The moment Rudy MacFarland’s mother, screaming, brought a screaming Rudy MacFarland into the world was also the greatest moment in the life of one Juliet Spencer, whose dog was recently hit by a tractor. Less than a minute before the Rotweiler’s guts were squished into its cranium, Juliet and her father were sitting on the front porch of their small white farm house sipping bitter pink lemonade and looking at the sky. Juliet’s father was telling the young girl, turned three on the 13th of October, that her mother had left and would most likely never return. The very pregnant soon to be mother of the soon to be Rudy MacFarland hadn’t finished announcing that her undergarments felt a bit wet when her spouse, who didn’t bother to finish chewing his bite of grilled cheese, grabbed the bulbous woman around the waist and promptly set out for the hospital. On their way, however, the father of the soon to be Rudy MacFarland crashed the blue 1984 Buick he was driving into a lake. Rudy MacFarland’s mother, aided by that altogether helpful hormone, adrenaline, squeezed through the open window (not an easy task when nine months pregnant) and made her way to the shore where she clung, gasping for pain and lack of oxygen, to the invasive species of reed that spotted the shoreline. Rudy MacFarland’s father, on the other hand, sunk with his blue car, camouflaged against the lake, his pale face upturned to the light until water filled his lungs and he slowly died. Twelve and a half hours later, Rudy MacFarland was born, screaming, to a near dead mother on the shores of Lake Local and the three-year-old Juliet inherited a small white farmhouse, which she kept all to herself.
It can be said that Rudy’s mother survived. The screams of the newborn infant alerted a jogger to the position of the pair and both were driven, successfully this time, to a hospital, where intravenous fluids made a world of difference to the woman’s constitution. Her soul, however, was not so easily mended and years afterward she still woke up from troubled dreams gasping for pain and lack of oxygen. Rudy lived as happy a childhood as could the child of an impoverished single parent. He was content with his bologna on Wonder Bread for lunch and the kisses his mother planted on his forehead, the kind where her eyes were focused elsewhere, every day as he left for school. Still, Rudy felt loved and cared for and he made it to the age of seven moderately unscathed. That’s when he met the old woman with the shopping cart. Rudy’s school let out at 3:10 in the afternoon. At 3:20, Rudy was customarily beaten by the school bullies. On this day, Rudy had acquired a bloody nose and was mopping up his escaping bodily fluids utilizing the absorptive properties of his shirt sleeve to keep the crimson life blood from staining his thrift store jeans. He was so consumed with the well being of his clothing items, he did not notice the fast approaching crone with the two missing teeth until they had smacked, head on, into each other. On recovering from their spill, the first thing that the crone did was kick Rudy in the shin. She then latched her claw-like hands back onto the shopping cart, which she had been pushing before the collision, and walked away, humming a merry ditty as her rather bony backside disappeared into the distance. The first thing Rudy did, on attempting to recover from his spill, was roll into the middle of the road directly in front of an oncoming dump truck. Fortunately for Rudy, The dump truck driver noticed his sprawled body and veered away from the highly susceptible human form. Unfortunately for the dump truck driver, the direction in which he veered was a direction that led towards a highly flammable gas station.
The heat emanating from the inferno that was once a place to appertain non-renewable resources was enough to scorch young Rudy’s eyebrows. The light emanating from the inferno that was once a place to appertain non-renewable resources was just enough to illuminate the most intriguing figure Rudy had ever seen. A silhouette in the distance, to him undeniably beautiful, and holding what appeared to be a string of dead rats. Rudy started toward that distant person, but the efficiency of the local firefighter’s brigade snuffed the light he was using to guide his way and the short attention span of youth kept him from realizing what could have been the most remarkable moment he would have ever had. Realizing that in his fall he had skinned his knee and the blood from his wound had stained his thrift store jeans, Rudy started off for home.
Juliet was killing rats. The tool she used to implement her justice was a hammer. One of Juliet’s favorite sounds was that of the crunching of skull, like autumn leaves. Juliet wasn’t a rat killer by nature, she had never killed anything bigger than a bug before in her life, unless she was intending to eat it, but this day beckoned the killing of rodents, so Juliet delivered. The day before the day of rodent reckoning, Juliet had been in the library reading up on ways to placate the Devil and found that a blood sacrifice was often satisfactory. For that reason, the girl of ten was crouching by the tombstone of her father listening to the sounds of metal on bone on rock.
