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Authors: Susan Strecker

Nowhere Girl

BOOK: Nowhere Girl
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For Kurt, Cooper, and Ainsley, the people I love the most

 

CHAPTER

1

The day Savannah was killed, she was fifteen minutes late to meet me. I was cold, standing in the November wind outside our school. Because she'd told me to wait for her, I'd missed the bus, and now I'd have to walk home in the dark. Mrs. Wilcox's red Honda was the only car in the front parking lot. It was just me and a stone cherub above the entrance, giving me the creeps. Finally, I pushed back through the glass doors and plopped down in a leather recliner, furniture meant to make Kingswood Academy's waiting area feel like a living room rather than a school.

I knew I should have been out looking for Savannah, but I'd been a little pissed at her lately, coming home smelling like the cigarettes she'd smoked behind the carved oak trees out back with the upperclassmen girls. She was the one with the older, cooler friends; the secret boy crushes. She was the one who'd been getting high and having sex since we were fourteen. Somehow, she was also where she was supposed to be all the time. Which is how she fooled our parents, never giving them reason to suspect that their identical twin daughters were only the same on the outside.

Kingswood had been renovated the year before, thanks to a generous and wealthy alum. The skylights above me brought a constant brightness like the manufactured cheerfulness of a hospital's children's ward. Somewhere in the office, I heard Mrs. Wilcox typing on her computer. When I closed my eyes, I felt a vague sensual pleasure, as though someone had his warm hands all over me—a feeling rather than a thought. I'd only kissed one boy, barely touched our lips together, so I understood it was Savannah's experience I was feeling. As different as we were, I knew her the way a newborn knows to nurse and birds know to fly in a V.

That morning while she was flat-ironing her hair, INXS turned up too loud on the CD player in the bathroom, she told me to cover for her at the dance planning meeting after school.

“I'll ride the late bus home with you, and we'll just tell Mom and Dad I went.”

I'd stood in the doorway of the bathroom watching her, wondering what had been making her smile so much lately.

“Where are you going?” I'd asked. But our brother, David, called us for breakfast, and she disappeared down the stairs.

She was probably off with Scarlet and Camilla, securing her place in that coveted inner circle of senior girls where no other underclassmen were allowed. Maybe my friend Gabby was right. Savannah was too cool for us; she only wanted to hang out with older girls now. There were so many days she'd asked me to take her backpack home and do her homework. Afterward, she'd come traipsing in the front door as I was setting the table for dinner, making up a lie about being at some school meeting that would look good on the college applications we wouldn't be writing for another two years. As I listened to Mrs. Wilcox type, I thought about something I'd been asking myself lately whenever resentment about Savannah began to creep in:
What if I said no? What if I walked home alone and told my mother I didn't know where she was?

Of course, I knew from the second she didn't meet me outside the glass doors for the late bus that something was wrong. Still, when that hazy sensuality gave way to anxiety, I fought it. Panic crept into my stomach, my throat. If I'd allowed myself to hear Savannah, to listen to the message she was trying to send me, I would have known that, not more than a thousand yards away, she was dying.

I tried to tell myself that I was having an asthma attack, but it didn't feel like they usually did. It was more of a choking feeling in my throat than a tightness in my chest. When it got so bad I could barely breathe, I fumbled in my backpack for the cell phone my parents had given me for emergencies only. I'd never used it before.

“It's my sister,” I told the 911 dispatcher frantically. “She's hurt.”

“The nature of her injuries, please,” the operator said in a robotic voice.

“I don't know. I think she can't breathe.”

“Is the victim with you?”

“No, no. I don't know where she is, but she's hurt.”

“Miss.” The operator's monotone turned to impatience. “If you don't know where she is, how do you know she's injured? Did she call you?”

“She's my twin.” I was sobbing, not from the pain in my throat but because I knew even as I was on the phone with the police that it was too late.

I could tell the dispatcher didn't believe me, but she asked where I was and my name, and then she clicked off.

By the time I hung up, I felt weak, so weak I thought my knees might give if I got up. Somewhere far off, I heard sirens. And then suddenly, something left me. I felt washed out, empty. The wind could have blown right through me. Something ineffable and bright, a ball of light I'd been carrying since birth, exited my body.

All my life, I'd remember that moment. But it was when I was thirty-two that Savannah finally returned to save my life by leading me to her killer.

 

CHAPTER

2

2015

It was Valentine's Day, and as usual, Greg and I were lying in bed, working. “How can you not like this holiday?” I asked him. He handed me a stack of letters three inches thick bound by a wide green rubber band. “It celebrates love.”

