Once there were two massage therapists who fell in love and had a child named Julia. She was a sweet, loving child and she spoke with her hands just like her mother. She could place her hand on someone’s shoulder, and instantly the person would feel more relaxed. Her parents believed that she would be a gifted massage therapist, and both had already started to teach her their secrets. But when Julia turned sixteen, she grew very ill and died. Together, her parents scattered her ashes across the vegetable garden in their backyard, and in the center of the garden grew a pumpkin as large as a human head. No matter how many times the pumpkin was picked, a ready fat fruit was in its place the next morning, and this was how her parents knew that Julia had never completely left them. A year later another child was born and she was named Julia, because for her parents there was no other name.
Problems arose when the new Julia turned out to be nothing like her sister. This Julia was especially plain. Her dull brown hair didn’t shine red in the sun, and when she did smile it was only a small smirk. She was not good at entertaining family and guests, and she refused to hug nor give a proper handshake. As the years went by, Julia stopped bathing because she knew she would never be as good and clean as her sister had been and so she didn’t bother making the effort. A stink hung over her like a swarm of bees and she wore her hair in one long, greasy braid down her back. At school, she had to do chemistry labs by herself because no one would be her lab partner, and in gym class she actually showed true potential but the running coach didn’t allow Julia on the team because she made the track stars feel uncomfortable.
Passing by a group of girls in blue and gold tracksuits one autumn afternoon, Julia reacted quickly when she felt someone give her braid a hard yank. She turned around and slammed her fist into the girl’s cheek. Squaring her shoulders, she tucked in her chin and prepared herself but the girl standing before her screamed and ran the other way, friends following after. Julia went home shaking with disappointment, and she was shaking so hard she allowed her mother to wrap a blanket around her shoulders and spoon-feed her pumpkin soup.
“Try taking a hot bath,” Julia’s mother said, but didn’t press the issue.
Looking for a fight was difficult, but after that day it was all she could think about. No one wanted to mess with someone so young and skinny, especially because she was a girl. Nights she spent walking the streets, baring her teeth and shouting insults at drunks and meth addicts as they laughed in her face. With little hope, she wandered inside a parrot store and opened all the cages, one by one, using a broom handle to smash open a window and in a flaming burst of squawking colors the birds escaped. The parrot store was owned by a widow named Mary, small-footed with sharp elbows, a well-mannered woman that had stored up enough fury to charge at Julia and keep coming, long fingernails scratching Julia’s small face. At first, Julia crouched down low and was still, tasting her own blood. But then she leaned forward and pushed into the widow with her shoulder, knocking her into the wall as one last parrot escaped into the foggy outside.
The best part about winning was that word spread. Julia got arrested and was sentenced to six months of community service at the Humane Society, and every morning there were several people in the parking lot, men, women, and teenagers, ready to get rough. Even the employees wanted to fight. Not once did she make it inside the animal shelter.
There was something about the way she fought that made Julia beautiful, even as she spit out one of her front teeth. At first, her opponents wanted to avenge the widow, but it wasn’t long before they started coming simply because it was a joy to go up against such a gorgeous creature. She was swift and graceful, stunningly bold, and held nothing back as she flew at you with a frightening display of disregard for her personal safety. When she was struck, even with a most unmerciful blow, still she was a shining beauty with fresh blood smeared across her face. She absorbed the pain with not even a moan, smiling ever so slightly as she turned her head and spat. Crowds of people came to watch. She started to shower regularly, and the smell of her skin mingling in with her sweat and the salve rubbed onto her wounds was so sweet people came home feeling as if they had just eaten cake, the softest of whipped frosting on their tongues. Boys and men alike started asking her for kisses, and sometimes she would oblige and other times she would lean in slowly and bite the hopeful’s cheek. Green-eyed Henry was one of the boys longing for a kiss, and though he stood in the very front of the crowd and moved with her as Julia knocked into her opponent, he never dared to make contact.
Clumps of hair were left in the drain after she showered and marks of her blood trailed the house, but Julia’s parents made no mention. Once while her mother was rubbing sirloin steaks with pepper, Julia snatched the one that hadn’t yet been seasoned and smacked the raw meat onto her eye, leaning against the wall and sighing as she did so. “That was your dinner,” said her mother, and kept her head down as she reached for the salt.
