Illustration by Sloane Leong
by Lindsey Markel
It was a farm, a twenty-minute drive from the next farm, and the boys were bored with nightcrawler hunting. All the way from the edge of the front yard, at the rustling dark of the sweet corn field, Maggie could see the glow of the porch light, and every so often she heard a trail of muffled laughter from the adults. Her little brother played Tag with the older boys in the grass, shrieking and flailing between their legs as they ran. The long shadows of their bodies were beginning to spread at the edges; it was dusk, nearly dark.
Issue #13 soundtrack: The Novel Ideas "Julian Carax"
Maggie had marked the visit on the wall calendar in her bedroom months ahead of time and crossed off the weeks, then days, until the boys arrived. They had come from Colorado with their parents, college friends of Maggie’s mom and dad who had moved away before Maggie was old enough to know them. There were three brothers, all brown-limbed with jokes that never failed. They were old enough to walk to the nearby creek in the afternoons and stand in the weeds and fish, and the second night they were there, they’d crept outside at night to hunt for bait. Maggie’s mom had woken her up by patting her shoulder and murmuring into her ear. They wanted to include Maggie, she said, even though she was a girl and she was only nine, a few grades behind them, and so if she wanted to go, she would have to be very careful and quiet. Yelling and running scares the earthworms away, her mom said. The boys called them nightcrawlers, and so Maggie did, too.
Maggie tried hard not to shy away from the worms, even when one anchored itself underground and ripped when she stretched it too far. The thin skin tore and its cold guts squeezed out over her fingers, but she just wiped her hand hard in the grass. It was worth it, to be in the company of the boys with their flashlight, stumbling around hunting and laughing in the middle of the night. They even gathered around her once to admire a worm she found. She held it up with pinched fingers and it twisted and railed in the bright flashlight beam. Maggie found it comforting to dig in the damp ground with her fingers and uncover all the worms and beetles. She liked that this world had existed even before she knew to look for it.
When the boys arrived earlier in the week, she ran to show them her bedroom, her tempera paint butterflies and bubbling fish tank. She toured them through this year’s garden, stomping her foot when one of them--the youngest one, who had a dense pink scar on his leg from a bad skateboard wreck--ripped a leaf from a seedling and put it in his mouth, then gagged and spit it out in a long rope of saliva. Maggie’s little brother had laughed with the other boys. He was only five, and soaked in their attention. He ran just behind them through mud and tall scratchy weeds all day, shouted words he heard them saying, and sobbed every night at his bedtime.
Maggie knew the farm was alive and she loved it just like she loved the rest of her family. She was in charge of putting out sunflower seeds for the birds, and sometimes bread. In the summer, she got out of bed at dawn to help pick ripe sweet corn and the heavy dew stroked her legs and clung to her pants. She made dandelion chains and rubbed the flowers on her knees to stain them, marking herself with yellow pollen. When her dad needed rain for his crops, she and her brother got out their bathing suits and did a whooping rain dance in the front yard. She was slowly digging a hole through the world with a spade she found in the garage. She liked to lie on her back in the grass and close her eyes, squinting them closed against the bright sunlight, and when the sun would move behind a cloud she felt the grey chill immediately and she would think: come back. Sun, come back. Her summoning actually worked, most of the time, which was a secret she kept to herself.
The boys were just shadows by the time she high-stepped through the wet grass to find them in the large stretch of front yard. They were huddled together and her brother ran around the circle, sticking his head in and screaming with enthusiasm. As she walked up, the nicest one turned to her and said, You’ll never believe what we just saw. There’s a panther in the bushes over there.
Not a panther! said the other boys.
It’s not a panther, the taller one said. It was a wolf. We saw it run across the field. They turned her by the shoulders and pointed toward the edge of the yard, where the plants were too thick to walk through. Can you see him? Can you see his eyes?
Maggie turned and looked, but she couldn’t see anything. The moon wasn’t giving enough light. She could barely see the faces of the boys when they turned to look at her. I see them, said one of them. I can see the eyes shining. They looked at her with serious, worried faces, and she flushed at their concentrated attention. They were close enough that she could smell the tang of their sweat and feel the heat coming from their clothes. One of them still had his hands on her shoulders, but she couldn't see which.
There are no wolves here, she said. She grimaced and shook herself free from the hands. I’ve never seen a wolf here before.
They shrugged. They told her that wolves always lived out in the fields.
They hunt for food. They eat people, you know.
We should tell my dad, Maggie said.
Don’t, said the mean one, we decided not to tell them. If we tell them then they’ll come out here and it’ll eat them too. And it’ll be your fault when it does.
I saw it again, said the tall one. I think it’s moving.
I’m going inside, she said.
If you’re going inside you’d better run, one of them said.
Maggie turned and ran so fast that she had to concentrate not to stumble. Her heart drummed and firefly spots blinked at the edges of her vision.
In the kitchen her mother was spooning out some food onto a paper plate. Hi, honey, she said. Do you need something to drink? Some lemonade?
No, thank you, Maggie said. The kitchen was warm and smelled like dessert. The lights were all on, even the ones over the stove that they didn’t normally use, since they had company. The counters were wiped clean and everything was away in its place. Maggie hoisted herself up over the sink and squinted out the window, but it was too dark to see into the yard.
What are the boys doing? her mom asked. Being boys?
She nodded. I’m going to play in my room, she said.
Is everything OK?
