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Sharp objects, p.19

Sharp Objects, page 19

 

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  “You of age, son?” Vickery asked.

  “He’s eighteen,” Richard said.

  “Well fine then, you two have a real nice day,” Vickery said, hissed a laugh in Richard’s direction, and muttered “already had a nice night,” under his breath.

  “I’ll phone you later, Richard,” I said.

  He raised a hand, flicked it at me as he turned back to the car.

  John and I were mostly silent on the ride to his parents’, where he was going to try to sleep in the basement rec room for a bit. He hummed a snatch of some old ’50s bebop and tapped his fingernails on the door handle.

  “How bad do you think that was?” he finally asked.

  “For you, maybe not bad. Shows you’re a good American boy with healthy interest in women and casual sex.”

  “That wasn’t casual. I don’t feel casual about that at all. Do you?”

  “No. That was the wrong word. That was just the opposite,” I said. “But I’m more than a decade older than you, and I’m covering the crime that…it’s a conflict of interest. Better reporters have been fired for such a thing.” I was aware of the morning sunlight on my face, the wrinkles at the edges of my eyes, the age that hung on me. John’s face, despite a night of drinking and very little sleep, was like a petal.

  “Last night. You saved me. That saved me. If you hadn’t stayed with me, I would have done something bad. I know it, Camille.”

  “You made me feel very safe, too,” I said, and meant it, but the words came out in the disingenuous singsong of my mother.

  I dropped John off a block from his parents’ house, his kiss landing on my jaw as I jerked away at the last second. No one can prove anything happened, I thought at that moment.

  Drove back to Main Street, parked in front of the police station. One streetlight still glowed. 5:47 a.m. No receptionist on call yet in the lobby, so I rang the nightbell. The room deodorizer near my head hissed a lemon scent right on my shoulder. I hit the bell again, and Richard appeared behind the slit of glass in the heavy door leading to the offices. He stood staring at me a second, and I was waiting for him to turn his back to me again, almost willing him to, but then he opened the door and entered the lobby.

  “Where do you want to begin, Camille?” He sat on one of the overstuffed chairs and put his head in his hands, his tie drooping between his legs.

  “It wasn’t like it looked, Richard,” I said. “I know it sounds cliché but it’s true.” Deny deny deny.

  “Camille, just forty-eight hours after you and I had sex, I find you in a motel room with the chief subject in my child-murder investigation. Even if it’s not what it looks like, it’s bad.”

  “He did not do it, Richard. I absolutely know he didn’t do it.”

  “Really? Is that what ya’ll discussed when he had his dick in you?”

  Good, anger, I thought. This I can handle. Better than head-in-the-hands despair.

  “Nothing like that happened, Richard. I found him at Heelah’s drunk, dead drunk, and I really thought he might harm himself. I took him to the motel because I wanted to stay with him and hear him out. I need him for my story. And you know what I learned? Your investigation has ruined this boy, Richard. And what’s worse, I don’t even think you really believe he did it.”

  Only the last sentence was entirely true, and I didn’t realize it until the words came out of me. Richard was a smart guy, a great cop, extremely ambitious, on his first major case with an entire outraged community bellowing for an arrest, and he didn’t have a break yet. If he had more on John than a wish, he’d have arrested him days ago.

  “Camille, despite what you think, you don’t know everything about this investigation.”

  “Richard, believe me, I’ve never thought that I did. I’ve never felt anything but the most useless outsider. You’ve managed to fuck me and still remain airtight. No leaks with you.”

  “Ah, so you’re still pissed about that? I thought you were a big girl.”

  Silence. A hiss of lemon. I could vaguely hear the big silver watch on Richard’s wrist ticking.

  “Let me show you what a good sport I can be,” I said. I was back on autopilot, just like the old days: desperate to submit to him, make him feel better, make him like me again. For a few minutes last night, I’d felt so comforted, and Richard’s appearing outside that motel door had smashed what was left of the lingering calm. I wanted it back.

