Nikki Ervice
Photograph by Tony Stoddard on Unsplash

When Willie is in seventh grade a killer starts hanging around. Bodies wind up beside the creek that runs through the low parts of town. The victims are mostly young women and girls, but not always, which is unusual, she hears. They are found with one arm up and one arm down, as if struck while hailing a cab or doing a funny little dance. The news goes crazy—in love with the milky white dead. The newscasters call them tragedies. The townspeople go crazy, too. They are used to small violences. The kind that come from inside the house, the chamber of their skulls.

Locks sell out at the hardware. Dead bolts. Handguns sell out at the sporting goods. People start going to church in earnest. Willie goes to Sunday service with her mother. They kneel in the pews, heads bowed, the tender backs of their necks exposed. The victims all have their throats cut, airways severed.

Willie’s mother tries to shield her from the details that leak out in the grocery store, the local newspaper. But Willie is small; she insinuates herself into cracks. Whispers rain on her while she hides between the onion bin and the squash bin at the Safeway. Mary Martha from the salon hisses to Willie’s mother about the blood. Pools of it. Protect your girl, she says. None of us are safe. She sounds almost giddy. Her lips are red and glossy, like viscera. This place used to be good, she says. Muted fields, cows. Nice boys. Church steeples poking the sky.

Willie’s mother begs Willie’s father to move. He tells her that nobody will want to buy a house in a serial killer town. He’s right. They can’t afford to move without selling the house first. For sale signs go up all around their neighborhood. Smiling, glassy-eyed real estate agents stare out from every other lawn. But nobody comes around for the open houses.

Willie does not sleep the first Monday night of every month, which is when the killer strikes. She moves her bed away from the windows, watches the paint on her ceiling turn from charcoal to smoke to white. Every first Monday, somebody new is lifted from their bed, where their family swears they were firmly tucked, to be placed by the creek, swollen with the weeping winter. Their body an oblation to some meticulous need. In the other version of her life, which runs parallel, there is no killer. There is only the dun-colored wash of the fields where she plays, bisected by the creek. Nobody comes to meet her there. She has stopped inviting the girls with the same shade hair as the grass, who blend into their surroundings. She never wanted them anyway. It occurs to her that she must look like them, too. A whole town of slight, friable girls. Mousy in some lights and golden in others.

Alone, she watches for rabbits, who part the oat grasses with their wedge-shaped faces. After she is still for a long time, and the rabbits forget she is there, they move toward her like a purr. She has a BB gun. An intermediate weapon. It can’t kill a person but it can kill small animals. She doesn’t start out wanting to kill rabbits, but her dad gets her the gun to practice hunting. Otherwise, what’s the point? Hasn’t she heard the phrase “fucking like rabbits?” He tells her there are too many; one rabbit cell divided over and over. Didn’t she learn it in school? Mitosis. Try looking into their eyes. Nothing there but tiny, black beads. Nerve bundles attenuated only to danger. Replication their only purpose. They reek of life but would be better dead.

He’s only one beer in. His nose is red and swollen like a fruit, seed-pit pores absorbing the light in the kitchen. The light fixture is shaped like a perfect breast, nipple and all.

Willie’s mother cradles her chin in her palm and says, Well, that’s not very happy dinner talk.

She used to be a beauty queen: Ms. Wisco Falls Cream Festival. She likes to tell Willie about how she would smear Vaseline on her teeth to make them shine under the stage lights, only eat one meal a day. An apple and a piece of bread with peanut butter. Her waist was the circumference of an orange.

Willie puts Vaseline on her own teeth in the bathroom, but they look the same: dull and small. She tastes petroleum and grease for days.


In the serial killer version, Willie is forbidden to go to the fields. The farmers who mow the crops every fall, break open the skin of the earth each spring, begin to leave town. The state buys their land back. The oat grasses, which were once burnished and glossy like the coat of a well-fed hound, die and lie flat before they are overtaken by chokeweed, lupine, lowbush brambles. Willie sneaks out when her parents aren’t looking, which is often.

