Beautiful. Rich. Mysterious. The Roanoke girls seem to have it all. But there’s a dark truth about them which is never spoken…
Dip into Amy Engel’s provocative debut thriller The Roanoke Girls in this early extract and see if you can unravel the mystery of Roanoke.
The first time I saw Roanoke was in a dream. I knew little of it beyond its name and the fact it was in Kansas, a place I had never been. My mother only ever mentioned it when she’d had too much wine, her breath turned sweet and her words slow and syrupy like molasses. So my subconscious filled in the rest. In my dream it stood tall and stately, tucked among a forest of spring-green trees. Its red brick facade was broken up by black shutters, white trim, delicate wrought iron balconies. A little girl’s fantasy of a princess castle.
When I woke, I started to tell my mother about it. Talking through a mouthful of stale Cheerios drowned in just-this-side-of-sour milk. I got only as far as the name, Roanoke, before she stopped me. “It was nothing like that,” she said, voice flat. She was sitting on the wide windowsill, knees drawn up into her cotton nightgown, smoke from her cigarette gathered around her like a shroud. Her ragged toenails dug into the wooden window frame.
“You didn’t even let me tell you,” I whined.
“Did you wake up screaming?”
A dribble of milk ran down my chin. “Huh?”
She turned and glanced at me then, her skin pale, eyes red-rimmed. The bones of her face looked sharp enough to cut. “Was it a nightmare?”
I shook my head, confused and a little scared. “No.”
She looked back out the window. “Then it was nothing like that.”
The second time I saw Roanoke was a month after my mother committed suicide. She hanged herself from her bedroom doorknob while I was at school. Made a noose of her bathrobe sash and kneeled in supplication. Her death showed a kind of dedication, a purpose, I’d never seen from her in life. Next to her she left a note scribbled on the margin of the Sunday Times. I tried to wait. I’m sorry. The police officers asked me if I knew what she meant, but I had no idea. Wait for what? As if there was ever going to be a good time for her to off herself.
The first few days after she died I spent with the drag queen who lived in the apartment next door. My mother didn’t really have any friends and, frankly, neither did I. No one rushing over with hugs and casseroles. As far as potential guardians went, Carl wasn’t bad. He let me borrow his makeup. He was kind. And like my mother before him, he wasn’t too concerned with the finer points of child rearing. But even if Carl had been willing, I knew the state wouldn’t let him keep me.
The social worker assigned to me was an overweight woman named Karen who had a fondness for faded concert t-shirts and sour cream and onion potato chips. “I don’t know why I can’t get a job,” I told her. “Live on my own.”
She shoveled a handful of chips into her mouth, wiped her greasy fingers down Axl Rose’s face. “You’re not even sixteen.”
“Almost,” I reminded her. “Three weeks.”
“Doesn’t matter if it’s three minutes. You gotta be eighteen.”
“I don’t want—”
Karen cut me off, held up a hand. “I found family that wants you.”
“What family?” I knew my mother came from Kansas, of course. Grew up in a house that had a name, like a person, like a living thing. But I’d never met any of her family. They never came to visit, never phoned, never wrote. I’d assumed they were either dead or wished we were.
Karen glanced down at the papers on her desk. “Your mom’s parents. Yates and Lillian Roanoke. Live just outside Osage Flats, Kansas.” She slammed her hand down on the desk, making me jump. “It’s your lucky day, I’d say.” She raised her hand again and held up one finger. “First, they’re rich.” Another finger went up. “Second, they’re already raising a cousin of yours.” Karen’s eyes fell back to the desk. “Allegra. About six months younger than you. They’ve had her since she was born, from what I can gather. Third, they want you. Not willing to take you. Want you.” She waved the sheaf of paper in my direction. “Already bought you a bus ticket. You leave tomorrow.”
It was weird on that bus ride, how the farther we traveled from New York City, the only place I’d ever lived, the only place I’d ever been, the more I felt like I was going home. As the crowded cities gave way to wide-open space, flat land and endless horizon, something inside me unwound. And strangely, I wasn’t nervous or scared. A lifetime with my mother had given me lots of practice with unpredictability. In her own bizarre way, she had been preparing me for this moment my whole life.
At the bus station in Wichita an old man sidled up to me where I sat waiting on my mom’s Louis Vuitton suitcase, one of the few remnants of her life before me.
“Lane Roanoke?” he said, cleared his throat like he was going to hack something disgusting at my feet.
“I’m Charlie. Work for your granddad. He sent me to fetch ya’.” He motioned me up and grabbed my suitcase and duffel with the vigor of a much younger man. “Come on then.”
I followed him out of the bus depot into sunlight so blinding I thought at first my eyes might burn right out of my head, no buildings to block it, no masses of people to hide behind. The heat was different too, wet and clinging, coating my lungs with moss.
Charlie threw my bags into the back of a rusted pickup, the original bright red faded to the lackluster sheen of an old bloodstain. “Hop on in,” he told me, gesturing to the passenger door.
The interior was as hot as I’d feared, even though he’d left the windows down, and I had to resist the urge to hang my head out like a dog. “How far is it?” I asked. “To Roanoke?”
“Couple hours.” He made that noise with his throat again and this time twisted his head and spat out his open window.
