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Sharp objects, p.14

Sharp Objects, page 14

 

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  “Hello?” I called out, rousing Amma, who waggled her fingers at me. Two of the three blondes looked up, then lay back down. John cupped some pool water in his hands and rubbed it across his face before turning the corners of his mouth up at me. He was tracing back the conversation, guessing how much I’d heard. I was equidistant from each side, and walked toward John, sat a good six feet away.

  “You read the story?” I asked. He nodded.

  “Yeah, thanks, it was nice. The part about Natalie at least.”

  “I’m here to talk a little bit to Meredith today about Wind Gap; maybe Natalie will come up,” I said. “Is that okay by you?”

  He shrugged his shoulders.

  “Sure. She’s not home yet. Not enough sugar for the sweet tea. She freaked, ran off to the store without makeup.”

  “Scandalous.”

  “For Meredith, yes.”

  “How are things going here?”

  “Oh, all right,” he said. He began patting his right hand. Self-comfort. I felt sorry for him again. “I don’t know that anything would be any good anywhere, so it’s hard to gauge if this is better or worse, you know what I mean?”

  “Like: This place is miserable and I want to die, but I can’t think of any place I’d rather be,” I offered. He turned and stared at me, blue eyes mirroring the oval pool.

  “That’s exactly what I mean.” Get used to it, I thought.

  “Have you thought about getting some counseling, seeing a therapist?” I said. “It might be really helpful.”

  “Yeah, John, might quell some of your urges. They can be deadly, you know? We don’t want more little girls showing up without their teeth.” Amma had slipped into the pool and was floating ten feet away.

  John shot up, and for a second I thought he was going to dive into the pool and throttle her. Instead, he pointed a finger at her, opened his mouth, closed it, and walked to his attic room.

  “That was really cruel,” I said to her.

  “But funny,” said Kylie, floating by on a hot pink air mattress.

  “What a freak,” added Kelsey, paddling past.

  Jodes was sitting in her blanket, knees pulled to her chin, eyes trained on the carriage house.

  “You were so sweet with me the other night. Now you’re so changed,” I murmured to Amma. “Why?”

  She looked caught off guard for a split second. “I don’t know. I wish I could fix it. I do.” She swam off toward her friends as Meredith appeared at the door and peevishly called me in.

  The Wheelers’ home looked familiar: an overstuffed plush sofa, a coffee table hosting a sailboat replica, a jaunty velvet ottoman in lime green, a black-and-white photo of the Eiffel Tower taken at a severe angle. Pottery Barn, spring catalog. Right down to the lemon yellow plates Meredith was now placing on the table, glazed berry tarts sitting in the center.

  She was wearing a linen sundress the color of an unripe peach, her hair pulled down over her ears and held at the nape of her neck in a loose ponytail that had to have taken twenty minutes to get that perfect. She looked, suddenly, a lot like my mother. She could have been Adora’s child more believably than I. I could feel a grudge coming, tried to keep it in check, as she poured us each a glass of sweet tea and smiled.

  “I have no idea what my sister was saying to you, but I can only guess it was hateful or dirty, so I apologize,” she said. “Although, I’m sure you know Amma’s the real ringleader there.” She looked at the tart but seemed disinclined to eat it. Too pretty.

  “You probably know Amma better than I do,” I said. “She and John don’t seem to…”

  “She’s a very needy child,” she said, crossing her legs, uncrossing them, straightening her dress. “Amma worries she’ll shrivel up and blow away if attention isn’t always on her. Especially from boys.”

  “Why doesn’t she like John? She was implying he was the one who hurt Natalie.” I took out my tape recorder and pressed the On button, partly because I didn’t want to waste time with ego games, and partly because I hoped she’d say something about John worth printing. If he was the prime suspect, at least in Wind Gap minds, I needed comment.

  “That’s just Amma. She has a mean streak. John likes me and not her, so she attacks him. When she’s not trying to steal him away from me. Like that’s going to happen.”

  “It seems a lot of people have been talking, though, saying they think John may have something to do with this. Why do you think that is?”

  She shrugged, stuck her lower lip out, watched the tape whir a few seconds.

