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Contemporary Fiction Teens & Young Adult

Some people grind words up in their mouths, clenching their jaws tight enough to crack a molar, scraping their teeth together while they sleep, swallowing the sawdusty grit of their own mouthy bones. 

Rae didn’t do that. Grinding her teeth meant making a face, so she churned them up in her stomach instead. 

Ma had stopped taking her to doctors – they said she had stomachaches because she was anxious. Now Pepcid repeated, week to week, on Ma’s grocery list, right beside milk and cheese and other weekly, stomach-achey things, except Rae wasn’t lactose intolerant. Before she quit the doctors, they did a test.

“You’re gonna be hungry in the car if you don’t clean your plate.” Her dad’s sensible voice was only partly muffled by the food in his mouth. A shrugging sound that meant he didn’t really care either way, he just thought he should mention it.

It was Ma who would keep Rae at the table till she’d eaten enough, even if she was stuffed. Which…she wasn’t, she just didn’t want to eat this.

“Rae.” Ma’s voice was low and musical, already halfway to scolding. 

Rae swallowed a wince, felt the machinery of her stomach crank.

Beside her, Beatty practically belly-flopped across the table, reaching for a second helping with arms that seemed twice as long as Rae’s. They weren’t, they just seemed like it. As if reaching and reaching for whatever she wanted had stretched them out. Or maybe every time Rae hugged her own arms across her chest, they shrank.

“You’re being a baby.” Beatty’s helium voice stretched across the room like her arms across the table as she heaped the last of the boiled rabbit onto her plate. 

“I’m not a baby,” moaned Seth, who was four years old – used to being babied and just beginning to be embarrassed by it.

“She meant me,” Rae said quietly, trying not to appear too intentional as she pushed stringy white meat around her plate, making space for the bites she hadn’t taken. 

It wouldn’t work. Ma was watching her like a hawk now, thanks to dad. Seth was watching her too. Still…

“I’m not gonna talk to you for the whole car ride home if you don’t eat it,” said Beatty, who had killed three rabbits yesterday. Dad spent their whole vacation in Dupont dragging the lot of them around the woods – a rifle and two shotguns. Ma and Beatty and Seth and Rae.

Only Beatty was good at it. 

Rae had worn the ear plugs even though they started to stink like armpits after the second day and also, they made her ears itch. She’d dragged her gun around even though it was heavy and something else too – something about the way the gun felt in her hands that she couldn’t stand. An unpleasant tingly itch, the panic of not being allowed to scratch it, like a poison oak rash on the inside of her skin.

She didn’t want to hunt. Didn’t even want to hear the stories dad told about hunting as a kid, so she said she couldn’t see the birds he was pointing at. Said what? just a little too loud when he whispered in her ear. All week, she let him crouch beside her, loop his arms around her shoulders to steady her gun. Let him line up her shot just right and then, when he said, Thatta girl, that’s it, she would crunch down hard with her boot on a twig. 

All week, she’d sent the I don’t want to do this into her stomach.

Dad hadn’t shot anything either. Even Beatty only got close, up until yesterday. Close enough that dad whooped and smacked her on the back. Close enough that the panicky feeling in Rae’s fingers fizzed into her blood, straight up to her elbows. 

Then yesterday, three rabbits in a row, pop-pop-pop, easy as the bottles they’d practiced on in the Air BNB lawn, except instead of the satisfying clink-clush of green glass shattering, there was just a soft thud. A sound like tossing a baseball hand-to-hand, punting it into a cushiony mitt. Except…

Now the rabbits were skinned and cooked and dinner. Now Rae was supposed to eat her share of it. 

She twisted a fatty bit around with the tines of her fork. “What do they sound like?” she asked. 

Dad said, “Hm?”

Ma said, “Arthur, she’s stalling.” Unsurprised and disappointed.

Seth dropped his fork onto his plate with an ear-splitting clatter, gripped the edge of the table with fingers that were grimy with mush and spit. Started stammering excitedly. “I think, um, I think, you know what I think? I think rabbits sound like, um.” And then he made a lot of stupid sounds, snorting deliriously between them while Ma oohed and aahedencouragingly.

“Does anybody know?” asked Rae.

“Just look it up, jeeze.”

“No phones at the table, girls. You know that,” said Ma, even though it was Beatty’s suggestion, not Rae’s. “It’s eight hours back to Virginia, young lady, and we’re not stopping at McDonalds on the way.”

“They’ll mostly sleep,” dad reasoned. “Right?” when Ma just tucked her tongue into her cheek. “Isn’t that why we decided to drive through the night?”

“She won’t sleep if she’s hungry.”

