Authors: Lauren Frankel
haunting a dog.
I know. I won't.
AS LONG AS YOU GET OUT OF BED!!!!
Ok fine I'm up.
Really? Prove it.
I'm putting on my socks.
See it's not hard. Just stop thinking so much.
Is that what you do?
Yeah I don't think about anything at all!
“Do you have any texts, e-mails, or phone messages from her?” Detective Serrano asked, as he lifted the edge of the note with his pen.
He sighed when I shook my head. Took halfhearted notes as I described the paint incident in middle school. “It's a direct threat,” I insisted. “It had to come from Robyn.”
“What about the picture she says yours sent?”
“She threw the paint and sent the picture,” he read.
“She's a fantasistâGod knows what else she's making up. She knows Callie didn't do this, but she can't admit her own guilt. She's desperate to push the blame onto anyone else.”
“Well, you won't get a restraining order without any proof. What you've gotta do is keep track of everything. Make a note of any contact she makes. Ninety-nine percent of the time these kids are just trying to scare each other.”
I tried convincing myself he was right as I drove home from the station. Robyn was just fooling around, making idle threats. Teenagers and their
contradictions. Their desire for drama, their grandiose self-importance, their belief that nothing they do will have any impact on others. Joyce and I were exactly the same on the day of Autumn's funeral.
We weren't allowed to attend, but we watched Curtis getting ready. He wore a navy blazer and left the house early, smelling of soap. He seemed older to me now, shoulders squared, chin jutting, like he was going on a journey to a place I'd never know. I imagined grief like a big white room, filled with gauzy billowing curtains, where men gritted their teeth at the ceiling, straining against their own pain.
Joyce hadn't seen the new picture of Autumn, so I ran to get the newspaper. Autumn's eyes were narrowed at the camera, and it looked like she was about to burst out laughing. Her mouth was set in a dramatic pout, and her bangs were curled up in a flip.
“She's pretty,” Joyce said. “I like how she's done her eyes.”
“Maybe we could try,” she continued. “To see what it would be like.”
In the bathroom, I found an eye pencil in Aunt Bea's green makeup bag. Joyce sat on the toilet seat as I rubbed the kohl pencil beneath her pale lashes. I rested one hand on her temple. I could see the pores on her forehead and the soft faint hair along her jaw. I moved the pencil gently back and forth, darkening her skin, and when I looked into her eyes, I noticed all the different colors. Flecks of yellow and hazel inside the liquid gray and blue.
“Your eyes look like pools in Africa,” I said. Water, earth, sun, and stones.
Joyce laughed. “What does that even mean?”
“I dunno.” I giggled and looked away.
She took the pencil from me and began to work on my face. When she was finished, we leaned against the sink so that we could examine ourselves in the mirror, close-up. The effect was alarming, but we didn't wince or turn away. Our eyes were glassy. Next to the dark lines our skin
had become pale. We played with our new faces, pouting and squinting at ourselves, and we seemed like different people. We could have been Autumn's friends, crying in a room full of curtains. We might've got lost and disappeared like her.
Since nobody was home, we didn't have to be careful. We could go out in the yard and gather daisies for Autumn. Joyce and I moved with exaggerated slowness, heads drooping sadly, eager to feel her tragedy, hungry for more feelings. Joyce dropped to her knees in the shade, and I stopped beside her, then she spoke to me in a strange voice. “What if she was in love?”
I gazed across the yard to the chain-link fence, which glinted in the sunlight. The only sounds were from cars and cicadas, the drone of a lawn mower in the distance.
“If she was in love with Curtis and she knew she couldn't have him, she might've done it then. Walked into the sea.”
I looked at Joyce and shivered although the sun still beat down on us. Her eyes were different. “I'll be her and you be Lara,” she said.
She got up and began to walk through the grass as if she were wading through water, then she wobbled and tripped, fighting the strong current. Joyce turned and waved at me, and the throb of regret hit me all at once.
“Wait, don't go,” I yelled, and I could hear the waves roaring, and the night sky was so black and empty, and I clutched at my throat.
“Love ya,” she called behind her, before throwing her arms back and forth in the air, getting tossed around in the waves, kicking the ocean violently. I was still holding the flowers as I watched her begin to sink.