Wichita seemed empty of people compared with what I was used to, but as the miles unspooled the terrain turned even more barren. We went long minutes without passing a single other car, only field after field with Charlie pointing out what was growing—corn, wheat, soybean. Occasionally, in the distance, I saw a combine working the land or a cloud of vultures overhead. I’d never known the world could be so quiet. Turned out Charlie wasn’t a talker, which was fine with me. He only spoke once more, when we turned off a two lane country road onto a gravel driveway, passed under an archway with a wrought iron “R” in the center. “Sorry to hear about your mama. Was there the day she was born.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. Already my mother felt like something that had happened in another lifetime, one I was only too happy to forget. I edged forward on the bench seat, hands curled around the ripped leather, craning for my first glimpse of Roanoke. Unlike my single dream of the place, there was hardly a tree in sight. Instead, oceans of wheat stretched out in all directions, wind surfing along the grain. And there it was…Roanoke. Nothing like my imagination. Nothing I could have imagined in a hundred years of trying.
I coughed out a laugh, half-delighted, half-terrified. “That’s it?”
Charlie made a non-committal sound as he brought the truck to a stop in the semi-circular drive. Roanoke clearly started out as something resembling a traditional farmhouse—white clapboard, wrap around porch, peaked dormers. But someone had added on crazy additions over the years, a brick turret on one side, what looked like an entirely new stone house extending from the back, more white clapboard, newer and higher, on the other side. It was like a handful of giant houses all smashed together with no regard for esthetics or conformity. It was equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing.
I slid from the truck, my eyes still bouncing over the house trying to make sense of all the strange angles and materials. It looked like something an insane person would build, or someone who didn’t give a shit. It wasn’t until I looked at the wide front porch for the second time that I noticed the girl standing there balanced on her tip-toes, as if she was about to fly down to greet me.
“Hi!” she called out, waving frantically with both hands. Her hair was arranged in two long braids, tied at the ends with blue and white gingham bows. She wore cut-off jean shorts and a tank top, but teetered on sky-high red glittery pumps. “Welcome to Oz!” she yelled, flinging her arms wide.
I stared at her, speechless, and her arms dropped. “Jesus fucking christ,” she said with a put-upon sigh, kicking off the shoes. They arced through the air and landed on the lawn near my suitcase. “I was joking. It was a joke.”
She raced down the porch steps, came to a stop right in front of me. Her eyes flicked over my face, then focused on something behind me. She flapped her hand like a bug was in her way. “Stop lurking. Get out of here, you old coot.”
It took me a second to realize she was talking to Charlie, not to me. I watched as he gave her a long, measured stare before he walked away, still hacking. “So gross,” the girl said, wrinkling her nose and bringing her attention back to me. She tilted her head and stared. “Well, hell,” she said finally. “You’re prettier than me.” I could tell from her tone of voice that this was a rare occurrence.
“I don’t think—”
“No, you are. Don’t deny it.”
Honestly, I couldn’t see much difference between us. She had my dark hair, and the sun caught on the copper highlights exactly the way it did mine. We had the same long, coltish legs, same willowy frame and big boobs. Although this girl, who I assumed was my cousin Allegra, was showing a lot more in her low cut tank top than I was in my plain white t-shirt.
Allegra pointed at my eyes, her red lacquered nail stopping mere inches from my iris. “You got the Roanoke eyes, you lucky bitch.” But she said it with a smile. My eyes were my mother’s, ice blue with a starburst of pale green around the pupil. Allegra’s were a solid blue, the exact same hue as the cloudless sky overhead.
“I’m Allegra,” she said, linking her arm through mine as she pulled me toward the house.
“Lane,” I said, allowing myself to be dragged along.
Allegra laughed, high and bright. “Well, duh.”
“What about my suitcase?”
“Charlie will get it.”
Once through the front door, Allegra let go of my arm and grabbed my hand instead. “I’m so happy you’re here. I knew your mom would never move back, but I used to lie in bed and pray you’d come home.” She squeezed my hand, grinding the bones together. “Not that I wanted your mom to kill herself, but you know…I’m glad it worked out.”
I couldn’t even formulate a response before she was leading me down a dark hallway, deeper into the house. I wasn’t as shocked by her comment, by her almost-crazed energy, as other people might’ve been. She reminded me of my mother, had the same mercurial spirit. Like she was walking a tightrope between light and dark, joy and sorrow, and all I could do was stand beneath with arms outstretched and hope to make a catch. Or at least that’s what I’d done with my mother when I was younger. In recent years, I was more likely to yank away the net just to watch her fall.
Allegra pointed out rooms as we passed: parlor, living room, formal living room, library, dining room, music room, office, sun room, down there’s the screened porch, up there are bedrooms and a sleeping porch, but she walked too fast for me to get more than a glimpse of each space. Some rooms were flooded with sunlight, others so dim and dark I’d have sworn it was night outside. Stairwells sprouted at bizarre angles, curving up and down, leading who knows where. The temperature varied from room to room, cold pockets of air conditioning running smack into walls of heat like the interior of Charlie’s truck.
“Where are…” I paused, unsure how to phrase it. “Our grandparents?”
“Gran’s around here somewhere,” Allegra said. “Granddad’s probably out in the fields.” She led me through a crooked doorway, the floor slanting slightly under our feet. “Here’s the kitchen.” The room was a hodgepodge, much like the rest of the house. Brand new stainless steel appliances kept company with ancient wood floors. The lighting was modern, but the tiles were old, cracked and held together with grimy grout. It was like someone had lost interest right in the middle of redecorating. The best part of the kitchen was an addition on the far end with a wall of windows and a long plank table lined with a padded bench on one side, chairs on the other. An older woman stood at the counter cutting vegetables. I thought at first she might be our grandmother, but she didn’t look up when we entered, and Allegra acted as though she wasn’t there, moving around her to lift two aluminum tumblers down from a shelf.
