Little Animal

By Bridget Brewer

We’ll start with the moon.

Avoid a full moon, Mary’s mother made a habit of telling her, but this moon was new, so Mary figured she was okay. She could only see its absence, a dark coin pressed in the velvet vacuum of space. A bright spot lit the sky nearby, which she knew to call Venus because of The Cambridge Guide to Solar Systems. From where she sat on the roof of the doublewide, she could also see Orion, the Big Dipper, and Cassiopeia, who was a queen and very important to the Greeks or the Romans or some other group of dead people. She pictured herself crossing each name off a list, and placed a gold star on the imaginary paper.

A loud crash came from the house to her left. A wail from the window. Bethy, Mary decided. Only Bethy Berry was stupid enough to cry out loud when her daddy was angry. It made his temper worse. Mary heard a sharp smack, and Bethy fell silent. The wail of a recorder playing “Hot Cross Buns” drifted up into the night: Adam Rodriguez, across the street, practicing in the bathroom so he could see his Performance Face. She could hear him running the shower so the rest of his family couldn’t hear him. In the gravel cul-de-sac, Mary watched Mr. Powell’s coonhound bristle at a cat slinking around the trashcans. Cars and 18-wheelers making midnight runs to Oklahoma hummed on the highway overpass looming above the park.

Mary looked up at the invisible moon. “Here’s the deal,” she said, bossy. The moon would know she meant business. “I won’t be like Mom. I’ll hold out. But you have to leave me alone.”

Mary wished that it was a full moon, no matter what her mother said. Full moons seemed more reasonable, or at least more sensitive to the desperate plights of high school girls. She thought of blood staining her mother’s mouth, and Mary gulped down her rising panic. “I mean it,” she warned. “Don’t be an asshole.”

Just to be sure the moon took her seriously, Mary gave it the middle finger, her chipped sparkle nail polish flashing. A plane flew by. Venus winked. “Good,” she said. “That’s settled.”

***

Vampires, the youngest daughter says.

It’s not about vampires.

She’s really a ghost, the youngest daughter says.

Not one of those, either. Tell the one about the witches, she whines, and the dress hanging in front of her small face trembles.

I’m not telling that one right now, I say. You said you wanted a scary story. Right? So let me get to the good parts. I scratch my leg.

That Solar Systems book, says the youngest daughter. That’s the one you read. Is this about you?

Please. I roll my eyes. Let me get back to the story. She smiles. Her braces flash in the tiny bit of light coming through the closet doors. This is a fun game, says the youngest daughter. I like hiding from Mom. It’s almost like we’re real sisters.

Yes, I say. Almost.

***

Mary stared out the window. She could hear the continuous, pointed scuffling of metal chair legs scooting away from her. They’d been making their point for seventeen minutes now. A cloud shaped like a battleship hung above the dead brown grass of the football field. Mrs. Whitley put down her dry erase pen, which she’d been using to draw a diagram of the oceanic crust components, and snapped, “If I hear one more chair move, I’m making you all run suicides on the bleachers.”

“Tell Scary Mary to fucking shower,” said Lucy B. quietly. April Flowers knocked her arm from across the aisle, laughing. Mrs. Whitley, no friend to outcasts, ignored them and resumed her drawing.

The Cambridge Guide To Solar Systems was composed of glossy fold-outs tracing orbital patterns. It had lists of constellations with accompanying illustrations. It was a battered, oversized thing of beauty, and its author, Dr. George Green, Ph.D., frequently wrote sentences like, “Cosmic Latte is a name assigned to the average color of the universe, given by a team of astronomers from Johns Hopkins University.” Lucy B. was a Cosmic Latte of a person, all the colors and rules of the universe at once. Mary watched her elbows in Language Arts and saw magenta. In P.E. Lucy lifted her hands, and they glowed with mustard and rosehip and lilac and colors Mary couldn’t even begin to name. Lucy ate three bags of Hot Cheetos every morning and turned her mouth orange. Lucy could get away with wearing white tattered t-shirts, because everyone called her retro instead of poor. She was allowed to laugh loudly, her sounds so joyful and bubbling and infectious that everyone laughed with her. Mary liked to spend her time filling pages in her notebook with ballpoint Lucy’s, bursts of fire shooting out of loopy L’s and loose fangs stabbing the y’s. When she was done, she placed a gold star at the top of each page, for a job well done.

