If asked to describe Eleanor Thorne in a single word, most of her neighbors and fellow parishioners would have picked weird or sad or fat. They didn’t know that she cried herself to sleep more often than not. But they did know that she had few friends and weighed about two hundred pounds more than she wanted to, and they never let her forget it.
Most mornings Eleanor rose with the sun, before her father woke, and slid open her closet door, where she’d taped up pictures of thin women laughing in cars, in parks, at restaurants with handsome men. She’d gotten the idea in her head, after her mother died and her father fell ill, that her size and her awkwardness were as much to blame for the misery in her family home as the asbestos in their rafters.
She would stare at the posters, the photos, while huffing and puffing through a series of calisthenics. Then she’d pick up a photo of her mother she kept on a bureau in the closet, alongside her mother’s hairbrush and a few of her favorite things. She’d blow her mother a kiss, whisper a prayer, and reach for the hairbrush.
Today, a Saturday, she’d permitted herself to sleep in a little. And her father woke about 15 minutes after she finished her morning routine.
Henry Thorne weighed about a hundred pounds less than he used to, and Pastor Tom said that he looked more like a drowned rat than a man. The fine bones of his hands seemed to strain against his paper-thin skin, and his eyes bulged from the sallow planes of face, giving him the helpless look of a small animal being squeezed too tightly.
Small animals still had teeth, though. And Eleanor could tell by the way that her father was sizing up the food she’d brought him for breakfast that morning that he was about to bare his. “What’s this?” he asked, lifting his spoon and letting it plop wetly back into the bowl.
“Biscuits and gravy. Mama’s recipe.”
He scrunched up his nose, like a spoiled toddler refusing vegetables. “Hers never looked like this.”
“Do you want me to make you something else?”
“I’m not hungry.”
Eleanor picked up the bowl and carried it back to the kitchen without another word.
Henry had never been an indulgent father. But after receiving his diagnosis, he’d begun to lash out at her more often, cutting her with sharp words and razor-edged looks.
Pastor Tom kept telling her that she needed to learn to forgive her father’s outbursts, that she could not fill herself with Christ’s love if she was already full of anger and sadness, but the only thing that put her in a forgiving mood these days had more to do with her mother than Jesus.
In the months after her mother had died and a pair of government inspectors had deemed the Thorne home unsafe for human habitation, Eleanor had been tasked with baggin or boxing up everything inside the house, trying to decide what to trash and what to keep. At first she couldn’t bear to throw away anything that belonged to her mother, not a single moth-eaten sweater, not even a notepad with the words “peas and carrots,” scrawled across it. She was hamstrung by grief, incapable of moving on or moving out—until she found the hairbrush.
It was an ordinary hairbrush, with a wooden handle and boar bristles. But the effect it had on Eleanor was anything but ordinary. When she picked it up she felt lighter and warmer than she had in months. Whether that was because she had so many fond memories of her mother brushing her hair when she was younger, or because her mother had touched it so often that it had soaked up some of her love, she couldn’t say. But the brush’s solid oak handle and soft bristles—clumps of silver-white hair still clinging to them—comforted Eleanor more than any of the kind words or care packages the congregation had given her. Each hair was a little piece of her mother, a little piece of the person she loved most in the world.
She dropped it into one of her mother’s old purses, along with a few photographs of the two of them together, and a star-shaped rock they’d found when they went camping for Eleanor’s twenty-fifth birthday. When she and Henry finally found a new house, she arranged the mementos along the sill of her new bedroom window, the brush in front, the photographs and the rock lined up behind it like wise men bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.
One day, she’d been sitting in their new living room, absentmindedly twirling one of her mother’s silver strand around her fingers, when she heard her father’s creaking footsteps on the staircase. She knew he would make her to throw away the hairbrush if he found out she had taken to carrying clumps of her dead mother’s hair around with her, so she hid the evidence. She opened her mouth and swallowed the scraggly strand of hair in one gulp. She’d expect a wave of disgust to roll over her. But it didn’t come. Instead, the hair made her feel as warm and as calm as her mother always did.
