The Cure for Boyhood
by Josh Rountree
The boy used to be a coyote until his parents decided to cure him.
• • •
This is how that happens. The coyote is caught unawares climbing back through his bedroom window, still reeling from the darkness. Fur falls away as his body contorts and the teenage boy inside unwillingly shrugs off his animal skin in long strips, like orange rind being peeled away with a paring knife. It’s in this bloody, in-between state of existence that the parents grab hold of their child and press him onto the bed. There’s much wrestling with ropes and the boy is still a bit stronger than he’ll be when his human self emerges entirely, but the parents are well prepared and binding their little animal to the bed is necessary and good.
The parents have seen all the movies and rejected more extreme solutions. Silver bullets, for one. And fire, another well-known method for destroying monsters. But this isn’t really a monster — this is their only son.
Wolfsbane then? Not exactly, but close enough.
There’s a woman who lives on the north side of the railroad tracks. Children call her witch, hag, bruja. They dare one another to knock on her door. Every child knows someone who knows someone who went inside that house, never to be seen again, and the mythology of childhood is unshakable. The woman’s house leans in such a way that the next strong western wind might blow it over, and the north side of the tracks is the bad side of the tracks, so it was sheer desperation that drove the boy’s parents to knock on that door.
That’s how much they think they love him.
The father struggles to hold his son in place. Coyote blood still thrums behind the boy’s eyeballs. He releases a howl that freezes his mother in her approach. She holds a small fabric bag, no larger than her palm, a thing of supposed magic from the woman across the tracks. Filled with grave dirt, snake teeth, mesquite thorns. Impossible to say what else. And she knows what must be done but she loses her nerve for the span of that howl, captured by her fear of the animal she still can’t believe she gave birth to. Then her husband shouts, and she moves. She’s still thinking of those movies, believing that if she’s bitten it might be her next time, tied up on the bed, so she is careful, so careful, to avoid her son’s teeth when she shoves the bag into his mouth.
The father grabs the boy’s chin, forcing him to bite down. Teeth and thorns and blood. But there’s already so much blood.
Whatever is in the bag squirms to life, lodges itself in the boy’s throat so tight he can’t even cough. He tries to howl his parents into submission again but there’s no room left for noise anymore.
The boy goes still.
And when he wakes, he’s cured.
• • •
Removing the boy’s animal nature doesn’t cleanse him of all the things his parents hate, but for the most part, their minds are at ease, content in the knowledge of what he is not doing. Prowling. Peering at sleeping victims through unlocked windows. Robbing henhouses. They imagine so many things. The boy would think it was hilarious if his parents’ fears hadn’t stolen the best part of him. Even werewolves, which he most certainly is not, must have better things to do.
The truth of it is, the boy just likes to run.
Half of the town he lives in dried up and blew away before he was born. Acres of cotton fields surround the town on all sides, the only barrier against the thirsty West Texas horizon. On all fours, the boy speeds between the rows, throwing up clouds of dust behind him. There is nothing to stop him from running forever, save for the sunlight that will always force him back into the boy-shaped thing that he does not entirely understand. He’s afraid of what might happen if the sun catches him outside, if he transforms back into a naked, gangly creature there on some farmer’s land. So, he’s always careful to get home before sunrise.
This used to be a boom town. A place with an air-conditioned movie theater and a record store that Elvis Presley visited in the ‘50s. A Woolworth’s five and dime and a Montgomery Ward’s. The buildings remain, but what they were can only be glimpsed through the ragged reality of today. The town and its people are bone tired, yet they lay awake, wide eyed, and never do anything about it.
A somber oil refinery chugs along at the edge of town, burning off chemicals into the night sky, flames blinking like fireflies in the distance. A monument to yesterday’s prosperity.
Bits and pieces remain of the airbase built in the ‘40s. Bomber crews trained here during the war, and fighter pilots after that. The boy’s parents remember flyboys revving their Corvettes and Chargers through the bustle of downtown. Date nights at the country club. Fancy dinners at the steakhouse out on the highway. Then the airbase closed, and anyone left who didn’t have to be here moved far away.
