By Phoebe North
The summer before he went away to college, Adam spent his days ringing groceries at the Shop Rite on the highway, long hair pulled back into a frizzy pony tail. His nights were spent doing who-knows-what. If you asked Elsie, she’d tell you he spent them with Louis and Evan, coasting up and down the highway in Evan’s Lincoln Continental.
But it would be a lie.
Adam made rare, rushed appearances at the dinner table—eating quickly, pressing his lips to his mother’s cheek, disappearing again.
“He’d better not be on drugs,” her stepfather Ted groused. At that, Elsie kept her expression even, kept her eyes on the thick print of her paperback. She was scared that if she looked up, it would show: how she heard the water running each night after Adam came in, how she was always pulling tufts of fur out of their shared shower drain. How she was always keeping Adam’s secret.
And who was there to keep her secrets? Nobody. Like how strong she felt when she was underwater. Submerged in the blue-white depths of the county pool, she streamed along the bottom and pretended she was some sleeker, better creature. But the girls who sprawled out across the concrete in their bikinis wouldn’t let her forget the truth.
“A virgin,” she heard them whisper. “Look at her. She doesn’t even shave her legs.”
When she spun around, they fluttered their eyelashes—heavy from too much mascara—and buried their noses in their magazines. It was only when she dove back into the blue water that their snickers rose up again on the humid air.
Soon August faded. Elsie tried to ignore the movement in the next room as Adam packed his belongings into Tupperware bins and tore his posters down from his walls. Before he climbed into the passenger’s seat of Mom’s overloaded station wagon, he gave Elsie’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Good luck in high school,” he said.
Without thinking, Elsie replied: “Yeah, you too.” And then she blushed deeply, burying her face in her palms. But Adam only laughed as he pulled the car door shut behind him.
On the first day, Elsie shuffled between classes, letting her unkempt hair veil her eyes. In the four minutes between bells, boys slammed their lockers shut; girls shouted greetings to one another across the crowd; no one directed a single sound or word or glance to Elsie.
Which was just the way she liked it.
Her problems started during lunch. First, the lunch lady didn’t hear her over the clash of dishes when Elsie mumbled her order. She had to repeat herself three times, jabbing her hand at the glass. “The quiche! The quiche!” A gaggle of boys behind her all elbowed one another, snorting at her. Their plates were piled high with sallow French fries resplendent with grease. Elsie blushed and stared down at the hash-marked surface of her own lunch tray.
Elsie paused at the cafeteria door. She looked back behind her, bracing herself, clutching her tray tight.
“Hey! You’re Adam’s sister, right?”
It was a boy. Evan. He’d changed since the last time she saw him at Adam’s twelfth birthday party, the last one before Ted moved in and put an end to parties at home (too much to clean, Ted said, too many kids with dirty sneakers scuffing up the wood floors). But once she’d known him well, almost as well as family. Adam’s best friend, the one he always brought on his camping trips with Dad. The one she might have thought she’d marry once, when she was little, before they found Dad’s body on the side of the road that winter night and she gave up on girlish dreams.
Evan’s pale hair now hung in long, scraggly tresses down his shoulders. His face was pitted with acne. He’d circled his clear, sapphire blue eyes with smudgy kohl. Lanky and lean, Evan wore an old army jacket that dwarfed his thin shoulders. And he took Elsie’s long silence for affirmation.
“Elizabeth, right?” He grinned at her through braces. Finally, she nodded, keeping her eyes down.
“Elsie,” she said.
“Well, Elsie,” Evan said, slumping back in his chair, making an easy gesture with his hands. “Don’t let the proles get you down. You’re Adam’s sister. We’re looking out for you. Right, Louis?”
Louis. Elsie had hardly noticed the other boy who sat silently beside Evan. She knew him, too, but not as well. He’d only appeared at Adam’s side last spring, after he started working at the supermarket. He was chubby, dark, his black hair twined into a sloppy tail down his back. And he had a mustache, a real one, not one of those wispy things the ninth-grade boys sported. He’d just taken a bite of his pizza and he chuckled up at Elsie through a full mouth, his black eyes glittering sharply. He didn’t speak.
