My sister used to make me watch her slaughter rabbits, until I could observe without crying. I was eleven; she was thirteen. She’d carry one up the bluff behind our house each afternoon, hind legs noosed in her grip, then kneel in the scrub grass and order that I watch her wishbone their necks. The sound of it—that mucusy snap—found me when doors slammed, when resin popped inside the pines. My eyes glassed so I watched the slaughter through a kaleidoscope, and she’d tell me that if this was enough to break me, I had no chance in this world.
The next day, another rabbit. Another. Another. This was how she’d make me strong. She was skinning me of my softness. Peeling girlhood from girl.
What I feared most was the day she’d hold a knife out to me in one hand and a rabbit in the other and demand I slot blade into animal. I could not do jigsaw puzzles because it conjured this inevitability. I could not peel carrots. But she never did, perhaps so I would always need her.
Four years later, I could still find bones scattered across the yard and cinched into the ryegrass. She never buried the rabbits, just tossed their carcasses into the copse of hickories in front of our house and let the turkey vultures whittle them. The ground winked with crescent-moon ribs, unidentifiable shards of bone.
I’d grown into something wry and boyish since then, with my bale-brown hair cropped around my ears, fingerprints forensic on my glasses, creases webbed into my t-shirts and overalls. At seventeen, August wore bellbottoms, used paperclips as earrings, and chopped her strawberry blonde braid off at the chin so it slashed at her jugular like a brass knife. She could extinguish matches in her mouth and wouldn’t let me into her room. She stole Dad’s pickup truck for days at a time and he’d find her three counties over with a crack laced across the windshield, bruises hemming her hairline. She had never had a boyfriend even though she was beautiful, and said it was because boys were afraid of her.
That spring, I’d befriended the new girl whose family moved in to the corn-yellow bungalow up the lane. The first day I rang the doorbell, the daughter had answered. Dark curls pirouetted around her cheeks. She had a round nose and hazel eyes. She wore plain jeans and an emerald sweater with stitches so porous her collarbones and the lace trim of her camisole peeked through.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Ruth. I live down the road.”
“Florence. Are you looking for my parents?”
I was looking for the girl whose churchy dresses bloomed from the car Sundays mid-morning. A girl new to town, who had never been to my house and also hadn’t been told to avoid it.
“No,” I said. “I just thought we might be in the same grade. There’s an end of year science project we have to do in pairs.”
We decided to do our project on the carbon cycle. Florence sat next to me in home room and we ate lunch by my locker, where the window overlooked the roof and you could spot rock pigeons nested in the rafters. I told Florence there was no scientific difference between doves and pigeons, so we started telling our classmates we were going to watch the doves, which sounded more impressive. “More posh,” Florence said. Her father was a pastor, and she said that in the Bible, doves represented peace and love. I asked her about pigeons. “I think it says you can offer them to atone your sins if you don’t have a goat. I don’t really remember.”
I felt safer knowing she didn’t pay attention in church, that in small ways, she was willing to disobey her parents. She must have not been allowed to wear perfume because she’d spritz on the cheap ylang ylang while we walked to school and scrub it off with paper towels after last period. When she sprayed on too much, she touched her wrist to the side of my neck, which made my pulse jump. She cut perfume samples out of magazines and pressed them to my inner forearms. They left my skin smelling floral and feminine, distinctly unlike me, so I felt aura’d with a piece of her.
We both wanted to do the things boys got to do that we weren’t able or allowed to, like piss over an overpass or walk home at night. My calculator broke during an exam and I got a C-, so we dropped it over a bridge and laughed as a semi drove over it, exhaust whipping our hair. It was satisfying, but not as satisfying as I’d hoped, because it seemed boys got to do these things just for fun, maybe not even understanding why they did what they did, whereas I was doing it for revenge, and it did nothing to fix the problem.
In the last week before summer, when our teachers played war documentaries in shuttered classrooms and sunlight lasered through the blinds, we cut class so I could pierce Florence’s ears in the library bathroom. We both thought there weren’t any veins or nerves in your earlobes, but when I punched the lighter-sterilized thumbtack through her skin, blood ribbed down her neck and her ear developed a heartbeat. Blood cuffing my fingertips, a rabbit silkscreened to my eyelids when I blinked and my wrists felt wrong—I wanted to tear my hands off my body. We tried to cover the redness with drugstore concealer, but the blood only mashed into the beige muck. My heart dovetailed up my throat as I dabbed makeup over her ear, her holding her curls to one side, so close my breath lifted the fuzz at her hairline.
