Brace yourselves: Red Hood is a powerhouse novel you neeeeeeed on your TBRs.
Bisou’s led a quiet life with her grandmother in Seattle, until now. On the night of homecoming, she finds herself running for her life through the woods, defending herself from a vicious wolf. But there’s something a little… human about this particular wolf. And the next day, a boy from school is found dead in those very woods.
Something happens to Bisou that night that leaves her with more questions than answers, with blood in her past and on her hands. Bisou is frightened, but not alone, in this epic, blood-drenched tale of sisterhood and power. You’ve got to be hooked, right? We know we are. Scroll down to start reading Red Hood right now!
The Better to Eat You
Once upon a time, just hours ago, the doorbell rang. You were ready—lipstick on, hairpins in. His dear face smiled as you opened the door for him, his bright dark eyes, his wide sweet mouth, and small diamonds twinkling from both pierced ears. His bow tie—red, to match your dress—was tied just so. Your grandmother, who you call Mémé, took your picture by the door, James’s arm around your waist, the fresh-cut-grass scent of his deodorant familiar now—six months, tonight, since last spring, when he asked you to be his girl.
As you posed for the picture, the smell of him was familiar, and the feel of his arm around your waist, and the warmth of his breath on the top of your head. And the way he laced his fingers through yours after you said goodbye to Mémé, his right hand with your left as he led you to his wagon. His old blue wagon, that was familiar, too. The way the door squeaked when he opened it for you, the way he had to slam it hard to get it to latch, the way the driver’s seat was pushed way back to make room for James’s long legs, the way he folded those legs as he climbed in, the way he turned to smile at you as his hand turned the key, the light brown of his skin, the black of his eyes, the curl of his lashes. As familiar as the sound of the engine revving.
It is a cloudy night, this night, homecoming night, and clouds obscure the moon. When you arrived at the school, the parking lot was already full; music poured from the gym like the desperate thrumming of a heart. You would rather have stayed in this car, with just James; it’s not in your nature to join a crowd, and you knew the crowd in there, the thickness of it, the pack of it. But it means something to James that you go to these things—the dances, the soccer games, the house parties, the gyrations of the high school machine. And James means something to you and so, for him, you climbed out of the car, you took his hand, you went toward the music.
A table was set up outside the gym, staffed by three of the PTSA moms, the group that lobbied to hold homecoming on a Sunday. They displayed large, laminated photographs of car crashes—one, a car wrapped around a streetlight, another, a car crumpled beneath the grille of an enormous red transport truck. DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE was printed in bold letters beneath each photo, and the women pressed flyers into the hands of everyone who passed.
One of the mothers waved a flyer in your direction; you ignored her, but James took it and said, “Thank you, ma’am,” before folding it neatly, slipping it into his jacket pocket, and sliding his hand into yours once again.
Inside, it was as you expected—there they all were, half shrouded in shadow: James’s teammates and their dates, the group he pulled you toward, one you are part of now, one that opened to receive you, for better and worse. Tucker and Maggie, perpetually off and on, his hand on her arm, either pulling her in or pushing her away, or maybe both at the same time. Big Mac, with that smile and swagger. Flame-red Darcy on the fringe, wanting so desperately to be in the center. And others, so many others, anxious faces and happy faces and excited faces, too. On the dance floor, couples sway—mostly boy-girl pairs, but some girls with girls, and one pair of freshman boys in matching tuxes, pressed close together. Dresses in all colors, suit jackets and ties and the smells of perfumes and pomades and pizza, commingling and pungent.
You let James lead you to the basketball team’s circle, next to Big Mac, you let their laughter and conversation wash over you without soaking it in. Big Mac is funny. He’s expansive, gregarious—a leader. You have always liked him, in spite of his swagger. He plays center, and that’s what he is off the court, too, among his friends. Close by stood Landon and Caleb—good guys, both, and both forwards. It was no surprise to see them together, here at the dance—as far back as you can remember, where one of them went, the other followed. Landon and Caleb are a duo—best friends and, lately, maybe more. The three of them—Big Mac, Landon, and Caleb—are as close as brothers to James; standing there, you felt him relax into the familiar rhythm of their shared banter.
You watched James’s brilliant smile and you felt the warmth of his fingers twined through yours.
You went through all the motions—the chatter, the dancing, the giving and receiving of compliments. It made James happy, being there. But you were already somewhere else—remembering James’s car, and the soft quilt folded in the back. That was where you wanted to be—with James, unfolding. But you could wait for James, who loves everyone. It is one of the things you love about him.
It was loud and sharp and almost painful, the entire exhibition of it: the display of bodies, dance moves, coupling and uncoupling.
You accepted it for James’s sake, and each moment there brought you closer to where you longed to be. And not all of it was terrible; feeling James’s hungry eyes on you in your dress, that was not terrible. The way his fingers pressed between yours, spreading them apart, such a tiny and intimate act—not terrible. Listening to his laugher with his friends. Pulling each other close on the dance floor, your cheek against his chest, each breath rich with the scent of him, that was not terrible. You allowed yourself to be led, you allowed yourself to follow. Your bodies moved together rhythmically, as if in an act of premonition.