“You know,” Evan began, “you could sit with us.” He caressed the smooth table top before him, his palm sliding across its surface. “We wouldn’t mind. Right, Louis?”
“Naw.” Louis grinned through bites.
“Um.” Elsie could feel her pulse racing in her throat. She looked out at the empty tables at the room’s edge. “No. Thanks. Um.” She felt the heat of a blush sweep over her ears. Evan, still smiling, raised a cool hand.
“No worries. Some other time, then?”
Elsie didn’t respond. Instead, she just stumbled over to an empty table and set down her tray. She pulled out her book, the one with the dragon on the cover, and did her best to read. But it wasn’t easy.
Elsie often thought people were looking at her. She felt their eyes on her everywhere she went, examining her, probing, trying to get below the surface. But this time she was sure she wasn’t imagining it. Every time she looked up, there was Evan, his eyes like two flinted pieces of sapphire, their sharp edges scraping her skin away.
After that, Elsie watched for the boys. Between bells, in open classrooms when she managed to speak up and beg her teachers for a bathroom pass, she watched, and waited. There were boys who looked enough like Evan and Louis to turn her head—boys with long hair or makeup, boys with stubble or acne or with bike chains as jewelry looped around their necks—but they weren’t the same. The other boys had dull eyes ringed with red from the pot they smoked behind the gym. They looked right through Elsie. They never looked at her.
But when she managed to spot the boys, her boys, it was different. Passing them in the hall, her books clutched to her chest, Evan’s grin seared through her. He’d nod his head and she’d blush and blush as she shuffled by. Beside him, Louis beamed.
And they spoke to her, too—or at least Evan did—every single day when she passed them at lunch. “Sit with us today, Lesovik?” He’d suggest, arching an eyebrow, as, every day, her face blossomed with color.
In middle school, she’d spent the day staring down at the tiled floor, her textbooks clutched to her chest as if they could shield her true self from the world. Now she wore the skittish expression of a frightened animal. It got so that the hairs on her arm would stand on end at even the passing scent of boys who smelled like them—the scent of their unwashed clothing just barely masking their animal perfume.
She wondered if this had happened to Adam. Had he walked through these halls, growing lusty at the sharp, clean odor of girls? What had it stirred inside him? She felt wild, unbridled—dangerous. At school her heart was always sounding in her throat like a jar full of trapped lightning bugs, striking the glass with their frantic black wings, struggling to get out.
At home things were better. She got there before Mom or Ted did, sat at the kitchen counter with a bag of potato chips and her geometry homework, and took a half-hearted stab at the odd-numbered problems before copying down all the answers from the back of the book. She began to breathe more easily. By the time one a.m. rolled around, her heartbeat felt nearly normal. Up too late, reading her dog-eared books until the stars began to gasp out in a graying sky, she was no longer on guard.
She told herself that’s why she missed it at first—a tiny smudge of light between the dark trees, flickering and flaming in the distance. It could be seen from her bed, between the gnarled branches of the sap-sticky peach tree that leaned against her open window screen. If only she’d looked.
But Elsie didn’t look up. She wouldn’t let herself. She only turned the pages, telling herself there was no fire, no boys out there in the woods.
Elsie kicked at the stones and sticks that clutched the edge of the highway. In skips and shuffles, the days were getting shorter. Overhead the tree branches shivered, now only half-clad in brown, brittle leaves. Elsie shivered too, every time a car drove by, too close, she thought, making her leave the firm surface of the road for the brambly ditch beside it. When a branch full of tiny thorns whipped at her bare arms, she stopped and winced, yanking them away from her soft flesh. They left little holes in her, beaded with blood.
