Linnet learned early that she didn’t have to be nice if she didn’t want to be nice. And she didn’t need to be liked if she didn’t want to be liked. If people had a problem with her attitude, or with her face, or with her wide, white ghost-eye, she lived at the very tippy-top of the food chain. She could just hold them down, strip their flesh away, and eat their bones like long, white KitKat bars.
As long as nobody ever figured it out.
But it was lonely, never being liked. Spending all her time not being noticed. And the friends she did make never lasted long.
“You’re a growing girl,” her mom always said, “and growing up is a hungry business.”
* * *
Linnet’s first-grade teacher huddled in a whispering, hissing bundle with the other first-grade teachers on the opposite side of the playground. Blue and red lights flashed off the silver of the chain-link fence behind them from the parking lot. Red-haired Meghan Wells screamed as two tall men dressed in blue lifted her into the ambulance. The principal stood beside the ambulance, talking quickly into his cellphone.
All the other kids had climbed the rope swing, and the jungle gym, and all the way to the top of the slide so they could see everything as it happened. They whispered and hissed at each other too, like smaller, younger colonies of first-grade teachers.
Not Linnet. Linnet was in a time-out.
“You have blood on your chin,” said a boy’s voice.
Linnet looked up and saw a scrawny kid with a black eye standing a few feet away. She didn’t know his name. He must be new, she thought.
“They won’t let me go wash it off yet,” she said. The adults were all too busy watching the tall men take Meghan Wells away to take her to the bathroom. Linnet could tell they were angry. Linnet could tell they were suspicious. That’s why they made her sit by herself against the wall, away from all the other first-grade meat.
Linnet didn’t like meat, though.
“You must have bitten her pretty hard,” said the boy. He stood with his back straight and kept his hands jammed in the pockets of his corduroys. “What, were you trying to eat her?” He made it sound like a joke.
It wasn’t a joke.
Linnet let her bangs fall in front of her one weird, ugly eye and said the thing her mom had told her to say when she got into trouble like this: “I was mad. Everybody does mean things when they get mad.”
The sound of a siren rose up like a bird as the ambulance pulled away.
The boy sat down on the grass and took his hands out of his pockets. Black and red scabs stretched over his knuckles.
“I guess that makes sense,” he mused. “Sometimes, I do really mean things when I get angry.”
Linnet stared at his hands.
“Do you get angry a lot?” she asked.
“Ever kill somebody?”
The boy hesitated.
“I’ve never killed a person,” he said.
Linnet stopped trying to hide her ugly eye. Hiding it was making her look guilty. She brushed her bangs behind her ear and wiped her nose on the back of her arm. Humans could be ugly too. It didn’t mean anything that she was ugly.
“Have you ever killed somebody?” the boy asked, and she knew it wasn’t her eye or her bent nose or the blood on her mouth that gave her away. The boy had come here because he was looking for things like her.
Linnet almost never got angry. She only got hungry.
“Not yet,” she lied.
The boy was quiet for a long time, looking over her face. (Most people never looked at her face at all, if they could help it.) She could tell he didn’t believe her. She was going to end up running and running and running forever. Running until he caught up with her and beat her brains in with his fists and sawed her head off with a knife so he could carry her head home. All stories ended that way.
She tucked her long legs into her chest and wrapped her long arms around her knees and tried to make herself look small. It probably just made her look like a crumpled spider.
“I’m Brant,” said the boy after a minute.
He put his hands back in his pockets.
* * *
“Who was that?” Linnet’s mother asked a week later after she saw Brant waving good-bye through the window of the school bus. Her ceremonial robe swished in the breeze of the door and the whole house smelled like incense again.
“My friend,” said Linnet. She dropped her backpack on the floor with a thump. Why were math books so heavy?
“I don’t think I’ve seen him before,” said her mother. Around her mouth, skin peeled away in dry flakes and sores. Even as Linnet watched, her mother pulled her bottom lip into her mouth and chewed. Linnet didn’t ask why her mother was nervous. Her mother was always nervous. But she only put the robe on when she knew something bad was going to happen. Something she couldn’t control. A silver pentagram hung around her neck and a dead chicken, its neck snapped below the skull, dangled from her hand.
“He’s new. His name is Brant.”
“I don’t like him,” said her mother.
“I don’t care,” said Linnet, kicking off her shoes. Her toenails were getting too long again, and they poked out of the front of her socks.
“I don’t care.”
Her mother took a long breath in.
