by Tess Fahlgren
Tilly let the yellow mellow, for now. She sat on the bathroom rug with her legs crossed and her back against the cold heating vent. A Nancy Drew, #86, lay open on her lap. By her right big toe stood a black cordless phone. He would be calling soon.
She wrapped her hands around her soft stomach with her belly button in the center like the hole of a donut and squeezed. She felt around to her back and pinched the layer of fat on her spine. Bones were an abstract notion. Hard bones. Wing bones. Rib bones. Collar bones. A daydream. Under the Nancy Drew, a new thing called stretch marks carved a thin road map into her thighs. Her mom had seen them the day before, and raised her eyebrows.
She was pretty sure she pulled off looking normal during the day, though sometimes she caught her reflection in a window and spotted her gut relaxed and angled triangular toward the ground. She’d tighten her tummy like her mom suggested. Times like these, in a small room with the door closed, she pushed her stomach out as far as it could go. She let her frown drag her face downward and thought about how ugly she must look. She watched the silent phone.
Today Dylan wanted to show her something.
He’d said, “I’ll call you on Thursday. I have a surprise,” so Tilly spent the week peeling bumper stickers off the fat butt of her mother’s van to pass time. She bared her bottom teeth to the opposite wall and widened her eyes at her mother’s painting of a nude woman bathing in a fountain. Her underarm and the concave arc below her breast formed a serpentine curve. Women like that have space between their parts.
The phone rang. Tilly slammed her elbow hard against the bathtub reaching for it, yelling down to her mother, “Got it!”
With the phone against her ear, she heard a click and dial tone and hiccuped, bit her tongue, smiled. She pulled her sweatshirt down over her pale stomach and flushed the toilet, Nancy Drew Mystery #86 left on the floor.
In a pool of silver light, her mother scrubbed mismatched ceramic in a pail inside the cracked sink with water from the hose outside. It soaked the front of her t-shirt, a maroon logo’d relic of some past waitressing gig. When she asked Tilly where she was going, Tilly said, “On a walk, I guess,” and giggled all the way across the yard.
Dylan must have been forced into existence purely by Tilly’s dreams and wishful thinking. She found him in the forest one late afternoon when the clouds purpled and last year’s leaves rattled around the cottonwood roots.
He didn’t wear canvas coveralls or pack boots. He wasn’t pale and straw-haired and freckled, and he didn’t have a goofy can-do accent. Dylan was short with big hands, wide shoulders, and sharp elbows that pushed against his brown skin. His eyes were dark, making the whites of his eyes gleam and match his everyday tee.
When Tilly asked where he lived, Dylan said, “I used to smoke weed with my brother in Phoenix.” When she pressed, saying, no, really, he raised one eyebrow up onto his forehead before gazing at the white sky, shaking his head.
In his back pocket he had a little MP3 player, not the kind Tilly wanted necessarily, but the kind she would gladly accept if found beneath a Christmas tree.
“Do you have a mom and a dad?” Tilly asked.
Dylan handed her a headphone and said, “You know how much I hate the quiet?” She put it in her ear, thrilled at the tiny touch of skin when he put it in her fingers. Tilly liked the quiet. She liked to sit on damp logs and listen to the chickadees and mourning doves. But he had stepped through the trees and claimed her time. Maybe she was finally beautiful. Maybe beauty came down on you like a gift you couldn’t see. Reverberation and clanging high notes rang through the tinny speaker in her right ear. She blocked out the sound of the wind and blackbirds with her palm, closing her eyes to lean into the noise this boy gave her.
That first day he asked for her phone number and her lip glossed with sweat. She shouted the digits, eyes fixed on a tree trunk behind his head. The black cordless phone. Her mother on the front porch with it and a beer, cackling at the radio. Boys called on phones, that’s the way it worked. Tilly’s mom had boys who called sometimes, and she kept the phone with her like it was a fanny pack. Now Tilly would have a boy who called.
“Listen,” Dylan said. “I’m not talking on the phone, I’m just going to hang up. So you better answer so you can meet me here.”
Better answer to hear him hang up. The click, the dial tone. Rushing out the door.
“And listen, too,” His black, black eyes. “Don’t tell anyone.”
He might as well have scrawled SECRET LOVER across her palms.
That night she lay in bed biting her pillow, happiness gurgling in her throat, unable to sleep.
Dylan called every few days. When they met in the forest they sat a few feet away from each other on the old crumbling stone wall that ran along the border of her mother’s rented property. She had never crossed it, but Dylan came from the other side. Tilly positioned her torso and neck to give him the most pleasing silhouette.
He asked questions like, “Did you ever have a big brother?”
She tried to look thoughtful before answering, “No.”
Every time he called she sent a thank you to her ceiling.
She kept her word about not telling anyone about him, not even her mom, who often studied her from across the breakfast table and tipped ash from her Virginia Slim into a tiny ashtray Tilly had made in preschool. Tilly kept busy with an open book tucked under the lip of her cereal bowl.
The second time they met in the woods Dylan told her his dad had one bad eye; it was all white. People can lose half the pigment in their face if they go through shock. This one time, he said, the bathroom at his house was covered in blood and he couldn’t find his mom. There were once two brothers: Angus and Reagan. Angus was older. He wore his hair to his shoulders and sometimes Dylan still found strands of it in the clothes he took from Angus's room. It was his blood in the bathroom. Tilly did her best to freeze her face. If she reacted too strongly, he'd stop talking. She wanted nothing more than to be the little envelope in which he could store his secrets.