  I lowered myself to my knees, and began unzipping his pants. For a second he put his hand on the back of my head. Then instead he grabbed me roughly by the shoulder.

  “Camille, Christ, what are you doing?” He realized how hard his grip was and loosened it, pulled me to my feet.

  “I just want to make things okay with us.” I played with a button on his shirt and refused to meet his eyes.

  “That won’t do it, Camille,” he said. He kissed me almost chastely on the lips. “You need to know that before we go any further. You just need to know that, period.”

  Then he asked me to leave.

  I chased sleep for a few darting hours in the back of my car. The equivalent of reading a sign between the cars of a passing train. Woke up sticky and peevish. Bought a toothbrush kit at the FaStop, along with the strongest-smelling lotion and hairspray I could find. I brushed my teeth in a gas-station sink, then rubbed the lotion into my armpits and between my legs, sprayed my hair stiff. The resulting smell was sweat and sex under a billowing cloud of strawberry and aloe.

  I couldn’t face my mother at the house and crazily thought I’d do work instead. (As if I were still going to write that story. As if it weren’t all about to go to hell.) With Geri Shilt’s mention of Katie Lacey fresh in my mind, I decided to go back to her. She was a mother’s aide at the grade school, for both Natalie and Ann’s classes. My own mother had been a mother’s aide, a coveted, elite position in the school that only women who didn’t work could do: swoop into classrooms twice a week and help organize arts, crafts, music, and, for girls on Thursdays, sewing. At least in my day it’d been sewing. By now it was probably something more gender neutral and modern. Computer usage or beginners’ microwaving.

  Katie, like my mother, lived at the top of a big hill. The house’s slender staircase cut into the grass and was bordered with sunflowers. A catalpa tree sat slim and elegant as a finger on the hilltop, the female match to the burly shade oak on its right. It was barely ten, but Katie, slim and brown, was already sunning herself on the widow’s walk, a box fan breezing her. Sun without the heat. Now if she could only figure out a tan without the cancer. Or at least the wrinkles. She saw me coming up the stairs, an irritating flicker against the deep green of her lawn, and shaded her eyes to make me out from forty feet above.

  “Who is that?” she called out. Her hair, a natural wheaty blonde in high school, was now a brassy platinum that sprung out of a ponytail atop her head.

  “Hi, Katie. It’s Camille.”

  “Ca-meeel! Oh my God, I’m coming down.”

  It was a more generous greeting than I’d expected from Katie, who I hadn’t heard from again after the night of Angie’s Pity Party. Her grudges always came and went like breezes.

  She bounded to the door, those bright blue eyes glowing from her suntanned face. Her arms were brown and skinny as a child’s, reminding me of the French cigarillos Alan had taken to smoking one winter. My mother had blocked him off into the basement, grandly called it his smoking room. Alan soon dropped the cigarillos and took up port.

  Over her bikini Katie had thrown a neon pink tank, the kind girls picked up in South Padre in the late ’80s, souvenirs from wet T-shirt contests over Spring Break. She wrapped her cocoa-buttered arms around me and led me inside. No A/C in this old house either, just like my momma’s, she explained. Although they did have one room unit in the master bedroom. The kids, I guessed, could sweat it out. Not that they weren’t catered to. The entire east wing seemed to be an indoor playground, complete with a yellow plastic house, a slide, a designer rocking
horse. None of it looked remotely played with. Big colored letters lined one wall: Mackenzie. Emma. Photos of smiling blonde girls, pug nosed and glassy eyed, pretty mouth breathers. Never a close-up of a face, but always framed in order to capture what they were wearing. Pink overalls with daisies, red dresses with polka-dot bloomers, Easter bonnets and Mary Janes. Cute kids, really cute clothes. I’d just created a tagline for Wind Gaps’ li’l shoppers.