“If you’re hungry,” she said, “yesterday’s leftovers are in the downstairs freezer.” They never argued for long. Nobody argued with Linnet for long. Her mother locked the front door and gathered up the bottom of her robe so she wouldn’t trip on it. “I’ll be in the attic,” she said. “Don’t interrupt me.” The back of the robe dragged across the ground as she walked down the hallway. It was the last thing to disappear up the stairs, silky and wet looking, like the final drops of a red-and-black river running uphill.
Linnet rolled her eyes.
“Whatever,” she mumbled.
The bones were buried under some freezer-burned sherbet and a bag of chicken nuggets. Linnet dug them out and sat down on the basement floor next to the washing machine to eat.
Even through three floors, she could hear her mother’s chanting in the attic. She could smell the dead chicken’s blood. She pinched her nose with one hand and ate the bones with the other.
* * *
The homeless man gurgled, face down in the sodden gutter leaves, and when he died, his shadow died too. It twisted and shuddered on the asphalt, and then trickled like water to pool underneath the body and lie still. Blood splattered an abstract map across the ground.
Brant stood with his hands in his pockets, looking down. Blue hammerhead sharks swam across his shirt. They were going to have to get out of there soon, before someone came along and found two ten year olds standing over a dead homeless man with blood all over their jeans. Linnet crouched in the gutter with the corpse, idly breaking its toes one at a time while she waited for Brant to decide it was time to scram.
Snap, like a twig. Someone had tossed a pumpkin into the gutter. It was rotten and concave and looked like the dead man’s face.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have killed him,” Brant mused after a minute. He pulled his hands out and picked at the white shard of tooth that was lodged in his fist.
“Don’t be stupid,” said Linnet. Snap, like a pencil. Brant always did this afterward. He thought that if he stood around and looked sad and talked about death and morality for a while, then he was being responsible. Linnet thought he was just pretending to be somebody he wasn’t.
“He was practically innocent.”
Snap, like a peapod. Hunger bubbled in her tummy. Linnet thought she saw the shadow twitch out of the corner of her good eye and turned to stare at it, but it didn’t move again.
“He was, whatever it’s called—guilty by standing too close or something,” she said.
“He was a bystander,” said Brant. His voice did something strange, sort of wobbled and broke, like a bubble popping. Maybe he really did feel guilty.
“Yeah. Cuz he stood by while his shadow ate people. He had a man-eating shadow, and you killed him, and now he can’t eat people anymore. Good job.”
Snap, gritty and crunchy and strong, she broke another bone.
“Maybe,” said Brant, and Linnet rolled her eyes. Brant had his hands in his pockets again so she grabbed him by the elbow.
Her hand circled the circumference of his arm easily. He dug his heels into the ground but she dragged him across the lot anyway. She was tall and treelike, and he was small and weedy.
The back door to the motel lay at the bottom of the concrete steps like a welcome mat. The hinges dangled loosely from the doorframe. Linnet and Brant walked over the door and went inside.
They followed the ten-fingered scores in the pine-green carpet down the hallway to the staircase, and then up the stairs to the second floor, where the walls were a terrible yellow color. Brant tried to stop there again; Linnet nearly ripped his arm off lugging him forward. At the very end of the green and the yellow a door hung ajar. She pushed it open with her toe.
On the other side was the lush, wet scent of gore and the harsh stench of excrement. Unlike the back door and the staircase and the hallway, most of the room sat undisturbed. Except for the bed in the center of the room. A red-black lake pooled across the mattress where two skulls, hollowed out like gourds, knocked foreheads in the middle. The rest of the bones—collars, scapula, ribs—were dropped in a careless pile beside the nightstand. The covers had been peeled back like Saran wrap and stuck together with fluids at the foot of the bed.
Linnet entered the room while Brant stayed in the doorway.
“Feel better?” Linnet asked, looking down at the pile of bones. There are children starving in Nigeria, she thought in her mother’s voice. Her stomach rumbled.
“Not really,” said Brant. He tipped his head to look the skulls in the eye. “Maybe a little,” he admitted after another moment. “Let’s go home. I’m hungry.”
Linnet waited until he rounded the corner before she put some of the smaller bones in the pouch of her sweatshirt for later. She was hungry too.
* * *
The next day they talked about it for the first time.
“I don’t understand how your mother feeds you,” Brant said, watching Linnet trying to choke down a cafeteria hot dog at lunch. (It could have been a gourmet hot dog and it still would have tasted like dog business to Linnet. But as long as she was at school, she had to pretend to be like everybody else.)