She makes a hole in the brambles and waits by the creek, listening to the chatter of water. She listens, too, for the snap and rustle of rabbits. Most humans are unsuited for quiet. Not Willie. She waits for the killer to appear, vibrating with dread. But if she can see his face she can solve the mystery, go back to playing in the open once he is gathered and bagged.

When Kirsten Lowen, a sixth grader, is found by the creek, the school holds an assembly. Beware of vans. Beware of strangers. Beware of strangers in vans with candy. If you see someone strange, tell a parent. Tell a teacher. Walk in pairs.

The principal talks about how Kristen was a light, put out too soon. Willie imagines Kristen as a lightbulb, her filament thin and yellow, skin translucent, fragile. She moved in a broken, disjointed way. Had no friends, forgettable.

The kids at school all point at each other. You’re the killer. No, you’re the killer. The adults do it too, but quietly.

Willie’s dad brings her a sip of whiskey every night to help her sleep. He sits on the edge of her bed, mattress bowing under his weight, offering a measuring cup. One quarter cup, exactly. It tastes like poison and ash, but presses its slow fingers over her, clamping her down. Her mother doesn’t care. She passes back and forth from the stove to the table, sitting for a moment to stare into the Formica, moving to scour the enamel that blisters off the range.


The Saturday after her dad tells her to shoot the rabbits, she kneels at the edge of the creek until the sun drops behind her head and her shadow walks out in front of her. The barrel of the BB gun spikes over her right shoulder.

During the day the rabbits hide in burrows, sides piping in and out, black eyes unblinking. At dusk, they break from their trance to find food, water. They are the same color as Willie. Beige, light pinkish-brown, white bellies.

The first rabbit dies with its legs outstretched, mid-leap. Her father told her that rabbits die twice: once from fright, the sound of the gunshot. Once from the wound. The BB enters the rabbit’s skull right through the eye. It’s not powerful enough to exit, lodged somewhere in its brain. Willie doesn’t want to deal with the body. Dead animals carry disease. Fleas. Poisons meant for one pest, eaten by another.

Don’t touch, her mother always says. The frog, the squirrel, the roadkill deer. Maggots and carrion birds will tend to the bodies. Animals whose microbiomes and beaks are designed to clean up rot. But it’s not right to leave the rabbit. She takes it by its hind legs, which are stiff but still warm.

She will check her armpits and ankles, the backs of her knees, for ticks and fleas before bed. But the rabbit has punished her enough by dying so easily. She hoped he might be faster than her gun. Instead, he dangles from the small, intricate bones of her fingers, blood and brain matter dripping from the hole of his eye. He is solid, made from the same stuff that she is. But what she did to him is vaporous, floating above them both, afraid to be named.

Back in the serial killer version, Bobby McNary, desperate, places a life-sized doll by his kitchen window every night to scare off the killer. It sits at the table, backlit. If viewed from outside, it appears in silhouette, head bowed as if contemplating some misdeed. The doll is made from different sized plastic bags stuffed with hay. The thing wears his son’s old clothes: a blue and white striped T-shirt, a pair of jeans with holes in the knees. Kyle McNary is in the grade above Willie. He tells his whole class about how his father arranges the doll’s arms just so before he goes to bed.

Willie’s dad shakes with laughter when she tells him about the scarecrow doll. What an idiot, he says.

Three Mondays later, when the doll shows up at the edge of the creek—plastic throat ripped open, bag-head deflated, hay scattered in crosshatchings—some people think it’s a joke. But Bobby McNary is a stand-up guy. He owns the hardware store and takes purchases on credit. He opens his palms and tells them that his door was locked, his home untouched. No windows broken, no sign of forced entry. No sign of exit, either. His family was asleep in their beds, which they’ve pushed away from the boarded windows toward the safe center of the house, where they sleep fitfully, attuned to each other’s breathing.


