The Dead Girls
In the week before her disappearance, Sara was working on an essay for her class on Giambattista Basile, the Italian folklorist. Her essay compared one of Basile’s tales, “The Handless Princess,” to the story of Saint Lucy. According to many versions of the story, Lucy who had taken an oath of chastity, gouged out her eyes in order to dissuade a persistent suitor. When her own brother wished to marry her, Basile’s virtuous, unlucky princess chopped off her hands.
Sara never finished the first draft. She had a tendency to procrastinate, and would probably have completed the essay the same morning that it was due. In the margin of her notebook, she wrote: should just cut off their dicks, instead.
Sara’s notebooks, like her clothes, and her nail polish collection, and her camera, went to Lizzie after she died. Her parents distributed her belongings haphazardly after the police determined they were not needed as evidence.
Lizzie often wears Sara’s clothes, her loose-fitting Levis and her flannel shirts with paint stains on the sleeves. She hopes that if she dresses like an artist people might assume she is one.
Sara has been dead for five years. Lizzie lives in New York City now, with her boyfriend, Leo. He went to the same college as Sara and Lizzie, but he was three years above them, and he didn’t know Sara. Lizzie met him at a holiday party for alumni, a few months after she graduated.
She didn’t expect to ever go to alumni events, but that’s how lonely she was, working as a receptionist in an Upper East Side retirement home, living in a tiny apartment that smelled of cat piss. Sara had died a few months before Lizzie graduated, and the haze of grief and rage had kept her from making any real plans.
Lizzie used to hate New York. She hated the piles of trash along the sidewalk, she hated all the sirens, she hated the crackheads who yelled obscenities at her on the subway, she hated the businessmen who stared at their watches and did nothing.
It’s not so bad any more. She and Leo live in a small apartment near Morningside Park. He is in his last year of medical school at Columbia. Lizzie has a job she doesn’t hate, editing textbooks. Last year, they adopted a dog, a big, goofy German Shepard named Annette. They got her because Lizzie often gets restless at night, but walking around alone makes her nervous. She loves the freedom that comes with walking such a large animal by her side. It is how she imagines it feels to be a man.
It is a Saturday in April, chilly and bright. One of Leo’s mentors has invited them to a dinner party. Leo asked if Lizzie wouldn’t mind picking up flowers.
First, she has a hair appointment. Throughout college, Lizzie’s hair was all sorts of colors: red, black, white-blonde, even turquoise. It’s taken some effort to return it to the pretty, warm brown she was born with.
Margaret, her hairdresser, is a thin, somewhat austere woman who doesn’t talk very much. Lizzie prefers this. She thinks having someone else wash her hair is the best feeling in the world.
Across the salon, a woman is speaking to her own hair dresser, rather loudly, Lizzie thinks.
“I used to be an EMT,” the woman is saying.
“Uh-huh. Wow. That must have been stressful.”
“A little. But I never saw anything that bad. Not like on TV. Sometimes people had a little glass in their face, or a broken arm.”
“What was the worst thing you saw?” The hairdresser asks.
“Oh. There was a girl who was pinned in her car, but she wasn't that injured. It was just sort of – stuck. She was wearing this gorgeous brown leather skirt. And she was so beautiful. I remember saying to her: you're so beautiful, and I'm so sorry this happened to you. Remember when leather pants and skirts were in fashion?”
Did you really say that? Lizzie wants to know. Wouldn’t you get fired?
She imagines the beautiful woman in the car, how confused and afraid she must have been, and there was this EMT, telling her how nice her skirt was. She probably thought it was a bad dream.
“Are you alright?” Margaret asks. “You look a bit pale.”
“Oh. Dehydrated, maybe,” Lizzie answers.
“I’ll get you some water.”
A group of teenage girls walk past the salon, shopping bags dangling from their thin arms, wearing tank tops that make their shoulder blades look like angel wings.
Margaret gives her a paper cup full of water, which she gulps down grateful.
“Yes, of course. Thank you.”
While she wait for her color to set, Lizzie flips through one of women’s magazine scattered around the salon. The actress on the cover has a face as delicate as a bird cage. Most of the pages are dedicated to diet tips and stilettos, but right in the middle there is an article called: How I Forgave My Daughter’s Killer.
The title is in big red letters, printed above a photograph that looks like it belong in a Christmas card or a high school yearbook. The girl in the picture is sixteen or seventeen, wearing a purple dress with a puffy skirt. A boy, around the same age, is standing beside her, his long arm draped over her bare shoulders. Both of them are grinning.
The best day of my life was the day my daughter, Theresa, was born. The worst day of my life was when I learned that she was dead.
The author of the article describes her daughter in the same words that are always used for dead girls. Beautiful, kind, generous, clever, sweet. No one ever says: she was real piece of work, or even, she was a brat sometimes. Statistically speaking, at least some of the women who die tragically young must have been something other than angelic.