Over the summer, I took her to my favorite places in town. We plucked bolts from the junkyard; sun-ironed, they seared our fingertips. She made us matching necklaces with two hooked eyebolts as pendants. “One bolt for each of us,” she said. “It looks like they’re holding hands this way.” I took her to the shut-down drive-in theater where you could shadow-puppet in front of the moth-eaten screen. I made foxes with my fingers, while Florence repeated dances she’d learned from music videos, arced her hair overtop her head. I was too shy to dance with her, even though she held out her hands for me, even though I wanted to and there was nobody watching. In the evenings, we’d go to the overgrown baseball pitch and lay in the knotted grass. Florence had a fantasy world she’d created in her mind with multiple plotlines, two magic systems, five centuries of lore, and characters inspired by us both. I was a hunter who lived with a herd of flying deer but protected animals rather than killed them; she was a princess heir to a city made of clouds who was a more just and loving ruler than her parents. We searched for new constellations so we could name them whatever we wished, and I swallowed my heartbeat when she traced a shape in the sky with her pointer finger and named it after me. Neither of us knew how to navigate by the stars, but we had our own map now: if we were ever lost, we would simply wait for night and look up, and we would find each other.
A railway snagged through the woods beyond my house, and the train would wake me in the middle of the night. I imagined she climbed out her window from a rope made of torn church-dresses and we jumped into an empty train car, where she fit her cheek into the hollow of my neck as we whipped through the night so fast the stars looked like a meteoroid shower. We would get an apartment with a brick wall, like she’d told me she wanted one day, and every part of our lives would overlap. We’d kiss the exhaust off each other’s shoulders at night. We’d forget whose mug of tea was whose and drink them interchangeably. Our house plants would be infested with ladybugs. I imagined one landing on her cheekbone, how I’d let it crawl onto my knuckle, her eyelash butterflying the side of my hand.
We never went to each other’s houses. I’d only peeked into hers, carpeted with damask and a smell she identified as old bibles. I didn’t want her to see my house: the tower of dishes I did once a week, windows we’d never fixed taped over with garbage bags, mice etching through the walls. The stairwell was bulleted with penny nails, pocked with dents from when Dad and August fought and he’d thrown a bottle of bourbon or our unconnected landline at her head. He had a dog, a mutt named Ranger whose coat looked shepherd but face and build seemed rottweiler, and though it mostly ignored me, it barked relentlessly at August. Once it bit her hand and the wound had gotten infected before she’d been able to sneak out to the clinic. I’d brought her polysporin and hydrogen peroxide, but she’d knocked them out of my hand.
“Distract Dad while I sneak out,” she’d said, as I gathered the scattered first aid supplies.
“I don’t know. Say you need him to sign your report card.”
“I don’t have a report card.”
“Just think of something. Just do this one thing for me.”
August’s room had been the same since her childhood: jarringly pink everything and a gauzy twin bed her ankles overhung. My room had always been bare, the walls eggshell and my clothes heaped in old moving boxes. I’d lined the floor with terrariums and cages where I kept beetles and spiders and shrews I caught in the switchgrass. I rooted through our neighbor’s compost for celery butts and carrot tops to feed them, and August took scrap materials from work so I could make homes for them out of PVC pipe and plywood and shards of plexiglass. I’d found a rabbit shivering in our shed. I held it in my lap, pet its fawny ears, as if this single rabbit had the capability to forgive me. Most recently, I’d found a red milk snake coiled under the neighbor’s wheelbarrow. I liked milk snakes because they look like coral snakes, which have the second deadliest snake venom in the world, so everyone leaves them alone. When really, they have no power to hurt anyone at all.
It was late September, the fulcrum between summer and fall when the leaves rusted at the tips but were green at the shoots. My room had two windows that met in the corner over my bed, blades of gold colliding between them at sunset. The sky burned over the white oaks, each vivid as a lit match.
I knelt at my snake’s terrarium with a mouse August had snatched in one of the traps she set to keep the mice from gnawing into the hidden bags of oats and cereal we kept for the weeks Dad didn’t leave us money to stock our pantry with its regular staples: beans, eggs, potatoes. He was a farm delivery driver, but the work was irregular. I reasoned that the snake would be eating mice out in the field anyway; at least these mice were already dead. I’d thought of freeing the snake, but would imagine it shredded in a lawn mower, speared through a pitch fork, stamped into a truck tire. Its only defense was that it looked more deadly than it was. This might work with animals, but it only made humans want to kill it more.