“Purple or red?” Allegra asked me.
She shook the tumblers in my face. “Purple or red?”
“Oh, I don’t care. Purple, I guess.”
Allegra danced over to the faucet, filled both tumblers and shoved the purple one into my hand. I took a sip. The water was ice cold but tinged with a metallic aftertaste, like drinking through a mouthful of nickels. Allegra watched me over the rim of her cup. Her eyes felt greedy, like she was trying to drink me instead of her water. I set my cup down on the counter.
A woman entered the kitchen from the far side, near the long table. She was slender and delicate with blonde hair pulled back in a low ponytail at the nape of her neck. “Allegra,” she said, “where did you put those pearls you borrowed yesterday?”
“I don’t know.” Allegra flailed one hand in the air. “They’re around here somewhere.”
The woman clucked her tongue but said nothing more. Her eyes drifted over to me. “You must be Lane.”
She nodded, came closer. “I’m your grandma, Lillian. You can call me Gran like Allegra does.” She reached forward and took both my hands in hers, held my arms out from my sides. Her hands were cold, her skin soft and smooth. “Let’s get a look at you.”
Before this moment I was in possession of exactly two facts about my grandmother. She came from old money on the east coast, and she was beautiful. I’d always pictured her as some eastern Blanche DuBois, booze-soaked and lipstick-smeared, wandering through her days in a silk nightgown, leaving a trail of cigarette ashes in her wake. This woman was nothing like that. She wore black capri pants and a white blouse, the sleeves rolled up on porcelain forearms. Her hair was glossy, her make-up refined. She didn’t look much older than some of the mothers of classmates I’d known back in New York. Her blue eyes weren’t cold exactly, but they didn’t invite me in, either. She seemed very capable, very calm. The direct opposite of her daughter who raised me.
“I think we’ll put you in the white bedroom,” she said, dropping my hands. “Allegra, show Lane her room.” She left the kitchen as quickly as she’d entered, trailing not cigarette smoke but the faint scent of expensive perfume. If some small part of me had hoped for hugs and loving words, sheer relief at my grandmother’s restraint drowned it out. I had no experience with maternal affection, wouldn’t have known what to do with it if it was offered.
Allegra pointed to the far corner of the kitchen. “There’s a back stairway there. But come this way first. I want to show you something.” We exited the kitchen, still without acknowledging the woman working at the counter. But when I looked back over my shoulder, her dark eyes followed me.
“Who was that?” I asked Allegra as we branched off the central hall and went down three shallow steps into a second hallway.
“That woman in the kitchen. The one chopping vegetables.”
“Oh, that’s Sharon. She’s our maid, basically. She does the laundry, cleans, cooks. Her food totally sucks, though. I keep telling Granddad to fire her, but she’s been here forever.” Allegra stopped in front of a series of framed photographs. “Here,” she said, pointing, her cheeks feverish. “Ta-da! It’s the Roanoke girls!”
My eyes followed her finger to the biggest frame, golden and gilt-edged. Someone had carved a tiny “RG” into the bottom of the frame, the letters ragged and uneven. The hallway was shadowy, with little natural light, and I had to move closer to see. The frame held a collection of large oval-cropped photographs—two on the top row, four more below, and Allegra on the bottom. I recognized my mother in the middle row but no one else. “Who are they?”
“Us!” Allegra screeched. She stabbed at the top two pictures. “These are Granddad’s sisters, Jane and Sophia. Then this row are Gran’s and Granddad’s girls. Penelope. She was actually Jane’s daughter, but Gran and Granddad raised her. Then my mom, Eleanor. Your mom, Camilla. Who totally got the best name, by the way.” She jabbed me with her bony elbow. “And the baby, Emmeline. We can take a picture of you and put it right here.” She tapped the empty space next to her own face, clapped her hands like a little girl at a birthday party.
All of the pictures were black-and-white close-ups, giving them an old-fashioned feel, although even the ones of Granddad’s sisters couldn’t have been more than thirty or forty years old. They were all taken when the girls were teenagers, except for Emmeline who was still an infant, which I figured didn’t bode well. It was eerie how much they all looked alike, how much they looked like me. As if the Roanoke genes were so strong they bulldozed right over anyone else’s DNA.
“Where are they all now?” I asked.
Allegra’s pointing finger re-emerged. She started at the top, with Jane, and moved down the line. “Jane’s gone. Sophia and Penelope are dead. My mom’s gone.” She paused before lightly brushing her finger over my mother’s face. “Your mom’s dead, obviously. Emmeline died when she was only a baby. And I’m right here.”
“What do you mean, gone?”
“Jane disappeared right after Penelope was born, probably ran off like my mom. I was only two weeks old when she hauled ass out of here.” Allegra’s tone was matter-of-fact, but her mouth pinched up and her eyes clouded over. She thumped Eleanor’s face hard with one knuckle.
“And all the dead ones?”
Allegra shrugged, already bored. “Sophia drowned in the North Fork during the spring floods. She was twenty-something. Penelope fell down the main stairs and broke her neck. Tripped on her nightgown in the middle of the night. She was like our age, maybe a little younger. Totally tragic. Emmeline was crib death. Sharon said Gran didn’t get out of bed for six months after. They all thought she was going to waste away. Die of grief.”