Willie’s dad makes her mother skin and prepare the rabbit for dinner. She’s never done it before. He says there’s a first time for everything, so she cuts a seam down its belly. Her dad sips a beer.

Rabbits smell hot, rancid and gamey. His wife has a weak stomach. Hold your nose, he says. He offers this advice like a kindness.

Willie can see just beyond her mother’s trembling elbow to the rabbit’s wheaten foot. If she escapes to her room, she will be unable to think of anything else. Any closer, she will see the slop her mother has made of the rabbit’s body. Willie doesn’t know why her mother must be the intermediary. The butcher. It feels unfair.

Willie imagines her mother as a beauty queen. How she would display the rabbit for the judges, Vaseline-polish her teeth and the rabbit’s nails so they gleam under the halogens. How she would brush the rabbit’s fur so it is tidy. Its ears are two fingers, crossed for luck. But Willie’s mother doesn’t need luck. She is a beauty queen with an arsenal of fishnets, hair spray, talent. She looks like a magician’s assistant with her sequined leotard and top hat, glittering eyes. A man dressed all in black wheels a butcher block from the wings. He is invisible: stage magic.

Willie’s mother holds a knife to the light, smiles. There is a crunch as the blade hits the rabbit’s spine. Her mother’s smile doesn’t slip. Her gums are dry, despite the Vaseline. Pain for beauty, Willie’s mother likes to say, most often while brushing the knots from her daughter’s hair. Her mother is beautiful, even in pain. And the rabbit is peaceful even in death, intestines blooming from his abdominal cavity like riches. The judges gasp and turn to each other, exchange awe and horror behind their palms.


Everyone has dolls in their windows now. If you walk down Main Street, there are shadowy figures in every kitchen. Every bedroom window. At first, you might forgive their stillness. Consider it contemplation. Maybe watchfulness.

Willie’s mom used to sew her own beauty queen costumes, so she makes the doll that will look like Willie. She hunches over her sewing machine, foot pumping, rendering a soft, pink body with arms that are slightly too long. The Willie doll’s hands look like spatulas, her face the smooth bulge of an egg yolk. Her mother is a good seamstress, but fingers and faces are delicate, complex. She sews a turnip on for Willie’s nose. It will have to be replaced when it shrivels and starts to rot, but wasted turnips are a small price for safety.

Her mother asks her to pick the doll’s clothes.

Willie doesn’t want to give the doll her clothes.

The doll can’t be naked, Willie.

Willie holds out her least favorite nightdress, pearl pink with printed bows, spaghetti straps. But the Willie doll needs sleeves; the Willie doll doesn’t have shoulders. And the Willie doll shouldn’t be asking for it, anyway.

Willie sacrifices her baseball tee and an old pair of sweatpants. The T-shirt is slightly too small for the doll, makes her appear strangled.

Willie’s mom places the doll on a chair in the kitchen. The two of them stand back to assess. Her mom puts her thumbnail between her teeth, then takes Willie’s washable markers from the cupboard and asks if she’d like to draw her face.

When Willie is finished, the doll has two eyes that smell like lime and a red smile that smells like cherries. Her mother points out that Willie’s eyes are brown, not green. And why is she wearing lipstick? Her mother knots her arms. More and more freckles have begun to gather on the skin of her forearms. Soon she will be more freckle than not.

I don’t know, Willie says. Why don’t you ask her.


Willie’s dad gives her a twenty-gauge shotgun for her birthday. A real gun. She got lucky with the BB. If she hadn’t hit the rabbit right in the eye, the squishy portal to his brain, he wouldn’t have died at all. Willie asks why he cares, since rabbits don’t have feelings. He says that they can still feel pain, even if they don’t know what it is. Too dumb to know what’s happening to them, only that it’s happening.

Maybe she can hit the rabbits in the eye every time.

