Sharp objects, p.12
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       Sharp Objects, p.12

           Gillian Flynn
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  When the phone rang, I picked up, just so Amma wouldn’t lose her momentum, and was surprised to hear the cheerleader staccato of my old friend Katie Lacey. Angie Papermaker was having the girls over for a Pity Party. Drink a bunch of wine, watch a sad movie, cry, gossip. I should come. Angie lived in the New Rich part of town—huge mansions at the outskirts of Wind Gap. Practically Tennessee. I couldn’t tell from Katie’s voice if that made her jealous or smug. Knowing her, probably a bit of both. She’d always been one of those girls who wanted what anyone else had, even if she didn’t want it.

  I knew when I saw Katie and her friends at the Keenes’ home that I’d have to submit to at least one evening out. It was this or finish transcribing my talk with John, which was making me dangerously sad. Plus, like Annabelle, Jackie, and that catty group of my mother’s friends, this gathering was likely to yield more information than I’d get through a dozen formal interviews.

  As soon as she pulled up in front of the house I realized that Katie Lacey, now Katie Brucker, had, predictably, done well for herself. I knew this both from the fact it took her just five minutes to pick me up (turns out her home was but a block away) and what she picked me up in: one of those huge, stupid SUVs that cost more than some people’s homes and provide just as many comforts. Behind my head, I could hear the DVD player tittering with some kids’ show, despite the absence of kids. In front of me, the dashboard navigator was providing unnecessary play-by-play directions.

  Her husband, Brad Brucker, was studying at her father’s feet, and when Daddy retired, he’d take over the business himself. They peddled a controversial hormone used to bulk up chickens with horrific rapidity. My mother always sniffed at this—she’d never use anything that put such a stunning rush on the growing process. That didn’t mean she eschewed hormones: My mother’s pigs were pricked with chemicals till they plumped and reddened like squirting cherries, till their legs couldn’t support their juicy girth. But it was done at a more leisurely pace.

  Brad Brucker was the type of husband to live where Katie said, impregnate Katie when she asked, buy Katie the Pottery Barn sofa she wanted, and otherwise shut up. He was good-looking if you looked at him long enough, and he had a dick the size of my ring finger. This I knew firsthand, thanks to a slightly mechanical exchange my freshman year. But apparently the tiny thing worked fine: Katie was at the end of her first trimester for her third kid. They were going to keep trying till she had a boy. We really want a little rascal running around.

  Talk of me, Chicago, no husband yet but fingers crossed! Talk of her, her hair, her new vitamin program, Brad, her two girls, Emma and Mackenzie, Wind Gap ladies’ auxiliary, and the horrible job they did with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Then sigh: those poor little girls. Yes, sigh: my story on those poor little girls. Apparently she didn’t care that much, because she was quickly back to the ladies’ auxiliary and how scattered it had become now that Becca Hart (née Mooney) was activities director. Becca was a girl of midtier popularity from our days, who shot to social stardom five years ago when she snagged Eric Hart, whose parents owned a sprawling Go-Kart, waterslide, mini-golf tourist trap in the ugliest part of the Ozarks. The situation was quite reproachable. She’d be there tonight and I could see for myself. She just didn’t fit in.

  Angie’s house looked like a child’s drawing of a mansion: It was so generic it was barely three-dimensional. When I entered the room I realized how much I didn’t want to be there. There was Angie, who’d unnecessarily dropped ten pounds since high school, and who smiled demurely at me and went back to setting out a fondue. There was Tish, who’d been the little mommy of the group even back then, the one who held your hair when you threw up, and who had occasional dramatic crying jags about feeling unloved. She’d married a guy from Newcastle, I learned, a slightly dorky man (this in hushed tones from Katie) who made a solid living. Mimi draped herself over a chocolate-leather couch. A dazzling adolescent, her looks didn’t translate into adulthood. No one else seemed to notice. Everyone still referred to her as “the hot one.” Backing this up: the giant rock on her hand, courtesy of Joey Johansen, a gangly, sweet boy who’d sprouted into a linebacker junior year, and suddenly demanded to be called Jo-ha. (That’s truly all I remember of him.) Poor Becca sat amidst them, looking eager and awkward, dressed almost comically similar to her hostess (Had Angie taken Becca shopping?). She flashed smiles to anyone who caught her eye, but no one talked to her.

