The Pretty Ones
NELL SULLIVAN WAS a mouse.
A big fat nobody.
Sitting at her desk with her head bowed and her gaze fixed on the keys of her IBM Selectric, she didn’t need to glance at the clock to know the hour had arrived. She’d been ticking away the seconds until quitting time in her head—one Mississippi, two—having spent the last five minutes putting her desk in order, the same as always. Never making small talk. Not once looking up.
She squared her typewriter so it lined up with the edge of her desk, fanned out the pencils in her smiley-face mug like the feathers of a peacock. Have a nice day! Even the heavy glass ashtray she’d never used was meticulously placed at the corner, leaving exactly two inches around two of its four sides. Smoking, in Barrett’s opinion, was a sin reserved for the weak. But Barrett’s opinion didn’t matter to the staff of Rambert & Bertram. Every desk in the office sported the same ashtray, as if inviting the devil to mingle within the office pool. Nell had considered removing the ashtray from her desk, if only to tell Barrett that she had. Heeding his warning would make him happy. Not happy enough to spur conversation . . . but the act was rebellious, one that the other secretaries would notice. And while Nell dreamed of being “one of the girls,” she was no dummy.
Everyone knew Nell was a drag. She’d been thinking about taking up smoking for that very reason. Maybe a few puffs would make her cool like all the other girls. The ones who congregated around the water cooler, the lunch area, and on the crowded sidewalk outside the building’s revolving doors. If Nell started smoking, she’d have a reason to stand around right along with them. She’d breathe the noxious fumes while listening to cabbies honk their horns. Watch hundreds of busy businesspeople march through intersections—men in pressed suits, women with their hair done up and their lips painted red. She’d inhale exhaust-laced nicotine five days a week if it meant fitting in . . . even a little.
But Barrett . . .
Her attention flicked to the ashtray. A sliver of sun shone there, lighting it up like a firework, turning cheap glass into crystal. She looked away, stared down at the extension buttons numbered one through seven beneath the dial pad of her office phone.
Rambert and Bertram, how may I direct your call? One moment, please.
Rambert and Bertram, how may I direct your call? One moment, please.
Rambert and . . .
Her coworkers, having suppressed their desire for socialization since lunch, were bubbling over with pent-up energy. They’d abandon their desks the moment the clock ticked away the last seconds of 4:59 p.m. Their voices would rise above the din of dwindling telephone conversations and the muffled blare of New York City rush hour. Five o’clock: when the people Nell wished to be a part of were at their most glorious. Excited for happy-hour cocktails. For evening reunions with husbands, boyfriends, fleeting lovers. It was the hour that reminded Nell just how little she was like them. Because no matter how hard a good Irish Catholic girl prayed, God wasn’t in the business of granting good looks or social grace or—dare she even think it—the burst of passion associated with a one-night stand. Twenty-two years old and Nell had more in common with the Virgin Mary than she did with any girl on the inbound call-center floor.
Five o’clock. The girls unraveled in front of their typewriters. Some fell back in their desk chairs with muffled moans. Others pulled bobby pins from their hair and shook out their tresses in cascading waves. Nell never had much success in getting her dull hair to look remotely as good. She’d watched the Breck commercials, bought the shampoos and conditioners and dry oils that Farrah Fawcett swore by. It broke the bank, but she purchased them anyway, hiding them in her bedroom where Barrett wouldn’t look. She didn’t dare speak of her silly, girlish desires. He’d strike them down with a single dubious look of irritation, a look that always made her feel as stupid as she knew she was.
Like she had any chance of that.
Don’t think about it, she told herself, purging her mind of the thought as she straightened her sweater, grabbed her purse, and rose from her desk. With her head bowed, she made a beeline for the elevator and, coincidentally, for Mary Ann Thomas as well.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Mary Ann was the girl. The goddess. The gold standard. The perfect brand of slender, graceful in the way she carried herself up and down the call-center floor. Her calf muscles were smooth and powerful beneath the hem of her Halston skirt. Her hair, freshly bleached from a light chestnut to an almost shocking white, rested on the shoulders of her tunic blouse in buoyant waves. Mary Ann’s red pumps—red for sexy, for dangerous—were a proverbial stop sign: back away, forget about it. Girls like Mary Ann Thomas didn’t cavort with people like Nell.
But Nell didn’t stop. She couldn’t. Mary Ann was in her path, chatting away, surrounded by a group of women not quite as pretty as her, but pretty enough for Nell to fantasize about just the same.
Nell’s heart leaped into her throat when Mary Ann made eye contact. Nell forced a smile, a victory for a girl who could hardly hold a conversation; a tiny win for someone whose reflex was to pull her shoulders up to her ears and look away.
Mary Ann wasn’t impressed by Nell’s weary triumph. She narrowed her eyes and returned Nell’s smile by way of a sarcastic red-lipsticked grin.
“A little warm, Nell?” Mary Ann asked, her tone tinged with disgust, dripping with sarcasm. Dripping much like the sweat that was already starting to bead up along Nell’s hairline.
It was hot—the hottest summer on record in what felt like forever. So hot most people walked around half-naked, in search of relief from the heat. But not Nell. She wore her grandma’s Aran sweater like a pregnant girl trying to fool her mother. She needed to lose a few pounds, sure that every single girl in the office was keenly aware of that fact. Every sideways glance convinced her all the more.
“Gross.” Mary Anne uttered the word beneath her breath, but Nell heard it as clear as a Chinese gong.
Hope splintered into anger.
A flash of pain lit up behind her eyes. The seed of another migraine.
Floozy, she thought. Tramp.
She stopped in front of the elevator, her gaze fixed on the glowing button beside the polished steel doors. Those doors cast back a vague reflection—featureless, little more than the shade of Nell’s dark-brown hair and taupe bell-bottomed slacks.
Librarian, the voice of reason chimed in. Plain Jane. Old maid. Timid white-bread mouse.
Anything Nell could fault Mary Ann for, Mary Ann could fire right back. Which was why Nell never stood up for herself in any situation. Whatever she could say about others, they could say about her twenty times worse.
The elevator dinged above Nell’s head. The doors yawned open. She shuffled inside, pressed herself against the corner, watched chunky heels and wedge sandals congregate around her penny loafers, which were missing the pennies. Even a bit of shiny copper was too flashy for Barrett’s taste.
Too poor to afford them, she’d heard a girl say on one of her first days there.
Maybe if she didn’t spend her entire paycheck at McDonald’s, suggested another.
Stupid bitches, Nell had thought. She hadn’t been to McDonald’s in years.
After overhearing that particular conversation, Nell had considered quitting this job the way she had left all the others. But she was determined to push herself to be better, to be less of a hermit, to be more like Barrett, her confident and artistic older sibling. He was sure to find the perfect girl, and then who would she have? Nobody. She’d be left to weep herself to sleep in her crooked shoebox of an apartment. Hey, look, Brooklyn, Nell’s crying again.
Of course, Barrett insisted she was crazy, that he’d never leave, that he couldn’t. He’d leave her sunshine-yellow notes around the house:
I love you, Nell.
You’re my best friend, don’t forget.
Our blood is our bond.
But his promises made no difference. His love for her was keeping him in place, but a grown man could only love his sister so much. Someday, his affectations would take him in a different direction, and that’s when the notes would change.
Gotta go, found someone else.
Sorry Sis, but you know how it is.
The elevator reeked of day-old hair bleach. It plunged to the ground floor, taking Nell’s stomach with it. Nobody spoke to her. Nobody glanced her way. They turned their bodies so that not a single one of them faced her. She was invisible as they chattered among themselves, not an arm’s length away. They talked about a new dress shop opening up on Fifth. Code, Nell was sure, for how great they’d look in their new frocks, while she was doomed to live out her life in ugly bell-bottoms and boatneck shirts.
Nobody mentioned Sam.
Nell kept her head down as she spilled onto the street, marching toward the subway station and the train that would take her home. She waited on the platform among a sea of professionals, art students, musicians, and homeless. She watched a group of tall black kids occupying too much space in the crowded terminal. They were taking turns spinning a basketball on the tips of their fingers. They dribbled it on the concrete, tossed it back and forth while ignoring the stares and snorts and high-brow eye-rolling of people “just trying to get home.” Nell admired people like those basketball boys—guys who did what they wanted to do no matter how unbecoming it was to others. She inched closer to the group, taking small sidesteps to the left to close the distance. Maybe if she got close enough, a little of their unabashed passion would rub off on her. Perhaps touching that basketball, even if it was by walking into its path during a pass, would transfer some of that confident magic from them to her.
The B train arrived before she could get close enough.
Folks crammed into the cars and scrambled for available seats. Straphangers grabbed dirty strips of plastic and leaned into the upsurge of speed. Nell pressed herself into a straight-backed seat between an old Hasidic Jew and a fat man in a tiny damp suit. Both were as sweaty as she was. Both smelled like they’d been slathered in cumin and sea salt.
Nell dipped into her purse and pulled a stick of Doublemint gum from its slim, green pack. She popped the gum into her mouth, then hovered the silver wrapper in front of her nose, inhaling peppermint to cut through their stink. She concentrated on the graffiti that covered the walls, some of it etched into the plexiglass of the car like a patchwork quilt. Most of it was unreadable—nothing but a bunch of loops and swirls and vaguely distinguishable lettering. Some was more distinct.
YOU AIN’T SHIT, CORPRIT MAN.
NEW YORK IS DEAD.
The train screamed through the underground. The fat man and his tiny suit got off at Herald Square. The Hasid rode on to West 4th Street.
Nell sped toward King’s Highway station. The side of an abandoned factory flashed a piece of urban art she read a dozen times a week: WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU’LL BE.
She shuffled off the train behind a string of blacks and Latinos, the only white girl dumb or crazy or poor enough to live in this part of Brooklyn. Pulling her shoulders up to her ears, she braced herself for the routine dose of harassment.
“Hey, bibliotecaria!” A Puerto Rican bicycle gang circled in the street just beyond the station like a wake of vultures. “Hey, you got any good books?” She didn’t dare look right at them, but she knew their voices well. There were five of them, shirtless due to the heat wave. They rode bikes too small for their gangly legs. They wore shabby Dr. Js on their feet, the white leather tattered by pedal spikes. They bothered her despite their lack of ammunition, because really, what did they want from a girl like her anyway? Once, she had told Barrett she’d give them something to remember her by, but her brother had shot her a look she had easily deciphered. Don’t. It would only make it worse. And of course, he was right. Fighting back would only make them bite harder.
“Hey, hey, bibliotecaria!” There was out-and-out mirth in her assailant’s voice. “I heard about this book, it’s called the Karma Sutra.” More laughter. Nell clamped her jaw tight and hastened her steps. “You wanna come back with us to our place? Wanna teach us the ancient Chinese art of fucking?” An eruption of chortles, of boys speaking in fast, clipped Spanish behind her.
She balled her hands into fists and continued to march, a trickle of sweat sending a maddening tickle down her spine.
“Hey, don’t get mad.” One of them cruised next to her on his tiny single-speed bike.
“Hey, Marco, you better shut up, man,” another advised. “You’re too loud, ey. You gotta be quiet in the library.”
They burst into another fit of cackling, but they stopped trailing her down East 16th Street. By the time she turned onto Quentin Road, they were gone.
“It’s Kama Sutra,” she hissed beneath her breath. “And it’s not Chinese, you morons. Why don’t you go make out with your cunt girlfriends?” She muttered the question, the hushed profanity tasting sweet on her tongue. She pictured their leader canoodling with some Spanish girl just before taking a bullet to the head. That was why Mary Ann Thomas had bleached her hair from chestnut to white. It was why the entire call-center floor reeked of ammonia. Blond hair was one of the few lines of defense a girl had against the .44 Caliber Killer, the one that called himself the Son of Sam. He had sent a letter to the Daily News only a few weeks before.
HELLO FROM THE GUTTERS OF NYC!
Nell had read that letter, unable to shake the strange itch of envy. It was a letter written by someone who had had enough. Someone who had been pushed too far; shoved right over the line of civility and onto a path of blood-soaked freedom.
A personal renaissance.
She shoved her hands into the pockets of her sweater, felt the soft edges of one of Barrett’s crumpled notes.
Ignore them. Don’t start trouble.
Reaching her row-house apartment on Quentin Road, she climbed up the crumbling concrete steps and pushed open the front door. She had two keys on her vinyl Snoopy key ring. One for the building’s front door. The other was for the apartment. But the front door had been kicked in more than six months before, either by police or a drunk resident who had misplaced his key. Most days the front door flapped open and closed like a kid’s loose tooth. People came and went at all hours, whether they lived there or not. Homeless men had taken to sleeping in the front hall, sometimes blocking the stairs Nell had to take to get to her floor. Sometimes, when she arrived home late, she’d hear people having sex behind the stairwell—women moaning daddy and baby while men puffed You like that? like locomotives. It turned her stomach, and yet, those were the nights she couldn’t help herself. She’d wake up early the next morning and run to King’s Chapel to pray, unable to shake the smell of her own body on her hands, no matter how hard she scrubbed them with Borax and bleach.
Today, there were a couple of kids playing jacks in the lobby. Their clothes were dirty and half-soaked, most likely from a romp around a curbside fire hydrant. Nell gave them a faint smile, but they only stared with their wide, stupid eyes. Tempted to ask them what the hell they were looking at, she started up the stairs instead. She paused on the second-story landing to catch her breath, then continued to the third floor. Barrett would be waiting for her behind their dead-bolted apartment door.
Barrett didn’t work, but Nell didn’t resent him for it. His joblessness had been her idea. He was creative, had a passion for books and words. He was a writer, and someday he’d be in print. Nell would make sure of it, even though he never let her read a single sentence he wrote.
“Barrett?” Nell stepped inside the apartment, then fastened all three dead-bolt locks behind her. The place was little more than a handful of walls, thin enough for both of them to know everything about their neighbors without ever meeting them face-to-face. Yellowed wallpaper was peeling away in places like blistered skin. The ceiling was pockmarked with stains from where the upstairs neighbor’s kids regularly flooded the kitchen and bathroom. The floor, while hardwood, was so warped it was next to impossible to keep the secondhand kitchen table level. Nell had shoved two old paperbacks beneath one of the legs to keep it from leaning too far to the right. Lady Chatterley and Father Lankester Merrin were doing their best to keep plates and silverware in place. And the rest of the furniture wasn’t any better. All of it had come from the Salvation Army. All of it needed some sort of support.
But despite the old furnishings and dilapidated state, the place was spotless. It held an air of scruffy hipness that lent it an almost cute quality, from Nell’s potted ferns balanced on the windowsills to the miniature herb garden on the fire escape. There were always two settings on that shabby kitchen table. Matching place mats and plates surrounded a small vase of the cheapest flowers the market had been selling on shopping day. Usually they were carnations, and Nell didn’t mind that one bit. Carnations lasted a long time, sometimes over a week if she kept the water fresh. Plain but hearty, just like her.
She dropped her keys into a little bowl on a side table next to the door, slid her purse off her shoulder, and shrugged out of her sweater, then folded it into fourths. When she peeked into his bedroom, Barrett was nowhere to be found. Nell frowned at that, picturing him wandering the streets of Sheepshead Bay, looking for someone more exciting than her. If that was what Barrett wanted, he was likely to find it anywhere but here, in their sorry excuse of a home.
“You’ll be back.” She murmured the reassurance to herself. Peeling the wet back of her shirt away from her skin, she stepped into the kitchenette and tied on her ruffle-trimmed apron with a sigh. Barrett would be back. He never strayed for long. Men were predictable. As soon as they got hungry, they came scratching at the door.
. . .
She tried to wait up for Barrett the night before. But after an hour of reading C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters with Beary—her teddy bear—she couldn’t keep her eyes open. Barrett had always hated Beary’s name. Even as a boy he’d complained that it was uncreative, that it sounded too much like his name, but Nell hadn’t cared. She liked that it sounded like her big brother’s moniker. And so Beary had stayed Beary, now her only surviving childhood memento. Sometimes, it seemed, her only friend.
Hours later, she woke with her favorite book strewn across the floor. Beary was stuffed beneath her pillow, and the apartment was silent. Her brother’s absence hung like a storm cloud over her head.
When Nell woke for work, Barrett’s empty dinner plate was on the kitchen table, the only sign she had of his return. But when she searched the rooms for him, he was still missing.
She stood in the kitchenette with her arms wound across her chest, staring at his dirty dishes with a sense of doom. There was an early morning argument happening in front of the building. A drunk woman screaming don’t touch me at her stumbling boyfriend. The yelling did little to soothe Nell’s frayed nerves.
She twisted away from the kitchen table—a sorry old thing that looked like it had been salvaged from a down-and-out diner. Its rounded corners and chrome trim made her think of I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver, of retro soda fountains and perfect families living in perfect neighborhoods inside their mother’s old black-and-white TV. That memory was the reason Nell had splurged on the red-topped table in the first place. It didn’t match a thing in the apartment, and it was overpriced for what it was, especially because it was missing its matching chairs. But she had bought it with a fleeting hope. Maybe if she stuck that bit of Americana in the center of her apartment, a bit of that vintage happiness would transpose itself into her own life. It was why she kept the little vase of carnations in perpetual bloom, why she fixed dinner every evening despite her long workday. The whole thing had been a stupid idea, a ridiculous childlike notion.
Nell didn’t want to accept it, but the reality of it was becoming harder to shake. They could have moved into a pastel-painted house on Magnolia Lane in a perfect little town a million miles from Brooklyn, but things would stay the same. Barrett would always hate their mother. He’d always wander and never speak. Nothing would ever be perfect, no matter how hard Nell tried. Not after what Faye Sullivan had done.
Pressing her hands to her face, Nell took a deep breath, familiar pain blooming at the back of her brain. She tried not to imagine her sibling, carousing in the seedy streets of New York City or living it up while “You Should Be Dancing” pumped through club speakers. She tried not to picture him as one of the men who took women behind staircases of unlocked buildings, pressing them up against the wall. Most days, Nell thanked God she had a brother like Barrett, but there were the occasional moments . . . moments when she wished they were only friends.
Roommates that could fall in love.
Fall into bed.
Fall into a life beyond what they had.
It was a temptation she had repressed for years. A desire she didn’t dare put into words. When she heard those couples behind the stairwell, her stomach soured and twisted into a fist. But not before she saw a flash of her own face pulled into a grimace of lust. Not before she imagined his hands, his hands, drawing across the naked flesh of her well-rounded hips.
She squeezed her eyes shut against the thought, gritted her teeth, and exhaled a quiet, abhorrent bleat deep in her throat. When her hands fell away from her face, Barrett stood not three feet from the apartment door. He had a way of sneaking up on her. Nell may have been a mouse in appearance, but Barrett had her beat when it came to silence.
“B-Barrett.” His name was a faltering greeting. “You scared me.”
He raised his eyebrows at her, but didn’t speak. Of course not. Had he said a word, Nell would have fallen right over, maybe even fainted from shock.
That was the thing about Barrett.
He hadn’t spoken since he was six years old.
“Where were you?” Nell asked. She tightened the belt of her robe, scowled at his dirty dishes. “I waited all night. I was worried. You could have at least cleaned up after yourself, instead of leaving it for me.”
Barrett gave her a level look, one that suggested that she had far more pressing issues to worry about. He reached for one of the many pads of paper strewn about the apartment and scribbled something down.
What time is it?
“Oh, damn,” she hissed. “I’m going to miss the train!” She rushed past him fast enough to catch her shoulder on the doorframe. When she appeared from the bathroom smelling of soap, her hair still sopping wet, Barrett was lounging in his tattered wingback. He was reading Robert Louis Stevenson again. Barrett was a little rock-and-roll with his surfer-like Leif Garrett hair, a little intellectual with his forever-pensive expression. Far too cool to be her biological sibling. Way too smart to stick around. He didn’t raise his eyes from his book to acknowledge her exit, only lifted an arm with two fingers held aloft in a lazy peace sign.
She rolled her eyes and triple-locked the door behind her, hoping it would keep him from disappearing again.
. . .
She reached Rambert & Bertram a half hour late; a reason to panic for any employee, but an absolute nightmare for a girl who tried to blend into the beige carpet and potted plants. The elevator spit her out into an incessant ringing of telephones and chipper please holds. Mary Ann Thomas glanced up from her typewriter. Her upper lip curled over her teeth just enough to suggest a sneer, as though some unspoken hope of Nell quitting her job had been dashed onto the rocks of reality. Mary Ann shot a look at Adriana Esposito, who sat to her right, as if to say Are you seeing this? Adriana was a beautiful girl, but she wasn’t quite as pretty as Mary Ann. None of Mary Ann’s friends were. Nell was fairly certain that if Mary Ann ever crossed paths with a better-looking woman, that girl would be found dead in a gutter the next afternoon.
A crime of passion.
Adriana was Mary Ann’s best friend. Her right hand. A henchgirl if there ever was one. As soon as Mary Ann gave her a nod, Adriana lifted her hands from the keys of her typewriter. She rose from her seat and glided across the office floor as graceful as she’d seen Michael Jackson dance across Johnny Carson’s stage. A seed of panic bloomed in Nell’s stomach as she watched Adriana shimmy toward their supervisor’s door. Nell’s attention bounced back to Mary Ann’s desk, but Mary Ann had turned her back, busy transcribing handwritten notes onto official letterhead.
The words wheeled their way through Nell’s head.
Oh God shit goddamnit oh God.
A flash of pain. A wince between beats of her heart.
She marched down the center aisle of desks as fast as she could, just short of falling into a full run. She shoved her purse into the little cabinet attached to her desk, tore off the Selectric’s cover and shoved it into the compartment along with her things. Snatching up her coffee mug, she pulled her sweater tight across her chest and made for the break room. It was against her better judgment. Logic said to sit down and get to work, but Barrett would have suggested otherwise. Act natural, he would have written. Maybe if she at least looked like she’d been there for a while, Misters Rambert and Bertram would let her tardiness slide—not that she’d ever met them. Men like those spent their days on the golf course, not in a city dying of heatstroke.
No matter how many times Nell had considered quitting this job, she needed it to pay the rent. Without it, she and Barrett would be sleeping in the ground-floor hallway along with the drifters. Barrett would have to find a job—but how? No matter how smart or good-looking he was, he didn’t speak, only wrote notes on his little yellow pad. Maybe a night stocker at a grocery store or a mechanic at a tire shop . . . a job that didn’t require him to talk to anyone, to interact with customers. And once he did find a place to work, he wouldn’t have time for his writing. That was something Nell wasn’t sure he’d ever forgive her for. Her quitting this job would mean him quitting on his dreams. And then there was the fact that he’d be pulling an eight-hour shift—that was eight hours of him realizing how much better the world was without her in it. Without his sister. The girl who had cost him everything.
Nell’s hands trembled as she reached for the coffeepot, splashing brew into her Mr. Topsy-Turvy mug. Only three minutes into her shift and she was already sweating beneath the wool knit of her sweater. She stared at the orange bean of a character as she chewed on her bottom lip, wondering what she’d do if the boss sent her home early with an empty Xerox box full of her things. She’d think up an excuse. Something that would make her supervisor, Harriet Lamont, think twice before terminating her. Something that Nell couldn’t have prevented. An accident. No, worse. Much worse. A death. Someone had thrown themselves in front of the B train, took a flying leap right off the platform and onto the rails. She’d seen it with her own two eyes. It was like something out of a nightmare. She doubted she’d ever sleep again.
Someone stepped into the break room.
Nell started, turned to see Adriana standing in the doorway. She shot Nell a smile, only making Nell want to scratch her eyes out that much more. She imagined Adriana sinking to her knees, her hands clasped over her bloodied face, crying out in agony while Nell casually walked back to her desk, took a seat, and began her day’s work with blood beneath her nails.
A mauling. A vicious attack on the train. You should have seen it. I hardly made it in to work at all.
“Lamont wants to see you,” Adriana said.
Nell stood silent, picturing Adriana flattened against the third rail. Her body bloodied. Her arms severed. Her guts strewn across a subway platform. People standing around, laughing, laughing because, man, that Adriana Esposito was a bitch.
Nell lifted her mug from the counter and ducked around Adriana on her way to the supervisor’s office, as though stepping into Lamont’s office was no big deal. She even murmured a “thanks” to the girl who’d turned her in. A criminal showing appreciation to her own executioner. A Salem witch filling her own pockets with stones.
How many more for me to hit bottom?
How many licks did it take for the Son of Sam to snap?
“The world,” Nell whispered to herself, “may never know.” A ghost of a smile caught at the corner of her mouth, but it disappeared just as quickly as it came.
Harriet Lamont was intimidating. She sat behind a large desk surrounded by so many plants that it made Nell think of Vietnam. And in that jungle, Harriet Lamont was the tiger, ready to pounce on any girl not pulling her weight. Nell hovered in the door while Lamont finished up a call.
“Well, I don’t care what you have to do, Dan.” She spoke into the receiver. Powerful. Confident. “Just fix it.” It was the way an important person ended a phone call—with a demand and an aggravated hang up. Lamont shot a look toward the office door, steadied her eyes upon Nell, and cleared her throat. “Come in,” she said. “Close the door.”
Nell did as she was told, certain she was going to burst into sloppy tears long before she managed to take a seat in front of the boss’s desk. She didn’t give a damn about Lamont, really. But if she got fired, what would Barrett think? What would Barrett do?
“You know we don’t tolerate tardiness around here,” Lamont said, her tone flat. She retrieved a cigarette out of a little silver case, stuck it between her red lips, then lit it with the crystal Ronson tabletop lighter when a cheap gas-station Bic would have done just fine.
Nell said nothing.
“Right? ” Lamont was waiting for a response.
“Yes,” Nell stammered.
“Yes?” Lamont lowered her chin, giving Nell a look that, up until then, only Nell’s mother could have pulled off. It was stern, riddled with an impressive amount of impatience. Nurse Ratched. Cruella de Vil.
“Yes,” Nell said, more quietly this time. “I’m sorry. I got stuck . . .”
“Stuck.” Lamont seemed to grunt the word.
“At the train station.”
There was blood everywhere. Adriana was dead. I pushed her onto the—
Lamont looked both unimpressed and unconvinced. She’d heard that line a million times. “And why should I care about that?” she asked. “If I cared every time one of my girls got stuck at the train station, there wouldn’t be anyone answering phones at R & B.”
Nell peered down at her coffee mug. It was burning her hands, but she didn’t dare put it on Lamont’s desk. She sat there, clutching it as fiercely as she was clenching her teeth. Because how many Bics could Lamont have bought with the money she’d spent on that fancy lighter? Didn’t that giant varnished desk and having her name on the door make her feel important enough?
