Girls Who Stay Outside
by Caitlin Woolley
Olive sits on the back porch and cries and bleeds a little from her mouth. She holds her hands over her face, hiding it, hiding from it. She is hungry, she is tired, she is cold, and her jaw throbs. Around her, the sun weeps orange between the trees, the power lines cutting through it like black stitches as it sets over the hills. She wants the dark to come, to swallow her and her tears, to move undetected under it. She wants to feel the branches of its teeth, to be licked by its indigo tongue. She wants to be warm.
"Weird girls like you don’t get dinner," her father said.
Then, an amendment on his breath: "Weird girls who hurt their friends are animals and animals must stay outside."
So she sits on the back deck, legs swinging over the edge, tears drying slowly on her cheeks. Her belly rumbles. She touches the soft spot on her chin, feeling the jagged separation of tissue on her lip and finding it pleasurable enough to keep running her finger over it, back and forth, as night-birds start to rustle in the trees. The lights in the kitchen behind her go up. While she is facing the trees her father is facing the back of her head. There is the thud of the faucet turning on and off, the scrape of pots being dragged from cabinets.
Cars filter into the neighborhood, warm engines pink-pinking in their driveways. People walk their dogs outside and soft voices float over the hedges like cobwebs. The smell of jasmine flower perfumes the falling dark, and somewhere the tags on a dog’s collar rattle. A mosquito buzzes in Olive’s ear. Another circles around her ankle. She slaps herself hard enough to leave a mark on her skin but misses the bug. She lifts and folds her legs underneath her like a pretzel, rubbing the red skin.
Her father opens the back door just a little bit, enough to let out a warm gust from the kitchen that smells of butter. Olive’s belly trembles. He moves around the kitchen and the floor creaks under him. Olive hears him slide a knife out of the block and start to drag its edge across the flesh of a bell pepper, slicing it into strips. She imagines biting into one of them, imagines it crunching between her teeth, the flow of juice over her tongue. Then there is the sizzle of meat in a hot pan, the creak of the door as her father props it open just a little more. She starts to turn her head toward the smell to see into the kitchen but the sound of the knife on the cutting board becomes louder as an onion falls to pieces and Olive folds her hands in her lap, straightening her back.
The hissing in the kitchen is cut by the cracking-open of a jar lid. Olive focuses on the graying-out of the trees overhead. Her chest thumps.
She wills herself to be still. She doesn’t want to move and she hopes that if she is still long enough, even her hair, that she will vanish right before his eyes. Maybe, she thinks, he will forget she was ever here. Looking up into the sky towards the stars, she watches them flash and twinkle. She wonders if their flickering means they are willing themselves to vanish, too.
Olive wonders if she is sorry for what she did to those girls.
She thinks about the twinkle of sewing needles and wall tacks and the cool feel of the silver warming between her middle finger and her thumb and the smell of rubbing alcohol stolen from the linen closet. It was poking holes in people that landed her on the back porch. For a few weeks Olive had set up a secret piercing studio in the lower level girls’ bathroom at school during lunch. She’d sit on the seat in the smallest stall and wait for a girl to come along and knock. The girl would tell her what she wanted pierced and Olive would rub the skin clean with alcohol and push the needle through, sometimes waiting so she could savor the moment of that metallic sharpness poised to enter the skin. Some girls said nothing, some girls cried. Olive hated the ones who cried and ruined the moment for her, like Emme Rich (whose fault all of this was), and Olive would be a little rougher with the criers as she fit the earrings--some stolen, some donated from other girls--into the fresh wounds.
She should have been gentler with gawky Emme, who was too tiny and awkward to take up much space in the secret stall even as she jutted out her shiny bottom lip, thick and marbled like meat. Olive should have let her go. Maybe she wouldn’t have cried to her mother.
"How much is it?" Emme had said in a whisper as she and Olive pressed close together in the stall.
"Buy me lunch tomorrow," Olive said and pinched the offered lip between her fingers to swab it over with alcohol.
"Ew," Emme said. "Is this going to hurt? Danielle Cochran said it did."
"I don’t know. I’ve never had a piercing," Olive said. Emme frowned.