  We watched Beaches.

  Tish was sobbing when Angie turned the lights on.

  “I’ve gone back to work,” she announced in a wail, pressed coral pink fingernails across her eyes. Angie poured wine and patted her knee, stared at her with a showy concern.

  “Good God, sweetie, why?” Katie murmured. Even her murmur was girlish and clicky. Like a thousand mice nibbling crackers.

  “With Tyler in preschool, I thought I wanted to,” Tish said between sobs. “Like I needed a purpose.” She spat the last word out as if it were contaminated.

  “You have a purpose,” said Angie. “Don’t let society tell you how to raise your family. Don’t let feminists”—here she looked at me—“make you feel guilty for having what they can’t have.”

  “She’s right, Tish, she’s completely right,” offered Becca. “Feminism means allowing women to make whatever kind of choices they want.”

  The women were looking dubiously at Becca when suddenly Mimi’s sobs popped up from her corner, and the attention, and Angie-with-the-wine, turned to her.

  “Steven doesn’t want to have any more kids,” she wept.

  “Why not?” Katie said with impressively strident outrage.

  “He says three’s enough.”

  “Enough for him or for you?” Katie snapped.

  “That’s what I said. I want a girl. I want a daughter.” The women pet her hair. Katie pet her belly. “And I want a son,” she whimpered, staring pointedly at the photo of Angie’s three-year-old boy on the mantel.

  The weeping and fretting went back and forth between Tish and Mimi—I miss my babies…I’ve always dreamed of a big houseful of kids, that’s all I’ve ever wanted…what’s so wrong with just being a mommy? I felt sorry for them—they seemed truly distraught—and I certainly could sympathize with a life that didn’t turn out as planned. But after much head nodding and murmurs of assent, I could think of nothing useful to say and I ducked into the kitchen to slice some cheese and stay out of the way. I knew this ritual from high school, and I knew it didn’t take much for it to turn nasty. Becca soon joined me in the kitchen, began washing dishes.

  “This happens pretty much every week,” she said and half rolled her eyes, pretending to be less annoyed than bemused.

  “Cathartic, I guess,” I offered. I could sense her wanting me to say more. I knew the feeling. When I’m on the edge of getting a good quote, it seems like I can almost reach inside the person’s mouth and pluck it off their tongue.

  “I had no idea my life was so miserable until I started coming to Angie’s little get-togethers,” Becca whispered, taking a newly clean knife to slice some Gruyere. We had enough cheese to feed all of Wind Gap quite prettily.

  “Ah, well, being conflicted means you can live a shallow life without copping to being a shallow person.”

  “Sounds about right,” Becca said. “Was it like this with you guys in high school?” she asked.

  “Oh pretty much, when we weren’t stabbing each other in the back.”

  “Guess I’m glad I was such a loser,” she said, and laughed. “Wonder how I can be less cool now?” I laughed then too, poured her a glass of wine, slightly giddy at the absurdity of finding myself plopped right back in my teenage life.

  By the time we returned, still lightly giggling, every woman in the room was crying, and they all stared up at us simultaneously, like a gruesome Victorian portrait come to life.

  “Well, I’m glad you two are having such fun,” Katie snapped.

  “Considering what’s going on in ou
r town,” Angie added. The subject had clearly widened.

  “What’s wrong with the world? Why would someone hurt little girls?” Mimi cried. “Those poor things.”

  “And to take their teeth, that’s what I can’t get over,” Katie said.

  “I just wish they’d been treated nicer when they were alive,” Angie sobbed. “Why are girls so cruel to each other?”

  “The girls picked on them?” Becca asked.

  “They cornered Natalie in the bathroom after school one day…and cut her hair off,” Mimi sobbed. Her face was wrecked, swollen and splotchy. Dark rivulets of mascara marked her blouse.

