Milk Blood Heat

Issue #135
Spring 2018



“Pink is the color for girls,” Kiera says, so she and Ava cut their palms and let their blood drip into a shallow bowl filled with milk, watching the color spread slowly on the surface, small red flowers blooming. Ava studies Kiera. How she holds her hand steady—as if used to slicing herself open—while sunlight falls into the kitchen window and fills her curls with glow. Her mouth is a slim, straight line, but her eyes are wide, green-yellow, unblinking. Strange eyes, Ava’s mother always says with the same pinched grimace usually reserved for pulling plugs of their hair from the bathtub drain.

The girls are at Kiera’s because her parents believe in “freedom of expression,” and they can climb trees and catch frogs and lie on the living room floor with the cushions pulled off the couch, watching cartoons and eating sugary cereal from metal mixing bowls for hours. At Ava’s house they are tomboys, they are lazy, they are “getting on her mother’s last nerve.” Her mother doesn’t approve of Kiera, but they’ve been friends for two months—late August, when the eighth grade started—ever since Kiera came up to her during gym and told her: I feel like I’m drowning, and even though there was no water in sight, Ava knew what she meant. It was the type of feeling she herself sometimes got, a heaviness, an airlessness, that was hard to talk about, especially with her mother. Trying to name it was like pulling words up from her belly, bucketful after heavy bucketful, all that effort but they never meant what she wanted them to.

This is one of many differences between her and Kiera—in that the truth about the two of them changed depending on which mother was telling it—and Ava often wonders if their differences are only because Kiera is white, or if there’s something more. Something beneath the skin. This year, she’s become obsessed with dualities, at looking at one thing in two ways: Kiera’s eyes, strange and magic; her own sadness, both imaginary and pulsating.

“Get a spoon,” Kiera says, and from the drawer Ava grabs a large silver one with slotted holes. She stirs the milk and blood until it is the desired shade, the pink of Kiera’s lips: a soft, hopeful color. They tip the bowl up to their mouths, one after the other, sip-for-sip, until there are only dregs. They wipe pink froth from their faces with the backs of their arms, and sit still for a moment, solemn in the wake of what they’ve just done.

“Blood sisters,” Ava murmurs, feeling somehow stretched in time—another feeling she can’t explain. She imagines she can feel Kiera’s blood absorbing into her system, passing through the mucous membrane of her small intestine, assimilating until there is no difference between her blood and her friend’s.

“Blood sisters,” Kiera agrees, and leaves the bowl, spoon, and knife in the sink for her mother to wash.

This is the hour of reckoning, or at least this is what they shout as they flock toward the retention pond behind Kiera’s house, kicking up grass and startling the neighborhood dogs into song. They drop small stones into the water. Watch the tadpoles scatter and count the ripples.

“Run, little guys,” Kiera says, her voice small and high like an actress’ in a bad horror film. Ava stomps and snarls in the shallows; she’s still wearing her low-tops, her socks growing heavy, squishing water up between her toes. She is Frankenstein’s monster. She is a vampire queen. She is newly thirteen, hollowed out and filled back up with venom and dust-cloud dreams. She throws her head back and howls and howls at the sun, pretending it’s a strange, burning moon, and that there is no other world than this one where she and Kiera are.

Kiera thunks down onto the bank, sitting with her legs pulled up and her arms draped across the tops of her knees, watching Ava. Her hands dangle from her small wrists like claws. She laughs as Ava poses for her, thrusts her hips out at impossible angles and squinches her eyes tight. Kiera snaps photos with her hands, diving onto her stomach to make sure she gets the shot.

“You’re a sexy monster!” she screams, swooping to the edge of the pond for a close-up, splashing water so that the droplets hang in the air for barely a moment, rainbow-colored, reflecting Ava’s face in miniature. “Say it! Be it!”

“I’m a sexy monster!” Ava repeats, and bares her teeth. Kiera yanks her arms and they fall onto the grass, a giggling heap of girl. They catch their breath and wait. For their hearts to stop thudding, for the warmth to drain from their cheeks. They wait for the howling they don’t voice to quiet. It never does. Instead, it evens out, spreading into a thin, silent purr that lives inside their ribcages and the webbing of their fingers.

