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Understory

by Dorothy Bendel

Mama says we’ll be safer if we stay indoors at night. We walk to school in packs and return the same. If there are enough of us, they won’t attack.

Mrs. Monroe was alone. It wasn't dark yet, but twilight, and she was carrying fruit home from the market. The men found plums and figs beside her body stained purple and red. The men said she should've known better considering what happened to the Wilson's dog, Jennie, the week before.

Jennie had five pups. I wanted the smallest one but Mama said it wouldn't make it and she was right. One Sunday, from the backseat of our car, I saw Jack Wilson put a little bag into the trash can by the road. I rolled my window down as we pulled away and I could see his lips moving but he wasn't making a sound. Soon Jennie would be gone too. Our neighbor, Mr. Flagler, said Jack wailed like some wounded, wild thing when he saw Jennie's snout poking out from under the honeysuckle bushes by the Wilsons’ driveway. Mr. Flagler said it looked like someone was trying to have a little fun and things got out of hand but he couldn’t be sure. “Could be rabid animals, maybe.”

No one said anything about it when Jack finally came back to school. We just looked at him and turned away when he noticed. At recess, he told me I had better watch out—that Jennie, Mrs. Monroe, and me, we're all the same.

Meg nearly got caught earlier that summer. She’s in my class. It was bright and warm and everything was calling us outside. Meg came knocking at my door and asked if we could play foursquare. She learned the rules from her brother. We stayed inside our chalk lines until Mama said it was getting late. That was before we knew about them so Meg walked home by herself. They came out of nowhere and chased her right to her front door. She never got a good look. Her daddy spanked her because he thought she was making it all up.

But now we know about them. I haven't seen them either. Nobody has. We've only seen what they leave behind. If I sit by the front window and slow my breathing I can hear something moving around where the trees grow thick across the road. I hear them most when I want to leave. Some nights, I close my eyes and I can smell the fruit rotting by Mrs. Monroe’s body. I see them hovering over her like flies in a big dark swarm, retreating to the woods, waiting for me to open the front door.

Author's Note

An understory (or understorey) refers to "a layer of vegetation beneath the main canopy of a forest." When I wrote this, I was thinking of what exists in hidden places, where only some people choose to look.

Dorothy Bendel's work can be found in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The New York Times, and additional publications. Follow her @DorothyBendel or visit dorothybendel.com.

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