The Splits In My Skin
“Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds,
they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.”
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, Babylon Revisited, published 1931
“For goodness sake, lighten up, Johan!” Kjell snapped.
He poked another stick into the dying fire, causing sparks of hot ash to spiral into the crisp night air. Rune stared at his brother through the dim light, keeping his mouth shut to avoid provoking him any further. Tore dropped his plate to the ground and focused his senses on his sons, ready to step in if their latest quarrel got out of hand.
Johan glared at Kjell. His anger multiplying faster than weeds after a summer rainstorm. Each wrongdoing and every cross word they’d exchanged, rushed into his head and ignited his rage.
“I’m tired of your mood swings. What the hell did I do to piss you off?” Kjell snapped another twig in half, sliding it into the fire and then adding a second piece at a forty-five-degree angle.
Johan narrowed his eyes at his older brother. Why was Kjell so prissy about feeding the fire? Every single god-damn thing perfectly lined up, as if he was creating a sculpture not making heat. The delicate snap, place, repeat, grated on his last nerve. And it wasn’t just the fire arranging. And it wasn’t only Kjell.
The way Rune whittled niggled at him like a low-grade toothache. Jeans covered in flakes of wood and dust, the swipe of the knife then flipping the blade to make a second pass. Scrape. Flip. Scrape. Over and over again.
Everything about his father irritated Johan but top of the list was they were stuck in this shitty hole in the middle of North Dakota because of him. For the last month, Johan made it his life’s mission to push Tore’s buttons and force a reprimand or sigh in irritation, which in turn, flicked Johan’s temper switch. When his father reacted, Johan was on him like white on rice. His mouth puked out embittered allegations, and he cataloged every grudge he’d stored up over his seventeen-year-old existence.
“Well? What’s your problem tonight? Or do you do this for shits and giggles, Johan? You need to get a grip brother.” Kjell threw what was left of the sticks in the fire and folded his arms across his chest.
“You want to make me? Come on then, I’m game if you are.” Johan stood and flexed his fingers—fist, splay, fist—with each pump, he inched closer to losing it.
The three men straightened; their eyes wary, muscles tensed. For weeks, they’d endured Johan’s volatile moods. The kid wound up so tight, it was like waiting for a jack-in-the-box to break free. When Johan exploded, he came out swinging—his motto punch first, engage in rational thought later. Then, much later—after one of his brothers dragged him off the other—Johan slunk into a dark corner where he brooded and tightened the spring once more.
Johan got to his feet and the hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention. Something dangerous bubbled up inside him.
Tore sighed at his son’s irritableness. “Lower your voice, Johan. Eveline’s asleep.”
At the mention of his sister, calm settled into Johan’s veins. He looked towards the cabin, hoping he hadn’t disturbed her.
Kjell fed more wood into the flames. Johan watched him, knowing the self-control Kjell spent to keep his face neutral. For a moment, he felt ashamed of how he’d ridden Kjell. The little digs here and snide comments there, all of them calculated so his brother reacted, and Johan found release.
Johan didn’t have a clue why he choose to pick on Kjell, tonight. Rune was a better target. That brother’s fuse was cut much shorter, and he’d give Johan a more satisfying fight. Kjell’s even temper made him sensitive and sensible. Johan had no reason to bait his brother. Kjell made sure Johan and Eveline got what they needed, unlike their father who wallowed in misery and checked out of his responsibilities.
Johan caught Tore watching him from across the campfire. Tonight his father appeared quiet and sober. So far the old man stuck to his word, but Johan wasn’t ready to congratulate Tore on his three-month-long sobriety. They’d been here before, soon enough Tore would start drinking again. Johan didn’t buy into his father’s hollow promises, and he didn’t trust that Tore would ever take them home to Arkansas.
Instead of directing his hatred at the man who deserved it, Johan turned on Kjell again.
“You’re full of shit. You’re good at telling me what to do until I challenge you. Why don’t you man up? Let’s see who—”
Kjell stood. “Stop being an ass, Johan.”
Johan smiled. He’d made it under Kjell’s skin.
“I’ve had enough of your mood swings.” His brother glared then shook his head, and walked towards the cabin.
He’d forfeited the game. But Johan wasn’t ready to let him quit. “What do you mean, Kjell? Don’t walk away and ignore me.” He got to his feet, his eyes blacker than his hair, his expression dangerous.
Tore’s low voice cut through the tension. “Sit, Johan. Kjell meant nothing.”