  Katie Lacey Brucker didn’t seem to care why I was in her home this Friday morning. There was talk of a celebrity tell-all she was reading, and whether childrens’ beauty pageants were forever stigmatized by JonBenet. Mackenzie is just dying to model. Well she’s as pretty as her mother, who can blame her? Why, Camille, that’s sweet of you to say—I never felt like you thought I was pretty. Oh of course, don’t be silly. Would you like a drink? Absolutely. We don’t keep liquor in the home. Of course, not what I meant at all. Sweet tea? Sweet tea is lovely, impossible to get in Chicago, you really miss the little regional goodies, you should see how they do their ham up there. So great to be home.

  Katie came back with a crystal pitcher of sweet tea. Curious, since from the living room I saw her pull a big gallon jug out of the icebox. A hit of smugness, followed by a self-reminder that I wasn’t being particularly frank, either. In fact, I’d cloaked my own natural state with the thick scent of fake plant. Not just aloe and strawberry, but also the faint strain of lemon air freshener coming from my shoulder.

  “This tea is wonderful, Katie. I swear I could drink sweet tea with every meal.”

  “How do they do their ham up there?” She tucked her feet under her legs and leaned in. It reminded me of high school, that serious stare, as if she were trying to memorize the combination to a safe.

  I don’t eat ham, hadn’t since I was a kid and went to visit the family business. It wasn’t even a slaughtering day, but the sight kept me up nights. Hundreds of those animals caged so tightly they couldn’t even turn around, the sweet throaty scent of blood and shit. A flash of Amma, staring intently at those cages.

  “Not enough brown sugar.”

  “Mmmhmm. Speaking of which, can I make you a sandwich or something? Got ham from your momma’s place, beef from the Deacons’, chicken from Coveys. And turkey from Lean Cuisine.”

  Katie was the type who’d bustle around all day, clean the kitchen tile with a toothbrush, pull the lint from the floorboards with a toothpick before she spoke much about anything uncomfortable. Sober at least. Still, I maneuvered her to talk of Ann and Natalie, guaranteed her anonymity, and started up my tape recorder. The girls were sweet and cute and darling, the obligatory cheery revisionism. Then:

  “We did have an incident with Ann, on Sewing Day.” Sewing Day, still around. Kind of comforting, I suppose. “She jabbed Natalie Keene in the cheek with her needle. I think she was aiming for the eye, you know, like Natalie did to that little girl back in Ohio.” Philadelphia. “One minute the two were sitting nice and quiet next to each other—they weren’t friends, they were in different grades, but Sewing’s open. And Ann was humming something to herself and looking just like a little mother. And then it happened.”

  “How hurt was Natalie?”

  “Mmm, not too bad. Me and Rae Whitescarver, she’s the second-grade teacher now. Used to be Rae Little, few years below us…and not little. At least not then—she’s dropped a few pounds. Anyway, me and Rae pulled Ann off and Natalie had this needle sticking right out of her cheek just an inch below her eye. Didn’t cry or nothing. Just wheezed in and out like an angry horse.”

  An image of Ann with her crooked hair, weaving the needle through cloth, remembering a story about Natalie and her scissors, a violence that made her so different. And before she thought it through, the needle into flesh, easier than you’d think, hitting bone in one quick thrust. Natalie with the metal spearing out of her, like a tiny silver harpoon.

  “Ann did it for no clear reason?”

  “One thing I learned about those two, they didn’t need a reason to strike out.”

  “Did other girls pick on them? Were they under stress?”

  “Ha Ha!” It was a genuinely surprised laugh, but it came out in a perfect, unlikely “Ha Ha!” Like a cat looking at you and saying “Meow.”

  “Well, I wouldn’t say school days were something they looked forward to,” Katie said. “But you should ask your little sister about that.”

  “I know you say Amma bullied them…”

  “God help us when she hits high school.”

  I waited in silence for Katie Lacey Brucker to gear up and talk about my sister. Bad news, I guessed. No wonder she was so happy to see me.