Hearing their stories turned the faces in front of me from beautiful to tragic. They watched me now with haunted eyes. The only one left was Allegra. And me. I suddenly didn’t want a place on the wall. “Wow,” I said, goosebumps sprouting along my neck, even in the closed-in heat of the hall. “That’s a lot of dead girls.”
Allegra did a quick pirouette away from me, her smile a little too wide. “Roanoke girls never last long around here.” She skipped along the hall, her voice growing fainter as she moved, like we were standing at opposite ends of a tunnel. “In the end, we either run or we die.”
The call comes at three in the morning, that time of the night when sleep is so deep it almost feels like death. It takes me at least five rings to surface, swimming up through layers of dreams. “Hello?” My voice is raspy, the vodka I drank before bed still coating the back of my throat.
“Lane? Lane, is that you?”
I hold the phone away from my face, squint at it like they do in the movies, before returning it to my ear. “Who is this?” I ask, although I already know, my stomach bottoming out at the sound of his deep voice.
“It’s your granddad, Lane. We need you to come home. Back to Roanoke.”
Hearing the word sends an electric shock up my spine, waking me instantly. I shove myself upright, palming hair off my face. “How did you get my number?”
My granddad sighs. I hear the scrape of a chair. “You need to come home, Lane,” he repeats.
“Because Allegra is missing.”
At the sound of her name, Allegra’s words from all those years ago take flight, fluttering around my skull and bouncing off the bone…Roanoke girls…gone…dead…dead…gone. “I don’t…what happened?”
“She hasn’t been seen in a week. The police are looking into it, but they don’t have a clue. We need you here.” There are voices in the background. “I have to go now. Please come home, Laney-girl.” He hangs up on me.
I toss my cell phone away, lower my head to my upturned knees. I stink of alcohol and sweat and my mouth tastes bitter, like I vomited in the night. It wouldn’t be the first time. Since I left Roanoke, I haven’t spoken to Gran or Granddad, not once. And I’ve barely talked to Allegra. Never on the phone, just an occasional email, one she always initiated. I scramble for my discarded phone, scroll through my emails with shaking fingers. It doesn’t take long to find it. Sent eight days ago at 11:42 p.m.
Lane, I’ve tried calling you, but your voice mail is full. I know it’s been years, but I really need to talk to you. It’s probably nothing. I’m probably crazy (what else is new, right? Ha!). But you’re the only one I can talk to about this. Please get in touch. Love, A
I never called. I never wrote her back.
I leave Los Angeles at sunset, my suitcase in the trunk and a cooler packed with food in the backseat. I barely have enough money to pay for the gas it will take to get all the way to Kansas; I can’t afford to buy food, too.
The drive is long and uneventful. I pull over in rest areas for cat naps but never stop for more than a few hours. I try hard not to think beyond the next mile in front of me. When I cross the state line into Kansas, it is early afternoon, the sun a blistering ball in the sky. I murmur “Welcome to Oz” as I pass the State Visitor’s Center, and my throat tightens painfully.
I arrive at Roanoke without fanfare. It seems like the heavens should open up, trumpets should blare as I turn off old Route 24 and pass underneath the archway across the drive. The prodigal granddaughter returns. Of the ones who left, I’m the first to ever come back. But the house remains silent and still, no cars or trucks parked on the drive or down by the barn. Seeing Roanoke again fills me with a familiar swoop of dread, followed closely by a rush of adrenaline. My head knows this place is no good for me, but my stupid, traitorous heart sings home.
I crane my neck, but from my vantage point I can’t tell if the house has any new crazy ass additions. I sit in the car until the heat forces me to move, a tiny rivulet of sweat pooling inside my bra. When I step out, the sounds and smells assault me: grass, wheat, dust, wind, grasshopper and cicada song. It all hits me like a slap, and I take a stumbling step backward, lean against the hot metal of the car until the woozy deja vu feeling passes. I’ve been back to New York a few times since I left, and it’s never had this effect on me. But one long summer here at Roanoke is somehow imprinted beneath my skin like a tattoo of memories running through my veins.
I leave my suitcase and cooler in the car and climb the wide front steps. The porch swing creaks in the breeze. “Gran?” I call out when I push open the front door and step inside. “Granddad?” Nothing answers except the steady tick-tock of the ancient grandfather clock in the foyer. It still, I notice, fails to keep the correct time.
Every room I pass is empty. In the kitchen a pie crust is rolled out on the counter, a bowl of plump reddish-black cherries next to it, but Sharon is nowhere in sight. “Hello?” I say, before giving up and climbing the back staircase to the second floor. All the bedroom doors are closed, and the air in the upstairs landing is thick and sticky. I bypass my old room and head to the hidden stairway at the end of the hall that leads up into the brick turret and Allegra’s bedroom. She always loved being up high, even though the room had no air conditioning and burned like an oven in the summer months.
Her room is not all that different from the last time I saw it over a decade ago. The bedspread on her antique four-poster has changed from lavender to pale green, and the walls have gone from off-white to a silvery-gray. But her floor is still littered with piles of clothes, her vanity table cluttered with make-up and tangles of jewelry. If I close my eyes, a remnant of her scent—coconut body lotion and musky perfume—still lingers. I’m scared to touch anything in case the police haven’t been in here yet. I back out slowly, make sure the door is closed the way she likes it.
