”“Dead Girl, Developing” hit me like a wooden cart carrying a load of yellow bricks; I was flattened by it, in the very best way. I loved the swagger of the narrator’s voice, and how she points that voice like a weapon at her sister and herself, at the other characters, and at the reader, too, using caustic footnotes to challenge our perceptions and assumptions about her world. Next, I loved the casual way tragedy derails a perfectly normal (if decidedly imperfect) day, and Uma’s surprising transformation in the aftermath. And finally, I love that this author denies us the traditionally heart-rending, cathartic story we might expect, giving us, instead, something more invigorating, more unexpected: a lightly surreal, deeply believable, darkly funny and electric tale of two girls, developing. “Dead Girl, Developing” is uniquely revelatory; it’s a story about very big, human things: tragedy, loss, identity, and survival.” —Laura Sims, contest judge and author of Looker
Dead Girl, Developing
by T.M. De Vos
Winner of the 2019 Fiction Contest
1 Dung and cart are signal words for a backwards life—you’ll want to say pre-industrial or developing, as if the country was a photograph in a darkroom, and the cellular towers and fast-food restaurants were just beginning to emerge from the slurry.
2 See, you’re saying already, beginning to relax, they don’t mind.
The perpetrator was a cart, a wooden one with wheels that collected dung and had been hammered nearly octagonal, as if the wheel had never been invented at all. 1
We had little, but other families we knew had no more, so we didn’t know how little we had. 2
We children watched the wheels roll out and flatten the dung like gingerbread. We watched with a particular thrill when one overtook a rat, casting a shadow on its back. In an instant, blood burst through the pelt, and the body stamped its red seal for a few meters before it was breaded over with straw and dust and more dung—that plentiful sediment of living things.
I’ll say it: We rooted for the cart.
3 Thus, you understand, somehow for sale.
4 And a medical and sexual curiosity.
5 Children darker than your lunch bag are accident-prone, you assume; you wouldn’t worry over them.
We were girls, 3 and twins. 4 We were at that age when it had become important for an auntie to slap us if our skirts flew up while we played or if we accepted a sweet from a strange man.
Let’s call my sister Ulla, and me Uma: limber Scandinavian names to provoke your empathy. 5 Ulla and I had switched places that morning. We did it often, but today it had been my idea. I liked the forbidden chill of stepping into Ulla, all loose limbs and smart mouth.
As Ulla, I stuck my hands deep in my pockets, elbows out. I swung them, taking up space. Ulla always had more air around her.
When she was being me, she kept her eyes down, mouth in a knot. It was how I looked, she swore, and maybe it was: I didn’t recognize our bangs or fat lips when I caught a glimpse in the undertow of a shiny counter. I imagined myself looking distinguished, with a beard and white hair, and–somehow–glasses. It was disappointing to be reminded you were only a girl, and a silly-looking one with a plastic necklace.6
6 This detail signals a different era, a time before children swiped through videos of themselves on tablets and reenacted the scenes.
7 An open space where women kneel and sell whatever their families aren’t immediately using.
Mama was walking beside me, carrying a plastic bag stamped with the name of some American company. I tried to make sense of the letters: tall, leaning sticks and a few small curls. We were headed for the market. 7
“Ulls,” Mama groused, and swatted me when I knocked against her.
Ulla’s eyes found mine, pleased. She had been speeding up our heartbeats, riling me up. She would hold her breath, puffing out her chest until the veins in her temples popped and my own pulse throbbed. She liked action: the horns and shouts and rattling motors. I sucked in a giant breath and let it out slowly, the way I did to sign my name on the bus window.
Everyone was out, even if they had no particular business—and no one did, really. You went down to the market to bump into your friends or pick a fight. Ulla and I always made it a point to find the girls from the other side of the highway and remind them that they were whores. According to them, we were so ugly we gave it away for free. After a few exchanges, we’d be happily throwing rocks, raising wine-colored splotches on each other’s skin. 8
8 You can use this detail, dropped so casually into the rising action, as a reason to pull away, to distance yourself from us. Doing so will inoculate you from whatever crisis is bound to follow. They slut-shame; they could really hurt each other. And sometimes we did, but even the injured one took it in stride. It was a treat to be in charge of—if not ourselves–at least one another.
We had to pass the bus stop to reach the market, something I dreaded as myself. The bus stop was always crammed with sweating men drinking moonshine out of plastic bottles, hunched over stuffed tote bags. Miserable, squinting toddlers who might have belonged to anyone squalled in the dust.