Rudy had, in his lifetime, 27 goldfish, three cats, two dogs, a parakeet, and a chinchilla. All of them had died horrific deaths. Most notably, Rudy’s second cat, named Ophelia, had fallen into a pot of boiling water and accidently made it into Rudy’s mother’s famous cranberry rhubarb jam, which was served to the ladies at tea to great acclaim. At last Rudy’s mother decided not to give him any more pets. The next day she died. Rudy woke at 7:07 in the morning, as was customary, and walked into the bathroom to brush his teeth with Crest Spearmint toothpaste. He would have succeeded had he not slipped in his mother’s blood and chipped a tooth on the edge of the sink. From that day forward, Rudy’s inhalations were accompanied by a monotonic whistle which some found incredibly annoying and which prevented him from being terribly sneaky at anything. In the past, Rudy’s mother had been incredibly clean. She scrubbed the kitchen down with alcohol twice a day and was often seen wearing sponges on her feet so that she would leave a trail of cleanliness wherever she went. It was for this reason that Rudy’s mother committed her final act in the bathtub wrapped with Saran Wrap. Unfortunately, a dying woman very rarely has complete control over her extremities and in her weakness, one of Rudy’s mother’s arms draped over the side of the bathtub letting blood pool on the floor. How horrified his mother must have been at watching this mess spread across her meticulously wiped down tile and being unable to do anything about it. Rudy recovered from his spill, gazed into the bathtub, unblinking, for a full ten minutes, and then went downstairs to make himself a bologna sandwich.
Soon after, Rudy was taken to an orphanage where he was expected to start a new life. On his arrival, Rudy was struck by the unexpectedness of his new surroundings. It was unlike orphanages in children’s horror novels, dark and foreboding with cruel women as headmistresses and gates that screeched and clanged shut behind him, rather it was overwhelmingly pleasant with bright colors assaulting the eyes and pictures of happy interracial children covering all the pastel walls, smiling at Rudy with their blank shiny coloring book eyes. Rudy couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.
Rudy tried to adapt to his new surroundings. He woke at the appointed time, ate whatever was served to him, was punctual about his therapy sessions, and slept through the nights but he couldn’t remove the image of his mother’s pale face offset by her bright red blood. Truth be told, he didn’t want to remove that image from his mind. He felt, for the first time, that he was thinking in a way that expressed who he really was. Rudy MacFarland was born, in blood, on a bleak shore to a dead father and a mother who was dead, but hadn’t realized it yet. From that moment on, he was followed by death, destruction, and decay without choosing or desiring it, it was, simply, his destiny and until the moment of his mother’s death he had been unable to picture it, to picture himself as anything other than a boring boy. Now, he saw his reflection in pools of crimson and that knowledge of himself comforted him. The problem with his existence was that he felt so at home in the darkness of his mind, that the bright colors and happy shining faces of the orphanage hurt his eyes.
Rudy spent two weeks in the orphanage. His roommate, Bruno, was a bulky 17 year old who cried nights. The orphans ate mostly canned lima beans. Rudy was forced to attend school, where he was taught to identify different kinds of clouds, and therapy sessions, where he was told over and over again that his mother’s suicide was not his fault. Rudy didn’t know what the word suicide meant and assumed it had something to do with the way his mother had fixed her hair or makeup as, in the past, those were the types of words Rudy was least likely to understand. He didn’t understand why the therapist was making such a big deal out of the fact that he had no fault in the way his mother looked. Rudy knew that; if anything, his mother was the one at fault for the way Rudy looked, what with genetics and all. That was Rudy’s routine; listen to Bruno cry at night, wake up to a breakfast of canned lima beans, go to school and learn the difference between cumulous and cumulonimbus, and sit through an hour of Dr. Deek telling him that the way his mother applied lipstick had nothing to do with him. It all grew very old for Rudy.
So, Rudy chose to desert these trappings of normalcy and strike out on his own. Never having been taught how to pack, the only thing Rudy brought with him was a piece of string and a bologna sandwich.
On his first night in the wilderness, Rudy realized that bulk of his seven year old body was not sufficient to keep back the cold and that a bologna sandwich can only go so far, so Rudy forsook the wilderness and knocked on the first door he came to. The door was opened by a ten year old girl by the name of Juliet.