“The same way all mothers do,” Linnet snapped. She hated when Brant started asking questions. “With food.”
“Yeah, but where does she get it?” Brant asked. He started eating her fries. Linnet let him because she hated fries anyway. They tasted like warm, clumpy dirt.
“She’s a nurse,” she answered. “She gets it from the hospital.”
“Hmm,” said Brant. He stuffed another fistful of fries in his mouth. “By asking nicely?”
“She waits till the people are done with them, if that’s what you mean.” Linnet looked down at her fries and realized that Brant was already picking the last few up off the tray and stuffing them into his face.
He ate them so I wouldn’t have to.
The fear trickled down her spine and out the bottoms of her feet.
“Awethumb,” Brant said. Then he took the rest of the hot dog right out of her hand.
* * *
The washing machine spun around and around like a red wheel or a world or a storm or something. Brant’s clothes spun around and around too, a pair of blue jeans and a black T-shirt, sloshing their way through a second wash and still turning the soapsuds pink.
Brant himself lay on his back, feet braced against the dryer, arms folded under his head, and talked about how his mom could be such a bitch sometimes, and how he wished she was a little more like Linnet’s mom.
“Your mom gets you,” he said.
“Ha!” said Linnet. “I’m amazed she hasn’t had the basement renovated into a dungeon yet.”
Linnet’s black pumpkin pajama pants and her glow-in-the-dark skeleton shirt hung loose on Brant’s wire frame. He’d grown a little between being ten and being thirteen. Linnet had grown more. She would always be taller, but someday he would be stronger.
“She lets me come over, even though she hates me,” said Brant, ticking reasons off on his fingers. “She lets you eat human bones, hell, she facilitates your eating of human bones. She never makes you do the dishes. . . .”
“Not a lot of dishes required in the preparation of raw tibias,” said Linnet. “You only need a sink and a big knife, really.”
“She lets you stay out as late as you want—”
“What’s she going to say to me, ‘Nighttime is when all the dangerous lunatics come out’? Duh. That’s why I’m out there.”
“—never makes you do your homework. . . .”
“Cuz if she did, I’d eat her,” said Linnet flatly. Brant finally stopped talking. “Or at least I think that’s what she thinks,” she added, smiling so Brant could see it was a joke.
Brant stared. His brown eyes were counting the teeth in her smile.
“Dude, I’m kidding,” she said, swallowing her grin.
“Isn’t your mom missing, like, three fingers?” he asked.
“Two and a half. I bit them off when I was a baby and didn’t know better. I told you I—”
“And I’ve never even seen a picture of your dad,” said Brant.
“He ran off with another woman who didn’t have a monster baby.”
“How do I know that?”
“I didn’t eat my dad! Jesus.”
“And you’re not gonna eat your mom?” Brant asked.
“You have no intentions or thoughts about eating your mom?” Brant went on.
“Oh my god.”
“Not even, like, a leg?” A grin was starting to poke out the corners of Brant’s mouth.
“Holy shit, you’re messing with me! I’ve been terrified you were gonna rip my throat out this whole time and you’ve just been—”
“Maybe a foot? Lots of bones in the foot.”
“—being an asshole! If I was going to eat any mom it would be your mom,” Linnet snapped.
Brant’s shit-eating grin tipped toward the floor.
“That’s less funny,” he said.
No kidding. A lot of things weren’t funny. Chewing right through the insides of her own cheeks every night for two years until her mother stopped smelling like a midnight snack wasn’t funny. Brant’s mother always smelled like rotten fruit and Linnet wouldn’t eat her if she was the last person alive on Earth, but Brant didn’t know that.
“I wouldn’t start with her foot,” said Linnet deliberately. “I’d start with her teeth. So she could get a nice, big taste of her own blood while I snacked and then maybe she’d understand how gross and offensive I find it when she calls me a blood-sucker.”
“She’s never called you that to your face,” Brant said. “And she has no proof that you’re anything at all. No one does but me. She can’t do shit to you.”
“Then I’d cut off her hand and stuff it in her mouth like an apple, and plug her nostrils with her thumbs so her only choice would be to eat it or suffocate.”
Brant’s mouth twisted like a broken cable.
“Okay, shut up,” he said. “Shut. The fuck. Up.”