  “You know how it is. He’s from out of town. He’s smart and worldly and eight times better looking than anyone else around here. People would like it to be him, because then that means this…evilness didn’t come from Wind Gap. It came from outside. Eat your tart.”

  “Do you believe he’s innocent?” I took a bite, the glaze dripping off my lip.

  “Of course I do. It’s all idle gossip. Just because someone goes for a drive…lots of people do that around here. John just had bad timing.”

  “And what about the family? What can you tell me about either of the girls?”

  “They were darling girls, very well behaved and sweet little things. It’s like God plucked the best girls from Wind Gap to take to heaven for his own.” She’d been practicing, the words had a rehearsed rhythm. Even her smile seemed measured: Too small is stingy, too big is inappropriately pleased. This smile just right. Brave and hopeful, it said.

  “Meredith, I know that’s not what you thought about the girls.”

  “Well, what kind of quote do you want?” she snapped.

  “A truthful one.”

  “I can’t do that. John would hate me.”

  “I wouldn’t have to name you in the article.”

  “Then what would be the point of me doing the interview?”

  “If you know something about the girls that people aren’t saying, you should tell me. It could direct attention away from John, depending on what the information is.”

  Meredith took a demure sip of tea, dabbed at the corner of her strawberry lips with her napkin.

  “But could I still get my name in the article somewhere?”

  “I can quote you elsewhere by name.”

  “I want the stuff about God plucking them to heaven,” Meredith baby-talked. She wrung her hands and smiled at me sideways.

  “No. Not that. I’ll use the quote about John being from out of town and that’s why people are so gossipy about him.”

  “Why can’t you use the one I want?” I could see Meredith as a five-year-old, dressed as a princess and bitching because her favorite doll didn’t like her imaginary tea.

  “Because it goes against a lot of things I’ve heard, and because no one really talks that way. It sounds fake.”

  It was the most pathetic showdown I’ve ever had with a subject, and a completely unethical way to do my work. But I wanted her fucking story. Meredith twirled the silver chain around her neck, studied me.

  “You could have been a model, you know?” she said suddenly.

  “I doubt that,” I snapped. Every time people said I was pretty, I thought of everything ugly swarming beneath my clothes.

  “You could have. I always wanted to be you when I grew up. I think about you, you know? I mean, our moms are friends and all, so I knew you were in Chicago and I pictured you in this big mansion with a few little curly tops and some stud husband investment banker. You all in the kitchen drinking orange juice and him getting in his Jag and going to work. But I guess I imagined wrong.”

  “You did. Sounds nice, though.” I took another bite of tart. “So tell me about the girls.”

  “All business, huh? You never were the friendliest. I know about your sister. That you had a sister who died.”

  “Meredith, we can talk some time. I’d like that. After this. But let’s get this story, and then maybe we can enjoy ourselves.” I didn’t intend on staying more than a minute after the interview wrapped.
<
br />   “Okay…So, here it is. I think I know why…the teeth…” she pantomimed extraction.

  “Why?”

  “I can’t believe everyone refuses to acknowledge this,” she said.

  Meredith glanced around the room.

  “You didn’t hear this from me, okay?” she continued. “The girls, Ann and Natalie, they were biters.”

  “What do you mean, biters?”

  “Both of them. They had serious tempers. Like scary-time tempers. Like boy tempers. But they didn’t hit. They bit. Look.”

  She held out her right hand. Just below the thumb were three white scars that shone in the afternoon light.

  “That’s from Natalie. And this.” She pulled back her hair to reveal a left ear with only half an earlobe. “My hand she bit when I was painting her fingernails. She decided halfway through that she didn’t like it, but I told her to let me finish, and when I held her hand down, she sunk her teeth into me.”

  “And the earlobe?”

  “I stayed over there one night when my car wouldn’t start. I was asleep in the guest room and the next thing I knew, blood all over the sheets and my ear just felt like it was on fire, like I wanted to run away from it but it was attached to my head. And Natalie was screaming like she was on fire. That screaming was scarier than the biting. Mr. Keene had to hold her down. The kid had serious problems. We looked for my earlobe, see if it could be stitched back on, but it was gone. I guess she swallowed it.” She gave a laugh that sounded like the reverse of a gulp of air. “I mostly just felt sorry for her.”

