Eleanor gets on the bus in uneven pigtails and a faded dress. Don’t sit by me, new girl, I think. Billy pokes me with a pencil, but sees her quick. Coyote boys always see what’s vulnerable and trembling, and she probably knows that, because she sits behind the driver.
Things we find out about Eleanor: a bunch of teenagers live in her house and she cries during Animal Kingdom because she has a pet rabbit named Ralphie. Coyotes can’t resist tears—they are merciless. I feel real sorry for Eleanor, even though she keeps them all, especially Billy, away from me.
She cries more than I think anyone can, at first, but she is the only kid who visits the dollhouse. I don’t know how it got there. It looks like it grew by accident in the root knuckles 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 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. There is always a small animal rotting there, tufts of fur missing.
At first, Eleanor seems scared of it like the rest of us. The coyote girls (they move in packs too) tell her she smells like Goodwill. The coyote boys throw gum or capless markers that leave black splotches on her clothes. She finds out quick that when the coyote boys are chasing her, 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, she is my shield. With her on the playground to taunt, I’m forgotten. They are held apart, Eleanor and the circling coyotes, but I know it won’t last. The apples grow red and heavy on the boughs, and coyotes are smart hunters.
She stops crying eventually. 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 with guts smeared across d_e_f_i_n_a_t_e_l_y. Her face is stone.
She spends every recess at the dollhouse, closer and closer. I see her with her ear pressed against the open attic window, like it was telling her secrets. The coyote girls avoid her. Maybe coyote girls are smarter than coyote boys.
When the apples get big and start to fall, Billy sees how many bruises he can cause when the recess teacher isn’t looking. Since unafraid-Eleanor isn’t as much fun anymore, and, really, nobody is safe when the apples are ripe, I brace myself. When Billy nails somebody else in the face with an apple, the recess teacher takes a bloody nose to the nurse. No one’s surprised when Billy throws an apple at Eleanor. The other coyotes join the game and throw apples at her and the dollhouse, laughing.
Eleanor protects the dollhouse with her body. Apples pelt it and her with dull thuds. I think she’ll start crying again, but she doesn’t. The coyote boys run out of ammunition. Apples are scattered all around the dollhouse and Eleanor, and there are no more in reach of anybody else.
Eleanor stands up.
That look is only for 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.
Billy picks up a rock. The other coyotes pick up rocks too. I know Eleanor isn’t going to move or give in or duck. They are going to hit her with rocks while the teacher is gone.
I grab Billy’s wrist. “Stop,” I say.
He pushes me down. I cover my head, but Eleanor steps out from under the apple tree. She touches Billy’s shoulder, lifts up on her tiptoes, and whispers in his ear. Billy’s head tilts toward her, as if to hear her better. He makes a choking sound. Then he runs from her, tears on his cheeks, sobs floating in the air behind him.
The coyote boys look at each other. Eleanor looks at them, no expression at all on her blank-paper face. They drop the rocks and run. There is only me and Eleanor and a dead rabbit under the drooping apple boughs. She holds her doll-like hand out to me, white, empty, alone.
I take it.
The coyotes leave us alone now, Eleanor, and me. We never cry. We spend our time at the dollhouse, listening.
Karen Bovenmyer earned her MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program in Summer of 2013. She is lucky to train future faculty at Iowa State University, where she works primarily with inspiring Ph.D. students who enthusiastically share speculative-story-idea-generating research. This story was previously published on Devilfish Review. http://karenbovenmyer.com/