Ava knows she really is a monster, or at least she feels like one: unnatural and unfamiliar in her body. Before this new year, she hadn’t realized empty was a thing you could carry—that wordless howl. Who put it there? Sometimes she wonders if she will ever be rid of it, and sometimes she never wants to give it back. It is a thing she owns.

Kiera sits up and brushes the wet tops of Ava’s sneakers.

“Your mom’s going to kill you.”

The girls continue on without their shoes, fleeing into the shade of the small wood behind the pond, bare feet pressing down into cool, loose dirt. They don’t cry out when they step on broken twigs or acorn tops, when the sharp points drive into the soft flesh of their insteps. They grit their teeth and keep moving. They swallow pain.

In a clearing where the sun breaks through, they find a dead cardinal. It is unflinchingly red and perfect, lying on its back with its legs curled in the air, delicate as small, twin rooks. “Don’t touch it,” Kiera says, leaning in so close the tip of a bent feather almost brushes her nose. “Bird flu.” But they both get close like that, hunkering down, drinking death in.

Ava wants to trace her finger along the soft black feathers surrounding the beak. She is jealous of its open, empty eye, the utter stillness of its body. Even its rank, sweet smell. She lies down beside it, her head at its head, and stares up into the jagged patch of sky. She imagines she’s at peace. Kiera lies down too, and they stay like that until the sun sinks behind the pines, casting the world in cool gold and nightshade green.

When Ava’s mother picks her up that night, her eyes immediately scan her daughter—looking for unplaited hair, for marks, for evidence of her wild ways. She stops at Ava’s shoes. When she speaks, her voice is saccharine, all her words crisp, enunciated carefully as if speaking a language she knows, but wishes she didn’t have to. It’s the voice she uses for her answering machine, for meeting strangers in professional situations. The one she switches on for talking to her daughter’s friend’s white mother. “Thanks for watching her,” she says, smiling, but her eyes are unlit coals. Kiera’s mother is a fluttering, airy sensation at the doorway, something fleeting and cool against Ava’s cheek. “Oh, we love having Ava,” she says, and her cotton-candy voice seems like the real thing, so earnest it could melt.

“Why are your sneakers so dirty?” Ava’s mother demands as soon as the door is shut and they are walking to the car. “Why every time I come get you from this girl’s house, you’re always a mess? Both her parents live here and they can’t watch y’all?” And Ava says nothing because words never mean what she wants them to.



There are other differences between them: that Ava is the slightly prettier friend, but much browner, so she is often overlooked; that Kiera bleeds first, getting her period in the midnight hours, waking up to sharp pains in her stomach and dark, clotted blood smeared on her thighs—that this makes Kiera a woman now, and Ava is still only a girl; that when Kiera tells her mother she is sad, her mother tells her to feel her feelings, and when Ava does this, her mother just looks tired and tells her, Child, go play.

So she plays. She plays at being drowned in the bathtub, holding her breath with her eyes open underwater. She plays at being hanged from a limb of the white-spotted sycamore beside her house, holding tight to the branches, her body limp and swinging, until she tires and drops. She plays the game of What If: What If I step out in front of this car, right now? What If I don’t wake up tomorrow? She doesn’t mean any of it, she doesn’t think.

Kiera likes these games too—it’s one way they’re the same—but she talks about death like she has nine lives. As if when it happens, she’ll be asked, Continue? while flickering numbers on a screen count down, prompting her to restart. The girls like to ask each other questions, bouncing them between each other as they label different kinds of rocks for Earth Science and play house with Kiera’s dolls.

“How would it be to drown in a pool?”

“How would it be for a man to slice you up and hide you under his mattress?”

“How would it be to be buried?”


“No, once you’re dead already.”

Ava imagines this last scenario most often, poring over it with the reverence other girls would their first prom. Her final resting place: the white-lined casket, roses in baby pink. The velvet Sunday dress her mother would slide her body into and the socks she hates with the wide lace ruffles like a clown’s flamboyant collar. In truth, it wasn’t so much death that called to Ava, but the curiosity of how her absence would affect the world. (What If my mother doesn’t weep?) Would Ava’s mother imagine her beneath the earth, grave worms crawling across her scalp, her still-soft skin and small new breasts, over time, turning to rot?