“Look, Nell . . .” Lamont leaned back, took a puff of her cigarette. Sinner. “This is between you and me, okay? You aren’t like the other girls. I gotta say I appreciate that. Dare I say, I like it. God knows we need more girls like you around here. But I’m going to stop appreciating it if this happens again, you understand? If I let you slide, it makes me look bad, and I don’t like looking bad. I’ve got a job to do just like everyone else. Just like you.”
What if Lamont said that, to keep her job, Nell had to smoke a cigarette? Had to light it with that fancy crystal thing too? What if, to keep her job, Nell had to compromise everything she stood for, everything she had promised Barrett she’d be? What if she had to become a Rambert & Bertram girl, like a Stepford Wife? Maybe that’s why all the girls were so goddamn cruel. Their hearts gone. Souls empty. Brains washed. Robots. Nothing but pretty, high heel–wearing, lipstick-smeared—
“Hey.” Lamont snapped her fingers. “Earth to Nell.”
“Yes,” she murmured.
“Yes,” Lamont echoed, dubious. She exhaled a stream of smoke while studying Nell from across her desk. “I know you don’t have many friends. None here, anyway.”
Rub it in.
“The girls here can be a little rough, but they aren’t all bad. Maybe reach out a bit more, try a little harder to make a connection.”
A flash. A wince. Stress was bad for Nell’s headaches. She wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up nursing a migraine all night after this.
“It would make things easier,” Lamont promised. “Don’t you think?”
“Yes.” Nell wanted to disappear into the orange and brown weave of the chair beneath her. Disappear, but not before bringing her coffee cup down on top of Lamont’s skull first.
Yes, she thought. I’ve thought of that. I think of that every day, you condescending—
But she cut herself off mid-thought. Because Lamont was, in her own convoluted way, trying to be helpful. Lamont wasn’t going to fire her, which she had all the right in the world to do. She wasn’t going to force Nell and Barrett out onto the street. Pathetic as it was, at that moment, Harriet Lamont was the closest thing Nell had to what might be considered a friend.
Lamont sat quietly, as if waiting for Nell to say something, anything. When Nell failed to speak, Lamont shook her head and waved a hand at the door. “All right. Go on, get back to work,” she said. Nell rose, moved to the door. “But Nell . . .”
She froze, the door ajar, the trill of telephones and the metallic clap of typewriter keys disrupting the hush that had fallen over the boss’s office.
“I just want to make sure all my girls are happy here. I want you to be happy here.” Lamont gave her that stern, motherly look once more.
Nell stared at her supervisor, her coffee mug continuing to scorch her hands.
“All I’m saying is, if you don’t like the life you have, make the life you want.”
Another zing of pain.
“Yes, ma’am,” Nell whispered.
“Don’t be late again.”
“I won’t,” Nell said, her voice inaudible over the office din. She ducked out of Lamont’s office before the woman decided to say more. Nell knew she meant well, but all her advice had done was make Nell feel smaller than she already did. It had done little but make her want to rage.
To tell Barrett and rage.
. . .
Nell couldn’t get Lamont’s hard-nosed advice out of her head. If you don’t like the life you have, make the life you want. There was no doubt in Nell’s mind that Harriet Lamont had done her share of clawing up the corporate ladder, and she’d made it. She was a big-time boss at Rambert & Bertram, keeping the place running while her bosses putted down a perfectly manicured green. Lamont was a woman who lived by her own advice, and she had a private office with a view of East 44th to prove it.
Not that Nell wanted to be the boss of anyone. But the more Barrett went out, the lonelier and more desperate she felt. Barrett never revealed where he was going or where he had been. He never bothered to leave notes. Not even a simple Be back soon. He’d simply vanish like a ghost into the shadowed alleys of Brooklyn, then ignore her pointed questions when he returned.
And yet, despite his secret rendezvous with . . . whomever, Barrett was the one who told her to stay away from others, to not get too close to anyone, to forget the idea of having friends and going out. Those things were for other people. People who smoked cigarettes on their lunch break and had sex in building entryways. People who weren’t like them—or at least not like her. He wrote long manifestos that he’d leave on her desk while she slept. Letters that, at times, spanned half a dozen pages. The world is poison—a lion waiting to devour innocence, a whore itching to spread her disease.
Because despite his insistence that she stay in, he’d run off somewhere and do God only knew what. It seemed that his advice only applied to Nell, while he was free to do as he chose. It was enough to get the anxiety roiling around in her gut, the sizzle of another migraine popping behind the nerves of her eyes. If she continued to follow Barrett’s rules and Barrett continued to do his own thing, Nell would be left to fend for herself. It was as though he wanted her to be alone.
Make the life you want.
Nell frowned down at the keys of her typewriter. She couldn’t just sit back and let her world unravel. If Barrett left, if for some reason, one night, he didn’t come back, she would be the one to lose everything. Her brother. Her only friend. Her mind. With no one to talk to, no one to run to, she’d scream herself into an early coffin, cut her own throat—no, cut her own heart out, put herself down.
If Barrett disappeared, Nell would have no one.
Even their own mother was a ghost, despite being very much alive.
Faye Sullivan was living somewhere in New Jersey. Nell guessed she was maybe only a mile or two from where she and Barrett had grown up as kids. But the last time their mother had moved, Barrett had burned the scrap of paper on which she’d written her new address. He had smirked as her phone number smoldered above the stove’s gas burner and left the ashes he’d smeared across the walls for Nell to clean. Their mother was perhaps little more than an hour-long train ride away, but to them she was lost, because Nell had allowed it. She’d let their mother slip out of their lives in exchange for the love of her brother. It had been years since they had heard anything from Faye, and in those years, Barrett was happier than he’d ever been. Without her, Barrett could be himself.
But without their mother, and without Barrett, Nell was an island. Brooklyn was dangerous. If something happened to him, if someone . . .
She squeezed her eyes shut against the thought. Against the pain.
Don’t even think it. If you think it, it may come true.
If Nell only had a friend, just one friend beyond her brother’s company, things would be different. She had to kill her loneliness before it made her disappear.
She glanced up from her desk as Lamont skirted the call-center floor. Lamont was the mother hen, keeping her chicks in line. She was taking mental notes of who was doing what, separating the star players from the ones that could be let go the next time layoffs came around. Nell caught her boss’s eye, and Lamont gave her a slight nod, a go on, as though wanting to see if Nell had the ambition—the guts to take her advice.
I’ve got the guts, she thought. Anything Barrett can do, I can do better. A lie if there ever was one, but if it gave her a momentary spark of motivation, she’d make herself believe it.
Pushing her mousy brown hair behind her ears, she squared her shoulders and rose from her desk. She would show Lamont that she was different, that her supervisor hadn’t made a mistake in giving her a second chance. Grabbing her Mr. Topsy-Turvy mug off her desk, she headed back to the break room for a fresh cup of coffee, heading straight for Mary Ann Thomas and her crew of pretty friends. Adriana Esposito was there, flanked by Savannah Wheeler and Miriam Gould.
Mary Ann was leaning against the break-room counter, picking colored sprinkles off a pink-frosted doughnut with manicured nails. She gingerly placed one sprinkle after the other onto her tongue as she chatted with her girlfriends. A sexy move. Way too sexy for the workplace.
But as soon as Nell came within earshot, their airy giggles transformed into murmurs. Mary Ann made eye contact, and despite Nell’s nerves, Nell forced a smile and dared to speak.
“Hi,” she said. As soon as the single syllable left her throat, Mary Ann looked to her friends and twisted her face up in grossed-out bemusement.
The whale, it speaks!
Nell caught her bottom lip between her teeth and looked away from them.
Both Adriana and Miriam had been brunettes up until a few weeks ago, just like Mary Ann. But a few days after Mary Ann had bleached her chestnut hair nearly white, Adriana came back a redhead. Miriam chopped off her long, dark hair into a sleek, angular, redheaded bob. Now, half of the office was either a bottle blonde or had cut their hair in an attempt to squelch their fears of being shot dead on the street.
Nell was one of the last girls to sport the Son of Sam’s favorite hairstyle—long and dark. Sometimes she wished he’d come. Maybe, rather than killing her, they’d fall in love and run away together instead. Maybe, if he loved her enough, she wouldn’t even ask him to stop. She’d help him pick out his victims, pinpoint girls who looked a little too confident, a little too bitchy, a little too much like the type of girl that made her life a living hell.
Nell cleared her throat. She forced her gaze toward the girls again. “I was wondering . . .” Her words came out stammered, sticking to the back of her throat.
“About why you’re so sweaty?” Mary Ann arched a skeptical eyebrow.
Miriam and Adriana tittered beneath their breaths.
“Yeah,” Mary Ann said flatly. “We were wondering about that too.”
“Um, about your hair?” Nell ignored the jab. The mention of Mary Ann’s locks made the bottle blonde’s expression harden to flat-out defensive. She shoved a handful of curls behind her left shoulder, exposing more of the embroidered collar that rimmed her billowing peasant blouse.
“I was just wondering how you did it,” Nell clarified. “What you used, I mean. I was thinking that maybe, because of the scare . . .” Her words trailed off as Mary Ann’s guarded expression eased into a false grin. Nell looked away again, splashed some coffee into her mug to busy her hands.
Mary Ann exhaled a quiet laugh. “The scare?” she asked. “Trust me, Nell, if anyone has nothing to be afraid of, it’s you.”
Nell swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat.
Adriana and Miriam snickered at their leader’s witty quip.
Savannah stood with her head bowed, avoiding eye contact. “Jesus, Mary,” she murmured.
“. . . and Joseph,” Adriana tacked on—a shared joke, for sure.
Suddenly bored with her dessert, Mary Ann dropped the doughnut back into the box of pastries and shouldered her way out of the break room with a scoff. Savannah followed, but Adriana stalled her and Miriam’s departure by nudging Nell with her arm as she passed. Coffee splashed out of Nell’s mug. It sloshed onto her sweater sleeve, down the front of her blouse, across the lap of her slacks.
Nell gasped and took a backward step only to crash into the break-room counter. More coffee sloshed over the rim of her cup, scorching her hand, dulling the burn that was blooming along her stomach and thighs. Adriana pulled her face into a look of surprise, but it shifted into a full-on laugh when Miriam exhaled a dramatic “Uh-oh!” They skittered out the door, nearly knocking over Linnie Carter amid their schadenfreude.
Linnie was one of the different ones. She was a short, somewhat homely girl compared to the fashion models who stomped the call-center floor. But that didn’t make any difference. Nell didn’t dare look at her, regardless. Embarrassed, she turned away from the break-room door to keep Linnie from seeing the wet stain that now soiled her entire front.
Idiot, she thought. You’re so stupid, thinking you could talk to Mary Ann. Thinking that you’re good enough. You deserve it. You deserve it. You deserve it!
Her bottom lip quivered. She struggled to keep her composure, her stomach balling itself into a fist. People would stare at her dirty clothes on the train. The bicycle gang at her stop would use it as ammunition.
Hey, bibliotecaria! Next time, maybe try to swallow!
Nell shut her eyes.
She squeezed them tight.
She was so stupid. Stupid to think that she could change her life. That she could be something she wasn’t.
The headache that lingered at the back of her brain speared her through with a sudden jolt. Concentrated brain freeze. She grasped the break-room counter, gritted her teeth to dampen the pain.
“Hey, um . . . Nell?”
She jumped when a hand brushed her shoulder. Linnie snatched her fingers away and held them against her chest, as if escaping a bite.
“I’m sorry, I just . . .” Linnie blinked a pair of wide-set eyes. Her face lacked symmetry, as though she had been created by Van Gogh rather than God. And yet, despite her inability to compete in looks with the likes of Mary Ann or her friends, Linnie Carter wasn’t an outsider. She smoked menthols on the sidewalk while watching taxicabs buzz by. She laughed and socialized by the water cooler with coworkers, all of them thin and tall, with glossy curls in their hair. They weren’t the pretty ones, but they knew what to wear, what to say. Somehow, they still managed to fit in. Ugly ducklings disguised as swans.
“Are you okay? Your clothes, you . . .”
Nell twisted away from her, the throb in her brain still going strong. She didn’t need fake sympathy.
And what was she supposed to do about her clothes? Ask Lamont for the rest of the day off after arriving late? No. Nell would be forced to endure another four hours at her desk, wearing that coffee stain the way Hester Prynne wore a scarlet letter. L for loser. O for outcast. An N, like her name, but rather than standing for Nell, that N would stand for Nothing. Nothing Sullivan.
“Hey . . . I’m just trying to help,” Linnie said from behind Nell’s shoulder.
“Help.” Nell croaked out the word. Like anyone would ever help her.
Except sometimes people do help, the second voice inside her reasoned. The kinder voice, the optimist that occasionally drowned out her self-disdain. What about Lamont? What about your second chance?
“Here.” Linnie held out a wad of napkins in a fisted hand. “I’ll run across the street to the deli, get some seltzer water.” Nell slowly turned toward the extended arm, then eyed the girl it was attached to. Linnie gave her a pitying, crooked smile. “My mom swears by seltzer water for any stain.”
“That and lemon juice. Maybe they’ll have some of that too, but I don’t know.”
Nell took the napkins, still unsure of Linnie’s intentions. “Really?” The question was one referring to Linnie’s kindness, to the fact that Linnie was willing to run across the street just to help Nell out. But Linnie mistook the question.
“My mom used to work for a dry cleaner.”
“I’ll meet you in the bathroom,” Linnie said. “Back in a flash.”
Nell stuck close to the wall as she made her way to the restroom, trying with all her might to blend in against a stark beige wall. She held her arms across her front in awkward angles, tugging at her sweater hard enough to make the weave creak. Attempting to hide the wet spot that stretched from the top of her bra down to her crotch, she was suddenly sick with a memory: Barrett hiding from their mother after having an accident at school.
Her brother had been six years old. Gathered with his class on the floor, they were seated in a carpeted area of the classroom for story time. It seemed like an abnormally long story that afternoon, and Barrett needed to pee. But it was an inopportune moment to raise his hand. He’d interrupt the whole class, all to embarrass himself by asking permission to use the little boy’s room. His friends would gape at him. They’d laugh.
He tried to hold it.
The story dragged on.
His teacher’s tempo slowed to maybe one or two words a minute. One sentence per hour. One page per day.
Barrett held his breath.
Clamped his teeth.
Nearly gasped when warmth enveloped him from the waist down, only to grow cold and wet seconds later.
After story time ended, he shimmied back to his desk along the wall just as Nell was doing now, ignoring the teacher’s questions to the class about the wet spot on the floor. He spent the rest of the day thinking up an elaborate excuse for why his overalls were soaked. During recess, he “accidentally” tripped and fell into a rain puddle—a perfect cover. But it was an excuse that hadn’t worked on their mom. No excuse ever did. As soon as she saw him, she’d twisted both his and Nell’s arms behind their backs and marched them outside, where she barked:
She sprayed them with the hard jet of the garden hose to wash away the stink. It was just after Halloween. Cold. Windy. They nearly froze where they stood. Anytime Barrett did something wrong, Nell got punished for it right along with him. Anytime she did something wrong, their mother would spare Barrett the rod. That was just the way things were.
Nell didn’t look up as she crossed what seemed like a mile of office space between the break room and the bathroom. But she could feel eyes crawling across her skin. No doubt that Mary Ann and her gang were biting back Cheshire Cat–grins. Nell imagined herself above her shoddy little apartment stove, a pot of water bubbling to a boil. And there, tied to her red diner-style table, would be Mary Ann, Adriana, Miriam, and Savannah. They’d blubber instead of giggle, their pretty faces swollen with tears, ugly from all the crying. Their knees would be raw and bloody from hours of kneeling on grains of uncooked Uncle Ben’s rice. They’d look at her with pleading eyes.
Please, Nell, let us go.
Please, Nell, we love you so.
But it would be too late. Too goddamn late. Nell would stick her hands into a pair of oven gloves. Pluck the pot of boiling water from the stove. And with a pirouette as graceful as Eva Evdokimova’s, she’d spin around and splash the water out of the pot in a ribbon of liquid and steam. They’d scream. Their flesh would turn to soft wax. She’d pry their mouths open with kitchen tongs and pour liquid fire down their throats, scorch their faces, and, with her bare fingers, peel back their blistered skin.
Nell ducked into the office bathroom, blinked at herself in the mirror. The polyester blouse she’d plucked off the JCPenney sale rack was ruined, but whatever. She hadn’t liked it much anyway. Her sweater, however, was a different matter. The right sleeve of her cardigan was soaked. It was doubtful she’d ever manage to get the stain out.
Her skin burned beneath the wet blotch that had grown cold and a deeper shade of brown. It was almost pretty, like drying blood.
A few minutes passed before Linnie returned with a bottle of seltzer water in hand. “They didn’t have lemon juice,” she said, breathless and red-cheeked from her run across the street. “But this should help at least.” She tore a handful of paper towels from the roll on the bathroom counter and soaked them in water that fizzed against the white porcelain sink. Nell watched wordlessly as Linnie began to blot the hem of her shirt, ignoring the wool weave of her sweater to focus on cheap polyester instead. When Linnie leaned in close, Nell breathed deep, inhaling the shampoo scent of her hair. She wondered if Linnie had a boyfriend; if, outside of the office, she was more dangerous than demure. Nell imagined her gasping in the shadowed stairwell of a decrepit apartment building, her face twisted in a mask of lust as she huffed Nell, oh Nell . . . oh Nellett . . . oh Barrett, yes.
“You know . . .”
Nell could just about hear the sizzle of her own nerves.
Linnie paused, as if disturbed by Nell’s dazed expression, then cleared her throat and looked back down to the hem of Nell’s shirt. “You know,” she repeated, her voice soft, her eyes averted, “you shouldn’t let them treat you like that. They think they’re pretty great, but it isn’t right, the way they act. That Mary Ann . . . she’s a bully. They all are.”
Nell worried her bottom lip between her teeth. Barrett had teased her about that very thing once. Lucky you don’t wear lipstick, sis, or you’d wolf down half a tube every day before lunch. Linnie wore lipstick, her mouth frosted pale pink, reminiscent of Mary Ann’s forgotten doughnut. If Barrett had the chance, would he run off with a girl like Linnie Carter? Would he leave Nell behind for the girl with a cotton-candy mouth and a cubist face?
“Do they bully you?” Nell asked. Linnie glanced up, seemingly surprised by the question, then shook her head in the negative.
“No, but I don’t think they’d bully you either if you stood up for yourself. It’s a matter of self-respect.”
Nell glanced down to the bit of polyester held between Linnie’s fingers. She reached out, allowing her hand to brush against her newfound friend’s. That’s what Linnie was now. A friend. It hadn’t been what Nell had intended, but somehow, in some way, her plan to change her future had worked, and it hadn’t even been that hard.
Nell leaned in. She wanted to thank her new friend for her help, to brush her lips across Linnie’s cheek. I’ll never forget this . . .
But Linnie pulled away.
She cleared her throat. Flashed a nervous smile. Offered Nell the wad of wet paper towels, suddenly uninterested in offering her help.
“Anyway, just keep patting at it until it comes out.” An uncomfortable pause. “I should get back to my desk before someone notices I’m gone.”
Nell took the towels. She was ready to speak, to thank Linnie for her kindness, but before she could say a word, Linnie fled the bathroom quick as a thief.
Nell stared at the bathroom door for a long while, then looked down the front of her ruined shirt. A proper thank-you was most certainly in order. After all, she and Linnie were friends now, and friends always showed their appreciation.
. . .
By the time Nell returned home, she had pushed Mary Ann’s cruelty to the back of her mind. Even the Puerto Rican boys hadn’t riled her. Her lack of irritation made them back off. Her upright stature and quick steps down East 16th made it clear she had better things to do.
She ducked into her building, sidestepped a homeless man sleeping just shy of the stairwell, rushed up two flights, and unlocked the apartment door. Once inside, she beamed at her lazy brother. Barrett was sprawled across the couch, his arm thrown over his eyes to shield himself from life’s many cruelties, or maybe just from the brightness of the room.
“Hey, Barrett. How was your day?”
No response. He didn’t even bother to lift his arm from across his face. A prince, vexed by the world.
“Did you get any writing done?”
Barrett slid his forearm away from his eyes and gave his sister a tortured look.
“Well, my day was nice.” At least partly. It had been terrible before it had turned terrific. “I made a friend.” The statement left her in a rush of excitement.
Nell tossed her purse aside, studied the stained sleeve of her sweater before shrugging it off her shoulders. She kicked her penniless loafers off beside the door.
“Her name is Linnie Carter, and she’s the kindest, most wonderful person I’ve ever met.”
Barrett’s ailing gaze settled on Nell’s ruined clothes. After Linnie had left the restroom, Nell had done little to remove the coffee stain, too wound up to care about a bit of destroyed fabric. But now, with Barrett staring at the ugly blotch the way a boy would gape at a swath of menstrual blood, a pang of insecurity shot through her. She peered down at the stain, covered it as best she could with her hands.
He sat up on the couch, pushed Robert Louis Stevenson aside. Scribbled a message: I’ll bet.
“Oh.” She shrugged a little, as if dismissing the stain as no big deal. “I just . . . it was an accident. You know me, all thumbs. I spent half the day covered in coffee. But I’m glad, because that’s how I met Linnie. I mean, I already knew her, though she never had a reason to stop and talk to me. But she came into the break room just as they had . . .” She paused, corrected herself. “Just as I had my spill, and she was so sweet, Barrett. She was on me in a flash, asking if I was okay, if I needed help. She even went across the street for seltzer water, if you can believe it. Her mother . . .”
The muscles in Barrett’s face tensed.
“. . . she knows how to remove stains, see? She worked at a dry cleaning shop, and she swears by seltzer water and lemon juice. The place across from R & B didn’t have any lemon juice, so we . . .” Her near-manic soliloquy faded to nothing.
Barrett’s expression was blank, as though his soul had escaped his body. Another quip: Yeah, she knows how to remove stains REALLY well.
“Well, I know there’s still a stain,” she told him. “I’m not blind. It’s just that Linnie had to get back to work, and I didn’t know what I was doing, really. It’s my fault the stain didn’t come out, not hers. I could have done a better job, but I wasn’t going to spend the entire day cleaning off a cheap shirt, you know.”
Barrett rose from the couch, his brown eyes level on her face.
Sometimes she hated him for his silence, but she knew it wasn’t his fault. She had tried to convince herself that maybe it was a choice, but it had been so long—long enough for her to completely forget the sound of his voice. Long enough to simply accept the way things were: quiet. Choice or not, she doubted Barrett would ever speak again.
“It was on sale.” She shoved her hair behind her ears and shrugged at him. “Just a cheap shirt,” she murmured. “I can get another one.”
He held up his notepad. I thought we were on a budget.
“We are, but what am I supposed to do, go to the office in my pajamas?” A laugh. “Maybe I’ll buy myself a nicer shirt,” she mused, eyeing the blouse that struck her as more frumpy than usual. “Something that Mary Ann could feast her eyes on, something that’ll show her I’m not such a square after all. What a shock that would be, right?” A snort. “I can just imagine her face, the surprise; look at fat old Nell Sullivan in her pretty new blouse, and maybe even a new skirt and new shoes too.” That would certainly set the snobby priss straight. “Maybe I’ll get my hair cut, give myself a whole new image.” Just what Harriet Lamont would have suggested.
A new image for a new life.
A better life.
One that Nell deserved.
Barrett’s attention remained on her face. Nell caught his eyes and flushed. He looked aggravated. Glaring down at his notepad, he began to write in a rush.
Oh God, Nell thought. Here it comes. Another one of his freak-outs. Slowed by his lack of vocalization, these arguments could last hours. They were exhausting. Silent and vampiric, zapping all of her energy.
“You don’t know how it is, Barrett. Those girls . . .” She tried to stall him, to make him stop writing with her memory of what Linnie had said. “They’re bullies. Nobody should act the way they do. They think they’re so special, so perfect.” She frowned, then looked down to her bare feet. There was a line of road grit across their tops, the dirt a reminder of Faye Sullivan’s favorite saying: You can’t shine a turd.
You’re kidding yourself. You think everyone is nice right up until they throw dirt in your face. Those chicks aren’t friendly. They aren’t special. They’d be just as happy if you were dead.
But Mary Ann and her friends were special. They were the privileged ones. The gorgeous ones. The ones that even Linnie Carter couldn’t compete with. So where did Linnie get off suggesting that they weren’t as amazing as they seemed? Sure, Mary Ann Thomas was less than kind. That girl could be a real bitch. But Nell supposed that came with the territory. Everyone wanted to be Mary Ann’s friend. Surely, that sort of attention must be exhausting. Nell was only adding to the noise, to the pressure, to the suggestion that Mary Ann had to be perfect. Maybe Mary Ann was responding the only way she knew how: with hostility.
“Anyway.” Nell gave her brother a weary smile, choosing to ignore his glare, to forget the harsh words he’d scribbled onto his small pad of canary-colored paper. “I’m going to invite Linnie over for tea.”
The muscles in Barrett’s jaw went rigid. No you’re fucking not.
Nell raised her hands at him, shook her head. “I know you hate company, but it’s rude not to do it. She helped me, and I have to show my appreciation.” He started writing again, but she turned away, refusing to read whatever aggravated disallowance he was preparing to throw at her next. Her fingers brushed across the fronds of a small fern poised in the kitchen window. Its waxy leaves glowed with the late afternoon sunlight. The entire kitchenette seemed to resonate with a newfound sense of hope.
“Tea,” Nell said to herself. “And a layer cake, frosted with the prettiest pink buttercream.” Pink like Linnie’s lipstick. “And real sugar cubes in a tiny porcelain bowl sitting next to tiny silver spoons. And I’ll need a proper tablecloth, something white, maybe lace.”
She spun around, gave Barrett a look. “You’ll be nice, won’t you?” Her tone edged on pleading. Barrett showed her his back. If she was going to ignore him, he’d return the favor. An eye for an eye. In games like these, Barrett always held the upper hand. She could disregard him all she wanted, but it was Nell who was sensitive to being shut out. Barrett couldn’t have cared less.
Every time she brought up the idea of a friend outside of their two-person circle, he had a fit. He didn’t trust anyone, especially not women who were too fancy for their own good. To him, Plain Jane was perfect. Those ostentatious girls were little more than sinners stuffed into expensive shoes. They reminded him of their mother. A woman who couldn’t have a drink without swallowing the whole bottle. Who couldn’t disagree without screaming at the top of her lungs, without shoving and clawing and turning into a lunatic.
