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Sharp objects, p.17

Sharp Objects, page 17



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  stairs, squishing mulberries beneath our feet. The air smelled like icing on a child’s cake.

  “Did she like you more or less after Marian was dead?” she asked, looping her arm into mine.


  “So it didn’t help.”


  “Her dying didn’t help things.”

  “No. Now keep quiet till we get to my room, okay?”

  We padded up the stairs, me holding a hand under the crook of my neck to catch the blood, Amma trailing dangerously behind, pausing to smell a rose in the hall vase, cracking a smile at her reflection in the mirror. Silence as usual from Adora’s bedroom. That fan whirring in the dark behind the closed door.

  I shut the door of my own room behind us, peeled off my rain-drenched sneakers (checked with squares of newly cut grass), wiped smashed mulberry juice off my leg, and began pulling up my shirt before I felt Amma’s stare. Shirt back down, I pretended to sway into bed, too exhausted to undress. I pulled the covers up and curled away from Amma, mumbling a good night. I heard her drop her clothes to the floor, and in a second the light was off and she was in bed curled behind me, naked except for her panties. I wanted to cry at the idea of being able to sleep next to someone without clothes, no worries about what word might slip out from under a sleeve or pantcuff.

  “Camille?” Her voice quiet and girlish and unsure. “You know how people sometimes say they have to hurt because if they don’t, they’re so numb they won’t feel anything?”


  “What if it’s the opposite?” Amma whispered. “What if you hurt because it feels so good? Like you have a tingling, like someone left a switch on in your body. And nothing can turn the switch off except hurting? What does that mean?”

  I pretended to be asleep. I pretended not to feel her fingers tracing vanish over and over on the back of my neck.

  A dream. Marian, her white nightgown sticky with sweat, a blonde curl pasted across her cheek. She takes my hand and tries to pull me from bed. “It’s not safe here,” she whispers. “It’s not safe for you.” I tell her to leave me be.

  Chapter Thirteen

  It was past two when I woke, my stomach coiled in on itself, my jaw aching from grinding my teeth for five hours straight. Fucking X. Amma had problems, too, I guessed. She’d left a tiny pile of eyelashes on the pillow next to me. I swept them into the palm of my hand and stirred them around. Stiff with mascara, they left a dark blue smudge in the hollow of my palm. I dusted them off into a saucer on my bedside table. Then I went to the bathroom and threw up. I never mind throwing up. When I’d get sick as a child, I remember my mother holding my hair back, her voice soothing: Get all that bad stuff out, sweetheart. Don’t stop till it’s all out. Turns out I like that retching and weakness and spit. Predictable, I know, but true.

  I locked my door, stripped off all my clothes, and got back in bed. My head ached from my left ear, through my neck, and down my spine. My bowels were shifting, I could barely move my mouth for the pain, and my ankle was on fire. And I was still bleeding, I could see from the blooms of red all over my sheets. Amma’s side was bloody too: a light spray where she’d scraped her chest, a darker spot on the pillow itself.

  My heart was beating too hard, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I needed to see if my mother knew what had happened. Had she seen her Amma? Was I in trouble? I felt panicky sick. Something horrible was about to happen. Through my paranoia, I knew what was really going on: My serotonin levels, so jacked up from the drug the night before, had plummeted, and left me on the dark side. I told myself this even as I turned my face into the pillow and began sobbing. I had forgotten about those girls, hell, never really thought about them: dead Ann and dead Natalie. Worse, I had betrayed Marian, replaced her with Amma, ignored her in my dreams. There would be consequences. I wept in the same retching, cleansing way I’d vomited, until the pillow was wet and my face had ballooned like a drunk’s. Then the door handle jiggled. I hushed myself, stroking my cheek, hoping silence would make it go away.

  “Camille. Open up.” My mother, but not angry. Coaxing. Nice, even. I remained silent. A few more jiggles. A knock. Then silence as she padded away again.