His father provided Johan with the trigger he needed and, for once, he redirected his anger toward the man who put them in this miserable place. “So now you want to parent?”
Rune sighed. “Leave it, bro.”
Johan narrowed his eyes at his other brother. “Get lost, Rune.”
Rune laughed and reached for the keys to the truck. “Come on, let’s go into town. You need to get laid. I can’t stand you this way, anymore.”
Tore smiled at Rune’s attempt at distraction. On any other occasion, Johan would have leaped at the chance to party with Rune. But this time, Rune’s comment just fueled his anger even more. Past the point of control, Johan leaped across the fire, yelling a stream of curse words at his brother. Rune stepped sideways, surprise written all over his face.
Somewhere between takeoff and landing, Johan’s body jerked and his nerve ending’s fired. His muscles stretched, and his body contorted. As he landed on four feet instead of two, a loud snarl broke from his throat. The world snapped into a whole new level of clarity as Johan’s senses went into overdrive. His blood ran hot and fast, and his ears picked up sounds deep into the woods. Now his nose didn’t just smell the fire and musty leaf litter, but it homed in on the fear radiating from his brothers.
Johan bent his heavy head and saw two furry paws where once his feet had been. He panicked, and tried to get away from himself. As he bucked his strange wolf’s body, his brain started to catch up. When the realization that he was no longer a man hit him, panic set in. The human inside him writhed as he tried to fight his way out of this animal’s body. Terrified, Johan spun left then right, trying to get a glimpse of his real self.
The darkness closed in on him. Everything he knew and recognized disappeared from his vision. All he could see now, was a blur of fur as he continued to twist and turn. Johan startled at a sudden shadow, and as an owl screeched, he howled. Looking for a way to escape, he bolted for the woods.
His father and brothers scattered, leaping out the way of the frightened animal. Seconds later, they shifted. Before Johan’s wolf made it more than a few yards, They’d fanned out and appeared in front of him, cutting off his escape. He dug in his paws, sliding to a halt. A low whine slipped from his throat and he backed away. Two of the wolves edged their way to his right and left, and the large gray stepped in front of him. Cornered, his unfamiliar body shook as he looked from one wolf to the other.
It’s okay, take deep breaths. Calm yourself. Change back. Tore’s voice in Johan’s head did nothing to calm him, instead a new wave of fear rushed through his veins.
He yelped and whimpered, as Rune and Kjell’s wolves took another step towards him.
Give him space. Shift back, guys. He needs time to come to terms with this. On Tore’s command, Johan’s older brothers slipped back into their human forms. As the flames flickered, their naked skin glistened in the firelight.
Johan sank to the floor, his ears flat and his eyes terrified. He wondered if he was hallucinating because this couldn’t be real. No. This was a dream, a nightmare. His body shook, and his tail slipped between his shaking legs.
Wake up damn you, wake up. He muttered it over and over to himself in some vain hope he could make it true.
Come on, Johan. Think what you want to be. Picture changing back, in your head.
Tore’s voice broke through Johan’s wake up mantra. He regarded the gray wolf before him with an eerie calm. Dream. Imagination. Hallucination. He’d take his pick, any would be better than the truth of it.
But it no longer appeared to be a dream. The clarity with which he saw and experienced everything, was too pin-sharp. The smell of the fire was oh so real—and that wolf in front of him? It sure looked as real-as-hell, too. Somewhere inside him, Johan sensed his human-self, clamoring to get out. A sick realization settled into his stomach. As impossible as this whole thing seemed—
W… what’s happening?
Tore stepped towards him. His long gray tail swished and his mouth hung open as he panted. Johan cowered and slipped his head between his russet paws. A low growl rumbled out of his throat. Tore inched closer, and Johan slithered backwards on his belly. His father’s heavy head lolled from side to side, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
From somewhere deep inside, Johan heard a scream. It took a moment for him to realize it came from his human-self. I want to be human. Not a monster. He yelled.
As the thought solidified, Johan shifted back. Dazed, and taken by surprise at the suddenness of everything, he collapsed onto the floor. Tore transitioned and ran to him. He pulled Johan into his arms and held the boy as he trembled. Rune and Kjell crouched next to them and stroked their brother’s clammy skin.
Not since Johan had hidden in Hania’s barn with his sister, had he felt so much terror. Those men had hunted them for hours, but they went away. This time, Johan feared there was no escaping this monster inside him.