  Lie.

  “Ann, was she as bad?” I asked.

  “Worse. There are people all over this town with her teeth marks in them. Your mother included.”

  “What?” My hands began to sweat and the back of my neck went cold.

  “Your mom was tutoring her and Ann didn’t understand. She completely lost it, pulled some of your momma’s hair out, and bit into her wrist. Hard. I think there had to be stitches.” Images of my mother’s thin arm caught between tiny teeth, Ann shaking her head like a dog, blood blossoming on my mother’s sleeve, on Ann’s lips. A scream, a release.

  A little circle of jagged lines, and within, a ring of perfect skin.

  Chapter Eleven

  Phone calls back in my room, no sign of my mother. I could hear Alan downstairs, snapping at Gayla for cutting the filets wrong.

  “I know it seems trivial, Gayla, but think of it like this: Trivial details are the difference between a good meal and a dining experience.” Gayla emitted an assenting sound. Even her mm-hhmms have a twang.

  I phoned Richard on his cell, one of the few people in Wind Gap to own one, though I shouldn’t snipe, since I’m one of the only holdouts in Chicago. I just never want to be that reachable.

  “Detective Willis.” I could hear a loudspeaker calling a name in the background.

  “You busy, Detective?” I blushed. Levity felt like flirting felt like foolishness.

  “Hi there,” came his formal voice. “I’m wrapping things up here; can I give a call back?”

  “Sure, I’m at…”

  “The number shows up on my display.”

  “Fancy.”

  “Very true.”

  Twenty minutes later: “Sorry, I was at the hospital in Woodberry with Vickery.”

  “A lead?”

  “Of sorts.”

  “A comment?”

  “I had a very nice time last night.”

  I’d written Richard cop Richard cop twelve times down my leg, and had to make myself stop because I was itching for a razor.

  “Me, too. Look, I need to ask you something straight and I need you to tell me. Off record. Then I need a comment I can print for my next piece.”

  “Okay, I’ll try to help you, Camille. What do you need to ask me?”

  “Can we meet at that cheesy bar we first had a drink at? I need to do this in person, and I need to get out of the house and, yes, I’ll say it: I need a drink.”

  Three guys from my class were at Sensors when I got there, nice guys, one of whom had famously won a State Fair blue ribbon for his obscenely big, milk-dripping sow one year. A folksy stereotype Richard would have loved. We exchanged niceties—they bought me my first two rounds—and photographs of their kids, eight in all. One of them, Jason Turnbough, was still as blond and round-faced as a kid. Tongue just peeking out the corner of his mouth, pink cheeks, round blue eyes darting between my face and my breasts for most of the conversation. He stopped once I pulled out my tape recorder and asked about the murders. Then it was those whirling wheels that had his full attention. People got such a charge from seeing their names in print. Proof of existence. I could picture a squabble of ghosts ripping through piles of newspapers. Pointing at a name on the page. See, there I am. I told you I lived. I told you I was.

  “Who’d have thought when we were kids back in school, we’d be sitting here talking about murders in Wind Gap?” marveled Tommy Ringer, now grown into a dark-haired fellow with a rangy beard.

  “I know, I mean I work in a supermarket, for Chrissakes,” said Ron Laird, a kindly, mouse-faced guy with a booming voice. The three glowed with misplaced civic pride. Infamy had come to Wind Gap, and they’d take it. They could keep working at the supermarket, the drugstore, the hatchery. When they died, this—along with getting married and having kids—would be on their list of things they’d done. And it was something that merely happened to them. No, more accurately, it was something that happened in their town. I wasn’t entirely sure about Meredith’s assessment. Some people would love to have the killer be a guy born and raised in Wind Gap. Someone they went fishing with once, someone they were in Cub Scouts with. Makes a better story.

  Richard flung open the door, which was surprisingly light for its looks. Any customer who wasn’t a regular used too much force, so every few minutes the door banged into the side of the building. It offered an interesting punctuation to conversation.