“Of course, if she didn’t suffocate that means I’d have to do it myself. Or else pry her shins out of her leg muscles while she was still ali—”
Brant stood up and kicked her hard in the stomach. Linnet stopped talking. A little bit because of the pain but mostly because she suddenly couldn’t stop thinking about how ugly Brant looked when he was pissed. How furious and ferocious and famished. Like being angry and being hungry were actually the same thing.
Brant stomped up the basement stairs and slammed out the front door. His clothes still whirled around in the washer, turning the water red. It smelled like sour milk to Linnet.
We’re the fucking same, she thought. And he knows it.
Brant must have walked all the way home wearing Linnet’s pajamas.
* * *
Linnet’s jaw cracked when she finally closed her mouth. White, powdered enamel dusted her jeans and the surface of the sink. She rinsed most of it down the drain, wiped the rest up with a paper towel, and put the file back in the drawer. Her fingertips were embedded with the crisscross marks of the metal, from holding it so tight for so long. Her jaw ached, and her eyes felt sore from the bright, white light of the bathroom.
Behind her reflection, Linnet saw her mother step into the doorway.
“Finished?” she asked.
Linnet snarled a grin into the mirror, checking her handiwork for herself as she did so.
She counted thirty-two wide, flat, human-looking teeth. They were very white at their tips, and maybe too smooth and even. But nobody had noticed so far, and the school pictures were always muted somehow, lacking color and definition. Like they just assumed that everybody had something to hide, and the school photographer had no interest in figuring it out.
One hundred and seventy-nine days out of the school year, Linnet didn’t smile. When she spoke, she spoke with care. She ate with care. Yawned with extreme care. But on school picture day, smiles were mandatory. And so were human teeth.
Although most people, Linnet had found, in order to avoid trouble and the inconvenience of confrontation, were satisfied with “close enough.”
“Finished,” she said in answer to her mother’s question. The word bounced around the newly empty spaces in the cavern of her mouth. Her whole head felt hollowed out and rang like a bell.
“I spent most of yesterday grinding some bones down for you,” said her mother. “There should be just enough to get you to next week.”
With the best part of her teeth gone, it was going to be nothing but bone-meal milkshakes for the next six days. They tasted disgusting and the milk made her sick to her stomach, but it was better than a spear through the throat, or a knife in the gut. Or a short drop off the back of someone’s porch, rope tied around her neck, her best friend’s hand giving a firm shove between her shoulder blades.
It was a lot of work pretending to be an omnivore.
Linnet dressed in bright colors the next day, even though they hurt her eyes. She wanted people to look at her and notice little things. How she chewed her fingernails nervously down to the quick (because her fingernails defied all mechanism of nail care, but her teeth were made for chewing bones). How her blind ghost-eye was always watering (and not roving by itself, looking through walls and between the ribs of her peers into their dark inner workings, the red and purple ticking clocks that made their bodies go.) She put bleach in her eye, to blind it for a while and make it still; the pain made it water.
She flashed small, shy smiles so everyone could see her flat, even teeth.
She made another little memory of herself that they would remember later, when someone taller than Brant, and bigger than Brant, and smarter than Brant rolled into town with ripped blue jeans and a well-kept pair of hunting knives and started asking questions about all the missing persons in town. No one would bother to mention the sad, lonely, ugly girl named Linnet.
Linnet hated school picture day.
Brant met her at her locker. They hadn’t talked in days, but Linnet had the clothes he’d left at her house folded up in a plastic bag in her backpack.
“Sup?” Brant said. Then he opened his mouth in a wide, creaking smile to reveal a set of rubber vampire teeth smeared with ketchup.
Linnet laughed until she cried. Brant had to prop her up against the lockers so she wouldn’t fall over.
* * *
Being Brant’s best friend meant that Linnet could spend some of her time pretending she was a hero too. It felt good, like stretching small, satin gloves over her long tree-bark fingers.
But it also itched like crazy, inside and out. A long and ruthless itch, like the chicken pox, yet subtle and invisible as spider’s web. And it built up over time, to a humming, angry buzz that made her want to slip out of her own skin and go walking around in just her bones for a while.
Just for a night.
Just for an hour.
Linnet never left by the basement, or a window, but by the back door in the middle of the night. She took the house keys with her and made no effort to hide the sound of the door swinging shut. As she crossed the yard she saw the lamp click on in her mother’s bedroom. Then the hallway lights, filling three windows. The light at the bottom of the staircase. And finally, after a climbing pause, the flicker of candles in the attic.
She didn’t wait around to hear the invocations begin. She was hungry. And the itch had trickled down to her hands and the tip of her tongue. Linnet started running toward the park.