That’s when the slow death began.
That’s when the town changed from a place that is, to a place that used to be.
But that airbase? The bones of it are still here.
This is where the boy really loves to run. Buckled and bearded with weeds, the runways remain. An air traffic control tower commandeered by snakes and daddy long legs spiders keeps watch as he speeds through the darkness. He is fast, so fast that sometimes he thinks he might lift off from the earth like the B-17s and P-51s and T-6 Texans that he’d assembled piece by piece from Revell model kits when he was younger. He could smell the chemical punch of the model glue as surely as the diesel exhaust from the planes as they lifted off, tearing away from him so fast in his mind that he could never keep up. The boy is winded, rolls to a stop in the tall grass at the edge of the runway and laughs.
All of this is gone now, too.
Like the town, the boy isn’t what he used to be.
• • •
The boy sits squashed between his mother and father at church. The threadbare cushion that runs the length of the pew seems designed for maximum discomfort. He wriggles his way into a less miserable position and his mother clamps one birdlike hand on his knee. Runways and cotton fields call to him. The world moves. But in here it feels like he’s holding his breath. Like the simple act of taking air in and out of his lungs is far too riotous. A sin beyond the pale.
The preacher is a kind enough man, always nice to the boy, a boisterous fellow who enjoys kicking back at the church picnics with a six pack and a carton of unfiltered cigarettes. Someone the parishioners appreciate because he embraces the same petty sins they do. But his sermon moves with all the speed of honey pouring from a plastic bottle and even the most devout are sneaking looks at their wristwatches. Standing in front of everyone, both hands gripping the podium and draped in his long black robe, the preacher is not the same man you might encounter on Saturdays in the café, sipping black coffee. He has donned the trappings of godliness. As a young man he chose this disguise for himself, and even though it may no longer fit him perfectly, the preacher can pretend he too is beyond these simple sins.
Disguises are handy things.
Despite the fact they are only weeks removed from stealing their son’s soul, the mother and father sit with their backs straight as yardsticks, comfortable in their pride. They’d surely considered asking the droning preacher to help with their problem, but if their son was really possessed by some sort of demon as they suspected, was that really the domain of a Protestant religion? Exorcists fell in the Catholic camp, and there were no Catholics here, at least not on the good side of the tracks. And besides, there were some problems the church could solve and others that were best taken care of at home.
Once the boy would have been able to hear heartbeats slowing down as the preacher’s drawl hardened around them, sealing everyone in place like ancient insects in amber. He would have smelled the sweat beading on the brows of everyone in the choir loft and the bacon grease stench of everyone’s fried breakfast.
But the world has dulled around him. Now a thing to be endured rather than experienced.
The cure his parents gave him is lodged tight in the boy’s throat like a bit of food he can’t swallow. Speaking requires a certain effort. His body rebels, but the cure remains intact.
The boy lets his tongue slide across twin canines, still sharp. His fingers tap a rhythm against his thighs. Mother’s clawed hand tightens.
When the air conditioner kicks on with a sound like a tractor engine turning over, it drowns out the preacher’s voice. The air conditioner doesn’t make a dent in the heat. The sanctuary is an oven, and the boy imagines the massive organ pipes behind the choir are smokestacks, choking out the earthly remains of the whole captured congregation. They’ve been laid low with apathy by this endurance test of a sermon and are content to simply burn to death without further resistance.
It’s all too much.
The boy sloughs off his mother’s hand and stands, accidentally knocking her hymnal to the floor. The preacher stops speaking mid-sentence. He stares at the boy with his mouth slightly ajar as if he’s expecting a question and readying an answer.
The boy pushes past his father, into the aisle, and escapes. It’s hotter outside, but here he can feel the wind against him.
Here he can take a breath.
