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The Elizas_A Novel

Sara Shepard

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  To Charles Vent

  “We are only falsehood, duplicity, and contradiction; we both conceal and disguise ourselves from ourselves.”



  I’M SCREAMING AS I wake up. The sound is sucked away as soon as I open my eyes, but it leaves a mark on my brain, a quickly fading handprint in wet sand. My throat is raw. My head is pounding. I struggle to look around, but all I see are blurred shapes. There’s an acrid taste of booze in my mouth.

  Way to go, Eliza. You dodge a bullet, and you do this?

  I picture the upgraded suite I’m missing out on because I’m too wasted. When I arrived at my suite in the Tranquility resort in Palm Springs late Saturday afternoon, I opened all the blinds in all the rooms. I stripped off my clothes and lay atop the bedsheets in only my underwear. I sat in the enormous empty tub and later warmed my ass on the heated toilet seat. And then, against my better judgment, I unlocked the minibar and belted down several bottles of vanilla-flavored Stolichnaya in quick succession. It tasted so good. Like an old friend.

  As I drank, I stood on the balcony and stared into the courtyard seven flights below. It’s a perfect square, that courtyard, made up of flagstone paths and flower beds. The space is divided into secluded quadrants that invite privacy . . . and scandal. The lore about this place is that in the early sixties, a wannabe starlet named Gigi Reese was murdered in that courtyard. Bludgeoned in the head, apparently, probably by some local goons she got mixed up with. When they first found the body, officials ID’d her as another blonde actress named Diana Dane—the two women looked very similar. The public mourned for Diana Dane, who’d danced alongside Danny Kaye in a few pictures. What a tragedy! A life cut short! We must find her killer, pronto! Then Diana Dane returned from a USO trip to Japan and told the world she was just fine, thank her lucky stars. When the coroner got the dead woman’s true identity sorted out, the Hollywood headlines barely mentioned it. They were still talking about what a relief it was that Diana Dane was okay. No one cared who’d offed Gigi Reese. The mystery is still unsolved.

  After I finished my third mini bottle of vodka, I was feeling loose and reckless, so I figured I might as well go all out. I ordered room service, telling the guy taking my order, “Oh, just send up one of everything, especially the desserts.” While I waited, I looked at the hand towels in the bathroom. They were soft, yet substantial. Unforgiving. I tried to imagine Gigi Reese’s killer using such a towel to muffle her screams. Or maybe he knocked her out quickly, and she hadn’t had time to make a sound. I ran my fingers over the spaceship-shaped alarm clock next to my bed, noting the sharpness of the tip and the heaviness of its base. It would make a good bludgeoning tool.

  But now, when I turn my head to check out the space-age alarm clock again, it’s not on the bedside stand. In fact, I don’t even see the bedside stand. Light streams through a window, too—but isn’t it nighttime?

  A face emerges above me. “I think she’s awake.”

  It’s my mother’s crinkled forehead, her wire-frame glasses, the sunburned nose from Saturdays spent kite surfing. She is so incongruous in this setting I assume, at first, that I’m still dreaming.

  “What are you doing here?” I ask. It is an effort to speak. It feels as though there is someone sitting on my face.

  My mother licks her lips. “Eliza.” Her voice cracks. Trembles. And then she sighs. It’s a big sigh, sad and long, gloomy and defeated. “Honey.”

  Honey. It sets my heart thumping. My mother only calls me honey when I’ve done something to really shake her up. We’ve been through things, me and my mom. I’ve scared her one too many times.

  “W-what’s going on?” I croak.

  My stepfather, Bill, shimmers into view. There are mussed tufts of grayish hair above his ears. “Don’t worry, chicken. You’re going to be okay.”

  I remember the scream I’d made upon waking. “Did something happen?”

