She had never seen anything really dead.
At least not as dead as this.
Zero curled up against the wall of the shack and held her breath. She could hear the boys inside still. She knew her brother was in there. Zero rubbed her eyes and peeked back through the crack in the shed wall. She knew if he caught her out here he would kill her.
“Where’d ya find it?” one of the boys asked. Zero could only see a portion of the inside. She could see her brother’s face and then her neighbor Tommy. He scowled across at the other boys, but seemed to be looking right at her, or through her.
The thing lay under a blanket.
“Back in the woods. I told ya.”
“What are we gonna do?”
“Nothing,” her brother said. “It’s not our fault.”
“Yeah but its dead.”
“Well you are the one who brought it here. You should’ve left it in the woods.”
Someone sniffled. There was a nervous shuffle of feet. Zero’s leg was starting to cramp from crouching. She wanted desperately to move it. She also felt a tickle in her nose and feared she would sneeze. She wondered how fast she could run, if she could outrun those four boys. Possibly. But probably not her brother. And if he caught her out here spying that would be the end.
Tommy reached over and lifted the edge of the blanket. He cocked his head to the side. Zero couldn’t see what was under there, only Tommy’s expression of quiet wonder and disgust. She watched his eyes blink quickly as if he could ingest the image for so long before having to stop.
“Gross,” someone said.
“I think its Anna’s.”
“No it ain’t.”
“How do you know?”
“Cause I know. Just shut up.”
The boys rearranged the milk crates that served as chairs. Her brother spoke. “We gotta do something with it. We can’t leave it here.”
“It should be buried.”
“Maybe we should call the cops.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
“Maybe it was a bear.”
“Nah, there wouldn’t anything left.”
“Alright listen up,” her brother said, quieting the boys down. “We gotta bury it. It’s the only right thing to do.” There was silence and through the crack Zero watched Tommy nod his head slowly. He looked like he was about to cry.
“We should tell someone,” Tommy said in a whisper.
“No way,” Zero’s brother barked. “We can’t. We don’t know what happened. It coulda been one of us.”
Everyone was stone silent.
“Right,” Tommy said eventually. “Let’s get shovels.”
There was a rustle of activity as the boys stood up, the scraping of crate against wood, the click of the latch on the door. Zero pressed her back against the shack. If they decided to cut through the woods, she was caught. If the took the path away from the courts to the main road they wouldn’t see her. She heard their sneakers on gravel, a cough, her brother spoke but she couldn’t understand what he said, and then their voices faded. They headed toward the road.
Zero exhaled. She tucked her short hair behind her ear and waited and listened. It was quiet at the courts. Nothing but the panicked twitter of birds on the edge of the woods. They were gone.
Zero crept around to the shack door and pushed it open. She had never been inside before. It looked smaller than she thought it would. There were crates and boxes stacked in the corner. Magazines and food wrappings littered the floor. Her brother’s pack was rolled up in the corner. Profanity was written with marker on the walls. The place itself seemed to notice her, to assess her and then, to reject her. It smelled of sweat. Her mouth went dry, the knowledge that she did not belong in this place, that it was a world she was not a part of, filled her. Zero wanted to run, back to the house, back to her room. Her mother always told her to leave her brother alone. He’s a boy, she would say. Let him be. As if they were these otherworldly creatures. Not human. Not flesh and blood. But boy. Made of something different. Something that lived, that thirsted, that took, in a way a girl never could.
It was there, in the center, under the blanket. She refused to turn back now.
Zero kept the door open, so that she could hear the boys return just in case. She had never seen anything dead. Except for the fish. Her brother had caught it back at the lake, brought it home in a bucket. It was a small fish and Zero watched it open and close its mouth like it was telling her a story. She wanted to keep it. But her brother said they had to kill it. It was too small to eat, he said and they couldn’t leave it in the bucket. Her parents were upstairs. She could see the flicker of the television in the window. Zero had stood on the gravel driveway, as her brother picked the fish up and put it on the ground. It flipped over and over, like it was doing a dance and she had to cover her mouth not to laugh. She grabbed at it once, but let go quickly, the jagged scales hurt the inside of her palm. Her brother came back with a small plank of wood he found under the deck. He said it was the only way. It took a long time. So long that Zero was sure that her parents would hear the thudding. When it was over, and her brother saw her crying, he called her a baby and he pushed her hard on the gravel, right next to the fish. Its mouth wasn’t moving anymore. Its scales ripped.
Zero leaned forward and picked at the corner of the blanket. She saw her fingers shaking and chickened out. Maybe they were coming back. Maybe there wasn’t time to look. She shuffled around the room, trying to remember everything she saw, wondering if she would ever be back in here again. A car went by on the street. A dog barked in the distance. Everything seemed to stand still as she stared at the dirty green blanket.
She counted to three. And then she counted to three again. On the third try she stomped forward and grabbed the blanket edge without thinking and yanked it back so fast that she couldn’t chicken out.
She saw the teeth first. The black gums. The lips curled back. Empty eyes like glass. Its face locked in a snarl.
Then she noticed the hole. It was neat, almost a perfect circle. The dried blood looked black, like paint. The matted hair, twisted, and split, flecked with twigs and dirt and something white as bone. Tommy was right. It was Anna’s dog. Her name was Daisy. The hole in her chest was deep, so deep that it just turned black inside, and the more she stared at it the deeper it seemed to get, a passageway between the living and the dead. Zero wondered where the guts were, where the muscle was. It should be oozing all the insides out, she reasoned. But it wasn’t. It didn’t smell. There were no flies or maggots or anything. It was just still. Zero didn’t think anything could ever be that still. It was empty. Quiet. As if whatever had once been inside was gone.
Zero sat on the floor, pulling her legs up to her chin. She waited. She tried to stay as still as the dead thing. It seemed far away now. She watched it like it was just picture on television and tried not to be scared. She wasn’t going to cry. Little girls cried. She wasn’t a little girl. She was going to be nine tomorrow. Nine year olds didn’t cry.