But then—“Looking fine, friend o’ mine!”
It was Tucker, who’d stumbled onto the dance floor. If he had been sober when he had arrived, that state had left him. He laughed loudly at his own stupid rhyme and slapped James hard on the ass.
James clenched his jaw and shook his head, and together, you turned away from Tucker, who was well known for getting only worse as an evening progressed. The best thing to do, if at all possible, was to ignore him.
But Tucker did not want to be ignored. He tried again. “Hey,” he said, shoving James’s shoulder, “Lemme cut in. I want to dance with Bisou.”
Your hands were laced behind James’s neck; his were around your hips, and the music was loud enough to pretend not to hear Tucker’s demand. But as the song ended, Tucker was still there.
“Where’s Maggie, man?” James asked, trying to deter him in the friendly manner that was his way.
But Tucker would not be deterred. He reached out again, a third time—“Whatever, fuck Maggie. I wanna dance with Bisou.” He was belligerent, as if his desire to dance with you was all that mattered. And you were done ignoring him, and into the moment of silence between songs, you said loudly, “Jesus, Tucker, you can’t even dance when you’re sober.”
Everyone within earshot laughed. Tucker’s face reddened and he spat, “Fuck you, Bisou,” and James put his hand on Tucker’s chest, saying, “Hey, now,” and you said, “Wait,” and then there was a moment that could have gone either way. The crowd seemed to smell it on James and Tucker, the possibility, and a low, laughing rumble of “fight, fight, fight” began and grew, but you pulled James away and someone else pulled Tucker away and then, a moment later, he was nowhere to be seen. It might have ruined the night, if it hadn’t been something you and James had seen from Tucker a thousand times before, if either you or James was willing to let the night be ruined. But you wouldn’t let Tucker have your night, and you could see in James’s eyes and his smile, gentle and true, that he wouldn’t, either.
At last, the dance is over and done, and the others scatter—to their homes, to after-parties, to back seats . . . you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care. You don’t even care that Mémé might be waiting up for you, though you told her not to. All you care is that you are, at last, away from that gym, alone with James. Already, the dance is almost forgotten, so unremarkable it was, even that unpleasantness on the dance floor.
Now—now, in James’s wagon, parked on the edge of the woods, where the air is cold and fresh, where the scent of damp pine is sharper and better than any perfume, you watch James spread the quilt. This is remarkable—lying on the blanket with James, feeling his hands in your hair as he finds and pulls free each hairpin, undoing you. These are remarkable—his kisses, tracing a path down your neck, his hands pulling low the sweetheart neckline of your dress, his nose brushing your right nipple, and then, a moment later, his lips capturing it, his tongue circling, circling, his teeth skimming and biting, not hard, just enough to make your hands tighten into fists and clutch the blanket, enough to make your legs begin to quiver.
And then he pushes up the tulle and satin of your skirt, rustling like wrapping paper coming undone, and his hands reach and find the lace panties you bought just especially for this occasion, and slowly, so slowly, he pulls them down your thighs, and you lift your hips to help him slide them free. Your feet are already bare, high heels abandoned in the front seat, so there is nothing to stop your panties from coming all the way off.
Oh, how much you want this. Whereas before, at the dance, you had been there for James, at his side as he enjoyed himself, now—here—you are your body. How much you want him to put his mouth on you, there, right there, at the crux of you.
Your combined breaths have fogged the windows of the wagon, the air is damp. Your head rolls with desire, frustration, as he moves his kisses from your right thigh to your left, as his fingers run up and down your legs, all the way down to your toes but never up all the way to your aching center.
Outside, on the other side of the cold, steamed-over glass, is the forest. Inside, there is just you and him, your James, the boy you love, the boy who loves you.
Do you shiver from desire? Do you shiver because it is cold? Do you shiver from anticipation, for the moment when—at last, at last—his mouth finds his way to the center of you?
At last, at last, he’s found his way there, a hand on each of your thighs, his head buried between them, and he’s not teasing you, not now, not anymore, he’s earnest in his desire to bring you desire, and yes, you think, as his tongue and lips press into you, as his fingers pull you apart, as you come undone beneath his hands, it is important to be earnest if this is what earnestness brings.
Yes, the smell of him, the sight of him, the feel of him, all of it familiar, but not this—the hot firm pressure of his tongue against your center, the insistence of his hands on your thighs, the building wonder of your pleasure rising, oh, that is not familiar, that is new, brand-new.
You gush—that is the word, the only word—you gush as the pleasure becomes too much to survive, and it bursts like a shaken-up can of soda, it tickles and it burns and it ripples from your center outward, in pulses of sensation so intense you are pinned by them, and your left hand curls into a fist and your right hand flails, hitting the damp cold glass and streaking away the steam, and your eyes open as the pleasure ebbs, and just then the clouds outside part, revealing the full white moon, unblinking, staring down at you from a black velvet sky.
