The Roanoke GirlsAmy Engel
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Amy Engel
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
CROWN is a registered trademark and the Crown colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.
Ebook ISBN 9781101906675
Cover design: Tal Goretsky
Cover photographs: Milton Wordley/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (girl); Westend61/Getty Images (frames); spxChrome/E+/Getty Images (oval frame); CSA Images/Printstock Collection/Getty Images (wallpaper); Ottmar Bierwagen/ImageBrief.com (picture of house); Pete Ryan/National Geographic/Getty Images (background of house)
Roanoke Family Tree
About the Author
For Brian, you know why
Look at this tangle of thorns.
The first time I saw Roanoke was in a dream. I knew little of it beyond its name and the fact it was in Kansas, a place I had never been. My mother only ever mentioned it when she’d had too much wine, her breath turned sweet and her words slow and syrupy like molasses. So my subconscious filled in the rest. In my dream it stood tall and stately, tucked among a forest of spring-green trees. Its red-brick facade was broken up by black shutters, white trim, delicate wrought-iron balconies. A little girl’s fantasy of a princess castle.
When I woke, I started to tell my mother about it. Talking through a mouthful of stale Cheerios drowned in just-this-side-of-sour milk. I got only as far as the name, Roanoke, before she stopped me. “It was nothing like that,” she said, voice flat. She was sitting on the wide windowsill, knees drawn up into her cotton nightgown, smoke from her cigarette gathered around her like a shroud. Her ragged toenails dug into the wooden window frame.
“You didn’t even let me tell you,” I whined.
“Did you wake up screaming?”
A dribble of milk ran down my chin. “Huh?”
She turned and glanced at me then, her skin pale, eyes red-rimmed. The bones of her face looked sharp enough to cut. “Was it a nightmare?”
I shook my head, confused and a little scared. “No.”
She looked back out the window. “Then it was nothing like that.”
The second time I saw Roanoke was a month after my mother committed suicide. She hanged herself from her bedroom doorknob while I was at school. Made a noose of her bathrobe sash and knelt in supplication. Her death showed a kind of dedication, a purpose, I’d never seen from her in life. Next to her she left a note scribbled on the margin of the Sunday Times. I tried to wait. I’m sorry. The police officers asked me if I knew what she meant, but I had no idea. Wait for what? As if there was ever going to be a good time for her to off herself.
The first few days after she died I spent with the drag queen who lived in the apartment next door. My mother didn’t really have any friends and, frankly, neither did I. No one rushing over with hugs and casseroles. As far as potential guardians went, Carl wasn’t bad. He let me borrow his makeup. He was kind. And like my mother before him, he wasn’t too concerned with the finer points of child rearing. But even if Carl had been willing, I knew the state wouldn’t let him keep me.
The social worker assigned to me was an overweight woman named Karen, who had a fondness for faded concert T-shirts and sour cream and onion potato chips. “I don’t know why I can’t get a job,” I told her. “Live on my own.”
She shoveled a handful of chips into her mouth, wiped her greasy fingers down Axl Rose’s face. “You’re not even sixteen.”
“Almost,” I reminded her. “Three weeks.”
“Doesn’t matter if it’s three minutes. You gotta be eighteen.”
“I don’t want—”
Karen cut me off, held up a hand. “I found family that wants you.”
“What family?” I knew my mother came from Kansas, of course. Grew up in a house that had a name, like a person, like a living thing. But I’d never met any of her family. They never came to visit, never phoned, never wrote. I’d assumed they either were dead or wished we were.
Karen glanced down at the papers on her desk. “Your mom’s parents. Yates and Lillian Roanoke. Live just outside Osage Flats, Kansas.” She slammed her hand on the desk, making me jump. “It’s your lucky day, I’d say.” She raised her hand again and held up one finger. “First, they’re rich.” Another finger went up. “Second, they’re already raising a cousin of yours.” Karen’s eyes fell back to the desk. “Allegra. About six months younger than you. They’ve had her since she was born, from what I can gather. Third, they want you. Not willing to take you. Want you.” She waved the sheaf of paper in my direction. “Already bought you a bus ticket. You leave tomorrow.”
It was weird on that bus ride, how the farther we traveled from New York City, the only place I’d ever lived, the only place I’d ever been, the more I felt like I was going home. As the crowded cities gave way to wide-open space, flat land and endless horizon, something inside me unwound. And strangely, I wasn’t nervous or scared. A lifetime with my mother had given me lots of practice with unpredictability. In her own bizarre way, she had been preparing me for this moment my whole life.
At the bus station in Wichita an old man sidled up to me where I sat waiting on my mom’s Louis Vuitton suitcase, one of the few remnants of her life before me.