“I’ll still eat it,” said Julia. “I’m starving.”
“I’m glad that you’ve found your appetite,” said her mother.
“I’m not,” said Julia’s father. Julia startled as her father came into the kitchen, clacking his grilling tongs. The cheeriness in his voice was wavering, like hearing static from a radio station that was just about to change channels. “When you don’t eat, that’s a second helping for me.”
Julia lifted her chin, showing her bottom row of teeth. She looked at her father with her uncovered eye. “I’ll fight you for it,” she said. Her father was a large man but he was soft.
“What did you say, Young Lady?” asked her father, raising his tongs.
“Let it go,” said her mother. “We will not acknowledge such behavior.”
Sometimes Julia would fight three people in one day, one right after another, and the day she fought a fourth person was the day she died. She knew she was too tired to fight a fourth person that day, especially because she was on her period. But when someone new started coming at her with his fists, she automatically tucked herself in like a turtle and waited to make her move. She was already having trouble standing on her left ankle, and tiny starbursts of light flickered at the edges of her vision. “I came from so very far away,” her opponent said. His voice was high-pitched and he had small hands. He punched her on her left side, and punched again, cracking a rib. As she fell, his shadow was still a moment as the crowd encircling them held their breath, and then he kicked her in the forehead with the heel of his construction worker’s boot.
It was definitely a good death. A light shot through her mind and filled up her body until she was nothing but a brightness mingling with her sister, and Julia didn’t know how she knew it was her sister who was enveloping her but she accepted it whole-heartedly. When she fell back into her body, all she was aware of was the warmth coming from her mouth, a warmth that radiated throughout her body, filling her up with the terrible joy of being alive, and as her vision came back into focus she saw a green-eyed boy looming above her, a streak of her blood across his lips. Julia smiled her tight, smirky smile.
The son of two jewelry thieves, Henry had never thought he would amount to much. At seventeen he had already dropped out of high school. He mopped floors at the Portland Art Museum, and tried not to look at the works of art because most of it he couldn’t comprehend. He lived in a small apartment with a couple that made love loudly and he spent his nights awake in the kitchen, contemplating spoons. He had dated one girl, briefly, whose name also happened to be Julia, although he couldn’t remember anything about her now that his Julia was in his arms. That first night when he brought her back to his bedroom, she climbed on top of him and the bruises she wore like tattoos faded from purple to yellow to gone. Her crooked, broken nose readjusted itself to a delicate, smooth slope. “Am I really doing this to you?” Henry asked, his fingertips gently following the smooth, supple curve of her hips. “Am I really healing you? Me?”
“You,” said Julia, and she bent forward and placed her mouth over his, breathing in his breath, the corners of her lips twitching.
Julia still didn’t like to lose but now that she had Henry to save her, dying became part of her act. There became enough of a following that she was able to make a healthy amount of money from the tips. They moved their show in front of the fountain at the center of town and even in the rain, the crowds gathered. Henry quit his job so that he could take care of his lady love at all hours of the day, taking on the role of manager. “Don’t tell the crowds to tip you,” Henry said. “That’s my job. Don’t fight Delmonico. He’s a cheater and a liar and it won’t be a fight anybody will want to watch.”
“Get away from me,” Julia said. “Just give me five seconds of peace. I can’t get any sleep when you are around. Five seconds.”
“You’ll never get away from me,” said Henry. “Even when you are old and your bones are brittle, I’ll still be by your side.”
“My bones will never be brittle,” said Julia.
“I won’t be able to kiss away your old age,” said Henry. “But I promise to kiss every one of your gray hairs before bed each night.”
“I’m not gray yet,” said Julia, giving Henry a hard shove, which only made him wrap his arms around her and squeeze her tightly, kissing her ear in the spot that would make her hear the echo of his kisses even in her sleep.
The fights became more elaborate. Henry rented fold-up chairs so that people could sit down and eat their gravy fries while Julia was slammed into the fountain steps, face down. Cheers rose up even before the floppy-haired boy jumped up to gently turn the sleeping girl’s body onto her back, brushing her long brown hair away from her face as he met her lips.
“They enjoy watching me die,” Julia said, touching a bloody spot on her forehead that refused to heal.
