If dreams were lightening, thunder were desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago
-John Prine, Angel from Montgomery (1971)
The first time she met Waverly Earp, the Earp girl was eight years old and Nicole weren’t much better. She was wearin’ a dress so worn you could almost count the threads at her knees and Nicole was pretty much naked, which is a rough way to meet anybody.
And the only thing less flattering than bein’ disrobed and awful to look at was how quick the girl was to scream. It certainly weren't the reaction she wanted, but it was definitely the one she was expecting. She'd seen her face like that - the teeth, the thick matted fur, the gangly clawed limbs and the teeth.
She took one look at the tears beading in Waverly’s eyes as she tripped backwards and screamed for her Daddy and learned exactly what it meant to be what she was.
That’s what she called her anyhow. It’s what they’d call her the rest of her damned life.
“Daddy! A monster!” Waverly wailed, scrambling backwards on bleeding knees and red rashed palms across the brambles at the edge of the Earp Homestead’s leaning fence while Nicole stood there, all four clawed feet cold and knees knockin’. Waverly shook her head violently while she cried, like if she denied Nicole’s existence hard enough maybe she’d just disappear with a pop and a fizzle into the thick humidity of a stubborn Purgatory summer in the fall.
Nicole wanted to tell her that it weren't that easy. Nicole wanted to tell her that she’d tried that – she’d tried that a lot, but there she still was. Eleven years old with eleven centimeter canines and sixteen thick claws on her hands and not a clue in the world why a full moon called to that thing in her heart the way it did. It just sang and sang until it ached so bad she weren't herself no more. She wanted to tell her that it was okay, that she only kinda wanted to taste her blood but she didn’t have to. She wanted to tell her that her name was Nicole and she was just lost. She wanted to tell her she was scared and she was sorry.
What came out instead was a panicked growl that pitched into a threatening whine. Waverly only sobbed louder, clutching at her knees and shutting her eyes tight in preparation for her demise.
It didn’t come, of course.
Nicole could taste her pulse and hunger grumbled low in her belly, but – hell, she wasn’t crazy. She weren’t like that. Not yet anyhow.
Nicole backed up, tripping over her paws and choking down anymore threatening sounds that she hadn’t meant. She ain’t ever meant any of it. Her ears flattened outward and she whined so quiet she thought maybe Waverly couldn’t hear it. But she had and she blinked up at the beast backing away with fearful confusion. Nicole retreated further until Waverly had lowered her hands from her face and ceased hollering for her Daddy.
When Nicole had backed up far enough that Waverly fell silent, she paused to see what would happen. Waverly seemed suspicious, but there was a curiosity sparkling in her eyes that gave her pause. Waverly tilted her head to the side and Nicole mirrored her. Intrigued, Waverly tilted her head to the other side and Nicole followed.
Just the barest hint of a smile pulled up the corner of Waverly’s mouth and she seemed about ready to open her mouth and say something when the crack of a shotgun split the muggy evening air.
Nicole jumped a foot in the air and Waverly screamed. A lanky girl had the gun aimed determinedly at Nicole’s face from the other side of the homestead fence. She hollered something scary in their general direction while Waverly whipped her head back and forth between the beast and her savior.
Nicole didn’t stick around for much more than that. She turned on her tail and fled, tripping over her four feet while the other Earp girl blasted a shot into the sand and dirt near enough to believe in god.
That was the first time Nicole saw Waverly Earp. That was also the first time someone tried to kill her for what she was – what she had been made.
But for neither thing was it the last.
Nicole was twelve and it’d been one year since some nightmare of a creature split her parents bellies’ open and snapped the bones in her leg in it’s gruesome jaws and left her for dead in the woods forty miles outside of a town she’d later come to know as Purgatory.
It was neither convenient nor enjoyable being – whatever she was. She’d thrash into existence, breaking and snapping bones and tendons when the full moon rose over the hills of her hometown like dyin’ a thousand times over. While the shadows crept long across the little farms and city streets, Nicole ran. She ran and ran and ran through massive farmlands and dry, gnarled desert while saliva frothed at her snout and her belly grumbled. Sometimes she’d howl long and sad at that stupid moon and-
Sometimes they’d howl back.