Lucy B. meant Mary’s dog stink. When the moon was waxing, Mary reeked. Her mother smelled that way too. Her mother liked it. Other mothers put on perfume and deodorant and ate breath mints at Back to School nights, but Mary’s mother stalked into rooms with her teeth shining and her musk choking the occupants, not caring one bit. When Mary woke up sweating from another nightmare where her mother ate her up, she would bring out The Cambridge Guide To Solar Systems and stick her face in the constellation chapter until she couldn’t smell either of their bodies on the mattress in the tiny bedroom they shared.

Lucy B. leaned over her shoulder and grasped at the limp, slick ends of Mary’s hair, tugging cruelly until her eyes smarted. The smell of baby powder filled her nose. Mary clenched her teeth, trying to focus on not biting the freckled arm next to her head. Please, she prayed to Mrs. Whitley’s whiteboard Earth. Don’t let me bite her.

“God,” Lucy B. gagged. “I know you are not trying to sit next to me smelling like you pissed yourself, sad little Orphan Mary.”

Mary closed her eyes and breathed and did not bite her. Lucy B. received a text message from Oliver Dixon and flung Mary’s head away and promptly forgot about her. The lesson went on.

***

Okay, so Lucy B. is the bad guy, says the youngest daughter.

Don’t jump to conclusions, I tell her.

Girls are mean to each other, she says, tipping her head back and squinting at me through the glamorous dim. Aren’t they? They’re mean.

One girl is always the hunter and one girl is always the prey, I reply.

What? I don’t get it, says the youngest daughter.

You will, I say.

***

The moon was now in its first quarter, and Mary, walking home along the Frontage Road ditch, kept her eyes on its pale curl. She unlocked the front door and retreated into the narrow bathroom. Here the dog stink was most pungent, and cluttered on the scuffed linoleum were loose tampons, rolls of toilet paper stolen from Mary’s school, old samples of lipstick, capless tubes of toothpaste, hairbrushes bursting with thick nests of hair, and toothbrushes with bristles pressed flat from age and force. Mary’s mother wasn’t home from work yet. Focusing her eyes on the jutting corner of the doorframe, she pretended the smooth wood was Lucy’s face and that somehow they’d run into each other, at the kind of party she was never invited to.

Ohmygod you look so cool, she imagined Lucy B. gasping.

“You should have been nicer to me,” Mary whispered.

She traced the doorframe with her finger and pretended it was Lucy B.’s miraculous, cosmic flesh curving along her jawline. Mary saw her shiver.

I never noticed how beautiful you are, she heard Lucy B. say in her head. You’re so lovely and perfect. She didn’t know how girls like Lucy B. sounded when they were in awe, but Mary liked imagining her mouth saying it.

Mary drew her own head close to the corner.

“I can ruin you,” she told the empty air in front of her.

Please, Lucy B. breathed.

When Mary bit into the wood, she knew it wasn’t really Lucy B.’s lips, but her heart pounded all the same. She imagined the other girl’s hand slowly traveling down Mary’s neck, caressing the dips in her collarbone and the hollow in her throat as Mary chewed the flesh off Lucy B.’s face. If Mary pretended hard enough, and held her breath, she could see the blood dribbling from the lipless face, and she felt a little like she was floating.

***

This story is weird, the youngest daughter says, and wiggles her pink puppy slippers so they look like they’re dancing.

I’m weird, I answer.

You smell like a dog sometimes, the youngest daughter agrees. And then Mom gets mad.

That’s true, I agree.

You’re a good doggy, she giggles.

Yes, I say.

My back is starting to cramp from squatting inside this closet. The youngest daughter’s mother keeps all her extra dresses and fur coats in here. It reeks of neglect.

Where were you before we adopted you? says the youngest daughter.