Dandelion dust white in the moonlight. Cold grass and dew beneath her bare feet. Her knees and spine popping as she stretched, really stretched, and unfolded to her full height. Crunching sounds inside her head as she unhinged her jaw and popped it back into place again. Deep, silent drafts of midnight air. And with it, the taste of someone out past curfew.
Something (someone) young, with willow-branch bones. Fresh and new, without the taste of antiseptics and formaldehyde in their marrow.
At the far edge of the park Linnet spindled her way over the top of the chain-link fence and dropped down on the other side in front of an old oak tree. She ran her tongue along the razor points of her teeth and reached up, up, to the lowest branch, and with one arm pulled herself into the shadows and leaves.
She left her sneakers behind in the ferns. While she waited, she slipped out of her T-shirt and blue jeans and draped them over a branch. Her house keys jingled in the pocket of the jeans as she folded them. Then she settled in, shallow breaths and branch-like angles, to the pitch and dappled dark.
Elbows and knees crooked outward, Linnet let her human eye drift asleep, and her white ghost-eye wake up.
In the dark she saw all the dead things and all the dying things. She saw everything that wasn’t just rocks and metal and dirt. She saw will-o’-the-wisps and flickering little insect lives. She saw the creeping traces of cats and the chuckling shades of foxes. She saw a little red heart with a ghost tied to it, bobbing along after a shuffling skeleton like a moored balloon.
One little red heart making its way across the roots and newly mowed grass, a cigarette dangling from its mouth. Permanent ink stains blotted across its skin. A dingy backpack, splitting at the seams with clean shirts and socks and bagged up peanut butter sandwiches, was hoisted up on its back. One angry, lonely, sad little red heart against the world.
It took a running jump and scaled the chain-link fence to get out of the park and out of this town.
Linnet swiveled, and with a sound like leaves rustling, swung gently to hang from the underside of the branch. Her long toes gripped the wood and her long fingers uncurled. She waited.
The little red heart was thumpy and nervous, the way all little hearts were in the dark. It landed on Linnet’s side of the fence with a grunt and cussed. Then it paused for a moment and stood still, looking out into the uneven grass and the unmanicured trees. Only a few hundred yards lay between the fence and the road, but from this end of the trees it looked like miles. It looked like there was no road at all.
Linnet often wondered why they always stopped and stood still. And if she crept away and stopped watching, would the little thumping hearts stop thumping quite so loud, and walk with more confidence?
Old and new grass stains on its knees, the little red heart started walking. It passed underneath the branches of the oak tree, and stopped again when its toe knocked into one of Linnet’s shoes. The ghost rattled around inside.
“What the fuck,” muttered the little red heart.
Slowly, like dew dripping from a leaf, Linnet stretched, reached down, and wrapped the long fingers of her left hand around little red heart’s throat. The ghost panicked, whipped and whirled and tried to break away.
Relax, Linnet thought lazily to the ghost, reaching down with her other hand, I’m going to let you go.
She pushed one ragged claw up the little red heart’s nose. Then she screwed it in and crooked the very tip, through the barrier of cartilage and into the brain, where the string was.
Twist. Cut. The ghost, still panicking, raced away, and the heart slowed down. Thumped quieter. Stumbled. Stopped.
Linnet climbed out of the tree and, one at a time, extracted the fresh, milky bones from the warm flesh. She ate them slowly, savoring the taste.
After all the bones had been devoured, she wiped her mouth and sat back, opening her human eye to look at the carnage.
I’m supposed to feel bad about this kind of thing.
She buried the limp, empty human deep in the earth beneath the branches of the oak tree, so that no coyotes, or stray dogs, or heroes would sniff it out.
* * *
Linnet stayed home “sick” for four days, until the smell of gore had faded. Her mother didn’t ask any questions, and Brant didn’t come to visit.
He somehow always knew when to stay away.
* * *
Freshman year, Linnet felt the edges beginning to fray.
The hospital bones sat like scorpion husks in her stomach and tasted worse every day. Her teeth grew longer and whiter and more difficult to hide. Even with wire cutters, she could barely make her claws resemble fingernails. It took four doses of nighttime cold medicine to make her sleep at night and eight cups of coffee to keep her awake during the day (just long enough to slog through school and lunch period and the interminable bus ride home, then collapse on the couch or her bed and fall at once asleep). Her grades suffered, not that she cared because colleges didn’t offer grants for American Abominations. And the time she spent with her best friend. . . .
