content warnings: minor mentions of suicidal ideation, death, animal death, violence/blood, and underage alcohol consumption
There’s a girl on the rooftop.
I’ve never been up here with someone else before. To be honest, I didn’t think anyone else knew how to clamber to the top of James Madison Memorial High School other than the jocks who drunkenly dare each other to do it at post-game parties. But this girl isn’t a jock. It’s a rude first assumption, I know, but she looks too artsy with her black denim jeans and short-cropped, red-dyed hair. Too clever—unlike me—to conform to a team with regulation uniforms and rule books thicker than my thumbs.
Then the girl teeters, and it occurs to me that there is a reason girls escape to rooftops and pace around the trim as if they are out of time, as if the ground below will comfort them more than anything else.
“Hey!” I shout. My breath plumes from my lips in the dry March air.
The girl keeps walking. Her footsteps are strangely graceful, like the gait of the white-tailed deer I used to adore on trips out of the city, to the swaths of the state where farmland rolls until it hits the hills. I would be mesmerized if I wasn’t so concerned for her safety. It’s not as if students are allowed to be up here anyway. I only risk it at night, long after club members have filed out of their classrooms and administrators have peeled away in their small cars and janitors have finished mopping up the grease splattered in the hallways from cheese bread and kringles.
“Hey,” I repeat, softer—as if she really is a deer and I’m approaching something wild. I move toward the edge, toward her. The height doesn’t usually bother me, but that’s because I know how to tame the solitude, how to find solace in it without letting it swallow me.
I’m close enough to touch her, yet she still hasn’t acknowledged me. Maybe she’s a mirage. I’m known for dreams that are bigger than my body—my parents always claim I could be valedictorian, as if I’m not already on route to be salutatorian—if I cleared the clouds from my ears.
There’s still time for me to be the smart daughter. To scramble to the ground and call the police. But I make a different decision. I lunge forward—nimble footwork, just as my tennis instructor has instilled in me—and then I’m grabbing a fistful of the girl’s faux leather jacket, and I’m pulling her toward me, and I’m wheeling backward.
My body slaps the ground in a succession of elbows, knees, and finally, skull. I groan, already sensing the network of bruises that will form within the next few days. Good luck explaining that to mom and dad, I think. I push into a sitting position before remembering that my fall implicated someone else.
The girl quirks her lips as she dusts off her knees, where, to my dismay, there are new rips in her jeans. Otherwise, I don’t detect any injuries, though I still flush at the damage I caused. Knowing the students who lounge in the expensive houses in Parkwood Hills, the pants probably weren’t cheap. Designer, even.
The girl removes the headphones tucked beneath her fluffy hair and helps me to my feet. Only when I’m standing do I realize she’s a good head shorter than me. I can see the flakes of dandruff scattered like pearls on her dark scalp.
“Are you okay?”
Her forehead wrinkles. “I was before you tackled me.”
“But you were going to jump,” I protest. “Weren’t you?”
“Seriously, I’m sorry if I scared you, but I was just enjoying my music,” she says, holding up her left earbud. Bedroom pop streams quietly from it. “And don’t worry about the pants. I bought them at a thrift store on Junction Road for, like, five dollars.”
She heads back to the ledge and plops to the ground without replacing her earbuds. From my angle, it looks as if her legs are cut off at the knees.
I sit next to her because it’s too late to pretend this never happened, and because I feel obligated to spend time with her after my ridiculous savior act. She has a nice nose, I notice. It’s crooked at the top—definitely broken at some point. She has nice lips too. They’re chapped from the wind, and her bottom one is bleeding, just slightly enough that she wouldn’t be able to tell unless she tasted it.
“What’s your name?” I finally ask because that’s what you do when you meet someone and you need to test the boundaries of each other’s identities.
That elicits a laugh from me. “No, for real.”
She fiddles with the off-white wires of her earbuds. They tangle in her lap. “For real.”
“Oh,” I say, rolling the sound of her name on my tongue. Bu-tcher. It doesn’t feel as violent when I break it apart. “Why would your parents name you that?”
“You can choose your own name, you know,” Butcher responds, outsmarting my question. “It’s, like, reverse nominative determinism. I chose mine.”
“You chose Butcher?” I ask. My hands are birds underneath my thighs. “Why?”
Her eyes, so dark brown they’re pitless. “Because I’ve killed things. People, too.”
My hands want to fly. “Like what?”
“My mother, my cat, the little boy across the street who called people the wrong names. Almost myself.”