James laughs, his gentle, happy laugh, and he looks up from where he’s crouched between your thighs, and he smiles, and you see his face in the moonbeam that pours through the strip of window you’ve wiped clean, and at first you don’t know what you’re seeing, you don’t know what to make of the redness on his chin.
It is your blood.
But why would you bleed? It’s pleasure you felt, not pain, but now the pleasure is gone and in its place is dread, and disgust, and shame, and though James does not yet know that your blood is on his face, he sees your expression change, he sees your brow wrinkle and your mouth purse. His own brow furrows in response.
“Bisou,” he says, “you okay?”
You don’t answer. At sixteen, you have waited long enough to start your period that you had all but given up on it ever coming—“Mine was late, too, don’t worry,” your grandmother has said—but here it is, this blood. You fumble with the door handle, ripping back a nail as you struggle, and then the door flies open with that familiar squeak, and you tumble out of the wagon and onto the pins and needles of the forest floor.
“Bisou!” James calls, and you hear him behind you, climbing out of the car, you feel his hand on your arm, but you yank free, you find your feet, you pull up the bodice of your dress, and you run, you run, ashamed and afraid, away from the boy, away from the car, away from the blood, and into the copse of trees that will hide you.
The Path of Pins and Needles
You have a long relationship with blood, but not your own.
Your first memory is red rich: Your mother scooping you from bed in the deepest velvet of night and cocooning you, still wrapped in blankets, in the back seat of the car. Rolling down the hill, the car in neutral almost to the corner before she turned the key and the engine growled to life.
Only when the car was nearly to the freeway, stopped at a red light just before the on-ramp, did she turn to look back at you, and there, in the red glow of the traffic signal, you saw that she was somehow both mother and not-mother, her face bathed in red from the light outside and from the cut above her right eyebrow, weeping blood, that whole side of her face distorted by the blood and the swelling of her jaw, and in the place of her nose, someone else’s nose. You pulled the blanket up over your head and squeezed tight your eyes, and then the car began to move again, speeding onto the freeway and away, away.
Now, among the trees, you are away again. You run, here in shadow and there in moonlight, through the woods behind the high school and toward your home, as fast as you can go. Your dress slips down as you run, and you hold it up with one hand to cover your breasts even though there is no one here to see, and you feel the slick-soft wet of your blood dripping from the core of you, down the insides of your thighs.
You picture James as he looked in the car—his sweet face, his eager smile, the blood—and you shake your head violently, as if you could shake the image and the shame away, away.
The forest floor is thick and sharp with pins and needles, and they pierce the pads of your bare feet, the tender skin between your toes. It’s all shadows and angles, the forest, with the moon-full sky above making everything eerily not-dark. Moonlight illuminates your path, and you can make out the long-limbed bodies of trees all around you, the way their arms reach as you pass, the way their fingers brush against you, the way they caress and claw you.
Your heart hurts, it beats so fast, it is beating you from the inside, each drum a punishing blow—how dare you bleed, how dare you be so gross. James’s face flashes behind your eyes and you hear the little cry you make, like an injured animal, so ashamed that it seems anything would be better than this, anything, anything, even death.
You smell it, though you cannot see it. Over there, up ahead and to the left—something has died. Not today, but not that long ago. It is beginning to rot, that is what you smell, flesh breaking apart beneath fur, maggots that plump up the carcass, doing their work.
Bigger than a squirrel, bigger than a rat. A possum, maybe, or a raccoon.
You don’t know how you know this, only that it is true.
There—on the right, forty feet up—a nest. You hear a pair of owlets stirring. Their mother is away.
And there, behind you, is the fall of running feet. James, coming after you.
But . . . wait. Not two feet.
You don’t know how you know these things—the smell of the dead animal, the presence of the nest, that something is pursuing you and that it is not James. Right now, it doesn’t matter how you know them, only that you do know them. Just as you know that the animal that pursues you is faster than you are, that soon it will be at your back, and that you cannot flee, you will have to turn and fight.
There. A femur-thick felled branch. You scoop it up, you turn and heft it over your shoulder. Your dress was not made for this; the bodice is slipping down again, your breasts half out, and you have more important things to do than maintain modesty.
Your eyes scan, your ears listen. You wait.
It is coming.
Your feet are hip-wide, right slightly in front of left, branch swung up over your left shoulder, like a baseball bat. Though you have been running, though your heart has been punishing you for bleeding, now it is obedient, its beats steady and controlled.
Your heartbeat? Footfalls? Both, twined together.
And then—there—in a glint of moonlight, there, a wide grinning mouth full of teeth, a thick red tongue, a huge pewter-pelted wolf.
You have three seconds before he is upon you. He will go for your throat.
Three seconds is less than a breath.
