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THAT GIRL by Kathryn McMahon

If you’re going to listen to this story, you better really listen because that’s what it’s about: listening. You better scoot closer in case you miss something, in case a log pops, in case the wind picks up, because it’s bad luck to re-tell it, any part. The girl in this story will see to that.

She could be almost anyone. She isn’t beautiful, or maybe she is, or maybe it doesn’t matter. She’s been watching you, waiting to meet you. To get close. To listen to what you have to say as she bites her lip or runs her tongue across sharp, needle teeth that she files herself. Some say she wears red because she likes red-on-red, and while new blood dries brown, she likes that, too. Blood is easily lost against black, and this girl has nothing to hide.

The best way to know her is by the bats she keeps in her hair. She wears it up in a messy bun and petite, fuzzy bodies droop down and around, as if she were Medusa but with more cunning and a detachable wrath. Of course, they aren’t always nesting. These bats? She sends them out to hunt while she wanders neighborhoods, stealing secret spare keys and loosening bike chains. Letting you know she’s around. And that’s on one of her good days. Heaven forbid you catch her on a bad day. Or she catches you. Are you listening?

It’s a shame no one remembers what she was called before the dying undid her. She became someone who things had happened to. Bad things, of course, because no one talks much about the good that goes on, and people talked all about the bad. They blamed her for it. Like she was a tiny black hole sucking bad toward her, not a girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not just a girl being a girl.

When she was dead, still a girl because that’s all the time she was dealt, she came back. People were talking about what had happened to her so much so that she got sick of it. Just sick of it. She collected herself, all her broken bits and moldy pieces, and crawled right out of her grave and decided to make everyone talk about the things she actually did. The things she could control. And what does she do with that voice of hers, the one that was squashed, beaten-down, ignored? If you hear your name and turn to find no one there, that’s her. She’s coming for you. Readying your story in her mouth.

Her bats don’t only swoop after mosquitoes and moths. They’re searching for lies, for willful misunderstandings. They don’t drink blood—much. She’s no vampire queen. Though, if they’re a little thirsty, because it’s a warm night and they’ve been out hunting awhile, their delicate toes will land on your collar and they’ll creep toward your neck with eager, clicking fangs.

Are your ears perked for that brush of velvet? For that electric chirp of sonar?

When they get really hungry, when it’s one big whopper stinking up the night breeze, something awful about this girl or some other, about a woman, about women; when they hear She was asking for it. Her skirt was tootighttooshorttoo—. When they hear She’s lucky he paid her any attention. She should dress more like a girl. When they hear She shouldn’t have had that much to drink. What did she expect? The bats recognize their quarry.

They’re not only looking for that boy at the party, not only for that man in the car. She’s sent them for the storytellers, the owners of those lies. For their tongues or, rather, something past them. To the bats, those lying tongues licking chapped lips look extra tender and wet and juicy. Pure temptation. All they need is a point of darkness deep in those throats, tiny black holes sucking them in, and oh, how they want to be sucked in. To catch your lies and stuff them back down your throat. They see that hollow behind your teeth and pop through, one after the other. Because the girl? She wants in, too.

Once they’re inside, don’t try to scream. Your tongue will feel like a mechanical bull trying to kick free. But these cowgirls are going to win. The fingers at the ends of their wings hook on like a stranger on your car door. A few quick rips and their toes whisper past your taste buds to the meat underneath. They chew and chew. It is so soft, your tongue. They eat their fill, first one, then another, shredding their way down your throat, making a cave of your body like you did to the truth about that woman, that girl. Making you into a welcome mat for one such girl who will find you on the ground, right, right, like that, half-drowned in your own blood, sagging out of life.

The bats snap open your ribs one-by-one, a sound not unlike logs crackling on the fire. They’re stronger than they look, like that girl.

She puts her hand on your shoulder. Her fingers graze your arm, almost forgiving you. Almost. But there’s a hole where your sternum should be, and she reaches in, up through your throat, and since you’re useless and forgot how to tell the truth, she puppets your jaw for you. Cradles it. She’s deep inside you, firm and gentle. But that’s a lie. She’s not gentle at all. A bat folded where your tongue should be twitches at her touch. With a nudge or two, it flies free, carrying the truth. Now, lie still. Hush.

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