The first time I see Eleanor, she gets on the bus with uneven pigtails and a faded dress. Don’t sit by me, new girl, I think. Don’t sit by me. Billy pokes me in the back of the head with a pencil, tries to make me cry, but he sees her quick. Coyote boys always find something vulnerable and trembling, and she probably knows that, because she sits right behind the driver. I skip that seat to save it for another fifth grader, Ralphie, who is small and tender pickings, and gets on at the next stop. He has a hard time. Us losers always look out for each other, but that’s hard to do before knowing predator from prey.
Things we find out about Eleanor: the hand-me-downs are because a bunch of teenage sisters live in her house, unexpected noises make her scream real loud, and she cries when Billy tells her the Trix rabbit never, ever gets any Trix. Coyotes can’t resist tears and they are merciless to poor Eleanor. I feel real sorry for her, even though she draws them all, even Billy, away from me and Ralphie.
She cries more than I think anyone can, at first. Still, she is the only kid who visits the dollhouse.
I don’t know how the dollhouse got there. It leans against the base of a wide old apple tree on the edge of the playground. It smells strongly of cats, like my aunt’s house, and is white as antlers. It looks kind of like it grew out of the root knuckles of the apple tree, almost by accident. It twists like grandma’s fingers, but the spines and knobs come together to make something that looks like a dollhouse just the same, with an open door, windows, and a steeple roof.
At first, Eleanor seems scared of it like the rest of us. The coyote girls (they move in packs too) say she wears pilgrim dresses and tell her she smells like Goodwill. The coyote boys throw gum in her hair or open markers that leave green and black splotches on her clothes. She finds out quick that when the coyote boys are chasing her, to give her cooties or pull her pigtails, they won’t come close to the dollhouse.
I feel sorry for her, watching her cower away from it, yet close enough to the dollhouse to keep back the coyotes. But, even in her apple-root circle of safety, she is my shield. With her on the playground to taunt, the others leave me and Ralphie alone, content with slinging insults. They are held apart, her and the circling coyotes, but I know it won’t last. The leaves in the schoolyard turn red and brown. The apples grow red and heavy on the boughs and coyotes are smart hunters.
She stopped crying before the apples were ripe. Even when Billy pulls the wings off a fly during times-tables, Eleanor doesn’t cry anymore. When he smashes it across her spelling test, she hands it in anyway, bug guts and red smeared across d_e_f_i_n_a_t_e_l_y, her face like a stone.
She spends every recess at the dollhouse, gets closer and closer. Just before the apples are ready, low enough to pull, I see her with her ear pressed against the attic window, like a mouth telling her secrets. The coyote girls avoid her. Maybe girl coyotes are smarter than boy coyotes.
When the apples fall, Billy starts his favorite game, seeing how many bruises and welts he can cause when the recess teacher isn’t looking. Since Eleanor isn’t as much fun anymore, and, really, nobody is safe when the apples are ripe, Ralphie and I brace ourselves. When Billy gets Ralphie in the face with an apple, the recess teacher sees his bloody nose. She takes him to the nurse and no one’s surprised when Billy throws an apple at Eleanor. The other coyotes join the game and throw apples at the dollhouse, laughing and yipping.
Apples pelt it with dull thuds, and Eleanor wraps herself around it. I think she’ll start crying again, but she doesn’t. The boys run out of ammunition. Red apples are scattered all around the dollhouse and Eleanor, but there aren’t any more in easy reach.
Eleanor stands up.
The look she gives the coyote boys. All the color flows down out of her face, like she is horn, or bone. Her eyes and mouth look like the empty holes of the dollhouse. There are no tears at all. She walks toward the coyote boys.
Billy picks up a rock. The other coyotes pick up rocks too. I can see it happening–Eleanor isn’t going to move or give in or duck. They are going to hit her with rocks while the teacher is gone with Ralphie. I can’t let that happen.
I reach up and grab Billy’s arm. “Stop,” I say.
He pushes me down. I brace for a bunch of rocks, but Eleanor steps out from under the apple tree. She grips Billy’s arm, lifts up on her tiptoes, and whispers in Billy’s ear. Billy’s head tilts toward her, as if to hear her better. He makes a loud choking sound. Then he runs away from her, tears on his cheeks, yipping sobs floating in the air behind him.
The coyote boys look at each other. Eleanor looks back at them, no expression at all on her blank-paper face. They drop their rocks and run. There is only me and Eleanor and the strong smell of cats under the drooping apple boughs. She holds her doll-like hand out to me, white, empty, and alone.
And I take it.
The coyotes leave us alone now, Ralphie, Eleanor, and me. None of us cry. We spend our time at the dollhouse, listening.
Karen Bovenmyer trains future professors for Iowa State University and occasionally teaches novel writing and speculative fiction honors seminars. Her dark fantasy and scifi horror stories have appeared in Erin Underwood’s Pop Fic Review, Paul Genesse’s The Crimson Pact series (volumes 3 & 5), Bonnie Stufflebeam’s Art & Words Show (2012 & 2013), and are forthcoming in Crossed Genres. She feels honored to have graduated from the Stonecoast MFA Popular Fiction program in July 2013. http://karenbovenmyer.com/