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Sharp objects, p.13

Sharp Objects, page 13

 

 


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  “Your sister is sick. She’s worried herself into a fever since you’ve been home,” Adora said, still pressing Amma’s hand in that circle. I pictured my mother’s teeth gnashing against each other inside her cheek.

  Alan, I realized, was sitting just inside, watching them through the window screen from the living-room loveseat.

  “You need to make her feel more comfortable around you, Camille; she’s just a little girl,” my mother cooed to Amma.

  A little girl with a hangover. Amma left my room last night and went down to drink a while in her own. That’s the way this house worked. I left them whispering to each other, favorite buzzing on my knee.

  “Hey, Scoop.” Richard rolled along beside me in his sedan. I was walking to the space where Natalie’s body had been discovered, to get specific details about the balloons and notes placed there. Curry wanted a “town in mourning” piece. That is, if there were no leads on the murders. Implication being there better be some lead, and soon.

  “Hello, Richard.”

  “Nice story today.” Damn Internet. “Glad to hear you’ve found a source close to the police.” He was smiling when he said it.

  “Me too.”

  “Get in, we’ve got some work to do.” He pushed open the passenger door.

  “I’ve got my own work to do. So far working with you has given me nothing but unusable, no-comment comments. My editor’s going to pull me out soon.”

  “Well, we can’t have that. Then I’ll have no distractions,” he said. “Come on with me. I need a Wind Gap tour guide. In return: I will answer three questions, completely and truthfully. Off record of course, but I’ll give it to you straight. Come on, Camille. Unless you’ve got a date with your police source.”

  “Richard.”

  “No, truly, I don’t want to interfere with a burgeoning love affair. You and this mysterious fellow must make quite a handsome pair.”

  “Shut up.” I got in the car. He leaned over me, pulled down my seat belt and secured it, pausing for a second with his lips close to mine.

  “I’ve got to keep you safe.” He pointed over to a mylar balloon swaying in the gap where Natalie’s body was found. It read Get Well Soon.

  “That to me,” Richard said, “perfectly sums up Wind Gap.”

  Richard wanted me to take him to all the town’s secret places, the nooks that only locals know about. Places where people meet to screw or smoke dope, where teens drink, or folks go to sit by themselves and decide where their lives had unraveled. Everyone has a moment where life goes off the rails. Mine was the day Marian died. The day I picked up that knife is a tight second.

  “We still haven’t found a kill site for either girl,” Richard said, one hand on the wheel, the other draped on the back of my seat. “Just the dumping areas, and those are pretty contaminated.” He paused. “Sorry. ‘Kill site’ is an ugly phrase.”

  “More suited to an abattoir.”

  “Wow. Fifty-cent word there, Camille. Seventy-five cents in Wind Gap.”

  “Yeah, I forget how cultured you Kansas City folks are.”

  I directed Richard onto an unmarked gravel road, and we parked in the knee-length weeds about ten miles south of where Ann’s body had been found. I fanned the back of my neck in the wet air, plucked at my long sleeves, stuck to my arms. I wondered if Richard could smell the booze of last night, now sitting in sweaty dots on my skin. We hiked into the woods, downhill and back up. The cottonwood leaves shimmered, as always, with imaginary breeze. Occasionally we could hear an animal skitter away, a bird suddenly take flight. Richard walked assuredly behind me, plucking leaves and slowly tearing them apart along the way. By the time we reached the spot, our clothes were soaked, my face dripping with sweat. It was an ancient one-room schoolhouse, tilting slightly to one side, vines weaving in and out of its slats.

  Inside, half a chalkboard was nailed to the wall. It contained elaborate drawings of penises pushing into vaginas—no bodies attached. Dead leaves and liquor bottles littered the floor, some rusted beer cans from a time before pop tops. A few tiny desks remained. One was covered in a tablecloth, a vase of dead roses at its center. A pitiable place for a romantic dinner. I hoped it went well.

  “Nice work,” Richard said, pointing to one of the crayoned drawings. His light blue oxford clung to him. I could see the outline of a well-toned chest.

  “This is mostly a kid hangout, obviously,” I said. “But it’s near the creek, so I thought you should see it.”

  “Mm-hmm.” He looked at me in silence. “What do you do back in Chicago when you’re not working?” He leaned on the desk, plucked a withered rose from the vase, began crumbling its leaves.

  “What do I do?”

  “Do you have a boyfriend? I bet you do.”

  “No. I haven’t had a boyfriend in a long time.”

  He began pulling the petals off the rose. I couldn’t tell if he was interested in my answer. He looked up at me and grinned.

  “You’re a tough one, Camille. You don’t have a lot of give to you. You make me work. I like it, it’s different. Most girls you can’t get to shut up. No offense.”

