Fiction from Amy Lee Lillard
Pretty Girls Make Graves
In a message of static, the name was clear.
Forty nine seconds, the message ran. From an unknown number with a distant area code. When I first played it, on the way to the small cabin off Route 84, I was only half-listening.
By the third listen, I knew the speaker was male. He used a name I’d abandoned. He repeated the name five times.
By the tenth listen, I still hadn’t placed the static, the caller, the reason. But there were things to do for a new home. So I forgot about the message for awhile.
That first day I picked up food and gas and duct tape from the small bait-and-tackle shop down the mountain. I weeded and pruned the wild thicket of grass and bush that bordered the front path, cut back the vines that hid the front door, filled the bird feeders. I swept the bare wood floors, dusted the cobwebbed ceiling and wood-paneled walls, wiped down the kitchen sink and tub. I oiled my rifle, stripped and reassembled it, then did it again.
I cleaned myself with a damp towel, under my armpits, between my legs, behind my knees, where the sweat had pooled and become salt. I poured cold water over my hair, then cut it off, close to the scalp, in big black chunks that fell to the floor like fur. Then I sank deep into the cracked leather recliner, a cloud of dust rising as I fell, and put a hand on my belly.
I wanted a girl. That seemed selfish, knowing what we faced. Knowing it’d be easier to be a boy. But all the same, I pictured a little girl with knobby knees, braids, missing front teeth. We’d plant a garden for flowers and vegetables, get some sheep and goats, live by our own work and in our own world.
My daughter would need a name. I still had a few months to decide. But of all the things that were frightening to me about those months of preparation, and the act of pushing her out safely, and the months after, doing all I could to keep her alive, naming was terrifying. Naming a thing confers power; giving her a name could give her strength, or take it away.
Holding her, in the quiet cabin and the decaying chair, I thought of the message again.
He sounded lost, lonely. A garbled distress signal, to a woman long turned ghost. I pitied him.
Her voice asked him to leave a message. The sound of her nearly drew blood. It sliced, a garrote to the gut. When it was his turn to speak, he lost all language. All the words, all the names for things, disappeared. Except hers. He said that name, again and again, and by saying it, he said he was coming. He told her to hang on.
I dug trenches. Around the perimeter, where the wild grass gave way to trees and gravel, I dug steep drops. I went slow and easy, slipping the shovel into the dirt wet from the previous night’s thunderstorm, letting her move within me, giving her room to breathe as I did.
I talked to her as we worked.
“A good trench is a lost art,” I told her. “We don’t create lines like we used to.”
When I’d talked to the cabin owner on the phone, an old woman who’d advertised on Craigslist and asked for pennies, she’d said the cabin was pre-war. I asked which war. She laughed.
“At least in the First World War,” I told my daughter as we dug, “you knew which side was which. Even if they were only separated by a few yards. West trenches, the good guys. East trenches, the bad. In the middle, no-man’s land.”
I thought of maps, systems of deep lines rutting across a continent. Like arteries, veins, things that bled deep red and smelled of rust.
A few feet down, I jumped in the hole.
“A little bit more,” I told her. “Enough to crouch and give line of sight, while still protecting. Since it’s just us, it doesn’t have to be much wider than this.”
My hands shook, and an angry red line of welts and blisters budded on my palm. Behind us, a football field away, the sun was setting behind the cabin.
Down the mountain, I heard the sound of a motor. We went to my knees in the trench, counting the seconds. One hundred and fifty one passed before a crap Hyundai with a wheezing exhaust pipe cleared. Another eighty-six before the motor faded down the other side.
“It’s tight,” I told her. “But it’s good notice.”
Everyone he talked to said she liked cities. She’d mentioned St. Louis, Chicago, San Diego, they said. Places full of people and far from their town, which was twenty minutes from Akron. But he remembered that night, how she’d stared at the Ansel Adams on his living room wall, the one with snowy peaks, a river shaped like a snake, storm clouds above all. He’d asked if she’d been to Wyoming, and she’d shaken her head like it was heavy, like it hurt.
He’d asked questions. He wanted her to feel his attention, his effort. See that he was worth her own.
But she’d brushed them aside. Taken off her shirt, pants, bra, underwear, before he could swallow his swig of Stella.
She stood naked, her brown skin straining over thin bones, her long black hair a veil, and stared at those mountains. Even when he’d kissed her, tasted her, slid himself inside her, called her baby, she looked away, into that black and white world.