Bold now, as Ulla, I stared back at a man who was looking at us like a pair of goats he wanted to buy. I let my eyes roam from the snapped-off vegetables at his feet all the way up to his face, burned over and over by the sun.
His friend smacked his lips, and the men beside them laughed.
Nobody was shocked. A granny tsked, and no one cursed her, but they didn’t shut up either.
The staring man turned to the lip smacker. “Did you see those pieces? I’d like to—” And he made a gesture I had never seen before, as if his fingers were a scoop reaching up from below. Inside of us, maybe, or just under our skirts.
Ulla turned, eyebrows lifted. Stunned for once, or perhaps just reacting like me.
9 Not a geographical marker: It was summer.
10 Don’t read any regional identifiers here, either: Cheap carbohydrates are universal staples of the poor.
It was so hot that the crowd fused and morphed into a single blob. 9 The porridge I had eaten that morning sloshed heavy in my stomach, but my head was foggy. 10
A pace back, Mama’s hand tightened on my wrist. I was on the clock. We had to scorn him, right here in the street, before the granny tsked again and Mama decked us both. We had to get really angry. To curse all the female ancestors who’d brought these men into the world to be a stain on girls everywhere, or people would think Mama hadn’t raised us right.
The cart had just started to crawl into the right lane when Ulla stopped and yelled, “Take your filthy hand and use it on your filthy mother, and leave decent girls alone.” She brought her own fingers together at the tips and waved them like a torch.
A few of the grannies nodded and sucked in air.
The man laughed and pawed his friend, who swatted him as if he’d reached for the last half-cigarette.11 Mama’s grip on my arm let up, even though I hadn’t done anything good.
11 In our part of the world, you’re not having a good time unless you’re all over someone, dragging him into it with you.
We were nearly across the highway, and Ulla had almost caught up to us when the truck that had been sputtering behind the cart revved and knocked it forward.
I was there, but I still can’t say how the cube of air around Ulla suddenly filled with the cart. Or how the hay on it flew off, and the yellow bricks scattered all over the highway. All I knew was that beneath all of it Ulla wasn’t a girl anymore, just one of the skins hung at the butcher’s.
There were pins in my fingers and toes, as if I’d been sitting for too long. I shuffled my feet, trying to kick the current back over to Ulla.
“Uma,” Mama shrieked, the a dying in her throat.
I ran to her side, but she was bent over Ulla.
The granny yanked at Mama, trying to pull her up, but Mama already had Ulla bundled against her. 12
12 You might wonder at this point why I didn’t clarify which of Mama’s children actually died. There’s a certain mortality rate for children in some places, and it doesn’t matter all that much which is gone. We weren’t personalities, beyond Ulla being loud or me being bashful; we were a collective of two that had to eat and wash and be kept away from men.
“She’s gone, sister,” said our neighbor, who had three living children of her own. She tried to pry Mama’s fingers off the pieces of Ulla, but they snapped back into place.
I sneaked a foot out of my sandal and rubbed it in the dust. There were little bumps on the sole that wanted to be torn open.
“You saw how she didn’t let those pigs say nothing to her,” Mama insisted, over Ulla’s broken shoulder.
“She’s gone now, sister,” the neighbor repeated, gently. “A better place.”
I left my foot planted in the street, understanding now: Ulla was dead. Snuffed. Never again would she speed up our hearts until they burned our throats like a hot bean.
“Too good to live,” Mama sobbed. “My sweet, shy girl.”
Where was the man, all this time? Where had he gone to escape the scene? From Mama’s cries and the lady who was pulling her up onto the curb, telling her to stop crying, that Ulla was just a girl? 13
13 You’re either secretly nodding or very publicly appalled. Try to understand: it’s human nature to devalue the lost thing. The husband, the car, the child. That old thing? You’re better for losing it. Now you can enjoy life without the tyranny of the drunkenness, the broken wheels. The cost of a dowry.
I spotted the man a lane over, helping the cart driver pick up the hay. They were both sweating, wet blobs spreading across their backs. Traffic crawled around them, avoiding the golden spill.
I stood in the cart’s shadows and watched the man, his pants sinking as he stooped to reveal his shiny, marbled crack.
Whatever of Ulla was trapped in me curled over my back, hot with poison. I kicked off the other shoe. The itch in my feet was torture now, seven layers under the skin.