I want to ask about the hateful boy and the wrong names. How they can be wrong but Bu-tcher can be right. Besides, I should be afraid of her, of the unrepentant violence in her confession. I don’t think she’s lying. I think it’d be worse if she was.
Besides, I should be afraid of her, of the unrepentant violence in her confession. I don’t think she’s lying. I think it’d be worse if she was.
“Why?” I ask.
She raises her fingers and folds them one by one. “My mother because I wasn’t born easily. My cat because I cried to my father that it scratched me and I never saw it again. The boy because I didn’t lie to the police about what he’d done.”
Was he really just a little boy? I want to ask. Or was he painted that way?
Instead, I ask, “What’s my name?” Not just to divert the conversation, but because it seems important that I have one that fits her theory.
She examines me again.
Feeling bold, I stand and twirl as if I’m on a stage. My black tennis skirt flares around my thighs, revealing the goosebumps tracing my legs.
“El,” she guesses.
I’m disappointed that I’m so predictable and intimidated that she’s so accurate. “Close. It’s Elinor. Hebrew origin—I’m Jewish, by the way.” As if the silver Star of David necklace resting in the divot of my neck isn’t sufficient proof. Part of me hopes Butcher, as strange as she is, shares my identity. So we can be linked outside of this moment.
“What a coincidence.” Butcher fishes her own Star of David necklace from underneath her striped T-shirt. “And my guess wasn’t wrong. You’re officially El now. To me, at least.” She pulls her legs to her chest, then rises, the bruise-purple sky merely a backdrop for her brown skin.
“I’ll pay for your jeans,” I blurt before she can desert me. It’s the least I can do. Besides, I have money to spare. My parents insist on giving me a weekly allowance even though all I do is crumple the bills inside a drawer in my bedroom.
But Butcher shakes her head. “I don’t want your money, El. And you should clean up before you go home. I don’t think your parents will appreciate you returning speckled with blood.” She slides to the low end of the roof and jumps over the overhang. After a minute, her footsteps dwindle.
The wind whistles through my skull, flossing in one ear and out the other. I wrap my tongue around the syllable she left me: El. It kisses the back of my bottom teeth, and I like how the pressure feels, how maybe this girl can teach me to be someone new.
* * *
That night, I disinfect my cuts in my bathroom, bundle myself under the floral blankets I’ve owned since elementary school, and convince myself she’s an omen, that it’s true no one would willingly flaunt her name. Maybe she’s only waiting to add me to her list of things she’s killed. So, I sleep, half-convinced that I’ve already been dreaming the entire time.
I’m more than half-convinced the next morning when I eat breakfast with my parents. My father’s newspaper crinkles, my mother’s reading glasses droop from her nose, the butter melts in its container in the center of the table. It’s all so perfectly mundane.
But less than an hour later, when I’m strolling in the dog walking green outside my apartment complex, I see her. She’s in the same jacket, elbow-deep in a dumpster.
I approach her warily. I know how lies work—if I’m too fast, she might disappear.
She jabs a finger at a tissue buried among the mountain of stretched-out black garbage bags. The white fibers are soaked through with blood. The entire bin smells musty.
I pray that none of my neighbors can see me from their white-railed balconies.
“Can you please get your head out of there?”
I never see her deposit whatever she was holding, but she must have because her hands are empty when she grabs mine. As we walk, I choose to ignore the dark stains underneath her fingernails. What other things they mean she might have done.
“Do you have parents?” I ask. A few more steps, and the tawny dirt path curls to the front of the building. I don’t want to brave the street, not yet. It’s too busy there, and I like the quiet of the complex’s residents-only areas.
“Tell me about yours,” she deflects.
“They’re fine. Boring, though.” I gesture at the reddish-pink brick walls, the steeply gabled roofs, and the bright green lawn still striped from the men hired to mow the lawn. “They like things neat.” Not like Butcher.
Butcher grins. “I can be neat. When I want.” Neither of us mentions that she was rummaging through a dumpster mere minutes ago.
“Do you want to come over for dinner?” The words rush like a river from my mouth.
It’s a terrible question. I immediately want to reel it back. She probably has a demanding social life. She’d probably rather stab herself in the eye than meet my parents, active members of the Jewish Federation of Madison and Parkwood Hills Neighborhood Association.
“Is that an invitation?”
I swallow. I don’t think my parents will mind. And, even if they do, they’ll be too polite to say so in Butcher’s presence. “Yes. Tonight.”
Butcher whoops. After a pause, I do too, not caring that it’s ten in the morning and my neighbors might report me from their balconies.
