Only then can you forgive a girl for being pretty: if she’s an idiot or a liar.
Isabel Magowan, The Yellow Room. © Isabel Magowan.
Everyone thought we were dead. We were missing for nearly two months, we were twelve. What else could they think?
They were glad to have us back, of course. But nothing was the same. It was as if we had returned from the dead, as if we were tainted somehow. Our unlikely survival made us guilty. We must have sold our souls, I could see them thinking—or worse. Undoubtedly, it had not been our fault (not altogether, anyway), but still. We were not the same.
And it was true, though not in the way they thought. What mattered to us was that we had been chosen. Singled out. We had always suspected we were different; at last it had been confirmed. There was no point in pretending otherwise—and in fact, to our relief, pretense was no longer expected of us. The world acknowledged that we were extraordinary—and kept its distance, as if we might be rigged like bombs, might someday explode without warning.
Once I insist that we were chosen, it is only fair to admit that he chose me second. Carly May was first. I’d like to think this was pure chance, an accident of geography: that he wanted us equally, but happened to be closer to Nebraska, at the time, than Connecticut. But I know nothing was an accident, with him. I was second. Carly was first. Forever.
Our pictures were everywhere, though we never made it to a milk carton. We had that already-doomed, by-now-I’ve-been-chopped-up-and-buried-in-the-woods look in our photographs. The TV stations and the newspapers often showed our school pictures, in which we smiled dreamily, tragically, against smoky blue backdrops. But they also showed our press photos: Carly with sparkling tiaras perched on her golden ringlets, her lipsticked smile full of disturbing promises. I, Lois, more serious, posed with my spelling trophies, alluring in the way that a hostile kitten is. Or so it seems to me.
Carly May disappeared again when she was eighteen, this time on her own. She left a note: “Don’t look for me, you won’t find me,” she scrawled on one of her portfolio shots. She had drawn a mustache on herself and blackened the whites of her eyes. I know this because her stepmother Gail called me two years later when she was working on her memoir. She thought I might know where Carly May was. I didn’t; I hadn’t heard from Carly for years. This is all in Gail’s book, with an emphasis on her own suffering and her resourcefulness; she sent me a copy. I dropped that book off a bridge.
By the time Carly May resurfaced in my world, she wasn’t Carly anymore, and we were nearly thirty.
It’s always been hard to talk about what happened without sounding all melodramatic. And as soon as that happens, I feel dishonest like I’m trying to pitch an idea for some made-for-TV movie. “Based on a true story,” which isn’t the same as being true. Actually, I haven’t mentioned it for years, not to a goddamned person.
It wasn’t really melodramatic at all. That’s the shocking thing about it if you ask me: how calmly we accepted what was happening. For me, getting abducted in broad daylight on the main street of a nowhere little farm town in Nebraska was far from the most fucked up thing that could have happened that day.
I left my ballet class and took my time walking down the street to the House of Beauty, where stepmother Gail was having her nails done and God only knows what else. That woman took a lot of maintenance. I was wearing skin-tight biking shorts and an oversized t-shirt, dragging my twelve-year-old feet down the hot, wide sidewalk of Main Street, Arrow, Nebraska, with my dance bag slung over my shoulder. I was thinking about ways to make Gail miserable when the car pulled up beside me. Nondescript, gray. I didn’t know anything about cars. What I did know was that the guy driving it was an actual stranger. In Arrow, that was pretty rare. The man leaned over and rolled down the passenger side window. He must be lost, I was thinking. I figured he was going to ask how the hell to get back to somewhere civilized, so I stopped walking and waited, more or less willing to explain how to get to the highway. I’m sure I had that snotty twelve-year-old look on my face.
But he didn’t want directions, and he’d seen enough pictures to know he had the right girl. “Get in,” he said, smiling. “I’ll give you a ride.”
And so I did. Didn’t think twice. God knows why. When I’ve tried to explain it I always come back to the way he looked at me—as if he knew me perfectly, as if he could read my mind, as if I were the only person in the world who mattered. Doesn’t everyone want to be looked at that way?