Like any respectable girl of ten, Juliet offered Rudy a room in the den, fixed him a cup of tea, lit a fire in the fireplace to warm his chilled bones, and didn’t ask him who he was until he had finished sipping on his cup. Rudy answered by staring silently at the wall in front of him and clasping his arms around himself. Juliet tried to make pleasant conversation about the time that she had burned down a school but Rudy was unwilling to chat with her. Juliet wasn’t nearly as upset by this as some girls would have been, in fact, she thought she rather liked him and she went off to bed in a fairly good mood and slept soundly until dawn. Rudy did not sleep for the next three days. One morning, Rudy walked into the kitchen to find Juliet pulling the claws off of crawdads and flinging them into a pot of boiling water for breakfast. She smiled when he came in and held out a ladle to him, offering him a taste. That was when Rudy was struck by the arrow. There was an archery range less than one hundred meters from Juliet’s house and a stray arrow had crashed through Juliet’s window and pierced Rudy’s arm. Fortunately for Rudy, Juliet knew a little first aid and was able to get the arrow out in record time. Rudy thought Juliet looked like an angel with his blood on her hands, sweating from the effort of prying the arrow out.
Time passed, and it slowly became Juliet’s 18th birthday. It was the coldest 13th of October on record. Snow was piled so high that if someone was inclined to open a window, the inside would become the outside. Rudy and Juliet were piled in bed together to keep warm. It was early in the morning and incredibly dark, as no morning sunlight could filter through the obscured window glass. The only sound was the monotonic whistle of Rudy’s breathing through his chipped tooth. Both of them slept late that morning, not waking up until at least 10:30, and then only the kind of waking that you can hardly remember later. It wasn’t until 11:23 that Juliet rolled out of bed, instantly regretful when the cold of the floor met up with the warm of her feet. She looked at the form of the still tranquil Rudy. He had always intrigued her, from the moment he showed up at her door. He was so alone and so stupid, clutching his piece of string with the wind whistling through his tooth. She knew how to take care of him, and so she did, not out of any sort of maternal instinct which was foreign to her, but out of responsibility, which she had far too much of. It was at that moment the Juliet remembered the date, the 13th of October, and remembered the significance of that date. The 13th of October was, in fact, the day that a screaming Juliet had arrived in this world, and although she couldn’t remember the specifics of the event, she had been disturbed by the repercussions of the incident ever since. The girl was hungry, so she went to the kitchen to begin preparing breakfast. The cupboards were empty, as was fairly usual so Juliet checked the mouse traps. She was lucky. The snow must have driven a large rodent population inside leaving no less than 5 traps occupied. Juliet poured as many cups of water as their were rodents into a large saucepan and waited for her stew to heat. While waiting, she wrapped her feet in garbage bags and tromped outside to knock the snow from the windows so she could watch the landscape while she waited. It was freezing out and the girl made a mental note to make Rudy do the washing. It was, in fact, her birthday and she felt she shouldn’t be made to do anything she didn’t want to. Throughout the course of her entire life, Juliet had very rarely done anything she didn’t want to. For example, she hadn’t attended a single day of middle school or high school. She recalled her only attempt at education.
At the age of 5 and 3/4 Juliet registered herself for kindergarten at the local elementary school. She showed up on time the first day and watched the children around her kissing their mothers goodbye. She had an imaginary mother, like most children have imaginary friends, and so she emulated the other children by kissing her imaginary mother on the imaginary cheek. Her new kindergarten teacher pitied her supremely for this action and invited the young Juliet into the classroom early so that she might have first choice of the cubbies. This blatant show of favoritism made Juliet squeal with joy, literally, which caused the teacher a small amount of concern. She carefully picked out what looked like the cleanest cubby and stored her plastic bag full of lunch she had made for herself as well as the pencils she had stolen from the local grocer. Juliet then sat down at the desk the teacher said was hers and folded her hands on top of it, staring straight ahead at the clean black chalkboard. Soon enough, after saying goodbye to their precious parents, her fellow classmates filed in, chose their second rate cubbies, and were shown to their assigned seats. Some of them emulated Juliet and folded their hands. Juliet felt a strange sense of pride that these children would choose to follow her actions. After a little while, Juliet removed her hands from atop the desk and placed them on her lap. She saw several other children do the same. Juliet giggled at her newfound power. A couple of the stupider children laughed with her. When her teacher entered the room, returning from her customary assurance to the parents that their children would be perfectly safe, Juliet stood up. Several children followed her lead and those who didn’t were glared at by their peers. The teacher looked slightly taken aback but didn’t seem to mind all that much. After asking them to please be seated and introducing herself, the teacher asked if any of the children knew the alphabet. Juliet did not and so listened attentively as the teacher chorused off the 26 letters in their specific order. The day continued in a similar vein. Teacher showed them many colors and many numbers and Juliet was enthralled by it all, squealing with glee every time she learned something new which, because of her previously initiated game of “Simon-Says,” made the classroom sound rather like a pig-sty.