Her instinct was to bring her forearm to her mouth, to taste it. Even her own blood raised bright colors in her mind. The fuzzy yellow of the potato chips she’d scarfed down at lunch. The iron-brown of the stew Mom had made last night. Her own wild, verdant flavor. Her arm was still pressed to her lips when the old Lincoln Continental rattled up beside her.
It was a big blue boat of a car, its sidewalls and hubcaps all eaten by rust. Billows of white smoke coughed out of the exhaust. The window rolled stutteringly down. It was Evan who cast one arm out of the window, his brace-fenced smile gleaming.
Elsie dropped her arm, rubbing the spit off on her T-shirt. She peered into the car’s dark cabin. Louis gazed back at her from the passenger’s seat. He wasn’t smiling, not this time—in fact, he looked away.
But Evan was as confident as ever. “Hop in,” he said, gesturing to the backseat with his thumb. “We’ll drive you home.”
Elsie gazed into the dusky distance. She had almost a mile left to go, and the feeble sun was already sinking into the horizon. It was dangerous for her to be out after the sun went down. There was no telling what would happen. So she reached for the door handle, and slid herself, and her backpack, across the leatherette seats.
“Buckle up.” Evan’s blue eyes smiled at her in the rear view mirror. She fumbled for the lap belt; the metal parts clicked into place.
“Okay,” Evan said. She could see his hand grip the gearshift as he eased the car forward, but his eyes remained on the rear view mirror, remained on her. She shrank down in her seat, gazing out the window.
“That’s my house!” she said, as they rolled right on past it. In the mirror, Evan’s eyes narrowed.
“I know, Elsie. I just want to talk to you first.”
“Evan . . .” Louis looked at him, his thick lips slack, his mouth open. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
Elsie could hear her pulse in her ears.
“Relax, Louis. We’re just going to talk.”
But they didn’t talk, not for a long time. Elsie stared desperately up at the ceiling where the fabric had begun to collapse from the foam. Meanwhile, the Lincoln made its way around the neighborhood.
“You know,” Evan said at last, “we used to hang out with your brother.”
Elsie didn’t answer. Part of her wanted to reach up, to tear the beige fabric away like paper. Part of her wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else.
“Out in the woods,” Evan added, like it was important. “Your dad showed me how, you know. And Adam and I showed Louis.”
They know, she thought, feeling offended by the idea of it. They’re not even family! Elsie’s breath was shallow, wrong.
“We still go there at night. Every night, really. So,” Evan said, “if you ever want to join us—”
“Evan!” Louis’s eyes were like the pieces of coal that Elsie used to find out in the woods—uneven, craggy, and sharp. “Adam said not to.”
“I think,” Evan said evenly, “that Elsie can decide that for herself.”
For a moment Louis stared at Evan. Then he crossed his arms over his chest, turning forward again. All Elsie could see was the back of his head over the top of the bench seat. The crown was spotted white with dandruff.
“So, Elsie,” Evan said again. There was something eager, hungry about his tone, like he’d been warming up to this. “If you ever want to join us out there, we’ll be waiting.”
There was a throbbing fist in her throat. She wouldn’t have been able to answer if she’d wanted to; it choked out all her words. But they’d circled back around to her house by then. Evan parked the Continental at the curb. He reached one of his long hands back over the seat and opened the door for her. He remained frozen there for a moment, unbuckled, sitting up, and staring. Without looking at either of them, keeping her eyes down at the floor of the car, at the hamburger wrappers and soda cups, she slid out of the backseat. Then, before she slammed the door shut, she scrambled back in to get her backpack. Blushing. Holding it against her like it was some precious part of herself.
“See you,” Evan’s smile was steady as he pulled away. But it wasn’t a sweet smile. It was sharp, all metal and teeth.
Elsie stood there for a long time. She watched the Lincoln’s exhaust dissipate into the chilly air until she couldn’t really be sure if it had ever been there at all.
