Mama was a werewolf. Maybe she was born that way, maybe she got bitten—Little Red didn’t know how it started, but there was a wolf inside her mama stuck beneath her skin and it had been there forever as far as Little Red knew.
Little Red lived in the forest on the muddy banks of a river. The water was Coke-tinted and slushy, licking through the forest like a vein of ink. She spent her summers in the water, mooring boats of plywood and hiding in the water’s depths wishing she could hold her breath forever, build a cave beneath the water and drink mud for dinner. She had two best friends—Bella J and Cici—that lived in the suburbs along the edge of the forest in stucco houses, but Little Red’s family had lived in the forest since her mama was a baby and her granny before that.
Little Red knew everything there was to know about the forest. She knew every gator by name and their favorite riverbanks to bask on the swampy shores. She knew which trees she could climb all the way to the stars and which she could tuck her bony body into and nap in the branches. She knew which path led to Cici’s house with its hardwood deck and brick fireplace, but she didn’t know why anyone would ever need a fireplace in the sticky mist of the swampy heat.
Little Red was eight years old and missing her two front teeth. She had a tangle of red hair that capped her sunburned face. Little Red’s house had a screen enclosure with slashes torn in it and a porch that wrapped all the way around the house, dipping in places touched by the floodwaters of a rainy afternoon. Mean Granny lived in the attic where she spent all her days in bed waiting for someone to bring her food and check her for bedsores. And yelling. Mean Granny was always shouting about something, foaming with vicious spittle so vile that Little Red had learned to tune out as much as she could. Mama worked at a bank close to town and so, for the most part, Little Red was left to her own devices.
She liked the forest well enough, but she loved the river most of all. Cici and Bella J would come play with her on sunny mornings while the afternoon storms held black in the distance. They didn’t swim very often, too scared of the gators, but they would lay on the dock slathered in sunscreen and dip their feet into the water when they got too hot. Sometimes they would shimmy out over the water on the knobby cypresses, hopping downstream on the jutting knees of the trees while Little Red squid-pushed through the water beside them leaving a trail of ink in her wake.
“Your mama ain’t a werewolf,” Bella J said one morning after Little Red had told them the truth, late, the storms already crawling towards them. Bella J was balanced with her legs straddling the roots of two cypress trees, teetering on her bare feet.
“Is too,” Little Red said, floating on the water. “I can prove it.”
Little Red liked the muddy water of the river—so squishy at the bottom she couldn’t, or at least didn’t dare for who knew what lived down there, stand up. She didn’t mind that her eyes were crusted with gunk by the time she got home. Little Red loved to swim, pressing through the water like she could move every substance in this other world. Air didn’t give her the same feeling; it was always around, always moving with you if not through you, but air didn’t hold you, didn’t put up a good enough fight. Little Red could fly like a fish beneath the water.
“How you gonna prove it?” Cici asked, toppling off her perch on a root, splashing knee-deep into the murk and scuttling back out while the water hissed in response.
“I’ll show you. It’s a full moon tonight. Come over and you’ll see,” Little Red said.
Cici and Bella J exchanged looks, reaching for the same tree branch so they could dangle from it like a pair of pale monkeys. Little Red knew her friends did not enjoy playing at her house, much preferred their own—with carpeted stairs and rooms full of pristine Barbies. Little Red’s house was dark inside, the windows blotting light through generations of grime, the towering trees dangling moss like a curtain all around the rotting porch. Little Red’s house didn’t have a TV or many toys, just a heap of moldy, outdated issues of Southern Living and the odd secondhand dolls Mama brought home with missing eyes and torn limbs. Little Red didn’t care for dolls anyway—she liked catching bugs in mason jars and building campfires out of twigs.
“Don’t gimme that look,” Little Red said, floating on the mud towards an island of lily pads. The frogs screaming at her approach while a heron froze on its stilted legs. “You want me to prove it or not?”
The two girls nodded as the first roll of thunder broke in the distance. Little Red promised to meet them at Cici’s house after the storm passed while the girls scattered home before the sky could open.
Little Red had had a daddy once. She didn’t remember much about him—just the way he and Mama would argue late at night when they thought she was asleep. Little Red was glad he was gone because Mama didn’t make so much noise at night anymore, and she didn’t remember her daddy being all that nice anyway. Mean Granny said she wasn’t surprised when he left, and that she’d always hated him anyway. Mean Granny said too much sometimes.
Little Red kept a book of fairytales beneath her soggy mattress for rainy afternoons. She curled up on her bed and tried to read while the rain slapped on the leaky roof and the thunder shook her house with a sky-splitting crack.
“Hi, baby girl,” Mama said, slipping her head through the door to Little Red’s room. Little Red’s room was full of swamp treasures—pine cones and nettles, odd seeds, and exoskeletons from elaborate insects. Mama was beautiful, true southern belle; glassy, auburn hair shining down her back, precise nose set in angular cheekbones, and dark eyes Little Red liked to swim in. Her body was small and angular like a dancer. She filled the room with the heavy scent of rain, but she looked like a flame ablaze in Little Red’s earthy room.
