My girlfriend’s an animal in bed.
I’d only been with one girl before her, and she was all soft curves, no corners. She wanted roses and candlelight, soft kisses and indie music.
Mina leaves scratches down my back that she denies in the morning. Mina tells me to bite her in places other people won’t see. Mina takes her steak so rare I never believe it’s cooked.
She has panic attacks during the new moon; she’s never told me anything about her past. I’ve never asked her questions. I never push.
After all, I’ve never told her where I grew up. How I grew up. Secrets are part of life. And I always knew she’d tell me when she was ready.
Mina waited for Jo to drop into true sleep before slipping out the window. When they moved in together, Mina told herself she would change only on the full moon, but Mina needed moonlight on her skin, even just a sliver like tonight.
She started running. The park would be good. Mina tried to shut her mind off, but her thoughts chased her. She shouldn’t have said yes to this competition. She was going to be on TV, constructing a giant gingerbread house with her boss. Mina was the pastry chef, so she was doing detail work. In front of an audience. And judges. And cameras. Oh, God.
Setting foot on crappy city grass had never made her happier. She glanced over her shoulder. Even if someone saw, they wouldn’t understand—people were too good at lying to themselves—but she liked her privacy.
Alone. Good. She looked at the moon, just a whisper in the sky, and her skin itched. It split over the veins in her wrist, revealing the thick fur of a wolf. Mina peeled it off bit by bit. The trickiest part was getting it off the hand she used to peel with one that was already a paw, but she’d had plenty of practice.
Mina gave her fur a good shake and buried her human skin. Then she ran. The moonlight was heaven on her pelt; the soil was wonderful beneath her pads. Her feet would ache tomorrow during the competition, but right now she didn’t care.
She ran, and she ran, and then she smelled blood. Not a little, either, the kind left behind after someone skinned their knees. A lot. Mina almost ran back for her human skin… but she couldn’t. She had to know what happened.
A girl lay abandoned, half-shoved under a rose bush like a dirty shirt a child tried to hide under his bed.
Mina whined low in her throat, trying not to study the gashes that marked the girl’s fair skin. Mina took breaths through her mouth, but now she smelled the girl’s killer on top of it. For the rest of her life, she would know the smell, but the scent was cold, the trail useless. Staying here would only get her in trouble, and she couldn’t call the cops with paws.
All the same, it took a long time to walk away.
Mina was distracted in the morning. I don’t know what was on her mind, but it kept her from worrying about the competition. I started to think something was wrong when she let me cook for her. It’s not like I’m bad, but I guess it’s hard to let someone else do your job. But she ate the omelet I made without even looking, and, though she thanked me, she was way away.
“Hon?” I asked, and she looked me in the eyes for the first time all morning. “You’ll be great, okay? You always are.” She smiled and squeezed my fingers, but she didn’t say anything.
I dropped her off around the back, where she’d get dressed and made up. All that stuff they pretend not to do on reality TV. I kissed her and told her she’d be awesome, but I didn’t think she was listening.
Mina was lucky to have Jo. Jo wasn’t part of the pack: she was steadily, staunchly human, her feet flat on the ground and her head full of reassuring things like the due dates of library books and the address of the police station. Without her, Mina would have forgotten entirely about the competition, and her reputation would have gone down the drain. She was still shaken from seeing the dead girl, but she’d done her duty. Now she had to do her duty to herself and her talent.
Because she was talented. That was why she’d left her pack and tried to be normal in the first place—well, that, and because there weren’t many girls at home, but getting laid had been secondary to culinary school. Jo was just the best surprise ever.
When Mina finished dressing, her team was already on the kitchen set, separated from the audience and the judges by a curtain. They had speed racks full of gingerbread for the house, a special recipe that wouldn’t crack or weigh down the wooden frame. Their materials were already in place on the counters: chocolate, icing, sugar.
The head chef waved Mina over. She and her assistant were going over the plan. Normally Mina had opinions on everything, but today she kept quiet and kept smiling, as though she were nervous.
She wasn’t. She kept thinking of that other girl. The lips that would never kiss someone again. Her torn paisley dress.
Mina wanted to change again. She wanted to run. She wanted to sink jaws into flesh, to rend, to tear. To take from the killer what he had taken from that girl.
But she was here, and the skin on her bones was human. She had an apartment and a job and a wife. People with those things waited for the slow justice of police and prosecutors and judges. They didn’t picture ripping through tendons with their teeth.
