Over plates of charred bacon and runny scrambled eggs, Dad’s transformation begins. Blue eyes sink into their sockets, and his body slumps forward like a sheet of glacial ice sloughing into the sea.
“Promise me you’ll do it, Piglet.” A forkful of yellow mush garbles his words. “Promise me you’ll put me down if I turn.”
“If you turn?”
I picture him on the cover of an Animorphs book, a lanky, middle-aged guy molting into a fox or a hyaena. His beaky nose stretching into a snout, hay-thin hair thickening into fur. I laugh. Dad doesn’t. He’s as stern and stoic as ever, wolfing down the last of his retirement dinner at a roadside diner.
He leers at me through fingers slick with pig fat. “Pa-paw turned. Deddy Red turned. I’m gonna turn. It’s just what happens to people like me.”
“You’re young,” I say. Barely fifty. Maybe the top of the hill is in sight, but we’re not rolling. Not yet. “Just take care of yourself. Get out some. Meet people.”
Again Dad shakes his head, frustrated, like he’s having to explain to a toddler why we don’t all go flying off the Earth when it spins. “Deddy was forty-five when he turned.“
“He also drove a truck for twenty years.”
Dad’s eyes harden. “Promise me.”
“Fine, Dad. I promise.”
All the wind in his body leaves as one long sigh. Satisfied, he plucks a toothpick from the dispenser and tucks it between his lips like a cigarette or a piece of straw.
A week later, I drop by to check on him after work.
He’s holed up in his den with the shades drawn. All the lights are off, so his drooping cheeks and bowling ball belly catch and spread most of the blue radiance coming from his flatscreen. Retirement gear: blue sweats and a stained white tee. Different, sure. But not as worrying as the takeout boxes littering his coffee table, stacked like sticks on a bonfire. Or the long, coarse hairs sprouting from his chin.
“Evening.” He grunts.
“What’s on?” I ask, too afraid to ask my other questions.
“Oh, you know.” A clawed hand reaches up to scratch under his neck. “How’s work?”
“You know.” I shrug.
Dad laughs with an actor’s grace. He twists, heaving his weight onto one elbow. Not to see me better, but to relax, I think. To loosen up. Only he can’t. As his back arches into the seat, wiry fingers drum the armrest of his chair. He keeps looking past me, to the door.
“Can you believe this?”
“What’s that?” I ask, wrinkling my nose. The scent of spoiled meat wafts into the room from somewhere. A peek through the pass-through tells me it isn’t the kitchen. The counters are spotless. Sink, too. But something reeks.
“Bunch of whiners. Too lazy to pay rent.” Outside a twig snaps. A stick weighed down by a squirrel, probably. Dad’s ears perk up. “What?”
“You mean the people waiting for stimulus checks?”
A wave of disgust flashes across his face. “Stimulus checks.” In a breath, I’m eight years old again. He’s glaring at me, wondering how any child of his could be so stupid, so I. “Food in the trough, you mean. So we don’t bite the hand that feeds.”
A passing cloud blots out the sun. The sickly-sweet stink of rotten meat intensifies.
“When’s the last time you heard from John or Bill?”
“When’s the last time a check came in?”
We share a tainted silence after that, tasting the seconds as they pass.
I get up and cross the room. When did it get so big? So empty?
When I get to the other side, I lay a hand on Dad’s shoulder. Under the skin, the bone shifts beneath my touch. I should say—do—something. Now’s the time.
“Love you, Dad.”
An arm arcs up and around my neck awkwardly, pulling me into a half-noogie, half-hug thing neither of us finds very comfortable. Rough nails graze the back of my scalp. “Love you too, Piglet,” a rasping voice answers.
Dad’s eyes never leave the TV. A picture of Mom’s smiling face sits above it, a pale mask in a pink cardigan. A full moon, risen too early.
When I get outside, I run to my car as fast as I can.
On a cold afternoon in March, a two-legged wolf shuffles into a little girl’s birthday party. Fearless, my daughter races up and drapes her tiny arms around one of its legs. The thing catches its balance, dips. Snugging a hairy paw around her waist, it bends down and plants a snarling kiss on the top of her head. Marissa squeezes tighter. Then, as if borne away by a gust of wind, she glides off to her next appointment.
The beast grins, flashing its teeth. “Piglet.”
We hug. Unclipped nails dig into my shoulders.
He asks about Marissa, but his eyes never leave my brothers. John and Bill are off chatting with their wives on the far side of the patio. The conversation turns. Soon, he’s asking whether or not I saw the headline in - where was it? - and did I see what the senator from Michigan planned to do to the defense budget. Suddenly, I’m wishing 5G conspiracy theories were as easy to block out as millimeter waves. I let none of it through. I’m a brick house.
“No. Must’ve missed that one.”
Dad nods without accepting. Hot air’s blowing, going nowhere. He changes tack.
“You’re letting her wear that?” Yellow eyes track my girl’s red hoodie, her dinosaur leggings.
“She’s five, Dad.”
“Your mother would’ve—”
He doesn’t finish.
When no one’s watching, I press my fingers together in the shape of a pistol and jam the barrel against his temple. As I pull back my thumb, recognition floods his face. He’s back. Dazed, afraid, blinded by the setting sun, but back. He opens his mouth to speak, to plead.
Only air escapes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Garrett is an instructional designer and writer living in Savannah, Georgia, with his wife, Holly, and their two cats. In addition to writing and sketching, he enjoys pestering his friends with random bits of lore from worlds both real and imagined. He also posts practice sketches (infrequently) on Instagram @ngage_ultra.