Girls with Blood in Their Veins

by K.C. Mead-Brewer

All the other kids I knew got to eat meat. Meat. The stuff that's naturally salty. The stuff you have to use a fork and a knife to cut into. None of the spongey tofu or brick-shaped tempeh that I had to push around on my plate at home ever since Steve came to live with us.

He isn't Steve, Mom told me again and again. He's Dad now, honey. Call him Dad.

Except he wasn't Dad. He wasn't Dad any more than that tofu and tempeh were meat.

What neither of them knew was that I ate meat every day at school. Greasy pepperoni pizza, thick ham sandwiches, juicy cheeseburgers, maple sugared helpings of frank-and-beans—I tore into as many animals as I could. With each new bite, I felt my soul expand, as if I'd absorbed some piece of their former beastly lives into my own human one. As if I was finally absorbing something real.

That is, until the day Mom and Steve came in for their first joint parent-teacher conference.

It happened while I was waiting out in the hall, counting and recounting all the lockers: Someone said something damning and that was that. Before I could defend myself, Mom was grounding me and Steve was issuing Camilla the Lunch Lady with strict instructions to only serve me non-meat options no matter what I said or did.

I started losing weight pretty quickly after that. Nothing tasted right anymore. Not even soda.

They sucked the blood out, my friend Casey said, tearing off part of her chicken burrito for me. She sometimes shared her lunch with me, but then it was never enough for either of us and we both ended up hungry and kind of dizzy all through the rest of school.

What do you mean? I asked.

The blood, she said again. Think about it, Millie. Plants don't have any blood, and no matter how close those substitute foods come, they're just not the same as the real-deal, and why?—because they never had any blood pumping through them! It's all because of the blood. A need for blood.

You sound like a vampire, I told her, and blushed because I was never really confident about teasing her.

Casey was the only friend I had. I wasn't cool, and I definitely wasn't pretty. My hands were fat and my school uniform always looked lumpy, as if it were trying to melt itself off of me.

Sometimes I wondered if Casey only hung out with me to be ironic, like maybe she was trying to make a show of how charitable she was or how avant-garde she could be. But I never really believed that. I couldn't. Casey was beautiful and fearless and told it like it was. She knew what direction she was heading in, and she didn't let anyone change her course. She was the only really real person I'd ever known.

Don't be dumb, she said, waving off my joke. Blood gives an animal life, right? So why wouldn't it also give it flavor?

I tried sharing Casey's blood theory with Mom and Steve, but then they looked at me like I'd suggested roasting up the neighbors for dinner.

That's it! Steve said. His eyes were wide and worried on me. I've had enough of this. You know what we're going to do? We're going to get a chicken coop. And they'll be your responsibility, Mildred. Maybe that'll teach you some respect. Let's see how many nuggets you're willing to swallow when a real live chicken is staring you in the face.

I couldn't tell who was more surprised by his proclamation, me or Mom.

Steven, my mother snapped, except she said it in that hushed way she sometimes uses, as if then I wouldn't be able to hear it too. They closed the bedroom door to keep me out.

What, Patty? What is it now?

A chicken coop, Steve? We've talked about this. I can't hold a job, clean house, raise our daughter, and look after a brood of goddamn chickens!

Raise our daughter? What do you think I'm trying to do here—

I didn't usually hang around to listen. They could take forever with that stuff.

* * *

Steve made me help him put the coop together, and I guess it was kind of fun getting to work with him like that. Sure, he was a vegetarian and a control freak, but that day he was smiling the whole time and the sun was a bright yellow disk above us. Sweat started seeping through his shirt almost immediately, and for some reason it reminded me that he was a man as well as Steve. It reminded me that he had blood pumping through his veins.

Mom smiled at us from the back door. She still wasn't happy about the chickens, but Steve could talk her into anything, and she seemed glad at least that we weren't growling at each other for once. She brought me a lemonade and Steve a beer, and then Steve chased her around the yard laughing, trying to smear sweat on her while she squealed and ran and flirted.

But then dinner time rolled around and it was the same old thing all over again. Steve holed up in his study while Mom cooked. For the last time, Millie, just eat it! Harsh not-whispers from behind their bedroom door. Silence. TV. And a lot of cold, aggressive sleeping like they were still arguing even in their dreams.

* * *

It was full-dark when I woke up shivering in the backyard. I stood outside the coop with no memory of how I got there. My nightgown rippled against me in the breeze and the grass was dewy on my bare ankles. I looked up and saw the moon beaming down at me. It looked a lot more like an egg than I ever remembered it looking before. A great celestial egg with light like a soul shining out from inside of it.

I must've still been pretty sleepy then, because I remember staring up at it and whispering, What kind of bird lays a moonlight egg?

