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Authors: Lauren Frankel

Hyacinth Girls

BOOK: Hyacinth Girls
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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 © 2015 by Lauren Frankel

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

www.crownpublishing.com

Crown is a registered trademark and the Crown colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Faber and Faber Limited for permission to reprint 8 lines from
The Waste Land
by T. S. Eliot, copyright © 1922 by T. S. Eliot. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Limited.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Frankel, Lauren, author.

 Hyacinth girls / Lauren Frankel. — First edition.

    pages; cm

ISBN 978-0-553-41805-7 (hardcover) —

ISBN 978-0-553-41806-4 (ebook)

1. Teenage girls—Fiction. 2. Bullying—Fiction. I. Title.

PR6106.R4529H93 2015

823′.92—dc23

2014028591

eBook ISBN 9780553418064

Cover design by Melissa Faustine

Cover photograph by Lisa Kimmell/Getty Images

v4.1

a

For John

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

“They called me the hyacinth girl.”

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Öd' und leer das Meer.

—T. S. ELIOT, “THE WASTE LAND”

Prologue

On a chilly October morning I watched them put Callie's face on a billboard: two men in hard hats hoisting the vinyl sheet on a rope through the air. I chewed gum in my parked car, the traffic whizzing by me, as the sheet billowed and flapped in the wind like a huge dark flag. I wanted to be the first one to see her, so I'd driven over early, making promises to myself about how I was going to be. Focused. Resilient. Like nothing could touch me. I wouldn't reach for the tissues in my pockets, and I wouldn't start wailing in front of the highway.

Up on the scaffolding, the men were moving faster in their high-vis jackets, wrestling her picture into the frame, using sticks to press it smooth. My view was clear, but I opened the door, wanting to see without glass between us. And then I just stood there on the side of the road: she was completely transformed. Callie was fourteen years old. I'd known her since the day she was born, but even her freckles seemed unfamiliar, magnified so many times. Her hair looked shockingly bright, as if dyed to match the sun, and her green eyes were wide open, gazing out across our town. This was on the corner of Whitefield Road, about a quarter of a mile from the high school, not a picturesque stretch of Pembury (no stone walls or steepled churches). But it was a road that everyone used,
commuting to work and to school, so I knew they'd struggle to avoid her unless they opted for the bumpy old B-roads.

I'd been fantasizing about how they'd react, seeing her here for the first time. The people from our town, adults and children alike. Floods of tears, of course. School buses flooded with tears. Spontaneous candlelit vigils and rallies on the grass below. Other times, in angrier moods, I imagined more satisfying repercussions. Cars crashing during the school run, scalding lattes dropped onto crotches, girls screaming at their parents to please take a different route. Maybe one of the guys from her list would suddenly stop in his tracks, and fail, in his astonishment, to notice a speeding truck. Then I imagined people from out of town, visiting for Thanksgiving, who'd ask uncomfortable questions after noticing her picture. “Well, she went to Adam's school,” the mother would say, and Adam would lurch up from the table. Then his mother would glance at her lump of turkey and try to begin again. “I guess you didn't hear what happened.” And everyone would put down their forks.

The man who designed the billboard recognized her as soon as I showed him the photo, the effect of constant news coverage since it happened in September. She wasn't smiling in the picture. There was a crease of tension between her pale brows. I'd taken the shot last summer after the trouble had already started, although I didn't see it at the time—I was blissfully unaware. Vision doesn't have to be about clarity, and on the day that I took the picture, we were sitting in our landlady's garden, enjoying the heat on our skin. The stalks of lavender were thick with honeybees, and a sparrow twittered in the bushes, and I could see the little hairs sprouting on Callie's bent knees. She stretched her arms above her head, flexing her slender fingers, and when I lifted my camera I told her to say cheese. She didn't smile. I hardly noticed. The billboard designer clicked his keyboard and Callie's picture filled his screen.

“What would you like the sign to say?” he asked.

“Do you know your children?” I said.

“Are you asking
me
?”

“No. That's what I want on the billboard.”

Do you know your children?
The words were printed to the left of Callie's face. Not a very subtle question, but the right one, I had thought. To some it would feel like an accusation:
Do you know what they've done? Do you know what else they're capable of?
To others, a warning:
Do you understand it could've been them, with their faces up here on the billboard?
Sometimes I wondered if the words were meant for me alone, a reminder of my own failure. I had never been a great one at connecting the dots.