That’s when the dreams started. She’d be in her room, or it wasn’t her room, or it was sort of her room but the back wall, the one where the window was in real life, opened to a jungle of paper-cut trees and felted tigers. It was hot, always too hot, and the boys were there dressed in their coats and nothing else, and their skin was cold against hers, cooling. Usually it was Louis who touched her, who slid his pudgy hands down the curve of her back while Evan watched, laughing, saliva streaming from his jewel-encrusted mouth. But sometimes they didn’t touch her. Sometimes they did something else. And she’d bring her hands up to her eyes to see that the skin had torn away, exposing sinews and blue arteries and blood vessels curling like vines.
On Thanksgiving, dessert was a narrow slice of store-bought pumpkin pie, paired with the first cup of coffee Elsie had ever been offered. She poured so much sugar in that the bottom of the cup was coated with beige by the time she drank it down. After, Elsie made her way to her room. Dinner had been too much for her, but now Ted and Adam were on the dishes and Mom was fretting over Gram and the second story of their house felt dark, empty, and wonderful.
Elsie didn’t even bother turning on a light. Instead, she went to the window and threw it open. The air was ash-scented. She could see something flickering in the distance—a neighbor, she told herself, though she knew it was a lie, must have been burning leaves. Inhaling deeply, Elsie pulled up her desk chair and sat in front of the open window for a long time, until the hairs on her forearms were all raised, until the world outside, save for the firelight, was almost black.
Elsie didn’t remember falling asleep, but when Adam rapped his hand against the door, she woke with a start. “Come in,” she said, rubbing her palms over her face.
“Man, it’s dark in here.” Adam flicked on the light. Elsie looked at him, blinking rapidly.
“What are you doing?” her brother asked, his gaze drifting to the open window. Then he added: “Can I come in?”
“I already said you could.”
Elsie got up and moved stiffly to her unmade bed. When she reached it, she let herself fall into the wrinkled sheets, pressing her face against her flower-speckled pillow case. Then she peered out of one barely-open eyelid. “What do you want?”
Adam pulled the desk chair over, sat in it. His long limbs formed jutting angles. Her father had sat the same way, his hands or elbows on his knees as if he were too big for whatever chair he sat in. It felt strange to see him in Adam. Elsie never had before.
“Just to talk. How are you?”
For a moment neither spoke. The wind rattled through the window screen, stirring Elsie’s curtains.
“If you’re thinking about hanging out with Evan and Louis,” Adam finally said. Elsie could tell that he was picking his words carefully, turning them over his tongue. “I don’t think you should.”
“Who said I was thinking about it?” Elsie reached under her pillow for her book, held it over her head, flipped through the yellow pages.
“I just thought you might be. And I don’t think you should. What those guys are into . . . it’s not for you.”
“Says who?” Elsie demanded. She let her eyes meet Adam’s for a minute, only the briefest minute. He almost cracked. She could see it in the way his groomed eyebrows ticked up.
“There’s a reason Dad never took you camping, you know.”
She winced. She’d been only seven when Dad died, too young for anything but their walks together in the woods out back. She’d only watched as Mom had photographed Adam and Dad and Evan beside Dad’s pick-up truck. The trio had geared up in the camouflage Mom had bought for them at K-Mart, even though Dad told her not to waste the money. Too little, Elsie had told herself, hanging back. I’m too little for hats and guns and sleeping bags. For the hunt. But was it true? Her heart felt suddenly bound up by a tangle of vines and thorns.
She turned to him, searching his shaved face. What he was saying about Dad had to be a lie. Elsie knew it. And Adam must have, too. But if she said so—if she bared her teeth at him and growled the truth—then she’d be giving him power. Letting him win. Her brother’s eyes were open wide beneath his carefully combed hair. He’d cut it short; now it fell around his eyes in a tousled mop-top. He looked different. Freshly scrubbed. Clean.
Finally, Elsie spoke. “When did you become such a prep?”
