By Katherine Tunning
If you asked anybody who knew the four of us who was most likely to be sneaking into the petting zoo to steal a lamb, they would say Becky for sure, because she’s kind of a psycho. I’m not saying it, but I know what other people say. Or maybe Amy, since she’s always on some kind of animal rights crusade, or even Rachel, if Becky told her to. She’d do anything Becky told her to. Nobody would guess me—but here I am.
It’s only because my mom lets me borrow the car whenever I want, even on school nights. She barely looked up from the papers she was grading when I asked. All she said was, “Back by ten?” and I said, “Yeah, just going over to Becky’s.”
We started with the Ouija board, back in sixth grade, but the spirit spelled ‘tomorrow’ the same wrong way Becky did. The same way she still does. We’ve tried lots of things since then: runes, tarot, tealeaves, palm-reading. Becky says we should be open to all kinds of traditions because it’s a global world nowadays, which seems a little redundant to me, but obviously I don’t say that.
A couple weeks ago we did throwing-bones with some turtle bones that Amy—I mean, Amaranth, that’s what she wants us to call her now—found in the woods, plus some chicken bones that Rachel brought after her dad got KFC for dinner. Amaranth was pretty uptight about making sure the bones didn’t get mixed up, and Rachel was pretty upset about Amaranth saying that KFC was gross mystery meat. Everything turned quiet and tense. Rachel flipped through the pages of her book—she does all the research—and then said softly, “There's another kind of bone divination. You get a live animal and sacrifice it and burn the shoulder bone. Then you can tell the future by reading the patterns in the cracks.”
One day, I walk over while Phil's lighting up his first smoke of the morning. Again with the Pall Malls. I half expect him to be wearing an ascot.
Amaranth didn’t say anything, and I didn’t say anything, but Becky was like, “Cool. We can try that next.”
I didn’t really believe her then, but I believe her now.
I park across the street from the petting zoo and sit in the car wondering if someone will drive by, stop to see if I’m okay. But the road is empty in both directions, as far as I can see. Becky doesn’t actually think I’m going to get the lamb. I could tell when she asked me to do it—told me, really—the way her eyes narrowed, like she could already see me chickening out, turning up empty-handed.
That’s all it takes for my body to make up my mind for me: out of the car, across the road, up the gravel drive, past the farmhouse to the sheep pen, flailing a little as I haul myself over the fence. I land with a splat I try not to think about. The sheep are huddled in a grayish blob on the far side of the pen. They make little nervous noises, but it only takes a minute for them to get used to me and settle down again. They move apart and there’s the lamb right in the middle, like they were trying to protect it, but not anymore.
I hold out my hand and the lamb walks right over to me. It’s seen enough field trips to know about the little green food pellets. When it doesn’t find any, it huffs a short hot breath and starts to back away, but my hands dart out and suddenly the lamb’s pinned between my knees, the leash I brought looped around the narrow neck. It wriggles when I drop it over the fence, but lands all right on the other side. I wonder if it’s ever been on the other side of the fence before. I climb over and it feels like I’ve never been on the other side of the fence before, either. The light’s different somehow, more intense, all the shadows darker. I load the lamb into the car and it just stands there on the old blanket I threw over the back seat, swaying gently, blinking.
Some part of me considers not driving to Becky’s, but there’s my foot on the gas and my hands at ten and two, one mile over the speed limit the whole way, signaling every turn. I don’t look in the rearview mirror. I pull into the driveway and sit for a while. The lamb’s so quiet I can almost believe it’s not there.
Then a figure hurries around the side of the garage. Rachel—Becky must have sent her out.
“Come on,” she whispers when I open the door. “We’ve only got a couple hours.”
“Until what? The lamb turns into a pumpkin?”
“This is serious, Lenore.”