Back on the second floor I run smack into Gran, who is emerging from the master suite as I round the corner from the tower stairwell. “Lane?” she says, one hand flying up to her throat. “Lane?”
“Yeah, Gran, it’s me.” We don’t touch beyond the initial collision, not even an impersonal press of fingers. Gran has aged a bit since I last saw her, but not as much as I’d expected. Her hair is still blonde, her figure still trim. There’s a little softening at her jaw, a new network of lines around her eyes, but she still looks impossibly young to be a grandmother to grown women.
“What in the world are you doing here?” She appears mildly irritated at my presence, as if I’m a dinner guest who showed up an hour early and interrupted her careful planning.
For a second I’m dumbfounded, then hit with my own flash of irritation. “Granddad called me in the middle of the night. He said I needed to come home.”
Gran’s face tightens for a split second. “Oh, your granddad. He always over-reacts.”
“I don’t think being worried about Allegra going missing is overreacting. What happened? I assume the police are involved?”
Gran fans her fingers through the air. “Well, of course they are, although it’s completely unnecessary. She’ll turn up. Probably took off to Wichita or some such.”
I gape at Gran. “For a week? Without calling?” I’ve been back in this house for less than an hour, and already I feel like I’m losing my mind, the Roanoke reality slithering into place. Where a tornado is a bit of wind or a missing woman is simply out having fun.
“She’s an adult, Lane. Just like you. We aren’t her keepers.”
“But still, Gran, something bad could have happened. She could be hurt or—”
“Don’t be dramatic,” Gran says. “You know Allegra. I’m sure she’s fine.”
“Actually, I don’t,” I say slowly. “I don’t really know her at all. I was only here for one summer. And that was a long time ago.”
Gran purses her lips, her brow furrowed. “Nonsense.” She’s already moving past me. “You two are practically sisters.”
That’s Gran. Still a master of the loaded statement.
When dusk falls I wander downstairs, but the kitchen remains empty, the pie makings spirited away. I poke my head into the dining room but am met with only silence and shadows. Back in the kitchen, I grab an apple and a bottle of beer from the fridge and take them out onto the front porch where I sit on the top step and watch the night roll in.
A plume of dust rises on the road and a patrol car edges into view, pulls into the circular drive and parks. The deputy inside doesn’t seem to be in any particular hurry, so I figure it’s not urgent news about Allegra, but I stand all the same, set my beer bottle on the step by my feet. When the car door opens, it’s only Tommy who gets out, both hands shoved into his pockets as he walks toward me, stops on the bottom step.
We stare at each other. He looks the same as in my memories. Dark brown hair curling slightly over his ears, serious hazel eyes. Some of his second-string quarterback muscle has turned soft—a little thickening at the waist, his face filled out around the cheekbones. But he looks good, solid and strong. His police uniform, complete with handcuffs at his hip and a scuffed silver nameplate over his left breast, suits him, although I never once imagined he’d wind up a cop.
I lean against the porch railing, a slow smile dawning. “You the law around here now, Tommy Kenning?”
“Looks that way,” he says, rolling forward on the balls of his feet.
“Damn. Guess that means no more mailbox baseball for us.”
“Nope. No shoplifting from uptown, either.” Tommy smiles and his teeth are as white as ever. He takes his hands from his pockets and jogs up the four shallow steps to pull me forward against his broad chest. I’m horrified to find myself blinking back tears as I clutch at his shirt. My hands have a hard time grabbing on, the starched cotton slick under my fingers. I let myself sink into him for a three-count beat before I pull away.
“You want a beer?” I ask, avoiding his eyes. “Or is this an official visit?”
“Nope, a beer would be good. I’m off duty. Heard through the grapevine you were back and thought I’d stop by.”
“News travels fast.”
We settle on opposite ends of the porch swing with our beers and a half-empty bag of pretzels retrieved from my car. “So, what’s going on with Allegra?” I ask him. I’m shredding the label on my beer bottle down to nothing, and I force myself to stop.
Tommy jerks his head toward the house. “Haven’t they told you anything?”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “You know what it’s like around here. Trying to get a straight answer out of anybody…” I take a long pull of my beer. “I haven’t even seen my granddad yet.” I’d expected a flurry of activity at the house, police and search teams and my grandparents frantic and determined. I should have known that’s not the way things would work at Roanoke. We are all so good at denial.
“From what we can tell, she up and vanished nine days ago,” Tommy says in a no-nonsense cop voice. “She had dinner with your grandparents. And your gran saw her late evening when she was heading up to bed. Allegra was settled in on the couch with a movie. She didn’t come down to breakfast the next morning, but your grandparents figured she was sleeping in. When they still hadn’t seen her by lunchtime, they checked her room. Found her bed not slept in, her car parked in the garage out back.” Tommy sighs, scrubs at his face with one hand. “Not a word from her, no trace. Like she disappeared into thin air.”
“What about her phone?”
“Left on her dresser.”
“Have you checked it? And her computer? What about friends?”
Tommy gives me a weary smile. “We’ve done all that, Lane. Don’t worry. We’ve done everything there is to do.”
“She called me before she disappeared,” I hear myself say, my words coming too fast. “Emailed me, too.”
Tommy nods. “I saw that on the phone log. Any idea what she wanted?”
“She didn’t leave a message, and her email just asked me to get in touch.”
“Did you?” Tommy asks after a slight pause.