You have only seen one other wolf in your entire life. At the Zoo de Granby. You were four years old. Mama held your left hand in her right, both ensconced in mittens. First snowflakes floated around you, promises of winter. You wore the rabbit-fur coat and matching cap that Mama had bought for you at the friperie, though she herself still wore a too-thin raincoat belted over her thickest sweater.
That wolf was honey brown and sleeping, curled like a dog in its enclosure.
“Un chien!” you called, pleased that you knew the word, in this new tongue you were learning.
“Non,” Mama answered. “Un loup.” And then, kneeling beside you so she could whisper in your ear, “A wolf.”
Two seconds. Your toes grip the earth, the path of pins and needles, the best they can. You dig in your heels.
One second. Your fingers tighten on the branch, your muscles assess the heft of it. Your dress has slipped now beneath your breasts, your nipples tightened against the cold.
And then he leaps, the pewter wolf, he pushes off his powerful haunches and flies through the air toward your throat.
There is, in that moment, an instant of silence. The beast’s feet are off the ground and beat no more; in your chest, your heart holds its breath. The owlets in their aerie freeze into stillness; the raccoon corpse says not a word.
There is nothing but the wolf’s enormous mouth full of teeth—the better to eat you with—and your own self, and the awareness of another hot pulse of blood emerging from your center, dripping down your thigh, and landing, like a premonition of more blood to come, on the pins and needles of the forest floor.
And then that moment is over, as all moments are, and the next begins, as all moments do.
The wolf’s eye shines cruelly, his hot breath steams and stinks.
You swing the branch, the muscles in your arms and shoulders exploding into action as if they have been waiting all their sixteen years for just this moment. It’s a good swing—solid, strong, timed just right—and the branch connects with the wolf’s jaw, twisting his head hard to his left, a spray of spit and blood erupting from his mouth.
His whole body is knocked off course, away from you, and he falls to the ground and rolls slowly to his feet.
It was a clean hit, but you can tell by the weight of the branch in your hands, without your eyes ever leaving the wolf, that the blow has compromised your only weapon. It is ruined, the top third disappeared into a shattering of splinters, the shaft sharp-tipped and jagged now, so you change your grip, holding what remains like a spear rather than a bat, and you change your stance, too, from the defensive posture of a batter to the offensive position of a fighter.
The wolf shakes his shaggy gray head as if to right his brain. He’s gotten all four feet under him now, and he looks up at you from beneath his pewter brow. His near-black eyes assess you.
Despite the blow you’ve struck, the wolf’s hackles rise and a growl gurgles up from his throat, menacing but unafraid. He does not fear you. He does not respect you. Do not mistake the stance he now takes, the pause in his attack, as proof of either. You are prey to him. You are a consumable object.
You do not wait for him to attack again. Maybe he is still rattled from the blow to the head. Maybe his feet are still unstable beneath him. Perhaps this advantage will last no more than a moment, and so you take it.
Breasts bared, teeth bared, you scream. It’s high, your scream, unmistakably female, and it propels you forward, the sharp-spiked stick jabbing as you lunge, and you aim for the eyes—the better to see you with—and the wolf is still slow from the first blow, still off-balance, for though he sees you coming, he doesn’t dodge quickly enough, and you feel the meaty wet squish of his right eyeball skewered on the point of your stick.
The wolf yips in surprised pain, and he bats away your weapon with a sharp-clawed paw, and though you’re gripping it as best you can, it’s torn from your fingers and gone.
The wolf’s right eye is swelling closed around the mean sharp splinter that pierces it. It’s not nothing, the blow to the head and the splinter to the eye, but it’s not enough, not by far.
You are alone in the woods, seen only by the unblinking yellow moon. Your hands are empty. You are nearly naked. And the wolf is angry.
Hackles up, the wolf advances. If he underestimated you, if that was an advantage, it is gone now. Each step brings him closer, brings the potential of your death closer.
But that is true, wolf or no, of each moment.
There is a tree at your back. It rises behind you like all of history—your history, the history of girls in forests, the history of wolves and fangs and blood.
Another gush of blood flows from you, and you see the wolf’s nose twitch as he smells the iron in the air. You are made of blood and your blood is made of iron.
You bleed, but are not injured. Not yet.
“Not today,” you promise—yourself? the moon?—as the wolf attacks again. But it is as though you know what his moves will be before he makes them, and you can adjust according to this knowledge—he will go for your throat, because that is what wolves do, and you will step toward him, not away, because you are not his prey.
Your hands shoot out, empty but not powerless, and as his jaw snaps at you, so close you feel the skim of his teeth on your flesh, the slice of his claw at your breast, you find his neck, your fingers plunge deep into his lush fur and you lunge past him, using his power to propel him, head first, into the enormous trunk of the tree behind you.
There’s the sound of his head on the tree, and the sound of the snap of his neck, and the thud of his body as it falls upon the pins and needles.
And then there is just the ragged sound of your own breath.
He is beautiful, the pewter wolf, dead at your feet, except for the splinter protruding from his once-shiny eye, and the way his head angles too far to one side, connected to its body by flesh but no longer by bone.
