When I am eight years old, the beast arrives in a box from overseas. She is all shaggy blonde hair and teeth. Like a dog, but not.
“Do you see?” My father asks. “Now we won’t be so lonely.”
He marvels at her unusual form, especially at her delicate paws. How nicely they fit within his large hands. Hands that smell like the meats he cuts up and serves to the people in his delicatessen.
At first the beast is hesitant. She sniffs at our feet, at our behinds. She stands on her hind legs and brings her wet nose up to my hair. When she breathes in, she sneezes, and my father laughs at what he mistakes for innocence.
She sticks out a thin, black tongue and lightly brushes the skin around my shoulder. I know that she does this to see if I am a threat to her immediate comfort and well-being. When she determines that I am not, she lollops over to my father, and sinks her teeth into his heart.
“She lives here now, Maddie,” he says. “She is our family now.”
It does not take us long to realize that she is a picky eater. She refuses to eat from her bowl, a pretty porcelain thing my father bought in preparation for her arrival. She will only eat from a plate, like one of us. And she refuses to eat the foods my father provides and is so sure she will enjoy. She will not touch roast beef, nor pastrami. She will not touch liverwurst, bologna, and pimento loaf. Sausages are strewn about the house like chew toys. Cheese, unless it is of the creamy herbed goat spread variety, is entirely off limits. Chicken breast marinated in lemon juice and balsamic vinegar is consumed begrudgingly and only when she is too hungry to protest.
Similarly, she scoffs at water and will only lap at whole milk. Once when she is served 2%, she turns my favorite stoneware mug over in a rage. When I admonish her for doing such a thing, my father protests.
“She is only a baby,” he says. “She doesn’t understand.”
My father fusses over her at every mealtime and eats his own dinner cold. One day he has the idea to give her some of his food. He carefully spoons her mashed sweet potato, and though I can tell the taste makes her gag, she smiles her beastly grin anyway. She bats her eyelashes and nudges the spoon with her nose before she settles in at his feet beneath the table. Her tail swats at my ankles painfully throughout the meal.
What my father likes best about her is that she cannot fight with him. She does not bark when he watches sports on the television. She does not protest when he wants to buy some small but expensive and useless item.
The second thing he likes best about her is that she makes him feel younger. When he goes walking on the middle school track in the evenings, she runs ahead of him without judgement of his pace. When they go out on the town, he does not feel like his identity is only that of a divorced middle-aged man. Instead, he fancies himself interesting and wise—a complex man with a companion who also thinks he is interesting and wise.
The third thing is that he truly believes he has found something to distract me from the absence of my mother. He does not know I keep a photo album of only her face inside my nightstand. Or that when I practice smiling in my bedroom mirror, I try my best to make my square mouth bend more convincingly like hers.
Within a month of the beast’s arrival, she moves into my father’s bedroom. Much like the porcelain dish, she ignores the pink sherpa bed from the pet store propped up in the hallway. She takes to sleeping beside him, and he allows her to share the pillow on which he sleeps.
When I cross the hallway in the night to use the bathroom, she lifts her head; I can see her reflective eyes watching me as I pass.
One morning, my toothbrush is gone. I look in the medicine cabinet, check underneath the sink. I find it hidden in the wastebasket underneath a couple of the beast’s used tampons. As I tell my father about this, we are distracted by a clattering in the other room followed by a yelp. He tells me to get one of the extra toothbrushes from the linen closet. We don’t speak of the incident again.
On my ninth birthday, my cake mysteriously topples from the counter before we can light the candles and sing. Inside my birthday card, he has signed both his name and the beast’s name where my mother’s name should be instead.
At school I hand in homework torn to shreds and taped back together. My teacher looks at me with concern. She asks me how things are at home. I try to explain about the beast. Later, as I leave school that day, I pass the teacher’s lounge and hear her saying something to another teacher about how men are disgusting. She doesn’t understand what I am really dealing with, and I decide it is easier not to speak of it to her, or anyone else, ever again.
I get used to looking towards the floor as I walk around my bedroom. I learn to avoid the occasional spiteful puddles of piss the beast leaves for me. I ask for a door lock from Santa Claus.
By the time I am ten, the beast sits upright at the dining room table for meals. She can use a fork, crudely, when she wants to. But she prefers to be fed by my father, and he often obliges. Once, as he is scooping up some French onion soup to bring to her ghastly fangs, I slam my own spoon down on the table. My father pauses, utensil midair. The beast growls a low and rumbling noise.
“May I eat in my room?”
And I know he doesn’t miss me when I leave.
I am fifteen. After school I help out in the deli. I serve sandwiches on paper plates to people sitting at yellow Formica tables. My father has just started to teach me how to use the meat slicers. Thick cuts, thin cuts, quarter pound, half pound. My hands start to smell like his. To my dismay, I still do not resemble my mother one bit.
My father’s hair is thinning and grey.
The beast is in her prime and wears a collar of sizable garnets.
On a holiday break from school I catch my father quickly peck the beast on her black-lined lips. A horrible image flashes to mind of small, puppy-like creatures with my father’s hands, my square mouth, and the beast’s teeth romping around our living room.