• • •
Fields of cattle, cotton farms, land razed flat to support oil derricks in their lonely, ceaseless labors. All separated from the unspooling highway by barbed wire strung between mesquite posts, taut and toothy. The boy has biked here, miles out of town, and though the bike is no substitute for the speed of his own four feet it’s all he has now.
Coyote carcasses hang from the fence posts in bunches, some of them desiccated to the point their pelts are nearly transparent, others still black with blood. This is how farmers endeavor to keep other coyotes off their land. Away from their livestock. As if their dead brothers are warning enough to stave off the hunger that draws them close in the first place.
The boy steps down on one strand of barbed wire, pressing it to the ground, while he lifts another up, careful not to grab the barbs. He widens the gap between the two strands enough to fit, barely snagging the back of his T-shirt as he heads his way through, a maneuver that every child in this place has mastered before they are in middle school.
And he is standing deep in the turned earth, eyes set on the far end of the field where all the cotton rows seem to converge like an arrowhead at the same magical point. He knows it’s an optical illusion, but it’s a place he desperately wants to be.
So, the boy runs.
He’s careful not to step on the low, leafy cotton plants, crisp and dry and thirsty for the sort of rain they haven’t seen this season. The thinnest sliver of white shows itself in the shadows of their growth. When the season draws to a close, the brown bolls will split open to reveal the cotton fibers within. The field will look like four inches of late summer snow.
At the far edge of the field, a rusted green tractor clatters along, plowing between the rows. Men with wide brimmed hats bend their backs to hoes, chopping at the desperate slivers of grassbur and thistle that shoot up beneath the plants, too close for the plow to catch.
There is only so much sustenance in the earth. Only so much food for hungry animals. Only so many paying jobs to be had under the weight of a blistering sun.
Everything in this place is consumed with its own struggle for life.
The boy remembers how light his feet were when he would race these rows at night, a shape built to cut the darkness. But the sun is high and he’s just a boy. His progress is sluggish. His too-large feet sink deep into the loose soil.
His lungs burn like brushfires.
He’s not going anywhere.
Eventually the boy tires himself out, no closer to his destination than when he started running. He lies on the ground, eyes closed, the sun burning red against the backs of his eyelids.
Flies drink the sweat from his brow, but he doesn’t bother to swat them away.
• • •
There was a time the boy would slip out through his window every night, assume his true shape, and live. Always finding his way home before his parents came in to wake him for school. Always half asleep in class, daydreaming about empty streets and stars spilled across a cloudless sky. The air was juniper and creosote and the tickle of sand in his nose.
The boy can still taste those nights in his teeth.
Now he sneaks out that same window and mounts his bike. Pedals under the streetlights, trying to find something of himself again. His instincts have been caged, but not killed, he thinks. The boy can feel the coyote blood still inside, and when he pedals harder, his bones shift against the underside of his skin, eager to snap and bend and reform.
His progress is aimless, he has nowhere to be.
So, like others his age, he winds up at the drive-in.
The great beacon that pulls them all in is a tall neon sign in the shape of a wagon wheel. Cars idle at the food order stations, engines still running so the air conditioning doesn’t shut off. The place exists in its own illuminated bubble, and just beyond the reach of that light is where the boy climbs off his bike and watches, no more eager to leave the safety of darkness than when he was a coyote.
Preternatural senses aren’t necessary to breathe in the night and understand this place entirely. Onion rings and corndogs. Burgers charred black and milkshakes so thick you have to let them sit for a while before you can suck them through the straw. And everywhere, the hot smell of summer sand blown in from the farms. Collected on windowsills, on plastic tabletops, on dashboards littered with greasy food wrappers and dead wasps.
The boy counts the faces he used to know in elementary school. Eight or ten he remembers well, though in a town this size, he recognizes nearly everyone.
A few kids in denim jackets and black concert tees crowd around one of the walk-up tables. A guitar solo erupts from the jam box they’ve stationed amid a scattering of french fry bags and ketchup packets.
