photo of a wall of shovels

A Cleaving in Addison County by Shannon Grasser

There are girls in this town with the same name as me. Addison County will spare not a single one. These Addisons, them and I —down to maybe four now— we exist like lambs. We don immaculately white skirts and sleep silently on doorsteps. We beg.  

This town is an old place, an industrial skeleton after a sweeping brushfire. The air swells every spring with pollen and breathes a low hum of metal grating metal; so constant our ears feel empty without it. This town sacrifices one Addison every year. It has been this way since the ’60s and no longer devastates like it used to.

I look for my locker and find it hidden behind a forest of decoration: the once slick green surface is layered in taped pink and white envelopes, a balloon hangs from the combination lock, wilting peonies spring from the slits near the top. It’s a sort of shrine to me.

Donnie sidles up next to me in class three minutes before the first bell rings.

“Addison,” he says.

“Donnie,” I say. My fingers scrape a pen back and forth until a small, disfigured rabbit is birthed right there, right on the wood of my desk.

“It’s March 1st,” he says, and his mouth stretches into a grin. 

This is not news to me.

“There are three others,” I say. 

“I know,” Donnie says. “I hope it’s that ugly one from Lincoln.”  

I draw a gun to the rabbit’s head. The bell rings.

 

The locals call it the Cleaving. A favor. The rest call it a curse, or a plague, or a reckoning. I get special treatment in school this March, every March, as each high school with an Addison prays to the skies to take theirs this time. It is seen as an honor, like how gas stations put up signs that say they sold a winning lottery ticket. We are fattened up in hope for a slaughter. 

I am Heritage Technical’s first Addison in two decades, and likely to be the last for some time. Last year’s Addison came from the Addison School for Girls over on the east side of town. She was a particularly small one, barely a body at all, called Addison May Kearney; swallowed whole on March 18th, her tenth birthday. 

 

It is true that I have had no concrete symptoms yet; nothing for my teachers or parents to bow to yet. But I feel something in my bones this time, like an ache or a wince. Like they are slowly separating at the joints, preparing for an ascension. Every day, I pray for my mortality to stop haunting and step into the light. I wonder what it looks like. I think growing up in this place has taught even the most tender part of my heart to ignore the taste of blood in its mouth.

Tonight, I will slather myself in VapoRub and slip into a bath.

 

The days of that March pass painstakingly. The cool promise of spring wraps its grip around my ankles. I get so many poems and prayers stuck to my locker that they begin to flood the floor, spreading over the hallway like confetti. My mother cooks my favorite dish for every meal and scoops me strawberry ice cream every evening. The local news interrupts football games to show the footage they got of me walking into school this morning. Today, there is an assembly in my favor that I will skip to meet Donnie by the fences out back.

 

As the sun pulls into the driveway of afternoon, I cross over Donnie’s doorstep and into his orange-lit house. He leads me into his bedroom and sits me on his bed. When I look down at where the bare mattress peaks out from underneath the unfitted fitted sheet, I think of how his razorblade smile could tear it right open. I am dressed as the saint and he as the sinner; me at the stake and him with the fire. 

He wants to kiss and so I let him. We match spit innocently until his hands get greedy and I am pushed back on the bed, sprawled atop sheets like I’ve just been shot. I think I’ve just been shot. His mouth reconnects with mine as my ribs start to crack, my chest caving inward and outward like the way you rip a pomegranate apart. My body heaves but Donnie does not notice. He crawls on top of me. But when the last rib splits, the noise is loud enough to fill the entire room. 

Donnie pulls back. “What was that?” He says.

I slip out from under him and float towards the mirror. When I lift my shirt, I can see through the skin as the blood pools between my bones. The edges glow green and purple and feel tender to the touch. My pink-lined throat turns raw. I resemble live, maple-breasted decay. Donnie arrives behind me and when he sees the bruising, he smiles. His lips dip to the crook of my neck and I tilt my chin to give him more room. 

Donnie is my first and will be my last.

When it’s over —the rib cracking and the skin sucking and the hymen breaking— I place my feet on the floor and rise up slowly. 

“Was that your first?” Donnie asks. I can see his slight smirk through the fogged mirror. 

I think about saying no, this town fucked me before even he could; that there is a part of me that aches in quiet, my guts tacky with plasma, begging to be spilled someday across a blinking blackness. 

I sigh. “I think I should go home now.”

 

Later that night, my mother draws me a bath and when she sees my torso, she rejoices. Almost immediately, she drops to her knees and begins thanking God for the privilege to serve him in this way, to have been chosen to provide him with a gift like me. A gift like me, a gift of a girl lean and dumb, with eyes dull and brown, and a brain that failed science two years in a row. I can’t help but wonder why God would want this. But I may not question this, and so I cry with my mother and my father on the staircase and I drink wine in the bathtub and try not to think about Addison Casey-Marie Levanski, who was chosen six years ago but did not go quietly. She was the first in a long time to fight the favor, and so was met with a much more brutal death than a lot of us get. Her legs stopped working altogether and so she had to worm her way around town on her stomach. Her eyes would bleed as she slept. I was only nine years old when I watched her body split itself down the middle on live television. 

I try not to think about this town’s most famous Addison, who jumped the gun and shot herself before her symptoms could even start. I don’t want to think about that Addison because I think I want to do the same. 

 

The next morning, I grab a shovel from the shed and drag it with me to the front yard. The ground is cold and hard and the air is biting against my bare skin; I decide to arrive in death in as little clothing as possible, so that my mother may give my good things to her next child. 

Ten minutes later, I see the bodies begin to exit their houses. Some stay on their porches, others cross the street to watch from the sidewalk. Ms. Kitt from next-door pulls up a foldable lawn chair and sits with some lemonade. The Crohns from across the way bring their young children on their hips. A party-like atmosphere unravels in the street as I dig myself a grave in my front yard. In time, the two ends of the street are blocked off by police cars and no one can get in or out unless on foot. Fireworks are set off in the distance. The news has traveled quickly and soon there are cameras and reporters on the grass trying to get my best angle. 

The longer it takes, the harder it becomes. My arms grow weak with atrophy and my joints buckle. I fall to the grass and must continue on my hands and knees. My hair begins falling from my head, strand by strand, landing in my hole. Bruises form on the skin of my forearms and thighs. My body is eating itself from the inside out. My mother and father cry tears of joy in the doorway. The creek keeps running in the background. My heartbeat echoes one thousand times. For a moment, it feels like the whole world might catch on fire.

But it doesn’t. All that is left to do is get in. 

Shannon Grasser is a writer and visual artist based out of Baltimore, Maryland. She graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Creative Writing from Susquehanna University, where her work won awards for Best in Poetry as well as Best All-Around Writing. She likes to spend her free time drawing, walking her dog, and writing things that make people squirm a little. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Lead image: “wall” (via Flickr user David Lenker)