“No,” I called out, but she was already dying. I ran to her and started to shake her, scattering flowers everywhere, pulling her head up to my chest, rocking her there. “Autumn! Autumn! Please wake up!”
It felt real, and I was beginning to sob. She was dead and I was alone.
I kissed her face, stroked her hair, picked up my flowers and placed them on her chest. I didn't make a decision to start stuttering, but I was so swept up in the moment, and I felt Lara's faltering voice catching in my throat. “H-h-h-ow could you?” I hiccupped miserably. “I-I-I w-wanted t-to save you.” She didn't open her eyes, but then she was crying, too. She was dead. It was all over. A fifteen-year-old girl. We wept contagiously, powerfully, and I held my throat like a real hyacinth girl, my voice lost forever, unable to speak.
We didn't know anyone was watching. They were supposed to be at the funeral. But then I heard a noise, and I turned and saw them standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
“Assholes,” Lara roared. And Joyce sat up beside me, wiping her hands through her dripping makeup, while Lara yelled at us to get off the ground.
My hiccups had stopped, and I felt myself shriveling, as if I could dry up and blow away, a dandelion seed.
“It's not a game,” Curtis scolded us. “Get up now!”
He'd been holding on to Lara, as if he would stop her from coming after us, but now he let her go, and she opened her mouth. “Animals,” she spat. And on this day her voice didn't fail her. It was quick and vicious. Then she turned and stalked away. There was no time to explain ourselves, to tell her how true our feelings had seemed. To say that we'd never make fun of herâwe'd just wanted to be in her place. We watched her disappear across the lawn, her hair bright against her T-shirt, and it was already too late. The loss we'd imagined was turning real.
Curtis watched us for a moment, and when he looked at Joyce his eyes softened. “You should take that makeup off,” he said. “It's not right on you.”
I still hadn't got up off the ground. My joints felt hot and achy. Like I was made of shame, which weighed more than lead or gold. I held on
to Joyce. This was our last game of hyacinth girls. The last time that I thought of myself as someone who was mostly good.
“You were definitely right today,” I told Callie. “I'm sorry I took you when you were sick.”
Callie lay propped up in bed, drinking ginger ale. Her curtains were pulled shut against the sun, but the sounds of Saturday afternoon came in through her window. A dog barked. Silverware jangled and glasses clinked in someone's kitchen. I was pretty certain that Callie wasn't sick, but she deserved some TLC.
“Sometimes I get stuff like that wrong, but you just have to remind me, okay?”
She put the glass down on the bedside table. “You don't listen.”
“If I'm not listening, then just say, âWake up! Earth to Rebecca!' and I'll listen. Okay?”
“I'm not going to say that.”
“We could have a secret passwordâlike bananaâand any time I'm not listening, you could just be like, âbanana!'â”
She rolled her eyes, and her summer blanket rustled as she shifted in bed. I just wanted to cheer her upâshow her we didn't have to worryâso I started doing an impression of Detective Serrano. I stuck out my bottom lip, all gruff authority. I made my voice deep and manly, pretended to polish my imaginary badge.
“Oh, and he asked me about the picture. You know how the note said, âYou sent the picture'?”
“I didn't send her anything,” Callie said, serious again.
“Or maybe did you send a picture of her?”
“No. No way. Banana, Rebecca, banana.”
“I knew you hadn't,” I reassured her. “Is there anyone else who could've written that note?”
“I don't know.” She rubbed her finger over her lip.
“Well, look, here's what I think happened. Robyn's still trying to convince us that she's the victim. Maybe she's even convinced herself that it all happened like she said. She wants to be blameless, so she's trying to blame you, but it's really important that you don't feel guilty.”
Callie nodded gently in her bed, a pale princess.
“Now, I don't want to sound mean,” I continued, “but I'm going to be honest. You know how those kids bothered Robyn at your school. It could be they sensed that she wasn't quite right. Like she gave off a bad vibe, a creepy weird vibe, and they sensed she was the kind of person who could do something like this.”
“It's like someone's born,” Callie said, “and they think they're normal but they're only normal to themselves, not anyone else.”