In fact, in one of my old stories, a story I'd often repeated to Callie, I told how I believed I was possessed when I was twelve years old. I had been going through the usual preteen troubles: crazy hormones and strange compulsions, an overwhelming sense that I was losing control. So I had decided that these things weren't me—something
else
must've got
inside
me. I looked at the symptoms and explained them to myself this way: I had been possessed by a demon. I needed to be exorcised. I begged my best friend Joyce to take care of it, and she had agreed in her canopied bedroom, chanting and singing, tapping her mouth like an Indian chief. Joyce's imagination was stronger than mine, and as her friend I never doubted it, so when she said that the demon was gone, I was relieved and utterly grateful. Callie sometimes teased me:
You know you weren't really possessed, right?
And I smiled and nodded, but I'd been absolutely certain. I had looked at the clues and believed I understood. I'd done that all my life, drawing the wrong conclusions.

And with Callie it was worse, because I was convinced that I knew her. I thought I could trace her life through a thousand remembered moments. Here she is, pink and puckered, wrapped in newborn swaddle, while Joyce announces blearily: “Rebecca, I'm a mother!” Then there's
the puffy-cheeked toddler singing songs and grinning, the little girl chattering about earthworms on the sidewalk. At ten she announced that she was going to be a biologist. At eleven she convinced me to be a vegetarian. I knew every one of her preferences, from shampoo to music to fruit. I washed her underwear and listened to her nightmares. I watched her fall asleep hundreds of times. I felt her presence so close. I knew her habits so intimately. I thought I could understand her, and I thought I always would.

But I couldn't even understand myself. I didn't know how I'd react. After the billboard went up, I didn't feel much satisfaction. The words seemed empty beside her oversized face. Do you know your children? How could anyone know? If these kids didn't know themselves, how could they give their parents a clue? Was I really trying to help them or was this just a final fuck-you? A hostile outburst from a troubled woman. I caught my reflection in the glass, eyes baggy, hair tied back—the smell of the hospital still clinging to my coat. What kind of person was I to make such a gesture? A meek dental hygienist. A woman who baked PTA cupcakes. A friendless thirty-four-year-old who was raising her best friend's daughter. I looked up at the billboard, wondering if this was really justice. They might still see Callie however they chose. Some might say the bitch got what she deserved. Others would see her as a victim. Maybe a few would be amazed that this could happen in our town. But she'd watch over them now, she'd be there and they'd have to remember, on late-night drives and morning commutes, heading to football games or dances, her skin dazzlingly illuminated by the bright bulbs of light.

1

To really explain everything I'd need to go back at least six months, to that day last April when I got the call from Callie's school. But there'd also be stuff I'd want to leave out, particular things I wouldn't like to tell. For instance, the silly little daydream I was having before the principal called. My fantasies weren't particularly racy, no torrid scenes involving latex and drills. In fact, they were altogether chaste, with scarcely a kiss exchanged. What they
were
was retro. Boring and anti-feminist. I'd lean over to clean a patient's teeth and imagine his proposition.

I called them “gateway men” in my head, choosing the ones who looked skinny and anemic. Men who lived alone in five-bedroom houses and worked all hours at their city jobs. He would be fed up with microwave dinners and greasy overpriced Chinese takeout; what he really, secretly desired was a good home-cooked meal. In my mind it would start accidentally, our eyes connecting above my surgical mask, our arms brushing together as I tore off some floss. Then electricity, ka-ZOW! Like we'd always been waiting for this moment, and here was my door—my gateway—to a whole new life. My heart would pound as he leaned forward, and right then he'd ask me: Did I know anybody who could be his live-in chef?

At that point in my life I was teaching myself to cook. My goal was to master one new technique each month in our small rental kitchen. I wouldn't have had the time to do this, but luckily I suffered from insomnia, so most nights I'd find myself drowsily lining up ingredients and preheating the oven. There I destroyed piecrusts and pastries, deflated umpteen soufflés, repeating the steps over and over, reaching for eggs and more butter. But I loved it. I loved the moment when my body and mind were completely absorbed, when I forgot about who I was and just focused on the mixture. Fingers sensitive to the texture of dough, eyes attuned to the sheen of egg white, hand stirring automatically as the bubbles began to inflate. My anxieties disappeared when I concentrated fully, as if each uncontrollable variable could be mastered with enough attention. When my dishes finally came out perfectly, like the photos in my cookbook, it was more than just an accomplishment, it was proof of something bigger. If I worked hard, followed directions, and focused intensely, things would be okay: they'd turn out the way I'd planned.

That afternoon, last April, my fantasy was chipping along nicely. My patient wasn't wearing a wedding ring, and nothing about him screamed pervert. He had good shoes and good insurance, which signified a good job. And I started imagining my audition, the first meal for him that I'd cook. I settled on a hearty vegetarian stew, not too spicy. He'd ask for seconds, thirds. Then he'd make me a generous offer. Callie and I would move in to his house, which would have all the modern conveniences, a sunny kitchen with marble counters, a six-burner cooktop, and a top-of-the-line mixer for making homemade bread. He'd tell me he wouldn't be around much, but to cook whatever I wanted. Callie and I should make ourselves at home, and of course her friends could use the pool.