  “I’m not trying to be difficult. It’s just not the question I was expecting,” I said, regaining my footing in the conversation. Small talk and banter. I can do that. “Do you have a girlfriend? I bet you have two. A blonde and brunette, to coordinate with your ties.”

  “Wrong on all counts. No girlfriend, and my last one was a redhead. She didn’t match anything I owned. Had to go. Nice girl, too bad.”

  Normally, Richard was the kind of guy I disliked, someone born and raised plush: looks, charm, smarts, probably money. These men were never very interesting to me; they had no edges, and they were usually cowards. They instinctively fled any situation that might cause them embarrassment or awkwardness. But Richard didn’t bore me. Maybe because his grin was a little crooked. Or because he made his living dealing in ugly things.

  “You ever come here when you were a kid, Camille?” His voice was quiet, almost shy. He looked sideways, and the afternoon sun made his hair glimmer gold.

  “Sure. Perfect place for inappropriate activities.”

  Richard walked over to me, handed me the last of the rose, ran a finger up my sweaty cheek.

  “I can see that,” he said. “First time I’ve ever wished I grew up in Wind Gap.”

  “You and I might have gotten along just fine,” I said, and meant it. I was suddenly sad I’d never known a boy like Richard growing up, someone who’d at least give me a bit of a challenge.

  “You know you’re beautiful, right?” he asked. “I’d tell you, but it seems like the kind of thing that you’d brush off. Instead I thought…”

  He tilted my head up to him and kissed me, first slowly and then, when I didn’t pull away, he folded me into his arms, pushed his tongue into my mouth. It was the first time I’d been kissed in almost three years. I ran my hands between his shoulder blades, the rose crumbling down his back. I pulled his collar away from his neck and licked him.

  “I think you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen,” he said, running a finger along my jawline. “The first time I saw you, I couldn’t even think the rest of the day. Vickery sent me home.” He laughed.

  “I think you’re very handsome, too,” I said, holding his hands so they wouldn’t roam. My shirt was thin, I didn’t want him to feel my scars.

  “I think you’re very handsome, too?” He laughed. “Geez, Camille, you really don’t do the romance stuff, huh?”

  “I’m just caught off guard. I mean, first of all, this is a bad idea, you and me.”

  “Horrible.” He kissed my earlobe.

  “And, I mean, don’t you want to look around this place?”

  “Miss Preaker, I searched this place the second week I was here. I just wanted to go for a walk with you.”

  Richard also had covered the two other spots I had in mind, as it turned out. An abandoned hunting shed on the south part of the woods had y
ielded a yellow plaid hair ribbon that neither girl’s parents could identify. The bluffs to the east of Wind Gap, where you could sit and watch the distant Mississippi River below, offered a child’s sneaker print that matched shoes neither girl owned. Some dried blood was found dribbled over grass blades; but the type was the wrong match for both. Once again I was turning up useless. Then again, Richard didn’t seem to care. We drove up to the bluffs anyway, grabbed a six-pack of beer and sat in the sun, watching the Mississippi River glimmer gray like a lazy snake.

  This had been one of Marian’s favorite places to go when she could leave her bed. For an instant, I could feel the weight of her as a child on my back, her hot giggles in my ears, skinny arms wrapped tight around my shoulders.

  “Where would you take a little girl to strangle her?” Richard asked.

  “My car or my home,” I said, jolting back.

  “And to pull out the teeth?”

  “Somewhere that I could scrub down well. A basement. A bathtub. The girls were dead first, right?”

  “Is that one of your questions?”

  “Sure.”

  “They were both dead.”

  “Dead long enough there was no blood when the teeth came out?”

  A barge floating down the river began turning sideways in the current; men appeared on board with longpoles to twist it back in the right direction.

  “With Natalie there was blood. The teeth were removed immediately after the strangling.”

  I had the image of Natalie Keene, brown eyes frozen open, slumped down in a bathtub as someone pried her teeth from her mouth. Blood on Natalie’s chin. A hand on pliers. A woman’s hand.

  “Do you believe James Capisi?”

  “I truly don’t know, Camille, and I’m not blowing smoke at you. The kid is scared out of his wits. His mom keeps calling us to put someone on guard. He’s sure this woman is going to come get him. I sweated him a little bit, called him a liar, tried to see if he’d change his story. Nothing.” He turned to face me. “I’ll tell you this: James Capisi believes his story. But I can’t see how it can be true. It doesn’t fit any kind of profile I’ve ever heard of. It doesn’t feel right to me. Cop’s intuition. I mean, you talked to him, what did you think?”