It was the very way Faye had handled Barrett’s accident in the backyard.
Nell and Barrett had been sitting in a kiddie pool among the weeds and dirt clods of their New Jersey backyard. Their mother and father fought inside, the screaming nothing new. Mom and Dad always argued. Once, Nell had seen their mom try to hit him with a frying pan. Another time, Leigh had shoved Faye against a wall and held her there by her neck while she kicked and screamed to be let go. This particular afternoon, though, four-year-old Nell and six-year-old Barrett sat in their pool and listened to tiny, glittering explosions of breaking glass. There were faint sounds of fists pounding flesh, of palms hitting skin. The argument’s end was punctuated by the slap of the screen door against the jamb. Dad remained inside while Mom stumbled onto the patchy lawn. She struggled to light a crooked cigarette. Her hands were unsteady, her entire body rocking as though she was standing on the deck of a boat.
Nell crawled out of the pool and ran across the yard to go inside and pee. The one time she had let loose in the pool, Barrett had screamed at her that it was the grossest thing in the whole wide world. She had taken a beating from her mother for it. Dirty, disgusting child. Nell was exiled to the closet, and while she had screamed and wept and beat her fists against the door, Barrett was allowed to watch Gumby and eat Trix cereal out of his favorite bowl. Had it been Barrett who had peed, they would have both spent the afternoon sleeping among their mom’s scuffed-up pumps.
When Nell returned from the bathroom to the sun-dappled yard a few minutes later, struggling to pull her little green peplum bathing suit up onto her shoulders, the screaming match between her parents had found a second wind. Her father was outside now, a limp Barrett in his arms. Their mother was wailing. Her hands shook as though each of her fingers contained the seed of a tiny earthquake, her cigarette gone. Nell couldn’t put it together. Had Barrett stood up and slipped as he stepped out of the pool? She’d nearly fallen on her face a few times herself, so maybe he’d lost his footing and hit his head? Or maybe he had gone under and swallowed water? The scenarios were muddled, confused by a sudden burst of motion. Her dad rushed Barrett inside while her mom followed them both, pummeling Leigh with her fists. Neither one of them stopped to regard Nell on their way into the house.
Nell blinked at her mother’s extinguished cigarette. It bobbed up and down in the pool, marooned in a tiny ocean. Her mom’s screams echoed from inside the house. Amid the sepia-colored tones of Nell’s memory, she couldn’t recall the screaming ever stopping that day. That was the day Barrett lost his voice. Whether it had been trauma, stress response syndrome, or a mental break, the doctors couldn’t tell. But Barrett was all right later. He never spoke again, but he was okay.
It was their crazed, alcoholic mother who made Barrett hate women. And after their father died, Faye Sullivan only went from bad to worse. She’d doll herself up with lipstick and hair spray, then shove Nell and Barrett in her closet. She’d lock it from the outside and run off for the night. Barrett said that she was probably going to nightclubs, or maybe spending time in the backseat of a strange man’s car. At first, Nell refuted her brother’s assumptions. But it wasn’t long before Faye Sullivan started bringing those strange men home.
They would listen to unfamiliar voices through the crack of the closet door. Neither of them made a sound as their mother gasped and moaned, begging for the headboard to hit the wall faster, harder, louder. Nell wasn’t sure, but she was pretty confident any harder would have made the entire house shake loose.
It was only after their mom’s man-friends left that Nell and Barrett were allowed to come out of hiding. Sometimes those men would spend the night. “You keep your mouth shut,” Faye would tell them. “If you make a peep in here, I’ll beat you within an inch.” During those evenings, they were left to sleep among their mother’s nicotine-scented clothes. They tried to stay quiet despite contorting their faces in anguish, their bladders threatening to burst. Faye Sullivan didn’t want anyone to know she had kids, and the way Barrett recalled it, in a sense, she didn’t. It took more than having children to be a mother.
Eventually, the men would leave and Faye would unlock the closet door. She’d look down upon them, her hair a wild bird’s nest atop her head, her satin nightgown hanging off a single shoulder, a perpetual cigarette clinging to the swell of a rouged bottom lip. And instead of crouching in the doorway and telling them she was sorry and she loved them—It’s just pretend, my babies; it’s just a game—she’d hiss, “Go to your room.”
Barrett’s hate was all-encompassing. So large that it spilled out beyond their mother and soaked into the skirt hems of every woman who reminded him of her. It was why he didn’t want Nell going out with her coworkers. He was afraid of Nell turning into their mom. Into a witch. Into a monster.
Standing in the kitchen, Nell studied her brother’s scowling face. “I know you don’t like this idea,” she told him. “But you need to trust me. Everything will be fine.”
Barrett said nothing, his muteness a result of whatever had happened out in the backyard that summer afternoon. His stillness was a perfect illustration of his ever-present stubbornness. Whatever had transpired out at that pool had rendered him perpetually speechless, as though the water he’d swallowed had been laced with a fairy-tale curse. Like Snow White’s apple, or the beer and cigar that turned Pinocchio into a donkey boy.
“She’s nice,” Nell promised. “She’s nothing like Mom.”
Barrett flinched, stung by the word itself. His fingers tensed against the yellow paper of his notepad.
It hurt Nell to see her sibling so vulnerable, but she stood her ground. Turning to the fridge, she pulled open the door, allowing Barrett to sulk back to the couch while she searched for dinner possibilities. Though she knew Barrett wouldn’t eat a bite of what she made while she was there. He always ate his dinner when she wasn’t around, as if to spite her.
. . .
The following morning, a Thursday, Nell readied herself bright and early despite having the day off. She was out the apartment door long before Barrett woke, but another one of his notes greeted her from the kitchen table.
It’s my house too.
Nell exhaled a long sigh, shoved the note into the pocket of her sweater, and slipped out the door. Had he threatened to leave if she went through with her plan, she would have dropped the whole idea. The fact that he didn’t gave her an inkling of hope that maybe he wasn’t as opposed to Linnie’s visit as it seemed. Because what kind of a boy could oppose a girl dropping in for an afternoon?
Walking the few blocks it took to get to the closest secondhand store, Nell perused the aisles for items that would spruce up their shabby kitchen. She settled on a simple white tablecloth, a couple of mismatched teacups, and a tiny porcelain creamer pitcher with a toadstool printed on the side. Then, she headed for the grocery store, referencing the shopping list she’d scrawled onto the back of one of Barrett’s many notes. This one voiced his concern about Bryant Park. About dope fiends and drug addicts. About how it was just a matter of time before Nell got mugged, possibly murdered. Odd that someone so opposed to all things maternal could, at times, be a reflection of an obsessive mother figure. Always worried. Always issuing warnings about things Nell had no way to control.
When she returned home from the shops, she set to baking. The cake would be three layers tall, slathered with two cans of pink frosting and topped with sprinkles, just like the ones Mary Ann had placed one after the other upon her tongue. Nell hadn’t ever baked a cake of such magnitude, but if ever there was a time to make an impression, it was now. She wanted to dazzle Linnie, not only with her baking prowess, but with the fact that she’d gone out of her way to set up the perfect tea party for her new friend. She beamed at the thought of Linnie sitting in her sunny kitchen, having white cake and tea. Linnie would be Alice and Barrett would be the Mad Hatter. Nell would stand back and watch as they sipped Earl Grey and licked frosting off the tines of forks. It was, in Nell’s opinion, the perfect way to start a friendship and, perhaps, the only way to get Barrett to relax. She couldn’t wait to see the spark of excitement in Linnie’s eyes when Nell extended the invitation. She couldn’t wait to see the relief spread across Barrett’s grimacing face when he finally saw Linnie Carter standing in front of their apartment door, pretty as a picture, decked out in pastel ruffles and an Easter hat.
But come Friday, Linnie wasn’t nearly as excited as Nell had anticipated.
Nell stood in the break room, clutching her half-empty Mr. Topsy-Turvy mug to her chest. Her smile faded as Linnie blinked at the invitation, wearing a stupidly blank expression across her face.
“It’s white cake,” Nell explained, trying not to panic at Linnie’s lack of enthusiasm. Maybe Linnie was taken aback by Nell’s thoughtfulness? That could be it. “I spent all afternoon yesterday on it. It came out swell. You do like white cake, don’t you? I couldn’t decide between white or chocolate, but white seemed to go so much better with pink frosting. I mean, I guess chocolate would have been fine, but I’ve always liked white better. Either way, we’ll have tea too. It’ll be great, don’t you think? A real party.”
Shut your mouth, Nell, before I shut it for you . . .
“Nell . . .” Linnie’s face was strangely solemn, but there was a shadow of something else playing at the corner of her eyes. Nell couldn’t be sure, but it almost looked like a touch of nerves. She brightened at the realization of it. Linnie was anxious. She was flustered by Nell’s gratitude, by the fact that Nell had put in so much thought and spent so much time on something as insignificant as cake and tea.
“It’s okay,” Nell said, smiling. “I didn’t mind. I wanted to do it.”
“But, Nell . . .” Linnie’s frown was obvious now. She shifted her weight from one platform shoe to the other, fingering the wooden bangles around her left wrist. They clattered like xylophone keys. “I’m sorry, I just . . . I really can’t.”
Nell shook her head, not understanding. “You can’t?”
“No, I really can’t. It’s very nice of you to offer, though. I’m flattered that you’d go to such lengths—”
“Well, tomorrow, then,” Nell said, cutting Linnie off. “You can tomorrow, can’t you? Tomorrow is Saturday.” Rambert & Bertrand wasn’t open on weekends. “I’ll even take the train to your place to meet you if you want. You don’t have to ride into Brooklyn by yourself. It’ll be better if we meet somewhere and I ride in with you, if only to make sure you find the apartment okay.”
Linnie cleared her throat. Her hands moved from her bracelets to worrying the hem of her orange floral-print blouse. “I can’t tomorrow either.”
“Look, Nell.” It was Linnie’s turn to interrupt. Her tone was abrupt, edging toward annoyed. Its hard edge demanded that Nell listen. “Not Sunday either, okay? I’m not going to Brooklyn.”
Nell furrowed her eyebrows. If it was the neighborhood, she could understand Linnie’s trepidation. Nobody wanted to deal with a bunch of Puerto Rican boys catcalling from their stupid bicycles. Maybe, even with Nell walking her to the apartment, Linnie didn’t want to be anywhere near that part of New York. It was a rough neighborhood. Girls got harassed all the time. People got mugged. Sometimes, bodies would turn up in alleys and the police would block off entire streets. And then there was the Son of Sam . . . the one the cops had yet to catch. None of the shootings had been anywhere near Nell’s place, but people were still scared to go out.
“Okay,” Nell relented, and Linnie let out a breath, as though she’d been holding it for the length of their conversation. That was it, then. The neighborhood was the problem, not Nell’s invitation. “Just tell me where you live and we can do it at your place instead.”
Linnie’s angular features went taut. She shot Nell an incredulous look. “You’re really far out, you know that?” Nell opened her mouth to speak—Is that a compliment?—but Linnie didn’t give her the chance to respond. “It’s . . . creepy.”
Nell shook her head. But . . .
“Listen, I don’t want any cake, okay? I was being nice the other day because nobody else ever is to you. I felt bad. But you just can’t take a hint.”
“A hint,” Nell echoed.
“We just work together,” Linnie reminded her. “Just because I helped you get a coffee stain out of your shirt . . . What I’m trying to say is . . . I was just being nice, Nell. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t mean we’re friends.”
Nell stood motionless, her eyes fixed on the girl who was now unable to meet her gaze. Linnie splashed coffee into a plain white mug and turned away, darting out of the break room with a mumbled “I’m sorry.” Nell didn’t have time to protest or cry or throw Mr. Topsy-Turvy, coffee and all, in Linnie’s face. Left alone with burnt coffee and day-old doughnuts, Nell stared out the open break-room door. Beyond it, a sea of perfectly aligned desks. Typewriters. Telephones.
How may I direct your call?
Linnie Carter was a fake.
A backhanded contemptible Jezebel.
A real bitch.
A pair of girls walked into the break room. They paused in their conversation, taking note of Nell as she winced next to the Bunn-o-Matic auto drip. Nell’s eyes shifted to catch their judging glances. Their Janus-faced expressions. Their clown-painted eyes and mouths. She imagined them hanged by the silk scarves they had fashionably tied around their necks. Pictured their faces blue and lifeless as they swung beneath the fluorescent office lights.
Not so pretty when you’re dead.
“Um, hello?” One of the girls spoke, jolting Nell out of her momentary fugue. “Wanna get out of the way, please?” She nodded toward the coffeepot, waiting for Nell to step aside. Nell’s eyes darted from one girl to the other, and then, before either one of them could say something underhanded—loser, whale—Nell slammed her mug onto the floor. It shattered into a dozen ceramic pieces, Mr. Topsy-Turvy’s bean-shaped body wrecked by the impact. Coffee sloshed across her penniless loafers, spattering the closest girl’s stockings. The girls jumped, exhaling yelps of surprise.
Nell narrowed her eyes.
I don’t want any cake.
Bared her teeth at them.
It doesn’t mean we’re friends.
And marched past them with a hiss.
. . .
Kings Highway’s resident bicycle gang was parked just outside the train station. They were passing around a small cigarette, sucking in smoke and exhaling in slow, deliberate breaths. The moment they spotted Nell, they abandoned their lackadaisical post, shoved their dirty sneakers against the pedals of their bikes, and began to trail her down East 16th like a group of roving hyenas.
“Hey, bibliotecaria,” one called out. “Hey, I lost my library card . . .”
“I’ve got late fees, Blanca,” another chimed in. “I borrowed that Karma Sutra book to figure out what position I want to try on your dimpled ass first.”
Their jeers weren’t anything new. Nothing shocking or all that disturbing after dealing with them day after sweltering day. She’d spent months ducking her head between her shoulders and walking faster and faster, until she was marching just under a full run.
Shouldn’t complain, you need the exercise.
She never spoke to them, never made eye contact. Barrett had warned her about doing so: If you give them an inch, there’s no telling how far they’ll take it. For all she knew, they’d drag her into an alleyway and rape her just for standing up for herself. Maybe she’d be one of the bodies the cops found behind a Dumpster. They’d probably shut down the street—a sad white girl found in a crappy area. Tabloid news.
But today, after Linnie’s rejection, their catcalls woke something dormant and ugly deep within her guts.
The moment they had set eyes on her, the new girl on Kings Highway, they’d nicknamed her “the librarian,” because she was homely. Boring. A milquetoast girl taunted for the same reason her coworkers exiled her to eating lunches alone at the office. Because God forbid anyone should eat anywhere near her, which could increase caloric intake. It all boiled down to looks, to stereotypes, to who they thought she was—a big girl wearing a sweater in the dead of summer—rather than having the guts to find out for themselves.
“Oh shit, man,” the first boy jeered. “I think you pissed her off.”
“Damn, dude,” a third spoke up. “You better watch it. She’s gonna lay you out with her yardstick or something.”
“Like one of them Catholic school nuns,” another laughed. “La monja voladora! ”
“Yeah, she looks pretty Catholic to me,” the first egged on. “You a straitlaced chica Catolica? You wanna teach me a lesson, slap me around with a ruler?”
“That in the Karma Sutra?” the third boy asked. Despite his laughter, Nell could sense his genuine curiosity.
“Yeah,” the first one said. “It’s in the fat-girl section, filed under ‘Jesus Freak.’ Get on your knees and pray to my bicho, baby.”
Nell’s legs stopped working.
Her feet refused to take another step.
She glared down at a sidewalk that was black with grime, small tar-like circles of chewing gum pockmarking the concrete like freckles among the filth. She clamped her teeth together, felt her nostrils flare. Somewhere, in the not-so-far-off distance, she could hear Italian opera filtering into the street from someone’s open apartment window. All at once, the heat that Nell had become accustomed to beneath the bulk of her unseasonable sweater hit her head-on, threatening to burn her up from the inside out. Spontaneous combustion. Flash paper. Atom bomb.
She snapped her head to the side.
Shot a steely look at the group of boys on their childish bikes.
Let her upper lip curl away from her teeth.
“Oh damn, dude,” said one. “Here we go. Rabid like a fuckin’ dog!”
“Aw, don’t be mad, chica,” said another. “We like you, girl.”
“Yeah,” said the third, pumping his hips into the handlebars of his bike. “We really like you.” He let his tongue roll out of his mouth and flicked it at her. Obscene.
Nell’s stomach pitched.
A wallop of pain punched her between the eyes.
She turned away from them as if to run, and they laughed among themselves as soon as she looked in the opposite direction. But the celebration of their victory over pudgy Ms. Nobody was premature. Nell wasn’t turning away to flee. She regarded a patch of gravel between the sidewalk and the nearest building. The rocks were a mishmash of small pebbles and larger stones. Without so much as a second thought, she swept up a handful of the rocks and looked back toward her assailants. They weren’t paying attention anymore, distracted by a group of black kids on the opposite side of the street.
Nothing but two lanes of tarmac separated both gangs. Traffic was sparse. Nell could sense that, at any second, the bicycle gang would move to meet their enemies, where they would be out of her reach. The tallest of the black kids yelled something that she couldn’t understand, but his tone was clear: he didn’t like the bike gang either. They should get out of his neighborhood. Off his streets. Or he’d show them exactly why they should never show their faces on the corner of Kings Highway and East 16th again. There was no doubt in Nell’s mind that, had the bike gang not been there, the grouping of black guys would have harassed her just like the Puerto Ricans had. But that was the way things in Brooklyn worked. Everyone was at odds with one another. Nobody was safe from scrutiny. And yet, at that particular moment, Nell felt solidarity with the boys across the street. They were conveniently distracting. Just what she needed.
As the two groups puffed up their chests and hollered back and forth at one another, she picked out the largest rock from the palm of her hand. Reeled back. Let it fly as hard and fast as she could. It hit the leader of the bike gang square in the back of the head with a muffled thud. The guy’s hand flew up to the point of impact. He spun around, his eyes as wide as a wild dog’s. When he spotted Nell with the handful of rocks, he looked ready to fly into a rage. But then the black kids erupted into a fit of laughter. They slapped their legs and stomped their Dr. Js against the hot concrete.
She threw another.
It bounced off his shoulder with a smack.
“Bitch!” he roared, but she kept throwing, pelting him about the head and shoulders, stoning him in the middle of the intersection.
But his anger seemed to shift to low-level panic, punctuated by what must have been jabs of humiliation as the black kids howled. She could see the realization in his eyes—he’d never be able to live this down. He’d forever be the guy who got pelted with rocks by some penny loafer–wearing white chick. And his friends all looked to be suffering from a mild case of shock, either because Nell was fighting back, or because their dear leader was now shoving his feet onto his bike pedals and fleeing the scene.
Across the street, the black kids were dying of laughter. A couple of them were doubled over, clutching their stomachs. One cried out in what sounded like pain as he collapsed against the chain-link fence behind him. He wiped tears from his eyes, unable to catch his breath.
Nell’s tormentors dispersed. One after the other, they pedaled after their alpha, yelling Spanish slurs into the distance. Nell imagined them comforting their ego-wounded friend before leaving him to nurse his injuries. They’d talk behind his back as soon as he was out of earshot. Coward. Cobarde. Perhaps now Mr. Banana Seat would get a taste of his own medicine. Maybe now he’d get a chance to see how it felt to be the pariah. The social outcast. The laughingstock of the neighborhood. Hopefully the entire borough. The whey-faced baby of Brooklyn.
The remaining rocks rolled from Nell’s hand, bouncing onto the sidewalk next to her feet.
“Fuck, man!” One of the black kids shouted at her from across the street. But rather than cajoling her, he lifted his right arm and made a fist in the air in salute. “The revolution has come!” he yelled, then dissolved into another bout of cackles, flanked by his friends.
Nell slowly turned back in the direction she had been walking. The throb in her head was subsiding, but it left her light-headed. Her nerves continued to crackle with adrenaline. But rather than being overwhelmed by furious anxiety, she hummed with carnal self-satisfaction instead. Sure, the bike kid’s mortification would take a violent shift. She knew that as soon as his bruised ego healed enough to let him think straight, he’d thirst for justice. But this possibility didn’t bother her. If he did come back, she’d be ready for him. If he dared mess with her again, she’d let him pull her into an alley, maybe even tempt him to do it. She’d kick and scream and act helpless, if only to give him a few seconds of satisfaction. And then she’d whip out the knife or scissors or box cutter tucked away in the folds of her sweater and stab him straight through his stupid heart. Or maybe she’d just give him a pretty Glasgow smile to live with for the rest of his scarred, miserable life.
The idea of his blood flowing through her fingers felt salacious.
The thought ignited a dull throb between her legs.
But those wanton thoughts of bloodletting melted in the heat. By the time she reached the third floor of her apartment building, she was holding back her sobs. In her head, Mr. Banana Seat’s shock was replaced by Linnie’s look of disturbed surprise. His sneered insults meshed into Linnie’s disdain.
Take a hint.
We’re not friends.
Unlocking the door, Nell stumbled headlong into the apartment. She slammed the door behind her and dropped to the floor with her hands slapping the hardwood. Anger rushed out of her in a stifling wail.
Barrett stepped out of his room to investigate the noise, but he kept his distance. She could sense him hovering just over her shoulder, close enough to let her know that he was concerned, far away enough to give her space.
“You were right.” She choked on the words. “I was stupid to think . . . to think—” Cut off by a sharp intake of air, she curled her fingers against the floorboards, trying to sink her nails in, trying to find purchase to steady her dismay. She was desperate for release but didn’t want to scream. She needed liberation from her own smothering anguish, but she wasn’t going to beat her head against the wall. Met with the perfect solution to her hysteria, she got to her feet and scrambled to the kitchen. She shoved the set table aside in her wake.
Tearing open the refrigerator door, she pulled her perfect pink cloud of a cake off the top shelf. Her masterpiece, made from scratch. She placed it on the counter, and smashed it with two closed fists. Her breath came in gasps as she beat the confection into pink-and-white paste. She grabbed the cake plate, threw the entire mess onto the kitchen floor, stomped it beneath the heels of her shoes. The plate cracked beneath her soles. She skidded on the frosting, tumbled to the ground, left a long pink smear from where her leg had shot out from beneath her.
Stunned by her fall, she sat in a fulmination of whipped sugar and pastry. It was only then that she looked meekly at her brother. Barrett was staring, soundless, his gaze unwavering. After a long while he moved, approaching her with slow and deliberate steps. And once he was less than a few feet from his sister, he crouched down beside her, scooped up a handful of destroyed cake, and lifted a cake-smeared hand to his lips to taste its sweet destruction.
Nell blinked at him as he licked his fingers clean. A ghost of a smile sprouted across her face when he smacked his lips together to let her know that it was good, really good.
“Linnie didn’t deserve it anyway,” she murmured. And then she laughed. It belted out of her as unexpectedly as her rage had, as wholeheartedly as the black kids had whooped and hollered across a four-lane street.
She fell back onto the sugar-smeared floor and cackled at the water-stained ceiling.
And Barrett grinned, amused by her lunacy. He grinned wider than ever before.
. . .
The weekend seemed to both race and crawl. One minute, Nell could hardly focus on the book she was reading. The next, it seemed as though hours had rushed by without her noticing at all. She slept a lot, trying to forget the goings-on of the week before, attempting to erase the malignant grins of Mary Ann Thomas and her gaggle of henchgirls. She tried to forget Linnie Carter existed, nursing the migraine that would swell behind her eyes at the mere thought of Linnie’s lying, angular face.
Between bouts of hatred, she felt pity. She supposed that in their own way they were just as helpless against their shortcomings as she was. Could they help it if they had been born selfish and superior? Could anyone expect them to be kind and compassionate when, by nature, they were blind to the plight of a girl like her? Perhaps, Nell thought, she was as ignorant to their issues as they were to hers. Maybe their self-confidence, their too-loud laughter, and their compulsion to surround themselves with friends were all to cover up some deep-seated hurt Nell couldn’t begin to understand. Perhaps everyone was broken in their own way.
By Monday morning, Nell felt better. She wasn’t sure why, but it was as though a weight had been lifted. On the way to work, she decided that maybe friendship with her coworkers wasn’t in the cards, but there was only one way to truly know. Sandwiched between a businessman and a priest, Nell squared her shoulders against the subway seat and decided to apologize to Linnie for acting so odd. Creepy. Perhaps Linnie would accept Nell’s olive branch and apologize in turn for being so rude in her refusal. Or maybe they’d never speak again. Nell decided that it didn’t matter. She’d forget the whole thing, leave it up to Linnie to decide. If Linnie didn’t want to be friends after Nell said she was sorry, then Linnie was more of a bitch than she thought, and Nell certainly didn’t need friends like that.
She got off at 42nd Street, avoided Bryant Park the way Barrett had warned her to, and rode the elevator up to the third floor of Rambert & Bertram with a handful of other girls. A few of them murmured Monday-morning complaints about the week they knew was ahead.
Rambert and Bertram, please hold . . .
But rather than the familiar call-center scene—girls seated in their chairs, the sound of phones being answered, the clickety-clack of typewriter keys—every desk was empty. The typewriters were still. Even the phones were unmanned, ringing off the hook despite there being no one to answer their incessant scream.
Nell followed the girls out of the elevator, trailing behind them as her eyes swept the disarmingly empty floor. It looked like a strange sort of graveyard, each desk a headstone for the girl who had once worked behind it, each typewriter an unwritten epitaph. Her attention settled upon a swarm of brightly colored polyester. A cacophony of patterns and styles. Stripes and checks mingled with skirts and cigarette pants. The entirety of the staff was grouped in a giant huddle around the break-room entrance. Harriett Lamont was nowhere to be seen—probably not in yet, or maybe in her office, calling the big bosses to tell them about the chaos outside her door.
Nell approached the backs that were turned her way, but she didn’t dare get too close, imagining them all turning on her like a swarm of wasps. A couple of girls broke off from the group. They shook their heads, murmuring in low tones as they walked toward their desks. Their faces were drawn and pale despite their morning-fresh makeup. They held their arms coiled protectively across their chests, as though they’d just been told to pack up their things and go home for good.
Nell paused at the thought. Could it be possible? Had they all lost their jobs? Successful corporations went out of business on a regular basis. Greedy CEOs and Wall Street missteps could undo even the largest corporate Goliath. Gathering her sweater so that it hid her stomach, she looked back to the congregation of girls. She dared step a little closer to the group, but was almost immediately shoved out of the way by a fleeing coworker. As the girl blew by her, Nell heard her despite the breathlessness of her statement.
“Oh my God.”