Everything’s serious with Rachel, but you can’t say that. Right after Amaranth changed her name Rachel tried to change hers to Rhiannon, but Becky said “What’s the point? You’ll still be the same person.” And Rachel just looked at the ground and nodded. I wanted to shake her. I guess I should have wanted to shake Becky, but I didn’t. So Rachel is still Rachel, and Becky is still Becky, and I’m still Lenore. That’s what happens when your mom’s an English lit professor. The name has never fit. We had a new English teacher this year and she got all excited calling roll the first day—“Lenore! Quoth the raven, never”—but when I raised my hand I could see her seeing me, the blond hair and freckles and everything. She was like, “…mind. Never mind.”
Becky’s right, though: no point trying to change it.
I get the lamb out of the back seat and Rachel just watches and chews on her cuticles, which are bleeding like always.
“You thought I wouldn’t do it.”
Rachel looks away. “No. I knew you’d do it.”
“This was your idea,” I remind her. I don’t realize how mean it sounds until it’s out of my mouth. We both stand there for a few seconds. If I’m waiting for Rachel to say stop, we shouldn’t do this, I’ll be waiting forever. I roll my eyes and head into the garage.
There’s a blue tarp on the ground, and on it a roll of paper towels, some newspaper, a big black trash bag, a knife. It’s just a regular kitchen knife. Becky’s mom probably uses it to cut up pot roast or whatever. I guess it’ll go back to being a regular knife after we’re done. Becky points at the tarp and I plonk the lamb down. It stands there shaking. Becky doesn’t seem surprised that I brought it. Maybe I was wrong, and she told me to get the lamb because she knew I would. A little bubble of pleasure fizzes up through my chest and I try to swallow it down.
“When are your parents back?” I ask.
“Nine, maybe,” Becky says. “Depends how long the game goes.”
Her brother’s on the middle school football team and her parents go to every game. Sometimes they drag Becky along, but she told them we were working on a project. Which we are, in a way.
Amy—I mean Amaranth—stalks in a circle around the garage, pausing at the back door, then coming back to the tarp. She’s trying way too hard, wearing a long black dress I’ve never seen before. I give a little snort.
"Way to goth it up"
“Well, it won’t show blood.” Her expression hardens, like when she’s about to remind us that meat is murder. In a second she’ll tell us we can’t go through with this. But the second passes, and another, and she doesn’t speak.
“We all agreed,” I say, as if she’s trying to argue.
Amaranth shrugs. She plucks at her dress, twists the fabric in both hands.
“But will it work?” Becky asks. She’s turning the knife over and over so the light dances on it. “This is a big deal. I only want to do it if it’s really going to work.”
My heart lurches. The point of Becky is that Becky doesn’t ask. The point of Becky is that Becky doesn’t doubt.
“It’ll work,” says Rachel, suddenly eager. “I promise, I read everything I could find. But burning the bones could be tricky—”
“We can do it at my house,” Amaranth volunteers. “We had that bonfire before. My mom won’t mind.”
Becky looks reassured, even grateful. Now I see what she’s doing. Honestly, it’s pretty smart.
“When are your parents back?” I ask, then realize I already asked.
“Not before nine, I told you. Don’t freak out, Lenore.”
“I’m not freaking out.”
I might be freaking out. I bend over and touch the lamb. I wouldn’t call it petting, exactly. Its coat is soft and kind of oily.
“All right,” Becky says, sounding like herself again. “Amaranth, take the front legs. Rachel, you get the back.”
“What about me?”
Becky doesn’t answer.
Rachel has the ideas, Amaranth has the conviction, and Becky has whatever it is she has that the rest of us don’t. My job is the same as always: get the lamb, do the hard part, then stop things before they get out of hand. I cross my arms. Let’s see what happens if I don’t.
They take hold of the lamb and it tries to kick, then stops trying. Becky tugs the leash to one side and sets the knife against the lamb’s throat. She takes a long breath and lets it out.
I take a breath and can’t remember how to let it out.
The silence is a thick woolen blanket. A few small sounds break through: the plastic rustle of the tarp, the lamb’s soft panting, a hiccup that must be Rachel, trying not to cry.
Then the phone rings--hard, metallic, so loud it shakes the air. Rachel shrieks and Becky drops the knife and the lamb starts peeing a huge puddle on the tarp.
“Shit!” Becky glares at each of us in turn, like it’s our fault somehow, then runs inside.