That’s how Eleanor got into the habit of swallowing a strand of hair whenever a bad mood overtook her. If she felt the darkness sneaking up on her, she’d pluck a hair from the bristles of the brush, carry it to the kitchen, and cook it into whatever she was eating. Then she’d swallow it and wait for it to reach her stomach, where it could dry up the devil that lived deep in her gut, burning it with white-hot love.
Eleanor understood, of course, that the hairs would not last if she kept eating them—there were, in fact, only sixty-six of them left the last time she’d checked. But as her father’s condition deteriorated, she’d been finding it harder and harder to keep the blackness at bay.
Later that day, for instance, when her father called her back into his room and insisted that she run to the store to pick up some cheese and crackers for him, she knew she’d need a strand of hair to fortify her for the trip.
On her way out the door, she reached for the puffy down coat and knit cap her mother gave her for Christmas last year. Both were bright white, and her mother had told her, when she tried them on for the first time, that they made her look like a snow angel.
It was the second week of December, and every house on their block had been trimmed with twinkling lights or evergreen wreaths except for the Blackstone place, across the street. Mr. and Mrs. Blackstone lived with their teenage son in a crumbling craftsman home with mismatched shingles. They seemed nice enough, but Pastor Tom told her that they were unbelievers, so Eleanor never stopped by the corner store they ran together, even though it was closer to their new house than the Stop ‘n’ Save where she’d been shopping since she and her father moved. On her way past, she saw Mrs. Blackstone watering the plants she kept near the register, Mr. Blackstone sweeping out the aisles. He waved at her, and she permitted herself a small smile.
Farther up the street, six or seven teenage boys were smoking cigarettes outside a bar they were clearly too young to enter. Eleanor had seen them before, drinking underneath the old covered bridge on the other side of town. She pulled her cap further across her face and crossed the street.
One of them spotted her as soon as she changed directions, though, and pointed her out to the others. She couldn’t hear most of what they said but caught the word “marshmallow” and the knife-sharp point of their laughter.
She kept her head down and half-walked, half-jogged the last block to the Stop ‘n’ Save, where she had the cashier ring the cheese and crackers up. “Looks like we’re set to get another five or six inches tonight,” he told her. “You’d better hurry home.”
Sure enough, when she stepped outside again, she saw fat, wet snowflakes falling from the colorless sky. She walked quickly, hoping to make it back before the weather got any worse. But when she reached the alley by the Blackstones’ store, she pulled up short.
The boys were leaning against the dingy brick of the allery, holding bags of marshmallows. They’d been waiting for her.
If she’d run then, if she’d dashed across the intersection just as the light flashed from yellow to red, she might have escaped. She might have run all the way home and wrapped herself in her childhood blankets and held her mother’s brush against her chest, the warmest, softest part of her, and remembered that her life was still full of heat and light and love, that there was no need to obsess over what the boys said to her, or what they might have done to her. And everything might have been all right. If she’d just been able to touch the brush, to run her fingers lightly along the cloud-puff of her mother’s hair, everything might have turned out okay.
But she did not run. She stood still, staring at the boys and the bags of marshmallows they’d evidently bought from the Blackstones’ while she was shopping. And by the time she realized what was about to happen next, it was too late. They were already circling her, tearing into the plastic bags with their teeth and nails.
Strangely, the emotion Eleanor felt most acutely when the boys began to lob the fluffy, white marshmallows at the fluffy, white expanse of fabric covering her stomach was not fear or anger. It was embarrassment. It embarrassed her to be the sort of person that other people wanted to hurt, the sort of person other people would laugh at.
When one of the bolder boys, a redhead with a large gap between his front two teeth, strode over to her and snatched the hat her mother had given her from her head, though, her embarrassment began to give way to rage. To blackness.
“Give that back!” she shouted.
“If you want it, you’ve got to take it,” he said, dangling the hat high above her head. When she jumped to reach for it, he let it fall softly to the slush-brown snow at their feet. “Whoops.”
As she bent down to pick it up, he tore the Stop ‘n’ Save bag away from her and stepped on the bag as soon as it hit the street, grinding the crackers into crumbs under his feet. “I guess I’m extra clumsy today,” he said, loudly, because he wanted his friends to hear the joke.