“No,” I say, looking away. “Do you have a theory yet? About what might have happened?”
“I’m thinking maybe she took off,” Tommy says. “She wouldn’t be the first one of you to do it.”
I’m already shaking my head before he’s even done speaking. “She didn’t take off, Tommy. She loved Roanoke.”
“You might be right. But she wasn’t always predictable. Hard to know what Allegra would do.”
But I do know. Allegra would never leave Roanoke, not willingly. “What now?” I ask. “What happens next?”
“It’s still a missing persons case. We don’t have any reason to suspect foul play at this point. So we keep looking. We keep digging. We keep asking questions.” Tommy gives my hand a quick squeeze. “Something will shake loose. It always does.”
I bark out a laugh, a little harsher, a little meaner than I intended. “You handle a lot of missing persons cases? In Osage Flats?”
Tommy’s neck flushes. “Well, nothing like Los Angeles, I’m sure. But we aren’t complete idiots out here in the sticks, either.”
“That’s not what I meant, Tommy.” But, of course, it’s exactly what I meant.
He waves off my half-hearted apology. “Forget it. Shouldn’t have snapped at you. I’ve had a short fuse lately.”
Which is almost enough to make me smile. Tommy’s idea of a short fuse is a regular person’s infinite patience. I lower one leg, set the porch swing moving with a gentle shove of my foot. “How have things been around Osage Flats since I left?”
“Oh, you know…not much changes. Same old, same old. Still not a decent place to eat in town. Della Ward’s on her third husband, and Cooper’s still fixing engines and radiators.”
I breathe past the swift thump in my chest and take a gulp from my beer, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand as a dribble of liquid overflows down my chin. “Cooper’s here? I thought he moved to Kansas City.”
Kansas City is less than four hours northeast of Osage Flats, but in the time I lived here I met very few kids who’d actually been there. To them it was a Mecca they doubted they’d ever reach, as exotic and unattainable as New York City or Paris. It has always surprised me that Cooper, with his lazy brand of intelligence used mainly for stealing cigarettes and charming the panties off pretty girls, was the one with ambition enough to make the journey.
“Nah. He’s been back for a few years now.” Tommy gives me a quick sideways glance. “How’d you know he moved away? You two keep in touch?”
“No. Allegra sent me the town update once.” In lieu of a newspaper, Osage Flats publishes, and I use that term loosely, a sort of round-up of its residents every six months. The bulk of the entries catalogue weddings, births, and deaths, with the occasional success story—the opening of a local flower store or promotion to head cashier at the town grocery—tossed in as an afterthought.
“Oh, yeah.” Tommy smirks. “I remember that. Hell, this town will print just about anything and call it news.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” I say, and Tommy snorts in agreement.
The blurb Allegra sent me about Cooper was short, only a few sentences. A local-boy-makes-good type of mention, although moving four hours away to work in a body shop wouldn’t be considered an accomplishment anywhere but Osage Flats. Allegra wrote: Cooper Sullivan’s hitting the big time! Hahaha! across the top of the wrinkled page.
Tommy shifts and his handcuffs rattle against the porch swing. “I can’t believe you wound up a cop,” I say. “When I lived here, you broke the law at least once a day.”
Tommy smiles into his upturned beer bottle. “Got it out of my system young.”
“How do you like it?”
Tommy shrugs. “Only thing I’ve ever done, so don’t have much to compare it to. Most of the time I like it fine. Lately it’s been a little rough.”
“Because of Allegra?” I say, not really a question.
“Because of Allegra,” Tommy affirms.
“Did you ever…I guess you gave up on the idea of marrying her?”
Tommy laughs, although there’s not much humor in it. “I must have proposed a thousand times over the years but never could get her to say yes.”
If he’d ever asked my advice, I would have told him to save his breath. Allegra was never going to marry him, no matter how many ways he phrased the question. I glance down at the thick gold band on his ring finger, tap it lightly with my thumbnail. “Got tired of waiting, huh?
“Yeah.” Tommy rotates the ring on his finger. “I’m the marrying type, I guess.”
“Who is she?”
“Sarah Fincher. She’s about a year younger than you, but I’m pretty sure you met her a time or two when you were living here.”
“I remember,” I say, although I can conjure up only a vague picture of a small, mousy-haired girl who always put a hand up to cover her mouth when she laughed.
“How about you? You married?”
“I was. It didn’t take.” Tommy stays silent, waiting for me to continue. “He’s a pilot. I met him when I worked at LAX.”
Tommy seems impressed, in the way only a small-town boy can be by thoughts of the big city, mistaking noise and bright lights for a more glamorous life. I neglect to mention that I was a waitress at the hospitality bar where Jeff and I met. I wore a uniform so short my ass cheeks peeked out whenever I bent over to deliver a drink. Jeff used to joke that it was love at first sight.
Exhaustion rises up in a sudden wave, and I fight the urge to lay down on the porch swing and close my eyes. “Who knows? What ever happens when people fall apart?” I drain my beer in one long swallow. There’s no way I’m telling Tommy the truth, that my marriage ended because I was fucking someone else. Let Jeff catch me in bed with the next door neighbor, our bodies open and exposed. Good, sweet Tommy would never understand, how sometimes you have to hurt people just to prove that you’re alive.