  “They made Ann show her…privates to the boys,” said Angie.

  “They always picked on those girls, just because they were a little different,” Katie said, wiping her tears delicately on a cuff.

  “Who’s ‘they’?” Becca asked.

  “Ask Camille, she’s the one reporting this whole thing,” Katie said, lifting her chin up, a gesture I remembered from high school. It meant she was turning on you, but feeling quite justified. “You know how awful your sister is, right, Camille?”

  “I know girls can be miserable.”

  “So you’re defending her?” Katie glowered. I could feel myself getting pulled into Wind Gap politics and I panicked. Catfight began thumping on my calf.

  “Oh, Katie, I don’t even know her well enough to defend or not defend her,” I said, faking weariness.

  “Have you even cried once about those little girls?” Angie said. They were all in a bunch now, staring me down.

  “Camille doesn’t have any children,” Katie said piously. “I don’t think she can feel that hurt the way we do.”

  “I feel very sad about those girls,” I said, but it sounded artificial, like a beauty contestant pledging world peace. I did feel sad, but articulating it seemed cheap to me.

  “I don’t mean this to sound cruel,” Tish began, “but it seems like part of your heart can never work if you don’t have kids. Like it will always be shut off.”

  “I agree,” Katie said. “I didn’t really become a woman until I felt Mackenzie inside me. I mean, there’s all this talk these days of God versus science, but it seems like, with babies, both sides agree. The Bible says be fruitful and multiply, and science, well, when it all boils down, that’s what women were made for, right? To bear children.”

  “Girl power,” Becca muttered under her breath.

  Becca took me home because Katie wanted a sleepover at Angie’s. Guess the nanny would deal with her darling girls in the morning. Becca made a few game jokes about the women’s obsession with mothering, which I acknowledged with small croaks of laughter. Easy for you to say, you have two kids. I was feeling desperately sulky.

  I put on a clean nightgown and sat squarely in the center of my bed. No more booze for you tonight, I whispered. I patted my cheek and unclenched my shoulders. I called myself sweetheart. I wanted to cut: Sugar flared on my thigh, nasty burned near my knee. I wanted to slice barren into my skin. That’s how I’d stay, my insides unused. Empty and pristine. I pictured my pelvis split open, to reveal a tidy hollow, like the nest of a vanished animal.

  Those little girls. What’s wrong with the world? Mimi had cried, and it had barely registered, the lament was so commonplace. But I felt it now. Something was wrong, right here, very horribly wrong. I could picture Bob Nash sitting on the edge of Ann’s bed, trying to remember the last thing he said to his daughter. I saw Natalie’s mother, crying into one of her old T-shirts. I saw me, a despairing thirteen-year-old sobbing on the floor of my dead sister’s room, holding a small flowered shoe. Or Amma, thirteen herself, a woman-child with a gorgeous body and a gnawing desire to be the baby girl my mother mourned. My mother weeping over Marian. Biting that baby. Amma, asserting her power over lesser creatures, laughing as she and her friends cut through Natalie’s hair, the curls falling to the tile floor. Natalie, stabbing at the eyes of a little girl. My skin was screaming, my ears banged with my heartbeat. I closed my eyes, wrapped my arms around myself, and wept.

  After ten minutes of sobbing in my pillow, I started pulling out of the crying jag, mundane thoughts bobbing into my head: the quotes from John Keene I might use in my article, the fact that my rent was due next week back in Chicago, the smell of the apple going sour in the trash basket by my bed.

  Then, outside my door, Amma quietly whispered my name. I buttoned up the top of my nightgown, pulled my sleeves down, and let her in. She was wearing a pink flowered nightgown, her blonde hair flowing over her shoulders, her feet bare. She looked truly adorable, no better word.

  “You’ve been crying,” she said, slightly astounded.

  “A little.”

  “Because of her?” The final word was weighted, I could picture it round and heavy, making a deep thump in a pillow.

  “A little, I guess.”

  “Me, too.” She stared at my edges: the collar of my nightgown, the ends of my sleeves. She was trying to glimpse my scars. “I didn’t know you hurt yourself,” she said finally.

