of the woods. She took his hand and led him down a path into the thick brambles. When they couldn’t see the way to the car anymore, when they were surrounded by darkness, she stopped.
For a brief moment she thought of leaving him then and there but felt guilty for the thought. Instead, she leaned down and told him it was okay. “You can howl if you want to.”
Soon the sun would begin its golden glow over the horizon but it was not yet time, and so he howled. Each howl growing louder than what came before, and the noise of it echoed through the shadows. He howled and howled until his throat felt raw, and then he howled some more. He howled while she stood next to him, not covering her ears like she had all the times before but instead listening. He howled and when he finally stopped and told her he couldn’t anymore, that his throat burned and his body ached, she asked him if he still had the urge.
“Yes,” he said, and she knew then, finally understanding. His howl was hers, the same as she had felt since the man she loved left her, left them, and she knew would never go away.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wanting to say more, wanting the words to be enough. “We should go.”
“One more,” he suddenly said. “I need to do one more.”
She was here though, at least there was that, and so she told herself in the end that was all that mattered. She told him they would howl together this last time, before they began the long drive home. She told him to close his eyes and he did. She closed hers, opened her mouth, and reached down into the deepest part of herself, to the memory of when the man she loved died, to the day she found herself alone and afraid with a child she did not know then how to keep, and from there she found her own urge, and together, clasping each other’s hands in the dark, during the last remaining hours of the night, they howled.
Your father pauses in the doorway, turns to you and starts to say something. What would you most like to hear?