“Do you think that, um. Are the rabbits sad?” asked Seth and Ma said, “Oh for god’s sake,” glaring across the table until Rae stuck her fork into her mouth. 

“See? It tastes like chicken, doesn’t it?” 

“Actually,” said Seth, digging back into his plate, bits of food smacking out of his mouth, “actually, it just tastes like regular old chicken actually.” Staring up at her, so Rae smiled at him, making her cheeks soft as she swallowed. Bite after bite, chewing and chewing – rabbit and buttery corn and rabbit and buttery potatoes and rabbit, all the muscles in her face buttered up too. Grainy game sticking to her gums. Muskiness filling her sinuses. Wondering how nobody could hear the angry churning of her stomach.

Maybe they did and they just didn’t mention it. 

After dinner, dad washed the dishes and Seth screamed for the eightieth time that week because the wifi was spotty. Ma was doing a thousand things that she didn’t want help with and wouldn’t explain.

Rae snuck outside. She wasn’t supposed to go further than the porch at night. The driveway was steep enough that Ma had checked the parking brake on their flatlandy Corolla about three times a day. 

Rae hated Dupont, but the stars were nice – a whole lot more of them than she ever realized in Chesapeake. And maybe she wasn’t so angry at Dupont, now that they were leaving. In an hour, she’d be back in the car. The guns were already locked in the trunk. They’d get on the highway and Beatty and Seth would fall asleep and there’d just be the low tones of the radio, the whoosh of heat blowing through the vents, her little brother snoring. 

There was a difference between that kind of quiet and being quiet. The first kind, the riding-in-the-car-at-night kind…she didn’t mind it.

She tilted her head to the sky, breathing smoke. The tightness of her stomach eased, as if some of the dust of don’t kill it and don’t make me and please were floating out with her breath. On the car ride up, dad told them about a gas that comes off the trees in autumn – that makes the Blue Ridge mountains look blue. Beatty looked it up and turned out it was true. 

For a second, Rae pretended she was a tree.

Something rustled at the bottom of the lawn. 

Rae checked over her shoulder, still alone, and moved down the creaking steps, one hand strangling the railing. Still on the porch, technically. The steps are part of it. 

Frozen in the shadowy, green-black grass was a tuft of white that might’ve been a rabbit. Maybe it was one of those white-haired squirrels dad told them about, the ones he used to see all the time growing up in Brevard, not far from here. From the way he talked about it, there should’ve been dozens. 

So far, none of them had seen a single one. 

Rae buckled her arms over her chest. Squeezed. Just a little bit closer and maybe she could see…

She glanced over her shoulder again. 

Beatty’s teeth glowed in the darkness as she grinned. When had she come outside? What was that like, to be quiet because you wanted?

A lot of metal screws dropped into Rae’s gut, clunking painfully through her intestines, wrenched in tight by the what’s that for? because Beatty had a big rock in her fist – one of the smooth, palm-shaped ones that tucked in the hedges. She was holding it softly, menacingly. Rubbing her thumb over it.

Rae looked back. Saw the swish of a long, white tail. Looked at her feet but there were no twigs to snap on that bottom step. What does it sound like when a rabbit screams? What does it sound like when that blue gas releases from the trees?

She shrieked – louder than she could ever remember.

She didn’t mean to. The screws in her stomach wrenched tighter and tighter until she thought something would rupture inside her.

Ma crashed through the front door. “What’s the matter? You’ll wake people up, yelling like that! What are you doing outside without an adult? Is it a bobcat?”

Dad strolled out behind her, hands in his pockets. “Bobcat’s not gonna cause any problems.”

“A bobcat?”

“I wish it was a bobcat,” Beatty complained, dropping her rock. “I coulda got that squirrel. One of the white ones, daddy.”

His face lit up. “Oh! Did you see one finally?” 

“It got away.” 

“What in the world were you screaming about, then?” Ma demanded.

Rae curled her gummy fingers around her own neck. Looked at Ma’s chin, easier than looking into her eyes. The squirrel was gone, not in the same way as the rabbits. If an ulcer had burst in her stomach, maybe it was worth it. 

“Well?” insisted Ma. “You scared me to death. It it your stomach again? Do you need the Pepcid? I told you to let me know before I packed it!”

Rae just nodded.

December 15, 2023 04:59

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2 comments

Kristi Gott
06:06 Dec 18, 2023

This is very vivid and powerfully written. The imagery and sensory details engage the reader. Well done!

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J. D. Lair
17:15 Dec 17, 2023

A very good first submission Dorothy! This must not be your first rodeo, or you have a natural talent for excellent writing. :) The flow was good, I could really feel the emotions of Rae throughout, and your descriptions were vivid without overdoing it. Well done and welcome to Reedsy!

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