My stomach cramped and my palms went clammy. I felt a sudden warm pressure as if the night itself was trying to kiss me.

Something rustled in the trees just beyond the coop, twigs snapped in the dark and there was the windy sound of wings.

Hurrying back inside, I locked the door behind me.

* * *

We ended up with five chickens, all of them colorful, squawking hens that were supposed to lay colorful, delicious eggs.

The first night we had them, Mom decided to make breakfast for dinner to celebrate. I'd already collected the eggs that morning—there were only four of them, all in pearly pinks and blues and browns—and Mom figured there would be enough if we scrambled them up alongside some pancakes. I cracked them into a bowl for her, one, two, three—but the fourth one made me gasp.

What's wrong? she asked, and frowned as she came to check the bowl. Four yellow yokes looked back at her, and right in the center of the fourth yoke— Oh, she said, that's just a blood spot, honey. It's not unusual with fresh eggs. Don't worry. You won't even notice it once they're cooked.

She was wrong, though. I ate each bite of my scrambled eggs with a surgeon's attention, carefully probing for the taste of that tiny squirt of red.

We all went to bed happy that night. Steve helped out with the dishes and Mom kept touching him in a way she didn't usually do, her hand on his arm, his leg, his shoulder.

Casey was right, I thought. Blood makes all the difference.

* * *

Whoa! You have actual live chickens now? Casey sounded shocked.

Five of them, I said. Percy, Diana, Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather.

Which one's your least favorite?

It was a strange question. I didn't know how to answer it.

'Cause whichever it is, she said, we should definitely take it out and sacrifice it.

Sacrifice it? To who?

To us! she said, and broke off a larger-than-usual chunk of her meatball sub for me to eat. We'll sacrifice it to us! The meat-eaters! The girls with blood in our veins!

Part of me hated the idea of killing something for no reason, but another part of me jumped alive at it. The chickens were mine, weren't they? That was what Steve had said. My responsibility. So that meant it was my decision if one was sacrificed or not. (Right?)

Of course, all of this was secondary to the main selling point, and that was Casey herself. Casey who was finally looking at me like I might be a direction worth heading in.

* * *

It was one week later and Mom and Steve were thrilled that Casey was coming for a sleepover. I rarely ever had anyone over for anything, and I think they thought I was moving up in the world. I'd warned them that Casey was an unashamed omnivore, but she charmed them just like she charmed everyone with her pretty laugh and her bouncy blond hair.

She asked to see the chickens as soon as she arrived. At first she cooed over their handsome feathers and mottled eggs, but then, as soon as Steve was out of earshot, she leaned in close to me and whispered, Diana. It's definitely going to be Diana.

I couldn't figure out what she'd seen in Diana to make her so certain. Personally, I'd been leaning toward Fauna (her eggs and feathers were super plain compared to the others), but what bothered me most about the whole thing was just how sure Casey was.

Mom made vegetarian eggs benedict that night to show off our freshly lain eggs, and even though I thought it was pretty okay (aside from the Canadian soy-bacon), Casey kept sneaking me grossed-out faces from across the table.

When it was time for bed, Mom started spreading out sleeping bags for us in the living room, but then Casey hopped and clapped and said, Couldn't we sleep outside near the chickens?

Mom and Steve exchanged a surprised, pleased look, and quickly agreed. Never mind that they were sending out their only daughter with a kid they barely knew. A kid who'd been miming different kinds of murder to me all night long behind their backs, from the finger across the throat to a gun firing to a knife stabbing.

It wasn't until Casey mimicked a hanging that I realized just how little I actually knew about her. And when she stuck out her tongue to complete the effect, I felt a strange twisting in my stomach that was painful and exciting all at once.

But what if it rains? I said, grasping at straws. I didn't know what I wanted anymore. All I knew was that I didn't like the way Casey kept grinning at me. I didn't like the way her hair stayed beautiful and brushed-looking no matter what she did. I didn't like the way I couldn't stop thinking about the triangle of moles in the hollow of her left elbow.

Don't worry, Steve said. It's supposed to be clear and cool tonight. You won't even need a tent.

* * *

Are you really sure about this, Casey? I threw another nervous glance back to the house, but Mom and Steve's window had been dark for close to an hour by then. Our only light was the moon, the stars, and a pair of emergency flashlights that Mom had dug out of the pantry.

Casey snorted a laugh at me and started rummaging through her backpack. Of course I'm sure, she said.

Of course you're sure, I thought.

From inside her backpack, she pulled out what looked like a jewelry box. It had fairies and glittery stickers all over it and, on the rounded top, she'd painted her name in rainbow colors: CASSANDRA.

