Pretty Girls


PAGE 41





Claire was overcome with grief, but still she screamed. She fell to her knees. Something broke open inside her throat. Blood filled her mouth. She slammed her fists into the dry red clay and cursed Paul for everything he'd taken away from her: holding Lydia's baby, maybe carrying her own, watching her parents grow old together, sharing her own life with the only sister she had left. She raged against her scam of a marriage-the eighteen years she'd wasted loving a sick, twisted madman who had tricked Claire into thinking she had everything she wanted when really, she had nothing at all.

Lydia's arms wrapped around her. She was crying so hard that her words stuttered. "S-she was ... s-so ... s-scared ..."


"I know." Claire grabbed onto her sister. Why had she ever believed Paul? How had she ever let Lydia go? "It's okay," she lied. "Everything is going to be okay."


"S-she was terrified."


Claire squeezed her eyes shut, praying the images would leave.


"A-all alone. S-she was all alone."


Claire rocked Lydia like a baby. They were both shaking so hard they could barely hold on. The devastation of what they'd been through opened like a blister.


"S-she knew what was coming and s-she couldn't move and there was no one to-" Her words were cut off by a strangled cry. "Oh, God! Oh, God!"


"I'm sorry," Claire whispered. Her voice was hoarse. She could barely speak. Lydia was trembling uncontrollably. Her skin felt cold. Every breath rattled in her lungs. Her heart was pounding so hard that Claire could feel it against her own chest.


"My God," Lydia cried. "My God."


"I'm sorry." This was all Claire's fault. She should've never called Lydia. She had no right to bring her into this. She was selfish and cruel and deserved to be alone for the rest of her life. "I'm so, so sorry."


"Why?" Lydia asked. "Why did he choose her?"


Claire shook her head. There was no explanation. They would never know what it was about Julia on that night at that time that made her a target.


"She was so good. She was so fucking good."


The refrain was achingly familiar. Sam and Helen had asked the same question over and over again: Why our daughter? Why our family?


"Why did it have to be her?"


"I don't know." Claire had questioned herself, too. Why Julia? Why not Claire, who sneaked away with boys and cheated off her friends in math class and flirted with the gym teacher so she wouldn't have to do sprints?


Lydia shuddered, her body racked with grief. "It should've been me."


"No."


"I was such a fuck-up."


"No."


"It wouldn't have hurt as much."


"No, Liddie. Look at me." Claire pressed her hands to either side of Lydia's face. She had lost her father to this same kind of thinking. She wasn't going to lose her sister again. "Look at me, Lydia. Don't say that. Don't you ever say that again. Do you hear me?"


Lydia said nothing. She wouldn't even look at her.


"You matter." Claire tried to keep the absolute terror out of her voice. "I don't want you to ever say that again, okay? You matter. You matter to Rick and to Dee and to Mom. And you matter to me." Claire waited for an answer. "Okay?"


Lydia's head was still trapped between Claire's hands, but she managed a short nod.


"I love you," Claire said, words she hadn't even told her husband when he was dying in her arms. "You are my sister, and you are perfect, and I love you."


Lydia held on to Claire's hands.


"I love you," Claire repeated. "Do you hear me?"


Lydia nodded again. "I love you, too."


"Nothing is ever going to come between us again. All right?"


Again, Lydia nodded. Some of her color was coming back. Her breathing had slowed down.


Claire gripped both of Lydia's hands in her own. They looked down at the ground because seeing the house and knowing its awful history was too much to bear.


Claire said, "Tell me what it was like when Dee was born."


Lydia shook her head. She was too upset.


"Tell me," Claire begged. The world was falling around them, but she had to know what else Paul had taken away from her. "Tell me what I missed."


Lydia must have needed it, too-some light in this dark grave they had buried themselves inside. "She was tiny." Her lips quivered with a faint smile. "Like a doll."


Claire smiled because she wanted Lydia to keep smiling. She needed to think of something good right now, something that would take away the images of the other Julia in her head.


"Was she an easy baby?"


Lydia wiped her nose with her sleeve.


"Did she sleep all the time?"


"God, no."


Claire waited, willing Lydia to talk about anything but what they had seen on the television. "She was fussy?"


Lydia shrugged and shook her head at the same time. She was still thinking about their sister, still trapped in that deep, dark hole.


"What was she like?" Claire squeezed Lydia's hands. She worked to make her tone sound lighter. "Come on, Pepper. Tell me what my niece was like. Sugar and spice? Sweet and adorable like I was?"


Lydia laughed, but she was still shaking her head. "She cried all the time."


Claire kept pushing. "Why did she cry?"