  Camille. Open up. The image of my mother sitting on the edge of my bed, a spoonful of sour-smelling syrup hovering over me. Her medicine always made me feel sicker than before. Weak stomach. Not as bad as Marian’s, but still weak.

  My hands began sweating. Please don’t let her come back. I had a flash of Curry, one of his crappy ties swinging wildly over his belly, busting into the room to save me. Carrying me off in his smoky Ford Taurus, Eileen stroking my hair on the way back to Chicago.

  My mother slipped a key into the lock. I never knew she had a key. She entered the room smugly, her chin tilted high as usual, the key dangling from a long pink ribbon. She wore a powder blue sundress and carried a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a box of tissues, and a satiny red cosmetic bag.

  “Hi baby,” she sighed. “Amma told me about what happened to you two. My poor little ones. She’s been purging all morning. I swear, and I know it will sound boastful, but except for our own little outfit, meat is getting completely unreliable these days. Amma said it was probably the chicken?”

  “I guess so,” I said. I could only run with whatever lie Amma told. It was clear she could maneuver better than I.

  “I can’t believe you both fainted right on our own stairs, while I was sleeping just inside. I hate that idea,” Adora said. “Her bruises! You’d have thought she was in a catfight.”

  There’s no way my mother bought that story. She was an expert in illness and injury, and she would not be taken in by that unless she wanted to be. Now she was going to tend to me, and I was too weak and desperate to ward her off. I began crying again, unable to stop.

  “I feel sick, Momma.”

  “I know, baby.” She stripped the sheet off me, flung it down past my toes in one efficient move, and when I instinctively put my hands across myself, she took them and placed them firmly to my side.

  “I have to see what’s wrong, Camille.” She tilted my jaw from side to side and pulled my lower lip down, like she was inspecting a horse. She raised each of my arms slowly and peered into my armpits, jamming fingers into the hollows, then rubbed my throat to feel for swollen glands. I remembered the drill. She put a hand between my legs, quickly, professionally. It was the best way to feel a temperature, she always said. Then she softly, lightly drew her cool fingers down my legs, and jabbed her thumb directly into the open wound of my smashed ankle. Bright green splashes exploded in front of my eyes, and I automatically tucked my legs beneath me, turned on my side. She used the moment to poke at my head until she hit the smashed-fruit spot on its crown.

  “Just another little bit, Camille, and we’ll be all over.” She wet her tissues with alcohol and scrubbed at my ankle until I couldn’t see anything for my tears and snot. Then she wrapped it tight with gauze that she cut with tiny clippers from her cosmetic bag. The wound began bleeding through immediately so the wrapping soon looked like the flag of Japan: pure white with a defiant red circle. Next she tilted my head down with one hand and I felt an urgent tugging at my hair. She was cutting it off around the wound. I began to pull away.

  “Don’t you dare, Camille. I’ll cut you. Lie back down and be a good girl.” She pressed a cool hand on my cheek, holding my head in place against the pillow, and snip snip snip, sawed through a swath of my hair until I felt a release. An eerie exposure to air that my scalp was unused to. I reached back and felt a prickly patch the size of a half dollar on my head. My mother quickly pulled my hand away, tucked it against my side, and began rubbing alcohol onto my scalp. Again I lost my breath the pain was so stunning.

  She rolled me onto my back and ran a wet washcloth over my limbs as if I were bedridden. Her eyes were pink where she’d been pulling at the lashes. Her cheeks had that girlish flush. She plucked up her cosmetic bag and began sifting through various pillboxes and t
ubes, finding a square of folded tissue from the bottom, wadded and slightly stained. From its center she produced an electric blue pill.

  “One second, sweetheart.”

  I could hear her hit the steps urgently, and knew she was heading down to the kitchen. Then those same quick steps back into my room. She had a glass of milk in her hand.

  “Here, Camille, drink this with it.”

  “What is it?”