Normally the snake wasn’t hard to spot, a licorice-red wreath glossy under the heat lamp, hung from a branch like a coiled lasso, but I couldn’t see it. A week ago, it had folded inside out of its skin, left its photo negative in the sand. I wished humans could grow this way: all at once. I lifted the lid and the basking lamp pulsed against the back of my hand as I rummaged through the branches and raked my fingers through the mulch.
I looked for snake in the boiler room, under the sinks where it might wrap around the pipes for the sputter of heat. I lifted loose floorboards and burrowed through cabinets, overturned the couch cushions.
August came home while I was checking the shower. I’d lied and told her the reptile was a coral snake to keep her from going near it when I wasn’t home, so I couldn’t tell her it was missing. Unable to sleep, I sat on the floor and picked through a jar of peanuts I kept under the bed. Once the jar was empty, I watched the moon float diagonally across my window. The train zippered through the quiet night, rattling the blinds and the hollows inside the walls.
August’s door slamming jolted me awake. Dad’s heavier footsteps followed up the stairs, Ranger scrambling after him.
“August!” He rattled her doorknob.
We shared a wall so I could hear her breath, heavy from running. I didn’t even let myself exhale. I never implicated myself in their confrontations—August had taught me her way of not getting hurt, but I had my own, quieter tactics. Never ran away, so never got dragged back. Never spoke up, never got yelled at. Never escaped, never got locked in.
He pounded her door. I’d have guessed this was one of their typical arguments. Maybe he’d caught her stealing his keys or siphoning gas from his car, caught her stashing food from the pantry in her backpack or sneaking in or out this late, but then he said, “Is this poisonous?” and barked her name when she didn’t respond.
As quietly as I could, I crawled across the room, avoiding the creakiest floorboards, and knelt at the door.
“I don’t know, it’s Ruth’s,” August shouted.
I almost opened the door, half-spun the knob, my heart so loud in my throat.
“It bit my hand, August.” I heard his palm slap the doorframe, sharp enough to rattle through the wall, jolting my cheek. My tooth cut the inside of my lip, followed by an iron sting.
“It probably escaped. I don’t know how snakes work.”
I could picture them even though we were all on different sides of different doors: the way August leaned her whole weight into keeping the door shut, the way Dad probably had his temple against the wall. He and August had the same cornflower blue eyes whereas mine were grey. They had square jaws whereas mine was narrow, but Dad and I had the same build: lanky and limby while August was athletic and broad-shouldered. He’d had August when he was sixteen. Our mom had been sixteen too, but she’d moved to another town, married another man, whom she’d had children with at a societally acceptable age. Sometimes it was easy to blame her, see her uprooting from this family as the first link in a lineage of violence. I couldn’t keep this anger lit in my chest for long, though, because I understood exactly why she’d left—so long ago that I hardly remembered her. The only remaining question I had about my mother was why she hadn’t taken us with her.
I heard that horrible spinal snap, that sound I should have gotten used to, then bones crushed under a heel. I caught my breath, held my hand over my mouth and willed myself not to cry, trying to follow my sister’s instruction.
While Dad was at the hospital, I locked Ranger in the basement, filled four water bottles to keep in my room, and heated a tin of beans with only the stove light on as if the gully of hunger was the reason I couldn’t sleep.
August came downstairs wearing her bomber jacket, a wool beanie, hiking socks rolled over leggings, and her backpack. I didn’t know where she sometimes disappeared to for days at a time, and she would never tell me when I asked. “Can I have some?” She pointed to the pot.
“You took my snake,” I said. “It’s dangerous, August. It’s really dangerous.”
“I used tongs.” She shrugged. “So you overheard the whole thing?”
“I heard Dad say it bit him, before he killed it.”
“Why didn’t you stop him then?” She crossed her arms and took one step towards me. “Since apparently you were right there. You could have just been like ‘sorry dad, that’s my snake, it escaped. August didn’t do anything.’”
“I didn’t think he would kill it.”
“I don’t care about the snake, Ruth. What about me? What if he’d hurt me?” She tapped her chest. “You can get away with anything, because I keep us safe. Dad finds a snake sleeping in his coat and he still blames me, even though he knows you’re the one with a million pets.”
