First Day – Katrin Brinkman

Abigail’s puppies returned from their first day of high school wrecked as rafts against a reef. Shamira was skittery, strands of their hair tied in crooked spindle-braids. Zara didn’t comment on dinner marinating, even though the whole house smelled of raw salmon. Uri had chewed off the corners of his orientation folder. Abigail had an interrogation planned, but as they tossed their backpacks against the wall she grabbed her car keys off the counter.

“Shoes back on,” she said. “Or not. We’re going running.”

“Mom…” Zara whined.

“Yes, please,” Shamira said. Uri put his shoes back on.

She took them to Pinestory Reserve, a ten minute drive, and parked across the lot from the trail head. Abigail left her phone in the car. “Here or hike in?” she asked.

“In,” Zara said. “Mom, it’s daylight.”

Uri pointed to the lone other car, parked with careful attention to the lines on the pavement. “There’s like no one here. It’ll be fine.”

“It’s not hunting season,” Shamira said. That was technically true and did not calm Zara in the slightest. Abigail set off into the woods, away from the road and trail. On a hot August Tuesday, she doubted there’d be many people out hiking. Her puppies followed, complaining about getting their shoes dirty. They all had new sneakers, shiny back-to-school presents about to be surrendered to the filth of living. In Abigail’s opinion, that was what shoes were for, but none of them were in a mood to be reasoned with.

She picked a boulder for them to leave their clothes. They’d taken very different approaches to first impressions: Uri had a collared shirt (he’d sworn the last time Abigail told him to dress up he didn’t own one), Shamira wore a rainbow hoodie and their favorite jeans, and Zara picked a skirt and tank top just within violation of school dress-code. They stood around awkward, eying each other. Abigail stripped and shifted, since none of them wanted to go first. She still hesitated a reflexive second before she gritted her teeth and turned herself inside out. It had been a while. Her back cracked as the new vertebrae snapped into place, and she stumbled on shaky sea-legs. By the time her vision settled and the ringing in her ears subsided, Shamira had shifted, and Uri was stuffing his clothes under the rock.

“It’s too hot,” Zara said. Everything sounded different through Abigail’s wolf ears. She always got distracted on the way breath tangled with words, the little click of tongue against teeth.

Shamira shook off their dizziness and tugged on Zara’s shoelaces. They wagged their tail. Uri coughed on reshaped lungs and shook himself. It was hot, yes, hotter with fur, but not dangerous. Abigail yipped the wolfskin version of Zara’s name. Her girl tended to object to things she enjoyed. “Fine,” Zara groaned, and changed.

Once she had all her puppies, Abigail started downhill. They all trotted along, kicking up leaves, until Uri rushed ahead and turned it into a race. Abigail stretched her stride and took the high spines of ridges, leaping fallen trunks and the drops from boulders. The stream was just far enough of a run to force her out of breath. Zara reached the bank first and skidded to a messy, panting stop–she always won races. Shamira barrelled right into her and they both tumbled into the shallows. Zara yelped at the water, and Shamira yelped when Zara bit them. Then Uri plunged in and the three devolved into chaos, splashes and teeth and stirred-up mud. Abigail watched until she’d caught her breath, then jumped in herself.

Abigail had caught lycanthropy from a bite–a child throwing a tantrum on a bus to Philadelphia when she was twenty-four. Even though her hand had bled all over the seats the parents let her discover the infection herself. Her triplets got it from her. That was why she had triplets, the old families said, with their litters in twos, fours, fives. Abigail’s own family had been too scared of nippy puppies to be much help, and Isaac’s family refused to acknowledge any of them. (Isaac himself was disowned when he finally caught it, the year their kids started kindergarten.)

She still thought of them like that, gnawing crayons and chair legs, getting suspended for shapeshifting in recess. They’d be fifteen in a month, all lanky and cranky–fifteen was a rough year for her, and she hadn’t had the weight of their rules and secrets. Shamira argued sometimes for openness, adding a wolf badge to the antagonistic collection on their backpack, and just taking the consequences. Only Zara’s fierce fear of being suspected and shunned again kept Shamira in line. When Abigail asked Uri, he’d shrugged off the question. He loved his wolfskin–slept in it most nights, leaving his bedding blanketed in shed fur–but he’d taken eight schools before third grade as badly as Zara.

Abigail often wondered whether she should’ve tried to force her puppies to act human so soon. They would have picked it up eventually, like potty training. They hadn’t been ready for classrooms, hours sitting still, mandatory shoes, children they couldn’t wrestle. The best she did was keep them together when the schools tried to separate them under some delusion that would improve their behavior. Zara often said that was the worst. She liked having friends who didn’t find her weird, and weird siblings made you weird by association. Abigail and Isaac had given up telling her that everyone was strange in their own ways. She’d figure it out eventually.

In the woods, at least, when they couldn’t quite talk and all the smells had blurred over brainspace usually reserved for second-guessing, they didn’t care about acting anymore. They abandoned their dignity. They dug holes and tried to dam brooks, just to have the water bubble over or through every attempt. Abigail fell into mud up to her shoulders and got filthy climbing out. They ran until sweat matted their fur together, and hunted as best they could. When Uri managed to corner a squirrel, he let it go and ate a spider instead. Shamira peed on a tree. Zara found a dry mushroom husk and balanced it between her ears like a hat–it fell off, and they all laughed with her. They played until Abigail couldn’t smell stress on them anymore. Only then did she take Uri’s pointed looks at the angle of the shadows. He yipped Isaac’s name. She agreed, and called the other two down from the slope they’d scaled.

They changed back with much less fuss than the reverse. Abigail still looked like she’d gone mudrolling. Zara put her shirt on backwards. The triplets chattered as they walked back up to the car.

“I can’t believe you didn’t eat the squirrel,” Shamira said.

“It was so cute, though.”

They fought over the front seat, fierce enough that Abigail banned them all, and took the collective loss well. They sang songs in the back, and she joined in even though they’d gotten all their musicality from Isaac. Instead of rushing inside when Abigail parked, they waited by the beautyberry.

Abigail locked the car. “What?”

They exchanged a look and tackled her for a big hug. “Thank you,” Zara said, and the other two copied.

“I love you,” Abigail said, squeezing them as best she could–they were all getting so big. They almost crushed her in return, until Uri noticed and called a stop to it.

Isaac was peeling potatoes in the kitchen. “There you are!” he said when Abigail walked in. “That is a lot of dirt.”

“We went running,” Abigail said.

“You look suitably exhausted,” he said, and kissed her nose.

“Ew,” Shamira said, joining them. They took an apple out of the bowl on the counter. Zara took a bite out of it.

“Dinner’s in an hour,” Isaac warned.

“We are bottomless pits,” Shamira said, wiping Zara’s spit off their apple. Uri reached around them to grab a clementine. He ate those without peeling because it bothered Abigail.

“Ain’t that the truth,” Isaac said. He shook potato skin off the newly naked spud. “How was school?”