Oh, I say. Nowhere worth talking about.

You were at that house with all the other kids.

Well if you already knew, why did you ask? The youngest daughter shrugs. I can feel her comfortable little animal brain reaching for a reality that doesn’t involve a house with three stories and furs in the closets and church on Sundays.

Our dad says he’s getting me a puppy, says the youngest daughter, lifting her tiny nose. You can play with it sometimes, if you want.

Wow, I say. That’s very generous of you.

Mom says we have to be nice to you so you don’t go psycho like you did at the other place, says the youngest daughter.

Shut up and listen, I tell her.

***

Mary’s mother pounded on the bathroom door. “Mary, are you done in there?”

Mary stumbled back and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. She opened the door without looking up.

Her mother was still in her gray work shirt, which was smeared with dried bits of food and oil stains. There were probably a couple of Styrofoam containers sitting on the counter, filled with the leftovers that would be their dinners for the week. Mary could smell cold garlic and cheese and cumin. Her mother thrust the containers at Mary and squeezed by, already pulling her shirt over her head. Stripes of old scars ran down her ribs.

“God I’m tired,” she said, and reached an arm around the mildewed shower curtain to turn the water on. “Good day?”

“I guess,” said Mary.

“I can’t believe you’re almost sixteen.”

Her mother thumbed the waistband of her underwear, and Mary turned around just in time. Her mother laughed.

“Oh Mary, so sensitive. I don’t have anything you don’t have.”

Mary’s face burned. “Mom, come on.”

Her mother stepped behind the shower curtain into the hot stream of water. “So bashful.”

Mary thought of Lucy B.’s mother. Lucy B.’s mother probably wore an apron when she baked homemade bread, and set the table with candles, and smelled like lavender. She probably never woke up on her floor naked and covered in something’s blood.

“I’m so excited for you, kid,” her mother was saying, “Aren’t you excited?”

Mary couldn’t answer.

“I have so much to teach you… just wait, you can’t even imagine it, turning sixteen for people like us is the best feeling in the world.”

The water shut off.

“God,” said Mary. “Aren’t you going to use soap?”

Her mother stuck her head around the shower curtain and gave her a look. “Please,” she said, “keep talking to me that way, see how that works out for you.”

Mary left the doorway.

“Mary,” her mother called. “Don’t go on the roof. I hate it when you do that.”

“I know you do,” said Mary as she shoved the Styrofoam containers of someone else’s leftovers off the counter, and went outside to climb onto the roof. Adam Rodriguez would be practicing the recorder. Maybe she’d be able to see the Pleiades this time.

***

Why don’t you like Mom? the youngest daughter asks me as she chews on a piece of her hair.

I feel the floor around me. There are so many pairs of shoes the mother hides in this closet. So many fur coats. Rabbit fur and mink fur and fox fur. I keep expecting to bring my hands up and find them full of jewelry. She does the same thing with food: three pantries packed with containers of bulk grains and flours and dried fruits she never cooks with, because she doesn’t like cooking. I scratch my elbow.

I like my mom better, I tell the youngest daughter.

The youngest daughter chews harder on her hair. My mom says your mom was a crazy beeyotch, she recites. My mom says she did drugs, and you’re lucky we feel so bad for you, or you’d have to go live with a state.

That’s a shitty thing to say, I tell her.

You can’t say that word, she says.

I can if you’re being shitty, I say.

Do you like me? she asks.

I don’t answer.

No, do you like me? she says again, insistent.

You’re just a tasty little snack, I say. What’s not to like?

The youngest daughter laughs. I tickle her feet until she howls, and when I finally bite her big toe, she is too breathless with sisterly bonding to speak.

***

The moon was waxing gibbous: so close to being full, Mary felt like throwing up. Her skin itched. She tried to scratch, but the itch came from underneath, as if her muscles were getting too big to fit underneath her flesh. She staggered through the hallway, savagely shredding herself.

“I just wish they wouldn’t make me choose,” Lucy B. was saying quietly to April, who nodded. “What kind of parents make their kid choose.” Mary stared at the back of her head, heart pounding.