You find the bodice of your dress way down by your waist, and you pull it up, back into place, as you turn away from the wolf and toward home.
you don’t know why mothers leave
you don’t even know that they do leave
but they do
N’oublie pas d’oublier
You were always cold in Quebec. When you and Mama first arrived, it was on the edge of winter. Dead grasses and gray skies and a mean, biting wind. It was a different color, the landscape, lavender-gray in a cold, cruel way, too cold to be green like back home in Washington State. It was another country of coldness. It was another world.
But you weren’t to talk about home. You learned that quickly. “N’oublie pas d’oublier,” Mama said over and over again, as if it were a line from a storybook, from a song. She said it as the two of you walked through the trees that rimmed the property; she said it as you bent to collect smooth, round stones; she said it as you skipped the stones across the small pond behind the barn; she said it as she kissed you good night, loosing a cupped stone from your palm. Don’t forget to forget.
Then the snow came, the hush and rush of winter. It fell with the dense weight of sleep, covering all your tracks. Tree branches curtsied with the white weight upon them. Shhh, said the winter, the quiet, shining winter. When the sun broke through the overcast sky, its brilliance on the snow was blindingly bright, but it couldn’t ever stay out for long, the snow-heavy clouds gathering thick and gray in the sky. With each snowfall, Mama’s bruises lightened. The air grew colder and colder, and the pond grew a crust of ice, so that stones thrown slipped across it and skidded atop its surface. As the ice hardened, Mama’s face softened. She looked more like before, but not quite the same. Her nose was different, raised in the center with a hard, ugly bump that you didn’t like, that she stroked with her left index finger when she was thinking about something, staring out the window into the blank snow.
The windows—they did not help. They were thin, made of old glass, Mama said, and frigid air crept in around the old wooden frames, rattling them like chattering teeth.
Ah, but they were beautiful. Each morning, though the bed you shared with Mama in the sleeping room was a cocoon of shared warmth, you’d wrap your special blanket around your shoulders like a cape and you’d run to the window to see what the night had done.
Each morning was different, but always beautiful—frost ferns, Mama called them, the pictures sketched in ice on the glass. Feathery leaves and trees and flowers bloomed across the window, magical gifts from nature, Mama said.
Or fairies, you imagined.
You would travel down the stairs and into each room, to see each miracle—the twin tall rectangles of glass in the dining room; the squat, square window above the kitchen sink; the wide, paned windows of the sitting room, each squared-off panel its own little work of art.
Landscapes in white unfolded all around, sparkling and impossibly detailed.
You loved them, and the cold seemed a small price for such beauty. But Mama frowned in the mornings, shivering as she worked to build the fire.
You remembered the house Mama had taken you from, the house with Papa in it. That house had been warm—sometimes suffocatingly so. Hot and stuffy and full of Papa in a way you did not miss.
You could bear this cold.
Still, Mama shuttered the windows, going down to the basement to retrieve sets of green-painted wooden panels and trudging with them around the perimeter of the house, affixing a set to each window. You watched from inside as one by one the windows went dark, as the house grew dimmer and dimmer.
But she left bare the sitting room window, the one that faced the driveway, and though she didn’t say why, you knew the reason. So she could watch.
For though she urged you to remember to forget, she did not forget, not for a moment, as she sat by that window, looking out, one finger tracing the uneven ridge of her nose.
You wake but do not open your eyes. The sheets are tangled. Your hair, tangled too. Eyes squeezed shut, you make a wish that it was a dream, last night, all of it—that today is yesterday and that tonight is the dance, that James has not yet come for you, that you have not yet come for James, that there is no blood on his chin, that there has been no run through pins and needles, that you have not seen the wolf.
But you know that today is today and not yesterday. You know time flows only in one direction—onward—and that you flow, too, that the stickiness between your thighs is proof that all of it happened.
When you got home last night, you put on your biggest underwear and you lined the crotch of them with one of the pads that have been waiting for you in the back of your bathroom cabinet for four years now. But you know even before looking that the pad was an insufficient barrier between your blood and your bed. You’ll have to deal with the blood. You’ll have to open your eyes.
And so you do, though they are dry and painful to peel open. You blink, you rub your palms against them, you sit up.
There it is, the press of the pad in your underwear. You throw back your cover and swing your legs over the edge of the bed. You stand.
The bottom sheet is marked with an uneven red-brown stain. It’s dry, and you throw the duvet back up to conceal it. Later, you’ll deal with that. First, you must deal with your body.
In the bathroom, on the toilet, you watch with fascination as the stream of your urine mixes with the thick rivulet of blood that emerges from you. Viscous, it moves slowly; your urine shoots and sprays, but the blood languishes, takes its time. Unhurried. On its own schedule, as you suppose it always has been.
Every girl you know has had her period for years. You must be the unluckiest girl in the history of girls to begin menstruating at the absolute worst moment, the most mortifying, terrible instant.