At night, I took to sitting on the grass beyond the front door. No lights in the cabin, or outside. Ants crawled on my legs. Lightning bugs brushed my cheek. Owls and bats flew and screeched in the night wind. The light of other worlds beyond this one shone above.
“This is peace,” I told her. She’d started moving more within, and I thought of alien movies, the creature lurking under skin, ready to burst in a shower of blood. I thought of shrapnel, alien bodies slicing from the other side to get in.
“We can’t help it,” I said as I spread my hands in the grass behind me. “Being around other people. We can’t help fighting for what’s ours.”
I pictured the girl with her gun, the skin over her liver and pancreas a useless flap of red, her right cheek gone, gums and bloody teeth shown to the world, her left foot hanging by a shred of tissue that looked like the chicken drumsticks they fed us. And my pathetic kit: IVs, needles, cloth, tubes, shears, clear liquids. Tonics and potions. My own gun at the ready, so I could cut through darker skin and bone.
My girl kicked.
“What’s your name?” I wondered if there was a name that would give protection, as well as power. Could I brand her, so all could see she was not to be touched? What language would it be?
When I first got back, I did what I was supposed to. I got a job at the pizza place in the main square. I took a couple classes at the community college in the next town. I wanted to forget what I was supposed to forget, and wanted to remember how to be a human.
One of my teachers talked about dialects and languages, how English and Arabic and Spanish and all the other languages of the world derived from the same language. Over time, people moved away from their roots, developed new words, created wholly different languages to separate us from each other.
I wondered, looking at our cabin, at the dark, at my trenches, if all those different languages came from mothers, searching for the right sounds that would mark their children as safe.
For months, he tried to figure it out. Why run? Why couldn’t she stay, when he had love to give?
He thought of her naked beneath him. There hadn’t been many women. No one like her. He wondered sometimes if she was even real, if he hadn’t dreamt her. It was only one night, after all.
But he wouldn’t have dreamt the ragged skin on her back, melted and folded, the texture of puddy. He wouldn’t have dreamt her vacancy, how she looked somewhere else, away from his townhouse and his own naked body and him. He wouldn’t have dreamt how little she told him, that he would need to seek her to love her.
She was wounded. She needed him. He’d been waiting for someone to need him.
“Code used to be something much different,” I told my daughter as we drove down the mountain, towards the river. The road wound itself into Zs, back and forth across the hill. “Now it’s all computers. You’ll probably learn it by the time you’re a toddler. But back then, it was life or death.”
I pictured Alan Turing and his mathematicians and spies, British code breakers all, that cracked the German command. They let Allied ships and German Jews die to preserve their secret and win the war. Then the Brits jailed and castrated Turing for loving men. Every decision Turing made was life and death.
After an hour of slowing and accelerating, curving and straightaways, without seeing another car, we reached an empty bank at a thin stretch of the river. I patted myself, checking gun on my hip, knife in my bag, baby in my belly.
Outside the water rushed past and the air felt thicker, heavier. I played the message again. It was a code to break.
“Rosie,” the voice said. Surprise and excitement.
The static could have been harmless background noise, the chatter of a shopping mall, the echo of an interstate, the tumult of zoo animals. It could have been a connection over frayed wires and an aging landline. Or it could have been a message, its emptiness full of meaning.
“Rosie.” Confused. “Rosie.” Anger. “Rosie.” A call for shame, guilt. “Rosie.” Resolve.
I listened to it again, the volume on this phone, the third since leaving, as high up as it would go. The speaker didn’t sound like family. The static didn’t sound like this, like the mountains and wilderness.
Before, looking at blood that refused to stay in the boys and girls’ bodies, looking at their camouflage, their helmets, their artillery, their will, all the things that had failed to protect them. Every decision I made caused death or saved life. Things made sense.
In the bathroom of the pizza place, when I took my test and it came back positive, things made sense again, for the first time since I’d come home. I knew what to do.
I threw the phone into the water, underhand, so it skipped the surface once before sinking in.
“That’s not my name,” I told my daughter. “I don’t think it ever was.”
He talked to regretful people every day. Inspected their cars for damage, drank coffee in their kitchens, watched their cigarettes shake as they described near-fatal side-swipes and roll-overs. They questioned their decisions, those they made consciously and those their body made by rote. For awhile they would feel unsafe, jumpy, unable to make decisions. He filed his reports back in his cubicle, and they received their insurance payout, and they would feel better, and he would feel fulfilled.