I swallowed any kind of protest because it was true. When I was six, August had made us dinner, instant mac n cheese that our mom had left in the pantry before she’d left. The power was out, wind battering the trees outside. She’d dropped the pot on the floor and its scalding edge singed the vinyl tiles. It was the first time I’d seen Dad so angry at us, shattering bowls on the floor. I’d hid behind the couch so when the next dish flew towards us it clipped right over me. When he’d grabbed August’s arm, she’d reached for her math textbook with her other hand and swung the book at his face. The only reason I knew something other than violence was because I’d had my sister’s back to hide behind.
“I just said it was dangerous because I wanted you to leave it alone,” I said. Behind me, the beans bubbled so vigorously they flecked sauce onto my back.
When we stole change from the glovebox of his truck to buy groceries, he blamed her for stealing. The more she fought back, the more docile Dad thought I was, the more he ignored me. It was on the tense, shadowy days after his outbursts at her that I asked him to play backgammon or watch baseball games late at night. He would explain the rules even though I’d played four seasons of softball. Sometimes he’d offer me a few cold fries or a lukewarm soda whose fizz stung the roof of my mouth. I was always awkward and silent in these conversations. He would tell me how his dad had taken him hunting as a kid. I tried to imagine him crouched in the ryegrass with his cheek against a shotgun. It was easier to imagine August in his place, her young fingers in a fresh deer print, eyes flinted with stealth and instinct. Most difficult to imagine was the animal pinned in the crosshairs: as much as I tried to picture a doe, its coltish limbs and alert eyes would morph into my own. Maybe I should have seen August as the deer, Dad as the shotgun, myself as the hunter.
“Are you crying?” She turned to the door. “It’s just a snake. You didn’t even have a name for it. If you think about it for a little bit, you’ll realize you never really cared about it.”
Florence asked if she could come to my house after school tomorrow, to avoid her parents’ church friends. I said yes, since Dad must have gone after August because the driveway was empty. He’d left Ranger, so I tied him up outside.
I spent the evening cleaning: shoved garbage into bags, tried to muffle the scent of mildew with lemon dish soap. I vacuumed the couch cushions, potato chips crackling up the nozzle. I swept up glass and dog hair. I scrubbed the blood from where Dad had crushed my snake under his heel. I fixed a broken cabinet door by nailing it to the frame since I didn’t know how to fix a hinge. It didn’t open, but it looked fine, and hid that we only had two plates left. I rearranged the furniture to cover where the floorboards buckled in and biked to the dump to nab a bucket of congealed white paint to buff over a starburst of black mould that wouldn’t wash off. I had no way to fix the window, so I bought a painting of horses grazing large enough to cover the frame for $2.87 at the pawn shop. Florence had told me she’d always dreamed of having a horse. I imagined a farm for us with ducks and a border collie, a bird that was either a pigeon or a dove, a horse that would rest its head on her shoulder and sigh.
My knuckles smelled of paint thinner and citrus and I pressed them to my nose while I slept.
Florence kicked through the orange cottonwood leaves that fluffed up to our knees. She wore riding boots and slick jeans that looked painted to her round hips. She scooped a pile of leaves and tossed them over our heads. They arabesqued down and one landed in my hair. I left it there until it fell.
I pressed my ear to the door, to check for the TV signifying Dad had come back, but unlocked it open to an empty house. Maybe he was tracking the purchases August had made on his credit card across county lines. Maybe she’d joined a traveling carnival and he was in the drunk tank, sleeping temple-to-concrete. As long as they didn’t come home, I didn’t care. I’d moved Ranger into Dad’s room that morning, in the hopes the familiar scent would calm him.
I offered Florence a cream soda I’d shoplifted from the co-op. She wasn’t allowed sugar and giggled as she popped the tab. I reserved shoplifting for extenuating circumstances because prison scared me more than anything, but August had taken the cash we saved for emergencies, normally hidden in an empty tampon box under the bathroom sink. She’d earned it from her job at the hardware store, but it was considered both of ours because the hiding place had been my idea. It was an ever-shifting amount depending on when we’d last dipped into it: sometimes enough for a greyhound ticket but never close to enough for a month’s rent. Every time we tried to stockpile more, one of us needed a new coat (though August chided me for buying new clothes when she shoplifted hers) or the electricity bill was overdue. We both stole from it without telling the other. She’d take a cab, get a train, book a motel with her fake ID for a few nights. I’d buy food or materials for my pets. Every time I bought a new heat lamp or extension cord, I asked myself, am I stealing from her a night of safety so I can give one to an animal?