  Gazes slide to the left. I spy my stepsister, Gabby, slouched in a doorway. This isn’t my hotel suite at all. And what I’d thought was the typical crushing, sticky-mouthed descent into a hangover doesn’t feel that way anymore, not completely. I notice a machine standing to my left. Green LED numbers march across a screen. The beeping sound is rhythmic, organic, matching the cadence of a body—my body. There’s an IV pole with bags and tubes next to me, too. The goopy liquid in the IV bag is tinged an inorganic, vampire red, but when I look again, the liquid is thin and clear.

  “Why am I in a hospital?” I whisper.

  Again, no one speaks. A slick, cold feeling creeps down my back. A voice prods from somewhere deep. You’ve got to get ahold of yourself. I hear clinking glasses and a strain of “Low Rider” on the stereo—but what stereo? My vision swirls. Stop staring, someone says. And: I’ve been looking for you.

  I try to grab the memory, but it’s a petal blowing off a patio. Someone’s screaming. Then . . . nothing. When was this from? Is it even real?

  I try another question. “What day is it?”

  “Sunday,” my mother answers. “Sunday morning. You’ve been asleep for a while.”

  “Why am I in a hospital?” I ask again. “Please. Somebody tell me.”

  Bill clears his throat awkwardly. “You were found at the bottom of another pool last night.”

  I blink. In a way, I’m not surprised. This is, what, the fourth time I’ve almost drowned? The fifth? No wonder my family seems fatigued.

  “The one at the Tranquility resort?” I ask tremulously.

  “You don’t remember.” Bill says it like a statement, not a question.

  I glance at my mother. She’s staring down at her chest, biting her lip, so she doesn’t see when I shake my head—but then, it’s clear she already knows. I hate that I’m disappointing her—scaring her—but . . . I don’t remember. Again.

  “Where’s my phone?” I ask.

  My mother’s face shifts into a mix of anger and annoyance, her favorite way to deflect fear. “Eliza. The last thing you should be worrying about right now is your phone.”

  Bill leans forward. “It’s true. The doctors want you to rest. You need to get your strength back up.”

  I crane my neck and look at Gabby. Her expression is grave behind her round glasses. A sliver of memory from last night suddenly wriggles through. It’s nighttime, a few hours after my minibar and room-service binge. I am standing on the pool deck at the Tranquility, but I don’t know why. Every other time I’ve been at the pool, it’s been pleasantly crowded with lounging bodies, but in this memory, the area is empty, as though everyone has just evacuated. Waves bob tempestuously on the water. Towels are thrown haphazardly across chairs. An upended cup sits on a table, a balled-up napkin printed with the resort’s logo has missed the trash can and lies on the concrete. The diving board wobbles, as if someone has just jumped off . . . and dissolved into nothing.

  The sky is very dark in the memory, opaque black velvet. The air is a cleansing kind of chilly, like there was a sudden drop in barometric pressure wicking away all the humidity. I can practically feel my heels ticking against the hard tiled pool deck. I stand near the water, looking around frantically—for what? And I feel scared—but why? And then I hear footsteps. There’s a confusion of mov
ement, and I trip. There’s a yelp—my yelp—and a stranger’s laugh. The water is shockingly cold when I hit it belly-first. My useless limbs flap, I try to paddle, but I quickly give out. Air leaves my lungs. My shoes fall off my feet as I sink to the bottom. I can’t swim. I never learned.

  I inhale and detect the faintest hint of pool chlorine in my nostrils. I hear that “Low Rider” riff again. A cold sweat breaks out on the surface of my skin. “Did they find him?”

  My mother’s lips part. “Who? The person who pulled you out of the water?”

  Once again I feel those strong hands pushing me from behind. Once again I hear that laugh. A high-pitched, mocking, satisfied laugh.

  “The person who pushed me in,” I whisper.

  Gabby’s blonde head shoots up. My mother’s face turns red, and she pokes her head into the hall. “Nurse,” she says in a panicked voice.

  Now I am shaking. “No, seriously, someone pushed me!” My voice grows louder. “Someone pushed me into that pool! We have to find him! Please!”

  “Eliza.” Bill’s face is large and close. “No one pushed you. You jumped.”