  “Medicine. It will prevent infection and clear up any bacteria you got from that food.”

  “What is it?” I asked again.

  My mother’s chest turned a blotchy pink, and her smile began flickering like a candle in a draft. On, off, on, off in the space of a second.

  “Camille, I’m your mother, and you’re in my house.” Glassy pink eyes. I turned away from her and hit another streak of panic. Something bad. Something I’d done.

  “Camille. Open.” Soothing voice, coaxing. Nurse began throbbing near my left armpit.

  I remember being a kid, rejecting all those tablets and medicines, and losing her by doing so. She reminded me of Amma and her Ecstasy, wheedling, needing me to take what she was offering. To refuse has so many more consequences than submitting. My skin was on fire from where she’d cleaned me, and it felt like that satisfying heat after a cut. I thought of Amma and how content she’d seemed, wrapped in my mother’s arms, fragile and sweaty.

  I turned back over, let my mother put the pill on my tongue, pour the thick milk into my throat, and kiss me.

  Within a few minutes I was asleep, the stink of my breath floating into my dreams like a sour fog. My mother came to me in my bedroom and told me I was ill. She lay on top of me and put her mouth on mine. I could feel her breath in my throat. Then she began pecking at me. When she pulled away, she smiled at me and smoothed my hair back. Then she spit my teeth into her hands.

  Dizzy and hot, I woke up at dusk, drool dried in a crusty line down my neck. Weak. I wrapped a thin robe around myself and began crying again when I remembered the circle at the back of my head. You’re just coming down from the X, I whispered to myself, patting my cheek with my hand. A bad haircut is not the end of the world. So you wear a ponytail.

  I shuffled down the hallway, my joints clicking in and out of place, my knuckles swollen for no reason I could think of. Downstairs my mother was singing. I knocked on Amma’s door and heard a whimper of welcome.

  She sat naked on the floor in front of her huge dollhouse, a thumb in her mouth. The circles beneath her eyes were almost purple, and my mother had pasted bandages to her forehead and chest. Amma had wrapped her favorite doll in tissue paper, dotted all over with red Magic Marker, and propped her up in bed.

  “What’d she do to you?” she said sleepily, half smiling.

  I turned around so she could see my crop circle.

  “And she gave me something that made me feel really groggy and sick,” I said.


  I nodded.

  “Yeah, she likes that one,” Amma mumbled. “You fall asleep all hot and drooly, and then she can bring her friends in to look at you.”

  “She’s done this before?” My body went cold under the sweat. I was right: Something horrible was about to happen.

  She shrugged. “I don’t mind. Sometimes I don’t take it—just pretend. Then we’re both happy. I play with my dolls or I read, and when I hear her coming I pretend to be asleep.”

  “Amma?” I sat down on the floor next to her and stroked her hair. I needed to be gentle. “Does she give you pills and stuff a lot?”

  “Only when I’m about to be sick.”

  “What happens then?”

  “Sometimes I get all hot and crazy and she has to give me cold baths. Sometimes I need to throw up. Sometimes I get all shivery and weak and tired and I just want to sleep.”

  It was happening again. Just like Marian. I could feel the bile in the back of my throat, the tightening. I began weeping again, stood up, sat back down. My stomach was churning. I put my head in my hands. Amma and I were sick just like Marian. It had to be made that obvious to me before I finally understood—nearly twenty years too late. I wanted to scream in shame.

  “Play dolls with me, Camille.” She either didn’t notice or ignored my tears.

  “I can’t, Amma. I have to work. Remember to be asleep when Momma comes back.”

  I dragged on clothes over my aching skin and looked at myself in the mirror. You are thinking crazy thoughts. You are being un reasonable. But I’m not. My mother killed Marian. My mother killed those little girls.

  I stumbled to the toilet and threw up a stream of salty, hot water, the backsplashes from the toilet freckling my cheeks as I kneeled. When my stomach unclenched, I realized I wasn’t alone. My mother was standing behind me.