Juliet remained floating in the ecstasy of unimagined learning until midmorning break. The children were allowed 15 minutes to socialize and use the facilities. Most children found this newfound freedom exhilarating and spent it screaming at too many decibels and running as though they were being chased by a rabid hyena. Juliet did not. She stayed sitting straight backed in her chair, looking dead-on at the blackboard, and refusing to answer other children’s pleas for her attention. These kids had begun to bore her. She had spent so much time alone at home that she had gotten quite used to her own company and found that the company of other children couldn’t quite measure up. She sat that way, her teacher gazing at her with concern, until class started up again. Relieved at the end of this scheduled socialization time, Juliet allowed her customary smile to slip back onto her face.
At 11:46, the children ceased learning their letters to enjoy a midday meal. All of them filed somewhat noisily to their cubby’s and retrieved their carefully prepared sandwiches. The poor children had bologna, and the richest boy in class had quail egg on rye. That boy lost his private school privileges when he was found to be sharing his considerable allowance with a beggar child he befriended when he was supposed to be attending ballet class. Juliet, however, was eating neither bologna nor quail, rather an array of fancy hamsters. She had worked out an arrangement with the owner of a pet shop down the street from her house. She had convinced the rather elderly man that she would like to give proper burials to all the animals that died while under his care. The pet store owner thought her a little odd, but sweet in her own way, and so consented. What Juliet really did with the animals was carve them open with a rusty paring knife, and bake them in the oven, seasoned with whatever herbs she could scrounge up from the overgrown fields behind her house. She thought this was delicious, and to be quite honest, so would several other people if only they were inclined to try.
Nevertheless, her young peers didn’t seem to think that eating baked hamster, no matter how well seasoned, for lunch was quite normal and so let out bellows of disgust. A girl who kept a large number of hamsters in cages with wood-chips and primary colored plexiglass tubes found Juliet’s lunch particularly cruel and so promptly vomited, loudly, into her second-rate cubby. The sound and smell of this violent expulsion alerted the teacher to the excitement surrounding young Juliet’s interesting lunch. When she asked why Juliet was eating hamster Juliet simply looked confused and told her teacher it’s what she had everyday and about the clever arrangement she had made with the pet-store owner down the street. Her teacher was quite taken aback at this news, so much so, in fact, that words seemed to escape her entirely. She gazed at the meter tall person with wonder, disgust, and pity and was, for a moment, glued to her place. Were the teacher as wise as one supposes an educator should be, she might have appreciated how particularly remarkable that moment in time was, how she might never again have any experience in any way similar, or meet anyone as uniquely spectacular. The teacher, however, had been wrongly taught and was in no way prepared for an experience she was unprepared for and so, instead of taking the child into her arms and learning from her individuality, she walked quickly to the phone and called the school councilor in hopes that, with time, she could make her comfortably the same.
The councilor’s office seemed, to Juliet, to be too large. Her kindergarten classroom had been made to scale with her size, and she had grown familiar with the surroundings of her house, but the councilors office seemed out of proportion; with its squishy couch she needed to leap to get onto and the desk of the councilor she needed to peer over. It was as though she was too young to be there, it was a place that hadn’t been made to accommodate her particular age. Nonetheless, Juliet refused to appear uncomfortable. She had learned long ago that in order to achieve anything you must not look scared. As soon as someone sensed fear, they would know that you were out of place and should be somewhere else, which is precisely where you would least like to be. So, Juliet leapt onto the large squishy couch with feigned ease and looked the councilor dead in the eyes, even if she needed to peer over a mahogany finish in order to see them. The councilor was on the phone, she held up a solitary finger to signal to Juliet that she should wait. Juliet didn’t understand this sign, but waited anyway. The councilor’s forehead was wrinkled into several lines of practiced concern, her head bobbed up and down, and she sucked her teeth between words of comfort to the person on the other end of the line, probably a parent of child with a dead dog or academic troubles. She spouted lines like, “I know it must be hard,” and “Time will tell,” with ease, as though the phrases were meaningless. Finally, she bade the unknown voice goodbye and turned her attention to the curious small girl on the other side of the desk. Her face transitioned from line-y to smiley too quickly and she offered Juliet a lollipop from a dusty jar at the end of her desk. Juliet accepted and popped the treat into her back pocket to eat later.