Now, Nicole wasn’t too sure who they were but if they were howlin’ too then maybe there were other wicked things out there with hungry, guilty bellies who were sad and lonely too. Nicole wasn’t so sure she wanted to meet somethin’ even half as ugly as she was, but the thought that maybe there were things like her made her feel just a little bit better. Maybe a little bit whole and less of a half.
She’d spent the last year in that scrubby, lonely wood eatin’ all manner of undesirable things when her belly clawed and scraped at her innards, moanin’ for something Nicole was too chickenshit to give it. Moaning for something warm. When the moon was bright and she was on all fours, she’d chew through the leathery, sun-beaten remains of flattened roadkill. It was sour and grisly, but it didn’t fill her up too bad. And wasn’t that something.
Twelve years old and admitting to yourself that roadkill wasn’t all that bad.
Of course, come that waning moon and Nicole would climb back on two feet at the end of dyin’ a thousand deaths. And while it’s probably nothin’ she had to point out, roadkill was a lot less pleasant when you were human. But Nicole’s Ma and Pa were rotting somewhere in the area of the woods she’d never step foot in again, so what was a twelve year old to do?
It was either let her sharp, starved ribs pop right through her skin and burst out her chest or drag to dinner a few inconspicuous carcasses from the lonely, dusty state routes that sped right past the one-horse towns out in that little piece of sand god wouldn’t so much as spit at.
Possum wasn’t so bad anyhow.
Well, it was. But so was dyin’.
Nicole would know, she did it just about all the time out there in that spitless land.
So that scary, lonely space between eleven and twelve was a long string of twelve moons, sour possum, nuts and berries that alternatively chewed through her stomach and lurched back up her throat until suddenly it’d been a year. Suddenly Ma and Pa were bleached bones and Nicole wasn’t sure she even changed back after the moon broke past full. She felt as much beast the other nights of the month.
The only word she’d spoken in those twelve months was on the eighth day after getting’ bit, when she stood in a clearing half-starved and decided to try a diplomatic word that her Pa used to use when things were…like that.
“Fuck,” she had said pointedly to the carrion crows eyeing her suspiciously.
The crows agreed. They looked at her like, you're next kiddo. Like Nicole was just thirty paces at dawn from becomin' bleached bones too.
Nicole didn’t speak again that year.
One chill winter full moon, barren and even more starved than it usually was, Nicole loped far out from her godless refuge and passed at an easy sprint to the edge of a town she still didn’t yet know was called Purgatory. She padded quietly to a trot as she circled the back of a smoky building full of shouting men. Something smashed inside and men roared louder. Nicole flattened her ears and dodged away from the building, melting between a supermarket and folding herself back into the night.
Near the edge of town she found a dumpster, teaming and ripe. And maybe it was nothing to be proud of, but she was awful hungry.
She scrambled up the side, digging long claws right through the metal and hooking in the sides to try and get her snout over the lip and to the smells inside. It was all tore up, shredded steel that shoulda made her feel a little guilty, but they could just very well bill her. She’d almost gotten inside it too before someone shrieked and cursed.
The last time someone shrieked at her, Nicole had damn near been blasted full of shotgun shells. The last year hadn’t raised no fool.
Nicole pushed off from the dumpster and scuttled away down the one road leading out of town. That one road led to a smaller one and an even smaller one and a rickety little mailbox that said ‘EArP’.
Snuffling around the fence, Nicole picked out a scent that tickled something in her memory – something like threadbear sundresses and scraped knees. She sank to a crouch, prowling through long shrubby grass around the perimeter until she was able to wiggle under the fence and crawl to the big barn casting a monstrous shadow across the property like a big ol' grimreaper that smelled a little like horse shit. A small light swung on a chain over the front door of a house next to it. Nicole knew she wouldn’t be welcomed there – she weren’t welcomed anywhere and who could blame ‘em - but she figured a little sniff around the barn couldn’t hurt.