Olive was already lowering the needle’s tip into the pout of Emme’s lip. She was almost salivating and she didn’t want to think of Danielle Cochran and her pierced ears. Those holes had been made. She wanted to think of these holes, almost little dark absences of ear. Part of the sandwich Danielle had bought her on Tuesday was still sitting in her backpack. It would be her celebration, her crowning feast for pushing a little bit of her own darkness into the skin of someone else.
"No, wait," Emme said. Olive didn’t release her mouth but stopped moving the needle.
"Think how cool it will look," Olive said, conscious of the dim lights overhead, the slightly sweet smell of chocolate on Emme’s breath. She must have had cookies with her food, Olive thought, rumbling inside herself. A few other girls chatted with each other at the sinks, ignoring the voices in the last stall.
"Everyone will say how pretty you are," Olive said. "They’ll invite you to stuff."
A little smile moved under Olive’s fingers. She thought it felt like a bird, or what a bird would feel like if she ever touched one.
"So?" she said. "Do you want me to do it?"
"Okay," Emme said, and before the word was even out of her mouth the needle’s head was pushing into her lip, almost through to the other side. Emme yelped and tried to jerk her head away but Olive held her fast, flattened her palm across her neck and forced the needle through, determined to put a perfect hole through her skin, to make a puncture where blackness could well. She didn’t know why Emme had to flinch and cry; it couldn’t have been that bad. Olive never cried at pain, but in the bathroom now as tears welled over and leaked down Emme’s cheeks, Olive felt light. She pulled the needle back through her lip and Emme tore out of the stall so fast the door clapped against the wall.
The other girls who had been standing at the sink fell silent and stared at Olive as she emerged from the stall door, little needle shiny with blood still held between her fingers. They looked at her and she looked at them, and she wondered what they were thinking of her, and she wondered if she was grateful they hadn’t seen inside the stall. She wanted to run away so everyone would forget all about her and when people said her name they would have to mean someone else.
Then Emme’s mother had called the school, furious, and Olive was sure the school official had quoted her, my daughter was scarred on your premises, and now Olive is sitting on the back porch of her father’s house while he slaps a piece of steak across the burning ribs of a grill pan, charring its flesh to black.
The smell of meat stirs her insides. Her hunger is past the point of hunger so that it has become a piece of her identity, and she regrets now that she wolfed all of Danielle’s sandwich the other day and did not save it in pieces for the rest of the week. But that hardly matters now as she breathes the smell of the flank steak in, lungs begging to take sustenance from it, sweet saliva welling up behind her teeth. She spits it into the grass to rid her mouth of it. The smell of cooking almost makes her woozy and she forgets temporarily what she’s done and where she is. She stretches her arms up into the air above her and rocks her body to the sides, yawning, looking up into the sky. The trees rustle around her as if they are alive and she gazes out toward them, wondering what they might be hiding.
"You stay," her father says through the open door, and then Olive remembers herself. The sizzling has died down in the kitchen in favor of the scrapes of spoons against a metal bowl, the rattle of a dish coming down from the cabinet, and the thud of it being set on the counter. Just one, Olive notes.
"If you stay there you can eat some of this later," her father calls. "But right now I want you to be thinking about your behavior."
Olive folds her arms against her chest and leans her chin against her fists. Every girl who came into her studio, as she thought of it, knew what she was in for. If Emme Rich had had half a brain the pain of the needle would not have surprised her. Olive wonders if Emme’s parents are punishing her too, but she doubts that they’ve stuck her on the back porch at dinnertime. What is Emme’s life like, Olive wonders. What are her punishments?
This isn’t Olive’s first transgression against her classmates. Her father signed her up for a soccer team once when she was a child, and she loved it, but she could not understand what her father meant when he explained that she played too roughly with the other girls.
"But you’re supposed to play that way," Olive said.
"No, honey, you aren’t," he replied.
Her father did not sign her up again for the team the next year, and Olive cried and cried and threw things all over the house until her put her in the backyard and closed the door whenever she was angry, and the only thing he ever found that swayed or moved her was the promise of food. Olive would run a mile for a chocolate bar, say "thank you" for a sandwich, and he carried caramel candies in his pocket when he needed her to behave. She resented him for this and on more than one occasion tried to root the candies from his pocket when she thought he wasn’t paying attention, even if she knew that being caught meant more time on the back porch.