“Hello Juliet,” the woman said with a voice both saccharine and tired, “Your teacher would like us to talk a little bit, is that ok with you?”
Juliet shrugged and responded with a clear, unafraid, “Yes.”
“That’s what I like to hear, I appreciate your willingness,” the woman said, her smile growing increasingly wider showing off the gold crowns on her two back molars.
Juliet was confused. Real people didn’t talk like this and she was uncertain how to respond.
“My name’s Dr. Jefferies, but you can call me Jen,” Dr. Jefferies said. The girl wondered why Dr. Jefferies would tell her two names when she only wanted to be known by one. It seemed to the girl like the woman would really rather be called Dr. Jefferies, it was the large sort of name that matched her office better.
“My name’s Juliet Spencer.”
“Are you comfortable Juliet? Would you like another lollipop?”
Juliet offered no reply, but simply glanced around the office, hoping to cut the amount of time spent in the meeting by refraining from speaking as often as possible.
“Now, Juliet,” Juliet wondered why the woman kept using her name, “It’s your first day of school isn’t it?”
“And you’re 5 years old, is that correct?”
“5 and 3/4”
“Wow, so old!”
“Why yes, of course,” The woman responded, scrawling something on her notepad. “Now, Juliet, why don’t you tell me a little about what your home is like. Tell me about your mother.” Her hand scrawled across the paper but Dr. Jefferie’s eyes never left Juliet as though the pencil could find it’s own path across the page without their help.
“My mother left my house when I was three years old, she probably won’t come back.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry Juliet, I know that must be hard.” The woman’s forehead went back into it’s wrinkly line pose, again, too quickly and with practiced ease so that Juliet couldn’t help but cock her head, staring curiously. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Talk about what?”
“About your mother leaving.”
“I was three, I don’t really remember.”
“Oh, yes, of course. Well, what about your father?”
“What about him?”
“What’s he like at home?”
“Can I go to the drinking fountain?”
“Can you wait just a little bit?”
“I’m really thirsty.”
“Of course, the drinking fountain is just around the corner, would you like me to go with you?”
“No thanks.” Juliet slipped off the large squishy couch. Reached up to grab the large cool door handle, turned it, walked out of the room without a glance back and ran as fast as she could neglecting to collect her stolen pencils on the way out.
Juliet fled the elementary school as quickly as her small legs could carry her sucking ferociously on the lollipop she had stored in her back pocket. Attempts were made to fetch her back to school, but Juliet avoided all of these cleverly and skillfully and lived all her life with only one day of kindergarten to her name. She learned to read from after-school tutors at her local, and not so local libraries which she went to by city bus, avoiding the fare by clinging, with small fists, to the skirts of women she could imagine being her mother and blending into the background as well as she knew how. She learned to hate school, and came to think that it was a pointless place anyhow, easily replaced by rooms full of books that reached the ceiling, behind which she could duck and hide. A month before her ninth birthday, the school which Juliet had once attended moved three blocks away, to a building which the district thought would be better able to enhance young learner’s academic prowess because of its close proximity to a museum which, as it turned out, the school could never afford to send its students to. It was then that Juliet chose to return to school; her one hand gripping the heavy orange carton and the other sweaty palm turning the small box over and over in her pocket. She strolled through the hallways she had turned over and over in her mind for 3 1/4 years until she found the room with the nameplate on the door reading Dr. Jefferies. It wasn’t like she remembered it at all. The furniture had disappeared and the walls no longer seemed to stretch to the sky. It was just a room and she seemed to have grown into it. She used both hands to tip over the orange container, letting the liquid trail after her as she continued the tour of her old stomping grounds. When at last she lit the match and watched the blaze it was with a sense of remorse, not for burning a place of academia, but for its demise not living up to the fantasy she had constructed in her head. No matter how many times she bathed in the icy cold winter stream that divided her property from the archery range and the rest of the world, the smell of gasoline wouldn’t come off her skin.
Now, on her 18th birthday, looking over the pot of churning mouse-water to the stream that lay buried in white in the distance, Juliet’s pensive nature was torn asunder by the sound of Rudy MacFarland screaming from the upstairs bedroom. He did this every morning and Juliet had grown used to it. In fact, the sound made her smile a little with it’s familiarity. It is said that you can only remember the dreams you wake up during and Rudy was a sound sleeper which seemed to explain why he functioned as a human alarm clock opposed to an overwhelming nightly nuisance. She heard his footsteps coming down the stairs and turned up the heat on the rodent stew so that it might be done a little sooner, took two glasses down from cupboard, filled them with water, and set two places at the table. Rudy’s hair was tousled, his eyes bleary, and his step slow. He flung himself down at his place at the table as though he were a normal teenager and sipped at his water without looking up.