“Lane Roanoke?” he said, cleared his throat like he was going to hack something disgusting at my feet.
“I’m Charlie. Work for your granddad. He sent me to fetch ya.” He motioned me up and grabbed my suitcase and backpack with the vigor of a much younger man. “Come on then.”
I followed him out of the bus depot into sunlight so blinding I thought at first my eyes might burn right out of my head, no tall buildings to block it, no masses of people to hide behind. The heat was different, too, wet and clinging, coating my lungs with moss.
Charlie threw my bags into the back of a rusted pickup, the original bright red faded to the lackluster sheen of an old bloodstain. “Hop on in,” he told me, gesturing to the passenger door.
The interior was as hot as I’d feared, even though he’d left the windows down, and I had to resist the urge to hang my head out like a dog. “How far is it
?” I asked. “To Roanoke?”
“Couple hours.” He made that noise with his throat again and this time twisted his head and spat out his open window.
Wichita seemed empty of people compared with what I was used to, but as the miles unspooled the terrain turned even more desolate. We went long minutes without passing a single other car, only field after field with Charlie pointing out what was growing—corn, wheat, soybean. Occasionally, in the distance, I saw a combine working the land or a cloud of vultures overhead. I’d never known the world could be so quiet. Turned out Charlie wasn’t a talker, which was fine with me. He spoke only once more, when we turned off a two-lane country road onto a gravel driveway, passed under an archway with a wrought-iron R in the center. “Sorry to hear about your mama. Was there the day she was born.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. Already my mother felt like something that had happened in another lifetime, one I was only too happy to forget. I edged forward on the bench seat, hands curled around the ripped leather, craning for my first glimpse of Roanoke. Unlike my single dream of the place, there was hardly a tree in sight. Instead, oceans of wheat stretched out in all directions, wind surfing along the grain. And there it was…Roanoke. Nothing like my imagination. Nothing I could have imagined in a hundred years of trying.
I coughed out a laugh, half-delighted, half-terrified. “That’s it?”
Charlie made a noncommittal sound as he brought the truck to a stop in the semicircular drive. Roanoke had clearly started out as something resembling a traditional farmhouse—white clapboard, wraparound porch, peaked dormers. But someone had tacked on crazy additions over the years, a brick turret on one side, what looked like an entirely new stone house extending from the back, more white clapboard, newer and higher, on the other side. It was like a handful of giant houses all smashed together with no regard for aesthetics or conformity. It was equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing.
I slid from the truck, my eyes still bouncing over the house trying to make sense of all the strange angles and materials. It looked like something an insane person would build, or someone who didn’t give a shit. It wasn’t until I looked at the wide front porch for the second time that I noticed the girl standing there balanced on her tiptoes, as if she was about to fly down to greet me.
“Hi!” she called out, waving frantically with both hands. Her hair was arranged in two long braids, tied at the ends with blue and white gingham bows. She wore cutoff jean shorts and a tank top, but teetered on sky-high red glittery pumps. “Welcome to Oz!” she yelled, flinging her arms wide.
I stared at her, speechless, and her arms dropped. “Jesus fucking Christ,” she said with a put-upon sigh, kicking off the shoes. They arced through the air and landed on the lawn near my suitcase. “I was joking. It was a joke.”
She raced down the porch steps, came to a stop right in front of me. Her eyes flicked over my face, then focused on something behind me. She flapped her hand like a bug was in her way. “Stop lurking. Get out of here, you old coot.”
It took me a second to realize she was talking to Charlie, not to me. I watched as he gave her a long, measured stare before he walked away, still hacking. “So gross,” the girl said, wrinkling her nose and bringing her attention back to me. She tilted her head and stared. “Well, hell,” she said finally. “You’re prettier than me.” I could tell from her tone of voice that this was a rare occurrence.
“I don’t think—”
“No, you are. Don’t deny it.”
Honestly, I couldn’t see much difference between us. She had my dark hair, and the sun caught on the copper highlights exactly the way it did on mine. We had the same long, coltish legs, same willowy frame and big boobs. Although this girl, who I assumed was my cousin Allegra, was showing a lot more in her low-cut tank top than I was in my plain white T-shirt.
Allegra pointed at one of my eyes, her red lacquered nail stopping mere inches from the iris. “You got the Roanoke eyes, you lucky bitch.” But she said it with a smile. My eyes were my mother’s, ice blue with starbursts of pale green around the pupils. Allegra’s were a solid blue, the exact same hue as the cloudless sky overhead.
“I’m Allegra,” she said, linking her arm through mine as she pulled me toward the house.
“Lane,” I said, allowing myself to be dragged along.
Allegra laughed, high and bright. “Well, duh.”
