Here's a story about small town girls. And a haunting secret.
BY LACEY JANE HENSON
The summer I turned 12, my family moved from Chicago to a town called Crystal Pond in Central Illinois. I tried not to think of it as a death sentence, but watching the never-ending scroll of crops from the window of our car felt a lot like drowning.
To pass time on the drive, our parents told us stories about all the freedom of their own small-town childhoods—stories about catching crawdads in streams and eating picnics under trees, all of it unsupervised by adults. It sounded very Boxcar Children (minus the dead parents), very pastoral, and I could almost see a nostalgic yellow light cast over the front seat as they talked. I imagined Mom wearing a bonnet and Dad a straw hat, both with childish smudges on their faces, but the vision was ruined by all their real-life skin tags and grey hair. Their stories depressed me, but I tried to keep an open mind. It wasn’t like I really had a choice.
At first, I liked Crystal Pond a lot more than I'd expected. For one thing, my sister and I had suffered through the previous summer with a fat, pimpled babysitter who made us stay indoors so she could spend all day on her phone. We’d constantly tried to get rid of her, so it was a nice surprise when my parents announced that they were going to let us stay home alone. We slept in late every morning and ate spoonfuls of peanut butter for breakfast and spent whole afternoons climbing the tree in our backyard. There was so much space! I considered the possibility that Mom and Dad hadn't been wrong.
It took a few days to officially meet our neighbors—twin girls named Hope and Nicole. I’d noticed them hanging out across the street, but was way to intimidated to say hi. They seemed to spend most of the day on their bench swing, eating sunflower seeds and smoking cigarettes. They’d spit the shells into their mother’s flowerbeds, and crush the cigarettes into a mason jar they hid under the porch. They wore spaghetti-strap tank tops and cut-off jean shorts and dangled their legs over the side of the swing. I couldn’t believe it when I found out they were only thirteen, just a year older than me.
The day we met, Chloe and I had gone outside to play in the front yard for a change, but when I saw the twins were across the street, I felt paralyzed with indecision. There was no way I was about to make a mud pie or play statue maker or do any other of our usual, babyish stuff. Chloe started whining about how boring I was, so I told her to pretend she was a teenager. She laid down on her back and put her hands behind her head. "I’m tanning," she said. I laid down beside her. We closed our eyes.
Then someone said, "I dare you to rub your slits together."
I sat up, blinking, and saw the twins had materialized on our lawn.
"What?" I asked stupidly, rubbing my eyes.
"No way," said Chloe. She stood up and brushed her butt with her hands. I could see little indentations on her thighs from the grass. "That’s for babies."
She was only 10, and didn’t know what they meant. I hardly knew myself. Still, something in her must have recognized she should defy them. If it had been just me out there, I can’t say what would have happened next. Chloe met their gaze with her hands on her hips, her little blonde arm hairs glinting in the sun.
Hope and Nicole smiled at her, then each other. They introduced themselves. "You wanna come over and hang out?" they asked.
We ended up on their porch, trying Virginia Slims for the first time. At least, it was the first time for me. After a couple drags, I had to excuse myself to vomit secretly in the bathroom, but Chloe took to smoking like she’d been doing it her whole life. By late afternoon, she was blowing rings.
I ate sunflower seeds instead and listened to Hope’s advice on my new school. "If you join a band, you can’t get drunk with the rest of us before football games," she said. "Plus you have to wear those uniforms. We call them contraceptives for obvious reasons." I nodded like I understood. She warned me not to be alone with Mr. Elliott, who perved on girls. "Unless you like that, in which case a perv deserves a perv," she said.
Nicole told us about the neighbors. There was an old couple down the block, she said, pointing to a red A-frame. The wife had a big brown mole on her face with hairs sticking out that she liked to tickle while she looked out the window. The man would come out and spray you with insecticide if you ever stepped foot across their property line.
"That family," she said, pointing at a big blue house, "has this sick kid who likes to bury cats up to their neck and run over their heads with lawnmowers."