When we clinked the cans together, the fizz seafoamed down her wrist. She looked at my lip, swollen from where my tooth had torn it the other night.
“Did you get hurt?” she asked, and reached out to touch the side of my cheek. I let my chin shelve into her palm and she lightly thumbed the stinging spot.
“I think I bit it in my sleep,” I said.
Florence and I proofread each other’s essays on Ancient Mesopotamia. I couldn’t find any errors in hers. Light bled through the painting I’d hung over the window, but her back was to it and the light haloed her hair. She passed me my essay. She’d marked the mistakes in pencil so fine they felt like they were whispering rather than accusing me.
“I like the structure of yours,” she said. I traced the line her thumb had creased into the page, like a lightning bolt. “Your conclusion paragraph was really good. Mrs. Addison docked me six marks last time because she said my conclusion was too vague, which seemed kind of unfair because that’s how I was taught to write them at my old school.” She tipped the soda can back far enough for the tab to brand a square into her nose. “You’re lucky your parents let you drink soda. My parents won’t even let me have apple juice. They think it’ll make me hyperactive. I think I have very calm energy, though.”
“Yeah, my dad doesn’t really care.” I shrugged. “And you do,” I added, wishing I’d said that first. “You have really good energy.”
“Thanks.” She chewed on her lip. “So do you.”
I wanted to ask her what energy she thought I had—not even sure what this meant, only that being near her felt like holding my palm over a candle or a plasma globe or laundry fresh out of the dryer. There was no way I could be so palpably electric.
“Your dad seems cool,” she said.
“Yeah, he is,” I said, because that seemed like the version of my life she was most intrigued by. I shut my textbook. “Do you want to meet my pets?”
I carried my rabbit downstairs, tucked into the sling of my crossed arms. I knelt on the floor and Florence sat next to me. Hay stuck to its hind legs and fleeced onto my shirt. Florence plucked the blades away one by one, her knuckles ticking across my ribs as she wiped away a streak of dirt.
“It’s so cute.” She stroked the rabbit’s ear.
“Do you want to hold it?”
She nodded, and I let it hop into her lap. She giggled and it pushed its head into her hands. “What’s its name?”
“I don’t know, I never name my animals. You can name it.”
“I’ll try to think of one. You can say if you don’t like it, though, that’s fine, cause it’s your rabbit.” She laughed as the rabbit sniffed her palm. “Where did you find it?”
“It got stuck in our shed. It must have been in there for days.” I sat on my heels.
She smiled as she looked down at the rabbit, which sat comfortably in front of her. “Most people wouldn’t go out of their way like that to save a rabbit,” she said.
What reason did I have to think that, outside my family, people were any more merciful?
Florence spooked when our eyes met so I saw the minnow-like dart of her pupils. I spun to see Ranger, stalactites of drool dripping from his maw, knees bent and about to lunge. He must have pushed the door open with his head. I scrambled to my feet to try and shoo him down the hall. Florence crawled backwards until she hit the kitchen table and tucked underneath it, and the rabbit sprung away from her.
Ranger’s gaze twitched to the rabbit.
“Ranger, no,” I said in the firmest voice I had, but the dog bounded after it and snatched the rabbit by the loose skin of its back.
I dove towards him. My knees smashed against the floor. I caught his collar and pulled, but he didn’t let go. I tried to pry his jaw open. His rancid breath puffed into my eyes. One of his teeth snagged my thumb and the sting shot up my palm. He thrashed his head but I held on. I’d thought myself incapable of hurting an animal, but I knocked the side of his head, then harder a second time, and wrestled the rabbit out of his mouth.
I held the rabbit out of reach as Ranger gnashed his teeth at me, spit hissing off his gums. I raised my foot as if to kick him but he didn’t retreat, so I pushed against his chest until he stumbled backwards.
Restraining Ranger with my leg, I looked at Florence. “I need to get rid of the dog. Just hold the rabbit, and uh, put your hand over the wound.”
Florence trembled as she approached me, not taking her eyes off Ranger, but I transferred the rabbit to her arms. Her hands rattled as she touched its quivering hide. She sheltered herself in the couch corner, holding the rabbit against her chest.
I grabbed Ranger’s collar and yanked his front legs off the ground. His nails scratched the floor as I dragged him down the hall. I wouldn’t be able to get him down the stairs, so I shoved him into the bathroom. He tried to yip at me; his teeth grazed a line down my forearm and he pushed back with all his weight while I wrestled him through the door. Once he was in, I slammed the door and wedged a chair under the knob.