  “I agree with you. I wonder if he isn’t just freaked out about his mom’s cancer and projecting that fear somehow. I don’t know. And what about John Keene?”

  “Profilewise: right age, in the family of one of the victims, seems maybe too broken up over the whole thing.”

  “His sister was murdered.”

  “Right. But…I’m a guy and I can tell you teenage boys will sooner kill themselves than cry in public. And he’s been weeping it up all over town.” Richard blew a hollow toot with his beer bottle, a mating call to a passing tugboat.

  The moon was out, the cicadas in full jungle pulse, when Richard dropped me at home. Their creaking matched the throbbing between my legs where I’d let him touch me. Zipper down, his hand guided by mine to my clitoris and held there lest he explore and bump into the raised outlines of my scars. We got each other off like a couple of schoolkids (dumpling thumping hard and pink on my left foot as I came) and I was sticky and smelling of sex as I opened the door to find my mother sitting on the bottom stair with a pitcher of amaretto sours.

  She was wearing a pink nightgown with girlish puffed sleeves and a satin ribbon around the neckline. Her hands were unnecessarly repacked in that snowy gauze, which she’d managed to keep pristine despite being deeply in her cups. She swayed slightly as I came through the door, like a ghost debating whether to vanish. She stayed.

  “Camille. Come sit.” She beckoned her cloudy hands toward me. “No! Get a glass first from the back kitchen. You can have a drink with Mother. With your mother.”

  This should be miserable, I murmured as I grabbed a tumbler. But underneath that, a thought: time alone with her! A leftover rattle from childhood. Get that fixed.

  My mother poured recklessly but perfect, capping off my glass just before it overflowed. Still, a trick to get it to my mouth without spilling. She smirked a little as she watched me. Leaned back against the newel post, tucked her feet under her, sipped.

  “I think I finally realized why I don’t love you,” she said.

  I knew she didn’t, but I’d never heard her admit as much. I tried to tell myself I was intrigued, like a scientist on the edge of a breakthrough, but my throat closed up and I had to make myself breathe.

  “You remind me of my mother. Joya. Cold and distant and so, so smug. My mother never loved me, either. And if you girls won’t love me, I won’t love you.”

  A wave of fury rattled through me. “I never said I didn’t love you, that’s just ridiculous. Just fucking ridiculous. You were the one who never liked me, even as a kid. I never felt anything but coldness from you, so don’t you dare turn this on me.” I began rubbing my palm hard on the edge of the stair. My mother gave a half smile at the action and I stopped.

  “You were always so willful, never sweet. I remember when you were six or seven. I wanted to put your hair up in curlers for your school picture. Instead you cut it all off with my fabric shears.” I didn’t remember doing this. I remembered hearing about Ann doing this.

  “I don’t think so, Momma.”

  “Headstrong. Like those girls. I tried to be close with those girls, those dead girls.”

  “What do you mean be close with them?”

  “They reminded me of you, running around town wild. Like little pretty animals. I thought if I could be close with them, I would understand you better. If I could like them, maybe I could like you. But I couldn’t.”

  “No, I don’t expect so.” The grandfather clock chimed eleven. I wonder how many times my mother had heard that growing up in this house.

  “When I had you inside of me, when I was a girl—so much younger than you are now—I thought you’d save me. I thought you’d love me. And then my mother would love me. That was a joke.” My mother’s voice swept high and raw, like a red scarf in a storm.

  “I was a baby.”

  “Even from the beginning you disobeyed, wouldn’t eat. Like you were punishing me for being born. Made me look like a fool. Like a child.”

  “You were a child.”

  “And now you come back and all I can think of is ‘Why Marian and not her?’”

  Rage flattened immediately into a dark despair. My fingers found a wood staple in the floorboard. I jabbed it under my fingernail. I would not cry for this woman.

  “I’m not so pleased to be left here anyway, Momma, if it makes you feel any better.”

  “You’re so hateful.”

  “I learned at your feet.”

  My mother lunged then, grabbed me by both arms. Then she reached behind me and, with one fingernail, circled the spot on my back that had no scars.

  “The only place you have left,” she whispered at me. Her breath was cloying and musky, like air coming from a spring well.

  “Yes.”

  “Someday I’ll carve my name there.” She shook me once, released me, then left me on the stairs with the warm remains of our liquor.

  I drank the rest of the sours and had dark sticky dreams. My mother had cut me open and was unpacking my organs, stacking them in a row on my bed as my flesh flapped to either side. She was sewing her initials into each of them, then tossing them back into me, along with a passel of forgotten objects: an orange Day-Glo rubber ball I got from a gumball machine when I was ten; a pair of violet wool stockings I wore when I was twelve; a cheap gold-tinted ring a boy bought me when I was a freshman. With each object, relief that it was no longer lost.