Every day, she expected him to call or knock on the door and say, “It’s been cool. And you’re totes my bestie. But I have to kill you now.”
Brant’s shoulders had filled out. His hands were huge.
Instead, Brant stayed up late with her every night. They talked on the phone for hours, or chatted on the computer. Sometimes he snuck out of his house and stayed over, tangled in a pile of extra blankets on Linnet’s floor, snoring. All but busting out of those black pumpkin pajamas.
He tried to stay awake until she fell asleep. Sitting next to his backpack, where Linnet knew he had his knife stashed away. But he usually dozed off sometime around three and slept like a hole in the ground till morning.
* * *
At night she began to dream of eating. The cold medicine made her drowsy, but the growling inside and the constant ache of her shrinking stomach kept the good sleep away. She woke up tangled in the blankets or amid the torn shreds of another pillow, feathers stuck between her teeth. Once she came to with her body halfway out the window and onto the roof.
She started hunting once a month. Twice a month. More than she had ever, ever dared to before. The town was running thin on motherless nobodies. Still the hunger lingered, every day and night, just as bad as the days and nights before.
She took more cold medicine. She drank her mother’s wine. Brant brought her Valium he stole from his father’s cabinet.
She dreamed about eating. Long and clean, brand-new bare skeletons, still vibrating with the heartbeats they were torn out from under. Whole, unblemished human frames with perfect heads, like dolls, on the top of their spines. The heads were still alive and clothed in skin and eyes and hair. They talked to her while she ate them.
Her math teacher. Her bus driver. Characters from TV.
It was the screaming that woke her up. The screaming and the warm, wet feeling puddled beneath her.
At first she thought she’d pissed the bed or knocked over the glass of water on her nightstand. But looking around in the dark, her ghost-eye coming into focus before her human eye, Linnet saw that the walls and the windows didn’t belong to her room. The bed was too wide and long. The ghost thrashing around and yanking on its fragile chains looked familiar.
She held a shinbone in her hands, tasted jagged mouthfuls of it between her teeth. The bone was slick and wet like the puddle.
Her mother thrashed on the bed—they were her mother’s windows, her mother’s walls, her mother’s wracking ghost—clawing at Linnet’s arms and kicking at her chest with her remaining leg to get away. She held her Satanic cross in one hand and sobbed the Lord’s Prayer.
Panic split down the middle of Linnet. She tried to hand the bone back to her mother, apologizing, shouting over the shrieking, pushing around the flailing limbs.
“No, Mom, I didn’t mean—I was asleep! I’m sorry! Here! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it!”
Her mother didn’t hear. She screamed and sobbed and prayed, switching back and forth between English and Latin, until Linnet could feel the first edges of another world’s intervention on her skin. The first bitter taste of ash in her mouth. First scent of brimstone (or the bile on her mother’s chest?) steaming into the room.
She left the bone on the bed and called 911 from the kitchen.
Then she ran out the back door. She left the keys on the hook on the wall. Her shoes in her room beneath her bed. Her cell phone on her nightstand.
She just left.
She ran to the woods to hide.
* * *
Things unraveling like twine. Like entrails.
* * *
She never expected help to come. Help was for victims. But she wasn’t ready to leave yet either. So she slept in the woods and walked in the woods and ate a family of campers she came across.
On Saturday, four days after the accident, Brant started crashing around through the brambles, shouting at the top of his lungs. When she didn’t answer he sang songs from The Sound of Music in a bad falsetto until finally she snapped and tracked him down to tell him to shut the fuck up already. She hated that movie.
She kept her hands close to the ground so she could spring when he drew his knife.
“If you keep skipping school, someone is going to figure it out,” said Brant. He wore his old khaki shorts. The ones with the lake-sized holes in the pockets. And Linnet knew he’d worn them on purpose.
He’d left his knife at home.
Linnet walked backward and crouched low again in the briar patch. She plucked thorns from the branches and one by one pushed them into the wooden skin of the pad of her thumb. Then she pulled them all out again and inspected the seven bloodless holes. She didn’t even feel the sting.
Out of the periphery of her human eye she saw Brant put his hands in his pockets. The ends of his fingers poked out the bottoms.
Linnet felt full. She felt calm. She felt like he was really stupid coming out here.
“They’ll know soon anyway,” she said. Her voice sounded like a dying campfire.
“Your mom told the police you’ve been staying with an aunt for the week. She said it was a monster that attacked her.”