Nell frowned, her curiosity piqued. She moved closer to the huddle, paused when a second girl broke away and made eye contact. “What happened?” Nell asked. “What’s going on?”
“More shootings,” said the girl. “The victims survived this time. They saw a dark-haired man running away from their car. But there was another murder. . . .” The girl faltered, momentarily unable to continue.
“What?” Nell pressed.
“It was Linnie Carter.” The girl looked into the distance, tears setting off the green of her eyes. “They found her in an alley a few buildings down from her apartment in Bayside.”
Nell gaped. Found her? What did it mean to find someone in an alley, and who had found her? She shook her head. It didn’t make sense.
The girl shot Nell a look of contempt, seemingly aggravated by her poor comprehension. “She’s dead.” Her delivery was harsh, impatient despite the obvious emotion pulling her expression tight. “Someone slashed her throat and stuffed her mouth full of dirt.”
The ground shifted beneath Nell’s feet. She took a step away from her coworker, shook her head again, this time in disbelief.
“Oh no . . .” The words tumbled across Nell’s lips.
“You two knew each other?” The girl dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, then raised a skeptical eyebrow at Nell’s reaction. Her tone was doubtful. Certainly, Nell couldn’t have had ties with the likes of Linnie.
“Yes.” Nell’s response was quick, unflappable, toeing the line of insult.
She knew. It had to be.
Nell shot the girl a look, uncomfortable with the obvious suspicion drawn across her coworker’s face. Why was she looking at her like that? Was Nell’s terror that obvious? Was it blinking above her head like a cheap neon sign?
I know who did it.
I know . . .
“We were friends.” Nell spit out the statement. Friends, because now that Linnie was gone she couldn’t protest. As far as anyone was concerned, Nell and Linnie were best friends. Hell, Linnie and Barrett had something going on. They were sweet on each other, and he would never have hurt her. Not in a million years.
She whipped up a story. Linnie had been due to visit Nell’s apartment just that weekend, but she hadn’t shown up and she hadn’t called. Nell had been worried sick, pacing the length of her room for two days, wondering what had happened to her closest confidante while her brother scoured New York City’s dirty streets. Thank God Nell had taken a photo of Linnie and Barrett together just before leaving for their most recent date. That, at least, had given Barrett something to flash at people after holding up his sad little cardboard sign. Have you seen this girl? And if the police asked about the photo? Stolen. Snatched right out of Barrett’s hand by a homeless bum.
“Well, sorry,” Nell’s coworker said, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, a stranger reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m really sorry,” she repeated, as though her first apology hadn’t been enough. She said nothing more, just pulled her hand back and walked away. Except that, this time, Nell wasn’t being abandoned because she was the one who was awkward. The girl simply didn’t know what else to say.
Elation overtook Nell’s initial distress for half a beat. That hand on her shoulder . . . it enthralled her, because it had finally happened. Someone had been touched by her misfortune. Someone had looked right at her and, rather than scowling, had been shot through with an arrow of compassion. Finally, she thought. I am human. But her delight was followed by a hiccup of her heart. A misfired beat. A punch of understanding.
Linnie was dead.
It was too much of a coincidence.
Nell had lost her mind. She’d wailed in the kitchen. She’d been wronged, and Barrett had seen it all. And what did he make of it? That Linnie Carter was just like their mother.
Linnie hadn’t wanted to eat cake, so Barrett made her eat dirt instead.
“Oh no,” she whispered, because what if the cops showed up at the apartment. “Oh no . . .” What if they took him away and she was left alone? What if Barrett was hauled off to prison and Nell was left to navigate Brooklyn by herself ? It was a death sentence. She’d never survive on her own. “Oh no! ” The words were more pronounced now, loud enough to garner the attention of a couple of passing girls. She sensed them looking. Lifted her hands to her face for dramatic effect. Peeked through her fingers to verify that they were indeed gazing upon her with a mixture of pity and concern. Mary Ann Thomas was peering at her from across the office, sizing her up. But this was Nell’s moment.
“Oh no! ” She wept the sentiment into her palms, full volume now. Because if everyone knew she and Linnie were friends, nobody would suspect that she had anything to do with Linnie’s demise. “Not Linnie,” Nell cried, not caring who heard her, not caring if the entire office ended up gaping. “Not my Linnie. Not my friend!”
. . .
Lamont refused to call it a day. Despite the tragedy, there was still work to be done. Phones had to be answered. Transcriptions had to be typed. They were all forced back into their chairs, not because Lamont was worried about how an empty office on a busy Monday would look, but because letting all the girls go would be bad for morale. Let them go, and it made Linnie Carter’s death real. Let them go, and suddenly every Rambert & Bertram employee was left to sit at home, wide-eyed while watching the news, wondering if they were next.
But Lamont’s insistence to carry on with the day didn’t make working easy. Nell sat at her desk, wooden, hardly able to get a thing done between her racing thoughts and coworkers occasionally pausing to murmur quiet sympathies about Linnie’s sudden passing. Nell had made a scene with her open weeping. One minute, she had been an outsider looking in. The next, she was the center of attention, as though she had been the one left for dead and humiliated in an alley littered with trash.
Poor, poor Linnie.
It was just after lunch that a shadow loomed over Nell’s left shoulder. Nell turned to glance behind her, and there was Mary Ann Thomas, with her eyes narrowed into accusatory slits. Nell stared at her for a beat, then offered the blonde an unsure, wavering greeting.
“H-hey, Mary Ann.” Nell produced a pathetic smile, one that read: I’m sad about Linnie, but still happy to see you. One that made her look like a “trouper,” plodding through the day despite her broken heart.
But Mary Ann wasn’t having any of it. Her glare only intensified.
“Is . . .” Nell stammered. “Is everything okay?”
That was when Mary Ann took a couple of steps forward. Her pretty pink manicure gripped the back of Nell’s office chair as she leaned forward, as if to rest her chin on Nell’s shoulder before cooing in her ear. But there were no sweet nothings here. Mary Ann hissed instead: “I don’t know what you’re up to, Sweaty, but you aren’t fooling anyone.”
“What?” Nell stared at Rambert & Bertram’s It Girl. Blinked a few times for good measure. Tried not to narrow her own eyes in response to Mary Ann’s hideous insult, let alone at what Mary Ann was implying.
“You weren’t friends with Linnie,” Mary Ann said flatly. “Everybody knows that. You aren’t friends with anyone, so if you think you can just—”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Nell cut her off midsentence. Mary Ann’s expression became even more incredulous, but Nell didn’t let Mary Ann voice her continued suspicion. “Not like you would know. You’re so concerned with yourself, it’s a wonder you know anything about anyone.” Mary Ann’s eyes went wide. How dare a troll speak to a princess in such a way? But Nell didn’t dare take it back. Stick to your guns, she thought. If you drop it now, you’ll look guiltier than ever. Not only will you be the laughingstock of the entire office, but maybe Mary Ann will call the cops and tell them you lied this morning. Then they’ll come to question you, because what kind of girl does something like that?
Nell shifted in her seat and turned back to her typewriter, her eyes fixed on the mug of pencils at the corner of her desk. The yellow smiley face grinned at her.
Have a nice day!
“Have a nice day,” she murmured to the bitch just beyond her shoulder. A moment later, she heard Mary Ann Thomas stomp toward the break room without so much as another word.
Except that Mary Ann’s departure didn’t do much to ease the anxiety that was blooming like a dahlia within the cavity of Nell’s chest. She didn’t have to wonder whether Barrett had really done it. She hadn’t ever been so sure of anything in all her life. And she didn’t wonder why either. That was just as obvious to her as Barrett’s guilt. But she did wonder when.
Had it been Friday night, when he had left her alone to sulk in the apartment? Had it been Saturday, when she had slept her throbbing headache—and the day—away? Or maybe it had been Sunday, when she had spent what felt like minutes but turned out to be hours sitting in Barrett’s wingback chair, thumbing through an old paperback without reading a single word. And if it had been Friday or Saturday, how had he kept such a thing a secret? Why wouldn’t he have told her? Why would he have left her to learn about Linnie’s death like this, in the cold fluorescent burn of an office building?
He was punishing her. Always punishing her. No matter what she did, it was wrong. He was forever upset and on edge, ready to tell her that she was stupid for wanting the things she wanted, for being the way she was. But Barrett? He could do no wrong. Oh no, not her perfect brother with his late-night outings and his goddamn manifestos, his demands, all those damn demands. And yeah, maybe he did say that he would never leave Nell behind, but he still used that fear against her. He knew she was afraid of losing him, which is why she ended up bending to his will no matter what he asked. Friends? Forget them. Guests? Not on your life. Linnie Carter? Dead. Dead. Fucking dead.
“Nell?” Her name cut across the noise of the office. She just about jumped out of her seat when she heard it ebb over the ringing of her phone. Nell shot a look toward the door adorned with Harriet Lamont’s name in gold foil. The boss had seen everything—Nell gasping at the tragedy, wailing about her fallen comrade in the middle of the office. Nell had met Lamont’s gaze only for a second, but that second of eye contact had been enough. Something about the boss witnessing her breakdown pushed Nell to ramble over to her desk, to sit down and try to collect her nerves and thoughts. But it was easy to discard Lamont’s judging glance amid the heartfelt condolences that drifted across her desk. Nell spent the day solemnly nodding her head and thanking girls she’d never spoken to for their kind words.
Thank you. Yes, it’s hard, but I think I’ll make it through.
Leave it to Mary Ann—that bitch—to ruin a perfect day.
But she couldn’t ruin it completely. No, Nell wouldn’t allow it. The attention was strange, oddly and wonderfully strange. It was feigning grief that was familiar. It reminded her of her mother. Of the way she had cried at their father’s funeral, her sadness not once touching her eyes.
Nell and Barrett had stood shoulder to shoulder beside Faye Sullivan while their father’s flower-topped casket inched into the ground. Faye wept so hard into her hands that it had scared Nell. She pictured her mom disintegrating beneath waves of grief. Disappearing right where she stood. Melting away like the Wicked Witch of the West. But a simple squeeze of the hand from Nell’s newly mute brother assured her that it was an act. She was faking it. And what made that memory all the more vivid were the people who failed to console the weeping woman beside them.
Nell had craned her neck around to look at the black-clad mourners behind them. Faye Sullivan didn’t have family. The congregation of sniffling, stern-faced mourners were all Leigh Sullivan’s relatives. For one reason or another, they didn’t want anything to do with the widow Sullivan and her overly dramatic grief.
After the funeral, momentarily separated from Barrett and her mom while clutching Beary to her chest, Nell’s grandmother pulled her aside. “Don’t worry, baby,” she had said, her heavily ringed fingers stroking one of Beary’s ears. “I’ll take you away from here. Everything is gonna be all right.” But Nell twisted her arm out of her grandmother’s too-tight grasp. What did she mean she’d take her away? What about Barrett? Nell turned and ran, and for a few brief, terrifying minutes she couldn’t find her brother anywhere. It was as though the crowd had swallowed him, as though their grandmother had stolen him away the way she had wanted to take Nell. Standing amid the headstones, she began to yell Barrett’s name while distant family watched on. They pressed their hands to their mouths, their eyes radiating sadness that Nell tried to ignore. She was sad enough about her dad as it was. She didn’t need teary-eyed adults telling her it would all be okay when, even at four years old, she knew it wouldn’t be.
She found Barrett sitting alone in the shade of an elm tree, and that’s where they stayed, her and Barrett and Beary. Mourners looked on with expressions of sorrow and pity until their mother yelled for them to get in the car.
From what their mother had explained, their dad had hit his head the day of Barrett’s backyard accident. He had gotten so upset about what had happened that, even though Barrett had been okay, he had hurt himself over it.
He felt guilty, Faye had explained. You understand? He felt guilty for what happened to your brother, and sometimes when adults feel guilty, they do terrible, horrible things.
Maybe it had been Barrett losing his ability to speak that had done it. Maybe that was what had pushed their father over the edge.
“Nell.” Lamont again. It seemed impossible that Nell should have been able to hear her over the clatter of phones, but her supervisor’s voice carried remarkably well through the clamor.
Doom settled in the pit of her stomach. The same kind Nell had felt when she had called out for Barrett at the funeral, but he had been nowhere to be found.
Maybe Lamont had changed her mind about Nell being late last Wednesday.
Maybe, despite what had happened to Linnie, Mr. Rambert and Mr. Bertram had announced it was time for a cutback, and Nell was at the top of the list. She was one of the disposable girls.
Nell sat unmoving for a good few seconds. She held her breath, afraid to draw attention to herself. It was the complete opposite of what she’d wanted only an hour before. It was a few minutes until five now. If she sat there long enough, she could bolt for the elevator just after quitting time. Certainly, Harriet Lamont wouldn’t expect Nell to stay after hours for a meeting. That would have been overtime, and overtime didn’t happen at R & B.
She nearly gasped when Lamont poked her head out her door and gave Nell a pointed stare. Across a vast ocean of desks and girls, Harriet Lamont’s expression was stern and unrelenting. Mary Ann Thomas swiveled in her chair, as if to witness the panic that was surely twisting up Nell’s face. By the time Nell slipped into the boss’s office, she was queasy with nerves. Barrett was going to be so angry, so pissed if she lost her job.
Harriet Lamont was seated behind her desk, lighting a cigarette with that ostentatious crystal lighter. Nell gave her boss a wary smile and crossed the office to one of the wooden-armed chairs. She slid into it, immediately uncomfortable, unable to tell whether it was the chair or the sudden tightness of her own skin.
“Nell . . .” Lamont peered at her, as if searching for the answer to a question she had yet to ask. She paused, took a drag off her cigarette, and frowned before leaning back in her executive chair. It squeaked on its castors.
Unable to stand the silence any longer, Nell blinked at her supervisor, nodded. “Yes?” She wanted out of that office, and if speaking expedited her exit, then fine. The way Lamont was looking at her made her anxious, as though she was privy to some bit of knowledge everyone else had missed.
Like maybe she knew about Barrett.
Like maybe she knew what he’d done.
Like maybe that nosy bitch Mary Ann had ratted her out, not only ruining Nell’s day, but her entire life.
“Nell, honestly, I’m a little disturbed.”
Nell’s stomach clenched.
“Well, the whole situation with Ms. Carter . . .”
“Linnie.” The name tumbled off Nell’s tongue before she could hold it back.
“Yes,” Lamont said, giving her a pointed look. “Linnie.”
Nell frowned down at her hands. She wasn’t sure whether to pull the same act on Lamont that she’d managed to get away with on most of the girls, or whether it was wiser to wait the whole thing out. When Lamont failed to speak, Nell squeezed her eyes shut and murmured beneath her breath.
“It’s terrible. Just, really horribly, terribly awful, don’t you think?” She opened her eyes, flicked her glance upward, then looked away almost immediately. “I hope they catch him,” she whispered.
“Catch whom?” Lamont asked.
Nell’s heart caught in her throat.
Why would you have said that?
Because she was stupid, that’s why. A stupid pig, like Porky.
Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!
“I don’t know.” Nell shook her head, scrambling for words. “I don’t know who did it.”
Of course not.
“I have no idea.”
Why would I?
“I just . . . who would do such a thing, Ms. Lamont?”
Nobody I know.
“Who would hurt someone as sweet as Linnie?”
Lamont said nothing, her eyes not once leaving Nell’s face. Her unwavering look made Nell nervous. It was dubious, unsure—made her feel like the dirty liar she was.
Another beat of silence passed.
Maybe she would call the cops. Maybe that’s why she’d called Nell into her office—to interrogate her. Harriet Lamont was a go-getter. She wouldn’t leave ruining Nell’s life to a cheap girl like Mary Ann Thomas. No way. If anyone was going to end up on the news for having helped apprehend Linnie Carter’s killer, it was Lamont.
The boss exhaled a stream of smoke. She leaned forward, her forearms sliding across the top of her lacquered desk. “The world is a crazy place, Nell. I gather you do recall being in here last week, yes?”
Nell swallowed the wad of nerves that had gathered at the back of her throat. She managed an unsure nod. Sure, she remembered, but what did her last visit have to do with anything? “I haven’t been late,” she said. “Not since that morning. I’ve been diligent, Ms. Lamont. I’ve been catching an earlier train just to make sure, to not leave anything to chance. You’ve got to believe me, I—”
“I believe you.” Lamont held up a hand, as if hoping the simple gesture of showing Nell her palm would calm her twitchy employee down. “This isn’t about being late. This is about what we discussed when you were sitting across from me the same way you are now.”
Nell pinched her eyebrows together. What had they discussed? Beyond being reprimanded for her tardiness and Lamont telling her to change her life, Nell hardly remembered a word of what had been said. Lately, the headaches had made it hard to remember much.
“You don’t recall, then, that I asked you whether you had many friends?” Lamont asked.
The arteries of Nell’s heart tightened—a vise squeezing it from the inside out.
“I asked you whether you have many friends, and you admitted to me that you don’t, isn’t that right?”
Nell glared at her hands. She wouldn’t answer. Lamont would have to pry her mouth open to get her to respond.
“Nell, a few of your coworkers find the claim that you and Linnie Carter were close a little odd.”
Nell peered at the crystal lighter at the corner of Lamont’s desk. If she lunged for it, Lamont wouldn’t have time to react. If she smashed it against her supervisor’s head, she’d embed a corner of that lighter into the soft tissue of Lamont’s brain. Lamont would slump back in her fancy office chair. Blood would stream down her face and onto her expensive blouse. If Nell turned Lamont’s chair away from the office door, the entire secretarial pool would evacuate the building without being the wiser. Or maybe she’d tell Mary Ann that the boss wanted to see her. That hussy would discover the crime and be scarred for life. Quite possibly, she’d never be able to sleep again. End up in an asylum. Tear that pretty blond hair out one strand at a time while rocking back and forth, back and forth, Harriet Lamont’s dead, glazed-over eyes forever etched into her memory.
Nell snapped out of her daze, looked up at Lamont’s pensive expression.
“You told me yourself that you weren’t close with anyone here, and yet here we are. Frankly, I find it disturbing that you’d use her misfortune to your advantage.”
No. She refused to acknowledge what Lamont was suggesting.
No, she wouldn’t speak.
Not in a million years.
“Look . . .” Lamont exhaled a breath. Though, with Nell’s eyes fixed on the knees of her slacks, she couldn’t tell if her boss was sighing in dissatisfaction or exhaling another stream of smoke. “The last time you were in here, I said that I can tell you’re different from the rest of the girls. You at least remember that, don’t you?”
Nell nodded, not lifting her eyes.
“I told you that I could appreciate that. Now, why do you think that is?”
“I don’t know,” Nell whispered, though what she meant to say was I don’t care. She didn’t need to explain herself. Harriet Lamont may have been her supervisor, but that didn’t mean she had the right to butt into Nell’s personal affairs. And Linnie was very much a personal affair.
“You didn’t bother to consider it?” Lamont asked. “That perhaps my appreciation for your differences is due in part to my being one of the different ones as well?”
Nell peered at Lamont through strands of mousy brown hair.
“You don’t get to where I am by being like everyone else, Nell, especially not if you’re a woman. I know it’s tough for you, but what you’ve done today isn’t right.”
“I didn’t do anything.” It slid out of her throat, slippery, unable to be contained. “Mary Ann Thomas hates me, Ms. Lamont. I don’t know what she told you, but . . .” Catching her bottom lip between her teeth, Nell looked down again. Shut up, she thought. The more you talk the worse you’ll make it. She knew using Linnie’s death was wrong, knew that turning a tragedy into a grab for attention was low. But it had simply happened; it had felt natural, as though Linnie’s death had been orchestrated just for her. One second, she was standing on the outside of the group trying to hear the news, and the next she was weeping into her hands and professing her sorrow for a girl she hardly knew.
But what harm did it do? It was a little white lie. It seemed fair. Linnie Carter had hurt her—the least the unappreciative slut could do was pay her back with a bit of acclaim. So what if Linnie was dead? Nell was still alive.
And just who was Harriet Lamont to tell Nell what she could or couldn’t do? As long as Nell did her work, Lamont didn’t have a right to meddle in her affairs. Not like this, not when it came to her social life, not when it was Lamont herself who had given her the advice to make a change. Nell’s gaze darted up to Lamont’s face. Suddenly, Harriet Lamont’s rouged cheeks and red lips looked cheap. Racy. Nell guessed that she was well into her early forties, but she looked like a two-bit tramp.
You’re no different, she thought to herself. You’re just like all the rest of them. If you were different once, you’re just a sheep now.
“So, are you going to fire me?” The directness of Nell’s inquiry seemed to throw Lamont for a curve. The boss fussed with her cigarette, tapped ashes into an ashtray that Nell didn’t doubt was real crystal. Not like the dime-store ashtrays that dotted each desk beyond the boss’s office door.
“What . . . fire you? No, I just . . .”
“I don’t think I hurt anybody, did I?” she asked, emboldened by her own sense of entitlement. Linnie Carter had humiliated her, and why? Because Nell had spent her precious time and money on baking supplies and a white tablecloth and a little creamer pitcher with a toadstool on it. She’d done those things for Linnie, not for Barrett, not even for herself, really. And Linnie had thrown it back in her face. And why had Nell even tried? Because Lamont had advised her to change her life if she didn’t like it. Nell had taken that advice to heart—she’d done something different, and now Lamont wanted to scold her for it? When she had been the one to suggest it in the first place?
No. This wasn’t right.
Nell wouldn’t allow it. She wouldn’t be taken for a fool.
“Well, I suppose not, but—”
“Mary Ann hates me.” Nell cut Lamont off midsentence. “I try to fit in, but it’s hard, and Mary Ann doesn’t make it any easier. You know how it can be. You were different just like I am, right? If anyone finds out about the thing with Linnie . . .” Mary Ann may have told everyone already, but Nell didn’t care. Her coworkers could speculate all they wanted, but unless Nell confessed to lying, they’d never know for sure. “I need this job, Ms. Lamont. I really do. I can’t pay my rent without it, and—”
“All right,” Lamont said.
“—it’s just a shabby old place, but it’s four walls and a bed, and I really don’t know where I’d go if I couldn’t afford it.”
“All right.” Lamont raised a hand for a second time. “Enough, Nell. I’m not going to fire you.”
“And you won’t tell? Please, Ms. Lamont, don’t tell the girls. If they find out I made it up, I’ll never live it down. You know how they can be. It won’t happen again. Honest, it won’t. I won’t ever mention Linnie’s name again, if that’s what you want. I won’t ever even look at Mary Ann Thomas if—”
“Okay, you can go,” Lamont said, waving Nell off, having had her fill for one afternoon. Nell gathered herself up out of the chair, but of course, Lamont couldn’t allow her to go without a final thought. “Nell, if any of the girls do give you trouble, you can come tell me. You know that, right?”
Nell frowned at that. If the girls did give her trouble—at least, beyond the trouble they usually gave—what would she tell Lamont for? So her boss could give her another dose of shiny, sure-to-backfire advice? Nell responded with an unsure smile. “Thanks, Ms. Lamont, but I’ll be okay.” And then stepped out of the boss’s office.
She scrutinized each desk, wondering which of the girls Mary Ann had told. Her eyes darted from coworker to coworker, faster now, frantic to pick out any girl who may have known her secret. It was only then that she noticed the difference: the girls weren’t looking at her anymore. As a matter of fact, they were avoiding looking in her direction altogether. They were all pretending to be working or busying themselves with gathering up their things. Oh sure, it looked like they were all getting ready to clock out, but she knew the truth. They were ignoring her on purpose. Nell had stepped out of an office full of sympathetic girls and stepped back into one where those girls didn’t know the meaning of compassion. Even eye contact was deemed too awkward.
Nell Sullivan was invisible again.
She marched back to her desk, kept her head down as she walked. Sliding into her chair, she focused on the transcription she’d been working on before Lamont had interrupted her. It had been due over an hour ago, but Nell had been too distracted to get it typed out in time. She had to finish it before she left for the day—couldn’t leave anything to chance, any reason for Lamont to change her mind and tell her to get lost for good. But the throb behind her eyes was rearing its ugly head again. Squeezing her eyes shut, she began to poke at the keys of her Selectric, hysteria bubbling deep inside her gut.
I do exist, she thought. It’s Linnie who’s dead, not me.
Maybe the girls were pretending Nell was a ghost because they knew . . . knew about Barrett, about what he’d done.
No. Impossible. How could they know?
Nobody knew because nobody could prove that Nell and Linnie hadn’t been friends. Mary Ann Thomas could tell the entire office that Nell was lying, but how could she confirm that claim? Save for the fact that Nell and Linnie hadn’t ever talked at the office—and so what?—Mary Ann had nothing to back herself up. Nell and Linnie didn’t talk because they had that kind of friendship. They could communicate without talking, could read each other’s minds like a pair of twins. They spent hours upon hours on the phone after work, so they kept to themselves while they were at work. Besides, Linnie’s other friends wouldn’t have understood.
Nell’s heart twitched.
Her other friends.
What if Linnie had told one of the girls about how weird Nell had been last Friday?
Maybe she had said something about the cake, about the invitation to Nell’s apartment.
Her breath hitched in her throat.
Her fingers stopped dead on the keys of her IBM.
She looked at the paper that she was working on, struck by five words that appeared on a line all their own.
NELL SULLIVAN IS A LIAR.
She hadn’t typed that . . . had she?
NELL SULLIVAN IS A LIAR.
No. It hadn’t been her. It couldn’t have been.
Someone had been messing around her desk while she had been in Lamont’s office. Probably Mary Ann or one of her lackeys.
That was it. It had to be.
Unable to stand it, she grabbed her purse and adjusted her sweater. If Lamont wanted to fire her for leaving without finishing her work first, then so be it. Nell couldn’t bear to spend another second in that building. Not without strangling every single girl around her. Because someone had typed out that sentence on Nell’s typewriter. Someone knew that she had lied. Someone knew what Barrett had done.
She reeled around to look at Savannah Wheeler. For a second, she wanted to reach out and catch Mary Ann Thomas’s pretty henchfriend by her throat.
This is how Linnie felt during the last minutes of her life.
But all she did was blink.
“Hey, I know you’re leaving . . . I just wanted to apologize.” Savannah looked unsure of herself. She glanced over her shoulder, as if to check to see if anyone was watching their exchange, then looked back to Nell and forced a smile. “For Wednesday, you know?”
Oh yes, Nell knew.
For Adriana ratting her out.
For Mary Ann being a snitch.
For Savannah just standing there, watching her friends torment Nell without doing a damn thing about it.
“I’ve felt bad about it ever since, but now, after what happened this morning . . .” Her words trailed off, allowing Nell to fill in the rest of the sentence herself. After we found out about Linnie . . .