In her bedroom, she sat on the bed and pulled the covers over her head, arranging them around her face so she could still peek out. Against the lights, the windows were dark and reflective. She sat like that for a minute, then crawled out of the blankets, got on her hands and knees on the floor and flattened herself under the bed. She liked to examine parts of the house that nobody else paid attention to. Sometimes she would hang off the couch so her head was upside down and pretend that the ceiling was the floor, and think that if she wanted to, she could just hop up and walk on it. In the winters, she and her brother crawled into the notched space below the fireplace and examined the chopped wood their parents kept there, pretending they were explorers from another planet, which was a game he didn't always play right. From underneath the bed, she could see the feet of her dresser and the cords from her little aquarium. She squinted at them; she hadn’t realized there were so many, all knotted together. She settled into the floor under her bed. She scooted further into the shadows, pretending to be a squirmy worm safe in the ground.
Maggie pulled a photograph out from underneath her. She turned it right side up and saw herself at the kitchen table, sitting next to her brother, grinning and holding up a gnawed ear of corn. In the summers, Maggie’s father made a lot of money selling sweet corn ears by the dozen at the local farmer’s market, and the first collection of each year's harvest made for a celebratory dinner, where everyone was laughing and in an easy mood. The empty bitten ears stacked up in the bowl between the kids as they ate, and their mother took photos of the bowl too, and marked the prints with the date on the back – 2007, six ears!!! This year, Maggie thought, she would go for ten. She wondered if wolves ate sweet corn. She pictured the animal slithering through the neat rows of the field, sniffing at the ears. She remembered her brother, imagined him standing alone in the wide flatness of their front yard, and the wolf turning invisible in the shadows. She squeezed her eyes shut and willed it to go away.
Maggie heard familiar creaks nearby that meant someone was climbing the stairs. There was a fast rap on the door. Hey, came a voice from the other side. You need to come out here quick, something happened. Come outside.
What? she said. What happened?
The door opened and she could just see the feet of two boys. Shoes weren’t allowed in the house, and they had taken off their socks too. Their ankle bones jutted out. One of them had the bicycle scar, and she stared at the dull pink flesh. The feet walked into the room, then turned. Where is she? one voice said. I just heard her. Maybe she’s in the closet, said the other. Maggie heard her closet doors creak open. We know you’re in here! Ha! said one. She heard them rustling her clothes and sliding the hangers across the bar. Maybe she’s in the bathroom.
Where’s my brother? Maggie said from underneath the bed. Holy shit. One set of feet turned to knees and then a face appeared. You weirdo. Are you hiding?
No. Where’s my brother?
That’s what we came to tell you, he said. The wolf got him. It jumped on him and now he’s bleeding.
She scrambled out from underneath the bed, scraping her back on the metal frame. Where is he? But if they answered, she didn’t hear, because she was already running. She ran downstairs through the kitchen and outside in her bare feet. I wish I had half their energy, she heard her mother say.
Maggie ran. Her feet sank into the lawn and she could feel blades of grass sticking between her toes. She could see shadows ahead, the third boy knelt over something in the front yard. She cried heavy sobs that felt like paper tearing inside her chest. She didn’t see her brother at all, he must have been lying on the ground. Why wasn’t he standing up? She pictured him, the way he looked to the other boys before he laughed at her, how small he was and how young. Why was he still on the ground? Sit up, she thought to herself. Please just sit up.
Move! she said, and she was running so fast that she slipped on the grass and landed on her side, knocking hard into the kneeling boy. Her brother was on his back, holding his arm and rolling back and forth. Ow, he said. Ow, owwww. He pushed up from his feet and his body wrenched and his knees knocked together in the air.
It just ran out here and swiped him, one of the boys said, catching up to her. We could hear it growling.
We need to tell my mom, she said. We have to tell my mom and dad. Is he bleeding? Come on, do something. He could die. Are you bleeding? Her brother didn't answer her, just kept on rolling and groaning. She started to cry again, thinking of an animal knocking him around with its big paws, clawing him, how little he was there on the ground. Come on! she screamed, something she was not supposed to do, and she pushed the boy who was crouched next to her. Help him!
He fell over into the grass. Are you actually crying? he asked her, and laughed.
She felt anger kick in her chest and float to her head, making her dizzy. He could die! She felt like her voice was too quiet for anyone to hear, like she was in a nightmare. Help him! she screamed again.
Another boy started to laugh, and then they were all laughing, laughing hard, holding their stomachs. Her brother sat up on his elbows and looked around at them. Then he laughed too.
You really believed there was a wolf? Out here? the blonde one said. He stopped every few words to laugh. A wolf, like, eating people?
Her little brother barked in a loud, unnatural laugh. He pointed at her and threw himself backward onto the grass, imitating the older boys, reveling in their success. Maggie’s fear tore open inside her, flooded her gut and flushed her face. I’m not crying! she said.
Hey! she heard her mother yell, echoing over the yard. Are you kids playing nice?
She was screaming at us, said one of the boys, and her mother yelled back, No screaming. The boys laughed and laughed, and the sound rippled up and out into the night. Maggie climbed to her stiff feet in their crusted mud, and she began to run hard toward the house, focusing on the porch light, moving fast, pounding the rich ground with all her gathered weight. Behind her, she heard the pack, howling.
Lindsey Markel is the author of You Are Among Friends, a book of encouragement for cool girls. She holds a BFA in English from Monmouth College and is currently pursuing a MFA in writing from Lesley University. She just moved to Urbana, IL, with a cute musician named Larry and Isabella Rossellini Looka So Nice, their cat. Visit Lindsey online at lalalindsey.com.
Sloane Leong lives in Southern Oregon with her mutt family and samurai dog. She is currently a traveling gypsy and is working on an army of graphic novels. Her favorite place to draw is in the woods with a pack of wolves and bears. View Sloane's online portfolio at war.respark.net.
The Novel Ideas are a rock-folk-romantic-pop outfit from the sprawling suburbs of Newton, Massachusetts. They play songs written about books, girls, summer, and the ambiguous hours between night and morning. Download their album free from their website thenovelideas.com.