“It was,” said Linnet.
“Yeah, but she told them it was a different monster.”
Linnet paused. One of the thorns went too deep, and when she yanked it out, it turned out she had blood under there after all.
“So what the hell have you been doing then?” she asked.
“Finding another monster to kill,” said Brant. “So that you could come home.”
* * *
Life at home was walking on glass for a while. Linnet moved around the house whistling or stomping so that her mother could hear her coming. She stayed in her room while the physical therapists and the nurses shuffled in and out every other day of the week.
Her mother only wore her little gold cross around her neck anymore. The downstairs freezer contained ice pops and frozen kielbasa sausages. The door to the attic stayed bolted. The incense and the books bound in black one by one found their way into the garbage. The space they left behind was filled with gardening magazines and a red leather Bible.
Linnet tried to fast. She wondered, as the days went on, if it were possible to starve the deformity out. But when the dreams came back, and she was desperate, she paid a visit to the graveyard and ate bones that tasted like dust.
Sometimes, just to make her mother happy, Linnet sat down at the kitchen counter and ate hot dogs or macaroni and cheese. She would go out into the woods later to throw it all up so her mother wouldn’t hear.
Brant brought her bones sometimes. He only went hunting alone.
* * *
Things fitting back together. Like bones and sockets.
* * *
Brant, not the school nurse, called Linnet’s mother that Wednesday in March. He stood in the doorway to the nurse’s office, between Linnet and the entire rest of the school, while the nurse scattered nervous glances at them through the window from where she stood in the parking lot. Her arms were folded across her bosom. Red and blue lights flashed off the silver frames and tinted lenses of her glasses.
The principal stood next to her. And behind him, two paramedics jumped into the back of an ambulance and closed the doors behind them. The siren rose up like bird as the ambulance pulled away.
It wasn’t the same as it had been in first grade. Police cruisers screamed in to fill the void left by the ambulance. The ache in Linnet’s stomach grew arms and reached up into her chest, winding around her insides and squeezing them. Colonies of teachers gathered in the hallway. They stood outside the door, on the other side of Brant, and watched like waiting coyotes. Linnet saw the whites of their eyes through the gap between Brant’s elbow and waist. They whispered and hissed at each other. Pens in their hands and chalk dust on their cuffs.
Linnet rolled over to face the wall and closed her eyes. The stomachache moved up to her head, down to the roots of her teeth. The loudspeaker scratched on overhead and called all the students to the auditorium. Noise filed into the hallway.
Brant closed the door.
Linnet was too old for all of that now. Detentions weren’t any good.
They left her alone in the nurse’s office because they saw Brant standing at the door. And everybody knew about Brant. Brant had no reason to hide his eyes or file his teeth and he kept his hunting knife in his backpack.
“Maybe I should become a vegan,” Linnet said to the wall. She said it like a joke.
It wasn’t a joke.
The bruise on her face pounded with the sound of her own blood, and her own thumping little red heart. Every human wielded a little bit of a hero’s strength when under the influence of terror. They kicked down doors and punched through windows. Linnet’s leather-and-bark flesh squished like a rotten pear when she touched the bruise.
But it was the eyes, looking at her still through the solid door, that made her spine prickle. All those little red hearts, stormy with anger, and trapping her own (which was hungry and fearsome and terrible . . . and now, for the first time, terrified) into a corner.
“What did you eat?” Brant asked.
“Just his finger,” Linnet said. “I bit it off because he was trying to dig my eye out. I swallowed it by accident.” Not all a lie. Not an accident either though, just instinct. Fresh bone and cartilage between her teeth, and the sunlight on his skin (which she normally didn’t have a taste for) made it sweet. Hunger followed Linnet around like a stray thread these days, unraveling her will and her self-control. Of course she ate the finger.
“That’s not so bad,” murmured Brant after a pause. “What happened to your face?”
“He hit me too. Before he tried to get my eye.” Linnet said. Brant put his scraped knuckles and perpetually crooked fingers (broken too many times) into his pockets.
“I kissed him,” said Linnet. “I thought he wanted me to kiss him.”
Brant pulled a stool across the room and sat down next to her. He smelled more human than usual. He smelled like another human. Like Melissa Sheridan from math class. Melissa Sheridan was cute. Her bones probably tasted like strawberries.
Linnet rolled over to look up at her best friend, and closed her human eye—watched his ghost waver like the reflection of moving smoke on water. His ghost watched her back.
“He didn’t want to kiss you,” said Brant softly.