“Thanks,” Nell said dryly. She sidestepped her desk, avoided eye contact. Despite Savannah’s sudden change of heart, Nell was afraid to look at her, afraid that if she did she’d only see Savannah’s pretty face bloom into a nefarious grin.
Because it’s a trick. Because she doesn’t really mean it.
“Listen, I . . . we’re going to the Cabana Club for happy hour, if you want to join us.”
Nell stopped short, sure that her ears were playing tricks on her.
“It’s not a big deal . . . just drinks, you know? We thought that maybe you’d like to unwind a little. Today has been, well . . .” She paused, trying to find the right word.
Nell ogled Savannah’s platform shoes, unable to look away. They were pale gray leather, open-toed, with a wooden sole at least an inch thick—shoes only a harlot would wear. At least that’s what Barrett would have said, scribbling it on his yellow pad. The clothes fit the girl. No proper girl wore platform shoes or short skirts or dyed her hair and smeared garish red lipstick across her mouth.
And what about Mary Ann? She’d never hang out with the likes of Nell, not after their exchange.
It’s a trick. A dirty, rotten trick.
“Don’t worry . . .” Savannah offered Nell a faint smile of reassurance. “Mary Ann isn’t going to be there tonight. Besides, would it matter if she was?”
Of course it mattered. Was Savannah that dense? And what if Mary Ann really was going to be there? What if Savannah was inviting her out because Mary Ann told her to, and as soon as Nell got to the Cabana Club they’d humiliate her, like in that Carrie book by Stephen King?
“I have to go home.” Nell shouldered her way around her coworker before Savannah could argue, rushing toward the elevator doors.
“Well, if you change your mind . . . !” Savannah called out after her. Her insistence nearly pushed Nell to take the stairs instead.
Nell choked when a couple of Linnie’s cohorts followed her into the elevator. She clamped her teeth together and squeezed her eyes shut, held her breath as the elevator began to make its descent.
“I just think it’s really weird,” the first girl said.
“Yeah,” said the second. “Weird that Linnie hadn’t mentioned it . . .”
“Hadn’t brought up that Nell girl . . .” said a third.
“Not even once either. Not a single time.”
She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. Wanted to scream. To pound her fists against the metal walls of that metal box. Because you would have judged her, she wanted to spit. Because you’re all the same. A girl can’t be herself, can’t tell the truth, can’t be anything but fake, fake, fake!
“You’re all fake.” Nell breathed the words out just as the elevator hit the ground floor and the doors yawned open.
Linnie’s friends slowly turned to give Nell a pointed stare.
“Excuse me?” said one.
“Nothing,” Nell murmured, then shoved her way out of the elevator.
Spilling out onto the crowded street, she almost ran to the train station. And yet, the longer she waited on the platform, the more Savannah’s invitation scratched at the back of her brain. Maybe Savannah had been making a genuine effort. It was true that she wasn’t the first girl Nell thought of when she considered potential friends, but she’d wanted to be part of Mary Ann Thomas’s group, hadn’t she? Not anymore I don’t. Nell had been daydreaming about hanging out with those pretty girls for as long as she had worked at Rambert & Bertram. Except she’d screwed that opportunity up for herself, what with how she had spoken to Mary Ann earlier in the day. And then she’d gone and shot down Savannah’s invitation as though she had all the friends in the world.
You’re just upset because Nell Sullivan is a liar.
Yes, that was true. Nell’s friendship with Linnie was all made up.
But maybe if she tried again. Just once more, with Savannah. Maybe then everything would change. And Mary Ann? Well, if Mary Ann got in the way, Nell would tell her exactly where she could go.
. . .
“How could you?”
Barrett was in his usual spot, his legs thrown across one of the arms of his old wingback chair. He folded his book across his chest and eyed his sister from across their small living room—a room that, in its disrepair, seemed to lean a touch to the left. Nell dropped her purse onto a chair as she passed through the kitchen, only to pause and give her sibling a good, long look.
“I know it was you, Barrett,” she said. “The dirt in her mouth?” She snorted, turned away from him, not wanting to see the smirk she knew would eventually settle across his lips. “Nice touch,” she murmured. “You may as well have shoved a cupcake down her throat with my name on it.” That was overdramatic. She knew there was no way anyone could have put together the fact that Nell had anything to do with Linnie’s death. After all, she didn’t, did she? Nell wasn’t her brother’s keeper. “And what if the police had come? What if they had asked me questions?”
Then you would have lied, Barrett scribbled.
That word made Nell tense. NELL SULLIVAN IS A LIAR. It was bad enough that someone had typed it onto her transcript, ruining her work, insulting her in the process. But now Barrett was going to join in?
“Because that’s all I’m good at?” she demanded.
Barrett looked unconcerned by his sister’s increasing agitation. Well, he wrote, you ARE good at it.
“Oh, fuck you, Barrett!” she yelled. But rather than shocking him with her outburst, Barrett laughed instead. Nell jerked at the sleeves of her sweater, yanked it off, and threw it to the floor. The shirt she’d worn beneath it throughout the day was soaked at the armpits. She could feel a distinct line of moisture along the length of her spine. “Anyway.” She turned her back to him, trying to play it cool. “I suppose you did me a favor, if you think about it.” Glancing over her shoulder, she took in his new expression—a look of sour dissatisfaction. “That’s right,” she said. “Because when I got to the office this morning, all the girls already knew about Linnie. She was front page news. They’re blaming the Son of Sam.”
Barrett’s perturbed look shifted into amusement. He liked that. Perhaps he had known the police were going to point the finger at Mr. Monster rather than look for another killer all along. Because really, what were the odds?
See? he wrote. No big deal.
“No big deal?” Nell narrowed her eyes at him. “As soon as I heard about Linnie, I lost it.”
Barrett arched an eyebrow at her in inquiry. Lost it?
“You could have told me beforehand, don’t you think? You could have at least warned me to prepare myself. But you let me learn about it for myself ! I kept picturing the police taking you away, and then who would I have left?” She was nearly yelling now. “Did you ever think of that? Did you ever stop to consider what would happen to me if you end up spending the rest of your life in prison?”
Barrett looked down, as if mulling that over. No, of course he hadn’t considered it. But now that Nell had brought it to his attention, he looked shameful. Guilty. Nell frowned at the way his shoulders deflated. He looked undignified, and it made her feel like a wretch for disgracing him. All he’d been doing was defending her honor.
Barrett held up his notepad once more. Keep your voice down. The walls were thin. How ironic would it have been if Nell’s freak-out was what brought the cops calling?
She sighed, took a seat at the kitchen table. “You had to kill her?” she asked, her tone low.
Research, he wrote. Wanted to see how it felt.
“For your book?” she asked.
“I’m not angry, Barrett,” she told him, suddenly tired from all the arguing. “You did it for me. You did it because she had been improper, unappreciative. That type of behavior has its consequences, right? Sometimes, if you’re rude to the wrong person, you get a taste of your own medicine.”
Barrett raised his eyes to meet his sister’s. She gave him a small smile, assuring him that she really wasn’t mad. “Besides, what started out as a bad day turned into a good one. When I made that scene at the office, the girls turned to see what was wrong. I couldn’t have very well said that I was afraid my brother was going to get himself arrested. I couldn’t have said that. So, I said that Linnie and I were friends. It just tumbled out of me, and the strangest thing happened.” Nell smiled at the memory. “You should have seen them. They were like flies on a corpse. As soon as I said we were close, everyone wanted to say how sorry they were about her death, as though I was the one that deserved their condolences. I guess I pulled off looking pretty sad about the whole thing. Her friends were mumbling about how she had never talked about me, but what do they know anyway? They can’t prove anything. Maybe I should have been an actress.”
Barrett was frowning again. He wasn’t happy with Nell’s confession.
“I only said the thing about me and her being friends to protect you, you know. And isn’t that what you were doing when you did what you did? Didn’t you go through with the whole thing to protect me?”
You should have kept your mouth shut, he wrote, then looked away from her, not sold on her reasoning.
“Well, I don’t see what you have to be upset about,” she said. “I’m the one that turned down an invitation to the Cabana Club.”
It was then that Barrett’s eyes blazed.
He shot up from his chair, his notepad tumbling to the floor.
She could see it in his expression, the memory of their mother dancing across the deep brown of his eyes. Their sloppy drunk mother who locked them in the closet while she pulled strange men into their dead father’s bed. He wore a mask of disdain, and that’s when his true intentions became clear.
Yes, Barrett had killed Linnie Carter, because Linnie Carter had made Nell cry.
Yes, he’d killed her because she was an unappreciative bitch who couldn’t bother with politeness.
Yes, he had wanted to see how it felt. For his book. For his art.
But mostly, Barrett had killed her because Linnie’s disregard for Nell’s feelings had reminded him of their mother’s disregard for her own children.
He had killed her because, at her core, Linnie Carter was a carbon copy of Faye Sullivan. And Faye Sullivan was out there somewhere, alive.
“It had nothing to do with research, did it?” Nell asked. “You did it because of Mom.”
Barrett reeled around, his stare hard, wild with a rage Nell hadn’t seen before. That’s when the realization hit her. Nell was afraid of losing Barrett, either to a girl or the police, and Barrett was afraid of losing her too. He was afraid of Nell hanging around the girls she worked with because they were just like their matriarch. Ugly and sinful and hateful right down to their bones. But if he wiped them out, Nell didn’t stand a chance of being their friend. If he killed the ones who got too friendly, they wouldn’t ruin his sister, and Nell couldn’t make any friends.
“You can’t do that, Barrett,” she said, her newfound understanding igniting a flame of resentment deep in her chest—small, but still there. “You can’t just go around killing people who remind you of her, no matter how much you want her gone.”
Barrett refused to look at her, his lack of eye contact assuring her that he’d do whatever he damn well pleased. Because of course he would. It didn’t matter that his actions affected his sister. That was the whole point, after all. How was she supposed to change her life if Barrett cut down her opportunities?
“You’re selfish.” Her tone was hard-edged. Most of the time, all she wanted was to please him, but he’d crossed a line. After all she sacrificed for him—letting him live out his dreams of being a writer. Her working full-time, while he sat around reading his books. Having to ride the dirty subway. Enduring the snide comments and judgmental looks. Dealing with that stupid bicycle gang. The least he could do was try to let her find some company beyond their shitty little apartment.
“What about me?” she demanded. “What about what I want? What about who I look like?” There was a resemblance. Nell had inherited their mother’s mousy brown hair. If she dropped a few pounds, the thinness of her face would reflect Faye Sullivan’s sharp cheekbones and weak chin. “Will you kill me too?”
He squared his shoulders at the sound of his name, but rather than glaring at her, he peered down at his feet. Despite his twenty-four years, at that moment he looked like a little boy. That familiar pang of guilt crawled back into Nell’s guts. She was making him feel bad again, but she couldn’t just shrug and forget what he’d done. There would be other girls in Nell’s life now. She hadn’t thought it possible at the beginning of the day, but after Savannah’s invitation, she was quite sure of it. Soon, Nell would have another chance, which meant there would be other girls. If she didn’t put a stop to Barrett’s compulsion now, she wouldn’t stand a chance of doing it later.
“Barrett, you have to promise me,” she said. “If you get caught, I’ll have no one.” She knew it was strange—insane, really—that she was more concerned about the police apprehending Barrett than him killing people. But maybe that was the whole problem. Maybe she was crazy, spending her days imagining doing terrible things to the girls who wronged her, who made her feel less than human. At least Barrett had the courage to do what Nell could only fantasize about. At least he had the strength to take action rather than spend his life as little more than a shadow. But that kind of courage was dangerous. He feared that she would become someone other than herself, and she worried that his valor would erase him from her life completely.
“If you do something bad and the police find out, if they take you away, what will I do?” she asked, her anger diluted by the worry that gnawed at every nerve.
Barrett took a seat on the edge of his wingback chair, Robert Louis Stevenson lying between his feet, his small notepad overturned upon the floor.
“Have you stopped to think that maybe they’ll come after me too? And even if they don’t, I can’t live alone. You know I can’t. What choice will I have but to try to find Mother? What choice will I have, Barrett, other than to go live with her again?”
A muted moan escaped his lips. It was a cross between agony and anger, as though the mere thought of Nell living with that woman was tearing him up inside. Severing ventricles and veins. Twisting organs like tightropes.
Nell abandoned her kitchen chair. A thin film of pink frosting still clung to the floorboard seams. She padded barefoot across the small expanse of their two-bit apartment. The boards, rough and crooked, impossible to clean completely, creaked beneath her feet. She sank to her knees at the foot of Barrett’s chair and laid her head next to his knee. “You see how bad it could become?” she whispered. “If I’m left alone, I may as well die.” She smiled to herself, feeling his fingers drift across the top of her head like a breeze. “And acting out of anger, out of jealousy . . .” He tensed at the word. “I know you’re jealous, Barrett. Don’t deny it.” He removed his hand from her head. “You’re worried,” Nell continued. “Worried that I’ll find someone else.”
Barrett rocketed from the chair, pushing her away.
No, he wasn’t jealous. Jealousy would have meant that he wanted to go out with Nell to restaurants and discos and God knew wherever else. But he didn’t want anything to do with that. He didn’t want her to have anything to do with that. That was the whole point, his whole reasoning behind his actions. He was doing his brotherly duty. Saving her from herself.
She watched him stomp across the living room for no reason other than to put distance between them. “Well, I’m worried that you’ll find someone else!” she yelled at his back. “You’re going to abandon me! You’re going to leave me, and what’ll happen to me then?”
He shot her a glance over his shoulder, one she’d seen a hundred times before.
I would never. I couldn’t, it said. How many times do I have to tell you? How many times before you get it through your head?
But she couldn’t bring herself to believe him. How could he not leave? She was a pathetic mess. A loser. The apartment was a dump. Kings Highway was like a war zone. Barrett was smart and witty and charming and talented—he couldn’t speak, but he could write, and that’s what was important. It was how he’d leave his mark on the world, how the universe would remember he existed. She should have been pushing him out of that apartment with both hands out of love, not trying to keep him locked away out of fear. If she found a friend or two, maybe she’d have the courage to let him go. If she managed to do that, maybe she could be the sister Barrett deserved.
It was decided, then. She’d do everything she could to slough off her current image.
She’d become someone else. For him.
Anything for him.
“Barrett.” Her fingers drifted across the threadbare pad of his chair. “You have to promise me, okay? Promise me you won’t do it again, no matter what.”
He turned away again.
“Barrett, please!” She raised her voice again, not caring who heard them through the walls. “I’m trying to make things better for us. I’m trying to make our life different. Don’t you want that, for things to be different?”
His body language shifted ever so slightly. His stick-straight stance relaxed just a little, as if bending beneath his own secret yearning for change.
“You just have to trust me,” she told him. “Things are going to get better, you’ll see. Everything will be all right. I promise. We just need to believe in each other, trust each other. And I still trust you, Barrett . . . even after today. I still trust you, but you need to trust me too.”
That was a tall order for either one of them. They had spent their entire lives being overprotective. To ask for a little leeway was as good as asking to be altogether let go. But there was no way around it. If they continued to clutch at each other so fiercely, they’d choke each other to death. Barrett had already killed Linnie. It was only a matter of time before he wrapped his hands around Nell’s throat and squeezed.
“I love you, Barrett,” she said softly. “And I’ll never leave you. Never, for anyone.”
That wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Leaving was one thing, but there was something more important to him, something bigger.
“And I’ll never become like her,” she said. “I’ll never turn into Mom.”
. . .
When the sun rose on Brooklyn, Nell tied a yellow ribbon into her hair to match the daybreak. The B train squealed down the tracks. Her own image reflected back at her in the scratched-up plexiglass. That bit of graffiti—WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU’LL BE—shot across her line of sight. The train blasted into an underground tunnel, sending the overhead lights into a hyperactive horror-movie flicker before they resumed their cold fluorescent buzz. A black man walked up and down the train car, shaking a metal camping cup in each rider’s face. He ignored a businessman’s offhanded threat of calling the cops. See? Barrett would have scribbled at her. Everyone’s breaking the law. No one’s afraid. The man smelled like trash-can sludge. And while Nell would have been quick to ignore his begging, she reminded herself that today was the first day of the rest of her life. Today, things were going to change, and that change would be a direct result of the effort she put in.
Drawing a small crocheted coin purse from her bag, she shook a few loose dimes into the palm of her hand, readying herself for the homeless man’s cup. As Nell waited for the man to make his second and final pass of the car, she noticed the woman sitting next to her staring at the coins, as if contemplating stealing them for herself. When their eyes met, the woman—a babushka if there ever was one, a floral-print scarf tied around her white hair—shook her head in disapproval.
“You should not,” she said in a heavy Baltic accent. “You give to him and he remember you. He come back again.”
Nell frowned at the dimes, not sure what harm it would do to give the guy a break. She’d read a newspaper article about how many homeless men were Vietnam vets, too unskilled or traumatized by what they’d seen overseas to keep a job. That man, no matter how bad he smelled, may have been someone’s brother, someone’s Barrett. Her gaze drifted back to the man with the cup. She pictured him in army fatigues rather than the tattered clothes he was wearing now. He may have been handsome once, may have clutched a rifle to his chest while sloshing his way through the rice paddies. And before that? He may have lounged in a wingback just like Barrett’s, poring over books, dreaming of his first novel hitting the stands. Fame. Fanfare. Now? Poverty. Desperation. The New York City subway a moving, screaming home.
“You do not know what he will do with money you give,” the woman murmured beneath her breath. Despite the early hour, Nell could already pick up the faint scent of onions wafting up from the old woman’s hands.
The man came closer, his cup clattering above the scream of train wheels on the tracks. Help me, the clamor implored.
“Maybe he eat, or maybe will drink, or maybe he buy knife and kill for more money. You don’t know, you see? Do not give.” The woman placed her gnarled, onion-scented fingers over Nell’s hand, hiding the coins from sight as the man limped by. “You do not know,” she whispered. “You only know what you do.”
Nell pulled her hand away from the woman, but her fingers remained closed over the coins that were growing warm in her palm. She imagined the homeless man counting out change in a secondhand store, trying to haggle the price of a butterfly knife. Stress response syndrome could turn the city feral. The knife, held tight in his grasp, would be ready to strike at anything that dared come too close. Or maybe he’d take the money to a diner and buy himself a ham sandwich. Maybe he’d spend it on an ice cream cone—an extravagant luxury in the face of destitution and heat.
The man scuttled past once more. What sounded like a single coin clamored against the tin cup. Not enough for food, for weaponry, for hope.
Nell averted her gaze as he wandered by.
“Dobra djevojka,” the woman said. “May God keep you.”
Nell considered responding to the woman’s blessing, but the kerchiefed lady rose from her seat as the train approached the upcoming station. She hobbled onto the platform, only to look back at Nell before the doors slid shut. Crossing herself, her lips moved soundlessly as Nell squeezed the dimes in her hand. There was a quiet irony to the woman’s advice, telling the sister of a man who’d murdered a girl in an alley to count her blessings like saved loose change. And if Nell revealed Barrett’s secret? If she had leaned into the old woman ever-so-slightly to whisper into her ear: My brother is a killer. What would the woman have done? Would she have sage words of advice for her? Would she have blessed Nell then?
The train came to a shuddering halt at 42nd Street and Bryant Park. Nell rose, the warm coins rolling out of her palm to her feet. The endless rattle of the homeless man’s cup stalled. Rather than moving on to the next car, he had taken a seat a few yards away, tired, more than likely hungry. But his hearing was sharp. Somehow, he was able to hear the ping of cupronickel against the floor over the stomping of feet. Over the pneumatic hiss of the doors opening and closing. Over the murmur of morning conversation. He rushed her like a hungry dog, as though he was about to attack. But rather than laying his dirty hands on Nell’s clean blouse and office skirt, he skidded onto his knees and began to collect the coins.
Nell stepped off the train. She didn’t look back.
. . .
Savannah Wheeler stepped up to Nell’s desk a few minutes before lunch.
“Hey, we were wondering if you’d like to have lunch with us.” She looked over her shoulder. Miriam Gould, who stood a few feet behind her, offered up a halfhearted smile. Adriana Esposito didn’t bother looking at Nell, clearly over the invitation before it was ever made. Mary Ann Thomas was nowhere to be seen.
Nell stammered, unsure she’d heard correctly. “W-what?” She had been expecting lunch with Savannah—that was why she had tied the ribbon in her hair. Plans of bravery and asking to join her for a bite to eat had circled Nell’s thoughts all morning. It was, however, a surprise that Savannah beat her to the punch, extending an invitation rather than Nell having to inquire.
“Well, you’re hungry, aren’t you? Don’t you want to eat?” Savannah shrugged, as if to say the offer wasn’t that big of a deal. “We’re going across the street to Moe’s. They’ve got great pastrami on rye.”
The truth of it was Nell wasn’t hungry. She never was—not for breakfast or lunch. But when she had started skipping meals for that very reason, Barrett had immediately noticed. He’d left her a long note taped to her bathroom mirror about the dangers of buying into beauty ideals. He’d dropped words like anorexia and purging into his decree. Put ideas of emergency rooms and IVs into her head. Reminded her that if she ended up in the hospital, she could lose her job. Their income. Their home. Their entire way of life. Nell put aside her hope of losing a few pounds and ate anyway, despite feeling full. She’d clear off Barrett’s empty dinner plate—always left on the kitchen table for her to tend to—and make herself toast and jam. She’d pack a lunch, afraid that Barrett would check the fridge for signs of what she’d taken with her in a brown paper sack, and eat that too. Because throwing out good food was unacceptable. They were on a budget. Bologna sandwiches didn’t grow on trees.
Except that Nell was carrying extra cash today. Her sandwich was going soggy in her desk cabinet, but she’d deal with the guilt of wasting it for once. She could afford to drop a few bucks on lunch, if only today. But Adriana and Miriam, were they really okay with her tagging along? That doesn’t matter, she thought. Savannah invited you, not them. They don’t have to come along if they don’t want to. She was set on change, and neither Adriana nor Miriam were going to deter her.
But the booth at Moe’s happened to be sticky and far more uncomfortable than she had anticipated. It was as though the person who had sat in it last had slathered the table with pancake syrup and then shrunk the booth down to half its size. It reminded her of the frosting she had yet to completely get out of the kitchen floorboards. Tacky, like tiny octopus tentacles adhering to the bottoms of her bare feet.
Nell tried to read the menu while gingerly holding it between a pair of fingers, turning the thick laminated pages without touching them too much.
“Ugh, disgusting,” Adriana complained, turning her own menu over with a set of French manicured nails. “We should have gone to Finnigan’s. At least it’s sanitary there.”
“So,” Savannah said, turning her attention away from Adriana’s grievances and focusing on Nell instead. “How’re you feeling?”
Nell watched Adriana and Miriam’s faces for half a tick before settling on Savannah’s concerned expression. She nearly jumped the gun and assured Savannah that she was fine, just fine. Great really, now that she didn’t have to eat her bologna and cheese sandwich in the break room by herself. If only Barrett could see her now. He’d blow a gasket, for sure. And for some reason, picturing him freaking out amused her rather than caused the usual worry. She was in too good a mood to tarnish the afternoon with anxiety. After all, the police hadn’t bothered to stop by the office to ask a single question about Linnie. The cops were looking in the wrong direction, and her brother should have been counting his lucky stars; Nell certainly was. Just another reason to shrug off tension and enjoy the moment. But the thought of Linnie made her expression fall. Surely, Mary Ann had voiced her doubts about Nell and Linnie’s friendship to these girls. Mary Ann wasn’t the type to keep her mouth shut about anything, especially things that weren’t any of her damn business.
“Oh.” She looked down to the repugnant menu before her. “I’m all right, I guess.”
“It’s just terrible,” Savannah murmured.
“Terrible,” Miriam repeated beneath her breath.
“Terrible if you knew her,” Adriana mumbled.
The more Adriana talked, the more Nell didn’t like her.
“But Nell did know her,” Savannah said. “Right?” She raised an eyebrow at Nell.
“See?” Savannah appeared satisfied with Nell’s mute reply. “Linnie and Nell were friends. Just because Mary Ann didn’t know—” The waitress cut her off.
“Here we go,” she said, sliding their drinks onto the table. “Ready to order?” Nell kept her eyes fixed on a picture of a greasy hamburger and ordered first—a BLT and fries. She was mortified when all three girls ordered health-conscious salads in contrast to her own not-so-healthy choice.
She slouched in the booth seat and sipped her Coke, wondering why she ever thought this was a good idea. Did she honestly think she could fit in with girls like these?
They were an alien species.
They aren’t human.
“Anyway, you shouldn’t let Mary Ann get to you,” Savannah said. “She’s just freaked out like everyone else. The city’s gone certifiably bananas with all this crime.” She paused, gave Nell a once-over. “Are you really going to bleach your hair?”
Nell blinked up from her glass of soda, not sure what Savannah was talking about.
“Isn’t that why you asked Mary Ann about her hair in the break room?”
Oh. Yes. That had been just before Adriana had made Nell spill coffee down the front of her blouse and pants.
The memory of it sent a pang of disdain down her spine. She couldn’t help but shoot a glance Adriana’s way, but Adriana didn’t meet her gaze. She was staring out the window instead, disinterested, as though this particular lunch was the most boring one she’d ever had in her life.
“I don’t know,” Nell replied. “Probably not. I’d look silly as a blonde.”
“But aren’t you scared not to?” Savannah asked.
Nell shrugged. “Not really.”
Mary Ann Thomas had said it best; Nell didn’t need to worry. The Son of Sam only went after pretty girls. What was she supposed to be scared of, Barrett hurting her? Nell bit the inside of her cheek, stifling a smile.
“Miriam has family in Williamsburg,” Savannah said. “They’re pretty scared out there.”
Nell cast a glance Miriam’s way, feigning concern.
“I’m the only one in my family who’s smart enough to lop off my hair,” Miriam said with a smirk. “You should have heard the fuss my mother made when she saw it.” She directed her last comment to Savannah rather than Nell. “My God. You’d think she’d rather me get murdered by some prowling psycho than cut my hair off to save my own skin.”
“Well, I’m not letting some psycho freak ruin my life,” Adriana chimed in, finally shooting Nell a hard look. “Last thing I’m going to do is lock myself up after dark. If I’m gonna end up dead, I want to have a good time first.”
Oh, you bet, Nell thought. The drunker the girl, the easier she is to knock off her feet.
“The Cabana Club?” Nell asked.
“We go there after work sometimes,” Savannah said. “It’s a cool place. The bartender is nice.”