Later, I studied the photos of me that he had in his file. In some, I had a big, toothy, fake smile. In others, I looked a little sulky, imitating the pouty faces of models in magazines. I tried to figure out how he knew; how he could have been so sure, I mean, that all he would need to do is open his car door and I’d hop in. I looked for some telltale reckless gleam in my preteen eyes, some hint of latent depravity. I’m sure the police looked for it, too, later. I could never see it, though, not even with the benefit of hindsight. I had already mastered the vapid gaze that we expect from beautiful girls. As far as I could tell, it gave away nothing at all.
I was thrilled when we crossed into Iowa, although it looked pretty much the same: I liked the idea of leaving my world behind.
We drove and drove. I knew only that we were going east. He hardly said a word in those first hours, just flipped through the radio stations occasionally, though he never seemed to find anything he wanted to listen to. He winced at Mariah Carey, Nirvana, Beck—paused once on Johnny Cash, but even then jabbed at the dial after a few seconds. I couldn’t help wondering what he hoped to find, and why he set himself up for disappointment if he already knew the radio had nothing to offer. When the radio was off I could see out of the corner of my eye that his hands were relaxed on the steering wheel, and somehow that made me feel safe. Every now and then he would glance over at me and give me a little smile: an uncle smile, I thought, or maybe a teacher smile, although I had no uncles and my teachers had so far mostly been anxious young women with permed hair and sad, flowered blouses. He was more of a fantasy teacher, handsome and a little mysterious. I watched his eyes when he looked my way and noted that they rested on my face—they didn’t stray to my tanned, skinny legs or the recent bumps in my pink t-shirt.
Reassured, I relaxed, and watched Nebraska rush by outside the window as if it had nothing to do with me. I had never been out of the state. I was thrilled when we crossed into Iowa, although it looked pretty much the same: I liked the idea of leaving my world behind. At that point we left the interstate and stopped at a gas station where he pulled a dark brown wig out of a duffel bag in the backseat. He handed it to me as if he were giving me a present, as if he knew already that I would get a kick out of a costume. He waited outside the strangely clean ladies’ room studying a map while I changed. The wig must have been cheap—it was like doll’s hair, with a stiff plasticky sheen. I had never worn a wig but I took to it right away. I rubbed off the lip gloss and pale frosted eye shadow I’d been wearing at my ballet class and felt like a different girl. In the cloudy, cracked mirror, I tried out my new look. I’d be shy and innocent, I decided. Guileless, though I didn’t know that word then. (The plan didn’t last long.) I glanced up at my reflection through timidly lowered eyelids and basically flirted with my new self until he knocked politely on the door. He gave me a nod of approval when I finally emerged.
He bought us charred gas station hotdogs and we headed east on a rural highway, carving through endless cornfields. I couldn’t have been happier.
It would have been easy to miss her. In the bottom left corner of the screen, a shadowy woman in dark glasses flung herself to the sidewalk to avoid a bullet. Her action wasn’t important in itself, or necessary to the plot; it only contributed to the general chaos—she wasn’t a main character, or even a secondary one. Her fate seemed irrelevant to the larger story. “Is she one of the gangsters?” I asked Brad, squinting at her blurry, half-hidden face.
“The chick down there in the corner, you mean? Gangster’s floozy, more likely. Or moll? Isn’t ‘moll’ the word? She’s hot. In that sort of dominatrix-Barbie way.”
“She’s got her own gun,” I pointed out, keeping my voice light. “She’s no mere floozy.” I noted that she held it in her left hand. As I watched her long, narrow fingers curl around the gun—getting ready to make a run for it, it looked like—I knew I was right. I knew that hand. It was older, longer, more elegant. But I would have known it anywhere.