“I know,” said Linnet.
“He thinks you’re ugly.” Brant’s ghost rumbled like a thunderstorm.
“I know,” said Linnet.
“He hates you.”
Brant was quiet for a long moment. The ghost looked at the lump on Linnet’s face and into her milky-white eye while its mouth moved and moved, opened and closed, shouting, screaming, tearing at her hands with insubstantial, desperate mist. Linnet opened her human eye. Brant sat still and silent. He looked worried.
“I could kiss you,” he offered after a minute.
“Don’t be stupid,” said Linnet.
A car door slammed outside. Linnet sat up and looked out the window. She saw her mother climbing out of the red Subaru. Her gray hair was swirled into an out-of-focus bun on her head, and her hands closed around the brim of her wide yellow hat. She was dressed for church. But her silk stockings had been cut and hemmed on one side to accommodate her wooden leg.
Linnet’s mother handed her hat to the nearest police officer and then opened the trunk and reached inside. She seemed calm and collected. One whole picture, instead of a ragged collection of jigsaw pieces. The police officer spoke to her urgently, gesturing with the wide yellow hat at the window. Linnet’s mother shook her head and smiled. She pulled a rifle from the trunk.
“Holy shit, she’s going to shoot me,” said Linnet.
The officer backed up, hand on his hip. Linnet’s mother smiled again, held the gun dangling from her fingertips like an umbrella.
Then, swinging the gun back and forth, Linnet’s mother clicked and thunked across the parking lot. The officer let her go.
“Actually,” said Brant, as Linnet’s mother caught them looking out the window and smiled and waved, like she was coming to pick them up from the park or something, “I think she’s going to shoot me.”
Linnet turned to her best friend.
“We should run,” she said.
* * *
“Did your dad really run away with another woman?” Brant asked as they sat together at the bus station. He folded his hands behind his head and looked up at the sky. Linnet looked up too. The stars winked brightly, like puncture wounds in the black satin fabric overhead. She’d heard people say that all the stars were hidden in cities by brighter lights and tall buildings.
“Yeah,” said Linnet. She didn’t mind losing the stars; she’d never really appreciated beautiful things anyway.
She wove the bus ticket around her long fingers and ran the edge over her nails and wondered how Brant had come by the money to pay for it.
“How old were you?” Brant asked.
“Too young to remember. Too small to have eaten him.” She looked sideways at her best friend.
“Well, can you blame me for asking?” he asked.
“I’m glad it wasn’t your fault though,” he said. His eyes still drifted over the sky.
“I’ve killed other people, you know.”
“I’m not sorry.”
Linnet fell silent for a moment, not knowing what else to say. Her departure time crept a little closer. That quiet, heavy bulk of time, with tiny seconds padding silently through the empty spaces behind her. She couldn’t see it but she knew it was there.
She was a monster. She knew when she was being hunted.
“They’re going to know it was you,” she said. “That let me get away, I mean.”
“Yeah. But what are they gonna do, jail me and find a new hero on Craigslist?”
“Besides,” Brant continued after a minute, “I’m not letting the monster go. I’m letting my friend go.” He finally stopped staring at the sky. “I’ll get the monster later,” he added.
“I could come back,” said Linnet.
A man in blue emerged from the building and walked across the parking lot to the bus. He climbed inside the open door and sat down, the lights behind the bus windows flickering on.
“Come back and I’ll kill you,” said Brant.
“Okay,” said Linnet.
* * *
Things. Dark and simple. Things running like rivers into gutters. Things sliding like oil into storm drains. Things the way they always were.
Twelve years went by before Linnet returned.
They’d both grown. Brant was the enveloping, enormous dark clouds of a dangerous horizon. He was thunder shaking the ground and lightning setting fires. He was spectacular. He was a hurricane.
Linnet was an ocean.
She sat down to think after he was dead (something she hadn’t done for a very long time.) And after some long, difficult consideration, decided not to eat his bones.
She ate his heart. Even though she’d never had a taste for hearts. And then she carried his body home and laid it peacefully across the top step of his mother’s porch.
Peri Fae Blomquist lives in Boston with her partner, her best friend, and a rotund feline named Peanut. She spends her weekdays working and blending in to the average human lifestyle, and her weekends attempting various projects she has not thought through all the way. She would stop writing and get a social life, but then the stories would keep her up at night. This is her first published piece. You can read further ramblings on her blog, which she updates sometimes, at writertude.wordpress.com.