Lucy B. sniffed the air and spun around, catching Mary mid-itch.

“Bed bugs, you weird little fuck?” she sneered. April twirled a blue plastic pen through her fingers. Lucy B.’s cheeks were turning the loveliest pink. Mary wanted to crawl inside of her and eat her from the inside out.

“Lucy,” said April. “Come on.”

Mary scratched her elbow in spite of herself.

“You’re repulsive,” said Lucy B., wrinkling her perfect nose and linking arms with April before turning her back.

Mary puckered her lips and sent a thick stream of spit at the nape of Lucy B.’s neck, where little blonde curls didn’t quite fit into her sleek ponytail. She watched the other girl raise her arm in slow motion and collect the milky glob. Lucy B. shrieked. The students around them gave her looks of horror. The circle around Mary widened. Mary looked at Lucy B. and smiled. April raised her eyebrows. Then Lucy B. slammed Mary’s head against the lockers.

***

Mary had to cry in the office of the school counselor, Ms. Castilla, and repeat phrases like “single parent household.” To seem extra pathetic, she begged for an ice pack for her head, and then asked for a new toothbrush and a can of green beans, because all the social workers at her school kept canned green beans hanging around. As if anyone ever wanted limp, rubber green tubes soaking in water. But Ms. Castilla proved a tough nut to crack. Mary was forced to resort to her least favorite con: drawing a “feelings” house and writing “no one” on the line where she was supposed to record the people who supported her in her life. None of it was a lie, per se. She needed the toothbrush, the green beans, a different mother. Ms. Castilla asked again if the water had been cut off at Mary’s house, on account of her body odor, and took notes that looked like the beginnings of an unofficial report. In any case, Mary’s head hurt too much for her to care, and when Ms. Castilla finally handed her a “completion of punishment” form, Mary signed without rolling her eyes.

The lights were out in the doublewide when she finally got home. Mary stood in front of the door, watching weeds slap against the cheap gray siding. Mr. Powell’s coonhound limped by, a burr from the wild shrubs buried in his paw. Bethy Barry sat in front of an open screen door, picking up pink worms and pulling them apart.

“I made two,” she said to Mary. Green snot caked her nostrils.

Mary looked up at the fattening moon. “Don’t be an asshole,” she reminded it, and pushed open the door that never locked.

“Happy birthday,” said her mother, who sat in the dark at the folding card table. She flicked her lighter, lit her cigarette, and then brought it to a candle stuck crookedly in vanilla confetti frosting, the kind of frosting with the soft, chewy confetti nibs already buried in the swirls of sugar and Crisco. Underneath the layer of sloppily slathered frosting, Mary knew, was a vanilla confetti cake. Mothers are not fools. They know their teenager’s terms.

Mary sat in the chair across from her mother. She scratched her leg. “I was in detention,” she mumbled.

Her mother puffed a bubble of smoke. “Mary,” she said thickly. “Is that going to be a problem?”

Mary shrugged and licked a swipe of frosting off her finger.

“I figured we should do this tonight,” said her mother, “since tomorrow night we’ll be out.”

“Mom,” said Mary carefully. She kept her gaze on the cake. “I’m not going out.”

“Excuse me?”

Mary held very still. “Maybe I’ll, like, tie myself up or something.”

Her mother rose from the chair. She moved behind Mary and hugged her shoulders.

“It’s okay,” her mother said softly. “I was scared too. I’ll be right next to you the whole time, I promise.”

Mary’s eyes smarted. “No,” she said. “I don’t want to.”

“Mary… It’s really not that bad. Look at me, if I can do it, you can, too.”

“Well, I don’t want to be like you.”

Her mother stiffened, then untangled her arms. Mary heard her move past the sofa into their bedroom and slam the door. Mary picked up a fork and slid the prongs into the cake.

***

I can feel the youngest daughter’s eyes on me.

They’re werewolves, she confirms.

You got it. I applaud lightly.

Mary’s doing the right thing.

Is she? I ask. I don’t know, her mom seems really nice.

