When a 17 year-old-girl goes missing, the façade of Whistling Ridge, Colorado - a tinder-box of small town rage ruled over by a crazy preacher - is split wide open. Based on the author's first-hand experience of an American smalltown community and religious rage.
“IT'S ALL HER FAULT. That’s what they’re saying at school. The corridors smell like glue and cleaning products, and Emma presses herself deep into the corner of the girls’ bathroom, trying to drown out the echo of their voices, knocking back the travel- sized whiskey bottles her mother keeps for trips they never take.
‘Can you believe Emma Alvarez just left her there?’
‘OhmyGod, do you think that’s why she got taken?’
‘She didn’t get taken. She ran away with that gypsy boy.’
‘She did not. I saw him at the diner last week.’
‘Yeah, well, I heard she got eaten by coyotes.’
‘I’d never leave my friend to get eaten by coyotes.’
Her mascara turns her tears black, and she rams her knuckles into her mouth so that nobody can hear her sobbing.
A week after the party at the Tall Bones, Principal Handel holds a special assembly in the gym, where she asks the students of the high school and middle school to keep Abigail in their thoughts and prayers, and to extend their support to her family and friends. Little Jude Blake chews on his lip and sinks into his shirt collar like he hopes nobody will notice him. Emma watches it all through heavy- lidded tipsy eyes and thinks, That’s it. All two of us here. Abigail’s family and friend. There’s no one else who remembers the sight of grass stains on Abi’s socks, sitting out on the old couch at the bottom of the Blakes’ backyard through countless summers; or copying each other’s homework and eating candy that turned their tongues blue. No one else who heard her say, when she was thirteen: ‘I’m going to be an artist.’ Emma had snorted and said, ‘What, in Whistling Ridge?’ and Abi had told her no way, she was going to catch a bus to Denver and never look back. This had seemed very impressive at the time. Abi was like something from a movie. She’d looked wide- eyed at Emma then, and added, ‘You’ll come with me, won’t you?’
Now Emma downs another tiny bottle in the bathroom, and pukes when she gets home.
“Abi wouldn’t just leave without saying anything. She wouldn’t have caught a bus to Denver and not said a single word about it. You don’t run out on a friendship of ten years like that, you just don’t.”
That night Emma dreams of a coyote pack screaming among the trees. She ploughs through them with her car and their blood gums up her tyres. Then she’s bleaching Abigail’s hair, and while their nostrils sting with the reek of ammonia, they sip on Samuel Blake’s bourbon. It burns, it burns, Abigail keeps saying, or she’s mouthing it, or the words just appear in Emma’s head. Abi kisses her, spilling blood on to Emma’s lips, down the front of her body, her chest, her arms, her hands . . .
When Emma wakes it is barely dawn. The mountains are dark and steaming with fresh September rain, and she can smell dried vomit in her nostrils from when she threw up earlier. Wrapping herself in her blanket, she sneaks to the bathroom and washes her hands, over and over, until they’re so cold from the water she can hardly feel them. Melissa must hear the faucet because, wordless, she comes and puts her arms around her. When Emma finally stops shivering, they shuffle into Melissa’s bed, and she strokes Emma’s hair until they fall asleep – mother and daughter curved like some strange rune against the sheets. The next morning, Melissa pours away any remaining alcohol she can find, but they say nothing about it. Emma’s grandmother liked to say that people in glass houses should not throw stones, and Melissa has been aged prematurely by the guilt of marrying a man who could not love her enough to stay, or so she says.
Before Abi’s disappearance, before the drink, Emma never realized how many decisions she had to make just to get through the day. Am I going to bother having breakfast? Should I drive to school, or get the bus? Who should I sit next to at lunch? Who is least likely to look at me like I’m gum on the underside of their desk? But starting the day with a drink means there is only one decision to make: Do I keep drinking? Everything else just sort of falls into place after that. She knows her mother means well, but good intentions won’t stop Emma crying in the girls’ bathroom. Christmas break is still months away, and she’s not sure she can make all the decisions that stretch between now and then.
She knows – she knows – it is worse if Abigail is dead. But people at school say she ran away and who could blame her, and that feels like a buck knife in Emma’s stomach, tearing a big hole through her guts. Abi wouldn’t just leave without saying anything. She wouldn’t have caught a bus to Denver and not said a single word about it. You don’t run out on a friendship of ten years like that, you just don’t. But, then, would it be better if Abigail were dead?
“Right now there is nothing lovelier, she thinks, than light filtered through whiskey-brown glass, and if she puts a bottle in her hand, she can forget about the feeling of last night’s bad dream.”
In the morning, after her mother leaves for the clinic where she is the local GP, Emma doesn’t go to school. She goes to Mr Wen’s liquor store, stuffs a bottle of Jack Daniel’s inside her coat. She’s almost out of the door with it when she sees the young man with the leather jacket grinning at her from the parking lot, all brilliant teeth like he eats knives for breakfast. Something about him looks familiar, and this familiarity seems to take her by the scruff of the neck and tell her to sit up straight, so much so that she loses her grip on the bottle.
Mr Wen has a kind face, crinkled like a paper lantern, and he tells her he isn’t going to press charges this time, although he does make her pay for the broken bottle. He takes it all in: her smudged mascara, her puffy eyes, her bitten-down nails, and says he hopes she’ll feel better soon. She knows, without him needing to say, that he understands what it’s like to be different in this country. That thought alone – that sense of fragile solidarity – makes her want to burst into tears all over again, and in the parking lot she braces herself against her car to steady her gasping breaths.
‘Hey, you okay?’
When she looks up, the guy with the leather jacket is watching her. With his head cocked to one side, his hair lifting in the wind like feathers, he looks like a big crow. Emma swallows, and tries not to screw up her eyes too much when she nods.
‘No ID.’ She hates how small her voice sounds, carried away by the rumble of traffic on the main drag.
‘I’ll buy it for you,’ he says, with an accent that sounds faintly Eastern European. ‘You can drink with me.’
Emma runs a hand through her hair, and the greasy residue it leaves on her fingers makes her feel queasy. In a few years’ time, college friends will tell her not to accept free drinks from men she doesn’t know. Even now, her head rings with folkloric warnings: nothing is ever free, everything has its price. But right now there is nothing lovelier, she thinks, than light filtered through whiskey-brown glass, and if she puts a bottle in her hand, she can forget about the feeling of last night’s bad dream.
She sniffs loudly. ‘Okay. Sure.’ Everything has its price, but she cannot yet imagine the real cost of this one bottle of whiskey. Neither of them can.”
by Anna Bailey
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