  “Not anymore.”

  “That’s good, I guess.” She wavered at the edge of my bed. “Camille, do you ever feel like bad things are going to happen, and you can’t stop them? You can’t do anything, you just have to wait?”

  “Like an anxiety attack?” I couldn’t stop staring at her skin, it was so smooth and tawny, like warm ice cream.

  “No. Not really.” She sounded like I’d disappointed her, failed to solve a clever riddle. “But, anyway. I brought you a present.” She held out a square of wrapping paper and told me to open it carefully. Inside: a tidily rolled joint.

  “It’s better than that vodka you drink,” Amma said, automatically defensive. “You drink a lot. This is better. It won’t make you as sad.”

  “Amma, really…”

  “Can I see your cuts again?” She smiled shyly.

  “No.” A silence. I held up the joint. “And Amma, I don’t think you should…”

  “Well I do, so take it or don’t. I was just trying to be nice.” She frowned and twisted a corner of her nightgown.

  “Thank you. It’s sweet that you’d like to help me feel better.”

  “I can be nice, you know?” she said, her brow still furrowed. She seemed on the edge of tears herself.

  “I know. It’s just that I’m wondering why you’ve decided to be nice to me now.”

  “Sometimes I can’t. But right now, I can. When everyone’s asleep and everything’s quiet, it’s easier.” She reached out, her hand like a butterfly before my face, then dropped it, patted me on the knee, and left.

  Chapter Ten

  “I’m sorry she came here, because now she’s dead,” said a weeping John Keene, 18, of his younger sister Natalie, 10. “Someone killed my little sister.” Natalie Keene’s body was discovered on May 14, jammed upright in a space between Cut-N-Curl Beauty Parlor and Bifty’s Hardware in the small town of Wind Gap, Mo. She is the second young girl murdered here in the past nine months: Ann Nash, nine, was discovered in a nearby creek last August. Both girls had been strangled; both had their teeth removed by the killer.

  “She was this goofy kid,” John Keene said, crying softly, “kind of a tomboy.” Keene, who moved here from Philadelphia with his family two years ago, and who recently graduated from high school, described his younger sister as a bright, imaginative girl. She once even invented her own language, complete with a working alphabet. “A regular kid, it’d be gibberish,” Keene said, laughing ruefully.

  What is gibberish is the police case so far: Wind Gap police officials and Richard Willis, a homicide detective on loan from Kansas City, admit there are few leads. “We have not ruled anyone out,” Willis said. “We are looking very closely at potential suspects within the community, but are also carefully considering the possibility that these killings may be the work of an outsider.”

  The police refuse to comment on one potential witness, a young boy who claims he saw the person
who abducted Natalie Keene: a woman. A source close to the police say they believe the killer is, in fact, likely to be a man within the local community. Wind Gap dentist James L. Jellard, 56, concurs, adding that removing teeth “would take some strength. They don’t just pop right out.”

  While the police work the case, Wind Gap has seen a run on security locks and firearms. The local hardware store has sold three dozen security locks; the town’s gun and rifle dealer has processed more than 30 firearms permits since Keene’s killing. “I thought most folks around here already had rifles, for hunting,” says Dan R. Sniya, 35, who owns the town’s largest firearms store. “But I think anyone who didn’t have a gun—well, they will.”

  One Wind Gap resident who’s increased his arsenal is Ann Nash’s father, Robert, 41. “I have two other daughters and a son, and they’re going to be protected,” he said. Nash described his late daughter as quite bright. “Sometimes I thought she was smarter than her old man. Sometimes she thought she was smarter than her old man.” He said his daughter was a tomboy like Natalie, a girl who liked to climb trees and ride her bike, which is what she was doing when she was abducted last August.

  Father Louis D. Bluell, of the local Catholic parish, says he’s seen the effect of the murders on residents: Sunday mass attendance has increased noticeably, and many members of his church have come for spiritual advice. “When something like this happens, people feel a real yearning for spiritual nourishment,” he says. “They want to know how something like this could have happened.”