Good luck with that, Kid, her father says. He lifts his baseball cap and smooths his hair underneath. Willie is certain that, unlike her beauty queen mother, she does need luck. She is also certain that her father has lied to her about what rabbits can and can’t feel. What they do and don’t know.

That Saturday, instead of going straight to the fields, she walks the back way through town, under the overpass that spans the creek. There are no houses down this way, only a gutted gas station with jagged, broken eyes; three stray cats that braid themselves together in the parking lot, hissing and rumbling. The gun is embarrassingly large against her shoulder. When she tries to examine it properly, it looks like an absence. What she imagines a black hole might be, or the void left after an extricated splinter. The wood is burnished. The metal mercenary black. She checks the safety again.

The temperature drops ten degrees underneath the overpass. For a moment, she’s in a shadowy, adjacent world, where the gravel is loud and her breath echoes. She is almost surprised to come out the other side onto the same, glaring road she went in on.

There’s a man standing with his hands in his pockets, down by the creek. He’s wearing a baseball cap, looking over the water, toward the trees beyond. When she stops short, he turns to watch her, raises a hand and waves. Willie has the brief idea to aim the gun at him. But she turns around slowly, begins to walk back the way she came. She’s too far away from him for this to be rude. She keeps hearing the snarl of gravel behind her. But when she looks back, he’s where he has been the whole time. Looking out, receding.


The dolls are working. The first Monday of every month, a different doll is eviscerated by the creek. Willie’s dad becomes the one-man clean-up crew. He can usually fit the remains of the doll in a single black trash bag. Nobody else wants to do it, though there is always a loose circle of neighbors around the crime scene in the morning. Mary Brighton from two houses down smokes a cigarette, left arm cinched at the waist of her house coat, shaking her head. No one house has had their doll chosen twice, but they’re replenished anyway.

Small price to pay, small price to pay, the women murmur over their sewing, like a hymn. Some single men, who live alone, pay neighborhood mothers to make dolls for them. Some single men try to sew the dolls themselves. Those dolls are rarely chosen. Willie’s mom purses her lips and says they’re too ugly even for the devil. Willie’s doll hasn’t been chosen yet. Her doll is also ugly, with its shriveled turnip nose and yawning mouth.

During the day, Willie’s mother closes the Willie doll away in the hall closet, hanging it by its head from a yarn loop. The Willie doll’s hair is made of beige-colored yarn that falls over its smooth, stuffed head like the tentacles of a sea anemone, white scalp showing through. One evening, Willie’s mother asks her to fetch the doll from the hall closet. When Willie refuses, her mother hauls her by the elbow.

Open it, she says, teeth mashed, words sieved through. She places her hand over Willie’s hand, both their hands over the doorknob, so their arms are fused. Inside the closet, the Willie doll grins, its pupils dislocated. Willie doesn’t know she’s crying until her mother tells her to stop.

Often, when it’s past midnight, Willie creeps into the kitchen to watch her doll at work. After her eyes adjust to the gray light, like in a photo negative, she can see the Willie doll’s features swim on its face, its spatula hands shift on the table, belly moving in and out. She feels, some nights, that if she doesn’t watch the doll, it might do something unforgivable and blame it on her. She tries to remember that the doll is protecting her, but feels part of her sifting away like sand, filling up the doll’s abdomen until it’s heavy, building fingernails, a soft upper palate. The sharp bones of teeth.


The second rabbit doesn’t die well. Even though Willie aims carefully, the bullet hits its hindquarters. She has to wade through its banshee squeal to shoot it at close range, which makes a pulp of its neck and head. She doesn’t notice she’s crying until the tears make their way into her mouth.

At night, before she falls asleep, she hunts rabbits through the empty plains of her mind. She can’t stop. Her fingers curl, cradling the trigger. The muscles of her eyes contract, squinting down the site. Each imaginary killing is clean and perfect. But shame still pulses through her.