Ava and Kiera string the Barbies up with rough twine by the neck, dangle them from the Dream House roof; they watch the pointed toes twirl.



Neither of the girls want to be here—at Chelsea Zucker’s thirteenth birthday party, near the end of the school year—but Ava’s mother got the invitation from Chelsea’s mother and told her she was going.

“You need other friends,” she’d said, standing in front of her daughter with one hip cocked, seeming to suck up all the air and light in Ava’s room. Everything stopped around her mother, changed directions to align with her will. Ava often felt cowed around her mother’s bigness, and also bigger because of it. She wanted to kiss her mother’s warm, brown face. To slap it until her hands ached.

“I don’t need new friends,” Ava grumbled, knowing there was no fight; she’d lost already.

“Baby,” her mother said, laughing a little, cupping her chin. “You don’t know what you need.”

Later, Ava told Kiera about having to go to the party, a pool-thing at a hotel downtown, a sleepover. Kiera had been invited too, all the girls from their homeroom, but Kiera’s mother said she didn’t have to go.

“Chelsea’s square. Why do you think her mom had to invite practically the whole eighth grade? But if you’re going, I’ll go,” Kiera said, sounding benevolent. “We’re sisters, remember?” That slice of blood, sunlight in the window. That wistful, pretty pink. How Ava almost hadn’t felt the sting as the blade cut her palm.

The party is at the nicest hotel their city has to offer, though the girls are old enough to know that’s not saying much. Ava’s older cousin used to work here part-time cleaning rooms—emptying trash, replacing stolen shampoo, kneeling in other people’s bed habits while he changed the sheets. He said people were nasty no matter the star rating, and didn’t work there long.

The pool sparkles wickedly, manufactured blue, its depths guarded by fat, reddened sunbathers who seem to the girls like monsters—sly Gorgons only pretending to sleep, ready to tear them from their skin. (How would it be to get ripped to shreds?) The horsetail sun burns at their backs as they slouch around on a single pool chair, tilting their heads close, conspiring with one another. (What If we run away?) They ignore everyone else.

Only six other girls come to the party, most of them scraggly things with early zits and bad hair, who are just happy to be invited. Except for Marisol, who is both prettier and nicer than everyone else and wants to run for freshman class president next year. Kiera traces an emphatic box in the air with her fingers. Square.

At Mrs. Zucker’s behest, Kiera and Ava cram together with the other girls at a stone table in the pool’s courtyard, watching Chelsea’s father march the sheet cake toward them, the number thirteen burning; how silly he looks singing through his smile. All their swimsuit straps are slipping from their shoulders, sweat beading at their hairlines, chlorine singeing the humid spring air in a way Ava likes. They belt out “Happy Birthday” to Chelsea, who even with her wispy hair and chicken legs looks nice in this moment, glowing with her own importance.

Kiera and Ava don’t really sing, so Ava has time to notice Marisol in her two-piece suit, how curvy she looks already, how her stomach has lost the childish paunch and flattened out. She keeps her hair long, shining darkly down her back. She’s a woman already, surely, Ava thinks, wondering where else Marisol has hair.

“What a baby,” Kiera whispers as Chelsea blows out her candles, referring to the late birthday. Everyone else has already turned the first teen, most on their way to the next. Kiera will be fourteen at the end of the summer, and Ava a couple of weeks after that.

“Zygote,” Ava whispers back, feeling grateful for even this small advantage over someone else.

Marisol turns to glare at them—making Ava feel like a plucked bird—and claps hard for the birthday girl. “Great job, Chels!”

“We don’t need this,” Kiera says, returning Marisol’s look, though she doesn’t seem to notice. The other girls cluster around Chelsea as her mother begins handing out the gifts, cooing about the smart wrapping paper, complimenting the girls on their good taste—so mature.

Kiera grabs Ava’s hand and they stomp up to Mr. Zucker, who’s cutting cake with a plastic knife, botching the straight lines so that some pieces are trapezoidal.

“Mr. Z,” Kiera groans, clutching her stomach and bending double. “I don’t feel so good. I think I need to lie down.”