“Really nice. Good looking too.” Miriam grinned to herself. Clearly, she’d fantasized about Mr. Bartender a couple of times. “He gives us half-price drinks when his boss isn’t around, and his boss is never around.”
“You should come,” Savannah offered. “I know you didn’t want to before, but if you feel up to it . . .”
Nell’s heart fluttered inside her chest. So her initial refusal hadn’t ruined her chances.
“Oh God,” Adriana murmured. “Next thing you know, she’ll be telling everyone at the office we’re all best friends.”
That perturbed statement deflated some of Nell’s hope.
“Anyway, it’s a free country,” Adriana said, her eyes fixed on Nell, as though the girl was on the verge of challenging their Plain Jane lunch companion to a duel. “Don’t act so flattered.”
Nell looked down at her hands. No matter how much she wanted to reach across the table and slam Adriana’s face into the plate-glass window, Adriana had a point. Nell didn’t belong in this group, and she didn’t belong at the Cabana Club, especially not in an ugly knee-length office skirt. But she had to try, for Barrett’s sake.
Savannah shot Adriana a look. Nell pretended not to notice.
“I’d love to,” she said, “but . . . I can’t tonight.” She had a few folded twenties tucked into her purse. After work, she’d miss her train and go to the shops instead. She’d pick out an appropriate outfit to meet them at the club the next time Savannah went. Maybe she’d be bold enough to chat up that nice bartender, because wouldn’t that be a shock? Nell Sullivan, going out on the town in nice new clothes, talking to men and scoring a date? But as soon as the waitress slid Nell’s BLT and fries in front of her, the voice inside her head reminded her that those ideas were insane.
Look at yourself, it said. Look at what you’re eating. They’re just being nice because of Linnie. This has nothing to do with you, Nell. Nothing at all.
“Well, okay . . . maybe some other time,” Savannah said, stabbing at her salad with a fork.
“Probably for the better,” Adriana muttered beneath her breath. “Best you have some time to mourn the death of your friend, huh? Wouldn’t be that great of an idea going out to party right after finding out your pal got chopped up in an alley. I mean, it seems a little crass, don’t you think?”
Nell’s stomach twisted.
A pang of pain, like a bullet to the brain.
“Jesus, Adri. Cool it,” Savannah said.
Maybe it hadn’t been Mary Ann after all. Maybe Adriana had been the one who had typed NELL SULLIVAN IS A LIAR onto Nell’s transcription. The more she considered the possibility, the more likely it seemed.
Her insides clenched and cramped. She winced, her headache coming on strong.
“Don’t listen to her,” Savannah muttered, but Adriana wasn’t deterred.
Adriana exhaled an aggravated huff, flicked her hair over her shoulder, and fired off a question. “Where’s Mary Ann anyway? Why are we here and she isn’t?”
“Just eat your food, will you?” Miriam asked.
“This is stupid.” Adriana dropped her fork onto the table with a clang and slid out of the booth. “This place is a hellhole, and we don’t even like her. We didn’t even like Linnie.” Before anyone could ask her where she was going, she turned and stomped out of Moe’s. The trio watched Adriana through the window as she marched across the street toward the deli at the corner.
Nell looked away from the window, stared down at her food. Suddenly, all she wanted was to disappear.
This was a mistake. You’re fooling yourself. You shouldn’t have come.
“Nell.” Savannah placed a cool hand on Nell’s arm. Nell pulled away, as though the chill it carried was burning hot instead. “She’s just annoyed,” Savannah said. “She doesn’t like competing for attention.”
Nell furrowed her eyebrows. “Competing,” she said softly, not understanding how Adriana could even begin to think Nell was a worthy contender.
The table went quiet.
The girls ate their salads while Nell picked at her fries, doubt buzzing around her headache like a swarm of gnats around a piece of rotting fruit. Logic nagged her to get up. Reason encouraged her to go back to the office, to forget this whole confounded, impossible plan. Just eat your sad sandwich by yourself, she thought. Choke it down, Moby-Dick. She scratched at the fabric of her skirt, her right hand drifting closer and closer to her purse as she contemplated a semi-graceful exit. The restaurant was getting hotter, her sweater insulating her, threatening to boil her brain. She could forget shopping for clothes after work, pay the entire bill, and tell them that she needed to get back to her desk. Linnie’s death had put her behind schedule, and Lamont was riding her to catch up. That, at least, was true. Nell reached for her bag, deciding that it was the best course of action, but she was derailed by Miriam’s quiet compliment.
“I like your bow,” she said, nodding to the yellow ribbon Nell had tied into her hair. “You should wear it more often.”
Nell stalled, blushed at the praise. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had said something so offhandedly kind. Her fingers retreated from her purse just as the voice of doubt retreated to the back of her mind.
No, this was right.
This was what she needed.
This was good for her.
Straightening her shoulders, she gave the girls a questioning look. “Do you think Adriana would mind if . . .” She motioned to the untouched salad.
“Please,” Savannah said. “Not like she’s coming back.” With that, she scooted the abandoned plate toward Nell.
Nell smiled in earnest then. She stabbed her fork into the leafy greens and pushed them into her mouth, chewing as she narrowed her eyes at her original order. Because she could do this; she could change her life for the better. Barrett would just have to deal with this the way he had forced her to deal with Linnie’s death. Fair was fair, after all.
. . .
Nell stepped off the train later than usual, a plastic Gimbels garment bag draped over her arm and her fingers looped through the handles of a large paper bag. She had thirty-eight dollars left in her purse after eating lunch at Moe’s with the girls, and she’d spent nearly all of it among the pretty, glittering racks of clothing that the world-famous department store had to offer. The salesgirl had been helpful. She handed Nell dress after blouse after skirt—things Nell would never have chosen for herself but that looked better than she had expected under the flattering dressing-room lights. She’d even found a pair of cork-bottomed sandals she liked, ones that didn’t make her look like a tramp.
Coming off the platform, Nell immediately took notice of the all-too-familiar bicycle gang. At first they didn’t look her way, too busy huddled together, the back wheels of their bikes jutting out from behind them. Nell knew there were drugs in the center of that tight cluster. When it came to that sort of thing, Kings Highway was predictable. She tried to sneak by them. The last thing she needed was their attention, especially with her arms loaded down with shopping bags. But it didn’t take long for one of the boys to look up, and when he did, he didn’t hesitate in pointing her out to the rest of his pals.
“Ey, es la bibliotecaria.”
She could hear them despite their distance. Whoever had said it sounded miffed, like she’d been the topic of more than a few conversations since the last time they’d run into each other.
“What do you want to do?” another boy asked.
The inquiry quickened her pulse.
All at once, she imagined them coming at her. Pulling her into the shadow of a building. Tearing up her new clothes and knocking her front teeth in with a brick. She fumbled with the garment bag that was flung over her right arm. Dipped her hand into her purse. Felt around for the switchblade she’d shoved into her bag after the rock-hurling incident. It had been something she’d done in passing, doubting she’d ever need to use it. So she shouldn’t have been that surprised when her fingers failed to locate the weapon among the clutter of her things. Her heart shouldn’t have somersaulted quite so readily. But it did.
The boys murmured among themselves, probably deciding between aggravated assault or flat-out homicide, when something completely unexpected came tumbling out of Nell’s mouth.
“You don’t want to do anything,” she warned them, loud enough to breach the distance between them and her.
She didn’t stop walking.
She didn’t look their way.
“I have a gun,” she said, “and you can bet your ass I’m not afraid to use it.”
There was silence among the boys.
Nell’s heartbeat pounded at the base of her throat.
If they called her bluff, she was dead, but they’d have to be crazy to test her. They wouldn’t. Not after how she’d pelted their stupid gang leader with rocks. Not after how he’d been humiliated.
One of the boys wasn’t convinced. “You don’t have no gun.” He snorted out his skepticism to the nervous chagrin of his peers.
Nell stopped walking.
All sense and reason screamed for her to not do whatever she was about to do. Don’t, Barrett would have scrawled onto his notepad. Keep walking. Don’t be an instigator. But if she continued on her way, they’d know she was lying, and that was something Barrett had taught her as well. If you were going to con someone, you had to ride it out all the way. If you were going to lie, you had to commit.
She turned her head, gave the group a try me look. “I’m pretty sure I do,” she said, her tone flat and even. “And I’m pretty sure I have a rock or two with your name on it too . . . before I blow your head off.”
A few of the boys grew wide eyes, stunned by her gall. The kid who had claimed she was lying gaped at her for a long while, motionless, as if carefully considering what to say or do next. Finally, he smirked and gave his gang a look.
“Eh, let’s go,” he said. “Esta perra es loca.”
Nell watched them pedal away, fascinated by the fact that they were leaving rather than getting even for the rock attack. It was a revelation. An overwhelming sense of power. The same feeling that had nibbled at the arteries of her heart after she’d told Mary Ann where to shove her presumptuous bullshit. The gang’s retreat was a reassurance that, yes, she was in charge, that she could decide what did and didn’t happen in her life. If she could fend off a group of harassing boys, a couple of high-maintenance girls would be a laugh. Nell glanced down to the Gimbels bag in her left hand, as though she had bought a helping of courage off a sales rack along with her new clothes and shoes.
“Es loca,” she repeated to herself. She didn’t speak Spanish, but she knew enough of it to know that loca meant crazy. And if they thought she was crazy, all the better. Because you had to be nuts to mess with a lunatic.
. . .
Nell unlocked the apartment door and Barrett looked up from his book. She gave him a smile, the paper of the large Gimbels bag crunching against the side of her left thigh. “Sorry I’m late.” Her good mood beamed out at him. After her lunch with the girls, her mini–shopping spree, and now her success at fending off those idiot boys, she’d never felt better.
Swinging the apartment door closed with her foot, she stepped across the shabby space to the kitchen table and draped the plastic wardrobe bag over the back of a chair. The Gimbels bag went onto the top of the table as carefully as a new mother would have placed a baby in a bassinet. Those two bags, Nell was sure, held the key to her new life, to new friends and new opportunities. She gazed at them thoughtfully, then turned her attention to her brother.
What’s all this? Barrett held up his yellow pad from where he sat, curious, but not quite curious enough to rise from his seat.
“I went to Gimbels,” she said. “After how my shirt and pants got ruined last week, I figured I was due for a few new things anyway.” Kicking off her scuffed penniless loafers, she dug in the bag for the shoebox that held her brand new sandals inside. “See?” She held one of them up by its strap, then took a seat, slipping her feet inside. Cinderella’s life had been changed by a pair of shoes. Maybe she’d have similar luck.
“Aren’t they cute?” She lifted both feet from the floor, turning her ankles left and then right, admiring her sandals in the dull kitchen light. She stood, pulled a pretty pink blouse from the bag on the table, and held it up against her chest for Barrett to see. “What do you think?”
I think they’re fit for a hooker, he scribbled. The shirt too. He remained in his chair, staring at her as though his sister had finally lost her mind.
“Oh, shut up, brother,” she murmured. “A hooker would never wear this.”
Neither would a fat chick.
Nell blinked at the callous comment he had scrawled across the square of yellow paper. Barrett wasn’t one to mince words—each syllable was precious when it had to be written by hand—but he was rarely this cruel.
She swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat. Looked away from the way his mouth had turned down at the corners. She frowned at the floor in return, and delicately folded the blouse into fourths before tucking it back into the bag, where two more shirts remained hidden from view.
“You know, I don’t understand why you’re upset,” she said softly, her back to him, trying to keep her voice steady. “It isn’t like I spent a million dollars, and it’s not as though you never stay out late now and again.” She paused in contemplation, her eyes fixed upon the interior of the Gimbels bag. “Sometimes I wait all night for you to come back from wherever you run off to. Sometimes it seems like you don’t come back until morning, like you don’t give a damn that I’m worried at all.”
She listened for movement. If Barrett shifted in his chair, she’d look over her shoulder to read his body language. If he didn’t, it meant he had no response, and no response was Barrett’s fail-safe. He’d just drop his pad of paper onto the floor and walk away. Meaning: This conversation is over.
As kids, she’d been the chatterbox while Barrett had been the silent one, even when he could still talk. Their mother liked the quiet. She constantly complained about Nell’s inability to keep her mouth shut the way her brother could. Barrett, on the other hand, was an expert at playing ghost. During the only road trip the Sullivans had taken as a family, both Fay and Leigh had panicked when Barrett had disappeared into the back of the station wagon—odd for them, since they weren’t overly cautious parents. He was so quiet for so long, they were convinced they had left him at the gas station fifty miles back, but he’d been in the car the whole time. Sometimes, Nell wondered what it would have been like if they had left him, left them both—if she and Barrett had locked themselves in a gas-station bathroom and waited for their parents to drive into the sunset.
“And since you’re already mad, I may as well tell you,” Nell announced, still not looking his way. “I’ve decided that if I’m not happy, I should make more of an effort—you know, make the life I want. So, on occasion, I’m going to start coming home late from now on. And that’s on purpose.” Her pointer finger drifted along the chrome seam of the table. She didn’t want to see the look on his face, so she kept talking instead. “I had lunch with some coworkers this afternoon. Savannah and Miriam. At the diner across the street from the office.” Unable to resist any longer, she glanced up at him, crossing her fingers that this time his expression would be one of surrender rather than determined disapproval.
No such luck.
Barrett was sitting stick straight in his seat, clutching his little note pad.
“They’re nice, Barrett. They’re not like Mom at all.” Well, maybe Adriana was, but Nell didn’t like her anyway. She didn’t have to be friends with all of them, didn’t have to bring up the likes of Adriana and Mary Ann Thomas at all.
“This apartment gets stifling,” she said, pleading for him to understand. “Isn’t that why you go out, to get away from this shabby old place?”
“Barrett, I wish you would say something! Just once, I wish you would at least try!”
She turned away, clamped her teeth tight. For a long while, there was no movement from Barrett’s side of the apartment. Then, all at once, he was out of his chair, charging her. Nell blinked at him, wide-eyed. She nearly crawled onto the kitchen table to avoid him. The Gimbels bag tumbled to the floor. Her new blouses spilled onto the hardwood. The wardrobe bag slid off the back of the chair. She lunged for it, trying to save her precious new things. But Barrett was fast. He swept a couple of the blouses up in an angry fist, crushing the fabric in his grip.
Nell grabbed for her shirts, afraid that he’d tear them to shreds if it meant keeping her home. He knew better than anyone that she was self-conscious about her looks. That she’d never go out if she didn’t have anything to wear. But this was too much for him—the new clothes, the fact that she was planning on stepping out with the girls, and regularly at that. It meant hitting a place that served drinks, and if there was ever a fitting symbol for their mother’s cruelty, it was a half-empty bottle of booze. Nell was sure Barrett would kill her before he ever let her become a carbon copy of the sloppy drunk who ruined their lives. But she yanked the blouses from his grasp anyway. He let go, and she stumbled backward, crashing into the kitchen wall. A picture frame fell, cracking against the floor.
“Stop it!” she repeated, screaming it this time. “Barrett, just stop it! I can’t live like this anymore! We’re separate people, goddamnit! You can’t control me like this!”
He froze where he stood, glared down the length of his nose at her in a silent challenge.
Oh, I can’t control you? Watch me.
“No,” she whispered, despite him not having said or written a single word. But she could see it in his eyes—the defiance, the objection, the determination to crush Nell’s ridiculous whims beneath the sole of his sneaker. He was done fighting with her. It was high time he ended the whole thing with a win. Barrett turned away from her and marched out of the kitchen with his fingers balled into fists.
Nell found herself alone, clutching her new shirts in clenched hands that matched her brother’s. Tears stung her eyes, ran hot down her cheeks. She let her fingers unfurl as she tried to steady her breathing. Maybe he was right. Maybe going out with the girls would turn her into something insufferable, something that she was never meant to be. Perhaps the whole idea of making friends to save herself from the pain of losing Barrett would circle in on itself. Maybe it would make Barrett leave instead. But she couldn’t go on like this for much longer. If she didn’t try, if Barrett took off and Nell found herself alone, what then?
It seemed as though there was no answer. Every solution she came up with was wrong.
“Oh God.” She whimpered the words into the silence of the apartment. “Barrett, I’m sorry!” But Barrett didn’t answer, and he didn’t bother resurfacing from his room.
She tossed her wrinkled shirts onto the table and approached his door, but he wasn’t there. She turned her attention to his window, the sill dotted with a couple of houseplants. He’d gone down the fire escape, his usual way of exiting the apartment. Nell rushed across the room, shoved the pane open and jutted her head out the window. “Barrett!” she yelled down to the street below, but he was long gone. All she saw was a tall, Latin woman being harassed by a couple of guys. They looked up at her with raised eyebrows, pausing their argument. “Where did he go?” she asked them. Maybe they would at least point her in the right direction. If she hurried, she could catch up to him before the city swallowed him whole. But all they did was give her blank stares before going back to their caterwauling. The Latina took the opportunity to lift her arm and smack one of the men with her giant purse.
The tears came again. Nell shoved the window closed and left Barrett’s room, plucked her new things off the table, and made her way into her bedroom. But as she gathered a few hangers out of the closet, a sob hitched in her throat. One of her old shirts was crumpled in the corner, lying next to a pair of her ratty old loafers—ones that were far too old to wear to work. The stupid thing must have slid onto the floor, the filmy satin never wanting to stay in place on the thin wire hanger. She kneeled down, caught the shirt between her fingers, and swept it off the ground, only to drop it with a gasp. Taking a step back, her gaze fixed on what looked like rust-colored polka dots tarnishing the otherwise cream-colored fabric. Nell was naive, but she immediately knew what those spots were.
He was getting back at her. Those spots, they were Linnie’s—
No. Don’t even think it!
She pushed the shirt toward the back of the closet with her foot, turned to face the new clothes she had placed on the bed, and froze. She couldn’t just leave that shirt on the floor, not without running the risk that someone would find it and put two and two together. Turning back to the closet, she started to cry again.
“Everything will be okay,” she told herself as she gathered up her ruined blouse. “You can do this. You’re in charge.” Except, was she? “Yes, you are,” she sobbed, pressing the heels of her hands into the sockets of her eyes. Reaching the kitchen, she shoved the soiled shirt into the almost-full trash can, pushed it deep into the garbage and tied the bag tight.
“He said so,” she whimpered to herself as she stalked across the house to Barrett’s room. “He said so,” she murmured. She shoved the window open. Stepped out onto the fire escape. Let the bag drop from her hands to the Dumpster three stories below.
“The revolution has come.”
It’s what the boy in the street had yelled at her when she had asserted herself against those bike-riding bullies.
The revolution had come.
The revolution was her, and Barrett would have to deal with it, whether he liked it or not.
. . .
But, as usual, it was hard for Nell to disregard her brother’s angry response. She tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. She tried to eat but wasn’t hungry. She folded down the sheets and prepared herself for bed. But once she lay down, she found herself staring up at the ceiling, wide awake, her head pounding like a bass drum without a beat. Eventually, she rolled out of bed, showered, put on her new skirt and sandals and one of the blouses she had bought, after ironing out the wrinkles Barrett had put in the fabric. She tied a fresh ribbon in her hair and left the apartment instead. Because if Barrett was going to go out, headache be damned, so was she. He couldn’t keep bossing her around like this. She had to show him that she meant to do what she said. He couldn’t keep disregarding her, couldn’t keep treating her like she didn’t matter.
The train she boarded was more abandoned than any that she’d ever been on. But the graffiti that flashed across the plexiglass was ever-present, lit up by the city’s glow just enough to read.
WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU’LL BE.
There and gone in less than a second.
Nell tucked her purse beneath her arm and got off at her usual morning stop. She walked past the office, paused her steps when she finally stood in the bright-red neon of the Cabana Club. The girls were probably long gone, but something about visiting a place they might have been felt cathartic. An ushering in of the change Nell was determined to make. A preview of things sure to come.
She stepped inside. Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk” played loud enough to rattle her teeth, but the noise was good. She was tired of thinking. Always thinking. So incessantly thinking that she was about ready to crawl right out of her skull.
Taking a seat at the bar, she wondered if the bobbing and weaving guy who was drying glasses with a towel was the bartender Miriam daydreamed about. He was tall, slender, had an unmistakable John Travolta/Vinnie Barbarino look. When Nell caught his attention, his mouth bloomed into a smile that made her heart wriggle like a worm. He shimmied over to her, leaned in, and, as politely as a guy could, yelled right in her face.
“What’s your poison?”
“What?” Nell leaned toward him, unable to hear him above the roar of the music.
He motioned for her to come closer, angled himself toward her ear. “What’ll you have?”
“You mean, like, a drink?”
“Yeah!” He gave her a perplexed sort of grin. “What do you want?”
Nell leaned back, pondered for a moment, and finally posed a question. “Do you have iced tea?”
“Iced tea?” He peered at her like she was the cutest thing he’d seen in his life, even cuter than Miriam Gould. “Yeah, baby, I’ve got iced tea. One Long Island coming right up.”
Nell turned away, made like she was interested in the dance floor while hiding her blush. Parliament faded into KC and the Sunshine Band. A few couples vacated the floor while a handful of fresh faces took their place. Girls in tall shoes and sparkling shift dresses danced with guys in bell-bottoms, mouthing lyrics while KC wailed. Shake, shake, shake . . .
“Here you go, baby!”
The bartender slid a tall glass across the counter. It was the fanciest iced tea Nell had ever seen, garnished with a slice of lemon, a maraschino cherry, and a little paper umbrella, like something you’d get on a tropical island. Nell smiled and slid a dollar bill his way.
“Two bucks!” he yelled, holding up his fingers in a peace sign, just like how Barrett did when she left for work. Later, dude.
Two bucks? Is that what a drink costs these days? She gave him an incredulous look. She could buy an entire dinner for two bucks. But she’d already ordered the stupid thing, so she pulled another dollar from her purse and forced a good-natured smile. And here she thought he was supposed to be giving these things out at half price. She supposed those were the perks of looking like Mary Ann Thomas. When you rivaled the likes of Farrah Fawcett, the drinks were practically free.
Shake, shake, shake . . .
Over and over.
Shake, shake, shake!
Nell wrapped her hands around her drink and turned back to the dance floor. Baby. She snorted, took a sip of the concoction that had cost her an arm and a leg, and just about choked on the taste. It was ghastly, like something only a person without a working set of taste buds could guzzle down.
“You like it?” The inquiry came from behind her. She twisted in her seat to catch Vinnie Barbarino grinning her way. Was he smiling like that because he was playing a joke on her? Did he mess up her drink on purpose? No. He was waiting for an answer.
“Yeah, sure!” She took another sip to convince him, trying her damnedest to keep a straight face. The barkeep gave her a thumbs-up and danced away, lending his attention to a guy who looked about Nell’s age on the opposite end of the bar. This guy had a friendly face, a head of messy black hair. He was on the heavyset side—not fat, just rounded out, as though his mother had fed her baby boy well. Nell liked that. It made her feel less awkward, less out of place—the heavyset girl at a nightclub full of flashy, beautiful people.
When the guy turned his attention from the bar to Nell, she started and looked down at her drink.
Staring at the bright-red cherry that rode like a castaway on top of an ice float, she began to panic when she sensed him scooting down the bar toward her. Desperate for something to do, she took a gulp of her awful drink. He sidled up to her despite her obvious nerves, and Nell was left with no choice but to glance his way.
“Hi,” he said as soon as she cast him a look. “How’s it going?”
“What?” Maybe if she pretended she couldn’t hear him above the music, he’d give up and go away.
“How’s it going?” he boomed. “You here alone?”
Nell managed a smile and bobbed her head, continuing to play the deaf card. The guy wasn’t dissuaded. He lifted his own drink—a bottle of Old Milwaukee—and took a swig.
“Dave,” he yelled.
“Hi,” she finally yelled back. No use looking more stupid than she already did.
“You got a name?” he asked.
“Name!” He screamed it. “What’s your name?”
“Nell,” she told him, immediately regretting her honesty. She should have made something up. Should have said her name was Linnie or Savannah or Mary Ann, if not to keep her anonymity, then to at least have a more interesting name than the one she’d been born with.
Nell, plain from day one.
“You from around here?” he asked. Nell shook her head, her eyes fixed on the giant lapels of his yellow-and-green paisley-print shirt. “Where you from?”
She faltered at his persistence. “Uh, Queens!”
Dave looked intrigued by her answer, as though he had a particular interest in the borough. Then again, that was where someone had shot those two kids the other day. It was where the cops had found Linnie Carter, where the panic had risen to a fever pitch. Lots of people were interested in Queens these days. It was a horror show out there. A real bloodbath.
“You wanna get out of here?”
Nell blinked. Was he . . . ?
“To talk!” he yelled over the music. “Just to talk.”
Yeah, right, Nell thought, but was flattered despite herself. Nobody had propositioned her before. The idea of accepting Dave’s invitation sent a thrill spinning through her like a Catherine wheel. She looked down at her drink; she hated it, so why not give this guy a shot? Maybe he really did want to talk, or maybe he wanted more, and would that have been so bad? Sitting in his car in the dark. His hands sliding down her thighs. Her, pushed against the interior of his car door. Him pressing his mouth against her neck. His fingers grazing the elastic of her panties. Ducking beneath the fabric. Pushing her legs apart as he murmured hot against her ear: You like that? You like that, huh, baby?
A tremor shot through her hands. She pushed her iced tea onto the bar, afraid that if she didn’t put it down, she’d end up spilling it all over her new clothes. A flash of a memory lit up the back of her eyelids. A slit of light beneath the closet door. Her mother’s heavy breathing. The rhythmic banging of something against a wall. Nell and Barrett sitting in the dark, their hands pressed over their ears as they huddled together, holding their pee. A man’s voice asking: You like that? You filthy girl.
That’s what he had called their mother.
You little slut.
And she had liked it.
Yes, she had gasped. I’m dirty. A filthy little slut.
“I can’t,” Nell told him, cutting the memory off. “Sorry, I just . . .”
“Oh, come on,” Dave urged, but he wasn’t smiling anymore. His round face took on a distinct look of impatience. Her own expression must have shifted to something akin to alarm, because as soon as he looked at her again, his agitation scurried back into its hole. “What’re you gonna do, go back to Queens on your own? That’s dangerous, ain’t it? I’ve got a car. Let me at least drive you.”
“I’m waiting for a friend,” she insisted. He needed to leave her alone.
“What?” Dave leaned in closer, holding a hand up to his ear.
He had to give up. Give her space.
“A friend,” she yelled, but Dave had suddenly gone deaf.
His hand landed on Nell’s arm as if to pull her away from the bar.