“It perpetuates mental illness and loneliness”—Greg pushed his glasses up his nose—“and its only purpose is to sell cheesy cards and chocolate.” He put the letters on my lap and then picked up a case file. “Anyhow, if you're going to respond to all your fan mail, like your website says you will, you'd better get going.”

I held up the elastic. “Is this from the broccoli?”

He gave me a half smile. “I had to use something. The ones in the junk drawer kept breaking.”

I aimed it at his face. “Maybe someone in this stack will ask me to be his Valentine.” I swerved at the last minute, and the rubber band headed toward our wedding photo. That picture could turn my mood nostalgic. We'd been so happy.

“Really, Cady.” He set his file aside, got out of bed, and retrieved the elastic. “Grow up.”

I watched him walk to the bathroom and shut the door. I listened for him to lift the toilet seat. The name on the file he'd been reading, gibberish to anyone else, was clear to me. Greg took his HIPAA laws seriously, but it hadn't taken me long to crack his code. Each letter was the one to the right of the actual letter on the keyboard. I'd spent so many years deciphering his files that I could do it almost instantly now.

I glanced at it while I slid the letter opener across the first envelope. What was this patient's problem? With the metal tip, I flipped open the file and got as far as “PP: Complains…” before Greg came back in the room.

“Hey.” He grabbed the file.

PP—presenting problem. Complains about what? His wife? Thoughts of doing unspeakable things to children? Not being able to get a hard-on?

“If you need material for the new book, you could just ask. You don't have to snoop.” He climbed in bed again.

“I might.” I sighed. “My new friends at the pokey aren't cooperating.”

“I really wish you wouldn't go there alone.”

“Why?” The envelope in my hands was smudged with greasy fingerprints and smelled faintly of hot dogs. This one probably wasn't fan mail, but I opened it, anyway.

“It's not safe,” Greg said.

“There are security cameras and guards everywhere.”

“Can't you just Google whatever you need to know?”

He held his hand between us, palm up, an offering. And I knew I should take it, but instead, I unfolded the letter.

“No, this novel is set in a prison. I have to go there and feel it out.” I pulled out my elastic and ran my hand through my hair. “But I haven't been able to find an inmate to talk to yet, so it could be a no-go.”

He said something that I didn't hear because I was reading.

Ms. Bernard: You have no imagination. You keep writing about the same thing over and over.

“My website says I'll read and answer adoring fan mail.” I handed him the angry scrawl. “Do I have to respond to this?”

He scanned the bottom of the letter. “Maybe Joe Mama is right. Scrap the prison drama and write something uplifting. You don't always have to be so dark.”

“Have you met me?” I snatched the letter back. “Dark is all I know.” Joe Mama didn't leave his contact information, so I tossed the letter on the floor. “I don't do cheery. Puppies and rainbows are not interesting. Besides, I must be doing something right. A lot of people love my books.”

He opened the file. “Except your mother.”

This was true. Every time I sent her a bound galley, she'd call, make small talk about how gorgeous Saint Augustine was, and tell me that the book was beautiful but upsetting.

“Let's leave my mom out of this. I don't blame her for not wanting to read about dead children and murderers.”

“It wouldn't kill your family to talk about Savannah every now and again.”

I winced at his choice of words. “I see my parents twice a year. I don't think that's what we want to discuss at Christmas dinner.” I could feel another fight coming on. “Besides, you know why we don't talk about her.”

“I know your reasons. I just don't agree with them.”

I reminded myself that I chose to marry a shrink. And that once upon a time, we had loved each other. “I don't talk about my sister because I don't want to. It fucking hurts too much, okay?”

He patted my hand. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you.”

I didn't feel like fighting. “It's fine.”

“You are a strong writer, you know.”

“But?” There was never a compliment without a
but.

“But your work is disturbing, hard to read.”

“No shit. My life is disturbing.”

He slid his hand over and set it on top of mine. Greg's hands were big and boney. “It is not disturbing.” He said it in the way you might talk to a child. Or a patient. “You live in a beautiful house.” After my first book was published, the same year we got married, Greg found this place. It was much too big for us, but we bought it, anyway. The day we moved in, I stood in the foyer with its echoey, sterile feel and cried. “You're happily married.”
To a man who wanted to fix me and hated Valentine's Day
, I thought. “Nothing about your life is disturbing. You're happy.” No. I wasn't. He leaned over and gave me a dry peck on the cheek. “Right?” Quick kisses were all I seemed to get anymore. I didn't know if I was disappointed or relieved. I just wanted things to be the way they were before the money fights and miscarriages.

BOOK: Nowhere Girl
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