The yard is where Olive learned to dream, where she learned that she could do whatever she wanted, where she wouldn’t have to listen to anyone but Olive. When she is alone in her head, she is nobody’s pet. In her own stories she is whomever she’d like to be. Sometimes she isn’t even human. Tonight the story in her head is of a girl who makes a friend. Olive and her new friend sit together at lunch, at a table in the cafeteria, not on the bathroom floor. Sometimes they talk on the phone.
"Tell me all your secrets," the girl will say, and Olive will smile into the receiver.
The girls will braid each other’s hair and it will be rough and Olive will like it. Sometimes, when Olive spends the night at her friend’s house, her parents, wearing clean white smiles, will serve dinner on fine white plates. At night she and Olive will build forts into which no other human will be allowed to enter. No one will know what goes on in that friendly darkness except the two of them. Olive relaxes a little into this dream and closes her eyes. A mild wind brushes against her face, tickling the nerves that live under her skin, and then it feels like her body is laughing when her mind would never dare to.
The dream is interrupted when she hears her father move to the kitchen table. The sound of his silverware cuts through the steak; a tomato pops when it’s pierced by the tines of a fork. Imagining the burst tomato fills Olive with hope that she is part of nature, that it isn’t just people that pop. Her father flips the pages of a magazine as he reads. The air from the house fills her up and sometimes if she holds her breath she can trick her body into being momentarily full, almost like she will blow away.
She knows her father knows she can smell it. He wants her to smell it. He is so tired.
Olive pushes herself back into the pictures in her head. She is at the point in her story where she and her friend are having pancakes for breakfast under the benevolent beam of the mother’s smile, a smile so wide and bright it flushes out all bad things. She chastises her young son when he comes barreling into the elegant kitchen with a toy truck in his hand and Olive is fascinated by the caked makeup in the wrinkles under her eyes. Olive’s friend laughs and teases her little brother and offers Olive more butter, a cup of tea, anything.
Her story changes now. If she could leave: where do animal girls go?
Then she starts to hear a movement in the trees, the rustling of leaves, the sounds of little feet: lots of feet, moving under the dark undergrowth at the far end of the yard. Her skin starts to prickle and her ribs get tight as the rustling gets louder and louder. Olive turns herself as slowly and quietly as she can and her insides turn to jelly when she sees the bushes moving, opening like a door, like a mouth, like a heart.
The bushes shudder and split and vomit a wave of dogs. Big dogs, little dogs, black dogs, spotted dogs. Lots of them, more than Olive can count. Their tongues loll. Some dogs have fur that is matted and dirty, but some of them are clean and groomed. Olive’s heart thunders inside her as the dogs spill out through the bushes across the lawn. The dogs’ movements synch together and Olive watches as they nudge each other, smiling, teasing each other. Olive swears that their faces hold expressions she recognizes as being human, and the pounding of her heart slows.
The dogs stop and form a half-moon around her as her feet dangle over the side of the deck. She locks eyes with a few of them--a border collie, a husky, some kind of dog whose breed she does not know. They look back at her, blinking, licking their whiskered lips.
"Hello," Olive whispers through dry lips and tindered throat. The dogs pant and flatten their ears, dig their paws into the dirt. At the sound of her voice the dogs lower their heads, and the night holding them all has gone quiet she can hear their hearts beat.
"I don’t have anything," she says.
Two big black mutts at the front of the circle turn their heads to register some noise. They move apart as a shadow moves down the hill. The other dogs step away too. From the trees a huge beast comes towards her, like the shape of darkness, alive. Olive pulls her legs up and stands on them, ready to run, ready to burst into her father’s house without worry of what awaits her there.
The massive dog steps into the light of the back porch. Its body is the color of smoke and Olive wonders how it does not blow away in the wind, or if there is a fire inside of it somewhere. It approaches her slowly and the thick ropes of muscle in its legs move like snakes. A mastiff, Olive realizes as it stops at her feet in front of the deck, catching the shine of its blue eyes between the long folds of skin around them. The dark sparkle there is clear as if the dog is possessed by a single confidence, while Olive is possessed by more feelings than she can figure out. Her belly rumbles again but not entirely from hunger: nausea and wonder swim in her belly, filling her.