Butcher grabs my left hand. Our palms slide together. For an irrational moment, I think they’re slick with blood. Then she tugs me across the lawn, onto South Yellowstone Drive’s sidewalk, and into the mid-morning crowd so dense it doesn’t matter that we have names, that we are people, that we have no idea where we’re going or when we’ll be back.
* * *
We wander for the rest of the morning. I text my mother to tell her I’m meeting friends after my tennis lesson, then text my tennis instructor to cancel my lesson at the Parkcrest Pool & Tennis Club.
Butcher knows the area better than me, even though I’ve lived here since freshman year and I’m not even sure she’s from Parkwood Hills. Finally, after I pry too many times to be polite, she says she grew up in Greentree, which shuts me up. The older people in my apartment complex like to rant about the dangerous neighborhoods in Madison. Sometimes, I forget that people actually live there. People like Butcher.
First, she leads me through Sunset Memory Gardens. For a graveyard, it’s oddly comforting. Small American flags wave in the wind, and Butcher and I create stories for all of the names listed on the tombstones. We even stop at Beit Olamim, the section reserved for Jewish people and their loved ones. I touch my necklace. Maybe I’ll lie here one day.
“Even now, their names are meaningful,” Butcher says as we exit. “I want that.”
Next, I bring her to Starbucks. She scoffs, but I buy her a latte and sit her down beside the broad windows. People hurry past, their long winter jackets streaming behind them like wings.
“People-watching,” I explain, pointing to a college-aged girl whose style mirrors Butcher’s. There are so many people who move through Madison on a daily basis, and I’m just one of them. Sometimes, I love to feel small. It eases the constant pressure to be someone else. Prettier. Nicer. Smarter.
Butcher silently studies the passersby, only breaking her concentration to sip the foaming coffee. We sit and drink and watch the world move without us together.
“Remember, tonight,” I say after an hour. My phone’s been lighting up with text messages from my parents for the past thirty minutes. I can’t go more than a few hours without them hovering. It makes me wonder what they’ll think of Butcher—someone who doesn’t fit within their neat boxes of poise, stellar transcripts, and respectful language. But I’m not sure I want to fit those standards either.
“Tonight,” Butcher says. She checks her own phone, even though I haven’t seen a message pop onto the screen once. Maybe there’s no one to send her one.
Without warning, she pushes the empty latte cup toward me and swings out of her seat. Through the window, I watch her run away.
* * *
As I set the table, folding each napkin into a square just like my mother taught me, it strikes me that I never gave Butcher my apartment number.
“Where’s your friend?” asks my mother from the kitchen. The staccato of boiling water drifts into the dining room where I perch with my legs crossed and twitching. “Dinner’s ready.”
It’s weird to consider someone that I only met a few days ago my friend, but I don’t correct my mother. Which makes it all the more worse that I never told Butcher when to arrive, or what to wear, or even what to expect from my straight-laced parents.
What if she’s lost? I wonder, my leg pulsing faster.
The doorbell rings.
“Come in,” my father calls. I hurry to his side.
Maybe that’s how Butcher keeps managing to find her way onto our property, I muse, though I can only admire her magical ingenuity.
To his credit, my father’s smile doesn’t falter as Butcher strolls in, though I see his muscles twitch at her dark, loose-fitting clothing. I hope he doesn’t notice the temporary tattoo twining around her wrist.
“Hello,” my father starts before remembering that I never explained her name. He looks at me to fill the gap, but I don’t want to embarrass her—or, selfishly, myself—by introducing her. I don’t think my parents will understand reverse nominative determinism. They were both named after my great-great-grandparents, and the stiff syllables suit them.
“Isa,” Butcher supplies, winking at me.
I shouldn’t be surprised she’s slipped into a different identity. I wonder who she stole it from. A cute girl on the street, a worker at the H&M at the West Towne Mall, Nameberry.com. Maybe it was hers once.
“Ee-sah,” my father repeats. “German?”
Butcher nods. I’m ashamed that I don’t know if she’s telling him the truth.
“Let’s eat,” I say brightly. Smooth transition, Elinor.
I guide Butcher to the dining room table and into the seat next to mine. My father fills our Ikea glasses with cold water before settling across from us.
“Do you eat meat?” my mother cuts in as she carries over a blue ceramic bowl of steaming pasta. Thin, golden-edged slices of chicken protrude from the clumps of homemade spinach pesto. “I hope you’re not vegetarian—I didn’t prepare anything else.”
“I eat meat. Thanks,” Butcher says, adjusting her posture in her seat.