She can’t bring the second rabbit home all mangled, so she buries it in the field, far from the creek. Nobody can know the bad way it died. She uses her hands to dig. The intricate labyrinth of roots below the surface pop and snap as they give way. By the time she has a hole that is six inches deep, her shadow is long again, a sinister projection. The rabbit’s body fits inside the hole. The hole fits inside her shadow.

When she gets home, dirt beneath her fingernails, mashed into the whorls of her fingertips, her dad says, Better luck next time.

Please wash up for dinner, her mom says. She looks relieved. She doesn’t want to cook more rabbit.

At school, the day after she kills her second rabbit, Jessica Smith offers Willie frosted lip gloss in the girls’ bathroom. Jessica Smith is a friendly non-friend whose kindnesses are unsettling. Her translucent hair is pulled into an anemic ponytail. She squints her eyes and sucks in her cheeks, crushing her lips together to smear the gloss. The fluorescent lightbulb trembles above her, as if she has great power.

Willie takes the wand like an illicit thing. The gloss is sticky and tastes like vanilla frosting and something even sweeter. She puckers her lips like Jessica does, aware that the wand has only just touched Jessica’s mouth. They stare into the mirror together, eyes narrowed and gleaming. They both turn their left cheekbone to the strobing light. Their mouths are beauty queen mouths, glittering dangerously. She feels very far from yesterday. As if she has painted over herself.


Nobody new has died. Been killed. Sloughed off by some evil. The townspeople start to bring casseroles to the door of the chosen family the day after their doll is ripped open. It begins as a kind of mourning: We are so sorry that someone in your family was almost chosen for death.

As the months march on, it becomes a kind of celebration: We are so happy that someone in your family was not chosen for death! People begin to put up banners in the backyards, folding tables and chairs. Happy Doll Day! their banners read. People print them in advance. In anticipation. Happy Doll Day! in blue icing, on a fat, white cake, rush-ordered from the Safeway bakery.

The remains of a doll, made in the Shaney son’s likeness, is draped over a chair in Shaney backyard, bulbous head lolling back, blank eyes open to unrelenting sun, the beaming blue of the sky. Willie’s family brings a sweet potato casserole with marshmallows.

When nobody is looking, Willie fingers the rip into the Shaney doll’s neck. Children shriek and break around her like a flock of earthbound birds, all in their Sunday best even though it is Tuesday. She removes her fingers from the doll’s gash, startled, expecting blood. The interior fabric of the esophagus is rough and dry like burlap. Willie imagines how uncomfortable it must be to be made of such bristly, porous stuff; how sad to be made only for death.

The Shaney dad makes everyone hold hands in a circle around the table to bless the food.

Lord, he says, thank you for keeping us safe.

The pies and cellophane-wrapped casseroles gleam and sweat. He takes a slice of lemon meringue and holds it to the Shaney doll’s lips.

Bless you, he says, kneeling like he’s about to propose. Thank you. Thank you. The Shaney doll can’t eat, plush lips sewn shut, head cracked back, arms flapping in the breeze. Neighbors shift and murmur, trying the ostentatious reverence on for size. Soon, it will be what everyone does on their Doll Day. Call it “giving due.”

Later, John Silo pulls up his Trans Am and opens the doors and windows. Everyone dances to the radio. Dads sway, feet planted, holding paper plates full of chicken bones and wadded napkins. Children bounce up and down, knees dirty. Someone passes a bottle of whiskey around while the night seeps in. Willie is thirsty. There is no water on the table, only soda. She hasn’t been invited inside, so she can’t get it herself. The adults are entranced, uninterruptible. She wants to dance but feels self-conscious, even in shadow. She can’t stop staring at the doll, who has been forgotten. In the dark, it looks more and more like the deflated skin of a real person. She wonders what the Shaneys will do with the doll’s husk after the guests are gone.