The youngest daughter shakes her head. My legs start cramping. I stretch them out past her knobby, hairy little knees. There is barely any light coming through the closet doors, no movement in the house outside our hiding place. The sun must be sinking, the moon coming forward.

Maybe we should call Mom, the youngest daughter says, and chews her thumbnail. What if she can’t find us?

This house is pretty big, I agree. There are a lot of rooms we could be in. It might take a while. It’ll be like we vanished, just like that!

I snap my fingers. The youngest daughter smiles, but she isn’t laughing anymore. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Is this a real story? she asks. Is this true?

Every story I tell you is true, I reply. That’s what makes them so scary.

***

The moon was full.

Mary threw up. After, she hung her head over the toilet bowl, staring at the confetti chunks floating in the yellow water and smelling the stench of her insides. Her mother rubbed her back.

“On my sixteenth birthday, I threw up so much I passed out,” she said. “It’s normal.”

All day, Mary’s body felt like it was collapsing in on itself. She scratched herself raw and got sent to the school nurse for band-aids. She ran deodorant over her wounded skin to cover her dog stink, which was worse than it had ever been, but nothing helped. Her head throbbed. She sweated constantly. She couldn’t touch food or even bear to smell it. She hid in the handicapped stall in the bathroom during lunch, resting her head against the white tiled wall. She fell asleep there and awoke to Ms. Castilla’s face, peeking underneath the stall door.

“I’m okay,” said Mary, her tongue glued to the back of her teeth.

“Should I call your mom?” said Ms. Castilla.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “I’ll just go home.”

Ms. Castilla wrote her a pass. Mary knew the counselor would head back to her office immediately and file that report. There would be interviews with case managers. Mary’s mother would get upset. She kept her head down so she wouldn’t throw up again and fled down the hallway. April and Lucy B. were laughing by the entrance about some party that night. Mary knew she would not be invited to this party. She stumbled and brushed against Lucy B.’s elbow. It was mostly an accident. The doors closed and swallowed Lucy B.’s insults back into the school.

Mary felt blind with fever. She stumbled across the gravel to her house, the pads of her feet tender and swollen. Adam Rodriguez was learning “Amazing Grace.” He was practicing without the shower on. The whole circle of doublewides could hear him. Good for you, Adam, Mary thought in exhausted wonder. She shoved the door open and collapsed on the floor. In the trees, cicadas screamed.

It was dark when she woke. The screen door banged open and shut in a hot wind. Her mom wasn’t home from work yet, maybe, or maybe she’d already left without her. Mary’s calf muscles cramped. She flexed her feet, counting down from 100. Her skin crawled. Her nails felt longer. She heard a bright laughter that echoed and expanded in her ears. She knew the voices. Mary crawled to the doorway and looked out at April and Lucy B., walking unsteadily over the gravel circle of her cul-de-sac.

The smell of beer clung to their hair. They grabbed at each other, laughing so hard they started coughing. Lucy B.’s blonde sheet of hair swung back and forth across her back. A large, shining black purse had bounced against her leg enough that a blue bruise was blooming on her upper thigh. Mary couldn’t move. They were so close to her house now that she could smell baby powder and, beneath smooth skins, pumping blood. Her face burned. Lucy B. pulled her hand away from April and reached into her purse. A yellow carton of eggs emerged from the patent leather darkness.

“She lives here, right? This park thing?” slurred April. She could barely stand. She lurched and crushed one of Bethy Barry’s abandoned doll heads into the gravel.

Lucy B. giggled. “Look at that stupid fucking bird bath,” she said, pointing at Mr. Powell’s front yard.

April started to frown. She looked at the circle of doublewides, the arch of the highways high above them. “Maybe we shouldn’t,” she murmured.

“April, no, April,” said Lucy B., her mouth smeared bright red with lip gloss. “This will make me feel better. And Mary’s gross. Scary Mary. Orphan Mary. We’re probably,” she said slowly, “we’re probably making her shithole cleaner.”

