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Sharp objects, p.18

Sharp Objects, page 18

 

 


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  “What do you think?”

  “What do I think?” she asked, and rolled her eyes. “I think as long as they keep the meds coming, I probably don’t care all that much.” She laughed again. “They’re really fun.”

  Whether she was putting on a brave face or was really addicted, I couldn’t tell.

  “I’m sort of surprised Adora hasn’t gotten herself on the sick track,” she leered. “Figured once I did, she’d have to up the stakes, right? She wouldn’t have silly old lupus, though. She’d find a way to get…I don’t know, brain cancer. Right?”

  She took another sip of the Bloody Mary, got a slash of red and salt across her upper lip, which made her look swollen. That second swallow calmed her, and just as she had at Natalie’s funeral, she stared at me like she was trying to memorize my face.

  “Good God, it’s so weird to see you grown up,” she said, patting my knee. “Why are you here, sweetheart? Is everything okay at home? Probably not. Is it…is it your momma?”

  “No, nothing like that.” I hated being so obvious.

  “Oh.” She looked dismayed, a hand fluttering to her robe like something out of a black-and-white movie. I’d played her wrong, forgot that down here it was encouraged to openly crave gossip.

  “I mean, I’m sorry, I wasn’t being frank just now. I do want to talk about my mother.”

  Jackie immediately cheered. “Can’t quite figure her out, huh? Angel or devil or both, right?” Jackie placed a green satin pillow under her tiny rump and aimed her feet onto my lap. “Sweepea, will you just rub a little? They’re clean.” From under the sofa she pulled a bag of mini–candy bars, the kind you give out at Halloween, and placed them on her belly. “Lord, I’m going to have to get rid of these later, but they’ll taste good going down.”

  I took advantage of this happy moment. “Was my mother always…the way she is now?” I cringed at the awkwardness of the question, but Jackie cackled once, like a witch.

  “What’s that, Sweepea—Beautiful? Charming? Beloved? Evil?” She wiggled her toes as she unwrapped a chocolate. “Rub.” I began kneading her cold feet, the soles rough like a turtle shell. “Adora. Well, damn. Adora was rich and beautiful and her crazy parents ran the town. They brought that damn hog farm to Wind Gap, gave us hundreds of jobs—there was a walnut plant then, too. They called the shots. Everyone bootlicked the Preakers.”

  “What was life for her like…at home?”

  “Adora was…overly mothered. Never saw your grandma Joya smile at her or touch her in a loving way, but she couldn’t keep her hands off her. Always fixing the hair, tugging at clothes, and…oh, she did this thing. Instead of licking her thumb and rubbing at a smudge, she’d lick Adora. Just grab her head and lick it. When Adora peeled from a sunburn—we all did back then, not as smart about SPF as your generation—Joya would sit next to your momma, strip off her shirt, and peel the skin off in long strips. Joya loved that.”

  “Jackie…”

  “I am not lying. Having to watch your friend stripped naked in front of you, and…groomed. Needless to say, your momma was sick all the time. She was always having tubes and needles and such stuck in her.”

  “What was she sick with?”

  “Little bit of everything. Lot of it just the stress of living with Joya. Those long unpainted fingernails, like a man’s. And long hair she let go silver, down her back.”

  “Where was my grandfather in all this?”

  “Don’t know. Don’t even remember his name. Herbert? Herman? He was never around, and when he was, he was just quiet and…away. You know the type. Like Alan.”

  She popped another chocolate and wiggled her toes in my hands. “You know, having you should have ruined your mother.” Her tone was reproachful, as if I’d failed a simple chore. “Any other girl, got knocked up before marriage, here in Wind Gap way back when, it’d be all over for her,” Jackie continued. “But your mother always had a way of making people baby her. People—not just boys, but the girls, their mothers, the teachers.”

  “Why is that?”

  “Sweet Camille, a beautiful girl can get away with anything if she plays nice. You certainly must know that. Think of all the things boys have done for you over the years they never would have done if you hadn’t had that face. And if the boys are nice, the girls are nice. Adora played that pregnancy beautifully: proud but a little broken, and very secretive. Your daddy came for that fateful visit, and then they never saw each other again. Your momma never spoke about it. You were all hers from the beginning. That’s what killed Joya. Her daughter finally had something in her that Joya couldn’t get at.”

  “Did my mother stop being sick once Joya was gone?”

  “She did okay for a while,” Jackie said over her glass. “But wasn’t that long before Marian came along, and she didn’t really have time to be sick then.”

  “Was my mother…” I could feel a sob welling up in my throat, so I swallowed it with my watered-down vodka. “Was my mother…a nice person?”