Adam raised his hand to his mouth. He rubbed it over the short stubble that, even now, was pushing through his white skin. Then, not speaking, he rose, still rubbing his lips and jaw, and left, closing the door behind him.
Elsie sat up on her knees and turned out the light.
But later that night, even though Adam had warned her to stay away, Elsie heard the weight of his feet on the stairs, and then, after a pause, heard the screen door slam in the kitchen below. She rose to her window just in time to see the figure of her brother rapidly retreat from the motion-sensing porch light and head toward the fire, still shifting, in the distance.
Mom took Adam to the train station late Sunday morning. On Sunday night, Elsie woke sticky with sweat, her chest moving hard with the force of her breath. Evan. Evan had been feeding her something, something lumpy and barbed with spines. She turned her head away, kept her lips clamped shut, but somehow he reached through the skin of her cheek, craning his hand inside and burying it deep within her.
Her eyes scanned the darkness. Out the window, her eyes found light.
Elsie moved across her room as if propelled by some other force, like she was a wind-up toy that someone had let down to a tabletop. She stood by the window, hugging herself. Then she opened the rattling screen. She reached her hands out and touched the bark of the peach tree, her old friend. When was the last time she climbed it? Years ago. But her body knew what way to shift her weight, which branches would cradle her bare feet as she shimmied down.
It was early December. Each blade of grass across the lawn glittered with frost. The air was cold, harsh, and clear, and though Elsie wore just a pair of flannel shorts and one of Adam’s T-shirts, she hardly noticed. Instead she marched ahead, fumbling for only a moment with the latch of the gate until swiftly she lifted herself over it. In one movement, just like that. Even though she refused to even try to climb the ropes in gym.
Elsie’s bare feet broke twigs, sunk into cold mud. She passed all the old markers: the creek bottom, dry and hard; the toppled picnic table where some other boys, years before, had scrawled spewing cocks and pot leaves and women with breasts like balloons. Soon, the light in the distance was huge and dancing. Elsie crouched behind the rotted-out stump of an old tree. And she watched.
At first there were only silhouettes. Then there was Louis, his round form gamboling before the fire with surprising grace. And Evan, swinging his lithe body from an overhanging branch. They danced and played under flags and streamers. Elsie could see the curves of their muscles, their bellies. They’re not wearing any clothes, she told herself, and forced herself to feel something like shock, but then her eyes adjusted to the red, blazing light and she could no longer deny the truth about what she was seeing.
The streamers that laced from one branch to the next weren’t streamers at all. They were long ropes of wet flesh, entrails, and they were dripping blood on the leaves below. The pair of flags that skipped on the late November wind above was made of skin. One was a sallow pink; the other brown, and Elsie could see the firelight shine through the holes where the eyes and mouths and small, neat nostrils should have been. Each trailed hair from a headless scalp like seaweed stirred by the current.
And Evan and Louis weren’t just naked. No, not only that. They’d pulled off their skin, exposed what lies beneath. Their bodies were covered with damp pelts of scraggly hair that seemed to darken even the soles of their long-clawed feet and the palms of their hands and every inch of their flat faces, except for where their mouths opened wide, too wide, showing an armory of teeth
But their eyes—their eyes were the same. Sharp familiar stones in furred faces. Those eyes that had watched her in the lunch room and in the hallways and down the road. She knew those eyes.
Elsie felt something move against the inside of her bare ankle. Ants, she thought first, shaking her foot. But she looked down and saw a dark line tracing her inner thigh. Her period. She’d forgotten completely.
“Shit!” she breathed, and, standing, pressed a hand between her legs. In that moment, that split second, she’d forgotten about the eyes. But they hadn’t forgotten her. When she looked up, they were on her.
It was Louis’ voice that she heard, close to her ear though she hadn’t moved. We smell you. Elsie froze. Evan and Louis froze, too. Only the fire moved.