  “Like every other time,” my mother murmurs into her hands with a sob, just as a nurse walks into the room with a gleaming syringe.

  I cower back on the bed. My eyes bulge as the nurse steps closer. “No!” I cry, but it doesn’t matter. The nurse isn’t listening, and neither is anyone else. It’s not so crazy they think I jumped. I have a bit of a track record of this kind of behavior. But I didn’t go into that water willingly—this I know for sure.

  Someone wanted me dead.

  • • •

  The clock on the wall of my hospital room says 3:15, and judging by the sunlight, I have to assume it’s now Sunday afternoon. I must have fallen asleep from the shot the nurse gave me because, she claimed—they all claimed—I was having another episode. The whole way down, milliseconds before I lost consciousness, I argued with the room this wasn’t a repeat performance. I wasn’t delusional like all those other times. I was telling the truth.

  Now, the room is silent and still. I don’t know where anyone is—maybe my family has left. In many ways, I hope they have.

  I feel around on the little bedside table, hoping my phone is there. It’s not. It’s discomfiting not to have my phone by my side, like one of my senses has been taken away. I’ve missed hours of news. I’ve missed random snaps from celebrities I’ve never met and friends I never see and distant family members I don’t really like. I’ve missed emails about shoe sales, makeup sales, and emails that proclaim Free shipping today and today only! Maybe I’ve even missed an email from my editor or agent. I want to Google this hospital to make sure it’s reputable and search for news of last night’s incident at the Tranquility. I want to Google the meds in my IV drip, and ask Siri why all hospitals smell like sadness, and also confirm with Siri that my family actually drugged me to keep me quiet.

  Okay, it had been a major slip to drink. I’d promised my family I wouldn’t after my surgery and treatment. Only, it had tasted so good. Once I’d started, I couldn’t stop. I’m not really very good at refraining, to be honest. Willpower isn’t my strong suit. But drinking was my only slip, and it didn’t dull what I know. Everything I’d said to them about someone pushing me is true. It happened. I know it.

  There’s a knock at the door, and I shoot up. A guy in a faded blue shirt enters. He’s sandy-haired, with black plastic glasses that were probably hip about five years ago. He’s got a weak, wimpy half smile and long, thin fingers with carefully manicured nails. I arrange the sheets around me so that my ass isn’t exposed and pull my hospital gown tight. I wish the gown were any color but white. The fabric matches my skin tone perfectly.

  “Miss Fontaine.” He extends his hand. “I’m Lance Collier, with the Palm Springs PD. I’ve been assigned to your case.”

  “You’re a detective?” My voice leaps. The world blossoms.

  He sinks into a plastic chair next to my bed. “I have a few questions for you. I hear you’re going to be with us for a while longer.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I was told your family would like you to take a few days to recover in psychiatric.”

  My heart sinks. “No. No. I wasn’t trying to kill myself.”

  Lance turns his head to the right. His neck cracks noisily, and I wince. I have never liked the sound of cracking joints. “What I see”—he flips a page—“is that two passersby rescued you from the bottom of the Tranquility resort pool last night. True?”

  I shrug. “I guess.”

  “And you can’t swim, right?”

  “That’s right.”

  “So what were you doing in the pool?”

  “Someone pushed me.”

  This doesn’t even elicit an eyebrow raise, which surprises me, considering the last time I made this claim I got a needle jammed into my bicep. “Did you see the person who pushed you?” he asks in an even tone.

  “No, but I felt hands on my back.”

  “But no face. So you can’t be positive you were pushed.”

  I lick my lips. “Are you saying I’m lying?”

  He crosses his legs. The clock on the wall ticks loudly. “Miss Fontaine, it’s come to my attention that you’ve had some issues with suicide attempts in the past.”

  I inwardly groan. “Yes, but that was . . . before.”

  “Before what?”

  “Before her brain tumor.”

  My mother rushes into the room, never mind that this is a private meeting. Bill follows. Gabby pulls up the rear.

  “Um, hello?” I say awkwardly, defensively.