The door was ajar and Nicole squeezed inside, upsetting a squabbling group of hens. Nicole licked her chops and stared while the hens scolded her and pecked around her toes, all business. And she might’ve been awful hungry, but Nicole was no scoundrel.
She’d never disturb a group of ladies that way.
Exhausted with her own failure and the early winter’s scarcity, Nicole let out a little whine and folded into herself, resting her snout on cold claws and watching while the hens pecked around the dirt and eventually came to nestle in her mangy fur for the night. Damn her tasty new friends. Damn them.
She’d about dozed off too when the barn door creaked open and a little oil lamp cast a light over the warm hay. Nicole’s ears perked up and she froze, watching young Waverly Earp watching her back.
Waverly didn’t scream that time.
Nicole lay there, covered in chickens with teeth sharp and ribs trying to poke out her chest and waited for the shotgun and the screams and the end.
As one does.
But Waverly just clutched her lamp to her chest and stared right back. After an eternity and a half, she took one tentative step forward. The old iron handle clacked and jittered with the shaking of the little girl’s hands.
Nicole felt so tired. She closed her eyes and focused on the fluttering heartbeats of the chickens resting in the little folds of Nicole’s muscle that hadn’t been gobbled up by the winter’s starvation. She breathed deep and even and forgave whatever followed.
She only opened her eyes again when the light from the lamp got close to her eyelids. She squinted up at Waverly. Her knees were as shaky as Nicole’s had been the last time they met.
“My monster,” Waverly whispered.
Nicole chuffed, but stayed still.
Waverly crouched down, knees up at her chin and placed the lamp next to Nicole’s head. “Are you a good monster?” She asked, real quiet.
Yes, Nicole wanted to say. I’m a good monster. But she didn’t really know the truth of that sentiment - not after twelve long months - and she couldn’t say it anyhow so she just stared back.
With all the determination of a nine year old on a mission, Waverly reached out one little hand shakin’ like a leaf. Nicole let the hand come to rest on her forehead, right between her ears and breathed out real slow while that hand sunk deep in her auburn hair.
Waverly, at least, seemed delighted by her accomplishment. She proceeded to pet between Nicole’s ears and down her back like any domesticated hound. It all felt a little ridiculous to Nicole, but then – well, how long had it been since someone had touched her?
It weren’t easy bein’ a twelve year old thing who ain't had the heart to kill nothin. So Nicole only kinda rolled her bloodshot eyes and settled into the contact like it was some great chore and not the single greatest thing to happen to her in the last year.
Waverly’s hand trailed down the top of Nicole’s snout to her wet nose and around to trace the length of a wickedly long canine. She snatched her hand back when Nicole blinked at her and giggled guiltily, like she’d been caught. As Waverly got bolder and began scratching her little nails right at the back of Nicole’s ears, she rumbled and purred pleasantly, only half embarrassed and more than a little heartbroken. Kindness in a desert had a way of breakin' you more than it healed. Warmed the numbness until you felt the pain. Some little part of her hoped Waverly’s family would burst in with their shotguns and blow her heart out with buckshot. It ached so bad she felt like maybe if she could just relieve the pressure it’d all be better.
They didn’t come, though, and Waverly leaned down to press a kiss between Nicole’s eyes.
“Good monster,” she whispered.
As most nine year olds do, Waverly eventually got bored with being cautious and cuddled up, hoisting Nicole’s chin so she could hold her entire head in her lap. Nicole grunted, but allowed it, not entirely sure how to deny a precocious child and not entirely sure she wanted to in the first place.
“I’m sorry Wynonna shot at you,” she murmured into the top of Nicole’s head. “She doesn’t mean it. You’re just a little scary. She didn’t know you’re a good monster. Daddy didn’t tell us about good monsters.”
Well, neither did Nicole’s Pa, but you don’t see her shootin’ at random, good folks in a bit of a bind.