I had finished my PhD and landed a teaching job at a small SUNY school in upstate New York, where I was teaching British lit to young students whose brains, I was discovering, were attuned almost exclusively to electronic stimuli. They weren’t all that much younger than I was, but they seemed to be from a different century. I lived in a spacious apartment at the top floor of a turn-of-the-century Victorian with more charm than insulation. (In upstate New York, “spacious” is a rental agent’s code word for “cold.”) I spotted Carly May in the corner of my TV screen on a Thursday night in late January. Outside, it was below zero, and had been for days. An English department colleague and I were huddled under afghans in front of my TV, watching a movie and eating take-out pizza. When I say huddled, I mean separately huddled. We weren’t touching. Brad Drake and I were the youngest assistant profs in the department. The next tier, the thirtysomethings, had kids, yards, lives. They had dinner parties from which all the guests departed by ten o’clock, yawning and murmuring about the babysitter. I’d been to a few, when I first arrived. Watching-bad-movies-ironically was not a pastime that amused them any longer. Perfectly good colleagues; I knew they’d never be my friends. Which was fine. I didn’t need many friends: Brad sufficed.
“Go to the credits,” I ordered Brad, who was clutching the remote as usual.
“Can’t we just wait till the end?”
“I know that girl,” I said. “I swear I do. I have to check.”
“How could you know her? You can hardly see her face. And if you do know her, why do you have to check? If you’re so sure, I mean? And—”
“Why do you have to argue with everything I say?” A pointless question: this was what Brad did. It was an endearing form of perversity, usually, and one of the many traits that justified, at least to me, the decidedly non-romantic basis of our relationship. I seized the remote.
I saw a name that was not the one I was looking for, but caught my attention nevertheless: Chloe Savage. The initials were right.
I scrolled quickly past the characters with actual names, then lingered over the ones identified more cryptically: first dead girl, second dead girl, girl in diner, girl with gun. In this last group I saw a name that was not the one I was looking for, but caught my attention nevertheless: Chloe Savage. The initials were right. And something else: a ghostly echo, beyond logic; a sort of thud in the pit of my stomach. I knew, simply.
“It’s not her,” I told Brad, feigning disappointment, sinking back into the couch. Subterfuge was instinctive; I didn’t for a moment consider telling Brad the truth.
It made perfect sense that she would have changed her name.
After Brad left, dragging his sleepy self reluctantly out into the snow with a wistful look that suggested he was hoping for an invitation to sleep on the couch, I went straight to the computer. I found enough photos of Chloe Savage to confirm what I already half knew. The bios available were disappointingly sketchy, not to mention full of lies. Only one detail linked her to Carly May: competed in beauty pageants as a child, it said. It didn’t say she was Miss PreTeen Nebraska. It said, in fact, that she was from Connecticut. Like me, I thought. She was borrowing that from me. In an obscure way, that, too, counted as evidence.
I printed everything I could find: bios, filmographies, photos. I placed them neatly in a folder and labeled it “Carly/Chloe.” Then, for no reason, I slid it into the bottom of a drawer, as if to conceal it from—what? Prying eyes? I could have kept top-secret government documents on my bedside table at that point and they would have been perfectly safe.
Nevertheless, I hid the folder. It felt like the right thing to do.
I was cute as hell. Tall for my age, willowy, with pale gold curls and sapphire-blue eyes. Like a little fairy. A sexy little fairy, I should add, once they started dolling me up. That was after Gail showed up. By the time Daddy brought her home to meet me, it was already pretty much a done deal: she had agreed to marry him. She had dyed red hair, then, and violet contacts, and long pink nails. Nature had made her a drab, mousy little person, but she had done everything in her power to color herself in. It was like Technicolor, though: unconvincing. She had a high, nasal voice. To me, at seven, she seemed like a cartoon. Why sad, quiet Daddy would want to marry a cartoon just two years after my mother’s death was something I would never understand. He must have thought I needed a replacement mother; maybe he assumed I would welcome siblings, which Gail was quick to produce, in the form of two little half-brothers. Wrong on both counts, but he never bothered to ask.