“Hiya, Mama.” Little Red sat up, pulled from the lull of a stormy dream, hid her book beneath her pillow.
“You have a good day today, baby girl?”
Little Red liked to tell Mama of her adventures in the forest. The worlds she’d created and conquered, the creatures she’d rescued, and the swill of her exploration. Mama had been a girl once, too, in these same woods: the same knot of red tangled on her head, the same sunburned skin stretching over a dangling skeleton. Little Red told her everything over the roar of the storm and the howls from Mean Granny’s attic. Mama sat on the corner of Little Red’s bed and sparkled through the tale. Little Red asked if the girls could sleep over—could they, just this once?—and Mama’s smile froze in place, teeth clenched slightly like gears all jammed up.
“Tonight?” Mama frowned. “Little Red. No.” She laughed, shook her mane of glossy hair.
Her fingers sharpened, fingernails coming to a point. “Red. I said no.”
“It’s too late, Little Red.”
“I know, Mama, but Bella J and Cici have never—“ Little Red watched Mama’s eyes swell, beading, sinking into the sharp lines of her skull. A startled crack of thunder shook the house on its muddy foundation.
“Red.” Mama’s teeth protruded, her jaw extended.
“Little Red, you—” Mama’s voice was hard like the rock sinking in Little Red’s stomach. The storm pulled the light from the day, plunging them into night with only flashes of lightning to illuminate Little Red’s room.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I’ll tell them. Don’t worry. I’ll fix it.”
Mama was changing. Little Red wanted to stop it, but she didn’t know how. Little Red dripped down in her bed like a puddle of a girl.
Mama jammed her claws outward, lit by another flash of lightning, and something awful ripped out of her throat. It was the kind of noise Little Red wished she never had to hear again, like something was dying. She would have done anything to make it stop.
Mama tore off her skin huge patches at a time. Her muzzle filled with jagged incisors emerging from gums, and black eyes within the triangular skull of her secret face.
Mama was howling at Little Red, spitting the unimaginable, flecks of blood flying as she chewed up Little Red. Little Red cried and screamed. What had Little Red said? she wondered within Mama’s violent claws, her sharp bites. What had Little Red done?
As soon as the storm passed Little Red left the still of her creaking house. The forest was strewn with freshly snapped branches, the ground swollen with mud, and the sky filled with dusk slipping between the trees. Little Red’s house stood quiet and unassuming behind her as she found the path to Cici’s house and wandered through the debris.
Bella J and Cici were on Cici’s patio splashing in puddles on the wooden deck and waiting for her. By the time Little Red emerged from the woods, night had fallen and the forest was a blotted wall lining the edge of Cici’s yard.
“Ya’ll coming or what?” Little Red asked, but the girls stopped in their tracks at the edge of Cici’s property, the sudden boundary between their world and hers.
“It’s dark, Little Red,” Cici said, shifting from foot to foot.
The disc-moon punched a hole in the night, the stars pockmarks, but the sky’s light fell into the woods and disappeared.
“No one knows the forest better than me,” Little Red said. “Don’t worry.”
“Cici’s being chicken,” Bella J said, stepping towards the dark, but Cici held her spot.
“There are snakes in there. And gators,” Cici said. Moss clotted the trees like silent specters of blind darkness.
“I won’t take you off the path. I promise. Just right straight to my house.”
The night gulped as the girls stepped through the veil of the woods. The moss skimmed over their hair as they parted its curtain. The ground was sodden and their feet fell silently on the forest floor.
“I don’t think we should go,” Cici whispered into the dark, tugged on Little Red’s hand. Beside her Bella J snickered. Little Red could see nothing more than the faint outline of Cici beside her.
“Chicken,” Bella J said, clucking, her voice faceless and muffled.
Little Red’s house was just through the woods. She had picked her way to Cici’s house countless times, memorized the route so thoroughly she always claimed she could do it with her eyes closed. But the night was darker than her eyelids, saturated with screaming cicadas, cracking leaves, and the cry of frogs from freshly lain puddles.
“We gotta,” Little Red said, tugging Cici’s arm, leading her friends on linked by the chain of their hands.
Little Red wanted nothing more than for her friends to believe her. She wanted them to see what Mama could do. It never crossed her mind for a second that Mama could hurt them. She didn’t know that was something to be scared of. Instead she was scared that they would see and they still wouldn’t believe her.
The forest hissed in the darkness. The mud was getting heavier. Little Red hadn’t noticed, but it was, and her feet were swallowed in the muck. One of the girls stepped on a fresh twig. It snapped in the darkness.
“Who was that?” Cici whispered, the forest grown reverent and pressing.
“Just me,” Bella J said. Her voice felt too loud and intrusive. “We should have brought a flashlight—let go of me, Ci, you’re gonna break my fingers if you grip any harder.”
Little Red slapped a mosquito off her cheek. The brush rustled. A wind whipped through the branches looming in darkness. Little Red stumbled over a fallen tree.