This one’s for all you people who are feeling lonely out there tonight, the radio announcer says. He has a voice like satin ribbons, like a place with no fear. “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” is the name of the song that swells in. Willie knows this because the singer, who sounds like he’s in pain, says it over and over. “If you think you’re lonely now, just wait until tonight, girl.”

The Shaney wife and the Shaney husband are slow dancing. So are Willie’s mom and dad. Willie can see her mom’s face over the crest of her dad’s shoulder. Her eyes are closed, hair marshmallowy full, cheeks lit up in the headlights like a pageant spotlight.


On Friday, the week after she kills her second rabbit, Willie goes to the five-and-dime after school. She still dreams of killing rabbits, but now they ooze lacquer-red nail polish, into which she dips the tips of her fingers.

The cashier, a plump, blonde woman in a blue apron, watches her. Willie tries to look as wide-open as possible. She walks the paper products aisle, then the feminine hygiene aisle, which makes her blush. Finally, the cosmetics. Powders and creams glitter in their plastic cases. Thousands of them. She could stand for hours, entranced. She finds the cheapest tube of pink gloss, $1.25, and pays for it at the counter. The cashier looks relieved, smiles like they have an understanding. Nice shade, she says.

The next day, after she has eaten breakfast, Willie slips the tube of lip gloss into her pocket, the gun over her shoulder, and makes her way to the field. Halfway there, at the place where the houses thin out and sidewalk breaks, she applies the lip gloss. It tastes like aspartame and strawberries. Her whole body tingles, as if she has a great secret. In the silver lip gloss cap, she can see a version of herself. Pink lips, pink cheeks, oblong white face distorted like a funhouse mirror.

It is March now. All winter, the fields were hers, but now there are tire track marks in the dirt near the creek. A patch of oat grass has been mowed close to the quick, making violent stubble, like a bed of nails. She kneels for a long time, looking not just for rabbits, but people, too. She can smell the pinkness of the gloss off her lips. It feels like an invitation to be watched.

The rabbits don’t come for a long time. When they do emerge from the scrub, scattered over the lawn like the buds of a pussy willow, she has forgotten why she is happy to see them. When she remembers, her arms are too loose to aim properly. The shot cracks high over the field. She wonders how far a bullet can travel without anything to stop it. She wonders what might break its path, miles from here. A face, a house, the broad side of a cow. It’s a bad mistake. She can’t focus, the lip gloss smell pushed up next to her brain.

There’s a dead rabbit twenty feet from her, which is impossible. It is small and gray, flopped on its side. When she gets closer, she sees that it’s still breathing, but too fast. She puts a hand to its belly and feels its heart battering. Paralyzed by the noise, by fear. She takes it into her lap and tries to be quiet for it. To will her smell to mean something other than danger. She feels tender, like a mother. When its body sputters out, the rabbit goes limp before it goes stiff. It’s the third death, the worst by far.

When she gets home, her father’s breath smells like aluminum and yeast. He fondles the rabbit’s body and asks where did she shoot it, up its asshole? He says that her mother’s not feeling well, headache. He’ll show her how to dress the rabbit.

Are you wearing makeup? he asks.

She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.

The hide doesn’t separate well from the muscle. It’s so young. Barely developed. There is very little blood under the skin, organs encased in a chrysalis of white fascia. Willie thinks for a moment that something hopeful might burst forth: a butterfly, or a new, even smaller rabbit. But inside there is the liver, the stomach, the intestines. The lungs, hidden beneath the spiderweb of ribs. Her father names each part. He digs with the tip of his knife and pulls out a red dome of muscle, like a thimble. The heart. Tiny, but delicious, he says, setting it aside.


Willie finally gets her party. Her mother extricates a slick, shiny banner from the closet, makes punch the color of guava in a plastic bowl. She buzzes around the kitchen, flashing her teeth. It is deep summer now. How nice of the devil to wait until we could have a proper party, she says, pulling cupcakes from the oven.