But thinking of that instant brings with it the memory of the press of James’s tongue, the brush of his dense, dark hair against your thigh, the blinding, confusing pleasure that washed over you, that made you tremble. The memory is a mix of pleasure and shame, and you wonder: For the rest of your life, every time you experience that pleasure, will shame be its shadow?
The loud pulse of water from the shower separates you from this thought and you step beneath the cascade of warmth, closing your eyes and resting your forehead against the cold, hard tile wall. You give yourself a long moment to just stand there, your hair straightening under the weight of water, falling into curtains around your face.
Then you do all the things one does—washing and rinsing and conditioning and shaving. You would give anything for it to not be a school day, but alas, it is, and as you prepare your body for the day, you try to heed your mother’s imperative from so long ago: don’t forget to forget. If you could forget the last twelve hours, oh, you would.
For though you have done your best not to think about it, there is, alongside your blood and shame, the question of the wolf.
You killed it. That, you know. It must have been rabid. That is the only reason it would have attacked you. Or maybe it was starving.
It didn’t look rabid or starving. It looked . . . smart.
But you were smarter. Or luckier. You don’t know.
You crank off the shower. You grab your towel and rub it over your hair, across your shoulders, between your legs, just as you always do, but this time there is a streak of bright-red blood. You close your eyes against it. It’s okay. You’ll just wash the towel along with your sheets, and you’ll have to remember, next time, that this is your body now. It bleeds.
You will have to relearn your morning routine. You wrap the towel, bloody side out, around your waist, and you go to the cabinet under your sink, where you found the pad last night. You kneel in front of the cabinet and poke around, the sink drain in the middle of everything, push aside the extra bottle of shampoo and the mouthwash and the pink plastic bag of pads you tore open last night, and then you find it—a small box of tampons, pushed way in the back by time and disuse, and you take it out, sit back on your heels, open it.
They are lined up like white plastic-wrapped bullets. No applicators. Why your grandmother chose this brand for you, you have no idea, but this is what you have.
You find the edge of the plastic wrapping and twist it off. The box contains a little page of directions, which you glance at but don’t read; after all, how hard could it be? There is really only one thing to do with a tampon.
You hold it, one hand on the cotton shaft and the other on the long blue string, and you pull the string in a circle to widen the cotton fibers at the base. Then you balance it on your left pointer finger, sit back on your bath mat, and open your legs, the towel falling wide.
There is the pelt of your pubic hair. You keep it trimmed close and neat around the edges, but you like the way it looks and have bucked the fashion magazines that advise you to shear it completely. There is the nub of your clitoris, and again you push away the memory of what James did last night with his tongue. With your right hand, you pull apart the lips of your vagina, and with your left, you angle the tampon toward its opening. You are slick with blood, and so the tampon slips in easily. You push until you’re knuckle-deep in your own body, the first time you’ve touched yourself like this—though you have rubbed your clitoris and touched the outside, you’ve never put your fingers inside, somehow feeling like it was not right, like it would be trespassing.
It’s warm in there, almost hot. It feels like what it is—a muscular tube, made of flesh.
The tampon’s tip pushes against the wall of your vagina, and you straighten it out, and then it feels like nothing is there at all. You stand, rinse the blood from your index finger, and survey yourself in the mirror. The towel has fallen, and you are naked. The slope of your shoulders, the wet brown curls that drip onto your chest. The thrust of your small breasts. Nipples that seem darker than you imagine they should be, the right one smaller than the left. Round hips, thick thighs. The light-blue string emerging from your center. You tuck it up, and it disappears.
There. Now no one could guess, by looking at you, how different you are this morning from yesterday’s morning. Now you look just the same. Identical to that girl, the girl you were.
N’oublie pas d’oublier.
Mémé is at the kitchen table with her cup of tea. Always tea, never coffee. She is reading poetry, you can tell from the way the words scatter across the page. You stand in the kitchen doorway, watching her read.
She is the only grandmother you know who keeps her hair long—longer than yours, even, nearly to her waist, steel gray and white with a few last sweeps of brown, and clear white around her temples, braided.
Right now, she is wearing the bathrobe you gave her for her last birthday, her sixty-first. It is thin, silk, not quite pink but not quite gray, and is knotted firmly at her waist by a scarlet sash rather than the matching belt it came with.
This is Mémé—that scarlet sash.
“You got home late,” she says, eyes still on the poem. “How was the dance?”
She looks up then, and you love that face so much. You love the thickness of her eyebrows, still dark. You love that her eyes are hazel-flecked, like yours, like your mother’s between you. You love the soft skin of her cheeks, the deep lines in her brow and around her mouth, the lips that have kissed and comforted you nearly all your life.
Those lips tighten. “Bisou,” she says, “what’s the matter?”
And there’s a moment where you nearly tell her everything—everything—the blood, the shame, the race through the forest, the attack by the wolf, your escape. She is the sort of grandmother you could tell such things. She has been, for these past twelve years, since you returned to Washington and moved into her home, a vessel for almost all your feelings, your fears, your concerns. She has become the voice you hear inside your head, better than a conscience—Mémé is cautious and smart, always fair, tough sometimes, yes, but true. It is a good voice to carry with you, and you yearn to hear it now, telling you everything will be okay.