“Only because they are so sure that I’ll come for you,” said Henry. It was nighttime and he was carrying a paper bag brimming with ripe peaches they had bought from the Farmer’s Market that day. He stepped in front of her and when he leaned in to kiss her forehead, the wound didn’t close up but the bleeding ceased.
“They get disappointed when I win. It’s not right.”
Henry didn’t respond. They were nearing Julia’s parents’ white clapboard house with its flickering porch light. In his arms the peaches seemed to glow in the dark. “I don’t see why you don’t just move in with me,” he said.
“Because,” said Julia.
“Because I need my sleep.” She pinched him hard above his bony hip, and caught a peach as it slipped from the paper bag.
He put down his bag of peaches to hug her before she went inside, and he could feel the softness of the peach Julia held in her hand as it grazed the back of his neck.
“Please let’s go home,” he said.
“I’ll see you in the morning.” She let him kiss her face once more before she went inside, and the porch light went out. Henry picked up his peaches and stared at the door as if he could see right through it and watch the way Julia’s small hand pressed against the wall as she kicked a foot behind her to remove her sandal. When he had guessed that she had made her way upstairs to the bedroom, he moved around to the back of the house and sat down in the tender soil of the vegetable garden. He was eating his second peach when Julia’s mother approached.
“You’re ruining my sugar pea seedlings,” Julia’s mother said. “Please get up.”
“Of course,” said Henry. He shot to his feet, brushing the dirt off his pants. “Sorry, sorry. Would you like a peach?”
Julia’s mother cocked her head to the side. In the dark, he couldn’t make out the expression on her face. It was almost as if she had no face whatsoever. Julia’s mother said, “Is that your dinner?”
“I suppose you could say that, yeah.” Henry shrugged.
“Listen.” Julia’s mother’s voice turned sharp. “You seem like a kind young gentleman, but I must insist that you stay far, far away from my daughter.”
Henry stepped closer to the older woman in hopes of seeing her face. How much of Julia was in this woman? “I can’t do that,” he said. “I’m the only one keeping your daughter alive.”
“She throws away her life every other day. She’s no longer afraid of death, but tell me, how is she living?” Julia’s mother also advanced forward, holding an arm out and pointing a finger at his chest. “Without you, she would have been able to get past all this fighting. She would have been able to grow up, and do something good for this world.”
“If it wasn’t for me, you would have had to turn another daughter into ashes,” said Henry. As he pushed her hand away, Julia’s mother took her other hand and very neatly put the boy to sleep by pressing her thumb into his neck. Laying him on the grass, she slipped into her kitchen to retrieve her set of knives and then she chopped him up into tiny pieces. The whole night she spent making meals out of Henry’s body and the golden peaches. She used up every bit she could and buried Henry’s toenails, fingernails, hair, and other inedible things near the pumpkin plant.
In the morning, Julia’s father couldn’t get over the glorious smells coming from the kitchen. He ate as much as he could, and packed more of the sweetness into Tupperware containers for lunch. “My wife loves me so much,” Julia’s father bragged to his clients at work. “Her cooking proves it to be so.”
Julia couldn’t get out bed because she was in too much pain. Even turning her head gave her a jolt. Blood was all over her pillow and cream-colored sheets. Her nose was gushing blood. Her mouth was also bleeding and several teeth were loose. Her eleventh rib on her left side was poking out from the back. Her vision was blurry. When her mother came into the bedroom, Julia could barely hear her mother’s screams above the anguish roaring through her broken body. She was rushed to the hospital. All she asked for was Henry and instead they gave her morphine.
“Now you can stop fighting,” her mother whispered into her ear. “And start doing something good for your body.”
“There is no such thing,” said Julia. Her blurry vision was trained on the hospital’s white ceiling. A trickle of bloody saliva dribbled down the corner of her mouth.
“You are so young! Think of all the wonderful things you have to look forward to. All the places you could travel, the subjects you could study, the people you could meet.”
“Henry,” said Julia. Her blurry eyes were trained on the ceiling.
“That’s enough of that now,” said Julia’s mother. “Henry is gone and he is never coming back. You’ll have to start seeing this as a good thing and let yourself be free. Don’t throw your life away for a boy that has done nothing for you but disappear.”
“He has not disappeared,” said Julia. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “He wouldn’t do that. Not Henry.”
“He has,” said Julia’s mother.