Willie woke with the sun lashed across her face. She had forgotten it was the first Monday of June. She thought she’d feel something when it happened. A tugging on her throat. A disturbance in the night. An irrefutable debt after fooling death with a child’s toy. But she is rested, clean.

Half the town comes to her Doll Day party. They laugh and smoke cigarettes around the flaccid rind of her skin. Middle-aged dads with hard balloon bellies place their palms on the dome of her skull. Lucky to be alive, Kiddo, they say. Her mother wears a dress with a crinoline that stops at the knee, so it bells out like a pageant girl. She’s sewn it herself. There are perfect, red strawberries all over it.

After the last guests leave, the lawn is littered with paper plates and plastic cups. Willie drags a black trash bag through the mess, picking up. Her father is passed out on the couch. Her mother slumps in a white plastic chair, forehead propped against her fist. When Willie goes to trash the doll, her mother comes alive.

No, she says. We’re going to fix that right up.

The next day, her mother sews the tear in the Willie doll’s throat. She makes the stitches as neat as possible, so they’re nearly invisible from the outside. Only a dark, puckered seam. She restuffs the doll and places it back in its chair at the kitchen table.

Good as new, she says.

The Willie doll’s eyes look wide and frightened. Hasn’t it been through enough? The kitchen gets cold at night; the doll has only a T-shirt to keep it warm and nothing to keep it safe.

Willie can’t sleep. Her intestines knot up by her heart. She feels like a twice-used thing: hand-me-down pajamas, only good if you don’t think about how close they’ve come to someone else’s skin and private parts, the insides of their nightmares.

She creeps to the kitchen. The doll’s head has fallen forward to rest on its chest, neck weakened by the scar. She rights it and, with her hands on either side of its flat face, its botched features and rotted nose, sees a thing meant to be reborn over and over, never resting.


The third rabbit gives her fleas. Willie wakes up with bites behind her knees and on the sharp bones of her ankles. She scratches until she bleeds and puffy, pink welts crisscross her legs. The safety of her house is an illusion. The walls can’t keep out the microscopic, the insatiable. Willie washes her bed sheets in the hottest water possible, vacuums the crevices of her mattress, but they keep biting. Always at night.

The following Saturday she walks to the field, as usual, but the field is gone. In its place are even furrows, mounds of dirt alongside them like weals. The earth and sky are peeled open and she can see for miles to the hazy point where the hills tuck into each other. Tractors dot the open space, moving slowly like locusts. She has forgotten her lip gloss and is glad for this when she sees a man by the creek. He has a posthole digger and wears gloves that make his hands look unarticulated, like doll hands. A baseball cap hides his eyes. Beside him is a crumpled body.

Hey, he says. You can’t shoot here. This is private land.

Willie remembers the dark spire of her gun barrel, which punches out from her shoulder like the beginnings of a wing.

I’m just walking through, she says, blushing. Sorry, she says, even though she feels like he’s the trespasser.

The man looks her up and down, then begins to haul the body up the post with a line and pulley. The body is dressed in navy blue Tyvek, mercenary-looking. It’s wearing an orange baseball cap just like the man’s, but there is a smear of fleshy-looking fabric where its face should be.

For the crows and the bunnies, he says. They’re so stupid, they think it’s real. He shakes his head, as if this is unbelievable. The pulley clangs against the post like he’s calling her to worship.

As she begins to walk the long way home, along the creek, she catches the flap of the doll’s arms from the corner of her eye. From so far away, she can’t tell that it doesn’t have a face, that its body is made of weather-resistant fabrics, stuffing, air. It doesn’t have eyes, but it watches only her, even as crows wheel overhead. The backs of her knees itch, but she feels an indescribable relief, released from some gnawing obligation. She watches the doll for as long as she can, until it’s blotted out by rooflines, tree canopies, the hum of passing cars.

Nikki Ervice is a writer and professional dancer from Homer, Alaska. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Washington Square Review, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. She is a 2023 MFA candidate at Brooklyn College.