During your last third grade recess, you watch your older sister scan the field for teachers, kick off her shoes, and climb the metal fence behind the schoolyard. She stretches her strong, lithe torso over the steel, reaching for the honeysuckle bush on the other side. A crisp flower waits there for her. When she pulls out the stamen and drinks the little drop of sweet, you can taste it on her tongue. She eats the white petals too, dissolving them in her mouth like they’re spun from sugar. This is the first moment you see the wild inside her. You realize it’s going to be your job to make sure it doesn’t destroy her.
You become her shadow in hot Georgia summers, slinking behind as she weaves through the overgrown backyard. She names the trees, the crape myrtle, the magnolia. She sniffs out dirt dauber wasps in the mud and pushes them back into the ground with her boot. She paces along the wooden fence that separates your yard from the wild stretch of woods beyond. You watch so closely you can repeat her every movement by heart.
One summer, a storm rattles the yard. You’re inside, watching the lightning flicker, when you feel a crack like an earthquake. Once the sky clears, you follow your sister outside, where a blackened pine has crashed through the fence. It’s made a girl-sized gap in the wooden barrier, an open door to the deep tangle of woods on the other side.
You grab your sister’s arm. She turns to you, grins, and pries your fingers away. She says, “Be ready in case I need you.” You watch as she leaps onto the fallen tree, balance-beams along it through the fence, and slips away into the woods.
Inside, your mother ruffles your hair, dries your tears. She calls you Ladybug, Sweet Pea, Squirrelly Girl. It rhymes with twirly girl. She says your sister will come back when she’s ready.
You try to wait patiently for your sister, but you start dreaming about her out there in the woods. Wild dreams, ones that scare you. Nails and teeth, hot breath and clawing and ripping. When you wake to a fox’s distant scream, you rush out of bed and press your face to the black window, hoping to see her running back.
Weeks pass, and your sister does not return. She visits, though, when no one’s looking. You know because she leaves dead things on the mat on the back porch. Presents. Rats and moles and snakes and squirrels. Your mother scoops them up, delighted, inspects their torn throats or crooked necks with pride, regarding them like she regards your plastic soccer trophies. Then she buries them in the front yard. She would keep them if not for the smell.
Summers go by. You refuse to let your parents mend the fence. You trace your old route through the backyard, reciting the names of her trees, staring into the gap, trying and failing to create a ritual that will summon her home.
You dream of your sister coiled in beds of leaves and prowling through the brush and rooting through the dirt. You dream of her making herself at home wherever she is out there, jumping on kudzu blankets and popping tiny animals in her mouth like popcorn chicken.
When high school comes around, you dream of your sister making love to something with powerful haunches. You see her babies, little wild girls with matted tangles and beaded eyes. You dream your sister cradles them like wolf pups, cuts the hair out of their eyes with her new claws.
You put off college. Everyone you know starts to move away. Even your parents go, eventually. But you won’t do anything that will take you away from the gap in the fence. In your dreams, your sister develops nocturnal discs for eyes. Her wild girls keep her busy, but she still leaves you a squirrel on the mat every once in a while.
Then, one year, a harsh winter blows in.
You usually never get a true winter this far south, but in a day, your yard is draped in white. This is the first time you’ve seen snow that sticks and clumps. Overnight, the comfortably crisp winter air you’re used to turns bone-chilling, alarming. It stays that way for a month, then two. The squirrels stop appearing on the mat.
From the dreams you can tell that they are having trouble finding food, your sister and her little wild girls. They’re growing painfully hungry. Their forest has become a wasteland. You feel them shrinking, bone thin as they huddle together to stave off the cold. Your sister resorts to attacking the neighbor’s yards, going after their pets. The morning after you dream this, a woman knocks on your door and asks if you’ve seen her terrier.
You buy the biggest slab of beef the butcher will give you and place it near the gap in the fence. The next morning, to your dismay, it’s untouched. Your sister’s grown used to eating squirming things, living creatures with pumping blood.
When the meat rots, you buy another slab. Nothing works. Desperate, you buy a live rabbit from the pet store and let it loose through the fence. They take that, but you know they’re still hungry, still starving for more. Several rabbits later, people give you dark looks and turn you away at the pet store. All you can do is order mice online, ones meant for snake handlers, but they’re small, and each time you let one scurry through the fence, you know it’s not enough. Every night you dream of your sister growing thinner, the skin vacuum-sealing to her bones.
On the coldest night, you dream your sister loses one of her little wild girls. She cradles her wolf pup daughter’s frozen, lifeless body. Her grief runs through you, her despair shakes you in your bed. When you wake, you’ll do anything to take her pain away.
You walk outside, the aching wind on your face. You run your hands along the skeletal old magnolia, the crepe myrtle carcass. You approach the gap in the fence. You hesitate only once. Then you trudge through into the woods.
You venture deep through dark branches and barren brush and growing shadows. Snow crunches thick under your boots. You hug yourself, shivering. Rolls of gray, bloated clouds loom above. It’s so quiet you can hear the blood pumping in your ears. It seems as if you’re the only thing alive for miles.
Finally, when the sun sets and your muscles are nearly frozen, you lie down in the snow, eyes to the dark sky. You move your tongue across your teeth, remember the taste of honeysuckle, and smile. Your sister will sense you here. She’ll know that you’re ready. She will lead her children and their rumbling bellies closer. You wait, imagining them shifting toward you with the shadows, padding through the snow in their clawed feet and drooling mouths, ribs poking out of their sides. She will think, Thank you. Your blood pumps louder. Then you close your eyes. You want to be dreaming when they come for you.