  “Remember how we ran Calhoon? What we thought was cool became cool, who we didn’t like everyone hated?” She sounded fairy-tale dreamy, as if she were thinking of a land of ice cream and bunnies. I only nodded. I remember a particularly cruel gesture on my part: An overearnest girl named LeeAnn, a leftover friend from grade school, had displayed too much concern about my mental state, suggested I might be depressed. I snubbed her pointedly one day when she came scurrying over to speak with me before school. I can still remember her: books bundled under her arms, that awkward printed skirt, her head kept a bit low whenever she addressed me. I turned my back on her, blocked her from the group of girls I was with, made some joke about her conservative church clothes. The girls ran with it. For the rest of the week, she was pointedly taunted. She spent the last two years of high school hanging out with teachers during lunch. I could have stopped it with one word, but I didn’t. I needed her to stay away.

  “Your sister is like us times three. And she has a major mean streak.”

  “Mean streak how?”

  Katie pulled a soft pack of cigarettes from the endtable drawer, lit one with a long fireplace match. Still a secret smoker.

  “Oh, she and those three girls, those little blonde things with the tits already, they rule the school, and Amma rules them. Seriously, it’s bad. Sometimes funny, but mostly bad. They make this fat girl get them lunch every day, and before she leaves, they make her eat something without using her hands, just dig her face in there on the plate.” She scrunched up her nose but didn’t seem otherwise bothered. “Another little girl they cornered and made her lift up her shirt and show the boys. Because she was flat. They made her say dirty things while she was doing it. There’s a rumor going around that they took one of their old friends, girl named Ronna Deel they’d fallen out with, took her to a party, got her drunk and…kind of gave her as a present to some of the older boys. Stood guard outside the room till they were done with her.”

  “They’re barely thirteen,” I said. I thought of what I’d done at that age. For the first time I realized how offensively young it was.

  “These are precocious little girls. We did some pretty wild things ourselves at not much older.” Katie’s voice got huskier with her smoke. She blew it up and watched it hover blue above us.

  “We never did anything that cruel.”

  “We came pretty damn close, Camille.” You did, I didn’t. We stared at each other, privately cataloguing our power plays.

  “Anyway, Amma fucked with Ann and Natalie a lot,” Katie said. “It was nice your mom took so much interest in them.”

  “My mom tutored Ann, I know.”

  “Oh, she’d work with them during mother’s aide, have them over to your house, feed them after school. Sometimes she’d even come by during recess and you could see her outside the fence, watching them on the playground.”

  A flash of my mother, fingers wrapped between the fence wire, hungrily looking in. A flash of my mother in white, glowing white, holding Natalie with one arm, and a finger up to her mouth to hush James Capisi.

  “Are we done?” Katie asked. “I’m sort of tired of talking about all this.” She clicked the tape recorder off.

  “So, I heard about you and the cute cop,” Katie smiled. A wisp of hair came unhooked from her ponytail, and I could remember her, head bent over her
feet, painting her toenails and asking about me and one of the basketball players she’d wanted for herself. I tried not to wince at the mention of Richard.

  “Oh, rumors, rumors.” I smiled. “Single guy, single girl…my life isn’t nearly that interesting.”

  “John Keene might say different.” She plucked another cigarette, lit it, inhaled and exhaled while fixing me with those china blue eyes. No smile this time. I knew this could go two ways. I could give her a few tidbits, make her happy. If the story had already reached Katie at ten, the rest of Wind Gap would hear by noon. Or I could deny, risk her anger, lose her cooperation. I already had the interview, and I certainly didn’t care about staying in her good graces.

  “Ah. More rumors. People need to get some better hobbies around here.”

  “Really? Sounded pretty typical to me. You were always open to a good time.”

  I stood up, more than ready to leave. Katie followed me out, chewing the inside of her cheek.

  “Thanks for your time, Katie. It was good seeing you.”

  “You too, Camille. Enjoy the rest of your stay here.” I was out the door and on the steps when she called back to me.

  “Camille?” I turned around, saw Katie with her left leg bent inward like a little girl’s, a gesture she had even in high school. “Friendly advice: Get home and wash yourself. You stink.”

