Cas and his little sister Lu dumped their backpacks by the door and headed for the kitchen. Cas took two boxes of cereal and some bagels from the pantry. He shoved them in the direction of his sister and told her to eat.
“It’s going to be bad tonight,” she said quietly. She held out her hand. Cas took it and ran his thumb over her nails.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s always okay. There’s chicken in the fridge for you, remember?”
Lu didn’t look reassured but she nodded. For the entire day, she had seemed rather dazed.
Today it was autumn, and both of them were tense. This was the first year that their father had tasked Cas with caring for his sister on the equinox, as the office was making him stay late for a meeting. Cas told him he would look after her every night until the first day of spring if he needed to. His father had both looked down at him with pity when he said that.
After Lu had eaten a satisfactory amount according to her brother, they went upstairs to get ready. Lu hovered over Cas while he dragged the mattress out of the room and locked all of her other belongings in the closet, where they’d stay for the next half of the year. Then he checked to make sure the boards over the windows were still secure. Lu rubbed her fingers over the gashes on the door from last year.
“All good,” Cas said, forcing a smile. Lu nodded. They both startled when they heard the front door open. The familiar heavy footsteps of their father floated up the stairway.
“I’ll just go to bed now,” Lu said. It was hardly six. The sun didn’t set for another hour.
“Okay,” Cas said softly. “I’ll go get the chicken for you.”
In the kitchen, Cas and his father greeted each other briefly before he ran back to Lu. He found her sitting cross-legged on her floor, staring at her nails. The way she was bent over, she looked tiny. Cas dropped the chicken on the floor, (they’d learned their lesson about using a plate), and sat next to his sister.
“It’ll be okay,” he said again.
“You always say that,” Lu choked out.
“And it always is,” Cas insisted.
Lu shook her head vehemently. “What if I get out again? What if I make you leave me like I did to Mom?”
Now it was Cas’s turn to shake his head.
Their father called Cas down for dinner-- which was pizza from the freezer. He retreated back to Lu’s room as soon as he was allowed. His father turned on the TV. Cas hated how he practically denied Lu’s existence for six months. It wasn’t fair; it wasn’t her fault she was who she was.
Cas knocked on the door. His sister told him not to come in, so he locked both locks. He saw Lu’s shadow under the door and knew she was sitting next to it. He sank down beside it; next to her but not next to her. It started to get dark and he could hear Lu’s muted whimpers. He was tempted to cover his ears. Their father called Cas to come watch TV with him, but he stayed by Lu’s door and tried not to let tears spill from his eyes.
Eventually, the sun was traded for the moon, and nothing could be heard from the other side of the door except for uneven panting. Cas wiped his eyes and turned towards the door.
“Hey, Lu, it’s Cas. Obviously,” he said as comfortingly as he could. He heard the padding of paws and clack of nails as Lu started to pace her hardwood floors. “I know it’s hard to be in a head with someone else, but if you can hear me, you can do this. You always can.”
The footsteps sped up and then Cas could hear sniffing at the crack between the door and the floor. He’d forgotten to plug it up. Lu started to scratch at the door, and then scratched harder. Cas backed away from the shaking door when he started hearing whines and grunts. He wanted to run away from the door, but he also wanted to open it, to let Lu out. She must have been confused and scared and lonely in an empty room with only half a mind. Lu whined some more and then threw herself against the door.
Cas didn’t know how to name what he was feeling, but he felt it a whole lot, and he couldn’t stand it anymore. He certainly wouldn’t stand it for six whole months. He stood up and crept downstairs to the front door and opened it, and then he pulled the hallway dresser to prop the door open and block the hallway. His father had the TV turned up loud to drown out Lu’s noises, so he didn’t notice.
Upstairs, Lu was still trying desperately to get out of her sad, empty room. With shaking hands, Cas undid the top lock and then the one on the knob. The door rattled with Lu’s efforts. Cas stood as far back as he could while still being able to reach the knob, and he turned it until the pressure from the other side caused it to swing open.
Cas hadn’t seen his sister in her winter state for four years. She was big now, bigger than him. She looked halfway between a bear and a coyote, sort of. Lu shot out of the room and snarled at Cas, who fell backward. She stood over him, fangs bared and growling, her pointy ears pressed flat against her head.
For years Cas had insisted that he wasn’t afraid of his sister, but at that moment as she stood over him, he couldn’t deny the pounding in his chest or seizing of his muscles, ready to run him to safety. Frozen on the ground, Cas looked up into Lu’s eyes. Even if the rest of the body wasn’t, the eyes that he gazed into were undeniably his sister’s. After a tense moment of understanding, Lu stepped backward and lowered her head. Their father shouted from his spot at the TV, asking if Cas was okay.
“You have to go, Lu,” Cas whispered. Lu’s eyes flicked to the open door. “It’ll be okay.”
Lu looked hard at her brother once more before leaping down the stairs in two bounds and disappearing into the night. Cas scrambled after her and stood for a minute in the doorway. He started to get cold, so he pulled the door closed and retreated to Lu’s sad, empty bedroom, where he sat in dark silence until he fell asleep. He dreamed of soft fur, wet noses, and long legs that run for miles under the stars.