Her pulse thumped up into her throat, keeping time to the music.
She jerked her arm away.
“Hey, why don’t you scram?” she yelled, unnerved by his persistence. “Go find some other girl to drive back to Queens.”
Dave blinked at her like she’d just thrown dirt in his eye. His face shifted from stunned to incensed within a span of a second. And as Nell sat there watching him, she was sure he’d happily slash her throat the same way Barrett had cut Linnie’s.
Dave took a step back, grabbed his beer, and turned away, but before Nell could breathe a sigh of relief he spun back around and hissed into her face. “Stupid bitch!”
Flecks of saliva spattered across her cheek.
Her elbow jerked sideways, nudging her glass of disgusting iced tea along the sticky surface of the bar. When he finally turned away for good, Nell closed her eyes and tried to steady the rhythm of her heart.
If Barrett wants to kill somebody, he should kill that guy, she thought. Garrote him with a piano wire. Ram that beer can down his throat.
She waited for Dave to leave the Cabana Club, then stalled an extra ten minutes to make sure he wasn’t lingering outside to ambush her. He seemed like the type of guy to pull something like that. But the longer she waited the more disgusted she became with herself. The thumping bass of the music had thumped its way right into her skull, vibrating her brain, reawakening her migraine. Her stomach churned around the alcohol she’d drunk for no reason other than to busy herself at a bar she should never have visited. And the recollection of how she’d pictured herself and Dave getting hot and heavy in his car made her skin crawl. Booze and strange men and impure thoughts and hanging out in bars on a weekday—the realization snapped inside her like a rubber band.
Barrett was right.
His outrage was sound.
He was worried that she’d turn into their mother, and here she was, dressed in a way she’d never dressed before. Drinking some horrible-tasting drink. Smiling and bobbing her head despite having a miserable time. Fantasizing about random strangers off the street.
She bounded off the stool, ready to march for the door and catch the next train home. But her legs went wobbly beneath her. She had to catch herself against the bar. That was when—involuntarily plopping back down onto her stool—her gaze fixed on the door she wanted to walk through so she could go home. There were Mary Ann Thomas and Adriana Esposito, stepping in from off the street, cool as a pair of cucumbers.
At first Nell was sure she was imagining them. The pair was a figment of her imagination, her deepest desire brought on by too much booze. They couldn’t possibly be there, except that there was no reason for them not to be. Savannah had said the Cabana Club was their spot. Why wouldn’t Mary Ann and Adriana be there? The club was in full swing.
Mary Ann and Adriana made no effort to approach the bar or put down their purses. They immediately shimmied onto the dance floor, falling into step with the other patrons as the Bay City Rollers spelled out S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y.
Nell twisted away from the dance floor, mortified. If they spotted her . . .
Oh dear Lord.
Forcing herself onto her unsteady feet, she wobbled down the length of the bar toward the booths at the back of the club.
“Hey!” Vinnie Barbarino yelled after her. “Hey, baby, everything all right?”
She ignored him.
The back booths were hardly visible from the dance floor through all the cigarette smoke. They wouldn’t see her there. They’d dance the night away and leave, and that’s when Nell would make her exit. She’d be stuck at the Cabana Club until last call at the bar, but it wasn’t like Barrett was home.
But just as the thought of her brother being out there somewhere settled heavy in her head, her attention was drawn to one of the dimly lit back booths. There was a man sitting alone in one of them, his face obscured by the shadows of the club, but she knew. She knew.
Here she was, worried about that weird Dave guy possibly waiting outside for her, but she’d been followed all along. Her own flesh and blood had ambushed her instead.
. . .
Nell couldn’t remember how she got home. When she woke in the morning, her head was still throbbing. She was exhausted, hardly able to peel her eyes open. And as she peered at her alarm clock through sleep-blurry eyes, she figured herself lucky to have gotten home at all. At least she still had time to grab a shower before catching her train into Manhattan. If she hurried, she could stop by the coffee shop across from the station and buy a much-needed cup of joe. Otherwise, she was quite sure she’d end up falling asleep at her desk.
But all thoughts of preparation and commute were lost when her feet hit the planks of the floor. Even exhaustion dissipated into little more than fleeting fatigue. Because there, littering the hardwood of her bedroom, were her new blouse and skirt—the ones she’d worn to the Cabana Club. Despite her half-drunken state the evening before, she was sure she’d hung up her outfit in the closet after she’d come home. No, she was certain, because she remembered looking at the blouse’s label. She recalled groaning when she discovered that, even though the thing smelled like cigarettes, she couldn’t just throw it in the wash with her other things on laundry day. Dry clean only. She’d have to walk the eight blocks it took to get to the nearest cleaner and cough up fifty cents to get it laundered. So she had hung the thing up rather than dropping it on the hamper, hoping that the scent of nicotine would dissipate if it stayed in the closet for long enough. Hoping that she’d be able to wear it at least once more before trudging clear across the neighborhood to get it cleaned.
Except that now that option was out the window. Her blouse was crumpled on the floor, rust-colored handprints rendering it little more than a rag.
Nell covered her mouth and backed away from the clothes as though they were alive; as though, if disturbed, they’d tell her the story of the previous night.
She tried to yell his name, but it came out of her throat as a quiet squeak. She hadn’t spoken to him at the club, hadn’t dared look at him directly. She wasn’t even sure it had really been him occupying one of those back booths.
Maybe her eyes had been playing tricks on her.
Maybe she’d just been paranoid.
But now she was sure. Yes, it had been him. He had watched her order a drink. He had seen the exchange between her and that creepy Dave guy. He had sat there for hours, watching it all play out the way he had predicted, his anger coming to a boil, building up until he had no choice but to release it onto the world. And after whatever he may have done—What had he done?—he’d come back home, pulled down Nell’s new clothes, and wiped his hands on them to teach her a lesson. The clothes. The alcohol. The impure thoughts.
Nell reeled around, half expecting to see her brother standing in her open bedroom door with a smirk playing on his lips. The threshold remained empty, but there was a torn piece of yellow paper on top of her dresser. It was propped up against Beary’s stomach, placed to make it appear as though Nell’s beloved stuffed bear was the one delivering the message.
You’re turning into her.
Bloody fingerprints obscured half of the first word, but his message was clear.
She backed away from the stuffed animal, horrified by the way it stared at her with its little glass eyes. She stumbled out of the bedroom, her eyes darting to Barrett’s empty chair. The kitchen was deserted. He’d come and gone, and maybe this time for good.
And it was her fault.
Whatever he had done, she had driven him to it. And was it any wonder? Around every turn, Nell was sending mixed signals. She hated his possessiveness but was terrified to lose him. She wanted it to be him and her forever, all while buying fancy clothes and threatening to go out with girls he couldn’t stand the thought of. She had pushed him too far. Dared him to exert his authority. She had made him snap, challenging him at every turn, ignoring his wishes, promising him that everything would be fine. But things were irreparably broken. How could she look at him the same way again? And how could he ever forgive her for turning him into a monster when he was trying to keep her from becoming one herself ?
Nell sank to the floor and pressed her hands to her face, crying into the silence of that sad and crooked apartment.
“Oh God !” She scream-wept the words loud enough for the neighbors to hear, silencing herself by pressing a hand over her mouth.
Be quiet, her mother hissed inside her head.
Go get ready.
Don’t be late for work.
. . .
The elevator dinged. The doors yawned open. The call center was deserted, save for the area in front of the break-room door. But this time the huddle of girls was louder, more panicked. Lamont was in its center. “Girls, girls!” Her tone was frazzled amid their squawking.
Nell stopped dead at the sight. Maybe it was because she hadn’t completely shaken off her fatigue from the night before, but not once had she considered Barrett’s second victim was someone she may have known. And as she stood there, she couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t considered such a thing. It seemed so simple. So obvious. So appropriate. So like Barrett to bring Nell’s punishment full circle. He was a poet, after all.
Nell’s hands shook despite their desperate clasp on her purse. She slowly walked toward the group, her eyes wide, her mind reeling. Would he have dared the risk? This was twice in one week. It was hard to imagine that such tragedy could hit the same group of people a second time; hard to chalk it up to nothing more than a dark coincidence. The police would certainly look for him now. If they weren’t at the office already, they were undoubtedly on their way.
Nell didn’t stop the way she had on Monday morning, didn’t dare linger or draw attention to herself in any way. She drifted to her desk, took a seat, and watched the girls from a safe distance. Her bottom lip quivered. A scream threatened to claw its way up her throat. What have you done? she thought to herself. You goddamn idiot, what the hell have you done?
“I can’t . . .” It was the voice of a passing girl. “This is just . . . it’s too much. It’s too much! ”
“It isn’t safe,” murmured another. “Whoever this is, this freak . . . he knows someone who works here. How can he not? It’s obvious.” This was, in everyone’s eyes, an attack on the Rambert & Bertram girls—in everyone’s eyes, especially Nell’s.
“They should send us home,” said a third to a fourth. “Whether they do or not, I’m leaving.”
“I’m not staying either,” said a fifth while passing Nell’s desk, wiping at her eyes with a tissue. “I’m packing up. This job isn’t worth my life.”
“Better safe than sorry,” said another. “I’m staying long enough to type up my resignation, and then I’m gone.”
Nell tucked her hair behind her ears and gaped at her typewriter, her panic blooming into a thorn of guilt, that thorn scratching into the soft tissue of her heart. Barrett was an idiot. He’d lost his goddamn mind. But he’d done everything to protect her, but what he’d succeeded in doing was disturbing dozens of lives.
“Well, I’m waiting for the cops.” Another voice. “Anything I can do to help them catch this piece of shit, I’ll do it.”
Nell squinted at the keys of her machine, trying her damnedest not to cry. That momentary flash of guilt was gone, panic winning out once more. Because the police, the police . . .
She looked to the dispersing huddle of girls. Harriet Lamont was waving them off, looking beyond frazzled. “They’re on their way,” she told them over and over again. “They’ll be here any minute. Just sit tight. We’re safe if we stick together. Everyone just sit down!” Nobody was listening. Hysteria kept them from hearing anything beyond their own terrified chattering. Their lives were in danger. The Son of Sam had stepped out of the morning headlines and materialized in the middle of their place of work.
They buzzed around the call-center floor while Nell sat frozen at her desk. What, exactly, had happened last night, and to whom? Whose blood was all over the clothes she had shoved into a trash bag and dropped into the Dumpster below Barrett’s window? What if the police showed up and dug through the trash? What if one of the homeless bums had discovered them and reported their find? What if the cops were already at the apartment? What if Barrett had run . . . had run and they had drawn their guns, drawn and shot, shot and hit him, hit him and killed . . . killed . . .
She pressed her hand tight over her mouth, holding back a cry, but it tore free from her throat when a hand grazed her shoulder. Nell jumped, exhaled a strained yelp. Savannah stood over her, wiping her nose on a tissue.
“Oh God, Nell . . .” Her voice was strained with emotion. “What are we going to do?” Nell mutely shook her head. She had no idea what they were going to do; all she knew was that she had to get home. Savannah tipped her eyes up to the ceiling. She was trying not to cry, though it was clear from the puffiness of her face that she’d done plenty of crying already. “I just can’t believe it. Adriana . . .”
That little slut had come into the Cabana Club just before Nell had meant to leave.
“And Mary Ann.”
Nell’s lungs deflated, emptying like a punctured balloon.
And Mary Ann? Both of them in one night?
“Oh no . . .” Nell whispered.
“And so far apart from each other. They must have been followed, don’t you think?”
Nell said nothing. Numb. Hardly hearing a word.
“They said they were going to the Cabana Club last night.” Savannah sniffled, trying to hold it together. “They invited me, but I had to . . . I . . .” Overwhelmed, she pressed the tissue over her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut. Tears streaked down her cheeks. “Oh my God, what’s happening to this city? How can anyone keep living here after this?”
How could Nell and Barrett stay in their same apartment? How could Barrett avoid capture after what he’d done? They would find him. The police would question Nell, and they’d see it written all over her face. Maybe they’d see it all over her. She had left the apartment in a dazed rush. She hadn’t bothered checking for stains on the clothes she’d ripped from their hangers. What if Barrett hadn’t only soiled the clothes she’d found on the floor but wiped his hands on all her things and she hadn’t noticed?
Nell shot up from her seat. She needed to get out of here, go back home. But just as Nell was about to excuse herself so she could check her clothes in the bathroom, Miriam stalled her exit when she appeared next to Savannah. “It’s not the city, Vanna, it’s this goddamn office. Someone is picking us off.” She shot Nell a look, and while she couldn’t have known who had committed last night’s crimes, Nell felt accused. Because why was Miriam looking so aggravated? Did Miriam know that Nell had been at the Cabana Club too? What if Mary Ann had spotted her and called Miriam from the pay phone outside?
Guess who’s here. Sweaty old Nell is cozying up to your bartender. Uh-huh. He’s about to set sail on the U.S.S. Sullivan.
“Whether you stay or go is up to you,” Miriam told Savannah. “But I’m cutting out of here, packing a bag, and driving up to my folks’ place in Montauk until they catch this goddamn loon.”
Savannah dabbed at her eyes with a nod.
“Come with me,” Miriam insisted. “We’ll take the train to your place first, then go to mine and take my pop’s car. There’s no splitting up. You’d have to be crazy . . .”
“But the police . . .” Savannah blubbered.
“We’ll stay for the police,” Miriam said. “Lamont’s bound to have a fucking heart attack if we don’t. But then we’re out of here.”
“We’ll get fired,” Savannah concluded.
“Jesus, good !” Miriam scoffed.
Nell’s focus drifted from Savannah to Miriam and back again, waiting for an invitation to join them. She was their friend now, after all. They had invited her to lunch, to happy hour. Miriam had complimented her on her hair ribbon, and Savannah had come up to Nell’s desk just now, searching for solace. Certainly they’d be concerned for her safety too. It was just as dangerous for Nell as it was for anyone else.
But Nell couldn’t go to Montauk. She had to make sure Barrett was okay, that the police hadn’t found him. He needed to know that she wasn’t mad at him. She wouldn’t leave him. No. Despite what he’d done, she never would. Maybe she could talk him into an impromptu vacation. Just a few days down the coast, until the cops tossed these murders into the pile with all the others. Most crimes that happened in the city never got solved, right? With four to five murders per day, it was easy for the police to throw their hands up in surrender, and for the most part, it seemed like that’s just what they did. A few days away would do the trick, it had to, but she had to get to Barrett first.
“I have to do something before I leave town,” Nell told them, an excuse at the ready. “But I can—”
“Come on, Vanna,” Miriam cut her off, pulling Savannah away from Nell’s desk by her elbow. “We’ll see you later.”
“If I don’t see you before you leave, be safe, Nell,” Savannah pleaded, her voice still warbling with unshed tears.
Nell opened her mouth to say something, but she was struck dumb as they both turned away. Miriam’s arm was around Savannah’s shoulders. Savannah slunk along like a petulant child. Be safe. Was that all Nell was worth, some halfhearted warning? Some fleeting hope that she wouldn’t be the next one to get chopped up in a Brooklyn alley?
She swallowed the saliva that had gone bitter in her mouth.
And someone had had the audacity to call her a liar?
The memory of that statement, typed up on her transcription, gave her an emotional zing somewhere between sadness and rage. Savannah and Miriam were supposed to be different. She had convinced herself that they actually cared. But no. They were fake, just like the rest of them.
Like Mary Ann.
Frauds, just like Linnie Carter.
Nell looked down at her hands, which were balled into tight fists. She stared at the keys of the typewriter, her eyes fixed upon the H—H for hurt. For hate. For hopelessness. H for Harriet Lamont, the woman who had claimed to be like her. Who had told her to change what she didn’t like. Who had told her to step out of her comfort zone and make some friends; if Nell just did that, things would be better. Well, Nell had taken that advice, she’d tried to make friends, and now everything was ruined, all because Harriet Lamont thought she and Nell were somehow alike.
That rageful voice slithered through her mind.
Stupid know-it-all bitch.
Why was Nell blaming herself for everything that had happened? She was a gutless nobody, a little brown mouse who would never have done the things she had done if it hadn’t been for her boss putting crazy, impossible ideas in her head.
This was all Harriet Lamont’s doing.
She was the one to blame, telling Nell that she had to change her life for the better.
Nell couldn’t sit still a minute longer. She let her fingers unfurl just shy of her typewriter before rising from her chair. She pivoted on the soles of her new sandals—shoes that she had considered cute less than a day before but that now made her feel stupid and out of place. With her head pounding to the rhythm of her heart, she caught sight of Lamont out of the corner of her eye. The boss looked about ready to tear out her hair as the phones rang off the hook, not a single call being answered. She waved her hands at the occasional girl. Sit down, sit down, be calm. Nobody wanted to be calm. The whirlwind of panic made it the perfect time to duck into the elevator and get back to the apartment. That steel box would sweep her down to street level without a single person noticing. It would unleash her on the world, let her get back to what was important: her brother.
She gathered herself up, pulled her sweater tight across her chest, and walked to the elevator. Jabbing her finger against the down button, she closed her eyes, steadied her breathing. But rather than being washed over with calm, the memory of Lamont dragging her into her office blazed bright against her eyelids. She would tell the police about Linnie Carter, about Nell’s lie. Like a wolf hunting the weakest sheep, Harriet Lamont had singled her out before, and she’d do it again.
Lamont was the worst one of all.
Nell shot a look over her shoulder, her fingernails biting into the meat of her palms. There wasn’t a single girl within a hundred feet of her. Lamont’s door was less than a few steps away. She bit her bottom lip, cast another look about, and ducked into the office with Lamont’s name stenciled in gold upon the door. She had to make things right with Barrett, and she knew exactly how to do it.
Less than a minute later, Nell snuck out of the boss’s office in time to see a pair of detectives step out of the elevator.
“Nell?” Harriet Lamont gave Nell a curious glance as she rushed to meet the police. Why was Nell standing outside of her office door?
Nell swallowed hard and nodded. “Ms. Lamont, I have some information about Adriana and Mary Ann . . . ,” she said. Nell would be the first to grant those detectives an interview, the first to give them a lead. The girls had invited her to the Cabana Club, after all, an invitation Nell had passed on because she had some shopping to do. They had warned her about that creepy guy Dave, the one who frequented the bar. Dave was the guy the police needed to focus on. Maybe he was the guy who had killed Linnie Carter too.
. . .
Nell sat on the edge of Barrett’s wingback chair, waiting for him to return home. Her attention was fixed on her favorite childhood photo of the both of them. It had been taken in the summer of ’58, only a few weeks before Barrett stopped talking. And while Nell adored the photo of them standing together with their arms draped across each other’s shoulders, Beary clutched to her chest, it never failed to bring up bitter memories of their father’s funeral. Of the way their grandmother had whispered that she was going to take her away.
Their mother hadn’t seemed the least bit sad about their father’s death until they arrived at the cemetery. She had hissed at them in the car, craning her neck to glare at them from the front seat. “You keep your big mouths shut,” she had warned. “And don’t talk to any of those people. You hear me?” She spit the word people out like it was tainted with something foul. As though their father’s family wasn’t good enough for her. As though they had never been good enough and she was relieved that she’d never have to see their faces again. “They never liked us, and they aren’t going to start doing that now that your father is gone.”
Stone-faced, Faye Sullivan stepped out of Leigh’s old car. She pulled the door open for Nell and Barrett and turned toward a small black-clad group that was already gathered on the cemetery’s grass. It was only upon seeing Leigh’s family standing together that Faye’s emotions came flooding out. Nell and Barrett had been crying together in their room for what felt like weeks, while their mother hadn’t shed a tear—not a single one until right then.
Clasping hands, Nell and Barrett decided that adults handled sadness in strange and confusing ways. Perhaps when they grew older, their sadness would come in fitful, manic bursts as well.
Now, thumbing the soft edge of the photo in her hand, Nell realized that, as a grown-up, emotions hit her in a similar way to how they had come over their mother. Faye Sullivan had always been erratic. She was happy one minute, screaming the next, collapsed in a fit of anguished tears moments after that. Nell remembered nights when their mom would weep while their dad held her tight in his arms.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Leigh!” she’d cried. “It’s like I’m two people. It’s like I have no control over the things I do!”
That had been back when Faye was still herself. But the longer her emotional highs and lows continued, the less she thought there was something wrong with her and the more she was sure the problem lay with everyone else. That’s when she started smelling like booze and sleeping until three in the afternoon. Those were the days when Nell and Barrett would listen to the television through paper-thin walls at all hours of the night. Their mom had no regard for the fact that it was bedtime, that they had to get up for school, that the TV was keeping them up.
Those mornings were tough. Sometimes, when Nell dozed off in class, she’d get a ruler across the tops of her hands. Once, when she had fallen asleep, her third-grade math teacher, Mrs. Brannigan, had shoved her awake. The bitch made Nell put on a rubber pig nose and stand on top of a desk like a flamingo for the rest of the hour. Ten minutes before the bell, old No Shenanigans Brannigan had to take a call in the front office. She left the classroom after warning Nell that if she moved a muscle, she’d be in even bigger trouble than she already was. As soon as she was gone, Nell’s classmates pelted her with spitballs and oinked with glee. Hey, pig! Nell moved all her muscles. She ran out of the room sobbing, only to crash chest-first into Brannigan’s trunk-like legs. That prompted Brannigan to call Faye Sullivan, complaining about Nell’s inability to focus and follow instructions. Brannigan had even revealed her tactics for keeping Nell awake, as if satisfied that she’d humiliated Nell with her unorthodox punishment. But instead of Faye Sullivan raging at the instructor for disgracing her daughter, she had grabbed Nell by the arm and dragged her out to the car. In the parking lot, she slapped her across the face before shoving her into the backseat.
“They all saw up your dress,” she yelled on the way home. “You stood there like a dunce while all those boys were looking at your panties. You probably liked it, didn’t you? Filthy.”
Faye’s mood swings had been swift and terrifying. Sometimes Nell felt that she was falling into the same pattern as her mother, and that’s exactly why Barrett kept her close, why he had done all those terrible things. He was protecting her from what at times seemed like an inevitable destiny. Perhaps Nell had been born to repeat history. To become a carbon copy of the monster that had spit her out wet and naked unto the world. It was no coincidence that Faye was a single letter shy of fate.
Nell frowned at the photo, wishing that, by some sort of magic, she and Barrett had remained in that marginally happier time. At least back then she had someone to talk to, someone who would answer back. Barrett had been funny. Every other sentence that came out of his mouth was a joke, something to amuse his kid sister. Even during the hard times, he knew how to make her smile. But Barrett had recently grown into his own kind of monster—one sculpted by anger and a need for vindication. He wanted reprisal, fantasized about squaring accounts with a woman he cared nothing for. His was a blood feud, and if he couldn’t have it with their mother, he’d settle on the blood of someone else, even if it cost Nell her sanity.
Barrett appeared in the apartment as silently as always, having climbed up the fire escape just outside his bedroom window. Nell found herself looking into the eyes of her stern and looming brother. Her only friend and confidante. For half a second, she wanted to scream at him, wanted to demand an explanation for Adriana and Mary Ann. She had begged him not to repeat what he’d done to Linnie, had implored him to trust her, to let her make things better for the both of them. He’d purposefully ignored her wishes. She had every right to be enraged. And yet, rather than waiting for a scribbled apology, she murmured “I’m sorry” before he ever reached for that small yellow pad.
She looked down at the photograph balanced on her knee. No explanation was necessary. She knew why he had done it. She knew it was partly her fault.
“I guess I should have seen this coming,” she murmured. “I should have talked to you at the club, told you why I was there.” She peeked up at him. He appeared unmoved, his arms rigid at his sides. “I saw you. I know you followed me there. I was angry for a minute. I felt betrayed that you’d do that, that you’d tail me like some . . .” Her words trailed off. She didn’t want to finish her sentence, didn’t want to call it the way she saw it, no matter how true it was.
“Anyway, I talked to the police . . . at the office, I mean. Because Lamont had sent for them and nobody was allowed to leave until they gave a statement. I don’t think they’ll come here, but we should leave regardless.”
Barrett’s expression flickered between blank and dissatisfied. Nell wasn’t surprised. She had predicted his response.
“But I know that if we leave without you finishing what you started, things will get worse rather than better,” she told him. “I know that you have to do this, that this is your way of working through the hurt. But I know how to fix it, Barrett. I know how to make it right for you.”
Barrett stood by, waiting for Nell’s big reveal. She rose from the chair, moved across the apartment to her purse, and brought out a folded rectangle of pale yellow paper. She unfolded it and narrowed her eyes at the name in the top left-hand corner: HARRIET LAMONT. It was a blank check. They could make it out for a hundred thousand dollars if they wanted. But Nell hadn’t stolen it to hack into Lamont’s finances. It was for the few lines that followed Lamont’s name. There, printed in crisp black ink, was her boss’s home address.
“This is what you want,” she said, extending her arm for him to take the check from her fingers. “She’s the source of all of this, the seed of everything you hate.”
Because if Barrett wanted to kill a mother figure, there was no better surrogate than the one who sat behind a shiny oak desk.
. . .
Harriet Lamont lived in a turn-of-the-century colonial on a tree-lined street in Sheepshead Bay. Nell and Barrett took a cab rather than the train to avoid being spotted, the both of them staring out the window like a pair of wide-eyed kids. Nell gave the cabbie an address a few numbers away from Lamont’s place to keep him from stopping in front of the house. That, and it would be better he not have Lamont’s exact address in his log book. The last thing they needed was to be fingered by some washed-up taxi driver looking for his fifteen minutes of fame.
The cab rolled to a stop a little after nine p.m. Nell paid the driver without so much as a thank-you, then slid out of the backseat behind Barrett. The street was darker than it should have been, a handful of streetlights burnt out overhead. The one across the street from Lamont’s house looked as though it was on its last leg, shining a pale yellow circle onto the pavement, not bright enough to illuminate much of anything beyond its sad saffron glow. Barrett motioned for Nell to follow him. Across the street and a couple of houses down from Lamont’s place, they took up a hiding spot in the middle of a thicket of pines in someone’s front yard.
Lamont’s house looked nothing like the one Nell and Barrett had grown up in, but there was something about the pitch of the roof, about the way the interior light filtered through sheer curtains in the front windows that reminded them both of the dark closet they’d spent so much time in as kids. It wasn’t their home, but sometimes stand-ins were unavoidable. Sometimes the significance of an act was more important than the person or thing being acted upon.