Florence held the rabbit just like I’d told her to, her cheeks satin with tears. I lifted the rabbit from her arms and she wordlessly followed me to the kitchen table. I checked the rabbit’s wounds but they weren’t as bad as I’d feared, at least not on first glance, though it was taxidermy-still from shock. I doused its fur with hydrogen peroxide.
“Will it be okay?”
“I think so,” I said, though wasn’t sure. I just didn’t want to disappoint her again.
I tried to bottle feed the rabbit but it wouldn’t eat, so I put the rabbit in its pen and came back downstairs.
Florence picked at her sleeve. Her under eyes always looked soft, puffy, so they crinkled when she smiled. But they were swollen, and she thumbed her lash line. A tear rested in her cupid’s bow, unbroken and shiny like a pearl. Her eyes hovered over a dent in the wall. There were so many dents in our walls that I didn’t know where they’d all come from, but this one was a concave bowl, at August’s height, the shape of the back of her head.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “The dog’s my dad’s. It’s not very well trained.”
I wanted to hug her, but didn’t know how, suddenly confused by the geometry of our own limbs. As we sat there, August opened the front door. She hiked her backpack from her elbow to her shoulder. “Ruth? Who’s this?”
“This is my friend, Florence.” I straightened my back, folding my arms behind my back to hide the blood under my nails.
August shut the door. “Is Dad home?”
She nodded and sucked the inside of her cheek. “Nice to meet you, Florence.”
“I can get going,” Florence said quickly. “It’ll be dark soon.” She put her hand on my shoulder and her fingers slipped down my arm, raising a braille of goosebumps. An almost instantaneous touch.
“Do you want me to walk you home?” I said. “It’s almost dark.”
“But then you’d have to walk home alone.”
“How about,” August snapped and pointed to the door, “you walk her halfway?”
Red trimmed the leaf-hulled treeline under the plum-black sky, the poplar-bark moon moored low. Our shoes crisped the fallen leaves, and in the dark, it sounded like sparks popping in a fireplace.
“Is your sister mad at you for bringing me over?” Florence said. “It seemed like she wanted me to go.”
“She’s always mad at me for something. It’s not you.”
We walked down the path cinched through the thicket of trees, streetlamps flaring from the road on the other side. Florence stopped, so I did too.
“I really hope your rabbit is okay.” She sidled closer to me and put one hand on my elbow. “It’s lucky it has you to take care of it.”
“I’m sure it’ll be okay.”
“Thanks for walking me home.” She reached for my hand and hooked our pointer fingers, then our palms. She was shorter than I was so she rose to her tiptoes to kiss me. I reached for her other hand, felt the copper coolness of her butterfly-shaped ring as our fingers tangled. Her breath sighed against mine. I stumbled back half a step but she grabbed my arm and we both steadied each other. Her lips were tacky with her sheer lip-gloss, the only makeup she was allowed. I’d see her smoothing it across her lip in math class and know she was about to get an answer right.
She sunk back to her heels. I readjusted my glasses. She giggled and combed her hair away from her face and I laughed too, a nearly silent laugh that was more a smile while exhaling. Before she turned up the road, she reached for my hand and kissed the vein that pulsed up the back of my wrist. As she skipped up the path, she turned back to look at me through the dark.
August sat at the kitchen table with her hands folded. Her gaze drifted to mine as I shut the door. I was aware of how violently feminine she was—eyes cut like arrowheads.
“Why was she here?”
“She’s my friend.” I crossed my arms.
“I don’t want her here. She seems like a narc. Is she a narc?”
“But, we don’t sell drugs?”
“Is her dad a cop? She looks like the kind of girl whose dad would be a cop.”
“He’s a pastor.”
“That’s like the next worse thing.”
“She doesn’t really like him, though.”
“You like her?”
I paused. “She’s my friend.”
“Please Ruth, I’m not stupid,” she said, and when I averted my gaze she laughed and narrowed her eyes at me. “It’s not like I’m surprised. She just seems a little high maintenance for you.”
“She’s not high maintenance. She’s kind to me. She’s kind to everyone. You’d know that if you talked to her.”
“Be careful,” she said.
“I am careful.”
“Not with her. With yourself.”