“Then he will reappear,” said Julia.
The pumpkin in the vegetable garden grew fatter than ever, and then it began to weep from the ground up. Saltwater rose from the earth and water-rot the plants until only the pumpkin retained its color. Cats and small dogs and dead squirrels started to float down the street.
As soon as Julia left the hospital, she dragged her body towards the fountain. She had been gone for so long that there were very few people wanting to see a show. A young couple held each other close and hurried away as the badly bruised girl made it known what she had come for. Swaying on her feet, eleventh rib still poking out her back, Julia tucked in her chin and stationed her legs in fighter’s stance. The only person that approached was Delmonico, bald and pale with movements so quiet and nimble it was if he had slid towards her on top of the water flooding the park.
“Joyous day.” Delmonico lifted half of his mouth into a smile. “We are at last to fight, am I not mistaken?”
“You are not,” said Julia. She pushed out a breath of air to keep herself from gritting her teeth. Her tongue was dry and yet her mouth still tasted of blood.
“This will be the fastest fight you’ll ever experience,” said Delmonico. “Most painful, also.” From his flannel jacket, the hairless man pulled out a long rope and lassoed the rope around Julia’s neck, dragging her to the ground. And there was no one to save her, no one who even thought to help as the few people that were watching waited for the girl to stop breathing so that the hero could swoop in and give them something to clap about. It took a long time for Julia to stop breathing. She lost several of her fingernails as she struggled to wrench free from the wet noose, kicking her legs, staring into the pale eyes of Delmonico. Eyes that had no lashes.
The pumpkin was trying to get a hold of Henry. It was trying to get Henry to go back for Julia, because she needed saving once more.
“It can’t be me,” Henry was saying. He was saying this over and over.
“It has to be you,” the pumpkin was saying. “Your kisses are nothing like mine.”
“But I’ve been eaten. I can’t ever be the me I once was.”
“It has to be you,” the pumpkin was saying. “It has to be you, it has to be you.”
The flood rose higher as Julia’s mother came into the vegetable path and collected the fattest pumpkin she had ever seen. From the birch wood slot block, she pulled out her serrated knife to cut off the orange top, the very knife she had used to cut off Henry’s head.
“The pumpkin looks sick,” said Julia’s father. “Maybe we shouldn’t eat this one.”
“The pumpkin looks as it always has,” said Julia’s mother. “It’s just bigger. I need to make a pie. I’m going to make a pie so delicious our daughter will forget any boy she has ever kissed, and any person she has ever fought.” Swiftly, as she had been doing for years, Julia’s mother stabbed her knife into the pumpkin. Lifting off the top, she dipped in her hands to scoop out the seeds, but instead of seeds all she felt was something feathered. She pulled out the feathered thing, and a small blackbird flew out of her hands, banging into the closed kitchen window again and again until Julia’s father opened the window and out soared the blackbird.
At the fountain, the girl had died and there was no hope that Henry would appear. 911 had been called multiple times. Bowing over Julia was Delmonico, his bald face cloaked in tears and snot as he kissed her face and kissed her neck and kissed her lifeless hands. The rope had been thrown into the fountain.
First, the blackbird placed his small beak on Julia’s lips, and then on her chin. With his tiny feet he hopped down towards the dark red burn marks on her neck. Delmonico reached up a hand to whap the bird away, but Julia lifted her head and said in a strong, clear voice, “Don’t.” A lone woman furiously clapped her hands.
Julia’s mother and father were eating the last of Henry’s heart when Julia walked into the door, the blackbird perched on her shoulder.
“I’m going away,” said Julia. “You have finally gotten your wish.”
“I want you to travel,” said Julia’s mother. “But I certainly want you to come back. Where are you going? Are you going alone?”
Julia gave no answers. She glared at her mother, as did the blackbird.
“Oh,” said Julia’s mother, and it came out as a moan. She sank to her knees, crawling over to her daughter to kiss her beautiful, perfect hands, praying for the day that her daughter’s hands would be too old to fold into fists.
Jessica Dylan Miele
Jessica Dylan Miele is a writer, librarian, and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. Her short stories have been published in Quail Bell, Coming Together, The Oregon Literary Review, and she is also the 2015 contest winner of Splickety Love Magazine. You can find her online at JessicaReads.com
Artwork: Natalia Drepina