She saw Reagan once. It was the only time she saw Dylan outside of their woods. Three weeks and four days after she found him, Tilly waited at the register in Shopko. Her mother presented coupon after coupon to the cashier. Milk, Coca-Cola, popsicles, frozen peas, rice. Tilly stood with her elbows on the conveyor belt and squished her tummy against the hard plastic counter. When Dylan walked through the automatic doors it was as if a trapdoor had been loosed somewhere in her ribs. White headphones filled his ears, crisp against his dark skin. At the end of his skinny arm a little boy tripped along. He had Dylan’s same thatch of black hair. His dark eyes, however, pressed into worried half-moons and his eyebrows rose to an anxious mountain peak. From across the linoleum and fluorescent lighting of the box store she heard him singing to himself about the ants that go marching on and on. Tilly ducked behind the gum display.
Her mother had only gone halfway through her stack – lima beans, Cheetos, Sunny-D, off-brand pudding cups – when Dylan and the little boy walked back. Dylan had a long-necked glass bottle dangling from his hand. He looked only before him as he strode back out into the sunlit parking lot.
Next time at the store she did some detective work in the liquor section and decided he had been carrying Absolut vodka. Maybe he liked the kind with the orange peel on the bottle. She never asked, but she held the proof of the little brother like a gold coin.
Sometimes Dylan’s face went totally blank like a robot that had been switched off. When Tilly asked what was wrong he seemed to see her for the first time. He stepped over the wall, through the trees and away from her. Eventually she learned to focus on something small, like a little brown mushroom, and practice stillness. Finally he’d mentally return and tell her something new, like, “Angus's friend had an orange gecko for a while, but I guess it disappeared,” or “Angus had all these sketchbooks, he was so good.”
The day she left her Nancy Drew on the floor of the bathroom, she thought maybe Dylan would tell her he liked her, or if that was too silly, maybe he’d tell her he was glad they met. Maybe he’d decided he wanted to start talking on the phone instead of just hanging up. She found him sitting on the wall. When he saw her, he stood.
“Come with me,” he said. He stepped over the wall, and Tilly hesitated. The temperature had dropped. They both wore thick coats and hats.
He sucked air in through his nose and tilted his chin at her. “I think you’re really pretty,” he said, and released all the air from his lungs. It puffed and billowed.
Tilly’s throat closed up. She tried to speak, only squeaked.
“Come with me.” he repeated, and held his hand out to her. On the other side of the wall she recognized all the same shades of gray in the tree trunks, but they appeared in a brand new pattern. Really pretty, really pretty. He dropped her hand as soon as she crossed the wall and she held it slightly away from her body, in case he wanted it again.
Home fell away behind them. Dylan didn’t speak, but walked with urgency and a small unfamiliar smile. If they were going to his house, she would ask Reagan what grade he was in, and if he liked his teacher.
They came to a clearing. Tilly looked for a house, maybe one with a swing set. Instead a deep gouge split the earth, spotlighted by angled sunlight. On one side, through a space between trees, twin tire tracks emerged from the woods and stopped at the hole. She dared herself to take a step forward, again and again, until she stood on its grassy edge. Her nose and mouth filled with the thick sweet smell of dead things, and she felt grateful for the cold snap.
Beneath her mud-stained Keds the smashed nose of a doe curled to its ratty back from a serpentine neck that led to what appeared, at first, to be a delicate shoelace knot. Tilly’s eyes adjusted to the shadows of the hole and the knot became a dry twisted placenta still clinging to the never-muddied cloven hooves of a still-born calf. Most of the animals were covered in a layer of soil, tossed in to keep the smell down, but the newer ones shrank and decomposed in plain sight.
Behind her, Dylan stood with his arms folded and his chin raised in a smug silhouette. She knew where they were, kind of. If she looked long enough she might find the bleached bones of that golden mutt she’d briefly adopted last summer. It was a mass grave shared by all the distant farm houses and solitary double-wides scattered through the community. She knew this but still wanted to ask all of the W’s she learned in school: Who? What? When? Where? Why?
“There’s an opossum in here,” she said, pointing.
“That one’s my favorite,” he said.
Until she saw the dull tufted fur of the opossum’s bloated belly, they’d only existed as cartoons.
“A couple of these are mine.”
Tilly imagined him surrounded by these animals in life, following him around, bumping his back for buckets of grain.
“I mean, I killed that one,” he motioned toward a pile of long gray fur.
“Is that a cat?” she asked. He shrugged.
Dylan strode around the perimeter until he was across from her. He stood with his hands deep in the pockets of his black pants and said, “There used to be a house on top of this hole. My parents built it. I was born,” he pointed down into the depths of mangled shadows, “here.” He gazed at Tilly with his eyebrows slightly raised.
“I believe you,” she said.
In a sharp, accusing voice he asked, “Do you think people really die?”
Tilly nodded. It was true, because Grandma Jean and Papa and her kitten, Shark, and that litter of bunnies she’d seen eaten by their tawny mother.
With a triumphant smile he said, “Watch this.” Sunlight bounced from his cheekbones and lit up his eyelashes.
“Stop it,” she said. She teetered on the verge of toppling in, herself, when Dylan raised his arms, bent his knees, and pushed against the earth. In a clumsy second he lay with all the dead, his crooked body absolutely still. “Why is this happening?” her voice too quiet, too desperate, and she felt ashamed.
Dylan pulled the cramped deer carcass toward him. It caught on a long-decomposed cow but he tugged and pulled it over himself. Too stiff to drape, the deer jutted upward. Its body covered Dylan’s torso but his head and feet were visible and so, so still. His eyes were closed, his face serene.
“Are you pretending to be asleep?” Tilly muddied her knees on the edge of the pit reaching for him. “Are you pretending?” The deer, hide stretched dry over its skeleton, rose and fell with each of his breaths.