I thought of Florence and I cuddled in that train car, whirring towards a place where no one knew our names except each other. Suddenly it didn’t feel like a dream but a possible future: the kittens we’d find in an alley and how we’d wake in the middle of the night to check on them. We’d take up strange hobbies like cross-stitch and traditional archery and I’d learn to whittle arrows myself. I pickpocketed these thoughts, slyly and quickly as if someone might be watching: her rinsing shampoo from my hair, her fastening a wrist watch around my pulse, me gently slipping a golden hoop into her ear.
August gave me a list of errands to run the next day, and when I got home, Florence and August were playing rummy at the kitchen table. I never played cards with August; it wasn’t fun because she always beat me.
“What—” I started to say, before August cut me off.
“I ran into your friend.” She bared her teeth like a poker player revealing a flush, wolfish and brilliant and wounding. “We made lemon bars. They’re in the fridge.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, though I’d only eaten a handful of trail mix all day.
“I thought it would be nice for the three of us to, I don’t know, hang out,” August said. “We’ll have a girl’s night. Movie? I’ll let you watch something R-rated. I’ll order pizza. My treat. We have some popcorn somewhere. Or, Ruthie,” she said as she zipped her cards into a pile and slotted them into the box, “we could make kettle corn. That used to be your favorite when you were a kid, remember?”
“That’ll make a huge mess,” I said dully. “We ruined a pot once making kettle corn. That’s why we don’t make it anymore.”
August swung the fridge open. “So? A bit of mess never hurt anyone. You really should try one of these lemon bars. They’re so good.”
“I said I don’t want one.”
“Ruthie.” She shook her head and said, in a loud whisper, “Your friend made them for you. You’re being a bit rude.”
“Is your rabbit okay?” Florence looked at me and coiled her hair behind her ears.
“Can Florence and I go? We wanted to go to the quarry to watch the full moon.”
August slapped her palms to her thighs. “You know what—great idea. Let’s all go outside. It’s a harvest moon, right? Or is it a hunter’s moon?”
“It’s a harvest moon,” I said. “And the sun’s still up.”
“Let’s look anyway.” She whipped her jacket from hook so forcefully she snapped the hanging loop and threw the door open. She marched into the yard like we were soldiers in training. Florence, who usually felt like the eye of a whirlpool, the magnetism guiding a compass, felt like a shadow I could barely see as she followed me outside.
August holstered her hands on her hips, elbows jutted like a hawk’s wings. She kicked through the dirt, pulping the ground with her boot toe. She plucked something from the grass then spun to face us. “Has Ruth shown you all her pets, Florence?”
Florence nodded, bottom lip paling where she bit it.
“Ruthie loves her animals. She catches them all herself. I don’t think that’s humane, necessarily, but whatever.” She raised her hand. “You know what this is? It’s a rabbit’s rib bone.” She twizzled the bone through her knuckles. “This field is full of ‘em.”
I wanted to reach for Florence’s hand—to run with her, hop into that train car and watch trees griddle the horizon as the moon rose like a penny—but her arms were crossed and I didn’t want August to see us touch.
“That’s not even a rib,” I said. “It’s a femur.”
“Of course you’d know.” The sky peach-skinned, igniting August’s hair like the strands of a harp. “They’re all over. You know why?”
Florence didn’t answer.
“It’s because Ruthie used to kill them.”
“Maybe you don’t remember. You were pretty young.”
“I was eleven,” I said.
“Ah, so you do remember. I always thought it was a bit worrying. Isn’t violence against animals one of the first signs that there’s something wrong with you?”
“That was you,” I said.
She waved the bone at me, stepped close enough to tap it to my nose. “Don’t lie, just because you don’t want your little crush to know.”
“It was you.”
“Would I even know how to catch a rabbit?” She scoffed, and began to walk away. “There’s something I wanted to show you.”
We followed her around the house, and August opened the shed that held a set of wicker lawn chairs the house’s previous owners had left behind and other abandoned yard tools. I inched closer to Florence, but she just pulled the waffle-knit sleeves of her shirt over her fingers. August returned with one of the cages I’d used to house two rats the year before. She dropped it in front of me. “Florence was asking about your rabbit.”
It was my rabbit: rolled onto its side, belly ballooning. Its back leg hinged the wrong way and blood rusted its hide. I dropped to my knees, dew seeping through my jeans, and unlatched the door.
“But,” I stammered, observing its injuries. It had been fine this morning, but its eyes were now glassy and its ears cold like a deerskin rug in an unheated cabin. I gently poked its back, but it didn’t move, limp and unresistant. “Its back is broken. What did you do?”