At my mother’s behest, she scoops a heaping spoonful onto her plate. The pasta splatters, and we all pause for her to deliver her verdict. Me because I’m worried she’ll be blunt if she doesn’t like it, and my parents because they need to ascertain whether her family raised her with acceptable manners.
Butcher barely swallows a mouthful and mmms—success—before my father commences the interrogation.
“How did you two meet?” he asks, ignoring my warming cheeks. “Are you from Parkwood?”
“She was on the roof,” I say dumbly.
My father frowns. “What roof?”
“She means the planetarium,” Butcher answers, raising an eyebrow at me. “There was a presentation for the science classes.” It sounds believable enough. Really, I’m just lucky that my school is rich enough to afford a planetarium, else this excuse would require more creativity.
“No, it was actually the roof of the school,” I say. I want to test my parents’ reactions to the truth.
Butcher smothers a laugh with her napkin while my parents blink at their engraved forks. “Oh, that’s lovely,” my mother finally says. Her throat bobs. Then she digs the silver serving spoon into the pasta and offers the handle to Butcher. “Do you want a second helping?”
* * *
“They loved you,” I declare.
Sun pours onto the rooftop of Memorial, which is unusual for this time of year. Wisconsin winters make the clouds look milky, as if someone dipped their finger into them and swirled them around.
“But that wasn’t me,” Butcher says. She balances on the ledge, and I still worry that she’s going to fall, that she’ll forget how to belong to people and surfaces. “I’m not Isa.”
And I’m not Elinor, I echo, thinking of the dirty joke I told my parents. I’m surprised they didn’t reprimand me afterward; they probably didn’t want to create a scene in front of Butcher. More surprising, however, is that they still allowed me to hang out with Butcher after dessert. Though I did pretend I was walking her home, which my parents have probably realized is a lie by now. I mind less than I should.
“Who is Isa?” I venture.
Butcher cracks her knuckles, one by one. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. “Me before I was me.”
I accept her nonanswer. I accept her bleeding lips and the music of her bones.
“Who am I now?” Butcher asks softly. The city is unfolding in front of her, cars honking over each other, all of them trying to go somewhere we’re not. For once, I love the glassy skyscrapers, the gleam of Lake Monona in the distance, the clamor of restaurant chatter and motorcycle engines and planes careening toward Dane County Regional Airport.
I don’t reply, but I move to stand next to her. The wind is gentle on my cheeks. Like it trusts us.
I’m only just starting to piece together who she is. The girl with the crooked nose. The girl who thinks she’s killed everything she’s loved. The girl who names herself.
“You didn’t hurt anyone,” is all I end up saying. “No matter who you were back then.” If I can’t help her, at least I can give her forgiveness.
She hugs me. Underneath the whispers of strawberry shampoo, she smells like copper.
“Who were you?” she asks, releasing me.
The city streets keep blooming around us, completely unaware. A car even pulls into the front parking lot, its headlights corroding the brick front of the school. If it’s anyone I know, anyone that knows my family, I’m screwed. But I don’t move because Butcher’s question swirls in my head, diluting the danger of the headlights and the vaguely familiar body that emerges from the driver’s seat.
But I don’t move because Butcher’s question swirls in my head, diluting the danger of the headlights and the vaguely familiar body that emerges from the driver’s seat.
I was the girl whose parents outlined her high school class schedule in sixth grade. I was the girl who spent every Sunday playing tennis with her father because that was his favorite sport. I was the girl who listened when my friends warned me to stay away from certain places, certain people.
“A bad person.” I finally realize that I’m being honest. A good person would’ve known that people are more than their environments.
“And now?” asks Butcher.
I shrug. “I’m still figuring that one out. But El’s a solid start.”
The boy from the parking lot jumps when he finally notices us. Not a drunk upperclassman, as I expected, but a different boy from our grade. I think he plays in the orchestra. More importantly, he doesn’t know me.
“Hey!” he calls.
Beside me, Butcher tenses, probably expecting him to yell for us to come down.
But the boy only shields his eyes and continues, “Can I join you guys?”
I look at Butcher. She looks at me.
“Sure,” we decide together. “What’s your name?”
Dana Blatte is from Massachusetts. Her work is published in Fractured Lit, Gone Lawn, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and more, and has been recognized by Ringling College, the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, and The New York Times, among others. She’s an alumna of the 2021 Adroit Mentorship, the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and the Alpha Young Writers Workshop. Besides writing, she loves bedroom pop, anthropology, and honey almond butter. She was born in 2004.