In reality, the man was talking. He asked if he could spit. After he'd leaned over the bowl, I asked if his teeth felt very sensitive. There was some uneven wear I'd noticed and I suspected nighttime grinding,
which was more common these days. Dr. Rick blamed it on the recession. We started talking about fitting a night guard, and then more generally about relaxing. Meditation, yoga, something to relieve his stress.

“I find cooking relaxes me,” I said, and he raised his eyebrows in a friendly way.

“Have you ever tried a lavender cupcake?” I asked. “Lavender's very calming.”

He shook his head, and I really liked him: this man with his sallow, unhealthy complexion. Teeth chipped and imperfect due to his clenched, stressed-out jaw.

“I could bring you the recipe,” I offered. “They're actually low in sugar.”

“Oh. No. I don't really cook.”

I pictured his kidney-shaped pool, and how we'd laugh someday about this moment, and screw political correctness. I wanted him to save me. Why should my fantasies be politically correct? Nothing in the world was ever equal. I was raising a kid alone on my hygienist's salary, and he had money to spare and too many bedrooms to ever use. I just wanted to not have to worry, to have time to play around in a kitchen, to know that everything didn't rest on me—a life like so many others had.

I hadn't buzzed for Dr. Rick yet, but the door was swinging open. Before I could continue with my patient, our office manager handed me the note.

Callie's school called. You need to call back ASAP
.

Then I was standing in our office's sterilization room, clutching the phone to my ear, taking short, quick breaths as Callie's principal spoke. Words. More words. Mostly incomprehensible. The tang of antibacterials was filling up my nostrils.

“Traumatized,” the principal told me. “The other student was traumatized.”

I'd left my patient with Annette, and my legs were still trembling. I'd had the daylights scared out of me with this unexpected call. I'd been picturing terrible things—a harrowing ride to the hospital—but this was something else. A scenario I couldn't follow.

“Ink?” I repeated.

“That's correct—in her face. And her blouse was ruined.”

When a school principal explains that your girl has thrown ink in someone's face, there are probably certain things that you're not supposed to do. You're not supposed to break down in tears, divulging your personal problems. You shouldn't act like the mother of a criminal, angrily insisting, “She could not have done this!” And you probably shouldn't get so defensive that you ask what the other student did to provoke her. But when it happened to me, all my shoulds went right out the window.

“No, no way. Callie doesn't fight with anyone. There must be some mistake. What did this girl do to her
first
?”

“Nothing.” The principal said it like I was scum for even asking. “She was just working at her desk when Callie attacked her.”

Callie and I shared a seven-hundred-square-foot apartment. We shared meals and gossip and jokes, and after her latest growth spurt, we'd even started sharing shoes. At home, she'd swing her leg over mine and offer to do my nails, fussing over the cuticles, insisting I try deep purple. She was always a deeply agreeable person, fun and affectionate, corralling her friends for a group hug, jumping in the air when you had good news.

“But Callie's so gentle,” I said, and then I started giving examples. Spiders behind the toilet, beetles inside the screen door, half-dead flies
drowsing on the windowsill. Callie scooped each of them up and shuffled to the front door, where she released their bodies in the open air. “A pholcid,” she announced. “Daddy longlegs.” She'd once been stung on the palm by a wasp she was trying to liberate, and as she ran cold water over her hand, she worried: Did wasps die after they stung you?

“It's our policy to meet with parents before taking disciplinary action,” Mrs. Jameson told me.

And that was when she said it. Bully. Bullying.

—

We lived in a small town. Pembury, Connecticut. A place that was once all farmland and livestock, but that was before my time. It was now the land of mini-mansions and cafés, gift shops and boutiques; there was even a French bakery that sold tiny pastel macarons. It was the dream of small-town life with fresh air and rolling hills and cows grazing in the fields that had attracted so many bankers and CEOs to this Connecticut valley, yet it was because of them that so much had changed. They bought up the old farmhouses and renovated them to include skylights and game rooms. They ate at the new ethnic restaurants and enrolled their kiddies in the expensive baby gym, and all along they believed that they were giving their children an old-fashioned upbringing. I'd come here with the same idea. I'd heard about the schools, the woodland trails, and the incredibly low crime rate, and I wanted all of that for Callie. But I'd grown up in a small town, too. I should've remembered the downsides.

When Mrs. Jameson said “bully,” I could imagine the way this would stick to Callie. The whispers among parents, the icy looks around town.
Bully
was like a code word. A signifier of family dysfunction. A child who'd turned inhuman after being spoiled or neglected. Even school shooters were given more leeway:
it wasn't their fault, they'd been bullied
.
And if this was how Callie was going to be known, her life was about to change. Certain kids would avoid her. Teachers would eye her suspiciously; they'd mark down her papers without realizing their bias. She would be discussed, dissected, and I would be, too, because what kind of household produces a girl who bullies?