  “Poor sweetness,” she murmured. I started, scrambled away from her on all fours. Propped myself against the wall and looked up at her.

  “Why are you dressed, darling?” she said. “You can’t go anywhere.”

  “I need to go out. I need to do some work. Fresh air will be good.”

  “Camille, get back in bed.” Her voice was urgent and shrill. She marched to my bed, pulled down the covers, and patted it. “Come on sweetness, you need to be smart about your health.”

  I stumbled to my feet, grabbed my car keys from the table, and darted past her.

  “Can’t, Momma; I won’t be gone long.”

  I left Amma upstairs with her sick dolls and slammed down the driveway so quickly I dented my front bumper where the hill abruptly evened out at street level. A fat woman pushing a stroller shook her head at me.

  I started driving nowhere, trying to assemble my thoughts, running through the faces of people I knew in Wind Gap. I needed someone to tell me plainly I was wrong about Adora, or else that I was right. Someone who knew Adora, who’d had a grown-up’s view of my childhood, who’d been here while I was away. I suddenly thought of Jackie O’Neele and her Juicy Fruit and booze and gossip. Her off-kilter maternal warmth toward me and the comment that now sounded like a warning: So much has gone wrong. I needed Jackie, rejected by Adora, completely without filter, a woman who’d known my mother her entire life. Who very clearly wanted to say something.

  Jackie’s house was only a few minutes away, a modern mansion meant to look like an antebellum plantation home. A scrawny pale kid was hunched over a riding mower, smoking as he drove back and forth in tight lines. His back was spackled with bumpy, angry zits so big they looked like wounds. Another meth boy. Jackie should cut out the middle man and just give the twenty bucks straight to the dealer.

  I knew the woman who answered the door. Geri Shilt, a Calhoon High girl just a year ahead of me. She wore a starchy nurse’s dress, same as Gayla, and still had the round, pink mole on her cheek that I’d always pitied her for. Seeing Geri, such a pedestrian face from the past, almost made me turn around, get in my car, and ignore all my worries. Someone this ordinary in my world made me question what I was thinking. But I didn’t leave.

  “Hi Camille, what can I do for you?” She seemed utterly uninterested in why I was there, a distinct lack of curiosity that separated her from the other Wind Gap women. She probably didn’t have any girlfriends to gossip to.

  “Hey, Geri, I didn’t know you worked for the O’Neeles.”

  “No reason you would,” she said plainly.

  Jackie’s three sons, born in a row, would all be in their early twenties: twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, maybe. I remembered they were beefy, thick-necked boys who always wore polyester coach shorts and big gold Calhoon High rings with flaming blue jewel centers. They had Jackie’s abnormally round eyes and bright white overbites. Jimmy, Jared, and Johnny. I could hear at least two of them now, home from school for the summer, throwing the football in the backyard. From Geri’s aggressively dull look, she must have decided the best way to deal with them was to stay out of their way.

  “I’m back here…” I began.

  “I know why you’re her
e,” she said, neither accusingly nor with any generosity. Just a statement. I was simply another obstacle in her day.

  “My mom is friends with Jackie and I thought…”

  “I know who Jackie’s friends are, believe me,” Geri said.

  She didn’t seem inclined to let me in. Instead she looked me up and down, then out to the car behind me.

  “Jackie is friends with a lot of your friends’ moms,” Geri added.

  “Mmmm. I don’t really have many friends around here these days.” It was a fact I was proud of, but I said the words in a deliberately disappointed manner. The less she resented me, the quicker I’d get in there, and I felt an urgent need to speak with Jackie before I talked myself out of it. “In fact, even when I lived here, I don’t really think I had that many friends.”

  “Katie Lacey. Her mom hangs out with all them.”

  Good old Katie Lacey, who dragged me to the Pity Party and turned on me. I could picture her roaring around town in that SUV, her pretty little girls perched in back, perfectly dressed, ready to rule over the other kindergartners. They’d learn from Mom to be particularly cruel to the ugly girls, poor girls, girls who wanted to just be left alone. Too much to ask.