But every relationship has its limits, you realize suddenly, as you swallow back the words that wish to spill out. You are not going to tell your grandmother about the feel of James’s mouth between your legs. You are not going to tell her about your orgasm in his old blue wagon, or about the moonbeam that illuminated his face just as he looked up to see your pleasure on your face and showing you your blood on his.
And you are not going to tell her about what happened after.
“It was fine.” And you go to the kettle for water for your morning tea.
“I didn’t hear James drop you off,” Mémé says. “That clunker of his usually is loud enough to wake up the whole street.”
You scoop some English breakfast into the infuser, lower it into your favorite mug—the fat-bottomed one with a lid—and pour a stream of boiling water over it. Aromatic steam billows up and you breathe it in.
“You must have really been asleep,” you say, and there, you have lied two times to Mémé in the span of ten seconds.
The water in your mug turns to tea as you slice a piece of bread from the loaf near the sink. Mémé bakes twice a week, and today, Monday, is a baking day. Already dough is rising in a bowl on the countertop, draped with a blue checked dishcloth. There will be fresh bread when you get home from school.
“I’ll be going out to market today,” Mémé says, sipping her tea. “Do you need anything special?”
You shake your head and slip the slice of bread in the toaster.
“If you think of anything, call me before noon,” Mémé says. “I’ll be heading out then.”
Mémé’s bone-deep distaste for cell phones means that she almost always forgets hers at home and barely ever checks her messages; if you need to get ahold of her, you have to catch her on the landline or leave her a note. It’s then that you realize you don’t have your phone; you must have left it, along with your shoes, in James’s car.
When the toast pops up, you slather it with butter and drizzle honey both on the bread and into your tea, now near-black, dump the loose tea leaves into the compost bin, and snap the mug’s lid into place.
Mémé has been watching you move about the kitchen—you feel her watching you—but this is not unusual. Mémé watches people. It’s just the way she is.
You zip a jacket over your sweatshirt, shoulder your backpack, wrap your toast in a cloth napkin, and take up your tea. “I’ve gotta go,” you say. “I’m late for the bus.”
But you would never leave without kissing her goodbye, and so you turn, lower your face as she turns hers up, and you kiss, left cheek, right cheek.
“Des bisous de ma Bisou,” she says, as she always does. “Kisses from my kiss,” a play on your name.
It’s the familiarity of the routine, probably, a force of habit, that prompts you to say, just before you leave the house through the kitchen door, “Oh, I got my period, finally.”
Your hand is on the doorknob, and you turn back to smile goodbye, and Mémé’s face is open in a way you have never seen. Her eyes are wide, her forehead deeply wrinkled, her mouth round.
You open the door, and a brace of wet, cold wind knocks you back a bit, so you struggle out to the porch to close the door quickly, not wanting to let too much of the outside in.
Hood up, eyes down, you descend the steps and head toward the sidewalk, hurrying now to make your bus.
Your steps slow as you contemplate Mémé’s expression. The wide eyes. The open mouth. She looked . . . surprised? Yes, that. But also, something else.
You get to the bus stop just in time to see the plume of exhaust as your bus pulls away. You could run after it and yell for it to stop. Maybe it would. But what is the hurry? You don’t want to hang out in the hallways before class, and James shares your homeroom . . . are you really so eager to see him again?
You will walk. You’ll arrive late, but so what? It’s drizzling, but that’s nothing here in the Pacific Northwest, where rain is constant throughout the fall, winter, and even spring. You’ve got the hood of your sweatshirt to protect your hair and your mug of tea to warm you.
So you cut right, across the misty park, and you bite into your still-warm bread, sticky with honey.
School, when you arrive, is quiet, classes already in session. The wide swath of steps that leads up to the door of the old stone and brick building is dark with wetness, and you take it slowly. You are already late—why rush now?
Raphael, the security guy, sits on his stool just inside the purple, glass-paned front doors, paper folded open. He’s got a cup of coffee squeezed between his legs. He must be reading something interesting because he barely registers your entrance, raises his chin slightly without raising his eyes, and waves you to the admissions office.
You’re not the only person arriving late today; there are a few bleary-eyed stragglers in the hall, and Big Mac pushes out of the attendance office just as you reach for the door to go in, a gray cast across his usually pink skin telling the story of how much he must have had to drink at whatever after-party he went to last night, and how he must have woken up feeling this morning. He raises his chin at you in a halfhearted greeting, something he wouldn’t have bothered doing last year, before you were James’s girlfriend.
Inside, the office feels off. Everyone is there who is usually there—Ms. Nguyen at the front desk, a couple of student aides pretending to file things but really checking their phones, the half-closed door to the principal’s office no different than any other morning. But you sense something, something you don’t have the words for. A disturbance.