“Doll” is what Gail called me, the first time we met. “Oh, Carly May, you’re such a little doll!” she gushed. “Hugh, you never told me what a doll she was!” My father just kept unloading grocery bags from the trunk of the car. I noticed right away that he tended to let Gail do the talking.
After I left the second time, Gail published a book. Notice I didn’t say “wrote” a book. I swear she never wrote more than a grocery list in her life. No, it was ghostwritten by Liz Caldwell, whose name is in small print in the lower right-hand corner, like an artist’s signature—you only see it if you’re looking. “With Liz Caldwell,” it says. I can picture what “with” meant: Gail sitting in the living room, wearing enough makeup for the frigging Oscars, with a cigarette in one hand and every ring she owned smashed onto her chubby fingers, wallowing in self-pity and a pathetic vision of her own importance. Liz Caldwell across from her, pretending to be impressed by Gail’s wisdom and strength of character, consulting her notes and offering an occasional gentle prod, tape recorder whirring away beside her. How do I know Liz was pretending? I know Gail, is all. In fact, Liz might not have had to bother hiding her contempt: Gail would’ve been too caught up in her own drama to notice. Sensitivity to other people’s emotions was never her strong point.
Even the book’s title is a lie: Losing My Daughter Twice. It would be nauseating even if it were true, granted. But I am not—was never, in any sense of the word—Gail’s goddamned daughter. And you can’t lose what was never yours.
I was smart, believe it or not. Am smart. People don’t expect it. My mother, who died in a car accident when I was five, was a schoolteacher. My father liked to read. He would come in from the barn and collapse into his recliner and pick up a book. Nonfiction, mostly, but novels, too. They read to me when I was little, talked to me like I was an intelligent life form. I got good grades in school, if I bothered, though under the Gail regime there didn’t seem much point in trying.
She must have researched the pageants on her own. This was pre-Internet, so it would have been harder then than it is now. She would have had to send away for information. Anyway, when she brought home the brochures that started everything, it was the first we’d heard of it; I mean, Daddy and I. “I didn’t know they had these things for such young girls,” Daddy said, flipping through glossy pamphlets with his big rough farmer’s hands like he was holding something he’d rather not touch—a dead animal, maybe. “I guess I would’ve thought they’d be older.”
“Look at those girls,” Gail said, tracing their round, smiling faces with the hot-pink talon of her index finger. “You have to tell me Carly May is cuter than every one of them. No question she could win these things without hardly even trying.”
I knew that Gail—much as I hated her, even then—was probably right when she said how much it mattered. Being pretty, I mean.
“Now why would she want to do that?” said Daddy, handing the brochures back to her and tugging one of my pigtails. “Carly May has a good head on her shoulders.” I was in second grade. “These girls look like a bunch of airheads. Just pretty faces, that’s all.”
“There’s worse things to have,” said Gail.
“Pretty is as pretty does,” Daddy said.
I stared at the glittery, ruffled dresses the little girls were wearing—maybe airheads, maybe not; how could you tell?—and thought about what Gail had said. God, how do kids know the things they know? I remember very clearly understanding two things: one, that Gail was right when she said I was prettier than the other girls. I was only eight, but I knew this like I knew that hens laid eggs. And I sure as hell knew that, since I gathered them from the coop. I’m tempted to say no one told me, but the world must have told me, somehow.
I also knew that Gail—much as I hated her, even then—was probably right when she said how much it mattered. Being pretty, I mean. And I knew that there was something I wanted, something big, something I couldn’t name. Something outside my present world. So I let her find me later, flipping through the brochures on my own at the kitchen table. Daddy was out.
That was all she needed to start planning.