I do not know it then, but this image will be incorporated into nearly every stress dream I have, well into adulthood.
In the middle of preparing three-quarters of a pound of Alpine Lace Swiss, sliced thin, I hear the local news report on the television above the counter. The man who owns the laundromat next to our delicatessen may, or may not, have been involved in the death of his own mother. My hand slips and I nearly lose a finger to the blade inside the slicer. I know this man, I know who his mother was. My father and I have served them for years. We have fed them for so long, they would both be able to remember who my own mother is, and what she used to look like.
The idea of this man, any man, being involved in the death of his own mother is so horrible that I abandon the Alpine Lace. I rush to the back alley behind the deli and vomit into the dumpster shared by both businesses. I smell rotting cold cuts and stain-lifting detergent. Another thing my psyche will catch and cling to for a long while.
For my sixteenth birthday, my father gets cleaned up. He showers immediately after coming home from the deli and smells like pine needles and aftershave. He orders a strawberry shortcake from the bakery across town for after dinner. He insists this birthday celebration be special.
I ask him if we can celebrate, just the two of us. For once, he indulges me.
“Anything you want, sugar.”
We go out to the edge of town for a walk around the lake. It’s quiet. It hasn’t been just the two of us for so long, that there are moments when the quiet is uncomfortable. But I enjoy our walk and wish the night could extend, become permanent.
I do something dangerous and I allow myself to imagine this is what our life together could have been like. We were devastated when my mother left without a note, and we could have kept on being devastated. Maybe we could have been devastated together. Maybe we could have turned it into board games and late-night horror movies. We could have had our own new Christmas tree decorating traditions and camping extravaganzas.
We come to the part of the lake where the dam crosses the water. From there we can see all the water spread flat out before us, a sunset beginning to look like a Creamsicle. He pulls a small box out of his pocket.
“I hope you’ll like this,” he says.
Inside is a thin, gold chain. Hanging from the center is an emerald cut into the shape of a heart. The light in the water glints off the gem like saliva on teeth. Something about it is familiar; I turn the gift over in my palm.
“I gave this to your mother when she found out she was pregnant with you,” he says.
I can feel my eyes widen, start to swell.
“I don’t know if you remember it, she wore it a lot when you were little.”
I can’t remember it on her, and not being able to remember hurts. I am eager to hear more, all the same.
“When she left, she put it in an envelope, and I woke up to it on my nightstand. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you so sad,” he says.
I am crying, sobbing; I can’t stop. I paw at the necklace and know painfully, that I love my mother anyway. That I forgive her this mistake. My father helps me clasp the lobster claw together behind my neck as I hold up my hair. We walk home from the lake.
The beast is asleep when we return. Like mischievous children, we each enjoy oversized slices of cake before we also go off to bed.
In my bedroom mirror, I look at how the necklace sits against my collarbone. I imagine that since something of hers has now been made mine, I look just a little bit like her. I sleep peacefully that night, without the sounds of small yapping and without the feeling of sharp, puppy teeth nipping at my toes.
Over a breakfast of country scrambled eggs, the beast stares at me from across the table. Her horizontal pupils zero in on my emerald heart, and I can see her jealousy instantly.
She looks from me to my father who eats unaware, scrolling on his cell phone.
She gives a loud bark.
She pushes her plate off the table and it clatters to the floor. Before my father has time to react, she does the same to his plate.
She takes the whole tablecloth in her mouth and pulls. My father jumps up, hot coffee spilling onto his lap.
She gives another loud bark. A warning before she swipes at me with her small paw. Her nails catch my forearm and raise a welt. She snaps her teeth. She gets close and makes as if to bite the necklace from off of my skin.
That is when my father yells at her. He calls her name.
“You get down, NOW,” he says. “Bad girl.”
She stops, regards him in disbelief.
“You go lie down,” he points to their bedroom, “and you stay there. No breakfast for you.”
I see how she looks at him then, with deep betrayal in her eyes. As if he were an animal with his own bark and scent and consciousness. Something threatening to her immediate comfort and well-being.
Before she mopes out of the room, she gives another bark. Almost like a laugh this time. She pisses right where she stands on the chair. And then walks into the bedroom and slams the door shut with her tail.
The following months are a blur. I receive a letter from my mother in the mail. The beast forgets domesticity.
She comes in and out of the house as she pleases. At night she howls toward the sky until the neighbors complain. She comes inside covered in mud and rolls around on the carpets.
Mealtime is whenever she wants. She opens the fridge and leaves food splattered all over the floor. She runs up and steals an entire meatball sandwich out of my father’s hand.
When she shits, she misses the toilet. She smears period blood onto the windows, red marks everyone can see.
She rips my father’s pillows into tatters. She raids and upends my father’s drawers.
I keep my own door locked and closed at all times when I am not home. I develop a habit of keeping my keys in my front pocket and continuously feeling for their edges through the fabric of my jeans.
Once I return early and find her trying to pick the lock with her nail; I swat her away with a frying pan from the kitchen.
