*Finalist for 2018 Best of the Net anthology

We’re freshmen—fourteen, fifteen. Two weeks living away from our mothers and we think we’re women now.

Our new school’s all slate-roofed, dust-scented brick buildings, white paint layered thick on wood window trim. Poplars and oaks planted in rows, kudzu-gobbled maintenance building out back. Generations of girls have learned here—first few batches true belles for sure, all hoop skirts and ringlets, corsets and parasols.

Nowadays there’s hardly even a dress code, school’s happy enough if we just keep our soft parts from overflowing the bounds of our clothes. So we test limits in the other direction. Quit wearing makeup, roll out of bed and stumble to class in PJ pants and bunny slippers, greasy hair yanked back tight. Feels good. Our mothers would be appalled.

We go to chapel three times a week to whisper-sing hymns, kneel and mumble holy words. Lord’s Prayer, Apostles Creed, amen. We line up together to take the wafer and the juice, swallow them as metaphors.

Freshmen get a third-floor lounge across the quad and we paper the walls with torn-out magazine pages. Boys everywhere—actors, singers, models—bodies hairless and hips slim, leaned against palm trees.

A thousand gazes follow us always. We think we wish they were real, prowling among us while we swap nail polish and complain about our mothers. While we speculate about which upperclassmen are having sex—with boyfriends, with each other.

We try to hide our wants and confusions. Hair flip, lip curl, eye roll. But some days we lay ourselves wide open, refuse to hide a damn thing. Drink too much sweet tea at lunch, race the halls, bounce on the lounge couches like little hooligans, sing along to Tim McGraw, all of us wanting something like that—boy remembering lipstick and a miniskirt for five years.

Real boys get bussed in all the way from Asheville for our first dance. Us girls move as a herd against one wall of the dim-lit dining hall, hair curled, dressed in the Lily Pulitzers our mothers mailed. Frosty eyeshadow swiped heavy lash to brow. The boys are all floppy hair and boat shoes and awkward angles. One girl says there’s no point dancing because who wants a long-distance relationship anyway, and we nod at her wisdom. We forget those boys by Wednesday.

Boys everywhere—actors, singers, models—bodies hairless and hips slim, leaned against palm trees. A thousand gazes follow us always.

By Halloween we’re bleeding together each month, lending and borrowing supplies, wrappers crinkling under bathroom stall partitions. We kick through new-fallen poplar leaves and make a pact to quit shaving our legs until Winter Formal. We succeed, all of us wild women. All of us animals.

Winter descends and the sky’s a gray dome and rain freezes as it falls. We eat for warmth despite the over-active radiators. Caged and restless, we splinter into factions and tribes. We yelp and claw, tear limbs, lick wounds. We break each other’s hearts, sull up silent. Mean and bleak, hairy and grubby, we ride out the cold.

Slowly, spring seeps in. Dogwoods—branches still black and twiggy—sprout tight-folded purple buds all across campus and we are starved, wild, ready to hunt. First warm-ish afternoon in months, we jostle and lift the squeaky lounge windows and one girl mentions that her brother, a sophomore across town at State, will pick her up from school today.

She shouldn’t have told us. Spreading the news of an incoming boy, we turn feral, turn our eyes to the quad. Eager. Ready. When we spot him we lean our top halves, in bunches of three, out of windows into pollen-yellow air. We whistle and howl, voices echoing off the bricks. Girls downstairs join us, then girls in the dorms.

We surround him. Like coyotes, we make our voices bigger than our bodies.

We’re giddy and wild and shaggy and we show our teeth. Down on the grass he’s a trembling tiny rabbit whose pulse we can see pounding from here. A morsel we think we’d gnaw raw if we caught him.

His face goes red and he pulls his baseball cap low over his eyes. His sister, also ablush, rushes downstairs to meet him and together they hurry toward the parking lot.

We fall silent, uncurl lips, hide long yellow teeth.

Perched now on windowsills, we watch them and whisper to each other about the curls of dark hair springing out from under the boy’s hat, the gorgeous sloppy untuck of his t-shirt, the faded cloth of his Chucks, the incongruous khakis. One of us declares that the khakis must be ironic. We invent vulnerabilities, desires, hobbies, and we marvel at the complexity of this boy we’ve made. How smart and gentle he his. What a big heart he has.

In unison, he and his sister close the doors of his silver Civic and then one of us lets out a mournful keening yowl. We all join, and together we sing the might of our girl-pack.

What we don’t consider: the knot of wolfish college boys with which this boy roams. We know nothing of their hunts and their kills, their raised hackles, their strong jaws and sharp claws, the better to split us wide open with. We’re just a bunch of fluff-tailed pups, yapping and barking for fun. Bricked safe in our towers, we’re unaware how brittle our bones are, how yielding our soft bellies, how easy we’ll be to catch and consume.