“What was that?” Cici groaned as she too collided with the tree.
“This ain’t supposed to be here,” Little Red whispered.
“What? What do you mean? Maybe it just fell this afternoon?”
“I just took the path to your house, Ci. There weren’t no trees on it. Branches, sure, but nothing this big.”
Cici gripped Little Red’s hand tighter. Little Red felt the crescents of Cici’s fingernails on her wrist. “What does that mean?”
The night whispered. The wind was thick. The forest floor a clumsy swell.
“It means we’re off the path.”
“Well then we’ll just have to find it again. Bella J, take my hand. How far off do you think we are? A few steps?”
Little Red shrugged, forgetting Cici couldn’t see her. “Dunno.”
“You know this forest better than anyone. You can find it.”
In the distance something rustled. It slipped over the mud in a smooth crackle.
Cici jumped, jerking on Little Red’s arm. “What was that?”
“Coulda been a snake.”
“Bella J, take my hand.”
The forest was silent amid the steady thrum of the cicadas and the frogs battling in the pitch-black night.
“You don’t have her?”
“Bella J!” Cici called, her voice a shill screech.
“You let go?”
“She made me.”
“Maybe she found the path?”
“We have to find her! Little Red. We have to find her right now.”
“I don’t know—“
“Just find her!”
A howl screamed through the night.
Little Red felt Cici’s fingers trembling in her hand. “We’ll find her, Ci,” Little Red whispered, the pressing need for silence in wake of the wolf’s yell.
“Red.” Cici’s voice was small. “Red. That was a wolf.”
And again, in response to Cici’s whispers, the wolf called again—louder, close. The ground came to life in a flurry of sound, the patter of tread in the thickened mud, the frantic branches swept by motion and the horrible, upending roar of approach.
“Mama?” Little Red asked the darkness.
Cici fell to the ground, tripped over her own feet in an attempt to get away. She pulled Little Red to the ground with her, a tangle of limbs helpless on the muddy forest floor.
A howl and a scream, then a growl right beside them—Bella J giggled, standing over them in outline. She pulled from her pocket a small object and, with a click the flashlight came on, flashing like lightning over Little Red on the forest floor.
“Look, Little Red, it’s me, your mama and I’m here to eat you up!”
Little Red pounced to her feet, kicking herself free of Cici. She felt her fingers tingle, her claws ripping through her, her skin shredding. Something dark came out of her, hacking, spitting, biting, clawing and the words that tasted like evil on her fanged teeth as she tore into Bella J. And when she was done she couldn’t stop. She tore into Cici, just a knot of round eyes still tangled in fear on the forest floor.
Little Red was possessed, something furry and grotesque, and so much darkness that she passed out.
The wolf found Little Red alone in the woods and carried her home, dumped her in a shower of cold water with her clothes still on.
“Mama?” Little Red asked. Little Red watched the mud swirl off her skin, her clothes sopping like wet fur while she cried and choked on the freezing water.
“Mama?” She coughed, the cold so deep it burned in her lungs. She curled in the corner of the tub. “What about my friends, Mama?”
The wolf walked away without answering. The wolf didn’t need to. Little Red would never forget the curve of Cici’s terrified eyes, the fallen flashlight illuminating their crawl back to the suburbs. Their escape—their escape from her.
Little Red woke to the screech of Mean Granny’s fit shaking the attic. She made Mean Granny’s breakfast and brought it up to her while Mean Granny screamed at her with terrible howls. Mean Granny’s eyes were wide and beading; the whites had yellowed from cataracts, the pupils so black and glossy that they covered her irises. Her teeth were sharpened like fangs dangling from her muzzle. She bit at Little Red, bit with words so sharp and cruel that Little Red strained at the seams; something awful lurked under Little Red’s tongue.
Once upon a time, Little Red knew, Mama had hid in her bed, raw and aching after Mean Granny stripped to her pelt and, one day, Little Red knew, her baby would too. Little Red knew the wolf would come for her again. In the night it would find her; it would crawl inside her skin.
In the night the wolf would come galloping at full speed through the woods where the ground swelled into mud, where the moss clumped between bare toes and twigs snapped under heels. Little Red could feel the wolf behind her wearing her nightgown and her strings of red hair, but she ran faster, faster than the wolf even, with tree branches whipping into her skin. She ran to the edge of the river. She waded past her knees, refusing to look behind her to see if the wolf followed, past her waist and deeper still, until she dove into the muddy water, churning it as she changed, left the wolf pacing on the shore.
Little Red was a gator glassy-eyed and stoic dipping into the water. Little Red was a fish diving, flying. Little Red was water slipping away.
Casey Mancino is currently traveling the world for free, writing odd stories from the comfort of hotel rooms. She is a recent graduate of California College of the Arts’s MFA Writing program and not quite sure what happens after that. Her work has appeared in NOLAvie.com, Where Y’At Magazine, and Eleven Eleven Literary Journal.
Artwork: Brooke Shaden