They had been halfway to Sheepshead Bay when Nell started to understand what she had set in motion. This particular crime wouldn’t be another senseless alleyway killing. This victim wouldn’t be just another pretty face. Harriet Lamont was a successful businesswoman, an executive working for a prestigious Manhattan firm. Adriana and Mary Ann were already plastered across the front page of the papers, and Linnie didn’t go without mention in those articles. They were calling it a triple homicide, a hit on Rambert & Bertram, a series of murders that had office girls across the city in a panic. Because if a place like R & B could be targeted, that meant every other office was just as vulnerable. But Lamont? Her death would be splashed across the news cycle as inevitably as her blood would fan all over the interior walls of her home. The police would question every R & B girl again, this time far more thoroughly. They’d interview every girl’s boyfriend and husband and family member in their frantic search for leads. And Nell wasn’t sure if she was quite as good of an actress as she had thought.
And then there was the fact that Nell had somehow been transported to the scene of this future crime. Barrett had become a whirlwind of movement after Nell had handed him Lamont’s address and somehow she had ended up in the cab right next to her brother. It may have been that, without handing over Lamont’s address, scribbled on a scrap piece of gold paper, Barrett wouldn’t have been able to communicate where it was he wanted to go; and that scrawled address would have been evidence.
Or maybe it was because Nell had initiated this chain of events herself—something that, up until now, she had nothing to do with at all. Linnie Carter’s death had come as a shock. Mary Ann Thomas and Adriana Esposito had sent her into a panic. But Harriet Lamont’s murder was all her idea. If anyone had been surprised by the suggestion, it was Barrett. Though his surprise had quickly melted into a full-on grin.
The Sullivan siblings were going to have themselves a proper family outing. It seemed as though the last time they had gone anywhere together, it had been to bid their dead father farewell.
But now, sitting among the scratchy pine branches with her eyes fixed on Harriet Lamont’s lovely whitewashed home, Nell was starting to lose her nerve. Who was she kidding? She wasn’t brave like Barrett. She was a spineless office worker who didn’t have two friends to rub together. A social outcast who was happy to read the same book over and over in a silent apartment rather than go out to places like the Cabana Club.
She was invisible.
A figment of her own imagination.
Nell Sullivan did not exist.
“Barrett.” She whispered his name, but despite her hushed tone, he shot her an angry look.
Shut your yap. He didn’t have to write it. She could read his scowl. Someone might hear you.
Nell bit her bottom lip and looked down at her hands. “I don’t think I can do this. I mean, you can do this. You need this. She deserves it . . .” Her whisper tapered off to nothing.
The bitch deserves it, she thought. Putting me down, making me feel like less of a person.
Barrett could spend months cutting down every girl in Rambert & Bertram, every alleyway kill increasing his chances of being caught. But if you took down the queen, you destroyed the hive. If Lamont was dead, all those pretty, brainless sheep would realize that even the powerful could be killed. That even leaders were susceptible to destruction. They would learn that their tall shoes and fancy clothes, their pretty faces and perfect hair, didn’t count for a damn thing. If someone wanted them dead, they were dead. It was a perfect lesson to jam down their throats, but that didn’t mean Nell could stomach watching her boss get killed.
“Maybe you should do it on your own.” She whispered the suggestion, breathing it out from the corner of her mouth. “Don’t you get it? I’ll just screw it up. And we can’t screw it up. If something goes wrong, she might see us, and then . . .”
And then it would all be over. Done. And Barrett wouldn’t be the only one they carted off to prison. They’d appear side by side on the news, the bloodthirsty Sullivan siblings. Everyone would gasp.
He was such a quiet boy.
She was such an unremarkable nobody.
Such a mouse.
Nobody ever suspected that he could . . . that she would . . . that her brother had . . . oh dear, oh my, oh goodness, oh God.
But her protest didn’t sway Barrett’s resolve; it only made him more determined to have her accompany him inside. They just had to wait for the front-room lights to snap off. And would it be so bad? Nell was yearning for excitement, for some sort of change, and what bigger change could someone make than to become a member of a murderous duo? They’d be like Bonnie and Clyde, drifting from city to city, from state to state. She’d pick up an odd job here and there to make ends meet, while he hunkered down in cheap roadside motel rooms to write. That, and murder had its financial advantages. Heck, she had Lamont’s check tucked into the pocket of her skirt, and surely such a fancy dame had cash and jewelry they could pawn.
It would be great.
They’d be inseparable.
Bound by blood.
“Fine,” she whispered, “I’ll look for things we can sell while you go after Lamont. You do understand that we’ll have to leave after this, right?” She shot him a look, desperate to see acknowledgment in his eyes. “We can’t stay in Brooklyn if we do this, Barrett. We have to go, make a better life somewhere else, or they’ll figure it out.”
Barrett stared at her with an expressionless face, and for a moment Nell was afraid that he was going to laugh. Was she acting crazy? Was she being completely paranoid? Did Barrett think blowing out of New York was a stupid idea?
No. She wasn’t nuts. This was all part of the plan, part of what had to be done. She hadn’t considered it before, but maybe making the life she wanted included getting out of Brooklyn. Getting out of New York. Possibly leaving the entire Eastern Seaboard behind.
But what if Barrett shook his head and refused? What if, despite it all, he told her that she could go if she wanted, but he was staying in Brooklyn because he had found a girl? What if he brought that girl back to their apartment and locked Nell in the closet and made her listen, listen, listen to her own headboard bang against the paper-thin apartment wall, hot tears searing her cheeks, Barrett’s name sputtering past her lips in broken whispers as their mother cried out in ecstasy, as their father rotted in his coffin, as her brother fucked a girl, if only to remind Nell that it could never be, would never be her?
Barrett’s hard glare softened. He shook his head at her, as though reading her mind.
They aren’t going to figure it out.
No, they wouldn’t. Because Barrett knew what he was doing. He didn’t make mistakes.
But she had to go inside with him, if not to make sure he was okay, then to prove to him that she loved him more than anyone else. To prove that she was willing to do anything to keep him close. She’d watch him slaughter her supervisor if it made him happy, if it made him whole, if it made them one.
Lamont’s front light blinked off.
Both Nell and Barrett turned their attention back to the house, staring at the darkened windows. They would wait another half hour, and within the passing of those thirty minutes, Nell would convince herself that this was no longer a choice. This was something she needed to do, if not to prove her love to her brother, then to confirm that she was the opposite of what she’d been raised to believe herself to be.
She wasn’t worthless. She was strong.
She wasn’t a burden. She was an accomplice.
Barrett sprang from behind the branches of the tree and dashed across the street without so much as a nod of warning. Nell gasped when he broke away from her. Before she knew what she was doing, she was stumbling across the road, trying to catch up to him, if only to avoid being left alone. She dashed around the side of Lamont’s house, mimicking his movements. She kept close to the clapboard and ducked beneath the windowsills, just in case someone still lingered in the rooms beyond the glass.
When they reached the back-door steps, Barrett froze, then shot a look over his shoulder at Nell. His expression was incredulous, as though Nell had just sucked in air and screamed, alerting the entire neighborhood to their whereabouts. Nell shook her head, not understanding why he was looking her that way. It was then that her gaze faltered on a pet flap cut into the bottom of the back door. She stammered into the silence, not having even considered the possibility of a dog. And what if Lamont had a husband? What if he had a gun? Nell just about choked on those details, things that hadn’t crossed her mind until it was far too late.
But before she could picture Barrett getting mauled by a rabid Doberman or being shot by a man in his pajamas, Barrett rolled his eyes at her stupid mistake and motioned for her to come forward. Sure, there might be a dog, but at least getting in the house would be easy. And yeah, there might be a spouse sleeping inside one of the rooms with a pistol at arm’s length, but as soon as Barrett wrestled the gun away, the Sullivans would be more dangerous than ever.
Nell exhaled and crouched in front of the pet door, expecting the flap to stay put, kept in place by an interior plastic locking cover. But the thing gave way as soon as Nell brushed her fingers across it. Lamont had left it unsecured.
Crazy. Barrett’s face was easy to read. You’d think there wasn’t a serial killer on the loose.
Nell nearly bellowed out a laugh, but covered her mouth with her free hand, trying to contain her sudden pang of amusement. She stuck an arm inside the house, shoved her shoulder up against the top of the pet door, and, after a few seconds of fumbling for it, threw the lock.
Barrett edged into the kitchen, not touching a thing. It was Nell who, in passing, pulled a knife from the butcher block on the kitchen counter. She wasn’t sure whether Barrett had brought any sort of weapon. Better safe than sorry—that’s what their father used to say.
Nell slunk through Lamont’s kitchen, searched for a dog’s water bowl, for chew toys or a bag of dry food or a pet bed. The pet door was big enough for her to unlock the door without much trouble, meaning the dog was big enough to attack an intruder. But there were no signs of any animal, be it a dog or otherwise. Lamont probably bought the place with the doggie door already installed and never bothered getting it replaced. Again, Nell was struck by the urge to laugh. If that was true, it was a fantastic bit of luck; that bossy hag of a supervisor could just as easily have left the door wide open for them to come in.
Successful, but stupid, Nell thought. Probably slept her way to the top.
Creeping through the living room, Nell allowed her attention to drift over Lamont’s various trinkets. There was a crystal table lighter like the one she had in her office. It was perched on top of a few magazines in front of the TV. A smattering of porcelain figurines depicting Rockwellian children and cherubic angels dotted various pieces of furniture. Those reminded Nell of their grandmother’s house, though they never did visit much. The walls sported framed still-life paintings. One was of a bowl holding a bushel of red apples, a single green one among the others. You aren’t like the other girls. Another was of a vase full of sunflowers. They weren’t the kind of paintings you could buy secondhand; more like student work, maybe by a high school–age kid with the fleeting hope of becoming the next da Vinci. Or maybe Picasso, like Linnie Carter’s cubist face.
Nell leaned in to read the signature on the apple painting. A pair of initials: LL. The year next to the initials read ’73. It was there, beneath the apple painting, that Nell spotted yet another detail she had failed to consider. Poised on top of a side table among a few figurines and a wicker basket full of waxed fruit was a framed photograph. In it, Harriet Lamont hugged two girls who looked strikingly similar to her. One looked about Nell’s age, while the other was younger, maybe ten or eleven. Daughters, she thought. Harriet Lamont has daughters.
Struck by the detail, Nell reeled around, searching for Barrett, and for half a second she wanted to scream. No, we can’t do this. She has a family. We’ll find another mother figure, someone else. But that half second was long enough to let that sliver of perfection embed itself beneath her skin—a festering splinter of unrivaled faultlessness. Because what mother didn’t have a family?
Only their own.
Nell squeezed her eyes shut against the slow bloom of familiar pain opening up behind her right eye. She clamped her fingers around the hilt of the knife she’d drawn from the butcher block and continued through the darkness of the house. Barrett climbed the stairs ahead of her. They were silent beneath his feet, as though he had somehow become weightless, but they breathed an occasional groan beneath her shoes.
Every time the risers whined, Barrett shot her a wild, wide-eyed look.
Shut up! he screamed without sound.
Quit your crying, Faye Sullivan hissed into her ear. Or I’ll give you something to cry about!
More art lined the upstairs hall. On one side, mountain scenes and the high-rise buildings of New York City. A stream cutting through a forest of aspens. On the other, a child’s renditions of a more human experience. A group of crooked friends holding hands in a crooked circle. A house with puffs of chimney smoke and pink cotton-candy trees behind a white picket fence. A picture of a two-dimensional girl and boy, both seeming as though they should have been closer together, yet they had been drawn unnervingly far apart.
Cry for the rest of your life, Nell. But you do it in your room. I don’t want to hear it, you understand me? You’re alone, and so what?
She looked away from the drawings, a pang of something indefinable twisting her insides into tight, springlike coils.
There was something wrong with this house.
Something that was drawing out her own forgotten ghosts.
Her father with blood dribbling down his face.
Her mom with a short-handled baseball bat held fast in her hands.
Her brother sleeping on the couch in his wet bathing suit, not the least bit disturbed by their mother’s high-pitched screams or the way she bolted from room to room, in search of something, before grabbing the phone and yelling into the receiver.
Help, please help!
Nell standing silent, motionless on the threshold of the open back door.
Oh God, oh God, oh God, someone help me!
Nell regarded the dark hall, her eyes stopping on the little girl who stood in her open bedroom doorway. She looked like a phantom in her pale pink ruffles. A figment of Nell’s imagination? Was this girl a reflection of what she had once been? Young and unspoiled, innocent with untamed hopes. All at once, Nell wanted to rescue her childhood ghost from that house, wanted to save herself from the inevitable fate that awaited her. The girl’s blond hair framed a milk-white face, her eyes wide with choking surprise. That pretty face, the brilliant hair, the girlish flounce of her rose-colored sleeper. The sadness that had unspooled within Nell’s chest settled into cloying disgust. Because who would she be saving? This girl was already tainted. She was destined to become just like the others. No, this girl was not a figment. She was real.
Harriet Lamont’s young daughter stood frozen on the threshold of her open bedroom door, chewing air, ready to scream.
All at once, Barrett came bounding down the hall.
Nell’s grip on the kitchen knife increased.
As soon as she felt him rush by her, her migraine bloomed bright enough to render the hallway black. But she could hear the screaming.
Just like her mother. Crying. Shrieking. Wailing as paramedics rushed into their New Jersey home.
Oh God, she had wept. My baby, my angel.
. . .
Late night had emptied the train car of nearly everyone. Those who rode along in the same space as Nell kept their distance. She felt eyes on her—they’re staring—but every time she looked up, the riders averted their eyes to read the graffiti scratched onto the windows, scrawled onto the walls: WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU’LL BE.
She was almost back at the Kings Highway station. She just had to keep it together for a few more minutes. Keep it together so that no one would know what Barrett had done.
She had blacked out, sure she hadn’t seen a thing. But bits of recollection were coming faster now.
A pink nightgown turning red.
Harriet Lamont’s hysterical screams. Barrett embedding the blade of the kitchen knife Nell had pulled from the block into the soft spot just below her boss’s throat.
Nell had lost her nerve. She had turned and run.
She had abandoned her brother, too frightened by what was happening. Too terrified to stop and realize that she was doing to him exactly what she’d feared he’d do to her. And now, on a train hurtling back toward King’s Highway, she could hardly keep from shrieking at what was playing out within her mind.
Because somewhere back in Sheepshead Bay, Barrett was covered in blood.
Somewhere back there, they would find him, and they’d take him away.
“Oh God.” The whisper escaped her throat as she stared down at the photo of the two of them. Somehow, it had made it into her pocket along with Harriet Lamont’s blank check. Now, the edges of the black-and-white print were tarnished with sticky rust, smeared with the blood that must have splashed up and onto her hands while Barrett was carving Lamont’s little girl a bright new smile.
“Oh God,” she whispered again, because there was no coming back from this. This was too much. It would have been safer to travel in the opposite direction of home, to go to Coney Island and figure out what the hell to do next. But there she was, running toward the first place the police would look. And if Barrett didn’t come home, if he stayed out because he was upset she’d abandoned him the way she had, there would be no time to run. She’d start packing as soon as she got to the apartment. She’d wait forever, for as long as it took. But Nell knew it was only a matter of time. The cops would find their way there.
She studied the old photograph, did her best to ignore the eyes that were crawling across her skin. The brakes of the B train squealed as it came to a jerking halt. The automatic double doors hissed open. The hollow jingle of a single coin rattling inside a tin cup sounded from the opposite side of the car. One train stop shy of her own, it began its incessant clatter. Nell closed her eyes and tried to block it out. But it got louder; it came closer, underscored by the shuffling of feet.
“Please.” The black man murmured around his own sloppy drunkenness.
“Please.” It seemed to be the only word he knew, that single syllable as sour as his stink.
You give to him and he remember you.
This was the beggar’s subway line. She’d given him money once, and now he wanted more.
Maybe he buy knife and kill . . .
The homeless man stopped in front of her. The rattle of his cup came to a curious halt.
Do not give to him.
He watched her for a long moment, as though recognizing her in kind—the receiver regarding the giver. He jingled his cup again, but his action was preoccupied, distracted, a shadow of what it had originally been. He remained fixed on her for a beat longer before he made a sudden move, his free hand catching her by the arm.
“Help,” he croaked. “Help.”
Nell started at the contact. She tried to pull away from his grimy touch.
“Get away from me,” she cried, but his grip was tight.
“Help!” He was insisting now, not willing to take no for an answer. Nell’s eyes went wide. She couldn’t believe it. Of all nights, she was about to get mugged.
“Stop it!” she yelled. “Let go!”
“Help!” he bellowed back, his breath stinking of booze and rotten teeth.
The people on the opposite side of the train were gaping now, but not a single one of them made a move to offer aid. They looked at one another as if unsure of the scene that was clearly an assault. Losers! The word hissed through Nell’s head. Stupid idiot rubbernecking losers! He could kill me and they wouldn’t care! It could be Sam and they’d watch him slash me up!
Nell tried to shove the man away, but he refused to release her arm. His dirty fingers groped at the weave of her sweater sleeve, continuing to croak help and please like a spastic parrot. Nell struggled against him and eventually managed to reach into her purse. As soon as the homeless man saw her hand disappear, he let go and took a few stumbling backward steps, his hands held up in apology, as though she’d been the one who had assaulted him.
“Take it!” she yelled, then reeled back and threw loose change in his face. The coins bounced off his filthy clothes and tinged against the metal floor.
The homeless man didn’t move. He gaped instead.
The train began to slow. Nell bounded off the plastic subway seat. She shoved her way past him, squeezed through the automatic doors before they were fully open, and ran full-sprint through the station until she was out on the street. Half a block from the station, a few members of the Puerto Rican bicycle gang sat on a curb smoking cigarettes and drinking beer out of cans. Their bikes lay beside them like sleeping horses. One lifted an arm to point her out to his friends. They sat in relative silence as she bolted past them. One of them murmured “Que carajo? ” as she ran by. She glanced over her shoulder, noticed a couple of them rising, looking after her as though ready to give chase.
Nearly tripping over a crack in the sidewalk, she kept running, and crossed her fingers that, by some unexplained miracle, Barrett would already be at the apartment waiting for her, if not to assure her that he was okay, then to fend off the boys she was sure were following her home.
You should have seen this coming, she thought, pushing herself as hard as she could. You shouldn’t have thrown those rocks. You should have left them alone.
“Hey, bibliotecaria!” one of them yelled from behind her.
They were on their bikes now. She could hear the clicking of their freewheels as they advanced, getting closer.
She just about leapt up the crumbling concrete steps of her building and tore open the door that led into the lobby. There was a man sleeping at the base of the stairwell. She was moving too fast to avoid him. One of her loafers came to a stop against his thinly T-shirted abdomen. “You!” he screamed as she leapt over him. “Look at what you did! Shame on you!” His voice bellowed in the cavernous apartment lobby. “Shame on you, girl!”
Reaching the second-story landing, she whipped around the rickety newel post and up the final flight of stairs. She scrambled to find her keys, surprised that she still had her purse after everything that had happened. Half its contents spilled around her feet in her haste. Bills and receipts, a pack of Wrigley’s Doublemint, and Barrett’s small yellow notepad. What? Why . . . ? But there was no switchblade, even though she was sure she had dropped it into her bag. Sure, at least, that she’d had it the night she had met Dave at the Cabana Club.
“You see a girl come in here?” A Spanish accent.
“Yeah! She kicked me!” The man downstairs.
“Yo, where’d she go, man?” Another voice, another gang member.
“She tried to kill me!” the man insisted. “Put her foot straight into my gut! I got cirrhosis! I’m a dyin’ man!”
“Bibliotecaria! ” a third voice boomed. “Hey, chica! We just wanna talk!”
Nell managed to unlock her door with a trembling hand. She stumbled inside the dark apartment, kicking a few of her spilled items inside. She slammed the door behind her, threw all the locks into place. With her back flush against the door, she looked around her dilapidated home for signs of her brother.
Was he here?
Had he returned?
Was he still at Lamont’s place?
Someone must have heard Lamont scream. It had only been for a few seconds, but someone must have heard it, someone must have called the cops.
Nell closed her eyes, the distant wail of a police siren curdling her blood. Above it, a man sang opera out an open window, trying to blot out the underlying harmonies of the Jackson 5 coming from a few doors down.
Her eyes fixed themselves on Barrett’s empty chair. He had abandoned his book on the threadbare cushion—the same book, the only book he ever read. Beary was sitting in her brother’s place, as though waiting for the both of them to return.
Barrett was just like their dad. Leigh Sullivan had read and reread The Velveteen Rabbit to them what seemed like a hundred times. They had had an old wingback chair at home too, one that looked remarkably similar to the one Barrett had picked out at the secondhand store. Nell shut her eyes against the memory of his casket glinting in the summer sun. She tried to block out her mother’s hysterical weeping. Tried to look elsewhere in the recollection she had played over and over inside her head for so long.
She strained to do it, urging her four-year-old self to avert her gaze. To block out their mother’s cries—only to spot a difference she hadn’t noticed until now. There, in her mind’s eye, just beyond her father’s casket, was an identical coffin, save for its size. Present-tense Nell and her four-year-old shadow simultaneously gasped. She pushed herself away from the apartment door. Shook her head, not understanding that newly excavated shred of memory.
But it was only Daddy.
It was only him.
She twisted where she stood, letting her attention settle for a second time onto a chair that looked so much like their father’s. Her old bear continued to stare at her, its glass eyes blank, soulless, horrible rather than comforting. She grabbed the toy off the chair, her mother’s wailing echoing inside her head like a scream in an empty room.
My baby, my angel, my sweet little . . .
“Barrett?” The name slid past her lips in a whisper.
She turned away from his chair, numb.
Because it didn’t make sense. Why wasn’t he here yet?
Because he’s dead.
Bullshit. He was alive. There was no way the cops would have gotten to Lamont’s house so fast, no way he would have sat down and waited for them.
Nell stumbled into her room, dazed by the things she was imagining as if they’d really happened. The little casket beside her father’s looked real enough in her memory, but that memory was false. A lie. Only one life had been memorialized that day—her father’s. Their father’s. Nell and Barrett had stood hand in hand together as the coffin had been lowered into the ground.
Except it hadn’t been his hand.
The suggestion slithered into her brain.
Four-year-old Nell squinted against the glare of the sun while present-day Nell squinted at her own reflection in the full-length mirror that hung on her wall.
It hadn’t been his hand—it had been something else.
There was a bang on the door.
“Hello? Miss?” someone yelled through the wood.
Both little Nell and grown-up Nell looked to their right hand. A fuzzy teddy bear hung limp at their side.
Except grown-up Nell’s palm was smeared with blood that continued up, up, up her arm to the crook of her elbow, to her biceps, clear across the front of her blouse and down her shirt.
Nell Sullivan gaped at herself in the mirror, Beary at her side, hardly recognizing the woman she saw before her.
Covered so completely in blood, it was a wonder she’d managed to get home.
Please, you help.
The looks on the subway.
The homeless man repeating help, help as though he had needed it instead of trying to offer it to the girl who had aided him by giving him change.
Bang bang! The door.
“Miss? Hello? Are you okay in there?”
It had been Nell all along.
Linnie. Mary Ann. Adriana. Harriet Lamont and her daughter.
Nell’s fingers flexed. Beary fell to the floor, soundless like her brother.
“Ma’am? We’re going to call the police!”
It had all been her.
That’s why her clothes had been scattered along the floor.
How Barrett had known to find her at the Cabana Club that night.
Because he hadn’t been there, yet he was always there.
Always inside her head.
“But I saw him!” The words tumbled out of her in a sudden, incredulous yell. “He was there! It was him! I know it was!”
Suddenly, she was tearing at her clothes. Balling them up and throwing them into the hamper surrounded by scribbled yellow notes, most of them in Barrett’s handwriting, some of them in her own. I won’t ever leave you. I can’t. It’s impossible. Impossible. Impossible . . .
Half-naked, she stumbled out of her bedroom and across the rough planks of the living room into the kitchenette. Her fingers fell onto the handle of the biggest knife in the block, the same type of knife that had been used on Harriet Lamont. She drew it out, the metal hissing against wood. Staring at the blade, she choked on her sobs.
If Barrett was dead, she didn’t want to live.
If Barrett was dead, it meant she was crazy.
If Barrett was dead, she had to be dead too.
She pointed the blade toward herself, taking the handle in both hands.
“Barrett?” She whispered it into the empty space of their home. “Tell me it isn’t true.”
When no reply came, she clamped down her teeth and roughly drew the blade across her skin. The flesh of her abdomen parted like a hungry mouth just before she dropped the knife and cried out in pain. It skittered across the floor, slid beneath the stove and out of sight. She screamed as blood gushed from her self-inflicted wound. Her hands pressed against the gaping cut, smearing her own blood over the blood of Harriet Lamont and her dead daughter.
The door rattled on its hinges.
“I saw you,” she wept. “You were there.”
Someone was kicking at it, trying to force it open. It groaned against each of its three locks.
“You were there!” she cried, curling up on the kitchen floor. “It was you!”
The door flew open with such force that it slammed against the adjacent wall. Nell’s tear-warped gaze drifted to a few pairs of dingy high-tops. They gathered around her, their owners chattering in incoherent sentences, yelling at each other, a pair of feet running out of the apartment as quickly as they had come in. But Nell didn’t care. She wanted to bleed out. If Barrett wasn’t there to save her, she didn’t want to be saved at all.
“Hey, girl, don’t worry.” A Puerto Rican boy with a kind face knelt over her. “I’ve got you. We’re gonna get you some help.”
Nell turned her head away.
Not him, not my angel, my love, my baby boy . . .
That’s what her mother had screamed.
My baby boy.
It was then that she saw him—not all of him, just his shoulder and shoe.
Barrett was there, standing in Nell’s room.
A gasp escaped her throat.
“Was it that guy?” the boy asked.
Nell’s eyes jumped to the boy’s face, certain that he had spotted Barrett peeking out from behind the bedroom door. But the kid’s attention was fixed on her. He was distracted by Nell’s wound, not quite deep enough to kill. Barrett was too smart to be seen, too clever to be found.
“Hey, was it him?” the kid asked. “You know, the killer? Was it that psycho Son of Sam? You think it was him that did this to you?”
Nell gave him a blank look, then turned her attention back to the bedroom.
“Yes,” she whispered. “It was him.”
It was all him. He had killed the girls. Had killed Lamont. Had tried to kill her in the end.
Barrett’s eyes flashed.
He was grinning.
You should have dyed your hair, he thought.
She could hear him inside her head now. It had worked. Lamont’s death had brought them closer together. Closer than ever.
And it took all of Nell’s strength not to bellow out a laugh.
Because everything was going to be okay now.
Everything was going to be okay.