Ms. Nguyen shakes her head when she sees you standing in front of her desk. “Really, Bisou, you too? I would have expected better.” She dashes her signature on a tardy slip and tears it from the pad, handing it to you. “Off to class,” she says, and so you go.
“I don’t know if it’s any better this way, having the dance on a Sunday and all of them showing up late and hungover,” she complains behind you as you push through the door.
“Sharing, Valuing, and Caring About Each Other’s Feelings,” reads the banner above the entranceway into the main hallway. It’s a new sign, bright-yellow background, letters all in blue except for Caring, which is an enormous looming red word in the middle of the banner, its i dotted with a red heart.
The floor is speckled gray-white linoleum, scuffed here and there, and slashed across with bands of brick red, for contrast. All down the right side of the hall spans an enormous mural—a visual history of Washington State. Here, a gathering of Native Americans incongruously holding aloft a sign that reads “The Garfield High School History Project”; there, a group of unsmiling Chinese immigrants; farther down, a half-finished building on the edge of the water, a ship in the distance.
The hallway is silent but for your steps, the occasional squeak of your sneaker on the linoleum, and the tinny, faraway slam of a locker. You pause outside your chemistry classroom. You don’t want to go inside.
But you do, of course, and you’re grateful that the door opens in the rear of the class. You slide into your seat. Ms. Walker is turned away from the students, working something out on the board, some molecular equation, and you take out your notebook and copy it down. Toward the front, near the window, you see James. His head is down, he’s writing in his notebook, and the back of his neck is exposed. Seeing it fills your eyes with unexpected burning tears—the vulnerability of it. The bareness of his skin.
He’s wearing a red-and-black checked flannel with a black puffer vest. His long legs, stretched out, reach underneath the seat in front of him—Keisha Montgomery’s seat—and are in a pair of deep-black jeans. He’s wearing his basketball shoes, the high-tops.
He wore those same shoes last night, with his jacket and tie. The same jeans, too.
Maybe he feels your eyes on his neck, because he brings his hand up and rubs it.
You look down. You don’t want him to turn around and see you staring at him. What will you say? He’s going to be disgusted by you, by last night. He probably won’t break up with you, though, because he’s not that kind of guy. You’ll have to do it. There’s no way he could be with you again, after last night. How could he? After you . . . bled like that?
You imagine the blanket he spread in the back of his wagon, bloodied by you.
Disgust. He must be disgusted. You are disgusted. Disgusting.
Then—shit. It occurs to you that you should have packed some tampons into your bag. That was stupid, not to do that.
You scan the class. There’s Maggie, playing with a long strand of her flaxen hair, dreaming out the window. You could ask her, but you don’t want to maybe have to deal with whatever feelings she might be having about what you said to Tucker at the dance last night. Your eyes return to Keisha, in front of James. Her hand moves quickly across paper on her desk, taking notes. Her twists are wrapped into their characteristic low bun, out of the way. You can ask her. She’s the prepared type, always with an extra pencil, happy to hand out sheets of paper to anyone who comes to class unprepared.
You don’t really like the idea of asking anyone for a favor. It’s just not the way Mémé has raised you, to need anything from anyone. It’s not that she had actively discouraged you from asking for help; she didn’t have to. Just looking at the way she lived her life—practically a hermit, making for herself things that she could easily buy, never bringing home friends or going out to eat—told you all you needed to know about how best to live.
Your mother told you the rest.
Someone’s phone beeps—an incoming text. Ms. Walker looks around, annoyed, but it’s impossible to tell whose phone it was. Her gaze lands on you.
“Bisou,” she says. “Do you have a tardy slip?”
You hold it up. She folds her arms and raises one eyebrow. You sigh, stand, and deliver it to her at the front of the class.
“Not like you to be late,” she says, accepting the pink slip of paper.
Behind you, suddenly, phones begin to vibrate, all across the class, like a breaking wave. People pull their phones out of backpacks, out of jacket pockets. A gasp. And then another. Students begin to murmur.
They are talking about you. The certainty of it is a crash of nausea in your gut. James must have told someone, just one someone, about what happened last night, in his car, after the dance. And that someone—one of his basketball friends, probably—told somebody else. Who told someone else. And now everyone knows, and right behind you, they’re all laughing. They’re all covering their mouths and laughing at you.
You lift your chin and prepare to face him. You will level him with your gaze. You know how. You got it from Mémé, the ability to wither with a glance. She doesn’t need anyone, and it was a mistake, you feel with sudden clarity, to want James as much as you did. It leads to pain, love. Always. You should have known.
But when you turn, it is different than you expect. Yes, they all are holding their phones, James included . . . but their faces are wrong. Not laughing, not disgust—shock. Horror, even.
Ms. Walker feels it, too. She doesn’t reprimand the class for having their phones out. “What is it?” she asks. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Tucker Jackson,” Keisha says.
“What about him?” Ms. Walker folds your tardy note, absentmindedly, into the pocket of her blazer. “What happened?”
“He’s—it says he’s dead.”