It turned out dinner at Roanoke wasn’t served in the light-filled kitchen at the oak plank table. Roanoke dinners were formal, at least in setting, and served in the dining room, a bizarre space right in the middle of the house with no windows to the outside. At one time it appeared there had been, but an addition had been built on in such a way that now the dining room windows gave a view of a dark hallway instead of land and sky. It was like eating in a cave. Sharon set the various dishes out along the walnut sideboard before retreating back to the kitchen. Four places, complete with crystal goblets, linen napkins, and sterling silver utensils, were laid at the table meant for twelve, and I hung back until after Allegra filled her plate so I’d know where to sit.
“Go ahead,” Gran said, pointing with her fork to my plate filled with limp green beans, a fishy smelling patty of some type and lump of gelatinous tartar sauce. “Your granddad always runs late. No need to wait.”
“Yeah, but if she doesn’t wait, she’ll have to eat this,” Allegra said. She mimed puking into her plate.
“Oh, hush,” Gran said, but without any heat.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Salmon patties,” Gran told me.
“Salmon from a can,” Allegra added. “Watch out for the bones.” She pushed back from the table and disappeared through the doorway, returning a minute later with a bottle of ketchup. “It helps if you drown them.”
I watched Allegra shake the ketchup bottle over her plate, her generous breasts threatening to spill out of her sundress. It looked like something that would have fit her two summers ago, so short and tight I’d thought at first maybe she was playing another weird kind of dress up.
A throat cleared and all our heads turned to the man standing in the doorway. One glance and there was no mistaking my grandfather, Yates Roanoke. Unlike the few details my mother had given me about my grandmother, she never spoke of her father. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting, but he didn’t look like any grandfather I’d seen before. He was fiercely handsome. Dark hair with the barest feathering of gray at the temples, skin tan from the sun, tall and broad-shouldered, the Roanoke eyes. The kind of man it wasn’t hard to imagine walking into a room and owning every soul inside—all the men would stop talking, while all the women would cease to breathe. I felt a strange burst of pride looking at him, at knowing I was his descendant. If charisma was power, my grandfather was king.
He eyed Allegra and amusement chased its way across his face, never quite settling in a single spot. “That the dress code for dinner now?” he asked, voice mild. “We all gonna start eating half naked?” He pulled a plate from the stack on the sideboard and began piling it with food. “Go get something decent on.”
Allegra stuck out her bottom lip in a pantomime of childish pouting even though his back was turned. “But, Granddad—”
“Girl,” he said, still concentrating on the food, “you best do what I tell you.”
Allegra slammed the ketchup bottle down on the table, sending a spray of red droplets across the white tablecloth.
“Oh, Allegra.” Gran sighed. “Look at the mess!”
But Allegra was already flouncing out of the dining room. I could hear her feet stomping away down the hall. My grandfather set his full plate at the head of the table nearest the doorway and crossed over to where I sat.
“You’re Camilla’s girl,” he said, looking down at me.
He took my chin between his thumb and forefinger, lifted my face up gently. “You’re the spitting image of your mama.” We stared at each other, and I would have sworn I’d known him all my life. He felt more like family in five seconds than my mother had in fifteen years. “Glad you’re here,” he said, let go of my chin and gave a lock of my hair a quick tweak as he dropped his hand.
“Happy now?” Allegra asked, stomping back into the room. She wore the same tank top and shorts from earlier, still revealing but no longer ridiculous.
“Much better,” Granddad said with a small smile that seemed to melt her anger away.
“Sorry about the tablecloth,” she said, eyes sliding to Gran. “Do you think Sharon can get it out?”
“I’m sure she can,” Gran said. “If not, we’ll get a new one.”
We ate in relative silence, Allegra and I sending each other pained looks over our plates. I moved my salmon around and around with my fork and barely took a bite. No one asked about my mother or my childhood, and I welcomed not having to speak of her.
“Have you lived at Roanoke your whole life?” I asked my granddad once our dinner plates were cleared and Gran was serving up slices of peach pie.
“Born right here in this house,” he said. “Of course, some of the additions came later.” He winked at Gran and she smiled at him, her cheeks blooming little roses of pink. “Having babies always put your gran in a renovating mood.”
“I showed Lane the pictures in the hall,” Allegra said. “Of all the Roanoke girls.”
Granddad smiled at me, his teeth slightly crooked on the bottom. “We need to get a picture of you in there. You fit right in. Look like all the rest.”
“Except for Emmeline,” Allegra said, and Gran’s hand stuttered in the midst of cutting my slice of pie. “Since she was a baby when she died, we don’t know what she would’ve looked like grown.”
Granddad glanced at Gran, who kept her eyes on her task, before shifting his gaze to Allegra. “I’m sure she would’ve been beautiful. Just like all of you.”
Allegra leaned forward, resting most of her upper body on the table as she stretched toward me, her red nails skittering across the edge of my plate. “I found parts of my mom’s diary. She said when Emmeline died all the sisters had to kiss her at the funeral. Right on the mouth.” She lowered her voice to a stagey whisper. “She tasted like breast milk and formaldehyde.” Allegra wiggled her eyebrows at me. She reached forward and snagged a slice of peach from my pie, sucked it between her lips with a slurping sound. A trickle of juice slid down her chin.
“Allegra!” Gran said, her eyes wide. She pressed one hand against her breastbone. “Hush now. That’s a horrible story!”
Granddad shook his head, took a giant bite of pie. “Don’t know what’s gotten in to you, girl.”
I noticed no one denied it was true.