“What about my suitcase?”
“Charlie will get it.”
Once through the front door, Allegra let go of my arm and grabbed my hand instead. “I’m so happy you’re here. I knew your mom would never move back, but I used to lie in bed and pray you’d come home.” She squeezed my hand, grinding the bones together. “Not that I wanted your mom to kill herself, but you know…I’m glad it worked out.”
I couldn’t even formulate a response before she was leading me down a dark hallway, deeper into the house. I wasn’t as shocked by her comment, by her almost-crazed energy, as other people might’ve been. She reminded me of my mother, had the same mercurial spirit. Like she was walking a tightrope between light and dark, joy and sorrow, and all I could do was stand beneath with arms outstretched and hope to make a catch. Or at least that’s what I’d done with my mother when I was younger. In recent years, I was more likely to yank away the net just to watch her fall.
Allegra pointed out rooms as we passed: parlor, living room, formal living room, library, dining room, music room, office, sunroom, down there’s the screened porch, up there are bedrooms and a sleeping porch, but she walked too fast for me to get more than a glimpse of each space. Some rooms were flooded with sunlight, others so dim and dark I’d have sworn it was night outside. Stairwells sprouted at bizarre angles, curving up and down, leading who knows where. The temperature varied from room to room, cold pockets of air-conditioning running smack into walls of heat like the interior of Charlie’s truck.
“Where are…” I paused, unsure how to phrase it. “Our grandparents?”
“Gran’s around here somewhere,” Allegra said. “Granddad’s probably out in the fields.” She led me through a crooked doorway, the floor slanting slightly under our feet. “Here’s the kitchen.” The room was a hodgepodge, much like the rest of the house. Brand-new stainless-steel appliances kept company with ancient wood floors. The lighting was modern, but the tiles were old, cracked, and held together with grimy grout. It was like someone had lost interest right in the middle of redecorating. The best part of the kitchen was an addition on the far end with a wall of windows and a long plank table lined with a padded bench on one side, chairs on the other. An older woman stood at the counter cutting vegetables. I thought at first she might be our grandmother, but she didn’t look up when we entered, and Allegra acted as though she wasn’t there, moving around her to lift two aluminum tumblers down from a shelf.
“Purple or red?” Allegra asked me.
She shook the tumblers in my face. “Purple or red?”
“Oh, I don’t care. Purple, I guess.”
Allegra danced over to the faucet, filled both tumblers, and shoved the purple one into my hand. I took a sip. The water was ice-cold but tinged with a metallic aftertaste, like drinking through a mouthful of nickels. Allegra watched me over the rim of her cup. Her eyes felt greedy, like she was trying to drink me instead of her water. I set my cup down on the counter.
A woman entered the kitchen from the far side, near the long table. She was slender and delicate with blond hair pulled back in a chignon at the nape of her neck. “Allegra,” she said, “where did you put those pearls you borrowed yesterday?”
“I don’t know.” Allegra flailed one hand in the air. “They’re around here somewhere.”
The woman clucked her tongue but said nothing more. Her eyes drifted over to me. “You must be Lane.”
She nodded, came closer. “I’m your grandma, Lillian. You can call me Gran like Allegra does.” She reached forward and too
k both my hands in hers, held my arms out from my sides. Her hands were cold, her skin soft and smooth. “Let’s get a look at you.”
Before this moment I was in possession of exactly two facts about my grandmother. She came from old money on the East Coast, and she was beautiful. I’d always pictured her as some eastern Blanche DuBois, booze-soaked and lipstick-smeared, wandering through her days in a silk nightgown, leaving a trail of cigarette ashes in her wake. This woman was nothing like that. She wore black capri pants and a white blouse, the sleeves rolled up on porcelain forearms. Her hair was glossy, her makeup refined. She didn’t look much older than some of the mothers of classmates I’d known back in New York. Her blue eyes weren’t cold exactly, but they didn’t invite me in, either. She seemed very capable, very calm. The direct opposite of her daughter who raised me.
“I think we’ll put you in the white bedroom,” she said, dropping my hands. “Allegra, show Lane her room.” She left the kitchen as quickly as she’d entered, trailing not cigarette smoke but the faint scent of expensive perfume. If some small part of me had hoped for hugs and loving words, sheer relief at my grandmother’s restraint drowned it out. I had no experience with maternal affection, wouldn’t have known what to do with it if it was offered.
Allegra pointed to the far corner of the kitchen. “There’s a back stairway there. But come this way first. I want to show you something.” We exited the kitchen, still without acknowledging the woman working at the counter. But when I looked back over my shoulder, her dark eyes followed me.
“Who was that?” I asked Allegra as we branched off the central hall and went down three shallow steps into a second hallway.