His father wrapped him in a blanket and Rune pushed hot coffee into his shaking hands. Questions lined up in Johan’s head, but he found himself unable to utter any coherent words. Instead, he stared at his family, open mouthed.
A thought struck Johan, they’d done it too. When he’d gone all furry, Rune, Kjell, and Tore turned wolf in response. Now they congregated around him, looking as human as the next man. If it wasn’t for them wearing blankets, and their shredded clothes scattered around the fire, Johan could have taken comfort in his dream theory.
“What happened? Did ya’ll see me do it?” Johan’s voice, a thin rasping whisper, his eyes darting from face to face.
“And you did it too? Ya’ll changed like I did?”
Rune reached out to him and Johan scrambled backwards. “Johan, you’re okay. Its—“
“How can I be okay? How is any of this right?”
Kjell slid his arm around Johan’s shoulders. “It’s normal for us.”
Johan turned, his eyes wild. “For us? What does he mean, Dad?”
Tore rubbed his hands over his face. “I screwed up. Katrina was human, she isn’t the same as us. Me and Kjell and Rune, I mean. You… you should never have transitioned.”
“Transitioned?” Wait, what did Tore say about them? “If you aren’t human what the hell else exists?”
“We’re Lycan.” A nervous tick pulled at his father’s eye, but he held Johan’s stare.
As the silence drew out, and the scrutiny intensified, Johan got the distinct impression his father expected another show of Mr. Furry.
“Rune and Kjell’s mothers were both Lycan, the same as me and your brothers were born as pups. From the start, I knew they’d be Lycan too. But the Lycanthrope gene is recessive. If one parent is human then there is little or no possibility that any offspring will be Lycan. Especially if the young aren’t pups. You and Eva were born like every other human child. Your change today, is—was—supposed to be impossible.”
Johan processed his father’s words. The more he mulled them over, the more he stumbled on one word in particular. Lycan. He’d heard that word before, yet its meaning avoided him. He dug deep into his memory, searching for its definition. Then it hit him.
Werewolf. It meant werewolf.
“It can’t be true. Lycan’s only exists in movies and stories. Werewolves are bitten and—“ Johan fell silent.
No matter how much he tried to argue otherwise, the evidence was against him. He’d changed from human to wolf, and it happened when he got angry.
They talked into the night and his brothers described their own transitions. They took this in their stride. Neither were fearful of what they were. They talked confidently and even showed Johan how they shifted so he could watch what happened. They talked of being in harmony with their wolves and said they had full control over their shifting. But even though none of their explanations matched his preconceptions, Johan couldn’t get the werewolf lore he’d heard from books and films, out of his head.
By the early hours of the morning, Johan’s mind was brim full of information and all of it was incomprehensible. As he waded through it, he stumbled on a dreadful thought.
“But what about Eva? Will she change too?” Johan’s hands still trembled as they raked through his hair.
“No. I told you. You should never have transitioned. Lightning doesn’t strike twice.” Tore’s tone was adamant and defiant.
“How can you be sure? It happened Dad. You saw. I’m living proof—this is possible. Eva and I are so alike.”
He paced around the clearing, his hands raking his hair. They couldn’t let Eva find out the way he had. They needed to prepare her. Johan stopped and faced his father. “You have to tell her.”
Tore remained stubborn. “She doesn’t need to know. I mean it. You tell her, and I won’t be able to forgive you.”
An uncontrollable anger surged through Johan, and he foolishly rounded on his father. Tore beat him in weight and strength and the six-inch height disadvantage made Johan too small to take on the older man.
Johan curled his lip at Tore. He wasn’t a match for his father, but his ego had other ideas. “What? Now you want to pull rank? You think you can tell me what to do after this?” He moved towards the cabin. “She needs to know. If you won’t tell her, I will.”
Rune grabbed his arm. “Wait. Give it a few weeks. Let’s get you through your transition first. Even if it happens, it won’t be for a few years. There isn’t any rush. Eva doesn’t have to know tonight.”
Johan stared at Rune in disbelief. Kjell draped his arm around his younger brother’s shoulders. “Come on. It’s three in the morning. You don’t want to drag her out of bed. Let’s leave this for now, yeah?”
Too exhausted to argue, Johan let Rune guide him back to the fire. This subject was far from over, but for Eva’s sake he’d leave it for tonight. However, Johan meant everything he’d said. If Tore wasn’t man enough to tell her, then he would do it himself.