From the first paragraph, Lizzie learns that Theresa was killed by her boyfriend. What a surprise, she thinks, numbly. She pours herself a glass of water and continues to read.
Before Theresa was murdered, “forgiveness” was just a word to me. So was “faith.” I believed in God, but I never heard His voice in my heart, because I never needed Him. Theresa, my angel, guided me to Him.
I wrote many letters to Jeremy before I finally sent one. At first, I wrote that I hated him, and that I wished he would burn in hell for taking my daughter from me. If not for Jesus, I would still be living with this rage and sorrow today.
One of Lizzie’s old psychiatrists had suggested she write Blake Campbell a letter. “You don’t have to send it,” he reassured her. “The point is to clarify your own feelings. It’s about you, not him, now.”
“I will when I’m ready,” Lizzie had promised him, lying. She had nothing to say to Blake, not even inside her own head. The only honest letter she could write would be a scream pinned to a page.
When I first visited Jeremy in prison, my whole body was shaking. I didn’t think I could look him in the eye. But I did, and what I saw was not the face of a killer, but that of a scared little boy. Part of me wanted to hug him and tell him everything would be all right. Part of me wanted to hit him, to hurt him, to make him feel the pain he had caused me. I nearly ran outside. But Jesus convinced me to stay.
Lizzie flips the page. There is a picture of Theresa as a baby, held in the author’s plump, pale arms. There is another of her as a child, dressed as Snow White, clutching a plastic pumpkin basket. The text below reads: happier times.
In the years since Theresa’s death, I have gotten to know Jeremy. He is neither a child nor a monster. He is a bright young man with so much to offer this world. If he were free, he could join the army to protect our country. He could study to become a doctor and save lives. He could teach, he could be a firefighter. He could raise a family. He could serve his community, and God. In prison, he is wasting his life. This is not what our family wants for him, and it’s not what Jesus wants, either.
Like a lot of the people she knew in college, Lizzie had an artistic temperament without the talent to match. She’s growing out of it, or trying to.
Sara was the real thing. She won prizes for her paintings. Professors wrote glowing letters of recommendation. The younger students in the art program worshipped her. Even Lizzie, through her haze of love and envy, could see how talented she was.
The obvious question about anyone who dies young: what would she have done if? Would Sara have worked at an art gallery in New York? Taught English in China? Become a famous painter? Actually, if she had lived, she probably would have married Blake.
They became friends their freshman year, part of the same loose gaggle of smart, sweet girls. Their junior year, they shared a house off campus. It was tiny and perfect, painted yellow, with a small garden they tended to like old ladies.
Blake and Sara started dating that spring. Blake had already graduated, but stayed in the area because he had a decent job in the admissions office. Lizzie was a little jealous – who wouldn’t be? – that they were always, but she had her own life, classes to study for, parties to attend, a string of unmemorable boyfriends who all seemed terribly important at the time.
In the days before she disappeared, Lizzie was stressed about her senior thesis show. She didn’t think it was her strongest work, and she was hard on herself. This is what Lizzie told the police. Personally, she believed Sara had run away – put herself on a bus to Boston or maybe Montreal. She was angry and lonely in their little house all by herself.
It took them two weeks to find her, in a shallow grave of dirt and snow. Sara, who did not like scary movies, who spoke to cats and dogs as if they were people, who preferred to read the news because she found watching it on television overwhelming. All the life leaked out of her.
Lizzie tries, as she has tried many times before, to imagine Sara’s last moments: the knife, Blake’s face, the sound of the water. The images are fleeting and false, like watching a movie through the window of someone else’s house. It is empty, empty, empty.
She tips Margaret handsomely. Her hair, after all, looks really good. She walks home, unlocks the door, and places her bag on the kitchen counter. The stairs that lead up to her room seem insurmountably steep and long. She resists the urge to lie down right there in the hallway.
Lizzie keeps Sara’s things amongst her own. The notebooks are neatly stacked on her desk, and the camera, which she has never learned to use, sits on top of her dresser. She allows herself to look through the notebooks only occasionally, a guilty pleasure, though neither guilt nor pleasure are the right words for how it feels
Sara was brilliant, but she had been a mediocre student, more concerned with her painting than anything else. The blue spiral notebook labeled Cognitive Science is filled almost exclusively with detailed drawings of leaves, wildflowers, and birds. Occasionally the date of a test or paper was written in big letters, underlined and circled, but no other information recorded.
It was in this notebook, on the very last page, that Lizzie found a poem. It had no title, other than the date - November 1st, 1997.
my favorite you
in your mother’s bed
wearing somebody else’s clothes
your favorite me
i’ll be hungry
with your crooked teeth stuck
in my perfect mouth
When she first found the poem, almost a year after Sara died, Lizzie considered sending it to Sara’s parents, but the one line –bury me- was just too eerie. Instead she kept it, hidden in plain sight, a secret between the two of them.
