PURGATORY by Amy DeBellis

PURGATORY by Amy DeBellis

Julia starts noticing David when he kills the fish in their bio classroom. The class finds it on the floor when they come in, stranded in a too-shallow puddle of water, tiny mouth open in a last desperate gasp. Like everyone else, David wears an expression of puzzled sorrow, his pale eyes wide with sympathy, but nobody besides Julia notices the spots of water on his sleeves. The thin trapdoor of his smile, flickering in and out of existence.

So Julia starts noticing other things, too. She registers the curve of his lips, the cupid’s bow as pronounced as those of the girls in Renaissance paintings. She wonders what it might taste like. Rust or moss, maybe, blooming in dark secret places where no one looks.

One evening she sees him walking into the field behind their houses. The slim rifle, straight path into the woods, and then a shot. Venison on the neighbors’ table for dinner. 

He sees her seeing him. On the path between their properties, into the narrow space between their bodies, he says, “I can teach you, if you want.”

It’s that sliver of a pause, that hesitation before if you want, that decides her. Because for a second, before he thought to add those words, he didn’t even consider that she might not want it. And in that second she was ready for anything. She wants to live in that second. She wants to pull that second over her like a cloak and walk so far in it that she can’t find her way back home.

 

___

 

The next day, in the forest, David stands very close to her. He has to, in order to show her how to hold and load the rifle. There’s a metallic odor seeping from his skin, as though he’s chewed up a bunch of rounds, gritted them to dust between his teeth, digested them and turned them into sweat.

“Man, you’ve never even held a gun before,” he says in wonder. “What planet did you come from?”

“Some sheltered girl planet, I guess,” Julia replies, and then feels like an idiot.

But he doesn’t seem to mind the distinction she’s drawn between the two of them. “Make sure you’ve got it pointed away from your head. That’s the first thing you need to learn.” Hes grinning, his teeth small and chipped in the crescent moon of his smile. He teaches her the anatomy of the rifle, demonstrating with his rough woodblock hands: “This is the action. This is the safety. This is the trigger…” He makes her recite every part until she’s got it memorized as well as the topography of her own skin. Only then will he let her hold it. 

He says: “Only ever point the rifle at things you are willing to destroy.”

She nods seriously. She thinks of aiming it at every tree on her property, at her house, at her mother’s car. Into the open cavern of her own skull.

 

___

 

When he lets her start shooting, he stands next to her, as though he can guide her shots just by his presence. She misses and misses until finally she doesn’t. It’s a rabbit, small and delicate when it was making its way across the grass, but when she picks the body up it’s ugly, heavy, waterlogged with death. Nothingness spreads through her. 

It’s after her first kill that she learns what David tastes like. Not rust, or moss, or even metal. He tastes like what you might find at the bottom of a pond. Like something that was once green but slowly turning liquid, falling apart to rot. She doesn’t hate it. There’s none of that artificial bubblegum flavor she’s tasted on other boys, no chemical chapstick taste, no spearmint mouthwash. It’s realer than life. As real as death. It draws her in, makes her reach out for more, and he pulls away too soon—smiling, knowing. 

He teaches her how to bring down deer. They’re fast and shy, but a single buck can feed a family for months. Their slim bodies, so elegant in life, lose all their grace at the moment of the bullet’s impact, and what was once a whole animal splinters into a collection of fractures: spasms, synapses blindly firing, intricate circuitry torn apart. 

Every kill earns her a kiss. The loamy warmth, the taste of decay, is addictive. The nothingness spreads through her like poison or wine. 

They go to the forest more and more. They take turns, passing the rifle back and forth between them: a deer for Julia, a fox for David. Julia’s mother doesn’t notice her absence because she doesn’t notice anything anymore. Except the TV, and her cans of beer, and cigarettes that she smokes with fingers that grow increasingly thin and whittled down, like brittle sticks of wood.  

David doesn’t talk about his family, but she knows that he knows about hers. He pulls her close as they hunt frogs in the ponds, not wasting bullets but crouching low to the ground and trapping them in coffee cans, listening to the frantic thump of their bodies, the sound like wet beating hearts. 

“Should we name them?” he asks.  

“What’s the point? We’re killing them anyway.”

She can tell he’s not fooled by her casual tone. A twinge of disdain crosses his face. “You mean, you could never kill anything with a name.”

 

___

 

In the evening the fields turn leaden gray like the skin of her parents. Like her mother with her fingers that will soon be the same size as her cigarettes. Like her father dying sunk full of morphine, painkiller rushing silver through his veins, hospital walls closing in around him like an artificial womb. 

They stop by the edge of the forest. The wheat is as tall as it will ever be. David is by her side, the cool pale of his eyes reflecting the sky. There aren’t any deer here, just a neighbor’s cat, not even thirty feet away. 

“See her?” Julia asks. She is the one holding the rifle.

“Yes.”

The cat doesn’t notice them. Her name is Luna, Julia remembers. Luna or Lulu, something like that. Her tabby pattern blends in with her surroundings, melts her into them like a stripe of paint blurring into a stone-colored background. She slinks through the wheat thinking herself unseen. 

“Lulu,” David whispers, soft as a thought. 

Soon she will disappear into the woods. Only a few more steps until she’s in; only a few more seconds left for Julia to make a shot.  

“Your turn,” David says.

The feeling of her own heart beating is what makes her raise the rifle to her shoulder. She aims, stares down the barrel. She thinks about how they both have hearts, her and David, her and Lulu, her and all the things she’s killed. How everything with a heart is fair game. 

The trigger like a bone under her finger, and then the crack, the nothingness blossoming outward from a central point.

The two of them stand motionless in the algal gloom, in the murky raucous dark. David smiles. And although it’s ostensibly an expression of openness, of transparency and warmth, something about it makes her think of a trap twisting shut. 


Amy DeBellis is a writer from New York. Her writing has appeared in various publications including Pithead Chapel, HAD, Ghost Parachute, and Pinch. Her debut novel is forthcoming from CLASH Books (2025). Read more at amydebellis.com

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