And then Elsie ran. She ran so hard that her bare feet snapped branches beneath her. She ran so fast that she surprised even herself. She ran and ran until she left the woods and slammed shut the gate, then the screen door, behind her. She locked the door and fastened the chain. The warmth of her house felt like a slap. Her arms and legs tingled like she was on fire.
She went to the bathroom and turned on the lights and the vent and locked the door behind her and ran the water as hot as it would go and climbed in to the bright porcelain of the tub. She squirted out a handful of apricot scrub into the palm of her hand and scrubbed her breasts and stomach until everything ached and burned.
There was a knock on the door.
“Elsie?” It was Ted. Ted’s voice. “What are you doing up?”
Elsie’s fingers were tangled through her long hair, the hot water streaming down her face.
“I had a bad dream,” she called back. Ted mumbled an answer. She heard him move away from the door. He was satisfied by that. Just like he should have been, because it was true, wasn’t it?
Like always, Elsie hid behind her book the next day during lunch, holding it like a shield between herself and those searching eyes. What did she have beside her books? Nobody, nothing. Not Mom, not Ted, not Adam. Not Dad.
Only Evan. Evan and Louis.
The bell rang. As her classmates rushed around her, jostling her chair as they passed, Elsie stared down at the cracked spine, the dog-eared pages. And she drew in a breath, holding it, avoiding the final look Evan gave her before he left the cafeteria. She knew what she had to do.
Tuesday afternoon, Elsie didn’t wait to be invited. She walked right up to Evan and Louis. Their eyes were the same—one pair of turquoise-blue marbles, the other dark as onyx—but different. Soft. It was Louis who reached over, Louis who pulled out a chair for her. Elsie sat down, dropping her backpack on the floor beside her.
“So, Lesovik,” Evan said. But his tone was no longer coy. It was nervous, edgy. “You’ve decided to join us.”
Elsie looked at him for a moment, for a long moment.
And then she rolled her eyes.
She didn’t bother going to sleep that night. Instead, she was still, her hands folded over her chest like she was dead. She felt herself breathing, coalescing, gathering her courage.
Adam would be home in twelve days for winter break. By then it would be too late.
At midnight she rose and went to the window. The moon was a perfect round disk in the sky. She thought that if she reached up, she’d be able to palm it, to hold its bright heat in her hand. Instead, she opened the window and climbed down into the yard. Her breath fogged the air. She went to the gate, opened it. She couldn’t even hear her own heart.
In the woods, Evan and Louis were waiting. Their skins hung heavy in the windless air like the shadows of statues, unmoving. The boys—her boys—had captured a doe for her. They wrenched their elegant claws through the downy flesh of its throat. Blood sprang out like a fountain of garnets. Both boys went to work, lapping it up with their strange mouths as though they were leaving tender kisses across the creature’s chin. For a moment, the doe’s legs still kicked. And then she was still.
They hadn’t seen Elsie, not yet. She was crouched behind the old tree stump, the one where, when she was young, her father had shown her secrets that she’d almost forgotten. How to take off your soft outer flesh. How to make mischief. Adam had always been better at it, felling the animals in one swift movement. But when her Daddy had asked her to sweep her claws over the old wolf’s throat, she’d just stood there and cried Elsie knew now that it wasn’t because there was something wrong with her. She’d just been too little, that’s all.
But she wasn’t now.
Elsie rose, tugged off the old, tired t-shirt that had once been her brother’s and left it lying limp as a pelt on the muddy ground. She stepped forward, her small breasts bared to the December air. They hadn’t seen Elsie, not yet. But soon they would.
She fixed her fingers to the thin flesh that covered her clavicles. She dug her nails, her chipped, painted nails, in as far as they would go. And then, wincing—of course it hurt; it always hurt—she tore her human skin away.
Phoebe North is a 20-something writer originally from the fantastic–and possibly mythical–land of Central New Jersey. She currently lives in New York State with her husband and her cat (who just might be the most intelligent being in the household). You can follow her on the web at www.phoebenorth.com or via twitter at www.twitter.com/phoebenorth.