  Jackie cackled again. Popped a chocolate, the nougat sticking to her teeth. “That’s what you’re after? Whether she was nice?” she paused. “What do you think?” she added, mocking me.

  Jackie dug into her drawer again, unscrewed three pill bottles, took a tablet from each, and arranged them from largest to smallest on the back of her left hand.

  “I don’t know. I’ve never been close with her.”

  “But you’ve been close to her. Don’t play games with me, Camille. That exhausts me. If you thought your momma was a nice person, you wouldn’t be over here with her best friend asking whether she’s nice.”

  Jackie took each pill, largest to smallest, smashed it into a chocolate, and swallowed it. Wrappers littered her chest, the smear of red still covered her lip, and a thick fudgy coating clung to her teeth. Her feet had begun to sweat in my hands.

  “I’m sorry. You’re right,” I said. “Just, do you think she’s…sick?”

  Jackie stopped her chewing, put her hand on mine, and took a sigh of a breath.

  “Let me say it aloud, because I’ve been thinking it too long, and thoughts can be a little tricky for me—they zip away from you, you know. Like trying to catch fish with your hands.” She leaned up and squeezed my arm. “Adora devours you, and if you don’t let her, it’ll be even worse for you. Look it what’s happening to Amma. Look at what happened to Marian.”

  Yes. Just below my left breast, bundle began tingling.

  “So you think?” I prompted. Say it.

  “I think she’s sick, and I think what she has is contagious,” Jackie whispered, her shaky hands making the ice in her glass chime. “And I think it’s time for you to go, Sweepea.”

  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to overstay my welcome.”

  “I mean leave Wind Gap. It’s not safe for you here.”

  Less than a minute later I closed the door on Jackie as she stared at the photo of herself leering back from the mantelpiece.

  Chapter Fourteen

  I nearly tumbled down Jackie’s steps, my legs were so wobbly. Behind my back I could hear her boys chanting the Calhoon football rally. I drove around the corner, parked under a copse of mulberry treees, and rested my head against the wheel.

  Had my mother truly been sick? And Marian? Amma and me? Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed. Not surprising, considering the sheer amount of traffic a woman’s body experiences. Tampons and speculums. Cocks, fingers, vibrators and more, between the legs, from behind, in the mouth. Men love to put things inside women, don’t they? Cucumbers and bananas and bottles, a string of pearls, a Magic Marker, a fist. Once a guy wanted to wedge a Walkie-Talkie inside of me. I declined.

  Sick and sicker
and sickest. What was real and what was fake? Was Amma really sick and needing my mother’s medicine, or was the medicine what was making Amma sick? Did her blue pill make me vomit, or did it keep me from getting more ill than I’d have been without it?

  Would Marian be dead if she hadn’t had Adora for a mother?

  I knew I should call Richard but couldn’t think of anything to tell him. I’m scared. I’m vindicated. I want to die. I drove back past my mother’s house, then east out toward the hog farm, and pulled up to Heelah’s, that comforting, windowless block of a bar where anyone who recognized the boss’s daughter would wisely leave her to her thoughts.

  The place stank of pig blood and urine; even the popcorn in bowls along the bar smelled of flesh. A couple of men in baseball caps and leather jackets, handlebar mustaches and scowls, looked up, then back down into their beers. The bartender poured me my bourbon without a word. A Carole King song droned from the speakers. On my second round, the bartender motioned behind me and asked, “You lookin’ for him?”

  John Keene sat slumped over a drink in the bar’s only booth, picking at the splintered edge of the table. His white skin was mottled pink with liquor, and from his wet lips and the way he smacked his tongue, I guessed he’d vomited once already. I grabbed my drink and sat across from him, said nothing. He smiled at me, reached his hand to mine across the table.

  “Hi Camille. How’re you doing? You look so nice and clean.” He looked around. “It’s…it’s so dirty here.”

  “I’m doing okay, I guess, John. You okay?”

  “Oh sure, I’m great. My sister’s murdered, I’m about to be arrested, and my girlfriend who’s stuck to me like glue since I moved to this rotten town is starting to realize I’m not the prize anymore. Not that I care that much. She’s nice but not…”

  “Not surprising,” I offered.

  “Yeah. Yeah. I was about to break up with her before Natalie. Now I can’t.”

  Such a move would be dissected by the whole town—Richard, too. What does it mean? How does it prove his guilt?

  “I will not go back to my parents’ house,” he muttered. “I will go to the fucking woods and kill myself before I go back to all of Natalie’s things staring at me.”

  “I don’t blame you.”