  “Katie Lacey is a girl I’m ashamed of ever being friendly with.”

  “Yeah, well, you were okay,” Geri said. Just then I remembered she’d had a horse named Butter. The joke was that of course even Geri’s pet was fattening.

  “Not really.” I’d never participated in direct acts of cruelty, but I never stopped them, either. I always stood on the sidelines like a fretful shadow and pretended to laugh.

  Geri continued to stand in the doorway, stretching at the cheap watch around her wrist, tight as a rubber band, clearly lost in her own memories. Bad ones.

  So why, then, would she stay in Wind Gap? I’d run across so many of the same faces since I’d been back. Girls I grew up with, who never had the energy to leave. It was a town that bred complacency through cable TV and a convenience store. Those who remained here were still just as segregated as before. Petty, pretty girls like Katie Lacey who now lived, predictably, in a rehabbed Victorian a few blocks from us, played at the same Woodberry tennis club as Adora, made the same quarterly pilgrimage to St. Louis for shopping. And the ugly, victimized girls like Geri Shilt were still stuck cleaning up after the pretty ones, heads lowered glumly, waiting for more abuse. They were women not strong enough or smart enough to leave. Women without imagination. So they stayed in Wind Gap and played their teenage lives on an endless loop. And now I was stuck with them, unable to pull myself out.

  “Let me tell Jackie you’re here.” Geri went the long way to the back stairs—around through the living room rather than the glass-paneled kitchen that would expose her to Jackie’s boys.

  The room I was ushered into was obscenely white with glaring splashes of color, like a mischievous child had been finger painting. Red throw pillows, yellow-and-blue curtains, a glowing green vase packed with ceramic red flowers. A ludicrous leering black-and-white photo of Jackie, hair overblown, talons curled coyly beneath her chin, hung over the mantelpiece. She was like an over-groomed lapdog. Even in my sickened state I laughed.

  “Darling Camille!” Jackie crossed the room with arms outstretched. She was wearing a satin house robe and diamond earrings like blocks. “You’ve come to visit. You look horrible, sweetheart. Geri, get us some Bloody Marys, stat!” She howled, literally, at me, then at Geri. I guess it was a laugh. Geri lingered in the doorway until Jackie clapped at her.

  “I’m serious, Geri. Remember to salt the rim this time.” She turned back to me. “So hard to get good help these days,” she muttered earnestly, unaware no one really says that who’s not on TV. I’m sure Jackie watched TV nonstop, drink in one hand, remote control in the other, curtains pulled as morning talk shows yielded to soaps, glided into court TV, moved on to reruns, sitcoms, crime dramas, and late-night movies about women who were raped, stalked, betrayed, or killed.

  Geri brought in the Bloodys on a tray, along with containers of celery, pickles, and olives, and, as instructed, closed the drapes and left. Jackie and I sat in the dim light, in the freezing air-conditioned white room, and stared at each other a few seconds. Then Jackie swooped down and pulled out the drawer of the coffee table. It held three bottles of nail polish, a ratty Bible, and more than half a dozen orange prescription bottles. I thought of Curry and his clipped rose thorns.

  “Painkiller? I got some good ones.”

  “I should probably keep some of my wits about me,” I said, not quite sure if she was serious. “Looks like you could almost start your own store there.”

  “Oh sure. I’m terribly lucky.” I could smell her anger mixed with tomato juice. “OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, whatever new pill my latest doctor has stock in. But I got to admit, they’re fun.” She poured a few round white tablets into her hand and shot them back, smiled at me.

  “What do you have?” I asked, almost afraid of the answer.

  “That’s the best part, sweetie. No one fucking knows. Lupus says one, arthritis says another, some sort of autoimmune syndrome says a third, it’s all in my head says the fourth and fifth.”

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