Pretty Girls


PAGE 35


The last communication Carver the Cannibal would have with me. He had revoked my visitation rights. I wasn't allowed in the prison anymore.


"Dr. Carroll," the warden said, his voice sounding like Foghorn Leghorn, "Ben Carver is a psychopath. He's incapable of empathy or remorse. If you see something human in him, that's only because he's playing the part."


I flipped through the book. My hands were sweating. The pages stuck to my fingers. It's hot in prison, no matter what time of year it is. It reeks of sweat and sewage and desperation from the men who are stacked in cells like chattel.


The warden said, "Obviously, Carver's gotten out of you whatever he wanted. He's finished with you. Don't take it personally. Count yourself lucky that you got away unscathed."


Unscathed.


I let the word roll around in my head. I said it aloud as I was escorted back down the long hall. I repeated it in the car as I sat with the book still clutched in my hands.


You're Only Old Once! A Book for Obsolete Children was an adult picture book. Several years ago, you and your sisters had given me a copy of this same book on my birthday, because younger people always think it's funny when older people get even older. I don't recall ever telling Ben about the book, but it seemed like something I would've told him early on when I was trying to trap him into revealing a clue about you.


The conversation would've gone like this:


Ben: Tell me, Sam, what have you been reading lately?


Me: I found a book that Julia and the girls gave me for my birthday. You're Only Old Once! by Dr. Seuss.


Ben: You know, my favorite birthday gift was when I was sixteen and my mother gave me my own set of keys to her car. What was your first car, Sam? I bet it was an old jalopy. You would've been pulling in the girls like crazy.


That was what he was like. He always changed the subject with flattery. He was usually more artful. It's hard to describe how someone has manipulated you because you're generally not aware of it when it's happening. You don't exactly take notes, is what I am saying.


I am sure that during my visits, Ben gathered far more information about me than the other way around. I have to admit that he was working at a level I did not even know existed. And he was a psychopath, I knew that, but he was an interesting psychopath and he gave me something to do one day a week, every week, for ten months when my only other alternative was to cut open my wrists and watch the blood swirl down the bathtub drain.


I should've mentioned the scalpel when I cataloged the items in my silverware drawer. It has been there for almost a year now-shiny metal with a surgically sharpened blade. I have seen how easily it slices open flesh and dreamed about how easily it would cut into mine.


I think what happened was this: Ben knew he had helped me climb out of that depression, and that it was time to let me go. Not because he wanted to end our contact, but because, if I kept visiting, he would be too tempted to destroy what he had worked so hard to build back up.


So, while the warden was right about my strange friend being a psychopath, he was wrong about Ben Carver's lack of empathy. I have proof of it right here in my hands.


I don't know how he managed to get a copy of You're Only Old Once! while living on death row, but I do know that Ben was very resourceful. He had many fans on the outside. The guards gave him the respect of an old-timer. Even in prison, Ben could get almost anything he wanted. And he never wanted anything unless there was a good reason. The reason this time was to send me a message.


This is the inscription Ben wrote inside the book:


"First you must have the images. Then come the words."


Robert James Waller.


Images.


I had seen that word before-at least six times before on my annual reading sojourn to the sheriff's office. The word was connected to a deed and the deed was connected to an act and that act had been committed by a man and that man, I now understood, was connected to you.


You see, sweetheart?


Ben Carver knew something about you after all.


TEN


Lydia stood in front of the Arch in downtown Athens. She looked down at her phone. She reloaded the search page to refresh the links. There were no new details in the Anna Kilpatrick case. That didn't stop the news outlets from regurgitating the story. They were milking the press conference for every bit of emotion they could squeeze out. Eleanor's heartbreaking outburst had busted the coverage wide open. MSNBC, Fox, CBS, ABC, and NBC had all abandoned their Sunday-morning political recaps. CNN had brought in a shrink to discuss Eleanor and Bob Kilpatrick's state of mind. The fact that the doctor had never met the dead girl's parents or even worked on a case where a child was abducted and murdered did not mar his qualifications to speak as an expert on national television.


Lydia was more qualified to know their state of mind. Their sixteen-year-old daughter was dead. She had been tortured and branded and abandoned on the BeltLine, a joke of a recreational path that was more like a criminal hunting ground. At the moment, the Kilpatricks were probably looking for the most expedient way to join their only child.


They had likely suspected all along that Anna was dead, but there was thinking it might be true and then there was having actual confirmation. They had seen her body. They had borne witness to her degradation. Was knowing exactly what had happened better than whatever horrors they had spun in their imaginations?