  He picked up the salt shaker, began twirling it around the table.

  “You’re the only person who understands, I think,” he said. “What it’s like to lose a sister and be expected to just deal. Just move on. Have you gotten over it?” He said the words so bitterly I expected his tongue to turn yellow.

  “You’ll never get over it,” I said. “It infects you. It ruined me.” It felt good to say it out loud.

  “Why does everyone think it’s so strange that I should mourn Natalie?” John toppled the shaker and it clattered to the floor. The bartender sent over a disgruntled look. I picked it up, set it on my side of the table, threw a pinch of salt over my shoulder for both of us.

  “I guess when you’re young, people expect you to accept things more easily,” I said. “And you’re a guy. Guys don’t have soft feelings.”

  He snorted. “My parents got me this book on dealing with death: Male in Mourning. It said that sometimes you need to drop out, to just deny. That denial can be good for men. So I tried to take an hour and pretend like I didn’t care. And for a little bit, I really didn’t. I sat in my room at Meredith’s and I thought about…bullshit. I just stared out the window at this little square of blue sky and kept saying, It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. Like I was a kid again. And when I was done, I knew for sure nothing would ever be okay again. Even if they caught who did it, it wouldn’t be okay. I don’t know why everyone keeps saying we’ll feel better once someone’s arrested. Now it looks like the someone who’s going to be arrested is me.” He laughed in a grunt and shook his head. “It’s just fucking insane.” And then, abruptly: “You want another drink? Will you have another drink with me?”

  He was smashed, swaying heavily, but I would never steer a fellow sufferer from the relief of a blackout. Sometimes that’s the most logical route. I’ve always believed clear-eyed sobriety was for the harder hearted. I had a shot at the bar to catch up, then came back with two bourbons. Mine a double.

  “It’s like they picked the two girls in Wind Gap who had minds of their own and killed them off,” John said. He took a sip of bourbon. “Do you think your sister and my sister would have been friends?”

  In that imaginary place where they were both alive, where Marian had never aged.

  “No,” I said, and laughed suddenly. He laughed, too.

  “So your dead sister is too good for my dead sister?” he blurted. We both laughed again, and then quickly soured and turned back to our drinks. I was already feeling dazed.

  “I didn’t kill Natalie,” he whispered.

  “I know.”

  He picked up my hand, wrapped it around his.

  “Her fingernails were painted. When they found her. Someone painted her fingernails,” he mumbled.

  “Maybe she did.”

  “Natalie hated that kind of thing. Barely even allowed a brush through her hair.”

  Silence for several minutes. Carole King had given way to Carly Simon. Feminine folksy voices in a bar for slaughterers.

  “You’re so beautiful,” John said.

  “So are you.”

  John fumbled with his keys in the parking lot, handed them to me easily when I told him he was too drunk to drive. Not that I was much better. I steered him blurrily back to Meredith’s house, but he just shook his head when we got close, asked if I’d drive him to the motel outside town lines. Same one I’d stayed at on my way down here, a little refuge where one could prepare for Wind Gap and its weight.

  We drove with the windows down, warm night air blowing in, pasting John’s T-shirt to his chest, my long sleeves flapping in the wind. Aside from his thick head of hair, he was so utterly bare. Even his arms sprouted only a light down. He seemed almost naked, in need of cover.

  I paid for the room, No. 9, because John had no credit cards, and opened the door for him, sat him on the bed, got him a glass of lukewarm water in a plastic cup. He just looked at his feet and refused to take it.

  “John, you need to drink some water.”

  He drained the cup in a gulp and let it roll off the side of the bed. Grabbed my hand. I tried to pull away—more instinct than anything—but he squeezed harder.

  “I saw this the other day, too,” he said, his finger tracing part of the d in wretched, just tucked under my left shirtsleeve. He reached his other hand up and stroked my face. “Can I look?”

  “No.” I tried again to pull away.

  “Let me see, Camille.” He held on.

  “No, John. No one sees.”

  “I do.”

  He rolled my sleeve up, squinted his eyes. Trying to understand the lines in my skin. I don’t know why I let him. He had a searching, sweet look on his face. I was weak from the day. And I was so damned tired of hiding. More than a decade devoted to concealment, never an interaction—a friend, a source, the checkout girl at the supermarket—in which I wasn’t distracted anticipating which scar was going to reveal itself. Let John look. Please let him look. I didn’t need to hide from someone courting oblivion as ardently as I was.

  He rolled up the other sleeve, and there sat my exposed arms, so naked they made me breathless.

  “No one’s seen this?”

  I shook my head.