And aint’ that a thing. Callin’ what happened to her a bit of a bind.
“Wynnona woudn’t’a done it if she’d known.”
Nicole liked the idea of that. That if people just knew then they wouldn’t scream. That they might like her a little bit too.
As if suddenly remembering something important, Waverly made a little gasp and began digging around in the pockets of her dress. Eventually she pulled out a handful of crumbling cookies. “I forgot! Are you hungry?”
She offered one of the lint-covered cookies and Nicole wrinkled her nose at it. It wasn’t what her screaming stomach was calling for. Waverly withdrew the cookie and shoved it in her own mouth, studying Nicole seriously. “You don’t eat cookies?” She asked sadly.
Waverly chewed through two more cookies thoughtfully, before the light of an idea twinkled in her eye. “Oh! You eat meat, right? Is that what you need?”
Nicole’s head shot up out of Waverly’s lap and she tried to look desperate and worthy of mercy. It wasn’t a particularly easy task bein’ as horrifying as she was, but Waverly seemed wooed.
“Okay,” she shushed, tugging at Nicole’s ears. “I’mma have to sneak real careful inside. Daddy’s gonna be mad if he sees me.” Wavelry pushed Nicole’s head out of her lap and stood up, dusting herself off. She pointed authoritatively at her feet. “Stay here. Don’t go anywhere.”
Nicole made a show of settling back in with the hens and Waverly seemed satisfied enough to slip back outside and scurry off towards the house. Nicole’s heart fluttered excitedly and she breathed into the silence of the night in anticipation of her first taste of food in a fortnight.
Time stretched out before her until she grew nervous and twitched her ears around for sounds of trouble. Eventually, the barn door creaked open and Nicole couldn’t help the excited perk of her ears.
“Hellspawn!” A big boulder of a man hissed, raising the butt of his rifle against his shoulder and scoping Nicole straight down the barrel. A whole lot of nothing rushed through Nicole’s brain as she stared him in the pupil of his bloodshot eyes, right back through that scope and waited to be blown to bits. It almost sounded like a relief.
Waverly slammed into the man’s leg as he jerked the trigger, snapping a round right past Nicole’s head while the man cursed and the chickens exploded into a cloud of fright and flight. Nicole jumped to attention too, rushing for one of the boarded windows at the top of a stack of hay and wiggling through.
She fell in a pile of claws and limbs out the side of the barn and stood on shaky, starved legs for one last flight from the homestead. Waverly’s daddy was hot on her heels, roaring and crashing through brush. She blundered away, stumbling and tripping as she tried to reach the fence. She almost did, too, before a shot cracked through one of her hind legs, clipping bone and tearing flesh while Nicole howled in agony. She ain’t ever known pain like that.
Waverly was crying and begging somewhere farther back, but Nicole’s world focused to the pinprick singularity of survival, blood rushing through her pulsing ears while she limped and crawled her way towards the fence. She wiggled under it, whimpering and huffing and scared out of her mind before she bolted across the open field.
Eventually, her leg cramped up so bad, she had to collapse and wait for it to pass or for the Earp family to weed her out and string her up by her hide. Waverly’s daddy stomped around a while, close enough for Nicole to say her prayers. Even the sound of his breathing felt just over her shoulder, heat from his breath. But by some miracle, the man missed her and eventually roared his frustration to the skies.
“Wavery!” He roared. “Stupid girl, what’ve I told you? You got a death wish or are ya just plain stupid?”
Waverly only cried harder. “Daddy, you shot my monster!”
“Stupid girl,” he cursed again. “Good thing I did. Get back inside. Get!”
The sound of Mr. Earp’s cursing and Waverly’s heartbreak grew faint as they trundled back to the house and Nicole was left to ache and bleed in the scrubby grass. She licked at the wound tentatively, biting back her whimpers and crying quietly. The pain radiated and pulsed all the way up her leg into her spine until she drifted into a blank space and let the world fall out from under her heaving chest.