Ever since he was little, he knew better than to leave the house in the woods.
They raised him nice enough - Granny baked cookies on Saturdays and Pawpaw would read the paper aloud. They weren't his real Granny and Pawpaw but they insisted that he called them by those names. He did as he was told. He wanted to be good for them. They wanted him to be good for them, though it was rather difficult.
“You can’t leave the house,” Granny told him one day. She’d most likely told him this many days before and would continue to tell him this many days after but this was the first time he could remember hearing it. “You can never leave the house - you hear me?”
“I hear you, Granny,” he said.
“Good boy.” She patted his head. “And you know why you can’t leave the house, right?”
He nodded. He must’ve known. Maybe she’s told him before and he didn’t want to hear it again. Maybe this lecture had come moments earlier. He just remembered nodding like he already knew what was to come even though this was the first time he remembered hearing it. How old was this memory? How old was he? Memories were such a fickle thing.
“There are things in the woods,” Granny said, very sternly. “There are monsters. You hear that boy? Big ugly monsters.”
“If you ever leave this house those things will eat you up. You hear me boy?” Her voice was rising. He took a step back. “Do you hear me?” Her breath smelled of whiskey.
She hit him for that. He didn’t remember the way it felt but he did remember the floor quite well. It was wood and he fell right between two boards. He remembered looking down the crack trying to see some hint of the outside world. A bug, a plant. Anything. He stuck his finger down that crack and that’s the first time he remembered distinctly realizing that his fingers weren’t like Granny and Pawpaw’s fingers. His were black. His were long. His were sharp.
There was a chair in the living room that was big and brown. Granny liked him to sit in it with her. She was a thin woman and they could squeeze in there together if they really tried. She liked watching the television but it just hurt his eyes. It was all static-y and rough looking. He broke it one time and lost a finger.
“What do things look like?” he remembered asking Granny. They were in the brown chair together. He remembered feeling like they were too close together.
“Why would you want to know that?” Granny asked.
He shrugged, and honestly, he can’t remember why he wanted to know now. He just remembered… wanting to know. So when Granny sighed and turned off the television he remembered his heart beating faster with excitement. Or maybe it was fear. He got those two confused a lot in memories because they felt a lot alike in your chest.
Granny started stroking his hair. “Things are ugly, boy. Know that first,” she said. “Absolutely hideous with long, black claws.”
“Like mine?” he asked, showing her his nine fingers.
“Yes, exactly,” Granny said, pushing his hands down. “And they have long black tails.”
He tilted his head and his tail twitched underneath him.
“They have fangs and horns and big, ugly black paws,” Granny said.
He opened his mouth, then closed it because of the fangs. He touched his head because of the horns and suddenly felt odd about having his paws exposed. Granny told him more about how things looked and as if placing every attribute she said into a pile, he made a mental checklist of the faults in his appearance. All the ways he was like the things in the woods and all the ways he wasn’t thing enough.
For a long time, he thought he resented himself because of that list. He still had to stop himself from sorting his actions into piles with shiny labels.
He was coloring on the floor. We had this big bucket of crayons, most of which were broken in half and all of the useful colors were always in short supply. He only had one coloring book so he used it often. When he finished coloring the pictures inside the book, he started drawing his own. On the television, he remembered hearing that kids would sometimes draw on the walls but he never found that to be a temptation.
He colored in his picture book and only in his picture book. Never on Pawpaw’s newspapers or Granny’s crossword puzzles. He knew what would happen if he did.
“What do things act like?” he asked. It was raining that day.
“Well they’re evil,” Granny said. She was in her chair, doing a puzzle.
“Absolutely evil,” Pawpaw agreed from the couch where he read a newspaper. He didn't really remember Pawpaw doing much else.
He also didn’t remember them saying anything else about things that day. Just that they were evil and they lived in the woods. He wasn’t evil - or at least he didn’t think he was evil. He didn’t really know what it was to be evil, even though he lived with it. It wore red lipstick and big shoes. It was loud and cruel. It was unforgiving - merciless. It punished you when you acted too much like a thing and it punished you when you didn’t act thing enough.
He could remember crying one time because a bird flew down the chimney and hurt its wing. He’d wanted to keep it, but Pawpaw had said it was too much work then crushed its skull under his big shoe. Granny, putting on her red lipstick, scolded him for crying. “Good God, boy! Stop pretending you care about such a pointless thing!”
He buried the bird later. Under his floorboards, in the dirt.
When he grew, he grew quickly. He grew hungrily. He grew angrily. He became tall - or at least taller. He was still thin though. He’d always been thin. Granny and Pawpaw made him sit on the floor at a little table - they called it the kid’s table. They said he could have whatever they gave him. So he sat very still and very quietly and behaved the best he could so they might throw him a chicken leg or something.
But when he turned fourteen he stood up before dinner and said, “I think I’m old enough to sit at the adult table, now.”
They laughed at him and he went to bed with nothing.
At night, he listened to the sky and woods and the thing within it. He listened to their melody - a music composition of the world that he would know. He stared out the window trying to see something. He dared not open it, though. The lure would be too much for him. The moon would summon him and he would be forever lost to her. How was he supposed to live without Granny and Pawpaw?
The worst nights were the ones where he heard the things. They were never particularly quiet. They weren’t creatures who were ashamed of themselves. They were roamers - free and wild creatures. Sometimes they would jump on the roof and Pawpaw would get his shotgun. He remembered seeing one dead outside before. He never could look at them for very long. It always made him sick to his stomach.
At seventeen he was taller than both Granny and Pawpaw. He spent a lot of time in high places and watched food carefully. Granny scolded him. She called his eyes owlish and his stare unbearable. She felt like she was being stalked. Or so she told Pawpaw once they locked him in his room. In the attic that was supposed to be a room.
Later they came in. They sat him down on the bed.
“You scared your Granny, you know that, boy?” Pawpaw said, very sternly. It was odd how distinctly he remembered that stern voice. He just blinked and turned away. Pawpaw grabbed his face, forcing him to look at Granny. “Apologize, boy!”
“Those awful fangs!” Granny wailed. Apparently, his apology had come out too snarled and not enough terrified like the animal backed into the corner that he was. “I can’t live like this!”
She left the room. Pawpaw did too.
They didn't come back for one day then the next. He was locked in with only a single window. He looked out it and thought a dozen different things about what he could do if he worked up the nerve to leave. But by now the mantra had been drilled into his head. Don’t leave the house. Don’t go into the woods. There are things in the woods. Bad things. Evil things. You don’t want to be like them, do you?
Pawpaw returned and when he did, he had a gun. He cocked it and pointed. “Boy.”
He didn’t turn his head. His tail thrashed on the floor.
The thing about Pawpaw was that he was a bad hunter and he knew a lot about hunting. It was written into him. Etched into every muscle and bone. He knew hunting and all of its subtle arts. So he knew what was happening before it happened. He watched Pawpaw’s finger on the trigger and he watched the moment he pulled it.
And then he fell to the ground.
The shot shattered the glass of the window and he was on his feet. His claws dug into the side of the house. No, there were no crayons on the wall, but this little house would bear his marks still. Out of the little house. Snarling. Scared. Another gunshot blew a tree next to him apart. He ran fast. He realized his tail had a purpose to it. It helped him keep balance when he ran so fast the world turned into a blur.
And he and he ran and he ran away from the little house. He ran away from Granny and Pawpaw. He ran because he knew he was not what they said he was.
A thing which needed no human to live.
A thing who had seen the real monsters in the woods.
A thing that could leave the house and run, run, run ever deeper into the woods' mighty embrace.