  So, too, do the police.

  Before we hit press, Curry made fun of all the middle initials. Good God, Southerners love their formalities. I pointed out Missouri was technically the Midwest and he snickered at me. And I’m technically middle-aged, but tell that to poor Eileen when she has to deal with my bursitis. He also excised all but the most general details from my interview with James Capisi. Makes us look like suckers if we pay too much attention to the kid, especially if the police aren’t biting. He also cut a lame quote about John from his mother: “He’s a kind, gentle boy.” It was the only comment I got from her before she kicked me out of the house, the only thing that made that miserable visit near worthwhile, but Curry thought it was distracting. He was probably right. He was quite pleased that we finally had a suspect to focus on, my “man within the local community.” My “source close to the police” was a fabrication, or more euphemistically, an amalgam—everyone from Richard to the priest thought a local guy did it. I didn’t tell Curry about my lie.

  The morning my story came out, I stayed in bed and stared at the white rotary phone, waited for it to ring with rebukes. It would be John’s mom, who’d be plenty angry when she discovered I got to her son. Or Richard, for my leak about the suspect being local.

  Several silent hours went by as I got progressively more sweaty, the horseflies buzzing around my window screen, Gayla hovering outside my door, anxious for access to my room. Our bedclothes and bath towels have always been changed daily; the laundry is forever churning down in the basement. I think this is a lingering habit from Marian’s lifetime. Crisp clean clothes to make us forget all the drips and dank smells that come from our bodies. I was in college by the time I realized I liked the smell of sex. I came into my friend’s bedroom one morning after a boy darted past me, smiling sideways and tucking his socks into his back pocket. She was lazing in bed, splotchy and naked, with one bare leg dangling out from under the sheets. That sweet muddy smell was purely animal, like the deepest corner of a bear’s cave. It was almost foreign to me, this lived-in, overnight odor. My most evocative childhood scent was bleach.

  As it turned out, my first angry caller was not anyone I’d guessed.

  “I can’t believe you left me completely out of the story,” Meredith Wheeler’s voice clanged into the phone. “You didn’t use one thing I said. You’d never even know I was there. I was the one who got you John, remember?”

  “Meredith, I never told you I’d use your comments,” I said, irritated at her pushiness. “I’m sorry if you got that impression.” I jammed a floppy blue teddy bear under my head, then felt guilty and returned him to the foot of the bed. One should have allegiance to one’s childhood things.

  “I just don’t know why you wouldn’t include me,” she continued. “If the whole thing was to get an idea what Natalie was like, then you need John. And if you need John, you need me. I’m his girlfriend. I mean, I practically own him, ask anyone.”

  “Well, you and John, that wasn’t really the focus of the story,” I said. Behind Meredith’s breathing, I could hear a country-rock ballad playing and a rhythmic thump and hiss.

  “But you had other people from Wind Gap in the story. You had stupid Father Bluell. Why not me? John’s in a lot of pain, and I’ve been really important to him, working through it all with him. He cries all the time. I’m the one keeping him together.”

  “When I do another story that needs more voices from Wind Gap, I’ll interview you. If you have something to add to the story.”

  Thump. Hiss. She was ironing.

  “I know a lot about that family, a lot about Natalie that John wouldn’t think of. Or say.”

  “Great, then. I’ll be in touch. Soon.” I hung up, not quite easy with what the girl was offering me. When I looked down, I realized I’d written “Meredith” in loopy girlish cursive across the scars on my left leg.

  On the porch, Amma was swaddled in a pink silk comforter, a damp washcloth on her forehead. My mother had a silver tray with tea, toast, and assorted bottles on it, and was pressing the back of Amma’s hand against her cheek in a circular motion.

  “Baby, baby, baby,” Adora murmured, rocking them both on the swing.

  Amma lolled sleepy as a newborn in her blanket, smacking her lips occasionally. It was the first time I’d seen my mother since our trip to Woodberry. I hovered in front of her, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off Amma.

  “Hi, Camille,” Amma finally whispered, and gave me a little curl of a smile.

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