Authors: Maggie Mitchell
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For my father,
and in memory of my mother,
Susan Reid Mitchell
I am tremendously grateful to Barbara Jones for being the kind of editor people say no longer exists; this book owes much to her sharp eye and narrative insight. I also want to thank everyone behind the scenes at Henry Holt, especially Lucy Kim for the striking jacket art and Stella Tan for her handling of the details. A profound thanks to Kimberly Witherspoon at Inkwell Management for making it all happen, to Monika Woods for being an amazing reader and providing endless support, and to Alexis Hurley for ensuring that the novel will find readers beyond these shores. I’m grateful to the Vermont Studio Center for the fellowship that allowed me to see the book through its final stages in beautiful surroundings and excellent company.
There aren’t enough words to thank Gina Barreca—friend, mentor, reader, all-around fairy godmother. Her generosity is unparalleled, her influence immeasurable. Alison Umminger has been a generous, thoughtful, and magically perceptive reader from the start, as well as the very best of friends. Other brilliant friends have also provided invaluable readerly and writerly support—Aaron Bremyer and Dionne Irving Bremyer, Greg Fraser, Chad and Gwen Davidson, Meg Pearson. The English Department at the University of West Georgia has been wonderfully supportive all along, despite having hired me as a Victorianist. I offer love and endless gratitude to my family, my fiercest supporters: Homer Mitchell, Wendy Mitchell Starkweather, Homer David Mitchell, and Kim Marie. Thanks to my cheerleaders on the Masters side of the family, too, including the Karnopps, Noyeses, and Lymans.
Finally, more than thanks to Josh Masters, this novel’s most enthusiastic fan: for navigating this strange world with me, for sharing his (perfect) vision, for feeding all stray creatures, for traveling with me to faraway lands … For the best kind of love.
Everyone thought we were dead. We were missing for nearly two months; we were twelve. What else could they think?
They were glad to have us back, of course. But nothing was the same. It was as if we had returned from the dead, as if we were tainted somehow. Our unlikely survival made us guilty. We must have sold our souls, I could see them thinking—or worse. Undoubtedly, it had not been our fault (not altogether, anyway), but still. We were not the same.
And it was true, though not in the way they thought. What mattered to us was that we had been chosen. Singled out. We had always suspected we were different; at last it had been confirmed. There was no point in pretending otherwise; in fact, to our relief, pretense was no longer expected of us. The world acknowledged that we were extraordinary—and kept its distance, as if we might be rigged like bombs, might someday explode without warning.
Once I insist that we were chosen, it is only fair to admit that he chose me second. Carly May was first. I’d like to think this was pure chance, an accident of geography; that he wanted us equally but happened to be closer to Nebraska, at the time, than Connecticut. But I know nothing was an accident with him. I was second. Carly was first. Forever.
Our pictures were everywhere, though we never made it to a milk carton. We had that already-doomed, by-now-I’ve-been-chopped-up-and-buried-in-the-woods look in our photographs. The TV stations and the newspapers often showed our school pictures, in which we smiled dreamily, tragically, against smoky-blue backdrops. But they also showed our press photos: Carly with sparkling tiaras perched on her golden ringlets, her lipsticked smile full of disturbing promises. I, Lois, more serious, posed with my spelling trophies, alluring in the way that a hostile kitten is. Or so it seems to me.
Carly May disappeared again when she was eighteen, this time on her own. She left a note: “Don’t look for me, you won’t find me,” she scrawled on one of her portfolio shots. She had drawn a mustache on herself and blackened the whites of her eyes. I know this because her stepmother, Gail, called me two years later when she was working on her memoir. She thought I might know where Carly May was. I didn’t; I hadn’t heard from Carly for years. This is all in Gail’s book, with an emphasis on her own suffering and her resourcefulness; she sent me a copy. I dropped that book off a bridge.
By the time Carly resurfaced in my world, she wasn’t Carly May Smith anymore, and we were nearly thirty.
It’s always been hard to talk about what happened without sounding all melodramatic. And as soon as that happens, I feel dishonest, like I’m trying to pitch an idea for some made-for-TV movie. “Based on a true story,” which isn’t the same as being true. Actually, I haven’t mentioned it for years, not to a goddamned person.
It wasn’t really melodramatic at all. That’s the shocking thing about it, if you ask me: how calmly we accepted what was happening. For me, getting abducted in broad daylight on the main street of a nowhere little farm town in Nebraska was far from the most fucked-up thing that could have happened that day.