As I pulled in to the lot behind Callie's school I was still hoping for a simple explanation. She'd spilled the ink by mistake. She had tripped and fallen. I wanted her life to be easy, her problems laughable—like the ones I used to watch in a 1980s sitcom. There might be a bad first date. A haircut catastrophe. Maybe a time when she tries alcohol and decides it's not for her. I wanted dilemmas that we could solve easily in thirty minutes or less. Audience applause. Cheerful theme tune and closing credits.

The school's double doors swung open and students started flooding across the lot, swinging bright satchels, laughing, texting. I watched as the flow of children increased before finally slowing to a trickle of stragglers, boys carrying hockey equipment, a teacher patrolling the bicycle racks. The car door opened, and then Callie, Dallas, and Ella squashed into the backseat, all sugary fumes, hair sprays and lotions, colorful eyeliner and tangling limbs. They'd been best friends since first grade and were closer than sisters. I'd dubbed them the Siamese Triplets when they were kids, after they'd tried to braid their hair together so they were attached at the head, blond strands ripping as they yanked one another down. They were usually gossiping and giggling as they slid their backpacks to their feet, but today they were silent; they weren't even texting.

“Did somebody call you?” Callie asked, fingering one of her rubber wristbands. Each contained a message about animal rights. There were orange paw prints on the one that she rubbed.

“Mrs. Jameson,” I said simply. “She told me about the ink.”

It was a surprise to watch my ordinarily stoic thirteen-year-old start
to crumble. “I can't believe this. I wasn't even near her.” She slumped forward suddenly, hiding her face in her lap.

“Robyn is such a liar!” Dallas leaned forward across the seats to talk to me. “She's
always
bothering Callie. She follows her around like she's crazy obsessed.” Dallas had been elected head of student council two years in a row, and she spoke with the directness of someone used to being heard. She shook her hair in disgust—it was almost white, like a child's at the end of a long summer—and then she prodded Callie on the back. “You should tell Rebecca what she says to you.”

“What does she say?”

“She says stuff about Callie's mom,” Dallas said while Callie rubbed her face against her pink skinny jeans.

Before I could absorb this, Ella was nodding. “Robyn did it to herself. She squirted it all over herself.”

Callie sniffled miserably into her lap, Ella wrapped her arms around her, and I searched my purse fruitlessly for a package of tissues. I'd never even heard of Robyn, but Dallas was happy to fill in the details: Robyn Doblak wore mega-tight clothes. She liked getting
attention
. She probably used the paint to get everybody looking. Dallas gestured to her own chest, moving her hands up and down with great bouncing motions.

“Did you see her do it?” I asked Ella.

Ella's short hair flopped across her forehead as she nodded, arms still around Callie. “She put the paint all over herself.”

That was when I realized. The principal had it wrong.

“Mrs. Jameson said it was ink, not paint.”

“It was paint. In our art class. The teacher went out of the room, and Robyn squirted it all over her chest.”

Callie lifted her small wet face; wisps of gold hair had come loose from her ballerina bun and liquid liner trailed toward her ears. Dallas
handed her a package of tissues printed with cartoon cats, and we all watched while she blew her reddened nose. The girls looked concerned. Callie looked devastated.

“Miss Dimmock hates us,” Ella said. “She's never liked me or Callie. That's why she believed Robyn instead of us.”

“But everyone
knows
Robyn's a liar,” Dallas said. “She has
issues
.”

“It's because Callie never tells her to go away. She's too nice to her,” Ella agreed.

They began to come up with explanations. Maybe Robyn was trying to get Callie's attention with the paint, and when it didn't work, she blamed it on her. Or she thought it would be ultra-hilarious to get Callie in trouble. As her friends continued to hypothesize, Callie balled up the tissue in her fist. She bit her lip, shook her head. I reached between the seats, patting her knee, wanting her to know that I'd never doubted her at all. Then Dallas tapped her on the shoulder. “You know what I think? I think Robyn's in love with you.”

“Don't worry,” I promised. “I'll take care of this.”

—

That night, Callie told me what Robyn had said about her mother. We were sitting cross-legged on her bed beneath the photos she'd taped to her wall. I glanced at a picture of Callie's mother at a pumpkin farm. I'd taken the picture. Callie had been four and we'd watched the farmer making cider.

“She said that she died so she wouldn't have to look at me.”

Callie spoke in a rush without pausing for breath, and I thought of the way the counselors used to explain it. A child's grief might take a vacation, but that didn't mean it was finished. It always lurked beneath the surface, waiting to come back.

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