I don’t hide my past, exactly. My story did not follow me from high school to college, and I chose not to revive it. I wanted to try being a different Lois, at least publicly. Even when I wrote my dissertation on the trope of abduction in the British novel, no one but my parents and my dissertation director made the obvious connection. I have grown up, it seems, to be respectably anonymous: Lois Lonsdale, assistant professor of English, specialist in very long novels in which, according to my students, nothing happens. Stickler for the proper deployment of semicolons. Until recently, no one remembered the abduction, much less the names of the miraculously rescued girls. There have been too many girls in the news, most not so lucky; as spectators, our imaginations skitter obediently from one tragedy to the next. Carly May and I essentially ceased to exist once our pictures disappeared from the papers; the reporters have long since abandoned my doorstep.
Now, though, I have a new secret: I am Lucy Ledger, author of the modestly selling thriller Deep in the Woods, which is, however improbably, soon to be made into a major motion picture. The novel is loosely based on the abduction. My life has become complicated again.
I have always liked secrets.
I’ve been teaching Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in my class on the British novel. My plan is to get it out of the way early in the semester, and then move on to the fun stuff. More fun, I mean: I admit that it’s relative. I am trying to persuade my skeptical students that Pamela is, in fact, fun. It’s an epistolary novel, of course, a novel in letters, though in a rather perverse way, as most letters in the novel never get to their intended recipients. But you could argue that it’s also a kind of horror novel, spun as a marriage plot. When Mr. B’s none-too-subtle efforts to seduce (or ravish) his young (very young!) servant fail, he abducts her, ships her off to another of his houses, and places her in the custody of his ally and conspirator, the sadistic Mrs. Jewkes. The fact that Pamela gets to marry her “master” in the end does little to mitigate the fact that she spends half of the novel imprisoned, warding off his attempts to rape her, and frequently unconscious from fear.
But then, it’s a love story, too.
My students tend not to buy the love story part.
So when Sean McDougal darkens my office door one early February afternoon, I assume he is one of the disgruntled, and steel myself to deliver my speech about the importance of Pamela to this looming, cigarette-scented specter.
But he surprises me. “I Googled you.” Sean is tall, pale, thin but also somehow soft around the edges. Sparse, wispy facial hair contributes to the effect: he is blurry. Would he be handsome if he were more kempt, less skulking? I think he might be. It’s hard to say. I have a vague sense that he reminds me of someone, though I search my memory and can’t find the source of the echo.
He’s sitting altogether too comfortably on the other side of my desk, snow from his heavy coat melting onto my floor, a faintly malicious gleam in his pale, no-color eyes. He looks pleased with himself.
Originally, I had thought adopting a pseudonym would magically secure me a double life; I had thought I could establish and defend a sharp border between Lois Lonsdale and Lucy Ledger, and shuffle between them as I pleased. My editor, Amelia Winter, swiftly disabused me of this fantasy. The first time she asked me about the backstory of my novel, I told her confidently that there was none. It’s pure invention, I said. She extended a sinewy arm, selected one of the dozens of brand-new books stacked high on her desk, and flipped through it. Glittering skyscrapers crowded the twenty-fifth-story window behind her; I still couldn’t believe my luck. My novel was taking on a life of its own. “The thing is,” Amelia said, scanning the pages, “it’s important for us to know. Because if there is anything—anything—it’ll come out. The Internet makes sure of that. If we know ahead of time, we can make it work to our advantage. Otherwise, if you’ve been less than forthcoming with us, it’ll be hard for us to control the damage.” She snapped the book shut, as if she had found whatever she was looking for. “Something to think about,” she said.
I didn’t want to think about it, but I did it anyway.
Sean sniffles loudly, and I thrust my box of Kleenex in his direction. He ignores it. Beneath the desk I uncross my legs, bracing each flat-soled suede boot firmly against the floor. It’s my defensive stance, undetectable from the waist up. “Oh really?” Needlessly, I straighten a stack of papers on my desk. “The wonders of modern technology, yes? If only Pamela could have Googled Mr. B, that whole scandal with his pregnant mistress might have come to light much sooner, and Pamela might not have been so sympathetic.” I say this lightly, since I don’t really consider this an acceptable way of talking about the novel. I am breaking one of my own rules: there are no what-ifs in fiction, no alternate universes in which the characters might have done something other than what is on the page, where everything would have turned out differently, had they only been half as wise as we. It makes no sense, for instance, to insist that Pamela shouldn’t have agreed to marry Mr. B: Pamela matters only because that is precisely what she always does, has always done, must always do. There would be no novel, otherwise. No Pamela.