"Hello," Olive says again. The mastiff eases itself down on its haunches, its wide jaw parted. A rumble emanates from the cavern of its chest. Not really a growl, Olive thinks, but then her breathing picks up as the other dogs start to come forward out of the dark towards her and for a moment all she can see are flashes of teeth and glittering eyes, until she can feel the mastiff rest its chin on the top of her shoe. A Rottweiler hops up onto the deck and lays down on its belly beside her. Olive eases herself back down to sit on the deck and the mastiff, having moved its head from her foot, rests it on her lap. The weight of its skull is immense and its long teeth don’t all fit in between its lips.
"What don’t you go home?" Olive says.
Then she wonders if the dogs have a home, if they have a place to go; and then she thinks that maybe their home is all around them, all around her, and they are always home. They can go where they want, they can sit on anybody’s porches, and their outside is their inside.
A whine catches her attention and she turns her head to see a mutt scratching its paw against the door leading into the kitchen. A panic passes through her like lightning but is over as soon as she realizes her father isn’t there. The steak still sizzles in the pan, steam rising from it like it’s licking itself into the air. The dog pushes the door open with a white paw and looks at Olive like it is looking through her. The dog doesn’t try to go into the house but Olive understands that she is meant to, that its insides are free to her. Stepping off the deck, Olive walks over to the mutt and rubs its ears, runs her hands across its face, its back, until her palms are coated with mud and dirt and the smell of the dog overwhelms the smell of the meat.
Olive steals inside the house and turns the pan off. She imagines that her father is in the bathroom, that maybe he went upstairs, or that he got into his car and drove off and left her the house and everything in it. Maybe the neighbors will say, that weird girl who lives next door, her father left her, and that is her house now and her food, and she throws such wonderful dinner parties. Olive thinks that if she had this house to herself that’s what she would do with it: throw dinner parties in white linen, serve tea in little pink cups, bake her own bread into long, crispy rolls.
Olive picks the steak up out of the pan. Its juices run over her fingers, hot and oily, and she can’t stop herself from licking them. She doesn’t mind the way it burns her. She tears into the meat with her teeth. She thinks, as she swallows and her throat shivers in applause of the food it’s seen, that if she were a dog she would be a white dog. A big white dog with long fur and wide-set ears that she would turn at every little sound, missing nothing, aware of the universe buzzing around her. A black spot on her tongue that would only look like a hole.
Her father comes back into the kitchen and he stops when he sees her, watches her chew, wide-eyed and fat-stained. The light in his eyes darkens and at the realization that she has done another bad thing, that he has seen her do it and so the darkness in her is cemented, the image of her father fades away as if it is smoke. There is no one but animals now.
Her body shudders with the thrill of the meat and then the dogs are pulling at her pant legs, pulling her towards the door. She stumbles a little as she wolfs the rest of the meat and it seems to her that the dogs are all being careful not to bark, not to whine, not to make any noise at all. Soon they are pulling at her hard enough that she is moving her feet, and she lowers her hands to let the dogs lick her fingers. She feeds the thick slabs of steak to the dogs in front of her, letting them eat from the cups of her palms, tearing the bigger pieces apart to drop onto the floor where the dogs leave lick marks and look up at her gratefully. Ten dog tongues feel like kisses on her palms and she laughs as they beg her to follow.
Yes, she imagines the dogs are saying as they pull her, and when she takes a step on her own the dogs back off. They run ahead, just a little, and turn back to watch her with wagging tails.
The cold night wraps itself around her but she does not feel the cold. If someone calls her name they must mean someone else, and that is a good thing now. The dogs stand, expectant, waiting for her to take another step, and then another. Olive glances back towards the house where the story of what she did to her friends hangs like a poison in the air. The stars blink in and out overhead and a hundred eyes shine back at her. The wagging of their tails is sweet and free.
Olive begins to run across the dark of the yard and soon she is following the pack of wild dogs into the trees, into the dark that opens between the trees until it finally swallows her whole.
Caitlin Woolley recently graduated with an MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and now lives in Seattle, where the coffee is infinitely better.