I left my ballet class and took my time walking down the street to the House of Beauty, where stepmother Gail was having her nails done and God only knows what else. That woman took a lot of maintenance. I was wearing skin-tight biking shorts and an oversized T-shirt, dragging my twelve-year-old feet down the hot, wide sidewalk of Main Street, Arrow, Nebraska, with my dance bag slung over my shoulder. I was thinking about ways to make Gail miserable when the car pulled up beside me. Nondescript, gray. I didn’t know anything about cars. What I did know was that the guy driving it was an actual stranger. In Arrow, that was pretty rare. The man leaned over and rolled down the passenger-side window.
He must be lost
, I was thinking. I figured he was going to ask how the hell to get back to somewhere civilized, so I stopped walking and waited, more or less willing to explain how to get to the highway. I’m sure I had that snotty twelve-year-old look on my face.
But he didn’t want directions, and he’d seen enough pictures to know he had the right girl. “Get in,” he said, smiling. “I’ll give you a ride.”
And so I did. Didn’t think twice. God knows why. When I’ve tried to explain it, I always come back to the way he looked at me—as if he knew me perfectly, as if he could read my mind, as if I were the only person in the world who mattered. Doesn’t everyone want to be looked at that way?
Later, I studied the photos of me that he had in his file. In some I had a big, toothy, fake smile. In others I looked a little sulky, imitating the pouty faces of models in magazines. I tried to figure out how he knew; how he could have been so sure, I mean, that all he would need to do is open his car door and I’d hop in. I looked for some telltale reckless gleam in my preteen eyes, some hint of latent depravity. I’m sure the police looked for it, too, later. I could never see it, though, not even with the benefit of hindsight. I had already mastered the vapid gaze that we expect from beautiful girls. As far as I could tell, it gave away nothing at all.
We drove and drove. I knew only that we were going east. He hardly said a word in those first hours, just flipped through the radio stations occasionally, though he never seemed to find anything he wanted to listen to. He winced at Mariah Carey, Nirvana, Beck—paused once on Johnny Cash, but even then jabbed at the dial after a few seconds. I couldn’t help wondering what he hoped to find, and why he set himself up for disappointment if he already knew the radio had nothing to offer. When the radio was off, I could see out of the corner of my eye that his hands were relaxed on the steering wheel, and somehow that made me feel safe. Every now and then he would glance over at me and give me a little smile: an uncle smile, I thought, or maybe a teacher smile, although I had no uncles and my teachers had so far mostly been anxious young women with permed hair and sad, flowered blouses. He was more of a fantasy teacher, handsome and a little mysterious. I watched his eyes when he looked my way and noted that they rested on my face; they didn’t stray to my tanned, skinny legs or the recent bumps in my pink T-shirt.
Reassured, I relaxed and watched Nebraska rush by outside the window as if it had nothing to do with me. I had never been out of the state. I was thrilled when we crossed into Iowa, although it looked pretty much the same; I liked the idea of leaving my world behind. At that point we left the interstate and stopped at a gas station, where he pulled a dark brown wig out of a duffel bag in the backseat. He handed it to me as if he were giving me a present, as if he knew already that I would get a kick out of a costume. He waited outside the strangely clean ladies’ room studying a map while I stuffed my long hair under the wig and adjusted it until the bangs hung straight across my forehead. The wig must have been cheap—it was like doll’s hair, with a stiff plasticky sheen. I had never worn a wig, but I took to it right away. I rubbed off the lip gloss and pale frosted eye shadow I’d been wearing at my ballet class and felt like a different girl. In the cloudy, cracked mirror, I tried out my new look. I’d be shy and innocent, I decided. Guileless, though I didn’t know that word then. (The plan didn’t last long.) I glanced up at my reflection through timidly lowered eyelids and basically flirted with my new self until the man knocked politely on the door. He gave me a nod of approval when I finally emerged.
He bought us charred gas station hot dogs and we headed east on a rural highway, carving through endless cornfields. I couldn’t have been happier.
It would have been easy to miss her. In the bottom-left corner of the screen, a shadowy woman in dark glasses flung herself to the sidewalk to avoid a bullet. Her action wasn’t important in itself, or necessary to the plot; it only contributed to the general chaos—she wasn’t a main character or even a secondary one. Her fate seemed irrelevant to the larger story. “Is she one of the gangsters?” I asked Brad, squinting at her blurry, half-hidden face.
“The chick down there in the corner, you mean? Gangster’s floozy, more likely. Or moll? Isn’t
the word? She’s hot. In that sort of dominatrix-Barbie way.”