  “How long have you done this, Camille?”

  “A long time.”

  He stared at my arms, pushed the sleeves up farther. Kissed me in the middle of weary.

  “This is how I feel,” he said, running his fingers over the scars until I got a chill of goosebumps. “Let me see it all.”

  He pulled my shirt over my head as I sat like an obedient child. Eased off my shoes and socks, pulled down my slacks. In my bra and panties, I shivered in the frosty room, the air conditioner blasting a chil
l over me. John pulled back the covers, motioned for me to climb in, and I did, feeling feverish and frozen at once.

  He held up my arms, my legs, turned me on my back. He read me. Said the words out loud, angry and nonsensical both: oven, queasy, castle. He took off his own clothes, as if he sensed an unevenness, threw them in a ball on the floor, and read more. Bun, spiteful, tangle, brush. He unhooked my bra in front with a quick flick of his fingers, peeled it off me. Blossom, dosage, bottle, salt. He was hard. He put his mouth on my nipples, the first time since I began cutting in earnest that I’d allowed a man to do that. Fourteen years.

  His hands ran all over me, and I let them: my back, my breasts, my thighs, my shoulders. His tongue in my mouth, down my neck, over my nipples, between my legs, then back to my mouth. Tasting myself on him. The words stayed quiet. I felt exorcised.

  I guided him into me and came fast and hard and then again. I could feel his tears on my shoulders while he shuddered inside me. We fell asleep twisted around each other (a leg jutting out here, an arm behind a head there) and a single word hummed once: omen. Good or bad I didn’t know. At the time I chose to think good. Foolish girl.

  In the early morning, dawn made the tree branches glow like hundreds of tiny hands outside the bedroom window. I walked naked to the sink to refill our cup of water, both of us hungover and thirsty, and the weak sunlight hit my scars and the words flickered to life again. Remission ended. My upper lip curled involuntarily in repulsion at the sight of my skin, and I wrapped a towel around me before I got back into bed.

  John drank a sip of water, cradled my head and poured some into my mouth, then gulped the remainder. His fingers tugged at the towel. I held tight to it, hard as a dishrag on my breasts, and shook my head.

  “What’s this?” he whispered into my ear.

  “This is the unforgiving light of morning,” I whispered back. “Time to drop the illusion.”

  “What illusion?”

  “That anything can be okay,” I said, and kissed his cheek.

  “Let’s not do that yet,” he said, and wrapped his arms around me. Those thin, hairless arms. A boy’s arms. I told myself these things, but I felt safe and good. Pretty and clean. I put my face to his neck and smelled him: liquor and sharp shaving lotion, the kind that squirts out ice blue. When I opened my eyes again, I saw the red twirling circles of a police siren outside the window.

  Bang bang bang. The door rattled as if it could have easily broken down.

  “Camille Preaker. Chief Vickery. Open up if you’re in there.”

  We grabbed our scattered clothes, John’s eyes as startled as a bird’s. The sounds of belt buckles and shirt rustles that would give us away outside. Frantic, guilty noises. I threw the sheets back on the bed, ran fingers through my hair, and as John placed himself in an awkwardly casual standing position behind me, fingers hooked through his belt loops, I opened the door.

  Richard. Well-pressed white shirt, crisply striped tie, a smile that dropped as soon as he saw John. Vickery beside him, rubbing his mustache as if there were a rash beneath it, eyes flitting from me to John before he turned and stared at Richard head on.

  Richard said nothing, just glared at me, crossed his arms and inhaled deeply once. I’m sure the room smelled of sex.

  “Well, looks like you’re just fine,” he said. Forced a smirk. I knew it was forced because the skin above his collar was as red as an angry cartoon character’s. “How’re you, John? You good?”

  “I’m fine, thanks,” John said, and came to stand at my side.

  “Miss Preaker, your mother called us a few hours ago when you failed to come home,” mumbled Vickery. “Said you’d been a bit sick, taken a tumble, something like ’at. She was real worried. Real worried. Plus with all this ugliness going on, you can’t be too careful. I suppose she’ll be glad to hear you’re…here.”

  The last part asked as a question I had no intention of answering. Richard I owed an explanation. Vickery no.

  “I can phone my mother myself, thanks. I appreciate you looking up on me.”

  Richard looked at his feet, bit his lip, the only time I’ve ever seen him abashed. My belly turned, oily and fearful. He exhaled once, a long hard gust, put his hand on his hips, stared at me, then at John. Kids caught misbehaving.

  “C’mon John, we’ll take you home,” Richard said.

  “Camille can take me, but thanks, Detective Willis.”

 
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