After meeting her, he wished he talked to more liars. That was the domain of the freelance private investigators working for his firm. They sought out fake addresses, sorted through pain pills, interviewed exes and conspirators. They hunted for the truth in fishy claims, and learned to find it by tics, deduction, stakeouts.
He knew a PI, a stocky Swede who he’d dealt with on a past claim. He asked the investigator for a few reports, a bit of legwork, suggested it was a current case. Not fully a lie, not fully the truth.
From the PI, he found her numbers, and the area of Wyoming she was in. Specific roads to roam. He also learned where she’d been. He learned who she’d been. The investigator said it wasn’t a surprise, her leaving. Vets, especially combat medics, have all their decisions made for them over there, their meals, their clothes, their schedule. Their only decisions are how to save themselves and others in the midst of war. Returning to normal life, choosing a fabric softener, a sandwich, a jacket for the cold, becomes incomprehensible.
He leaned on that pain. That trauma. That’s why she ran away. Without her wounds, she would have seen him fully, seen what he offered the first time. Maybe they could laugh about it later, how full of regret they could have been at never getting together. Their near-miss.
That’s what kept him going, through the months of unpaid leave that threatened to turn into unemployment, through the false stops and starts of his inexperienced investigation, through the long hours in the ailing Hyundai that wheezed and coughed its way through the Wyoming mountains.
I heard his voice in my head long after I threw the phone out. Laying in the musty twin bed with daffodil sheets, the mums comforter thrown back. My daughter was taking up more space, making her presence known, and it made me hot and cranky.
Not family. No trace of Mexico in the vowels, the R. I was the first and only one born here. My mother used to shake her head at my American accent, the blasphemy of contracting syllables, letters that only sounded like themselves, all in the nasally twang of rural Ohio.
Friends, lovers. Their faces and names merging into a painting, the ones with all the melting and leering. I’d left them all behind, in the desert and in the farmland. They didn’t understand life and death.
With one hand I felt for the shotgun, laid out next to me like a pig-nosed scarecrow. The other I curled over her.
Her name. It had to be shield, but it also had to be password.
“They tell you you can be anything,” I said to her. My hand moved across the expanse like a vacuum. “There’s so much potential, and the only thing holding you back is you. It’s a lie. You’ll be a woman, you’ll be brown. Poor. So they’ll try to send you off to a war, to help you reach that potential.”
I think of my mother. She named me after a pretty, delicate piece of nature. It didn’t protect me.
She had believed the lie. She half expected my report cards filled with As and Bs to also come with stacks of cash. She shrank two inches when the reports, my good behavior, my clean ears and vagina didn’t come with scholarships and the keys to all the cities. Her hair started falling out in clumps when I told her I enlisted. While I was gone she got lost at grocery stores, found herself driving with no memory of where. When I got back, and she found my bed empty again and again, found me harder, absent, unfamiliar. She asked me, in tears: If you aren’t better than me, what was it for?
Did she survive my leaving?
“I’ll try not to live through you,” I said to my stomach. “I can’t promise I won’t live for you.”
Out here, maybe the rules would be different. Maybe we could truly be who we were meant to be.
He drove the same roads, the same Zs, up and down. He waited for the laws of attraction to guide him, or a mystical sign, or something unknown. He was losing his hold on what he used to believe, in facts and figures, reality and truisms.
On a cloudy morning with the chill of fall descending, on a steep grade, his motor chugging and something else ticking, he saw a flash of white as it fell into and under the ground.
He pumped the brakes and eased onto a gravel path he’d missed before. He scanned the grounds, saw a tiny cabin tucked far back from the road, and a deep line of ditch between them.
It took me longer than it should have to recognize the sound of the motor. I held my daughter and my rifle as I raced across the field and jumped into my trench.
Too late, though. The motor cut. The car door creaked. The boots crunched.
No one knew I was here, except the landlady. She said she’d never visit, leaving me to my business. There were still variables. Maybe she changed her mind; maybe it was a nobody with a flat tire; maybe it was something else I hadn’t accounted for.
“No trespassing.” My head still below the dirt line.
The crunch of gravel stopped for a moment, then started again.
“I have live ammo.”
I stood, my torso above the trench, and aimed the shotgun.
She had an impossibly long gun. Her hair was chopped, leaving uneven patches of white scalp. Her breasts hung loose and low under a white t-shirt.