  My mother turns to the detective. “She tried to drown herself four other times last year. Three were in hotel swimming pools. The fourth time was in the Pacific Ocean—Santa Monica. She kept saying she had to. Someone was after her. Someone was trying to hurt her. Finally, about eleven months ago, a doctor gave her a brain scan, and it turns out she had a tumor pressing against—”

  “—my amygdala,” I interrupt, desperate to regain control of this. “It’s this part of your brain that tells your body how it’s supposed to respond to emotionally charged situations.”

  “I’m aware of how an amygdala functions,” Lance says.

  “That’s why you see all those suicide attempts on my record,” I say. “But the doctor got the tumor out. I had treatment, and I’m better now. Last night was different. I wasn’t trying to die. Honest.”

  “It’s just so similar, chicken,” Bill says quietly. “The drinking, the fear that someone was after you . . . everything about the situation is the same.”

  “Well, it’s not the same.” I look around the room and see tilted mouths, downcast eyes. “It’s not.” It comes out like a whine.

  There’s a small, condescending smile on Lance’s face. “How about you walk me through what you remember?”

  I try to grab on to that memory of the strong hands on my back at the edge of the pool, but the shot that nurse gave me—a mixture of drugs I’m unfamiliar with—is making even reality seem dreamlike and unfathomable. “I walked out to the pool. I stood there. Then I felt this whoosh. I was pushed from behind, and I fell in. I was in a public place. Weren’t there witnesses?”

  Lance studies his notes. “According to the report, there were no witnesses besides the people who rescued you. By the time they saw you, you were already in the water, and they said no one else was around. They pulled you out, laid you on the deck. One of them gave you mouth-to-mouth.”

  I feel itchy. It’s harrowing to hear the details of your almost-death. I notice, out of the corner of my eye, that my mother has her lips pressed tightly together.

  “Are they sure no one else saw?” I ask. It seems impossible. There were hundreds of guests at that resort when I checked in. The lobby was clogged with guys in Maui Jim sunglasses and women carrying raffia Tory Burch handbags.

  “There was a thunderstorm—the pool area had been cleared. The staff wonders how
you even got onto the deck—it was roped off.”

  I’d climbed over the rope? My patent leather booties had five-inch heels. What the hell prompted me to do that?

  “Who pulled me out of the water?” I ask. “Who was it?”

  He looks again at the notebook. “Someone named Desmond Wells. Know him?”

  I crane my neck at the notebook, too. Lance has written the name Desmond Wells in all caps along with a Los Angeles area code phone number. The name doesn’t ring a bell. “Does he work at the hotel?”

  “He said he was a guest.”

  “So what about video surveillance? Didn’t that pick up what happened?”

  “There normally are security cameras in the pool area, but the power was down because of the storm.”

  I snort. “And I bet it snapped right back on after I got out of the pool, huh?”

  “This isn’t a conspiracy, Eliza,” my mother says, almost inaudibly, her voice tinged with that sad, scared bitterness again.

  “How about people at the bar? I was talking to someone there, I think, before I went to the pool. Can you interview them? Maybe they saw something. Or I could interview them, actually. Do you happen to know where my phone is? I could call the bar and straighten this out.”

  My mother looks aghast. “You were at a bar, too?”

  I clear my throat. I’d promised I wouldn’t go to bars after the tumor surgery. Just like I promised I wouldn’t drink, period. I look at Lance. “I-I just went for some atmosphere. I wasn’t drinking.”

  Lance coughs awkwardly. “The lab did a toxicity report on you. Your blood alcohol level was sky-high.”

  I can feel my family’s gaze upon me. It sucks to be caught in a lie, especially such a foolish one. But sometimes lying’s my natural response. The lies come out of my mouth involuntarily.

  Lance flips a page. “Anyway. The police who responded to the 911 call spoke to two men who rescued you, and they said they’d never seen you before, and they didn’t know where you’d come from. Can you describe who you were talking to at the bar, Eliza? Did you get a name?”