I picked up a stick lying in the road and it snapped to life, too, part of me now. I ran up behind the man, feet burning, and thrust the stick into the flesh of his sad, soft ass.
He yelped and whipped around. Already I could see that he wasn’t the same man. The whites of his eyes had turned pink, his face to pale dough under the scorch.
“You want to look, whore?” I shouted in Ulla’s voice, waving the stick. I didn’t even know if men could be whores, but the word was delicious to say. Delicious to imagine him pawing a thousand sweating, dirty men and begging them to take it easy on his silky crack.
But he didn’t. He turned back to the hay, shreds of bark stuck to his backside. He didn’t want his friend to laugh now. He didn’t want anyone to turn and paw him. He hadn’t any money, most likely, to pay for the funeral. Pay off the police.
The cart driver glanced at me, then at the man, and shrugged.
“Sack of plague,” I screamed at the man’s back, bolder now. I stepped onto the hood of a parked car you could’ve broken into with a good knife. “May no one touch you if you live to be a hundred.”
I rolled my eyes up to the heavens, like Mama did when she swore at the neighbors. I didn’t know where it came from, but a deep, sulfurous growl tore out of me and commanded, “Kill yourself.”
Killing yourself was a sin: He’d never get to heaven. Never get to that pool-blue sky you saw in paintings, where everyone was clean and dry. 14
14 I wasn’t clear on the facts, exactly, but I imagined Heaven as the supermarket freezer on a hot day, when I could sear a horseshoe into the frost with my wrist. Or the hours between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m. when you could sleep a little. The shock of Miss writing a ten at the top of your page in red pen after she checked your sums.
He turned all the way around, as if I’d told him to undress right there in the street.
“Kill yourself,” I repeated, quieter now, so it was just between him and me.
I snapped the stick into two raw halves and hurled the green at him with all the current left in me. One of the halves flew into his face, but I didn’t stay to gloat. I hopped down into a cloud of dust, leaving him with the hex.
Mama borrowed enough to scratch our surname on a flat stone and put Ulla in a modest box. There was only enough for a first initial—the U, the one we shared. 15
15 When the uncles dug the hole, they planted her off-center, to the left. Mama nodded as they squared it off with their spades. "Just in case," she muttered, not looking at me. See note 12.
It was only natural for Ulla to change, after all that. She grew quieter until she turned into me.
I saved up sparks. I stored insults from the bridge girls, every leering face of every unzipped man on the bus. If you’d put a bulb in my hand I could have lit it up. And when I’d had enough for both of us, I exploded.
Not every day, not every week. When I needed to. The rest of the time, I kept quiet. Even when Mama rolled her eyes at the sky and said, “Watch over my Uma who was too good for this world.”
I liked it, actually. I liked the idea of being too noble for the crowded, miserable world. I imagined myself marching through America, and Paris, the Eiffel Tower snapping in two for me like a rich man’s gate.
I was sure Mama guessed. When I only shrugged over some insult instead of cursing and kicking. When I slipped and called myself we. When I said my own name in my sleep.
I would catch her sneaking looks at me as we washed in the basin or poked the fire, sure she saw some freckle or scar. Some mark that had only ever belonged to me.
One night, she turned to me and grabbed my chin. “Ulla,” she said, looking me down the eyes.
A branch dropped off the stack and started smoking. I choked, throat turning to sawdust.
“Promise,” she demanded, shaking the cough out of me. “Promise me you’ll never cross that highway.”
“Yes, ma’am,” l croaked, even though we both knew the whole world was on the other side.
Published June 16th, 2019
T.M. De Vos is the author of Cimmeria (Červena Barvá Press, 2016); a 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow; and an instructor at Writing Workshops Detroit. Her short story, 'The Wrong Sort of Woman,' received the 2018 Paper Darts Short Fiction Award, judged by Carmen Maria Machado. She has received support from the Murphy Writing Seminars, Summer Literary Seminars, and Cullman Center for Teachers at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared recently in Carve, The Same, Gyroscope Review, Tinge Magazine, Embark Literary Journal, MockingHeart Review, and Vagabond. She is currently at work on 1.25 novels.
Matthew Korbel-Bowers is a graphic artist in Portland, Oregon and creative director of Pacific Northwest College of Art. Matthew's work is a collection of experimental form studies and colorful odes to graphic simplicity. MKB is an alumnus of the Pacific Northwest College of Art (BFA) and the California College of the Art's MFA Design program. He has led creative teams at Communication Arts magazine and University of California, Berkeley. korbelbowers.com