Pretty Girls


PAGE 71


I spent hours trying to get the color right-days, weeks. I can't believe I forgot about that fucking well."


Lydia pushed away some tall weeds. She wanted to believe her. She longed to believe her. Could it be that simple? Could Julia really be here?


"I know I'm right." Claire kicked at the ground under the swing-set. "Paul kept everything the same in the house. Everything. So why would he tear down the barn except to hide the evidence? And why would he cover the well if there wasn't something in it? You saw his expression when I said that about the well. She has to be here, Pepper. Julia has to be in the well."


They were all so close, Lydia. Do you want me to tell you how close?


Lydia started kicking through the wet weeds. The wind had changed direction again. She couldn't imagine a time when she would smell anything but smoke. She looked back at the house. The fire was still going strong, but maybe the rain would keep it from jumping into the grass.

"Liddie!" Claire was standing under the swingset. She banged the ground with her heel. A hollow sound echoed up from deep in the earth.


Claire dropped to her knees. She started digging her fingers into the earth. Lydia dropped down beside her. She used her good hand to feel what her sister had found. The wooden cover was heavy, about an inch thick and three feet round.


"This has to be it," Claire said. "It has to be it."


Lydia grabbed handfuls of dirt. Her hand was bleeding. There were blisters from the fire, from the melting foam. Still, she kept digging.


Claire finally moved enough dirt to wedge her fingers underneath the cover. She squatted down like a weightlifter and pulled so hard that the muscles on her neck stood out.


Nothing.


"Dammit." Claire tried again. Her arms shook from the effort. Lydia tried to help, but she couldn't make her arm move in that direction. The rain was doing them no favors. Everything felt heavier.


Claire's fingers slipped. She fell backward into the grass. "Shit!" she screamed, pushing herself back up.


"Try pushing it." Lydia braced her feet against the cover. Claire helped, using the heels of her hands, putting her back into it.


Lydia felt herself slipping. She dug in the heel of her good hand and pushed so hard that she felt like her legs were going to break in two.


Finally, eventually, they managed to move the heavy piece of wood a few inches.


"Harder," Claire said.


Lydia didn't know how much harder she could push. They tried again, this time with Claire beside her using her feet. The cover moved another inch. Then a few more. They both pushed, screaming out the pain and the effort until the cover had moved enough so that their legs were dangling over open earth.


Dirt and rocks fell into the mouth of the well. Rain splattered against water. They both looked down into the endless darkness.


"Dammit!" Claire's voice echoed back up. "How deep do you think it is?"


"We need a flashlight."


"There's one in the car."


Lydia watched her sister sprint away in her bare feet. Her elbows were bent. She hurdled over a fallen tree. She was so intent on moving forward that she wasn't stopping to look back at what she had left in her wake.


Paul. She hadn't just watched him die. She had taken in his death like a hummingbird drawing nectar.


Maybe that didn't matter. Maybe watching Paul die was the sustenance that Claire needed. Maybe Lydia shouldn't worry about what they had done to Paul. She should be more concerned about what Paul had done to them.


To their father. To their mother. To Claire. To Julia.


Lydia looked down into the gaping blackness of the well. She tried to listen for the rain hitting the water at the bottom, but there were too many drops to follow the path of just one.


She found a pebble on the ground. She dropped it into the well. She counted seconds. At four seconds, the pebble splashed into the water.


How far could a rock travel in four seconds? Lydia reached down into the darkness. She ran her hand along the rough rocks, trying not to think about spiders. The rocks were uneven. Mortar was chipping away. If she was careful, maybe she could get a foothold. She leaned in farther. She swept her hand back and forth. The mortar felt dry. Her fingers brushed across a vine.


Except it was too delicate to be a vine. It was thin. Metal. A bracelet? A necklace?


Carefully, Lydia tried to pick the chain away from the wall. The resistance changed, and she guessed it was stuck on something. She couldn't reach her other hand down to pull it away. She looked back over her shoulder. Claire was in the distance. The flashlight was on. She was running. Her feet were going to be cut up from the forest. She probably couldn't feel it now because of the bitter cold.


Lydia groaned as she leaned farther into the well. She let her fingers walk along the chain. She felt a solid metal piece, almost like a coin, stuck between the rocks in the wall. There was a shape to it, not round but maybe oval. She traced her thumb along the smooth edges. Carefully, Lydia pried out the coin, rocking it gently back and forth until it came loose from the crevice. She wound the chain around her fingers and pulled her arm out of the well.


She looked down at the necklace in her hand. The gold locket was shaped like a heart and engraved with a cursive L. It was the sort of thing a boy would give you in the ninth grade because you let him kiss you and he thought that meant you were going steady.