"I don't know." Lydia heaved a heavy sigh. "She was hot. She was cold. She was hungry. She was full." She wiped her nose again. The cuff of her shirt was already wet with tears. "I thought I had raised you, but Mom did all the hard stuff."


Claire knew it was childish, but she liked the idea of Helen doing all the hard stuff. "Tell me why."


"Holding you and playing with you, that was easy. Changing your diaper and walking with you at night and all that other stuff-it's hard to do by yourself."


Claire brushed back Lydia's hair. She should've been there. She should've brought her sister groceries and folded laundry and spelled her for as long as she was needed.


"She cried for the first two years." Lydia used her fingers to wipe underneath her eyes. "And then she learned how to talk and she wouldn't stop talking." She laughed at a memory. "She sang to herself all the time. Not just when I was around. I would catch her singing on her own and I would feel so weird about it. Like, when you walk in on a cat and it's purring and you feel bad because you thought it only purred for you."


Claire laughed so that Lydia would keep going.


"And then she got older, and ..." Lydia shook her head. "Having a teenager is like having a really, really shitty roommate. They eat all your food and steal your clothes and take money out of your purse and borrow your car without asking." She put her hand over her heart. "But they soften you in ways you can't imagine. It's so unexpected. They just smooth out your hard lines. They make you into this better version of yourself that you never even knew was there."


Claire nodded, because she could see from Lydia's tender expression the change that Dee Delgado had brought.


Lydia grabbed Claire's hands and held on tight. "What are we going to do?"


Claire was ready for the question. "We have to call the police."


"Huckleberry?"


"Him, the state patrol, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation." Now that Claire was talking it out, she saw a plan. "We'll call everybody. Tell Homeland Security we saw someone making a bomb. Tell the FBI there's a kidnapped girl inside the house. Call the EPA and say we saw a barrel of toxic waste. Tell the Secret Service that Lexie Fuller is planning to assassinate the President."

"You think if we can get them all here at the same time, no one can cover up anything."


"We should call the news outlets, too."


"That's good." Lydia started nodding. "I can post something about it on the parents' message board at Dee's school. There's a woman-Penelope Ward. She's my Allison Hendrickson without the kneecapping. Her husband is running for Congress next year. They're really connected, and she's like a dog with a bone. She won't let anyone drop this."


Claire sat back on her heels. She knew the name Penelope Ward. Branch Ward was running against Congressman Johnny Jackson for his seat. Jackson was the same congressman who'd started Paul on his road to success. He was also the reason Jacob Mayhew had given Claire for his presence at the house the day of the burglary.


Mayhew had told her, "The Congressman asked me to handle this," and Claire's mind had wandered into kickbacks and fraud because she had assumed Jackson was covering his ass. Was there another reason? If Mayhew was involved, did that mean that Johnny Jackson was, too?


Lydia asked, "What?"


Claire didn't share the revelation. They could let the various state agencies figure this out. Instead, she looked back up at the house. "I don't want Julia's tapes to be part of it."


Lydia nodded again. "What are we going to tell Mom?"


"We have to tell her that we know Julia is dead."


"And when she asks how we know?"


"She won't ask." Claire knew this for a fact. A long time ago, Helen had made a conscious decision to stop seeking out the truth. Toward the end of Sam's life, she wouldn't even let him mention Julia's name.


Lydia asked, "Do you think it's Paul's father in the video?"


"Probably." Claire stood up. She didn't want to sit around trying to figure this out. She wanted to call in the people who could actually do something about it. "I'll get the tapes with Julia."


"I'll help."


"No." Claire didn't want to put Lydia through seeing any part of the video again. "Start making the phone calls. Use the landline so they can trace the number." Claire walked over to the wall-mounted phone. She waited for Lydia to pick up the receiver. "We can put the Julia tapes in the front trunk of the Tesla. No one will think to check there."


Lydia dialed 911. She told Claire, "Hurry. This isn't going to take long."


Claire walked into the den. Mercifully, the picture on the television was black. The videotapes were stacked on top of the console.


She called to Lydia, "Do you think we should drive back into town and wait?"


"No!"


Claire guessed her sister was right. The last time she'd left this to the police, Mayhew had managed her like a child. She pressed the EJECT button on the VCR. She rested her fingers on the cassette. She tried to summon into her brain an image of Julia that wasn't taken from the movie.


It was too soon. All she could see was her sister in chains.


Claire would destroy the videos. Once they were safe, she would spool out all the tape and burn them in a metal trashcan.


She slid the cassette out of the machine. The handwriting on the label was similar to Paul's but not exactly the same. Had Paul found the tape after his father died? Was that what had first sparked his interest? Julia disappeared almost a year before his parents' car accident. Five years later, Paul was wooing Claire at Auburn. They were married less than two months after her father had killed himself.