Eleanor’s knuckles turned as white as her coat. She raised her fists and was just about to strike the boy when she heard the bell that hung above the doorway of the Blackstones’ store jangle merrily. And Mrs. Blackstone ran through the door, Mr. Blackstone right behind her. Both were staring at Eleanor, at the gaggle of boys, their mouths wide, angry open wounds.
“What’s going on here?” Mrs. Blackstone shouted.
The gap-toothed boy took a few steps back. Another drew his hoodie over his forehead and turned his body as far as away from Mrs. Blackstone as he could. She recognized him anyway, though.
“Aaron,” she cried, rushing toward the boy and yanking his hood back. “How could you do this?” Eleanor realized that he must be the sullen teenage son she’s seen slinking around the Blackstones’ house a few times. “How could any of you do this?” she said, scanning the downcast faces of the other boys, who instinctively hunched their shoulders to avoid exposing their necks. They stood like that until Mrs. Blackstone finally let them go home, let their graying hoodies and faded jeans melt into the shadowy cityscape surrounding them.
The Blackstones insisted on bringing Eleanor back to their store to replace the food the gap-toothed boy had destroyed. Eleanor didn’t want to spend another second in their son’s presence. But she didn’t have enough strength left to say no, so she allowed Mrs. Blackstone to lead her from aisle to aisle, allowed Mr. Blackstone to bag her groceries, allowed them both to apologize for their son.
“I don’t know what came over him,” he muttered. “Kids can be so cruel.”
When Eleanor finally left their store, carrying two boxes of crackers and the nicest cheese the Blackstones’ carried, it was still snowing. And the moon—which had been hidden behind a bank of low, gray clouds for most of the evening—was now visible. Its light illuminated the snowflakes that fell through the air and landed on the puffy sleeves of her parka, the dead grass of her front lawn.
When she made it home, she took the cheese and crackers to her father. Then she tramped down the hallway to her bedroom, shut the door behind her, and cried for a very long time.
The next morning she needed two hairs to cope with her father’s sullen looks and her own black thoughts. The morning after that she needed three. And the next and the next and the next. The days passed quickly that way, each one bleeding into the next with nothing to distinguish it except the number of hairs she ate and the number of times her father called for her—until Pastor Tom finally came to visit them again.
Christmas had come and gone by then, and the snow in their front yard was more gray than white, but Pastor Tom seemed as cheerful as ever. He hugged Eleanor when she greeted him and smiled beatifically when he handed her his coat. Then he patted her on the shoulder and dutifully trudged up the stairs to her father’s room.
He always spoke to her father first, on the off chance that he was finally ready to let Pastor Tom pray for him. Henry generally refused to talk about anything except his collection of Civil War rifles or his favorite sports teams, though, so their little chats didn’t usually last long.
Pastor Tom was never upset by Henry’s refusal to talk about death, or the afterlife. He usually just shrugged when Henry told him to go to hell and sauntered off to the dining room, where Eleanor always had a snack set aside for him. For his visit today, she’d placed a plate of chocolate chip cookies and two glasses of milk on the old cherry table they’d brought over from the old house.
“How are you holding up?” he asked her, sinking into a chair and picking up a cookie. “Have you given any more thought to what we talked about last time?”
“Yes,” he said, breaking the cookie into two neat pieces and dunking one of them into his glass of milk. “I think you’ve got a good case. Your landlord was legally obligated to have the place inspected for asbestos before he started renting it out. And now that your father has mesothelioma too, he can’t pretend that your mother’s diagnosis was a fluke.”
“He seemed sorry,” Eleanor noted. “He sold his car to pay for her medical bills.”
“He’d be sorrier if you filed a lawsuit. Think of how much good you could do with the money, Eleanor.”
“Not just for yourself, either. For your father. And for the church too. You could help fund our next mission, if you wanted to.”
“You said that we should always forgive those who wrong us.” Pastor Tom frowned. “Not everyone deserves forgiveness.”