  As he walked in, pitching his jacket over his shoulder, the three men groaned.

  “This guy.”

  “I’m so fucking impressed, dude.”

  “Save some brain cells for the case, buddy. You need ’em.”

  I hopped off the stool, licked my lips, and smiled.

  “Well fellows, got to go to work. Interview time. Thanks for the drinks.”

  “We’ll be over here when you get bored,” Jason called out. Richard just smiled at him, muttering idiot through his teeth.

  I slugged back my third bourbon, grabbed the waitress to set us up, and once we had our drinks in front of us, I rested my chin on my hands and wondered if I really wanted to talk business. He had a scar just above his right eyebrow and a tiny dimple in his chin. He tapped his foot on top of mine twice, where no one could see.

  “So what gives, Scoop?”

  “Look, I need to know something. I really need to know it, and if you can’t tell me, then you can’t tell me, but please think hard.” He nodded.

  “When you think of the person who did these killings, do you have a specific person in your mind?” I asked.

  “I have a few.”

  “Male or female?”

  “Why are you asking me this with such urgency right now, Camille?”

  “I just need to know.”

  He paused, sipped his drink, rubbed his hand over stubble on his chin.

  “I don’t believe a woman would have done these girls this way.” He tapped my foot again. “Hey, what’s going on? You tell me the truth now.”

  “I don’t know, I’m just freaking out. I just needed to know where to point my energies.”

  “Let me help.”

  “Did you know the girls were known for biting people?”

  “I understood from the school there had been an incident involving Ann hurting a neighbor’s bird,” he said. “Natalie was on a pretty tight leash, though, because of what happened at her last school.”

  “Natalie bit the earlobe off of someone sh
e knew.”

  “No. I have no incident reports filed against Natalie since she came here.”

  “Then they didn’t report it. I saw the ear, Richard, there was no lobe, and there was no reason for this person to lie. And Ann attacked someone, too. Bit someone. But I wonder more and more if these girls got tangled up with the wrong person. It’s like they were put down. Like a bad animal. Maybe that’s why their teeth were taken.”

  “Let’s begin slowly. First, who did each of the girls bite?”

  “I can’t say.”

  “Goddam it, Camille, I’m not fucking around. Tell me.”

  “No.” I was surprised at his anger. I’d expected him to laugh and tell me I was pretty when defiant.

  “This is a fucking murder case, okay? If you have information, I need it.”

  “So do your job.”

  “I’m trying, Camille, but your screwing around with me doesn’t help.”

  “Now you know how it feels,” I muttered childishly.

  “Fine.” He rubbed at his eyes. “I’ve had a real long day, so…good night. I hope I was helpful to you.” He stood up, nudged his half-full glass over to me.

  “I need an on-record quote.”

  “Later. I need to get a little perspective. You may have been right about us being a horrible idea.” He left, and the guys called me to come back and join them. I shook my head, finished my drink, and pretended to take notes until they left. All I did was write sick place sick place over and over for twelve pages.

  This time it was Alan waiting for me when I got home. He was sitting on the Victorian love seat, white brocade and black walnut, dressed in white slacks and a silk shirt, dainty white silk slippers on his feet. If he’d been in a photograph, it would be impossible to place him in time—Victorian gentleman, Edwardian dandy, ’50s fop? Twenty-first-century househusband who never worked, often drank, and occasionally made love to my mother.

  Very rarely did Alan and I talk outside of my mother’s presence. As a child, I’d once bumped into him in the hallway, and he’d bent down stiffly, to my eye level, and said, “Hello, I hope you’re well.” We’d been living in the same house for more than five years, and that’s all he could come up with. “Yes, thank you,” was all I could give in return.

  Now, though, Alan seemed ready to take me on. He didn’t say my name, just patted the couch beside him. On his knee he balanced a cake plate with several large silvery sardines. I could smell them from the entryway.

  “Camille,” he said, picking at a tail with a tiny fish fork, “you’re making your mother ill. I’m going to have to ask you to leave if conditions don’t improve.”

  “How am I making her ill?”

 
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