Lucy B. opened the carton. She took out a smooth, white egg that shone. With careful precision, she flung it at Mary’s house. Mary flinched. She could almost feel the slime running down the window. Lucy B. whooped. They grabbed egg after egg, chucking the white orbs at the fragile, sagging home. An egg shattered on the screen door. The yolk spattered across Mary’s face where she lay.

Mary rose. She pushed open the door. She stood in the light of the moon and the highway.

It took the two girls a moment to see her. They were each poised to launch their final shots. On April’s pretty face was the look that girls like Mary inspire.

“Look who it is.” Lucy B.’s voice wobbled. “Scary Mary. We love what you’ve done with the place.”

***

Okay, stop now, says the youngest daughter.

But I can’t stop, I tell her. This is the good part. We’ve been building to this for like an hour.

I don’t want to know, she says.

Yes, you do. You want to hear the end of this one.

I don’t want Mary to change, says the youngest daughter. I want her to stay good.

No one stays good, I tell her.

Don’t make her change, she pleads.

You don’t get to have everything you want, I say.

***

Mary’s skin soothed. Her muscles stretched tight. Her hands grew long and swollen and leathered. She stared at Lucy B.’s mouth. A line of clear saliva dribbled past Mary’s incisors. There was a kiss to be taken. She licked her teeth and they felt sharp.

***

Stop! says the youngest daughter. I’m scared!

No, I say, smiling wider. This is the good part.

Why do you look different? the youngest daughter wails. Why is your face different?

That’s how I always look, I tell her. You just couldn’t see it before.

I flex my hands. My muscles stretch tight.

***

Mary sensed a snout growing. It was a relief.

***

The youngest daughter is crying now and scrabbling for the doorknob. She’s forgotten these are the kind of doors that only open from the outside.

She’s not supposed to do it! the youngest daughter weeps. She’s supposed to be good!

I laugh.

Change her back, the youngest daughter pleads.

Not until the story’s over, I tell her, my molars clicking. I reach to her and I tug on her smooth, conditioned hair, and she falls back to the ground.

Please! she cries. Stop! Stop!

No, I tell her. Not a chance, you shithead.

The youngest daughter stills beneath my hand.

I hate this game, whispers the youngest daughter.

Good, I say. Nothing pleases me more.

In the distant street beyond our furred cell, a car makes its way towards light and a clean meal.

Can you guess what happens next? I ask her.

Wordlessly, the youngest daughter nods her head.

What a clever girl, I say.

***

The Cambridge Guide to Solar Systems kept the Crab Nebula at its centerfold, captured in a spectacular photo courtesy of the Hubble space telescope. The photo featured a light blue cloud in a black space, with stars scattered like sprinkles and two swooping, bright pink lines running through it. The Crab Nebula, said Mary’s favorite book, was the shattered remnant of a massive star that exploded in a supernova a thousand years ago.

That’s how it felt to eat Lucy B.: ancient and starry, like the only thing tethering Mary to the ground was the soft give of the girl’s flesh to the fetid, hot meat, and the humble sound her neck made when Mary took it in her mouth and broke it. The terrible beauty made Mary’s eyes water. She buried her snout in the open belly and sucked up the viscera like noodles.

When she was done, Mary snapped her jaws. The bones were clean. The hair stretched out around the skull, as though Lucy B. had been transformed into a white, sleeping mermaid. Discarded fingernails and toenails shimmered like stars in the grass. Mary’s belly felt round, full, better than it had in a long time. She lifted a paw to wipe blood off her nose. She turned her head and sniffed. Somewhere, a few blocks over, April was still running.

***

The youngest daughter is silent and still. Her blouse has torn at the shoulder; delicate clumps of her hair fill the satin shoes scattered around our bodies. Distantly, across many square feet of clean white carpet and smooth wood floors, we hear the garage door opening.

The end, I say. Your mom is home, I say. You’ll have lots of treats tonight.


 
Awst Collection - Bridget Brewer
5.00

This collection is 27 pages, hand-sewn, and printed in color on premium paper. This contains the story, Little Animal.

 

 

To see other chapbooks in the series, go here.