RABID ANIMALS, by ROWAN BAGLEY
Janet Swan and I weren’t friends. She had hair like spun sugar and big, watery blue eyes that she didn’t blink enough. We ate lunch together every day in the cafeteria of Thomas Jefferson Junior High but never talked. I read and ate the roast beef sandwiches that Mom packed for me even though I’d told her I don’t like them. And Janet stared. At me, at the flies dying in the industrial lights, at her bitten bloody fingernails. But we were both losers, and when you’re a loser, you tend to spend a lot of time with other losers, regardless of whether or not you’re friends. All of my clothes were from Goodwill and Janet went to the nurse at least twice a year to get treated for lice. Neither of us had many options when it came to who we hung out with. So when she asked me if I wanted to come to her house after school one day, I said yes.
She sat too close to me on the bus. Her knee kept bumping mine and I could see pink skin through a run in her tights. She smelled like baby powder and dirt. I rested my head against the rain-streaked window and watched as acres of farmland slipped by. I regretted agreeing to hang out with her. All I wanted to do was go home. My head started to pound out a dull thud behind my right eye. Her stop was the last one on the route and the driver let us off at the mouth of a rutted driveway that wound its way up a hill dotted with scrubby pine. I stepped down and felt as my foot sunk into dirty slush. I couldn’t see a house yet. Janet walked beside me, close enough that her puffy pink coat brushed against my arm.
“You’ll like my house,” she said in her paper-thin voice. “My dad’s never home. We’ll be all alone.”
“Is he at work? My mom works a lot. She’s a CNA at the nursing home.” My mouth felt dry. I didn’t know if I wanted to be alone with her.
She smiled at me and swung her arms like a little kid. “I don’t know where he goes.”
I was winded by the time we crested the hill. From here, I could see the house where it squatted in the soft folds of a valley. It was a little one-story, with a dip in the roof and white paint peeling from the siding in strips. The porch groaned under our weight as Janet fished a key from her backpack, and I could feel the pulpy boards through the thin canvas of my sneakers. I had been asking Mom for a new pair for a month, but she said we couldn’t make the trip to Payless for another week. I looked back over my shoulder and saw where the valley rolled downhill. Patches of snow still dotted the fields, broken here and there by trees scraping their fingers against the gray sky. Shadows deepened in the late afternoon light. Everything was black and gray and white like someone had drunk all the color. A crow screamed and broke the wet spring silence, sending a shiver up my spine and into the roots of my hair.
Inside, the house was low and dark. It smelled like mud and cat piss and, underneath everything, the rank sweetness of rotting food. The smell made me faintly sick and I felt my head throb in time with my heartbeat. Janet was wrong—I didn’t like it here.
“Do you want anything to drink?” she asked as we hung our coats on the antler-shaped pegs in the entryway. She wore a pale blue dress with a gauzy skirt that drifted and fluttered as she moved. There were bruises on the pale skin on her upper arm that I hadn’t noticed before. Long and thick, like fingers.
I started to say that I was fine, but she had already disappeared around a corner. She reappeared clutching two Budwiesers, handing me one and taking a loud slurp of the other.
“Your dad lets you drink beer?” I held the cold can with both hands.
She shrugged. “He can’t stop me.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t, we could get in trou-”
“My bedroom is this way,” she said, her back already to me as she led me down the narrow hallway. I followed reluctantly, a pit of anxiety growing in my stomach. Neither of us had taken off our shoes. The carpet was crunchy underfoot.
We passed a bathroom, the door slightly open, weak light coming from the skylight. Someone had colored over the mirror in black marker and the shower tiles were stained yellow in the places that weren’t spotted with black mold. Janet’s room had no door, just a yellowed sheet nailed to the doorframe. She pushed it aside, her booted feet making heavy thumping noises as she crossed the space to where a bare mattress and box spring had been shoved into a corner. Apart from the bed, the only other furniture was a plywood bookshelf, several stacks of black milk crates, and a fish tank filled with green slime and masses of frog eggs. She flopped down onto the mattress, careful of her open beer, and stared at the water damaged ceiling. The hem of her dress had ridden up and I could see the crotch of her panties through the sheer material of her tights. My face was unpleasantly warm. Her big eyes swiveled to me, still standing in the doorway, and she raised an eyebrow.
“You can sit down,” she said. I lowered myself onto the edge of the bed, uncomfortably aware of how she was watching me.
She stared at me for a long moment before her chapped lips broke into a smile. Her mouth seemed too wide.
“Do you want to see something cool?” She didn’t wait for my answer before squatting in front of the milk crates.
She pulled a filmy jar from the top crate, one of many from the sound of clinking that followed. She held it gingerly in her hands before passing it to me. It was an old pickle jar, the label peeled off, filled with a yellowish liquid. Suspended in the liquid was a baby rabbit, its eyes closed, its nose and ears and paws newborn pink. My hands felt numb. I wanted to go home. My head hurt and it was almost dinner time. I had forgotten to take the hamburger out of the freezer before I left for school and I knew Mom would be upset, but I wanted to go home anyway. Janet sat back down next to me, her leg pressed against mine.
“It was a stillbirth. Its mother would have eaten it, but I took it before she could.” Her breath slipped across my neck and up my nose.
“Why did you show me this?” I turned the jar over in my hands. I wanted to throw it away from me but, even though the rabbit was dead, I was afraid the jar might break and hurt it.
“Because it reminded me of you. You’re so pink and soft. Your heart is like a baby bunny.” Her hand snaked under the hem of my shirt, resting against my fourth and fifth ribs. It wasn’t hot or cold. It felt like wax, like bread dough. Stop touching me stop touching me stop touching me, I thought as the pain in my head flared.
“And what’s your heart like?” I asked, not looking at her. My armpits were sweating.
She laughed like a knife against bone. “My heart? My heart’s a rabid dog.”
She was too close. Too close, and she smelled like raw meat. My head swam and made my vision blur. I stood up too fast and knocked her beer can over, spilling pale amber liquid over the already stained shag carpet, and I didn’t look back until I was outside at the top of the hill. The jar was still in my hand, but I had forgotten my coat. It was dark and cold outside and I didn’t know the way home. I had told Mom where I was going after school before I left this morning, but she’d still been half asleep. Would she remember where I was? Would she be able to find me? My eyes stung and my breath was coming too fast. I looked at the baby rabbit in my hands.
“I’m sorry you had to die,” I said to it as I walked up the driveway toward the road. “I’m sorry she put you in a jar. You deserved more than that.”
I held the jar to my chest to keep it warm. Somewhere far away, a dog was barking.
Rowan Bagley is a fiction writer and recent BFA graduate from the University of Maine at Farmington. She currently lives in Vermont with her partner and their cat.