Ellie first met the devil in shop. She was the only girl in the class and this had not been nearly as much trouble as she thought it would be, and then one day she walked in and he was there, doing something to a sawed-off broomstick end with a lathe. He had black hair and blue eyes and he gave her the creeps in a place that felt good.
He said his name was Gabe and that he was good with his hands. Ellie was too young to have heard this expression said in such a way, but again, those creeps in that good-feeling place, and quickly enough shop was her favourite class. The other boys talked to her more than they talked to Gabe. He did not appear to mind.
One evening Ellie was lying on the grass behind the trailer, looking at the deepening turquoise sky and listening to her mother play whole-note scales on her trumpet, when Velma came out and joined her. This was at a time when the two did not speak very often, and even now they didn’t say anything to each other at first, content with sitting side by side and breathing in the same smells from the swamp and the other trailers, and hearing their mother play rather than weep raggedly into the foam pillows of her capsule bed. From where they sat they could see the mirror surface of the swamp, and as they watched, a goose sailed silently out from the reeds, trailing ripples like a wedding train.
‘You and Gabe, then,’ said Velma eventually. Ellie stiffened.
‘Me and Gabe nothing,’ she said, tearing up a blade of grass. Velma nodded slowly.
‘Good.’ The scales from inside stopped and a silence settled over them, as though the whole park was caught on an up-beat.
‘Men are the devil, Ellie,’ said Velma, breaking the solid hush. She stood up and went inside.
Ellie stayed on the grass with her back soaking up the dew until she heard a pan clang in someone else’s kitchen, and she felt that in the brief interlude of silence something profound had changed, and when she started bleeding the next day she was not surprised in the least.
But Gabe stopped coming to shop. Ellie wilted visibly. Velma noticed but said nothing. Their mother mastered whole-note scales and progressed to the Mixolydian mode. The second time Ellie bled it was brown and tarry and she was sure she was going to die.
Instead, as though through force of longing, Gabe returned on the last day of school. Mr Sullivan didn’t ask him where he’d been, as he’d asked Alistair Brimblecombe, who skipped school for three days in order to learn how to gamble downriver with his uncle, and Ellie, though her heart was pounding loud enough to hear it across the room, also said nothing. Gabe slid along the benches until his thigh was up against hers. She was bent over the work counter, soldering iron in hand, melting sticks of pewter onto the backs of brooches shaped like frogs and kittens, and when his leg touched hers the iron sank deep into the flesh between her thumb and her fingers. Her hand flew to her mouth and even as she pressed her tongue to the swelling blister, Gabe was trailing his fingers over her knee, and between the pain and the tickling pleasure Ellie felt a significant portion of herself break off and crumble away. It took weeks for the burn to heal.
When Velma found out the fight shook the trailer on its axle and their mother went next door with her trumpet case and her hand above her head like she was surrendering to the police. When Gabe started going around with the Chalmers girl and Ellie clung to Velma’s bedspread and howled like she was feeling the speed of the Earth through space for the first time, Velma was cold.
‘Didn’t I tell you,’ she said. ‘Didn’t I say they’re the devil,’ and Ellie moaned.