Chelsea’s father blinks at them, and Ava sees him seeing them: two girls carting around perpetual grimaces the entire time they’ve been here—their sulkiness, their almost-adult gravity. They make him uneasy. “You don’t want cake?” he asks, as if sugar and cream is the necessary medicine for any illness. An antidote to the dysphoria of growing older.

Kiera can sense his weakness too, like blood in water. She leans in close as if letting him in on a secret. “Mr. Z…it’s just, you know, girl stuff,” she says. The magic words.

Mr. Zucker digs into his pocket for his room key, thrusting it into Ava’s hand, along with two paper plates of buttercream cake. “Yeah, go on up. I’ll send Mary in a bit to, uh, to check on you.”

“Thanks, Mr. Zucker,” Ava says, letting him see her smile for the first time. She can tell it doesn’t soothe him, and a part of her is glad. “I’ll take good care of her.”

They don’t go up to the room; Ava knows a place they can be alone.

“My cousin showed me once when he came to get his paycheck,” she tells Kiera. “There’s a code to the door, but he told me they never change it.”

“What’s he do now?”

“Grows pot in Colorado. Everyone’s mad as hell, but he says he’s making way more money.”

They ride the elevator up to the tenth floor, and Ava leads Kiera to an unmarked door that takes them to the roof. They can see their whole downtown, small and tidy, rolling out around them in unremarkable beige and gray buildings barely taller than the hotel. Ava feels disgusted by the smallness of this place, her home, but also exhilarated, as if viewing a world she can fit in her hand—a city in a snow globe obscured by glitter—where only she gets to decide what she needs.

The girls eat their cake with their fingers and dangle their legs from the roof, watching the tops of people’s heads as they enter and exit the hotel lugging suitcases and their five or six kids, listening to the indistinct bustle of other people’s lives. Ava can’t tell if any of them are happy from way up here, if anything really gets better with age.

“How would it be to get ground up in a meat grinder?” Ava asks.

“You’d be bird sausage! Can you imagine? Someone frying you up for breakfast?” Kiera mimes flipping sausage in a pan.

“Yum,” Ava says.

“How’d it be to get executed? Anne Boleyn-style? Off with your head!”

The girls go back and forth, losing track of the time, and for a few moments, it really is a world where only she and Kiera exist. A perfect place.

“We should get back,” Ava says, standing up, “before they call the police.”

“Gross,” Kiera drawls, standing too. She seems perplexed, looking out over the sparse rooftops as if she’s seen something, but can’t figure out what it is. She floats her paper plate off the roof and Ava does the same, watching them waft slowly, beautifully, to the ground. Ava turns to go back.

From behind her, Kiera says, “How would it be to fall from a roof?” The image flashes in Ava’s mind—rush of air, bones breaking, the red and lumpy splat. Grisly. She spins around to say this word to Kiera. But Ava’s only looking at empty air, the sky stretching blue—a real God’s blue—over the downtown buildings.

Down below, someone starts screaming.

Ava feels her body being pulled toward the ledge. Kiera’s name is stuck in her throat, her lungs shrinking, blood rushing to her head like the fluttering of wild wings. Her feet move—heavy, sedated—without her consent. Even now, she marvels about dualities as two contrary wants rise up inside her, formulating something that feels like cold fire burning inside her chest: the want to run, and also to see everything.

Ava leans over the edge, and looks down.



What were you doing on the roof? How did you get up there? (Didn’t I raise you with more sense than that?) Did she say that she was sad? Was it something we did? Was she mad at us? How could this happen? (Why weren’t you being watched?) Did you two get in a fight, did you push her? (You’re accusing my daughter?) What are we supposed to think? Why didn’t you stop her? (How could she?) Why would a child…? How could a child…? Is this our fault? (…) What do we do now? Pray? Are we supposed to be satisfied with that?

Ava lets the grown-ups talk. She’s told them everything she knows, except the thing they can’t handle, the thing it’s kinder not to say. That of all the possible and conflicting truths, there is a smaller, much simpler reason Keira chose to fall. Just this: she wanted to know what it felt like.