The host of the competition came out and introduced himself. Mina hardly listened as he went through the rules and introduced them to their competitors. And now they were going to open things up to the audience.
Mina swallowed hard. She knew where Jo was: right in the front row, third from the left. By the judges. Mina fixed her eyes on that spot as the curtain parted—and the smell hit her so strongly she almost threw up.
The judge on the end. He had that girl’s blood on his hands. Under his fingernails. Stuck to his hair.
Mina’s skin burned; she didn’t even hear as the host whipped the audience into a frenzy. Jo was right where she belonged, screaming and clapping with the rest of the crowd. So close she could probably smell the murderer’s cologne. So close that monster could have touched her, like he'd touched that woman in the paisley dress.
Mina's lips drew back from her teeth. It wasn't a smile.
As usual, Mina was amazing. When the clock started, it looked like chaos, but if you’re used to watching chefs, you always see patterns. People scramble, sure, but it makes sense. No one ever bumps into each other or stumble: everyone knows just where they belong. Makes me which I was a chef sometimes.
On Mina’s side, the head chef made a batch of royal icing. Her assistant carved thick slabs of gingerbread into shingles and boards. And Mina did the detail work. First, she formed tiny snowmen out of pressed sugar. Each snowman was made of two perfect sphere halves, one big and one little, with frosting decorations. I’d watched her practice late at night—she has trouble sleeping with moonlight in the room. She made each snowman in under a minute.
Mina finished her sugar snowmen—twenty in all—and moved on to her next project: windows. Before starting, she set sugar, water, and corn syrup on the stove to heat; she was going to pour sugar to make fake glass. She took two thin pieces of white chocolate, her canvases, and formed shapes from colored fondant and gum paste to stick on them, creating cheery scenes of a Christmas tree and a fireplace. Another thing I’d seen her practice.
The assistant finished carving and gathered Mina’s snowmen to stick them to the fondant wreath for the gingerbread door. She dropped one. It disintegrated, but nobody flinched. Mina had three extras, just in case.
By now, Mina was finished with the windows. She checked the temperature of her sugar and grinned. (I was glad to see that. She’d been pale all morning, and her smile for the cameras had looked like it belonged stretched over a corpse.) Then she laid out two metal frames for her sugar: two windows, each one a foot tall and half a foot wide. Slowly, she poured melted sugar into the frames, then smoothed it out flat with a spatula.
The assistant finished with the snowmen, and she and the head chef traded jobs. The head chef started piping icing decorations on the door, the roof, and the shingles, while the assistant stuck on shingles.
And then, with half an hour left on the clock, it was time for Mina’s windows. Mina picked up her first window, moving slowly.
The judges had been flitting around since the halfway point, when the competitors moved from prep to real work, the skills that had got them in the competition. Now all three came over to see the chefs place the window. Mina stiffened, like she had the last two times the judges appeared. The third judge—a paunchy man famous for making the world’s largest gingerbread house—walked to her side and asked her a question.
Mina screamed—a breathy, nervous sound—and dropped the window. It shattered.
She stared at it, horrified. There was no time to re-melt the sugar and go again. She looked from the head chef to the assistant, both of whom stood frozen, and then she looked at the judge. Fear passed over her face, and she ran out.
I got up to follow, of course. What else was I supposed to do?
Mina went outside for air. She wasn’t expecting the judge to follow her. She wasn’t expecting him to ask her if she was okay. She did her best to push him away, breathing shallowly through her mouth to block out the scent she’d know for the rest of her life.
Then he put his hand on her shoulder, trying to steady her. He’d washed his hands. But that girl’s blood was under his fingernails, etched in the lines of his palms.
She let her human form fall from her this time, like a woman dropping her lingerie on the floor of her bedroom.
I went into the alley. “Mina?” I was expecting tears, maybe a cigarette. Mina told me she didn’t smoke, but she had to be doing something shady when she slipped out in the night.
The judge lay in front of her, covered in blood. Rent. Destroyed. Ruined.
Mina glanced at me. Her face and torso were human; her bottom half and her left hand was a wolf’s.
She looked from me, to the judge, to her half-transformed body. She finished pulling on her skin, like a girl squeezing into too-tight jeans. Sat naked in the alley. Began to cry.
I could have denied what I saw. I could have said it made no sense. But I didn’t.
I went to her, and I draped my jacket over her legs, and I put my arms around her. When she put her arms around my neck, I knew, just like I’d always known, that I was making the right decision. Secrets be damned. She’s still my wife.