“We didn’t get to that part of the book yet,” Sean says, his voice devoid of humor. “Don’t you want to know what I found? On the Internet?”
I know all too well what he has probably found. When I finally came clean with Amelia, I suspected that I was only confirming what she already had already discovered: apparently it didn’t require Holmesian sleuthing to trace Lucy Ledger back to Lois Lonsdale. Sean’s hands rest on my desk, red and raw, nails gnawed and not as clean as they could be. I wish he would stuff them back in his pockets; they make me queasy. Sean is no Sherlock, but it seems he’s about to prove Amelia’s point.
I prevaricate. “If I wanted to know, I suppose I would have Googled myself.” Which I have done, of course. Doesn’t everyone? What I know is that you used to have to scroll through nine pages of obscure singers bearing my name, census data and death records, someone who still has a Myspace account, and a doggy daycare owner in Ohio, not to mention my own faculty profile and syllabi, before you came across a brief, dry item cataloguing child abductions by decade. My kidnapping is listed as one of many from the mid-nineties. Now you need only click through four pages to discover that Lois Lonsdale is also Lucy Ledger, and from there it’s a short virtual leap to the rest of the story.
I smile at Sean in a way that I hope is both teacherly and winning, hoping to divert him from whatever unpleasant course he is set on. There’s still time to turn back, time to rethink whatever he’s about to do. Unlike Pamela, his plot is still flexible.
But he is not to be won. He wrote a terrible first essay, I remember. Did I give him an F, or a D? Probably an F. I am trying to make sure no one thinks I am a lightweight, a pushover. I flip open my grade book. Yes, an F: too bad.
I think quickly, trying to anticipate how this terribly unappealing young man could use his discovery to hurt me.
“It was when you were talking about Pamela, and how she could marry Mr. B after what he did. I just thought there was something funny about how you talked about it.” His voice is curiously uninflected. Creepy, I begin to think: unnerving. “Sometimes that happens to me. I get these feelings about people. So I checked you out. Do you want to guess what I found?”
“I can just imagine,” I say drily. “I don’t suppose it was my third-place finish in the national spelling bee.”
For the most part, I have managed to keep Lucy Ledger out of Lois Lonsdale’s everyday life. In her author photo, Lucy Ledger is smoky-eyed and edgily glamorous. She sports a leather jacket and assertive earrings. Lois Lonsdale, on the faculty website, peers sternly through forward-falling hair, face framed by a crisp collar emerging from her prim suit. You wouldn’t see a resemblance unless you were looking for it. We didn’t broadcast my real name, though a handful of intrepid reviewers figured it out. My parents received a few calls from people interested in reviving the old story, and Miranda and Stephen’s disapproval of my literary venture deepened the faint chill between us. I told my department chair about the book when he hired me, but did not mention its roots in my history; he seemed to find the fact that I had written a popular novel scandalous enough, and all too gladly agreed to keep it under wraps to the extent that it was possible. That part was easier than I had expected: there was minimal intersection between my worlds. I never saw a familiar face at a reading. I tried to handle most publicity long distance; I became adept at the email interview, the phone chat.
Sean McDougal is the first real threat I have had to confront.
After scrabbling for a moment in his backpack, he withdraws a battered paperback. It’s swollen and darkened, as if it’s been rescued from drowning—or dropped in a bathtub, more likely. “Got it used on Amazon,” Sean says. “Basically free, except for shipping.”
It’s Deep in the Woods.
The thought of this grubby, ill-mannered student poking around in my life—and even in my sentences—chills me. Surely it’s hardly disastrous, though: I think quickly, trying to anticipate how this terribly unappealing young man could use his discovery to hurt me.