I didn’t want to hear anymore. Besides, our parents were probably almost home. I told Chloe we needed to go. She rolled her eyes, but said goodbye with me, and then we trotted across the street. I was nervous about getting caught smoking and Chloe was too, I could tell. She came into the shower with me, and afterward said we should rub lemon on our hands to make sure the Virginia Slim smell was gone. We ate pickles to cover our breath, shoveling in two at a time.
That night, I woke up late, when everyone else had been asleep for awhile. In Chicago, there was always some background noise—a loud drunk, a street sweeper—which I realized had been a kind of comfort. The new house was big and quiet as a pit all around me. Like if I got out of bed, I might be stepping off a ledge. Chloe and I had shared a room in Chicago, which we’d always hated, but I missed her right then. I thought about sneaking into her room down the hall.
I sensed something dark move across my window, blocking out most of the moonlight. I sat up and began to make out that it was a girl. She was just outside, balanced on the ledge somehow, her hands pressed against the glass. Her hair covered most of her face, but I could see her mouth. She was smiling; her teeth gleamed white in the moonlight.
She leaned forward a little and it wasn’t until then that I really got scared, imagining her in this new room in my new house, those teeth tearing my guts. I opened my mouth to scream for my mom and dad but right before I could, she vanished, just as if she’d never been there at all. I made a small sound, like the one you make at the doctor’s, when they put the tongue depressor in your mouth. I blinked: nothing. She was still gone. I bit my tongue until I tasted blood—proof I was still awake. I expected something more to happen, and stayed awake a long time, waiting. The girl stayed gone.
By the time I woke up the next morning, Chloe was already watching cartoons downstairs. I considered telling her about the girl, but I couldn't imagine doing it with Bugs Bunny as a backdrop, chomping at his disgusting carrot, mocking me. She snapped off the TV soon enough anyway, and told me Hope and Nicole had invited us over for a game.
We were supposed to model their mother’s underwear, they told us in their parents’ bedroom, handing me a pair of sheer panties and a lace bra. I changed in the bathroom, and looked at myself in the mirror, which was studded with bright bulbs. The panties were all stretched out; I had to hold them up with one hand. I could see my few pubic hairs beneath the sheer fabric, like tiny, coiled insects lying in wait. The bra yawned away from my chest, full absolutely nothing. I was terrified.
"Flatty!" Hope and Nicole called as I walked back and forth through the bedroom. "Nice pubes." They lay on their stomachs across the bed, chins propped up on their hands.
They called Chloe "flatty" too, but she just strutted up to them, put her hands on her hips, and said, "I’m ten!" They laughed and threw her on the bed and tickled her until she shrieked she’d pee her pants. If it'd been me, I would’ve peed that bed for sure, but Chloe held it in until they relented.
We got cherry popsicles from the freezer after that and went to the backyard, letting the juice melt down our hands. They told us about a little girl they'd tried to befriend.
"But Anna Wright is a stuck up bitch."
"Hope!" Nicole said, smacking her on the ass. "Anna’s like, dead."
"She’s not dead for sure," Hope said, slapping Nicole back.
"Anna disappeared," she said, turning back to me and Chloe. "Her parents said she went out for a bike ride and never came home."
"And guess where she lived," Nicole said, putting her Popsicle in her mouth, bugging her eyes.
"Where?" Chloe asked, but of course I already knew.
"You big liar," Chloe said, when Hope told her.
"What did you call me?" Hope said.
"You heard me," Chloe said, a slow smile creeping across her face. Hope lunged at her, and Nicole grabbed Chloe’s wrists, pinning her to the earth. Hope ran her Popsicle across Chloe’s neck a bunch of times. "It was in the news," she kept saying.
I swelled with anger for a moment, but Chloe kept laughing and I realized it was all a joke I didn’t understand. I deflated quickly, like a balloon. Chloe laughed until she almost peed again. When the Popsicle melted to its stick, Hope let her go. It left a long red stain across Chloe’s neck.