“I went in to check on it and it looked pretty bad.”
“Did you hurt it?”
“Of course not. Dad’s dog chewed it up yesterday, Florence told me all about it.”
Florence crouched next to me. Her breath gauzed my ear. “Can we take it to the vet?”
“I’ll use the emergency cash.” I notched my fingers through the grate and lifted the cage.
“I spent it.” August reached into her pocket and hinged open her flip knife. She spun it and passed it to me handle first. “They’d just kill it, anyway. Do it yourself. You know how.”
The knife handle fit into my fingers, warmer than I’d been expecting. The metal grain of the blade slashed upwards like a fritz of rain.
While we both held it, August pulled me in to her. “Don’t tell me you’re scared, because I know. You’re always scared.” I’d never heard her voice like this: not sharp, but hushed, like she was trying to sing a note higher than her register. “You’re scared when you hear Dad breaking my things or locking me in the basement with that dog. You see the bruises on my arms. You’ve never done anything. I tried to prepare you, so you would be tough, but I’ve never seen him lay a hand on you. You want me to keep protecting you? Earn it.” She let go, shoving me backwards. I tried to keep my wrist from shaking by tightening my palm around the knife. August had tried to make me brutal not so I could protect myself, but so I could protect her. Yet I never had.
“It’s that, or you’re just letting it suffer,” she said, making a final nod towards the rabbit.
I dropped to my knees and lifted my rabbit from its cage. I brushed mulch from its back. Its whiskers twitched against my arm. “Florence, you don’t have to watch.” I swallowed each word. What if it was in me as well? Hadn’t I hurt August each time I left for school alone, leaving her behind because she had a black eye, or a sprained wrist?
“No, stay.” August reached for Florence’s wrist and held her in place. “Watch.”
“Do you have to?” Florence whispered, hunched into her shoulders like she was trying to hold herself together. I wanted to be loved by her—but I also felt I should be punished.
There were alternatives I would replay later, while trying to sleep: where I tossed August’s knife over my shoulder, tucked the rabbit against my chest and took Florence’s hand, and walked away as if I were the one with the power to leave. But I knew I’d have nothing after that one moment of defiance. That train I’d imagined for us so many times led nowhere except us hungry and huddled for warmth, until we forgot we’d once wanted to touch because of want. Her parents would pick her up within a week, ban us from speaking, and we’d spend the rest of the year making eye contact across classrooms until her parents enrolled her in private school. We were too young to escape our lives. If there was such an easy way out, August would have taken it already. The only place I had to return to was this same house, except I’d have lost the one person who sheltered me. I couldn’t stand to be August for one moment, let alone the rest of my life.
I’d never shot a gun, but I’d read a book where the main character was a huntress in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I’d wanted to be like her; that’s why I’d asked Florence to make my character in her daydreams a hunter. In the scene where her father had taught her to shoot, he’d explained how you should pull the trigger at the end of an exhale, the point your breath is fully settled, so your inhale doesn’t buck the shot off target. I aligned the tip of the blade with the divot of the rabbit’s ribs and angled it to the heart. I thought of my snake and how Dad had crushed its spine because he’d thought it was venomous or maybe even though he knew it wasn’t. For the first time I realized that milk snakes’ deception is better for the coral snakes.
The blade went in easier than I expected. It made a wet, fibrous sound, then a thud that clipped up my wrist like a door closing. Blood mineraled the air.
I looked at Florence. Her hair wound around her ears and the buttons of her jean jacket. I wanted her to say something to either absolve or forgive me, maybe repeat some penance she’d learned from her father. I wanted to ask her what rabbits meant in the Bible but was afraid they might mean something potent and sacred. She only knelt opposite to me and poked the rabbit’s paw with one finger. She shuddered out a rusty breath.
I searched for my reflection—in the tear on Florence’s cheek, in the rabbit’s glassed eyes, in the blood-slicked blade—but could not find it. For a moment I thought August was about to cry. Mine and Florence’s constellations punctured the horizon one star at a time, but what use was this map in the sky? I was already home.
Shaelin Bishop (they/she) lives and writes on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh land. Their fiction has appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, Room, CAROUSEL, Plenitude, PRISM international, The New Quarterly, Vagabond City Lit, and elsewhere. They were runner-up in Minola Review’s 2019 fiction contest and were longlisted for the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize.