top of page

Taylor Arnette

I was a shy, complacent little girl with frail bones and weak nerves. My knees knocked together and my shoulder blades stuck out too far. Girls at school would poke at my spine with their fingers and wiggle them around, marveling at a skeleton they could see through my skin. My mother called me Jeanie, short for Jean. I wasn’t beautiful, but Mother always said my looks could be a strength if I knew how to use them. She was plain too, but I ran out of time with her before I knew what she meant. She died of pneumonia when I was seven.

Jeanie, baby, don’t be ashamed of what you see in that mirror. 

We lived in northern Georgia at the end of the Appalachian Trail, and my father was a hunter. He was an alcoholic, although this was less of a problem before Mother died. She knew how to handle him. She pulled him to bed when he got manic and harried, and she woke him up when he was hungover and slept until noon. She trimmed his hair every other Sunday and made sure his beard was kept in order. And when my father went hunting, she forced him to clean his spoils outside. She tried her best to shield me, to hide what he was like when she couldn’t fix him. I never saw one of those carcasses until Mother got sick, those bodies littered with bullet holes and insides that I could smell.

My father was lazy and loud in the evenings, but he could also be patient and kind to Mother, calling her things like “baby” and “sweetheart.” He quietly tolerated my presence while Mother loved me enough for the both of them. Once she was gone, a part of my father disappeared, too. What remained was a paranoid, anxious shell of a man. He didn’t leave our little house except for a hunt every weekend and church on Wednesdays. Sundays were always too busy and “full of pryin’ eyes.”

By the time I was eleven, I started sleeping during the day. There was a big bay window in the school library with thin yellow pillows that felt nice enough to lie on if you stacked them. My teachers never minded if I missed a class or two. At home, I stayed up all night. From the attic, my bedroom, I listened to my father drag dead animals across the floor below, the fruits of his hunts that became more frequent as the years went on. Deer and turkey. Ducks tied together with rope around their necks. The occasional bear. I listened to him hacking away at their hides, plucking feathers and cleaning meat. He didn’t sleep until four or five in the morning. I watched him nightly and listened to him talking to nobody, maybe to the ghost of my mother.

By twelve, I knew how to clean a bird, how to build a bow from scratch, how to clean a gun. I knew how to cook the foods my father liked, how to make sure he didn’t choke on his own vomit when he went to bed drunk, how to get out of the room before he could grab me by the arm and slap me across the cheek for looking at the floor instead of in his eyes. I knew where to shoot any number of animals so they’d die right away. I knew where to aim so they’d die slowly. My father wanted me to be like him, to be afraid of anything outside our home, to know how to defend myself against threats that didn’t exist. We ate some of what my father hunted, but he was really after the animals themselves. He liked seeing them dead on the floor, plucking their feathers and peeling their skin back. After a hunt, my father would make me stand next to him as he cleaned those animals in our cabin. If I cried or vomited into the kitchen sink from the smell, he’d take my hands and shove them into the open cavity of whatever was lying on our dining table. A black tarp covered the wood, but blood always made its way underneath. My father was never that forgiving with a knife.

“Everything out there is waitin’ to kill you if you aren’t lookin’,” he said, forcing my hand deeper into a deer’s ribcage. “You feel that, Jeanie?” I couldn’t tell what my fingers were touching, but the body was still warm. My father stared at me, waiting for some sort of recognition on my part. I was fourteen years old.

I nodded at him and let my hand go slack. I hated the way he called me “Jeanie” the way Mother did, as if he knew me well enough to use it.

“You’ve gotta grow up,” he said. “You can’t stay up in your room, you’ll only get weaker.”

“It’s the attic,” I said. There was another bedroom in the house, but he always said the attic was fine for me because it’s the South and it never gets too cold.

“Are you ungrateful?”

“No,” I said. “I’m grateful, and I love you.”

My father took my hand out of the deer and shoved me back toward the kitchen. I moved toward the sink.

“Don’t wash it off,” he said. “Sit down, watch.”

I sat there until the deer’s blood dried on my hands, cracking and flaking after a few hours. My father took his time with the animals. He never recoiled because of the smell, never got frustrated when blood soaked into his shirt. He smiled down at their bodies, claiming them, passing a cleaver through hide as if it were made of butter. Most days, I wasn’t allowed to shower before he sent me up to bed.


My father grew to hate me, probably because I look like Mother. I’ve got her freckles and mud-brown eyes with green flecks in them, and those eyes were always following him around. So, my father never looked at me straight, not after Mother was dead. He looked somewhere in between, at my nose maybe. It’s big and crooked, a spectacle by anybody’s standards. When he questioned me about who I saw at school, who I talked to every day, or why I got home fiveminutes late, he could never quite meet my stare. When he got tired of looking at me, he would shove me away from him, onto the ground, where I would stay until he left the room. When he couldn’t exercise such patience, he would leave me outside for the night. He said it was to toughen me up, to make sure I could take care of myself. I think he couldn’t bear to feel me lingering, to hear me cooking or using the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Our house was small with thin walls. It was a cabin set deep in the woods at the end of a tree-lined drive which was just a dirt road that led back to the main highway. My school bus dropped me off at the edge of the forest and it took twenty minutes to walk to our front door. I always had to walk, even if the ground was covered in thick mud. Even if my father drove right past me on his way home. When I was a bit older and boys would offer to drop me off after school, I’d ask them to leave me at the same place the bus did. None of them ever saw where I lived, and none of them would’ve wanted to.

When I was sixteen, there was a boy at school I became closer with than the others. We would skip school and ride around town and park and kiss each other in broad daylight because I couldn’t be away from home in the evenings. He was eighteen, two years older than I, and his name was Jack. He had a face with so many freckles on it that he always looked unclean. But I liked them, they made me feel less repulsed by my own face, all shapeless and soft. Jack was kind enough and would bring up meeting my father every now and then, to which I would say that he’d regret it. I said it with a smile and a laugh and a kiss on his cheek so he would take it easily and change the subject. After a while, he stopped asking to come home with me. He stopped questioning the ripped and red skin beneath my eyes, a product of my father’s drunken rows. Jack would run his fingers along the bruises on my arms while we talked about things that didn’t matter. He would settle his hands over the black and blue so I wouldn’t have to look at it. He was kind in that way.

“We could just drive away,” he’d say, kissing my shoulder because I couldn’t look him in the face.

“Don’t talk like that,” I’d say back, as if he were kidding. If I left my father, he would hunt me down, too, like all those animals before.


At seventeen, my jaw started to lock up from grinding my teeth too much. Living with my father had become a game, one I was losing. Sometimes, I could time it right and stay out with Jack until my father was sure to black out. I would leave early the next morning before he could confront me about it. I only slept a few hours each day, and on nights that my father wasn’t hunting, he would come for me instead. Sometimes he’d just watch me from the doorway to the attic, drunk, talking to me as if I were Mother.

“I don’t know what you want me to do with that girl,” he’d say. “She’s turnin’ out to be a bitch with a mouth on her, just like you were.”

Other times, he would come lay beside me, trying to kiss me or hold me. He might’ve thought I was his wife, he might’ve known it was just me. His eyes were always cloudy and avoided my own, but he’d reach for me and pin me to the mattress. It wasn’t hard; he was still stronger even when he was barely lucid. I tried to tell Jack about him, but I could never quite say the words. When Jack would touch me, his hand floating between my jeans and the skin of my abdomen, I’d grip his wrist and push him away.

“Jeanie,” Jack said. “Look at me.” I was too tired then to properly conduct myself. Jack was pale and sad, and his eyes were bloodshot.

“Please don’t call me that.”

“It’s your name,” he said. “You can talk to me, you know?”

I shook my head. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Why won’t you let me love you?”

“I’m not really stopping you,” I said.

“Is that all you have to say?” I was exhausted, I wanted so badly to sleep.


When I turned eighteen, I thought I was old enough to leave, that my father might let me go. Maybe he’d get tired and settle into old age. And even if he didn’t, I thought I might get a restraining order, or find some kind of legal ground to stand on that could protect me. Not that he would care, he didn’t believe in anybody except for God and himself. But anytime I mentioned leaving, he thought I was delusional.

The bang of the front door interrupted my thoughts. It was a Saturday in the middle of November.

“Jeanie,” my father said. He didn’t need to be loud about it, the house was small enough.

I walked to the stairs to look down at him. His face was red and sweaty, and his hands were swollen. But he wasn’t drunk; his eyes were clear and his breathing was even.

“I need your help,” he said. “Get outside.”

“With what?” He didn’t reply, only walked back out the front door. I slid a tiny knife, my only one, into the waistband of my jeans and descended the stairs. He never asked for my help with anything, not when he was sober.

Outside, a coyote was laid across the truck bed, its mouth dripping blood. It was still alive, rapidly breathing, and its eyelids fluttered every few seconds. He gestured to the coyote and stared at me.

“Finish the kill and clean it.”

“It’s a coyote,” I said. “We don’t eat them.” I had never cleaned an animal like that, one that was still alive.

He walked over to my position by the stairs and gripped me by the back of my neck. I forced myself not to whimper in pain, but my skin was pulled so tight against my throat that my breathing got thin. My father shoved me toward the truck and stuck my head down next to the animal. My nose touched its fur. I could smell its sweat, its breath. The coyote let out something that sounded like a snarl, its teeth almost touching my cheek, but it didn’t have enough energy to be threatening.

My father released me and threw a knife on the ground. It was bigger than the one on my hip. He was testing me.

“Pull it off the bed,” he said.

I did what I was told, but I couldn’t get a grip on the coyote’s body. My arms shook. I watched fingers that didn’t feel like my own pull at the bloodied, matted fur.

“Can’t I use a gun?” I asked.

“You’ve got enough,” he said. He smiled as the coyote fell to the ground.

“Where’d you find it?”

“He’s been sniffin’ around the house.” My father raised his hand and shoved his fingers into the bullet hole in the coyote’s abdomen. It whimpered and jolted, the blood around its jaw bubbled up around its gums. I’d seen animals like this, I’d seen them suffer. But my mouth tasted of bile and my vision blurred at the edges. My father smiled a little, eyes transfixed on the coyote’s jagged movements. Moving to stand behind me, he nudged my shoulder forward. Holding the knife over the coyote’s neck, I just stood there, paralyzed.

“Jeanie,” he said. “Don’t get weak.”

He stepped closer; my arms were still in the air. The coyote opened up its eyes and looked at me. I stared back, waiting, my breath coming out as a wheeze. My father always believed in intention behind a kill, a certain kind of decisiveness. When you aim at a deer in the woods, you connect. The deer is alive, and you are alive, and you become aware of each other just as it ends. He got off on that recognition.

In my peripheral vision, I could see my father getting restless. He stepped closer yet again, put his hand on my upper arm, and squeezed hard. I screwed my eyes shut, praying even though I didn’t believe in God. I was so tired, I wondered if God might understand. When he released me, I tilted the knife on its side and swung toward my father’s chest. It lodged inside of him, somewhere within his ribs on his right side. I expected it to feel different, less solid. Less like cement. I raised my eyes up to meet his and he just watched me, as if he were satisfied in a way. His face went blue and his eyes were wide, but he didn’t cry out.

“Jeanie,” he said, breathy.

He staggered back but I kept my hands wrapped around the hilt of the knife. It slid out of him as he fell to the dirt. The coyote whimpered beside me. Shaking, I kneeled down next to my father and slid the knife in once more where I thought his heart would be. His breath caught in his throat. He coughed and sputtered and reached for my ankles, but I side-stepped him and took the knife with me. When his eyes started to flicker and his mouth finally resembled that of the coyote, I leaned over and wiped the blade on his shirt. Killing a person and killing an animal are two
separate things. I had never known the exact smell of it, or how heavy a human body gets when there’s nothing else to hold it up. But in the end, it wasn’t so different.

I leaned over his body, looked my father in the eyes, and thought I would have more to say.

“My name is Jean.”


I sat next to my father until he stopped breathing, and then until his fingers went cold. I took the cash he kept in his nightstand, my clothes, and his truck, and drove as far as I could – four hours or so – before stopping at a campground in North Carolina. I opened the truck door and vomited on the ground, hardly tasting the acid on my tongue, before revving the engine and continuing on. I couldn’t eat while I drove, even though I brought some bread and nuts to tide me over. I stopped at welcome centers in Tennessee, Virginia, and Maryland. I couldn’t seem to quit driving, my body shook for days, stuck in shock. In Delaware, I fell asleep for a second and almost drove off the road, so I found a motel. I stayed in my room for what felt like months. There were silverfish in the bathroom and mold on the curtains. Night and day, I watched the news until my eyes stung. My lips were chapped and split, the insides of my cheeks bruised from passing them through my teeth. Nobody ever found him, not in a way that made the papers. I left him lying right there on the ground, next to the coyote I couldn’t kill. Sometimes I imagine that Jack went back to that house looking for me, heartbroken, and found my father with rotting flesh and maggots all over. He’d search the house for me, marvel at the poverty I once lived in, the ugliness I prevented him from seeing. He’d remember my bruises and my broken nose and jagged skin. And then he would leave.

In Delaware, I changed my name, got a clerk job at the general store in town, and kept a knife under my pillow at night. My father comes back to me in my dreams, and they all end the same way. I shoot him or stab him or strangle him to death. I look down at him, cold and empty, and use my fingers to mold his slack face into something kinder than he ever showed me. I drive away, and in my rear-view mirror, his body is always missing.

Untitled_Artwork copy 5.png
Untitled_Artwork copy 5_edited.png
bottom of page