The smell hits first. It always does. Diaper pail ammonia mixed with lion cage, meat and blood and wild. She slams her face against the bars. That’s always the worst, not because they won’t hold—they always do—but the heedlessness, the willingness to split a lip, to lose a tooth. To be ugly and torn, but free.
He steps back, judging the distance to the door.
She can’t get out, I say.
It’s one of her bad days. I shouldn’t have invited him to dinner. I shouldn’t have let him see her. But maybe it’s better to give him an excuse to get away.
Has she always been, he starts, but doesn’t finish. His Adam’s apple bobs.
She was pretty once, I tell him. I look at the side table, the picture of us in matching daisy dresses she sewed herself. I was five then. I didn’t know why she locked herself in every full moon. Didn’t know why people crossed themselves when they passed our house.
It doesn’t matter, he says. I still love you.
I won’t always be pretty, I say.
And he says it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter at all, and I wonder if that was what my father said, before. Was that what male praying mantises told themselves, or drone bees?
He says he’ll break the curse. He says he’ll save me. He says he has a silver bullet, blessed by the priest, and I say no, don’t hurt her, and then I see the rifle pointed at me. I’m so sorry, he says, and then there’s a roar I feel in my feet, the screech of metal and sheetrock crumbling in a rain of plaster dust and I was wrong about those bars and when I can see again she’s licking the blood off her ghost-coated arm and thank you, I say, and she looks up and I can’t tell if she hears or understands but I think she knows me even though she just keeps licking her arm because it’s one of her bad days.
Kathryn Kulpa was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her chapbook Girls on Film. She is a flash fiction editor at Cleaver magazine and has stories in Pithead Chapel, Milk Candy Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and Wigleaf. Her work was chosen for Best Microfiction 2020 and 2021. Find Kathryn on Twitter at @kathrynkulpa.