“It can be tough for some people,” I said, noticing the furrow in her brow. “But that doesn't give them the right to come after you.”
I couldn't sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes they snapped back open, and although I was learning to make fritters that month, I had no interest in going to the kitchen. By three a.m., I was thinking about the highway. It would be empty and cold at this hour, the sky still black, the road disappearing into the distance until I saw the red-and-white smokestack before the exit for Cansdown. I wanted to look in the plastic folder again. I thought I might've missed something. And I was worried about all the old letters we'd left for Joyce. Robyn could steal them. She could
read Callie's private words to her mother. God knew what she might do with information like that, probably post it on the Internet.
When I pulled up to the cemetery it was just after six. The gates were locked, so I parked on the side of the road and started walking along the low stone wall that surrounded the cemetery. I walked until I found a spot where the wall had crumbled, and then I stepped over the rubble and crossed the lawn to Joyce's plot. I could see the scraggly rosebush as I approached and I wondered if Cerise Doblak might be involved as well. How else would Robyn get here?
Then I was crouching down on Joyce's grave, slipping my fingers under the flat edge of the message stone. Joyce's name was printed in my handwriting on a few aging envelopes, and “Mom” was written on all the others. I told myself I wasn't stealing Joyce's letters. I was just protecting her daughter. And Joyce would understand. I wouldn't need to explain.
I knelt on the ground, wishing we could hang out for just a minute. “Let's get out of here,” I'd say.
“Is Delrio's still open?”
It was, so we'd go get pancakes together like this was no big deal. It wouldn't even need to be a huge catch-up session. Joyce would slide into the booth and tap her fingers along the side of the plastic menu, and we'd immediately start talking about something sillyâ¦best pancake toppings ever. Toasted almonds? Strawberries? Not bananas! Whipped cream? I knew exactly what she'd order: buttermilk pancakesâa short stack, with orange juice. We could skip over her mother's stroke, her father's depression, his subsequent decision to pass guardianship to me. When our plates arrived, Joyce would reach for the maple syrup and I'd just watch her for a moment. Joyce with her little brown birthmark, bringing a forkful to her mouth.
I didn't even realize that the gates had opened. It was only when the green truck pulled to a stop at the side of the grassy track that I realized
I wasn't alone anymore. A man got out and stood there, watching, as I brushed the grass from my knees. Then he started jogging down the row toward me and I knew I shouldn't be there. I wouldn't get very far if I tried to run. I clenched my keys between my knuckles and prepared to jab him. I'd have to fight because I couldn't let it happen here. When he was about six feet away, he halted suddenly and I saw he wasn't big. If I could bring up my knee exactly right, I might get away.
“You okay?” His voice was husky and I took in his details quickly. Medium build, blue baseball cap, late twenties. Not very tall, maybe five-seven, zippered sweatshirt, sandy stubble, light brown hair.
I saw him noticing the keys in my hand and he took a step back. I looked at the truck again and realized instantly what should've been obvious. He worked here and I was trespassing. I was stealing from Joyce's grave. I was still clutching all her old letters in my left hand.
“I was just leaving these for my friend,” I said quickly. “I'm absolutely fine.”
He looked at the letters, which were obviously old, and I saw one corner of his mouth lifting. The squinty creases around his eyes deepened like he was going to laugh at me. I squatted down and lifted the message stone, cheeks burning, as I replaced her letters.
“Hey, no worries.” He turned and started walking to his truck. I watched as he drove past the parking lot, into the wooded area at the back. Then I retrieved Joyce's letters and shoved them into my purse. I should've just told him the truth: we were being harassed. Maybe he could've helped us, keeping an eye out for Robyn. I started walking in the direction of the path he'd taken, suddenly needing to explain our situation. After a short hike through the trees, I saw a stone building. The truck was parked in front of a large garage, and I pressed the buzzer at the entrance. After a moment, the door opened.
The man stood in front of me. His gray eyes were sleepy and he leaned easily against the door. “Hey.”
He waited for me to say more, but when I opened my mouth nothing came out. I didn't know where to begin. There were stolen letters in my purse. “IâI want to explain.”