I really cannot imagine.
For a fiction writer, that’s a failure, I suppose.
I belong on the stage. Zed told me so (that was what we called him—like the British letter Z; we never knew his name until afterwards), and I knew right away it was true. But I’ve ended up in movies. They say my face is better suited to the screen. You need a speaking face for the stage. Big eyes, a wide, expressive mouth, shadowy cheekbones, a well-defined, even prominent nose. In a way, says my agent, you’re too pretty. He doesn’t mean it as a compliment. He doesn’t even say beautiful. He says fucking pretty. And fucking pretty is perfect for certain kinds of parts in certain kinds of movies.
The thing to understand about your character, a director once said to me, is that she’s beautiful, but she’s completely unaware of how beautiful she is. That’s why everyone falls in love with her. There’s this innocence at the core of her beauty.
You mean stupidity? I said, laughing. He didn’t know what I meant, and proceeded to explain the whole concept to me again, as if I hadn’t been hearing it since high school, at least. She’s really pretty, but it’s like she doesn’t even know it! people would say admiringly of certain girls.
Only then can you forgive a girl for being pretty: if she’s an idiot or a liar.
There’s no way you can grow up in this world and not be able to look in a mirror and gauge how much you look (or don’t look) like the girls in magazines, or on TV. Even if you somehow manage not to figure it out for yourself—because you’re so terribly modest, or whatever—the world will tell you, just like the world will be sure to let you know you if you’re ugly, or fat, or ridiculous in any way. I don’t mean they’ll come out and say it, necessarily (though someone will, sooner or later), just that people have ways of letting you know. You can see it in the way their eyes react to you, the way they interact with you physically.
Unless, as I said, you’re stupid, or totally delusional. I’m sure that’s sometimes the case.
It’s not a question of vanity, I argued with that director, knowing already that I would lose. I’m just talking about calling a spade a spade.
He thought I was playing my character as too knowing, too self-aware. People would lose sympathy with her, he said.
Sometimes I think we’re a whole country of hypocrites. And I’m one of them: I played it like he said, in the end. My character became some kind of cheesy male fantasy instead of a real person.
And I still didn’t get famous.
I settle myself in a sunny window with a cup of tea, still in my robe, determined to read the script Martin has been nagging me about. He has told me it’s good, told me I’ll be excited, but I don’t believe him. His enthusiasm makes me nervous: I know his hopes for me are different from what they used to be, and I’m a little scared to learn what he thinks is a “great role” for me these days—a pain-in-the-ass mom in a teen comedy, maybe, or the clingy, shopaholic ex-wife in a romantic comedy about other people. Caricatures. I’m almost thirty. In actress terms, since I haven’t managed to become Nicole Kidman or Julia Roberts, that’s what I’m fit for: caricatures.
The screenplay begins with a standoff between police and a lone gunman who has staked out a house in the woods. Two pretty preteen girls work on a jigsaw puzzle in the main room of a rustic cabin, their gazes turning anxiously to the windows. On the porch sits a man, gun in hand, gazing calmly out at the woods. The house is surrounded. As the police close in, the man ignores repeated commands from a loudspeaker outside, makes no move to come out with his hands up. The girls are frozen with fear. They are neat and clean, but oddly dressed: they wear plain, dark cotton dresses, and their hair is long, loose, old-fashioned. They look vaguely cultish.
There is a sudden commotion—we hear it, rather than see it—as the police descend upon the back of the house. The man lifts the gun.
I read ten pages before I get up, go to the kitchen, and trade my tea for a Bloody Mary. What I’d really like is something stiffer, but it’s technically still morning, so I compromise. Then I go back and reread the opening scene. I need to make sure I haven’t lost my mind.
Martin is out of his office, and not answering his cell. I leave him five messages. I need to know if this is some kind of joke. I don’t see how it could be; then again, I don’t see how it could be anything else. There are differences—we were upstairs when it happened, not in the main room. There was no jigsaw puzzle: we were making costume decisions about a play we were working on. But the clothes, the hair. The cabin. The man in the Adirondack chair. My fucking story.