  I did go home. My brain was stumbling from image to image of my mother, all ominous. Omen. The word beat again on my skin. Flash of thin, wild-haired Joya with the long nails, peeling skin from my mother. Flash of my mother and her pills and potions, sawing through my hair. Flash of Marian, now bones in a coffin, a white satin ribbon wrapped around dried blonde curls, like some bouquet gone stale. My mother tending to those violent little girls. Or trying to. Natalie and Ann weren’t likely to suffer much of that. Adora hated little girls who didn’t capitulate to her peculiar strain of mothering. Had she painted Natalie’s fingernails before she strangled her? After?

  You’re crazy to think what you’re thinking. You’re crazy to not think it.

  Chapter Fifteen

  Three little pink bikes were lined up on the porch, bedecked with white wicker baskets, ribbons streaming off the handlebars. I peeked in one of the baskets and saw an oversized stick of lipgloss and a joint in a sandwich bag.

  I slipped in a side door and padded up the steps. The girls were in Amma’s room giggling loudly, shrieking with delight. I opened the door without knocking. Rude, but I couldn’t bear the idea of that secret shuffle, that rush to pose innocently for the grown-up. The three blondes were standing in a circle around Amma, short shorts and miniskirts bearing their shaved stick legs. Amma was on the floor fiddling with her dollhouse, a tube of super glue beside her, her hair piled on top of her head and tied with a big blue ribbon. They shrieked again when I said hello, flashing outraged, exhilarated smiles, like startled birds.

  “Hey, Mille,” blurted Amma, no longer bandaged, but looking tweaked and feverish. “We’re just playing dolls. Don’t I have the most beautiful dollhouse?” Her voice was syrupy, modeled after a child on a 1950s family show. Hard to reconcile this Amma with the one who gave me drugs just two nights before. My sister who supposedly pimped out her friends to older boys for laughs.

  “Yeah, Camille, don’t you love Amma’s dollhouse?” echoed the brassy blonde in a husky voice. Jodes was the only one not looking at me. Instead she was staring into the dollhouse as if she could will herself inside.

  “You feel better, Amma?”

  “Oh, indeed I do, sister dear,” she whinnied. “I hope you feel well also.”

  The girls giggled again, like a shudder. I shut the door, annoyed with a game I didn’t understand. “Maybe you should take Jodes with you,” one of them called from behind the closed door. Jodes wasn’t long for the group.

  I ran a warm bath despite the heat—even the porcelain of the tub was rosy—and sat in it, naked, chin on my knees as the water slowly snaked up around me. The room smelled of minty soap and the sweet, spittoon scent of female sex. I was raw and thoroughly used and it felt good. I closed my eyes, slumped down into the water and let it flow into my ears. Alone. I wished I’d carved that into my skin, suddenly surprised that the word didn’t grace my body. The bare circle of scalp Adora had left me pricked with goosebumps, as if volunteering for the assignment. My face cooled, too, and I opened my eyes to see my mother hovering over the oval of the tub rim, her long blonde hair encircling her face.

  I lurched up, covered my breasts, splashing some water on her pink gingham sundress.

  “Sweetheart, where did you go? I was absolutely frantic. I’d have come looking for you myself but Amma had a bad night.”

  “What was wrong with Amma?”

  “Where were you last night?”

  “What was wrong with Amma, Mother?”

  She reached for my face and I flinched. She frowned and reached again, patted my cheek, smoothed my wet hair back. When she removed her hand, she looked stunned at the wetness, as if she’d ruined her skin.

  “I had to take care of her,” she said simply. Goosebumps blossomed on my arms. “You cold, honey? Your nipples are hard.”

  She had a glass of bluish milk in her hand, which she gave to me silently. Either the drink makes me sick and I know I’m not insane, or it doesn’t, and I know I’m a hateful creature. I drank the milk as my mother hummed and ran her tongue over her lower lip, a gesture so fervent it was nearly obscene.

  “You were never such a good girl when you were little,” she said. “You were always so willful. Maybe your spirit has gotten a bit more broken. In a good way. A necessary way.”

  She left and I waited in the bathtub for an hour for something to happen.
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