This is our chance, I guess. Rachel chews on her thumbnail. Amaranth does the special breathing she does when she’s stressed out. I look at the knife, then away, then back at the knife. The lamb kicks and skates and falls in the puddle of its own pee. It gets back on its feet but it isn’t smart enough to move out of the puddle, so it keeps slipping and having to stand itself up again, over and over.
Becky comes back.
“Just my mom. The game’s over but they’re going out for ice cream. So we’ve got plenty of time.” She picks the knife up again, but I can see the phone call has shifted something in her. She’s thinking about her parents, her little brother, the ice cream cones in their bright paper wrappers. The knife dangles from her hand like her hand wants nothing to do with it.
I try to catch her eye, but her hair falls in front of her face in a long curtain, so dark brown it’s almost black. She should have been the Lenore and I should have been the Becky, probably. But instead everything’s the way it is.
My lip curls. I’m so annoyed, or maybe not annoyed exactly, but something is alive under my skin and the knife is so loose in Becky’s hand and it’s no effort at all to take it from her, or maybe she lets me, or maybe she’s just too surprised to stop me. I cup the lamb’s chin in one hand. My body knows just where to lean to stop the lamb struggling, just how hard to pull back on the lamb’s head. Its throat is soft and hot and plush, the pulse fast against my little finger, just going, going, going. The handle of the knife is smooth and black and feels cool in my hand, not like the rough wooden ones we have at home. I bet the blade is actually sharp, too.
It’s not that I don’t feel bad about the lamb. I really do.
But the knife comes down and it’s my hand around it, my hand pressing as the lamb heaves and jerks, my hand pulling hard across flesh that gives easier than I thought it would, or maybe I’m just stronger than I thought I was. My hand pulling hard across what I realize, after a long stuttering second, is Becky’s arm, shoving the lamb away.
The lamb staggers off to the side. Someone gasps but it’s not Becky. The knife hits the ground, clatters.
Her skin is open where it was closed before. A long trench right by the elbow. First it’s just white against tanned skin and then blood pricks up in little dots and I think it’s not so bad, and then blood fills the trench and it’s bad, it’s really bad, blood dripping fast onto the tarp, mixing with the pee and the dirt and the rest of it.
Rachel turns into someone useful and gets a towel to wrap around Becky’s arm. Amaranth says, “Pressure, pressure,” and holds the towel tight. The towel turns red. Amaranth tells Becky she needs stitches and Becky nods, dumb as the lamb. I’ve never seen Becky cry and she isn’t crying now but her old face is gone, and underneath are faces I’ve never seen. One when she looks at her arm, another when she looks at the lamb, another when she looks at Amaranth and Rachel. She doesn’t look at me.
“Sorry,” I say, and keep saying. “Sorry, oh my god, sorry, I didn’t, oh my god—”
Amaranth puts herself between me and the other two and says, “Just take the lamb back, Lenore. Put it in the car and go.” And I’m like, oh right, the lamb. I scoop it up. It smells like pee and worse. It doesn’t struggle.
“Wait. Shouldn’t I drive you to the hospital?”
“No!” Becky’s eyes, when they finally meet mine, belong to an animal. “No. We’ll ask the neighbor.”
“Go, Lenore,” says Rachel. “Just go!”
So I go.
Lamb in the back seat, me in the front seat, buckled up, headlights on, full stop at every stop sign, one mile over the speed limit exactly. I can see the lamb in the rearview mirror. It’s sitting down, like it’s finally too exhausted to stand. Its knobby legs are bent and splayed out weirdly and there’s a big dark smear of Becky’s blood on its back, which must be freaking it out, the smell I mean, because it’s bleating now, finally, as loud as it can, an endless wail coming out of the red terrified slot of its mouth and I’m like, “Oh my god, shut up, I know." But when I say it the noise stops, and I realize the noise was coming out of me the whole time.
Katherine Tunning lives in Boston with her partner and a highly variable number of cats. Some of her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The South Carolina Review, Washington Square Review, and Analog SF&F.
You can visit her website at Katherine Tunning.