Except – surely, she had shown the poem to Blake. Lizzie sat on the floor of her room, the notebook in her lap, and imagined it, Sara’s hair falling over her face as she handed her beloved boyfriend her strange little poem. Had he liked it? Offered edits, suggested a title? Had he told her to send it to the school’s literary magazine?
Lizzie puts the notebook back in its place. She goes into the bathroom and stands over the toilet, willing herself to vomit, but nothing happens. Then she crawls into bed with her clothes still on and falls asleep.
In her dream, Lizzie is sitting in the passenger seat of a car. Theresa’s mother is driving. She is saying something, talking too fast for Lizzie to understand. There is someone in the backseat. Lizzie can feel their presence, but she can’t see who it is. She tries to turn her head but she can’t move it enough. Theresa’s mother, who looks a lot like Lizzie’s mother, is speaking loudly, but Lizzie still doesn’t know what she’s saying.
“Lizzie, wake up!”
Leo is towering over her. She puts a hand over her eyes to protect them from the light.
“Hello.” Her skin is sticky with sweat, and the sheets have left a pattern on her cheek.
“What are you doing? We need to go.”
“Shit. What time is it?”
“Quarter to eight.”
“Oh, shit.” She scrambles to her feet. “I’ll get ready right now.”
“I can’t be late to this. It would look really bad.”
I ask so little of you, he could say, but doesn’t.
“I know, I know. I wasn’t feeling well. I’m sorry.”
“What kind of not well?”
“Nauseated. Kind of dizzy. But I’m fine.”
“Did you take your meds today?”
“OK. I’ll get you a glass of water. Get ready quickly, please. You can do your makeup in the car.”
The dress she has chosen for the evening is made of dark green silk. It hits her right above her knees and is a little too tight around her waist. Lizzie stands in front of the mirror, hands on her hips, deciding whether or not to wear stockings.
She looks down at her body. There’s nothing egregious or unusual about it – no scars or lumps or blemishes – but there is so much of it. Does she really need all this flesh, humming with blood?
Lizzie presses the palms of her hands against her thighs. She wants to jettison herself. She wonders if all women feel like this sometimes, whether or not their friends are dead.
“Lizzie? Sweetheart?” Leo knocks on the door and then opens it without waiting for her reply. “We need to go.”
“I’m ready. Give me just one minute.”
He hands her two aspirin and a glass of water, which she takes, dutifully.
“You look gorgeous,” he tells her. “We really need to go.”
“I’m just putting on my shoes.”
It is difficult for her to fasten the delicate straps of around her ankles because her hands are shaking, but she manages. She is going to have to bring her body to dinner, and leave her brain behind.
In the cab, she paints her lips pink. Leo fiddles with his cufflinks. The cab halts at a light and she lurches forward, dropping the tube of lipstick.
“Shit.” She picks it up and inspects it for dirt. It’s fine.
Lizzie examines her cheeks in the rearview mirror.
“I didn’t bring any blush,” she tells Leo. “Can you slap my face for me please?”
He laughs and holds her left hand in both of his. “Make me this late again and maybe I will.”
The cab moves to side of the road to allow a stream of emergency vehicles to pass.
“Must be some kind of accident,” Leo says, leaning over to look.
“I’m going to go around, yeah?” says the cab driver.
“Yes, that’s fine,” Leo answers.
Lizzie leans into him, catlike. This is how he likes her: sweet, and warm, easy to be around.
“You know,” says, Leo, staring out the window, “There are certain theoretical physicists who believe our universe is a hologram projected across a black hole.”
“Well, it’s not a widely held theory. But it would explain how gravity works.”
“Do you think that?”
“It’s not my field of expertise. I do think it’s an interesting idea. And an appealing one. It sort of takes the pressure off, don’t you think?”
“Yes, it does. I like that.” She runs a thumb against the soft fabric of her sleeve.
“This looks good on you. You look good.”
He is so handsome, Lizzie thinks. But it is more than that. He’s a grown up. He will lead her by the hand into the real world. She is so lucky to have found him.
One night, shortly after they moved into their house, Lizzie awoke to find Sara beside her in bed, curled up like a seashell, facing the wall.
“What’s going on? Are you OK?”
“Mhhm. Bad dream,” said Sara, pressing her forehead to Lizzie’s shoulder.
“What was it about?”
“I can’t remember.”
In the half-light, Sara’s eyelashes looked like spiders’ legs. She shifted, revealing white polka-dot underwear, frayed at the edges. There was a big bruise on her shin from dropping a box she was trying to carry upstairs.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” she said softly. “I just want to be not alone for like, an hour. And then I’ll be fine.”
“It’s alright,” said Lizzie. She was already drifting out of consciousness. She could feel Sara’s hair, like a soft animal, against her back. When she awoke again, it was morning, and she was alone.
Nicola Maye Goldberg is the author of OTHER WOMEN (Sad Spell Press, 2016) and THE DOLL FACTORY (Dancing Girl Press, 2017). She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University.