“Good morning.” Juliet said. “What was the dream today?”
“Being steamrolled to death slowly.” Rudy replied, still not looking up.
“Oh.” Said Juliet, tasting the stew.
“Yeah,” the boy murmured. “It hurt. A lot.”
“Oh.” She said again, “Are you quite alright?”
“Of course, it was a dream. I like ‘em, act’ully. I like the knowing that it still hurts. I mean, you know what I mean.”
“Sure, you like knowing that no matter how many of those dreams you have, or how many dark thoughts, they still effect you, viscerally.”
“Uh-huh, and I like ‘em.”
“Stew?” She grabbed two bowls down from the cupboard and ladled generous dollops of stew, plopping three mice into his bowl and two into hers, being careful not to let Rudy see, before setting them on the table. She had never acknowledged a need for utensils and so the two slurped and chewed and crunched their morning meal loudly at the table.
“Today’s your 18th, aint it?” Rudy said.
“I suppose so.” The girl replied, hardly able to disguise the smile behind her eyes.
“You know so, happy birthday,” he said, “I gotcha somethin’, only you’ll have to wait ‘til the snow melts. It’s an outside thing.”
“Alright. Are you going to tell me what it is?”
“Never.” He said with his first smile of the morning.
After breakfast, Rudy washed up, braving the outside to scour their dishes with snow. Meanwhile, Juliet made up a fire in the front room where the two stayed for the rest of the day, Juliet reading and Rudy imagining himself being burned alive. Sometimes he pictured flinging himself into the flames, sometimes he imaged Juliet doing so or the fire getting out of control and climbing out of the hearth and through the house while the two of them were asleep. He liked the little details the best; like their eyes boiling while still in their sockets or skin peeling away from the bones in their toes. When he came up with particularly good ones he’d share them with Juliet and delight when she shivered. After a long time, the sun crept behind the horizon spreading pools of light over the frosty landscape and bringing with it a cold that their small fire was defenseless against. Juliet stood up, beginning to make her way towards their bed, small feet picked up quickly to avoid sticking to icy floorboards.
The winter continued like this; The two waking up late, feasting on mouse stew, and idling their days by in the living room next to a fire which they made from furniture after they decided it was too cold to go out and hunt for wood. One day, Juliet grew tired of staying inside and decided that she should go look for roadkill. She was, again, awake first and left without telling Rudy where she was going, as was the unspoken way between them. She tied some garbage bags around her feet, tied some rabbit skins around them, and stuck the whole mess in an old pair of her dad’s work boots. Rudy had dug the boots out of a closet one time, not knowing that closets weren’t to be picked through. The morning air was frigid and the slog through snow was hard. In no time Juliet’s sweat had frozen her eyelashes solid and she made a game of trying to stick her eyelashes and eyebrows together so that she could never blink. This enterprise was, somewhat successful, but Juliet cut it short suddenly when she realized that the business of not blinking more often than not leads to unnecessary tears, so she cut short her game and headed directly to the highway.
The closest section of highway was a place where the four black snakes intertwined with overpasses, underpasses and whizzing cars. Juliet liked it out there, she could hear herself think. There was a forest off to the side, so it was a primo location for game. Once she had found an entire deer there. She thought she’d be able to eat well for weeks, but found that the task of dragging the deer back, even with Rudy’s help, was too much to manage. Deer are dense. Since then, she’d left the big game for the raccoons, who are actually carrion eaters. Juliet like to watch them, their human-like baby hands tearing away strips of flesh and leaving the fur around their snouts caked in blood. Their weren’t any raccoons out today, though. The most she heard was a red-winged blackbird and those things were so sinewy they were hardly worth eating. Still, she checked her snares, knowing that she wouldn’t have any luck. She had checked the day before last and, with the snow falling the previous day, knew that no animals would have been by in the intervening time. She wasn’t sure why she had gone to hunt that day. It would have been more responsible for her to try her luck with some twine and a hook at the stream, but she supposed she was hoping for a good chase. Fish are boring. Sure, they wriggle on the hook, but there’s no real fight there. She guessed she was looking for a real fight.