This is my Blood Box, she told me, and carefully set it out in the center of her sleeping bag where our flashlights' yellow beams intersected.

What's a Blood Box? I asked. I expected her to open it and show me, or even just grin and keep it a secret a while longer, but instead she sat back and started rolling up the right leg on her pajama bottoms all the way up to her panties.

My cheeks went hot as a sunburn and I was suddenly grateful for how dark it was. Casey? What're you doing?

Showing you, she said, and brought one of the flashlights around to shine on the inside of her thigh. Her skin there was covered in fine blond hairs and was the same white-white as Percy's feathers. Grinning, Casey pulled her skin tight to show me a spot farther back, and there, in a series of quiet little lines, she kept her scars.

Sorta looks like chicken scratch, doesn't it? She shook her head, clearly amused at herself. They looked more like day-markers on a prison wall to me, but I decided not to tell her so.

You cut yourself? I whispered.

She nodded, and I saw then that she was blushing as well. But not because I'm depressed or anything, she said, her voice low and suddenly a little insecure. Suddenly a little unsure. I just like seeing my blood sometimes. I like seeing that it's still there inside of me, keeping me alive.

Giving you flavor, I said, and immediately regretted it. Humiliated, I felt my heart throb behind my face.

Our eyes met over the yellow flashlight beams and my stomach twisted up into another knot. She was going to make fun of me, I was sure, but I couldn't look away. I imagined her slicing down another thin ladder rung on her thigh. I imagined the blood blooming darkly against her pale skin. I imagined pressing my lips just there, drinking her in.

Her eyes stayed heavy on mine for what felt like a long, long time, but then, instead of teasing me, she rolled back down her pant-leg and showed me what was in her Blood Box. A collection of razors sat side-by-side with bandages and disinfectant cream. She slowly unpacked each item, lining them up on her pillow like soldiers, before removing the box's false bottom. There, atop a purple silk hankie, sat a shining, sharp knife. It flashed white in the moonlight.

This is what we'll do it with, she said. Do you know how to get out Diana without making too much noise?

The thought of Diana brought all my old anxieties rushing back. Casey must've seen something change on my face then, because she reached out and took my hand. I looked down at our fingers, glowing a dark red because they were backlit, because they were filled with blood, and my breath caught in my throat.

This is for us, I thought. The girls with blood in our veins.

I'd started looking up videos on how to kill different animals right after Steve decided we were vegetarians, and there were plenty of how-to's out there about chickens. Still, I hadn't been able to get through a single one of them without crying a little, and my hands trembled and went cold as I moved to stand before the coop. I looked up at the moon and once again saw the celestial egg resting in its starry nest.

You're Diana too, I thought, and nearly laughed even as my eyes went hot and teary.

The other hens all twittered at me as I plucked up Diana just like I'd studied, gripping her gently around her wings and cuddling her against my chest. Running my hand over her orange feathers to keep her calm, I ducked back out of the coop and tried not to look so afraid.

Casey was sitting there in the moonlight waiting for me, her legs spread out on our sleeping bags and her blond hair loose on her shoulders. I froze in place at the sight of her. All I could do was stare. She held the knife close to her heart like a love letter and, when she saw me hesitate, used it to beckon me forward.

I moved as if mesmerized and sat down in the grass with Diana just the way I'd seen all the other chicken-killers do. Casey shifted closer to me and watched as I angled Diana's body downward and tucked her head between my knees, all while still petting her in long, comforting strokes.

For a moment I wondered if perhaps it was me who had died and not Diana at all, if I had died and somehow ended up in a strange, terrible heaven—encased eternally in that dreamy instant when life and death were cradled in my hands, the world's most beautiful girl watching me and the soft feathers of an innocent pressed against my body.

But then the knife was in my hand and the delicate skin around the base of Diana's beak was severed and pouring out blood that gleamed black in the starlight. Casey gasped when I broke Diana's neck over my thumb and twisted off her head, but I hardly even realized I'd done it until it was over and her body was laid out on the ground beside us.

I could hear my own heart knocking like I was a door. I could smell Diana's blood still leaking into the grass.

How do you feel? Casey asked, hushed.

We both looked down at my hands as if we'd never seen them before. As if I'd pulled them anew from Diana's opened throat.

I feel bloody, I said. I feel real.

BIO: K.C. Mead-Brewer is a writer and editor living in beautiful Baltimore, MD. Her writing appears in a variety of publications, including Cold Mountain Review, Zone 3 (forthcoming), Litro Magazine, Menacing Hedge, and Cease, Cows. She also serves as an editor with Cleaver Magazine and is a proud member of The Roving Writers, a small group of wild women artists who got their start together at Hedgebrook: Women Authoring Change.