Eleanor picked up a cookie and nibbled at it uncertainly, ignoring her milk. She knew that
Pastor Tom was a pious man, but she didn’t like it when he tried to bully her into doing what he wanted. Henry had a tendency to do the same thing. “You don’t think that everyone deserves a second chance?” she asked finally.
“There are some things that can’t be forgiven.”
He polished off three more and a second glass of milk before announcing that he’d better get back to work. As he was gathering his things, he stopped and reached into his bag. “I almost forgot,” he said. “I know how busy you get, so I took the liberty of fetching your mail for you. There were a couple of bills.” He pulled them out and placed them on the table. “And a package.” He retrieved a lumpy brown-paper package—unmarked and unstamped—from the bag and tossed it on the table too.
Eleanor could tell by the way it skidded across the chippy table top that it didn’t weigh much. Maybe as much as a stuffed animal. “I guess you’ve got an admirer,” Pastor Tom said, chuckling. Then he patted Eleanor on the head and told her that he’d check in on her soon, to see if she was ready to move forward with the lawsuit, and check in on her father of course.
Eleanor tore into the brown-paper package as soon as the front door clicked shut behind him. It did not contain a stuffed animal, or any sort of gift. It contained a bag of marshmallows, half-squashed and still cold.
She lurched from her chair and threw the bag across the room, where it bounced harmlessly against the far wall of the room before sliding behind a chair. Then she retreated to her bedroom, where she remained for the rest of the evening—lying in bed, with the covers pulled up past her head.
When she woke up the next morning, the blackness had claimed her completely. She cooked two of her mother’s hairs into the oatmeal she made for breakfast, but they didn’t bring her even a moment of relief. She stirred three more into the spaghetti she heated up for lunch, but they didn’t give her anything but indigestion. The hairs, it seemed, had lost their magic. Or maybe they never had any to begin with.
She let herself to surrender to the blackness. She didn’t clean up any of the dishes she dirtied that day. She ignored her father when he called out to her, to tell her that he was hungry. She just sat on the unmade bedspread in her room, with her lights turned off, staring at the little shrine on her bureau. It suddenly looked like nothing more than a pile of the sort of junk you might see at a yard sale. The hairbrush suddenly seemed worthless, and the hairs too. She plucked them from the bristles one by one—it didn’t take her long because there weren’t many left by then—and let them drift to the threadbare carpet at her feet.
Her mother, the only person who ever loved her, was dead, and Eleanor would never be able to see her again. She would spend the rest of her life waiting on men like her father, like Pastor Tom. Men who ordered around, abusing her with hurtful words or store-bought marshmallows, treating her like an animal.
She could choose to be a vicious animal, though. She could allow the blackness to pour out of her, onto the warped floorboards underneath her feet, until the whole house was flooded with her rage. She could let it buoy her up, carry her upstairs, past her father’s room. She could ride that wave of fury to the end of the hallway, where Henry kept his nicest rifles. She could choose a gun. And she could carry it outside, where she might find the boys again.
If her mother had still been alive then, maybe she could have talked some sense into her. Maybe she could have told her that the boys were wicked, yes, but not in any special sort of way, only in that everyday ordinary way that all children are a little awful sometimes. She could have told her that everyone’s like that at that age. And she could have told her that yes, people can be bad, but that they can be good too. The Blackstones were good, weren’t they? God was good. She could be good too.
She could have told her that if she was there, but of course she wasn’t. So Eleanor proceeded to remove one of her father’s guns from the case where he kept them. She checked its chamber, to make sure that it was loaded, and carried it downstairs, the blackness swirling around her heels as she walked, pushing her onward, outward, into the icy winter air.
It didn’t take her long to find the boys. They were hanging out in a parking lot not far from the Blackstones’ grocery store. The one with the gap-toothed grin was telling a joke, and the others were listening intently, waiting for a punchline that would never come.
Lindsey Brooke Anderson is an Ohio-born, Wisconsin-based journalist who covers art and culture in her adopted state. She was once a semi-professional burlesque dancer and roller derby skater; she’s long since thrown away the tassels but has kept the skates.