I pretended to be asleep until Maureen left for her quilting group. I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at faking the slack-jawed, drooling, snoring routine. Almost convinced myself a couple times. But the important thing is, I convinced Maureen. If she’d caught me with my eyes open, she’d have handed me a list of never-ending chores before leaving to gallivant around with her friends. Then she’s out having a good old time, and I’m stuck here washing the dog and painting the gutters.
Most days, all I want is to read the paper and relax and not have a little gnat buzzing in my ear about how much Margie Finkelstein’s husband lost at the slots in Atlantic City. Or about how Lois Kissel’s no-good son-in-law borrowed her car and returned it with the gas tank half-empty. The nerve of him. Anyway, that’s most days. Today, though, I had a specific plan in mind that I hadn’t gone through with in years. Almost like I was afraid to. Best to let sleeping dogs lie, and all that, but I couldn’t resist. I’d held back for most of my marriage, but now it was time.
The front door clicked shut, followed by the bang of the screen door. Our old Buick started up and chugged off down the street. Maureen would be gone for a few hours, trading gossip with her friends, but my mission wouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
The stairs creaked under my weight as I plodded up to the attic. These old bones aren’t what they used to be. I try not to be melancholy about it, but truth is, I miss the days of hefting objects twice my weight and not batting an eye. Those days were rare, of course, but I could anticipate them by the calendar and by my limited knowledge of astronomy. Those were the best days for accomplishing big jobs like rearranging furniture, but it never quite worked out how I wanted. Furniture moved, all right, just not where I’d originally intended.
I felt along the upper ledge of the attic doorframe until I found the key. It fit neatly in the keyhole and turned with a clack. A musty odor wafted out and settled like dust around my shoulders when I pulled open the door. I filled my lungs with the scented air, thinking how it smelled exactly the same as the attic in my grandmother’s house where I played as a boy. There must be a special kind of wood they use when framing out the attic, to give it that scent.
Beneath the mustiness, I caught a whiff of something foreign to most attics, but familiar to me all the same. Dog fur. As I forced my worn-out body up the stairs, the doggy smell grew stronger. Thank God Maureen never came up here, or she’d have torn the place apart searching for the source of the odor. Of course, she might find it after I die. But not now; not while I’m alive. There’d be too many questions and too few acceptable – hell, too few believable – answers, and that would ruin the peace between us. I love the old girl, even if I do tire of her nattering. No sense in messing with that.
Biorhythms. My friend Frank once told me the reason I was stronger sometimes than others was because of biorhythms. I don’t believe in all that nonsense, and I told Frank as much, but he kept going on about it and how it was even more reliable than astrology. It was right about then I told him pathological liars were more reliable than astrology and biorhythms put together, and so was everything else in the world. Then Frank did me the biggest favor of my life and stopped talking to me for a month. I was sorry when he decided to be friends again.
I flipped the switch at the top of the steps, and the overhead bulb flickered on. Its light was enough to claim a circle amid the shadows at the center of the room, but nowhere else. My target sat in the far corner, naturally, so I waited for my eyes to adjust, then cut a path across the floor, stirring up dust and mouse pellets as I went. Once in the corner, I unstacked some heavy cardboard boxes and placed them behind me. With the boxes out of the way, I could just make out the form of my old steamer trunk, covered by one of Maureen’s early quilting disasters.
The quilt slid to the floor and I reached for the combination lock hanging from the trunk. I’d felt myself slipping lately, forgetting dates and names and telephone numbers, scared that I’d forget the lock code next. Out of stubborn manly pride, I’d never written the darn thing down and probably never would. As soon as the lock was in my hands, though, my fingers spun the dial as if they remembered for me and my brain had nothing to do with it. Zing. 34. Zing zing. 16. Zing. 29. The shackle popped up and I removed it, setting it aside where I knew I could find it again even in the dark.
I opened the trunk’s lid and the doggy smell knocked me back on my heels. How had I ever grown used to that odor as a young man? Now it curled thick tendrils into my nose and burned its way down my throat. I forced myself to lean in and inhale deeply, rather than give in to the impulse to run downstairs and vomit into the bathroom sink. Steadying myself, I reached into the trunk and felt for the wiry fur, crunching it between my fingers. A dog howled from the yard below, as if it knew. As if we were kin.
I lifted the fur and wrapped it around myself, closing the middle like a robe. It weighed fifty pounds at least, with all the skin and claws attached, and I stooped under its mass. How many skins had there been over the years? I’d given up counting somewhere in my thirties. But this skin was the most important, because it was my last. Dr. Walchuk had promised me the treatment would take effect before the next full moon. I waited one more cycle, to grow and shed the fur, before accepting the treatment, so that I would always have a reminder of my past. Here lay evidence of what I had been, and it fit neatly in a trunk.
A low growl filled the room, and, for a moment, I thought the dog had found its way into the house. I turned to search the darkness behind me and felt a rumbling in my chest. The growling was mine. I gave into instinct and let the noise grow louder and turn into a full snarl, lips curled, teeth bared. Prickly gooseflesh burst out along my arms and legs, threatening to turn into wiry hairs forcing their way through my pores. I hadn’t felt a sensation like that in over forty years and it was only now that I realized how much I missed it. Oh, I could do without the bloodshed – good friends torn apart in an instant – and the destruction of every home I lived in and nearly every item of clothing I owned. But the thrill of becoming something bigger and more powerful – I had hated to give that up.
I did it for love. Maureen cured me of the one thing Dr. Walchuk couldn’t – loneliness. She and I married after a year of courting. My wife, God bless her, has never asked about the trunk. Oh, she raised her eyebrows as I dragged it up the steps and into the rafters of our new home, but since then she’s been content to delve into everybody else’s business except mine.
I pictured Maureen’s face, soft and plump now, and her clear blue eyes that probably see more about me than I like to believe. My face relaxed and the growling tapered off. I no longer felt powerful or invincible in the wolf skin. Instead, I felt tired and old and burdened by the weight of the damned thing. I shrugged off the fur and gathered it up from the floor, then folded it and dumped it in the trunk. I refused to promise myself to throw it out, because that was too much like denying who I had been in my youth. I repented and sought absolution years ago, but I’ll never forget what I’ve done. Only love saved me. And thanks to Maureen, I’m finally comfortable in my own skin.
Theme: an article of clothing [you] refuse to throw out