Lydia couldn't remember the boy's name, but she knew that Julia had stolen the locket from her jewelry box, and that she was wearing it the day she had disappeared.


Claire said, "It's your locket."


Lydia rolled the cheap chain between her fingers. She had thought it was so expensive. He'd probably paid five bucks for it at the Ben Franklin.


Claire sat down. She turned off the flashlight. She was breathing hard because of the run. Lydia was breathing hard because of what they were about to do. Thick smoke rolled across the faint sunlight. The air was frigid. The condensation from their combined breaths mingled together over the locket.


This was the moment. Twenty-four years of searching, longing, knowing, not knowing, and all they could do was sit in the rain.


Claire said, "Julia used to sing Bon Jovi in the shower. Do you remember that?"


Lydia let herself smile. "'Dead or Alive.'"


"She always ate all the popcorn at the movies."


"She loved licorice."


"And dachshunds."


They both made a sour face.


Claire said, "She liked that gross guy with the mullet. What was his name? Brent Lockhart?"


"Lockwood," Lydia remembered. "Dad made him get a job at McDonald's."


"He smelled like grilled beef."


Lydia laughed, because Julia the vegetarian had been appalled. "She broke up with him a week later."


"She let him get to second base anyway."


Lydia looked up. "She told you that?"


"I spied on them from the stairs."


"You were always such a brat."


"I didn't tattle."


"For once."


They both looked back down at the locket. The gold had worn off the back. "I meant what I told you on the phone. I forgive you."


Claire wiped rain out of her eyes. She didn't look like she would ever forgive herself. "I sent out an email-"


"Tell me later."


There were so many more important things to catch up on. Lydia wanted to watch Dee meet her crazy aunt. She wanted to hear Rick and Helen discussing the inherent evil of eBooks. She wanted to hold her daughter. She wanted to gather up her dogs and her cats and her family and be made whole again.


Claire said, "All Daddy ever wanted was to find her."


"It's time."


Claire turned on the flashlight. The light reached down to the bottom of the well. The body had come to rest in a shallow pool of water. The skin had fallen off. No sunlight had bleached the bones.


The locket. The long blonde hair. The silver bangles.


Julia.


TWENTY-FOUR


Claire lay on Julia's bed with her head propped up on Mr. Biggles, Julia's favorite stuffed animal. The ancient, shaggy dog had barely survived their childhood. Jean Nate After Bath Splash suffused his stuffing. His legs had been dipped in Kool-Aid as payback for a purloined book. Part of his nose had been burned off in a stealthy bit of retribution for a stolen hat. In a fit of pique, someone had snipped the fur on his head down to the cotton batting.

Lydia didn't look much better. Her singed hair was growing back, but six weeks out from their ordeal, her bruises were still a nasty black and yellow. The cuts and burns had only recently started to scab. The area around her fractured eye socket was still red and swollen. Her left arm would be in a sling for another two weeks, but she had become remarkably adept at doing almost everything with one hand, including folding Julia's clothes.


They were in the house on Boulevard. Helen was making lunch in the kitchen. Claire was supposed to be helping Lydia pack Julia's things, but she had easily fallen back into the old pattern of letting her older sister do everything.


"Look how tiny she was." Lydia smoothed out a pair of Jordache jeans. She splayed her hand at the waist. Her thumb and pinky finger were only inches from the sides. "I used to borrow these." She sounded astonished. "I thought I was so fat when she died."


When she died.


That's what they were saying now-not When Julia disappeared or When Julia went missing, because the DNA had confirmed what they had known in their hearts all along: Julia Carroll was dead.


Last week they had laid her to rest beside their father. The ceremony was small, just Claire, Helen, Lydia, and Grandma Ginny, who kept freaking Lydia out by telling her she was just as pretty as she remembered. They had taken Ginny home after the burial and met Dee and Rick at the Boulevard house. Christmas was only a week away. There were presents under the tree. They sat at the long dining-room table and ate fried chicken and drank iced tea and told long-forgotten stories about the departed-the way Sam used to hum every time he ate ice cream and how Julia had forgotten all the notes before her first piano recital. They heard stories about Dee, too, because they had missed seventeen years of her life and she was such an interesting and bubbly and smart and pretty young girl. She was clearly her own person, but she was so much like Julia that Claire still felt her heart skip a beat every time she saw her.


"Hey, lazybutt." Lydia dumped a drawer full of socks on the bed beside Claire. "Make yourself useful."


Claire sorted the socks with a deliberate slowness so that Lydia would get annoyed and take over. Julia had loved little-girl patterns with pink hearts and red lips and various breeds of dogs. Someone would get good use out of them. They were donating their sister's clothes to the homeless shelter, the same shelter she had volunteered for the day Gerald Scott had decided to take her away from them.