It takes a lot longer than it should to realize that I would not be playing one of the kidnapped girls. No, I would be the female detective who gets too involved in the case, helps to track the girls down, becomes obsessed with the kidnapper, must confront disturbing truths from her own past, blah blah blah. That would be me. Although I should find it comforting that I have no idea who the hell this woman is and can only assume she’s totally fictional, like the jigsaw puzzle, I find it aggravating instead. So much of the story is familiar that the discrepancies are weirdly jarring.
The beginning is the end. The rest of the script tells the story of everything leading up to that point. Everything from the moment the first little girl gets in the man’s car, with some more lies thrown in.
People must have assumed we were father and daughter, if they thought about us at all, though he would have been pretty young to have a twelve-year-old.
Here’s my fucking story. The story that Lois has stolen. (It has to be Lois; who else could it be?) We never stopped at motels, the man and I. We slept in the car. I dozed on and off all the time, in a sort of lazy, pleasant way. He took quick catnaps in empty parking lots, dead-end roads, little parks. The first time we did this, he strung a sturdy rope through my belt loop and tied it to his own wrist: if I moved, he said matter-of-factly, he’d wake up. He didn’t make it sound like a threat, though I guess on some level it was. By then I knew that he had a gun in the glove compartment. In Nebraska, everyone had guns—but this was different, a little handgun. A TV gun, I thought. I’d never before seen anything but hunting rifles.
You never know who’s out there, or what crazy things they’ll do, he said when I saw the gun, as if he wanted to make sure I understood that the gun was not intended for me, but for troublesome strangers we might meet on the road. He sounded sort of apologetic, a little embarrassed.
We didn’t meet anyone, though. People must have assumed we were father and daughter, if they thought about us at all, though he would have been pretty young to have a twelve-year-old. One of the things that struck me on that trip was that most people seemed awfully preoccupied. They had their own shit to deal with. I was used to the small-town busybody-ness of Arrow, and it fascinated me to see that out on the road we could drift through town after town like ghosts, and no one paid any attention to us at all.
Glad as I was to be leaving Nebraska, I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to get anywhere else in particular. I liked watching the world flow past my rolled-down window, farmland blending into small, dusty towns, the hot wind stirring my ugly-Barbie wig. Partly I remember the trip as a succession of smells: cow shit, chicken farms, fast food, charcoal grills, freshly mowed grass, doughnut shops. Once we got stuck in a town that was having a parade, for no apparent reason, and since we couldn’t get through anyway we got out and watched, as if we belonged there. I can still smell the thick haze of cotton candy and sausage sandwiches and fried dough that made the atmosphere in the village seem like something you could eat, though you’d be sorry later.
He bought me cotton candy on the way back to the car and I twirled sticky strands of it around my tongue for miles and miles, glad not to be the blond Dairy Princess who had ridden through town in a white convertible, swiveling her hand and wrist at the crowds like a useless flipper. The frozen smile fixed on her pink face could have been mine. Thank God, I thought when we were back on the road.
You could have yelled, people said later. You could have run, you could have gone for help. Sounds like he gave you plenty of chances.
Lois Lonsdale is the only other person in the world who knows this story.
Excerpted from Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell, to be published July 2015 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Maggie Mitchell. All rights reserved.
Maggie Mitchell has published short fiction in a number of literary magazines, including the New Ohio Review, American Literary Review, and Green Mountains Review. Originally from upstate New York, she now lives in Georgia with her husband and cats. Pretty Is is her first novel.
Photograph of author by Jill Sutton.
Isabel Magowan (feature image) is a visual artist working primarily in photography and video. Her recent work will appear in a group exhibition at Danziger Gallery, New York, (June 18-31) and at Regen Projects, Los Angeles (July 2-18). She received her MFA in photography from Yale University in 2015. Her work can be seen at www.isabelmagowan.com.