I thought I would have trouble sleeping in a new state, a new house, a new bed. But even with heat sticking the sheets to my legs and the constant whir of the fan in the window, I feel asleep fast, slept deep and heavy. I awoke early though and was lying in bed watching the sun creep up over the horizon, when someone tapped on my door.
“Yeah?” I called, rolling over onto my stomach and propping myself on my elbows.
My granddad poked his head into the room, gave me a quick grin. “Hey, Lane,” he said. “Thought you might want to come with me out to the barn. See the animals?”
I’d never really been an animal person. We’d never owned so much as a goldfish back in New York, but since I was already awake I figured I might as well join him. “Okay. Give me five minutes.”
“Meet you in the kitchen,” he said, closing the door softly behind him.
I pulled on a pair of shorts and debated a tank top before finally deciding screw it. It was hot as hell already and if Allegra and her big boobs could get away with it, I could too. My granddad chuckled when I walked into the kitchen, his eyes falling to my flip-flops. “We’re gonna have to get you some boots. Those aren’t farm shoes.”
He handed me a giant cinnamon roll wrapped in a paper towel and grabbed a mug of coffee from the counter. “She makes better breakfasts than dinners,” he said with a wink when he caught me sniffing experimentally at the roll.
The air outside was just as thick at dawn as it was in the middle of the day, the only slight relief the lack of direct sun. Granddad slid open the big barn door, and we passed into the gloom of the barn, the air hazy with dust motes. A horse whinnied from a far stall in greeting, and a tangle of kittens rolled over my feet.
“Watch where you step,” Granddad said, one hand loose on my elbow. “Got these damn cats all over the place.” He pointed out each animal by name, three horses, one cow, too many cats to count. “There’s a half dozen dogs around, but they don’t usually come into the barn unless it’s snowing. Goats out back and a chicken coop down the way.”
I looked around, the horse in the stall behind me bumping his muzzle against my shoulder. “Is this enough animals for a farm? I guess I always pictured more.”
Granddad laughed. “Oh hell, girl, these are all Allegra’s pets. Things she got her heart set on and I’m too much a fool to say no.” He grabbed an apple from a bucket on the floor and held it, palm out, to the horse behind me, who took it in his big yellow teeth. “This ain’t been a real working farm in years.”
“What about the wheat?”
“That’s just for fun. I like having something to do, still like getting my hands dirty. But oil is what we actually harvest around here.”
“Oil?” I pictured that old television show, where the family struck oil in the backyard and ended up rich. It didn’t sound as far-fetched now.
“Sure. My dad inherited this land, added to it over the years. More than 2,000 acres now, almost all of it fallow. He struck oil when I was young, and that’s pretty much all she wrote.” The horse chomped down on my ponytail, and Granddad swatted him away. “Your mama never told you any of this?”
“No. She didn’t talk about you all much.”
Granddad sighed. His face sagged a little, like he’d taken a blow. “Still miss that girl every day. Wish she hadn’t taken off.”
“Why did she?”
“Scared, I think. Of having you when she was so young, not even seventeen when she lit out of here. But your gran and I would never have made her give you up or kicked her out. Hell, life is complicated. We know that. It wasn’t anything to run away over.” He smiled. “You better eat that cinnamon roll, then you can help me take care of these animals.”
It didn’t take long to feed all the animals in the barn, not with both of us working together. After, Granddad took me down to the chicken coop and showed me how to sneak my hand under the fat hens to grab their eggs. He laughed when I squealed the first time, the drift of feathers and the hot, smooth globe of fresh egg so foreign in my hand.
Charlie took the basket of eggs from me, and Granddad led me back to the barn where we washed our hands in a cracked sink in the corner. He was already easy with me, acted like this was something we’d done a thousand times before instead of only this once. “My social worker in New York…” I trailed off, not entirely sure what I wanted to say.
“Yeah?” He kept scrubbing his hands, not looking directly at me.
“She said I was lucky. She said you and Gran wanted me, wanted me to come live here.”
My granddad turned off the sink with a wet hand, grabbed the towel I’d slung back on the hook nailed to the wall. “Ah, sweetheart,” he said, “of course we wanted you.” He hugged me, quick but warm, and I wasn’t sure how to respond, my arms stiff at my sides.
“I’m guessing your mama wasn’t much of a hugger,” he said as he released me.
I shrugged. “She wasn’t much of an anything.”
My granddad studied me, and I shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. “Sure sorry to hear that,” he said. “I’d hoped for better, for both of you. Our secret, but your mama was always my favorite.” He tweaked my ponytail. “But Lord Jesus, she gave me trouble. You gonna do the same?” His eyes twinkled under raised brows.
I thought about it for a second. “Maybe.” Paused a beat. “Probably.”
I waited for the fallout, but there wasn’t any, only another laugh from my granddad, a chuckled, “All right then. Guess that’s fair warning.”
As a little girl I’d tried to please, tried to live by the simple refrain my mother repeated like a desperate prayer in my ear: be good be good be good. But I’d known even then it wouldn’t work, went against something dark inside me. A mean streak that came to the surface more often as I grew. And I thought maybe here, at Roanoke, my being bad wouldn’t break anyone. I remembered Allegra’s words last night at the dinner table about Emmeline, my granddad’s sparkling eyes a moment ago when he spoke of my mother giving him hell. Maybe here it was like a different country, someplace where it was all right to be a little wicked.
Need more? The Roanoke Girls arrives 9th March 2017. Pre-order your copy here.