She gets her period in the bathtub three days after they put Kiera in the ground. The blood is dark, more than just blood, solid red shapes bobbing on water. A low pain thrums through Ava’s stomach and the small of her back, but it doesn’t mean anything now. There’s no one to compare with. The whole thrill of it was only to stand face-to-face with Kiera and feel, for a moment, that they were the same. But Kiera was always first in everything they did, even this. Ava realizes she has only ever played at death, but it’s a thing Kiera owns.

Kiera was the only person who’d ever really seen her. She recognized something in Ava’s face, something kindred to herself, and came to name it. (I feel like I’m drowning.) Who would know her now? Not her mother, who Ava stayed silent with because if she didn’t, she knew she’d scream, the howling erupting—an unstoppable, vibrant poison. Her mother didn’t say this to her, but she’d heard her talking to her friends: If they’da spanked that girl every now and then, maybe she’d be alive.

Ava takes a long, slow breath and sinks below the water. She keeps her eyes closed as her body settles on the porcelain bottom; her heart is a constant thud, a sound as well as a feeling. It fills the tub, comforting, disappointing, absolute. Could she be like Kiera? Open her mouth and let water and blood pour in?

She opens her eyes instead of her mouth and there is her mother standing above her, watching, face indistinct above the small ripples. She shoots up, swallowing water in her surprise, choking on it. Ava’s mother leans down and grabs her roughly by the shoulders. Her hands are firm even through the slips of water flowing down Ava’s arms. She squeezes her and makes her daughter look her in the eyes.

“That’s forever. Do you hear me?” she says, and Ava, for the first time since she turned thirteen, sees a flash of recognition in her mother’s face, some bit of knowing. (What If she’s known all along?) This new idea disrupts Ava, rattles something loose inside her—the vision of her mother as an unseeing stone—and the tears come hot and fast with the pressure of the empty emptying out. She sits and shakes with her mother’s fingers pressing into her arms, and it feels so good to hurt.

“It’s OK,” her mother says. “Let it out.”

She grabs a towel and lifts Ava to her feet, dries her and leads her to the living room. With Ava sitting between her legs, she detangles her daughter’s hair and oils her scalp, massaging it with her sure fingers. She braids the hair into a crown and all the while she lets Ava cry, saying nothing. Ava wonders at this new emotion, of feeling cracked open—like a small, big thing is happening inside of her, making room.

“I’m so sad, Mom,” she says, and though this word doesn’t mean what she wants it to, Ava feels, when her mother places both her hands over Ava’s eyes, catching wet and salt from her tears, that her mother knows exactly what she means.

When people ask what happened to her friend—whenever she mentions Kiera, recounting some silly thing they used to do, tame things people won’t hurt to hear—she’ll think back to gym class, that first time they met. When they ask her, How did your friend die? she’ll tell them, She drowned.

In time, Kiera’s broken body on the hotel concrete is not what she returns to when she thinks of her friend, and she’ll think of Kiera often, especially in such moments where she is now and forever first and only—first high, first car accident, first sex. (That particular bit of empty, that guilt, will settle and smooth into something like peace.) On her wedding night, she’ll dance chest-to-chest with her husband—a man whom she’s not sure, but thinks, she loves. A man who sees her, and doesn’t try to tell her what she needs. Swaying close, their bodies generating comfortable warmth, Ava will remember a day near thirteen’s end.

On what would have been her friend’s fourteenth birthday, she snuck into Kiera’s backyard and down to the retention pond to watch the sun set, water and sky burning pink; to stand on the same bank where she and Kiera had scared the tadpoles, where they had laughed and preened. The place where they—two monsterish girls—had owned the entire world. After the sun slipped under the lip of the horizon, Ava left the way she came, tripping up into the backyard, the sky darkening, all quiet until she heard something small and strangled cutting through the dusk. Kiera’s mom was slumped over in a patio chair in the corner of the yard, face in her hands, bathrobe twisted around her, exposing one milky, blue-veined thigh.

This is the image Ava returns to on her wedding night and many others: walking toward Kiera’s mother; standing in front of the woman and placing a hand on her shoulder; how her mother’s whole body seemed concave, as if consuming itself. She’ll think of the way she opened the woman’s robe and pressed her body into hers, their skin suctioning together where it touched, forming a seal. How she stayed there, silent, as time collapsed around them, wondering if Keira’s mother could feel her daughter’s blood pumping hard in her veins—a howling, creating heat.