My father tries everything he can think of. Clapping. A can with pennies. A spray bottle full of water. Placing spicy mustard on items she has taken to chewing. Ignoring her. Scolding her. Locking her out. Locking her in. Obedience classes at the pet store. Buying her new stuffed toys. Buying her a new collar with even larger red gems. Buying her a matching bracelet to go with it.
Nothing works. Nothing pleases her.
She bites into my father’s calf. He plays down the pain.
I do not tell him, I told you so.
Instead, I drive him to the hospital with a learner’s permit tucked into my back pocket.
For weeks I keep the letter and the pictures inside their envelope in a box at the back of my closet, for fear the beast might touch them. For fear I may have to look at them again.
Inside the envelope from my mother, a few snapshots, glossy 4×5’s folded in half. Photographs of my sisters. Half sisters. Their names are Amelia and Lydia. They are not twins, but they may as well be. Small, with frizzy hair and big smiles, they are playing miniature golf in a beach town. They are having ice cream cones, with chocolate dribbling down their little arms. Their clothes are bright, colors like fuchsia and teal. The worst part of it all, is that they look just like her. Tiny replicas with all the genes I never got.
In her letter, my mother says she has included these because she thinks it is important for all three of us to know each other. She says she would like to come back and visit me, if I am alright with it. She says she would like to bring her daughters.
She includes a phone number.
I dream of Amelia and Lydia playing with the puppy creatures. My mother has adopted them as pets for her daughters. They play Frisbee on a long, empty beach. All of them, girls, beasts, mothers, daughters, wear gold chains with emeralds cut into the shapes of hearts around their necks. I wake up sweating and heaving.
On a Thursday afternoon, I come home from school to find the beast standing above my father’s body. One could mistakenly believe she is performing CPR given how she crouches down near his face, her paws pressed on his chest.
I know he is gone the moment I step through the front door. His arms are spread out, angled strangely. His neck is bruised a deep purple. Blood is leaking out beneath him from a wound I cannot yet see.
The beast comes for me, next.
I slip the keys out of my pocket and between my fingers; I ball my deli hand in a fist. I don’t miss when I swing. I catch her ugly eye and it gives me just enough time to grab her gaudy collar and twist. She struggles against my hold; her nails dig into my arms and I see my own blood drip onto the beast’s garnets and make them shine. I hold steady until her body falls limp, until she too, has purple marks on her neck like those she gave my father.
I wait until dark.
I drag her into the car, and double check for my driver’s permit in my pocket.
I take her to the deli. I think of the man from the laundromat, think of the differences between us.
I use the slicers just the way I have been taught.
I wrap the cuts in white paper, put them in plastic bags, and label them “bologna” with an expired date.
I toss them into the dumpster outback.
I take all the rest—the bones and the garnets—put them in a trash bag inside the trunk of the car.
I clean and sanitize the machinery. I turn the lights out. I lock up shop.
I drive to the lake, walk out to the dam. The bag sinks slowly. I do not feel as good about watching this as I want to. When the sun starts to rise the color of grapefruit, I get back in the car and drive home.
I look at my father’s body, the blood seeped out beneath him, and I am at a loss for what to do. I need help. I need guidance. I need my mother.
I run into my bedroom and fish around the closet for the box with the envelope. I dial the number at the bottom of the page, and count how many times the phone rings before she picks up.
I fall asleep and dream that I am holding my father’s hands. His hands are wide and warm and rough. I dream that we have brought one of the yellow Formica tables from the deli to the lake. My father holds my hands from across the table.
“It’s just you and me,” he says. “Just us.”
Lake water gurgles behind him, and I fear that the beast will return from the depths to disturb this quiet moment. I wake before anything more takes place.
My mother stands in the archway. She is almost the same as I remember. Her hair is shorter than the length it is in all the photos inside my album. Her mouth, a little pinched. Her freckles faded, but still visible across her forehead and nose.
She hugs me, kisses my hair, and the warmth of her feels familiar. She holds me out in front of her. She looks down to my neck and smiles at the emerald heart. I don’t know what our next step is, but in this moment, we are family again.
In this moment, I am not so lonely.
Step-Beast was selected as the 2021 Blood Orange Review Fiction Contest Winner by Vi Khi Nao. Vi wrote the following about the story:
Deftly narrated with uncanny, insouciant depth of horror and intelligence, “Step-Beast” captures the acute aching, raw, meaty nature of change. It also metabolizes the perplexing account of adolescent coming of age with heroic fervor and addresses death and abandonment with spellbinding unexpected tenderness and humor (with a learner’s permit tucked into my back pocket). Even laced with the scavenging verve of anguish and melancholy, “Step-Beast” is a wise parable/document on survival – especially if the wild has self-invited itself to allegorically and unallegorically undomesticate itself in your own (potentially your only) home, you can still use the experiences at your father’s deli shop to help you process or slice loss with ironic gravity of cleverness. “Step-Beast” is electrifying and absolutely the best short story I read this year!
Cover art: “Eleanor Learns About the World,” by Melissa Wabnitz Pumayugra