She had been since Rudy had culled up those old boots. She wasn’t mad at Rudy, those boots were danged useful and she never would have had the pluck to go rummaging around her father’s old closet. Even the old smell of him, mixed with mothballs and mold, was enough to scare her away. She was surprised, however, at the size of those boots. She had remembered them huge, like the feet of a giant, but hoped that, as she grew, they would look smaller. In the privacy of her own mind, she even hoped, sometimes, that her feet were larger than his now. As a child she had no way of appraising the true size of things. Everything she perceived was in proportion to her, and she was tiny. Now that she was older, she felt like the giant living in the world she had built out of pintsized perceptions. She had always hoped that her father, that large intimidating man, would be like the checkout aisle at the supermarket; when she was little and went to steal or barter for a toothbrush or a tomato, she remembered looking up at the belt that carried groceries and seeing it as a string of dark clouds, that swam in the wind, ominously over her head. Since she had been back, the belt had turned into a river below her. She hoped that time would transform her father too, from a beast to the animals she was out hunting. But the size of that shoe next to hers preserved her father as a colossus in her mind.
She gave up hunting and returned home. The sun was setting and Rudy was sitting, stupidly, on the porch gazing at the sunset and trying to sketch its likeness in the dirt at the base of the stairs to the front porch. Juliet chuckled at that; he didn’t understand that colors were what made a sunset spectacular, and that drawing a bisected ball was nothing special. She plopped down on the steps beside him to watch his work.
He looked up from his drawing and towards her, long and hard. He had tried to sketch her, many times, but his pen kept focussing on things like the big scar on her cheek, or the scantness of her hair. He couldn’t draw her really. He couldn’t draw how she took care of him, or the way she frowned at him, or smiled at him when she thought he was being stupid. He had given up with his drawings years ago, so he turned back to his sunset. Juliet stood up to go to bed, Rudy stood too, and rushed to Juliet before she could make it up the staircase. He grabbed at her hand with his, missing and only grasping her pinky with his sweaty palm.
“Whatdoyouwant?” She said with a shiver, anxious to be on her way.
Rudy made towards her face with his, again, missing and kissing her chin before rushing off upstairs.
Juliet stayed standing in the half-light until the darkness descended and one could no longer distinguish the blush that held her face from the flickering firelight. Then she too went upstairs to the bed that the two of them shared, propped up pillows between them for the first time, and lay in the dark listening to their hearts beat in time with each other, and waiting for his scream to beckon in the morning.
She never did hear that scream. She was woken instead by a pleasant and unexpected feeling of warmth in her toes. Rudy was already awake, sitting bolt upright but against his pillow, the light flickering and flashing in his eyes. Juliet sat up blearily and after noting Rudy’s prostrate position took a second to notice what he was looking at. The fire had almost reached the end of their bed. The drawers containing their only pieces of clothing were ablaze and they could hear the floor splintering beneath them. The paint on the walls was peeling and blistering and it took Juliet less than a moment to wake entirely.
“Rudy!” She screamed.
“Shhh, ’s alright Juliet,” The boy responded in a frighteningly despondent tone, “It’s a dream, doesn’t really count, won’t hurt for long.”
“Rudy, get a grip, it’s not dream, come on we have to get out of here!” She cried, lungs bursting for air as smoke filled the room.
“Aint it beautiful.”
They were both choking at this point, faces black with soot already. Juliet could hardly make out Rudy’s figure in the bed next to her. She grabbed his hand, but he refused to budge.
“Looks like the toes will go before the eyeballs,” he said, “Funny, I thought it the other way around.”
Juliet, sputtering, forsook the boy’s hand and grasped for the window. She knew it was nearby but was having such trouble finding it.
“Ow,” said the boy, the flames licking his feet, “Not as bad as the bulldozer though.”
Finally, she found it, pried it open, and tried to gasp at the frigid air but the snow piled in on top of her. She was briefly relieved from the heat but the snow sputtered and evaporated quickly, scalding her.
“Come on Rudy,” she cried again her hand outstretched.
“Shut up Juliet,” he said, “You’re missing it.”
Then she jumped. The piles of snow broke her fall but, on landing, she let out a scream unlike she ever had before. It was a scream like every teapot in the world boiling at once, a scream like taking a hammer to a sackful of cats, like a thousand nails on a thousand chalkboards, like Rudy MacFarland’s mother on the shores of Lake Local, like all of Rudy’s mornings collapsed into one, like a lover losing a lover, a friend losing a friend. She screamed until she couldn’t any more, the lining of her throat raw beyond comprehension and coughs coming without her willing them. She collapsed into the snow, not feeling the cold, or the heat from the house. She couldn’t help but smell her skin, though, like gasoline or feel regret come burbling into her stomach. She vomited thick mouse-water into the snow and felt tears splash down her nose for the first time since she was three years old.