Like the Carroll family, they were caught between two guns.


Lydia wiped sweat from her brow. The temperature had dropped overnight, but she felt hot, probably from shock or stress, or a combination of the two. She climbed the stone steps up to the iron Arch that had stood at the North Campus entrance since the Civil War. Her father had told them stories about toilet-papering the Arch after football games. Julia had almost been arrested here during a protest against the first Gulf War. On the last night of her life, she had walked past the Arch with her friends on the way to the Manhattan.


And after the Manhattan, they had never seen her again.


Lydia wanted her daughter. She wanted to hold her in her arms and kiss her head the way Dee only let her do when she was sick or feeling sad. When Dee was a baby, she had loved being held. Lydia's back constantly ached from carrying her around the kitchen while she cooked or resting her on her hip while she did laundry. When Rick came along, Dee would drape herself across them like a blanket, her feet in Rick's lap and her head in Lydia's. Rick and Lydia would look at each other and smile because they had such a perfect little girl between them. And Lydia would feel such relief because the only time she truly knew that Dee was safe was when she was close enough to count her daughter's breaths.

She put her head in her hands. She closed her eyes. She gave in to the images of Eleanor Kilpatrick that were burned into every fold of her brain. The way the mother had screamed with such damaged intensity. Her haunted expression. The X she had drawn over the left side of her abdomen.


Eleanor was obviously right-handed. She had to reach across her belly to draw the X. She hadn't chosen that exact spot by coincidence.


Lydia looked across Broad Street. Claire was sitting outside the Starbucks where she'd left her. Her posture was ramrod straight as she stared into empty space. She had the dazed look of a catatonic. There was an unnerving stillness about her. She had always been so hard to read, but right now, she was impenetrable.


Lydia stood up. The thirty yards between them wasn't going to help her magically divine Claire's thoughts. She walked back across Broad, lingering at the median though there was no traffic. Georgia had beaten Auburn last night. The town was sleeping off the win. The sidewalks were sticky from spilled beer. Trash littered the streets.


Claire didn't look up when Lydia sat down at the table, but she asked, "Does it look different?"


"It looks like an outdoor shopping mall," she said, because the campus had turned from that of a quaint southern university into a sprawling corporate behemoth. "It's almost suburban."


"The only thing that's really changed is the length of the khaki shorts."


"Didn't the Taco Stand used to be here?"


"We parked right in front of it." Claire indicated the direction with a tilt of her head.


Lydia craned her neck. She saw more tables and chairs crisscrossing the sidewalk. No one was sitting outside because it was too cold. There was a woman standing with a broom and dustpan, but instead of sweeping up the debris left over from the night before, she was checking her phone.


Claire said, "He never asked me for anything weird."


Lydia turned back to her sister.


"I remember when I first saw the movie on his computer-just the beginning of it with the girl chained up-I had this strange feeling, almost like a betrayal, because I wanted to know why he didn't bring it to me." She watched a jogger slowly cross the street. "I thought, If that's what he's into, chaining people up and leather and blindfolds and that kind of thing, even though I'm not particularly into it, why didn't he ask me to give it a try?" She looked at Lydia like she expected an answer.


Lydia could only shrug.


"I probably would've said yes." Claire shook her head as if to contradict herself. "I mean, if that's what he really wanted, then I would've tried it, right? Because that's what you do. And Paul knew that. He knew that I would've tried."


Lydia shrugged again, but she had no idea.


"He never asked me to dress up like a maid or pretend to be a schoolgirl or whatever else it is you hear about. He never even asked for anal, and every man asks for anal eventually."


Lydia glanced around, hoping no one could hear.


"She was younger than me," Claire continued. "The first woman-when I saw her, I had this split-second thought that she was younger than me, and that hurt, because I'm not young anymore. That's the one thing I couldn't give him."


Lydia sat back in her chair. There was nothing she could do but let Claire talk.


"I wasn't in love with him when I married him. I mean, I loved him, but it wasn't ..." She waved the emotions away with her hand. "We were married for less than a year, and Christmas was coming up. Paul was working on his masters and I was answering phones for a law office and I just thought, I'm out of here. Being married felt so pointless. So tedious. Mom and Dad were so full of life before Julia. They were such passionate, interesting people. Do you remember that? How they were before?"


Lydia smiled, because Claire had somehow unlocked the memories with that one question.