A couple of pickup trucks are parked, waiting for food. The cabs are tall enough that the guys inside don’t have to remove their cowboy hats. They sneak drinks from longnecks, then shove the bottles back between their legs.
Teenagers yell from car to car, and a girl shrieks with laughter. It’s an unsettling sound, like sheet metal being torn in half.
This is summer, deep in the night.
Nobody is thinking about tomorrow.
The boy is slick with sweat, and everyone else is too. Even so, the heavy metal kids at the walk-up table don’t shuck their jackets. That would be like removing a layer of skin.
And none of the cowboys roll up their long sleeves. They wear the outfit inherited from their parents and their grandparents. Jeans and boots and shirtsleeves buttoned at the wrist to protect against the sun and snakes and the thousand other perils that their ancestors faced.
They bear the heat and don’t complain.
The boy doesn’t fault them.
He understands it’s worth a little suffering to be the person you want to be.
They were all the same once, when they were younger. Before they diverged and transformed into the creatures they are now. Most of them have become exactly who they want to be.
Or, at least, who they want to be right now.
The boy dumps his bike and walks into the light.
He finds an empty table at the heart of the chaos. Girls, their bangs blown high with cheap hairspray, pass with trays full of food.Boys follow, bathed in grocery store cologne.
One arm, sliding around a slender waist.
Every one of them, believing they’ve achieved their final shapes.
Once perfected, nothing will ever warp them.
The boy’s bones shudder so violently that he nearly falls off the metal bench that’s bolted to the ground beside the table. He clings to the table with both hands, fighting to still himself.
A pickup truck brakes into a space nearby, headlights hitting the tables dead on. A pair of cowboys climb out, loud and laughing and fresh off a couple hours of two-stepping at the dancehall out on the highway. A year older than the boy is, then. Just old enough to get into bars with an underage X drawn on the back of the hand with magic marker.
The boy is wondering why he came out of hiding when the cowboys get so close that he can smell the menthol smoke from the middle-aged divorcées they’ve been dancing with.
Did he think somebody here would help him?
He convulses so hard that he finally draws the wrong kind of attention. A couple of cigarette butts come flying his way. Someone tosses a half empty beer can that skids across the tabletop and fizzes out in the grass. One of the cowboys puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder, comes close enough to speak right in his ear and the music is so loud now that the boy can’t make out what the guy is saying.
He’s too close.
The boy opens his mouth to tell the guy to back off, but that choking ball of magic is still lodged tight in his throat and he can only produce an animal hiss.
The guy keeps talking. Might be telling the boy it’s best he hit the road. Might be asking if he needs an ambulance.
It doesn’t matter anymore.
The boy’s bones clench up like a fist.
He turns, grabs the cowboy by the back of the head, pulls him close. Opens his mouth wide and tears into the guy’s throat.
Canines longer than they should be, rending.
The cowboy’s Stetson hits the ground, catches a burst of wind and skips away across the parking lot. His hands grasp at the remains of his throat, fingers flexing like he’s working to reassemble himself.
There is so much blood.
The boy feels it hot on his face, and in that instant the world around him stops like a watch that hasn’t been wound.
Then the cowboy drops to his knees and everyone exhales. They’re digging in their gloveboxes for revolvers. Retrieving tire irons and baseball bats from truck beds. Yelling for the carhop to call the cops.
The boy flees the light, finds his bike in the brush, and bolts. Ignoring the screaming, the angry shouts.
He’s really moving now.
• • •
Seventeen and no license to drive because he never needed one. Wheels would only slow a coyote down. But the boy on the bicycle wishes for more speed as the glow of the drive-in disappears behind him like a candle being snuffed out.
He wants to go home, but there’s no home left now.
He can taste the dead man in his mouth.
Bike tires rattle over the train tracks as he pedals for the only place he can think of to go. That thing in his throat is practically pulling him there. There’s only one place that people like his parents could have gone searching for a cure around here. The boy’s not stupid. He’s heard all the stories.
He’s looking for the house that leans.