  When I woke, it was past noon, and I was disoriented and afraid. I took a gulp from my flask of vodka to ease the panic, then ran to the bathroom and threw it up, along with strings of sugary brown saliva from the amaretto sours.

  Stripped naked and into the bathtub, the porcelain cool on my back. I lay flat, turned on the water, and let it creep up ove
r me, fill my ears until they submerged with the satisfying whulp! of a sinking ship going under. Would I ever have the discipline to let the water cover my face, drown with my eyes open? Just refuse to lift yourself two inches, and it will be done.

  The water stung at my eyes, covered my nose, and then enveloped me. I pictured myself from above: lashed skin and a still face flickering under a film of water. My body refused the quiet. Bodice, dirty, nag, widow! it screamed. My stomach and throat were convulsing, desperate to pull in air. Finger, whore, hollow! A few moments of discipline. What a pure way to die. Blossom, bloom, bonny.

  I jerked to the surface, gulped in air. Panting, my head tilted toward the ceiling. Easy, easy, I told myself. Easy, sweet girl, you’ll be okay. I petted my cheek, baby-talked myself—how pitiful—but my breathing hushed.

  Then, a bolt of panic. I reached behind me to find the circle of skin in my back. Still smooth.

  Black clouds were sitting low over the town, so the sun curled around the edges and turned everything a sickly yellow, as if we were bugs under fluorescents. Still weak from the encounter with my mother, the feeble glow seemed appropriate. I had an appointment at Meredith Wheeler’s for an interview concerning the Keenes. Not sure it would yield much of import but I’d at least get a quote, which I needed, having not heard a word from the Keenes after my last article. Truth was, with John living behind Meredith’s house now, I had no way of reaching him except through her. I’m sure she loved that.

  I hiked over to Main Street to pick up my car where I’d abandoned it during yesterday’s outing with Richard. Weakly dropped into the driver’s seat. I still managed to arrive at Meredith’s a half hour early. Knowing the primping and plumping going on in preparation for my visit, I assumed she’d set me out back on the patio, and I’d have a chance to check in on John. As it turned out, she wasn’t there at all, but I could hear music from behind the house, and I followed it to see the Four Little Blondes in fluorescent bikinis at one end of the pool, passing a joint between them, and John sitting in the shade at the other end, watching. Amma looked tan and blonde and delicious, not a trace of yesterday’s hangover on her. She was as tiny and colorful as an appetizer.

  Confronted with all that smooth flesh, I could feel my skin begin its chattering. I couldn’t handle direct contact on top of my hangover panic. So I spied from the edge of the house. Anyone could have seen me, but none bothered. Amma’s three friends were soon in a marijuana-and-heat spiral, splayed face down on their blankets.

  Amma stayed up, staring down John, rubbing suntan oil on her shoulders, her chest, breasts, slipping her hands under her bikini top, watching John watching her. John gave no reaction, like a kid on his sixth hour of TV. The more lasciviously Amma rubbed, the less flicker he gave. One triangle of her top had fallen askew to reveal the plump breast beneath. Thirteen years old, I thought to myself, but I felt a spear of admiration for the girl. When I’d been sad, I hurt myself. Amma hurt other people. When I’d wanted attention, I’d submitted myself to boys: Do what you want; just like me. Amma’s sexual offerings seemed a form of aggression. Long skinny legs and slim wrists and high, babied voice, all aimed like a gun. Do what I want; I might like you.

  “Hey John, who do I remind you of?” Amma called.

  “A little girl who’s misbehaving and thinks it’s cuter than it is,” John called back. He sat at the pool’s edge in shorts and a T-shirt, his feet dipped into the water. His legs had a thin, almost feminine coating of dark hair.

  “Really? Why don’t you stop watching me from your little hideaway then,” she said, pointing a leg toward the carriage house, with its tiny attic window sporting blue checked curtains. “Meredith will be jealous.”

  “I like to keep an eye on you, Amma. Always know I have my eye on you.”

  My guess: My half sister had gone into his room without permission, rifled through his things. Or waited for him on his bed.

  “You sure do now,” she said, laughing, her legs spread wide. She looked gruesome in the dark light, the rays casting pockets of shadows on her face.

  “It’ll be your turn some day, Amma,” he said. “Soon.”

  “Big man. I hear,” Amma called back. Kylie looked up, focused her eyes on her friend, smiled, and lay back down.

  “Patient, too.”

  “You’ll need it.” She blew him a kiss.

  The amaretto sours were turning on me, and I was sick of this banter. I didn’t like John Keene flirting with Amma, no matter how provocative she was being. She was still thirteen.

 
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