Fortunately for the girl, her throat lasted long enough to alert every neighbor within a five mile radius of her trouble, and the local firefighter’s brigade was quick to arrive. They found girl collapsed in the snow. She was shivering horribly but didn’t seem to even realize it. She just kept pointing at the house and saying she couldn’t get rid of the smell of gasoline. The girl watched them drag her unconscious friend into the snow and begin CPR. They asked her how old he was.
She said, “18.”
They said, “The anatomy of a child is different from that of an adult. If he’s not 18, he could really get hurt.”
“15.” She said. And she cried because she knew that they would take him away from her. And they did.
Rudy awoke, screaming, in a foreign place submerged up to his neck in water. He waited awhile to be sure he was awake but concluded that he was almost certainly conscious because no clearly imminent danger had presented itself and he was in no pain. He was, however, confused. It seemed to Rudy that never before in his life had he been strapped, naked and suspended in a giant aluminum tub and he wondered how he got there. After what felt like quite a long time Rudy heard a loud, metallic “Thug” of some massive beast of a machine being turned on and noticed bubbles springing forth along the edges of the container he was floating in. Soon the bubbles were frothing forth prolifically and Rudy acknowledged a gentle swirl of water around his posterior. Unpleasantly, this gentle swirl of water appeared to be ripping flesh from bone. The water surged, climbing his anatomy, ripping and tearing and stinging wherever it could. Rudy couldn’t help but thrash around, which didn’t make anything better in the slightest as every moment tore still more flesh. He convinced himself that he could smell it, the acrid smell of burned skin and muscle, and hear it plunk into the basin below. He had never been so frightened in his life. At last, the ordeal proved to be too much for the boy and he slipped, again into the comforting darkness of unconsciousness.
Juliet was sitting on the back of the ambulance gazing at the wreckage of her childhood home. She was angry and wondered who she could revenge against. She was the one who lit the fire, but Rudy was the idiot who kissed her. She wished she knew how to paint so that she could preserve forever the stark contrast of black soot against white snow. She wished she was a poet so she could write how funny it was that she was so cold after being so warm. Juliet, however, was neither of these things and so she just noticed and smiled to herself. She was forgetting, already, the layout of her house as it now looked uniformly burnt, but near where she assumed the front entry way was she noticed what appeared to be a tangled mass of metal. She slipped off the ambulance, leaving her airplane-thin blanket to warm the exhaust pipe, and picked her way through charred pots, pans, and furniture to the mysterious items in the snow. When she got there, it took her more than a moment to comprehend what she was seeing. It was her birthday present, the present Rudy had left her for when the snow melted; five completed crawdad traps lay chilly in the outdoor air. Juliet smiled again, she had forgotten that it had been her birthday despite the fact that she felt, all of a sudden, old. She reached out to grasp her present, see if she could salvage something, but they crumbled under her touch, all that effort wasted, disappeared into nothing.
Rudy awoke to a warm winter wonderland constructed out of endless miles of gauze. The landscape was his torso and the horizon his toes. He amused himself, for a time, by imagining climbing over those pointy peaks to see his house. Maybe Juliet would be at the kitchen window, and he could see the pane go all steamy with her breath when she saw him. He wondered what the house looked like now. He knew it had been scorched, but he had passed out before he could really estimate the extent of the damage. He knew it had started in the living room, so it must have done a number on at least that room before climbing the stairs. He wondered if the wallpaper blistered or peeled when it interacted with the heat. He reflected on how stupid he’d been, thinking it was a dream. If Juliet had been hurt, he would never forgive himself. He wondered if any one would ever tell him. The window was so far off the ground and he remembered her jumping. Maybe the snow would have slowed her fall. The not knowing was the worst bit. He couldn’t stand not knowing. In his imagination he always saw every detail of the tragedy, and he liked it that way. The unexpectedness of reality made him nauseous.
He heard the door open. He tried to turn his head, but the effort made him squeal in pain. He had to content himself with listening to the footsteps approach. Soon, an oblong female face appeared cockeyed to his usual manner of perception. She was pretty, but not as pretty as Juliet, he thought to himself.