He’d imagined what it would feel like when she finally saw him, when her attention was on him, not a photograph or something unseen and far away. He’d imagined it, here in the wild, as the secret relief of being found, a smile that would slowly win out over shock or fear.
She saw him now. Really saw him. And being seen was terrifying.
“Who are you?”
“Rosie,” he said. The man was early 30s, white, with ash-blonde hair. He had the advantage of height, six feet to my five-and-a-half, but beyond that he was thin and lanky. Not much to him.
“Who are you?” I said it a little louder this time.
“Rosie,” he said. “It’s me.” He pointed to himself, in the direction of his chest. Like his whole self was tied up in his heart. He should have pointed to his throat, his voice, the one from the message.
“Who are you?”
“Rosie please, it’s me.” The gravel announced his next step.
“Stop,” I said.
His face seemed to seize, his lips and jaw and eyes working through too many emotions to settle on one. “Don’t you remember? It’s Paul. From that night?”
A liar gives too many details, confidently. He was vague, rattled. “Whoever you’re looking for, she’s not here.”
“You look different,” he said, gesturing to my hair. “But I’d know you anywhere, Rosie.”
“That’s not my name.”
“It’s the name you gave me.”
I looked him over again. Flattened nose, thin lips. Long earlobes. Rough patches on his arms near the wrist, maybe psoriasis. A vague memory of his shape, moving between me and a black and white image of mountains.
There’d been so many, in those first months home. My fingers, instead of tying off veins, inserting IVs, handling weapons, were arranging cheese and ham slices on pizza crusts. My feet, instead of sprinting across hard-packed dirt and aged stone, sat still under a school desk. My back, instead of carrying half my weight in gear, guns, supplies, spasmed at night from the weight of nothing. My body was purposeless, foreign. I thought someone else could make me feel it again. I went to bars, let strangers touch me, fill me. None of them had the power to make me feel anything. I left each of them before the sun came up and they could try again.
I’d left all of that behind, all of them, when I learned about my daughter. She could be from any of them, all of them. But she belonged to no one but me.
The man looked so hopeful. He’d found me, when I’d worked hard not to be found. Under that white skin with angry red patches, the smile he was working hard to keep, the blonde hair that stood on end in the wind, revealing a bald patch, something desperate thrummed.
“If we had a night,” I said. “That was it. Go home.” My voice was not gentle. I had my gun.
It was all going wrong.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. Throat closing around tears. “Not without you! I came to help you. Bring you back. Or go somewhere else. Together.”
She wasn’t putting the gun down. She wasn’t melting in relief. She wasn’t telling the truth.
If he could just hold her hand, look into her eyes. She was looking at him now, really looking. She would see the two of them, as he did.
Gravel squeaked as his boots left the path for the grass.
“Stop,” she said again.
He was close enough now to see more of the ditch in which she stood. It was freshly dug, without grass cover.
“What are you doing, Rosie?”
“I’m telling you to leave, and never come back.”
“But,” he said. He could see more of her now too. Her slashed hair, chunks of scalp, her pert ears, her long neck. Her feet were bare in the dirt. Her white t-shirt, wet under her arms and long, past her knees. Her shape, under the shirt.
All the reasons he’d considered for why she ran, all of them had been about hurt and fear. All of them fixable. His love would be her salvation.
He hadn’t considered this. And as he worked through the math, added up her belly, her flight, their night together, did the sums and multiplied by new layers of shame, trauma, a mother’s ferocity…
He smiled. Laughed. It was wonderful, this new discovery. Full of promise. Potential.
“Rosie,” he said. He held his arms out wide.
When the blast hit his chest, he thought his heart had exploded from joy.
The shot sent birds flying and rabbits running. All the creatures that had welcomed us, let us pretend to be wild, one of them, were now wary.
I held the gun up for another five minutes, watching the body, counting off the seconds.
When he didn’t move, I leaned back against my trench wall. I patted myself down, patted her.
“We’ll move on,” I said. “Lots of wilderness out here.”
The rest of the afternoon and night I’d bury him in the trench, and backfill the rest. Drive his car down the mountain and set it on fire. Pick up our things from the cabin and lock it tight.
It felt good to make a real decision again.
Amy Lee Lillard holds an MA in literature from Northwestern University, and will complete her MFA in fiction writing from the Pan-European Program at Cedar Crest College in 2018. Her fiction was recently named to the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize Short List. She has been a professional writer for 18 years in advertising, communications, journalism, and medicine, and teaches writing and composition to college students.