I woke up late again that night. This time, the girl was standing beside my bed, watching me. Up close, I noticed her blonde hair was matted, her arms and legs dirty. I still couldn’t see her eyes, but she wasn’t smiling, and had her arms crossed over her chest. "Anna," I whispered, sure it was her. The knowledge made me slightly less scared. But then she reached towards me and fear licked its way up my throat. I tried pushing her away, but as soon as I did, my hands hit nothing. She’d already vanished. I thought I’d be relieved, but instead I felt a little bit disappointed. Like maybe I’d actually wanted her to stay.
I did feel relieved at Hope and Nicole’s the next day, once they told us we’d be playing hide-and-seek. This, I thought, was something I could understand. I curled into a little nook in their parent’s room, between the bureau and the wall, and opened the bureau door so it blocked me completely. It was a good spot and I grinned, imagining the look on the twins’ faces when I won the game. I stayed scrunched there against the wall until my feet fell asleep, and a while after that, too.
Eventually, I heard laughter in another room. I pushed the door away and let myself fall onto the carpet. I laid there for a while as the sensation came back into my legs, feeling like my blood had turned to sand. Once I could walk, I followed the laughter through a long hall. Chloe, Hope and Nicole were all on the floor in one of the twins’ rooms with white stuff smeared all over their faces. They were sitting around in their underwear, painting their toes.
"Why didn’t you tell me you guys were in here?" I said, looking at Chloe.
"You won," Hope said, flatly, and shrugged. Chloe studied her nails. I didn’t even bother to ask if they’d tried to find me. I left the house alone.
Anna showed up again that night and this time, I didn’t even think of screaming. I took her offered hand—it felt dry and cool to the touch. She led me down the stairs of our new house and out into the night. What would become my lifelong hatred for Crystal Pond had already sprouted inside me, but in the moonlight the town looked cool and impenetrable. It was the first time I’d ever been out that late, unsupervised or no. Anna and I walked past the house with the teenage boy, and the old couple, all of whom I imagined asleep in their beds, their dreams like little movies projected over their bodies. The boy dreamed of vicious, craggy-toothed cats, and the couple of a vacation in Florida. We kept walking, out into the fields, through rows of green stalks that stretched above our heads. I was shoeless and the sensation of cool soil under my toes was something new. I thought of all the pavement in Chicago, miles and miles of it in every direction. Even the beach was built on concrete.
Eventually, we came out of the field into a cluster of sad-looking trees. Anna led me over to them and squeezed my hand tighter. The ground yawned open and I could see her body below us, curled like a rabbit in the dirt. I thought of myself, tucked into the small space at Hope and Nicole’s.
"They were mean to you too," I said. "I know." Even if they hadn’t killed her, they’d made her an outcast. They’d made her alone, always.
She turned to face me and rubbed her thumbs against my cheeks. Then, she brushed away her hair. There were only empty sockets where her eyes had been—pink, rotting sockets of flesh. In them, I could see everything. I could Hope and Nicole and Chloe and my hick future in Crystal Pond. A future where my best friend was a dead girl.
"I’m sorry," I whispered, and she opened her mouth. I opened mine too. We howled like coyotes. Or at least, I did. It took me a minute to realize that the sound filling the air was only coming from me. Anna’s scream was silent, sucked immediately into the night. I wanted to believe that I was screaming for her, that at the very least my fate was better than death. Soon, she disappeared with only the faintest rustling of leaves. I imagined the place she went off to had a fancy art museum and movie theater and candy store. A city tailored to kids where everything was free. Above me, the stars I could never see in Chicago pulsed like a white-hot assault against the sky.
Lacey Jane Henson is a prose writer from the Midwest who now lives in Seattle. Readings she's given have been recommended by The Stranger, a popular alt weekly. She has previously won the Katherine Ann Porter Prize given by Nimrod International and been published in places like MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine and Third Coast.