When he finds the right street, it’s pitted and buckled, and there’s only an empty pole where a street sign used to hang. The boy rides to the end, where the asphalt gives way to a field of tall grass and clawing weeds. The wind chases him toward it, and he imagines that every discarded thing in town must eventually find its way here. Empty Coke bottles, rusted wheel rims, cigarette butts, all drawn to this place, helpless to resist its pull.
One streetlight stands tall, its light yellow and flickering.
Somewhere in the grass, animals move, though the boy cannot identify them. They are drawn here too, to the very edge of civilization. The outskirts of town.
The space just beyond the light.
There are people not so far away who don’t know this part of their town exists. And they would certainly never come here if they did.
The boy has never been here before, but he’s pretty sure his parents have.
He abandons his bike at the sidewalk and steps into the yard of the leaning house. But this is not the haunted house from the stories. Windows remain unbroken. Screams don’t emanate from within. The grass beneath his sneakers has been mowed recently enough that the boy can smell the clippings. And the house stands firm. It might lean just a bit on its foundation, but why wouldn’t it after a half a century of life? The house is tired, perhaps, but so are the rest of the houses on this street. The rest of the houses in this town too, if we’re being honest.
The boy wasn’t sure what to expect when he came here, but it certainly wasn’t just more of the same.
He climbs the porch steps and the thing in his throat begins to thrash. His bones feel like they’re lengthening, but the skin around them makes no accommodation.
His fists hammer at the screen door.
The witch peers out through the slit in her curtains but has no intention of answering. Her work is already finished. Even as the boy’s face lurches in pain, she can see the resemblance he bears to his father. The man who begged her to cure his son. She gave that man what he asked for, if not exactly what he wanted. She has lived a very long time and understands that life will unfold as it wants to, no matter how desperately one might want to nudge it one way or another. Hers is not to buck the will of creation. Hers is only to serve its purpose.
Outside on the porch she sees her old pair of gardening gloves, a potted cactus, a couple of lawn chairs, a wrought iron table with a half glass of water left behind. A boy on his knees. He wishes he could push enough air from his lungs to scream. The thing in his throat catches fire and threatens to burn him down from the inside. He whispers prayers. He begs someone to open the door and help him. Grabs his own throat, squeezes, tries to choke up whatever is inside him.
Both of his hands find the table, working to steady himself, his whole body shaking. And right there in front of him sits that glass of water. Condensation on the glass. Somehow still cold.
Like someone poured it and left it just for him.
The boy grabs the cup and drinks it down.
Howls fill the night. Animals lifting up their voices in the tall grass. The boy wails in answer. For a second, he thinks maybe he finally managed to choke up the thing in his throat, then he feels it going to work in his stomach. Settling deep inside him, warm and alive.
Hungry to remake him.
The porch light comes on at the house across the street. Someone shouts from next door. The neighborhood wakes, sleepy eyes trying to get a look at whoever is making so much racket at the strange old lady’s house. The boy crouches on her porch, someone else’s blood drying into the folds of his T-shirt, trying to stand, trying to hide. Failing at both.
So, he does what comes naturally. He scampers down the steps on all fours. He can hear the thunderclap of bones breaking beneath his skin, but he doesn’t feel the pain. Just the slow inferno rising up inside to burn away all the parts of himself that he doesn’t need anymore. He kicks his shoes off, feels the sidewalk against his toes and his palms. Muscles bind, twist, lengthen, propel him toward the tall, swaying grass.
The animal inside is really moving now.
In the field he races through the dense weeds. Every thorn and every knife-like blade of grass peel away a little bit more of the boy until he’s left everything behind. Blood and meat and ripped denim. Toenails and flat, stubby teeth. Preachers and parents and kindly old witches.
Then the coyote breaks out, beyond the grass, and there is nothing ahead of him but land, flat and endless.
He might run forever.
The coyote used to be a boy. But now he’s cured.
Copyright © 2021 by Josh Rountree