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Authors: Paula Treick Deboard

The Drowning Girls

BOOK: The Drowning Girls
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Critically acclaimed author of
The Mourning Hours
and
The Fragile World
, Paula Treick DeBoard returns with a tale of dark secrets, shocking lies and a dangerous obsession that will change one neighborhood forever

Liz McGinnis never imagined herself living in a luxurious gated community like The Palms. Ever since she and her family moved in, she’s felt like an outsider amongst the Stepford-like wives and their obnoxiously spoiled children. Still, she’s determined to make it work—if not for herself, then for her husband, Phil, who landed them this lavish home in the first place, and for her daughter, Danielle, who’s about to enter high school.

Yet underneath the glossy veneer of The Palms, life is far from idyllic. In a place where reputation is everything, Liz soon discovers that even the friendliest residents can’t be trusted. So when the gorgeous girl next door befriends Danielle, Liz can’t help but find sophisticated Kelsey’s interest in her shy and slightly nerdy daughter a bit suspicious.

But while Kelsey quickly becomes a fixture in the McGinnis home, Liz’s relationships with both Danielle and Phil grow strained. Now even her own family seems to be hiding things, and it’s not long before their dream of living the high life quickly spirals out of control...

Praise for the novels of Paula Treick DeBoard

“In Paula Treick DeBoard’s latest breathtaking thriller, she paints a stark and chillingly real portrayal of a family torn apart by teenage transgressions. Gritty and inauspicious from the start,
The Drowning Girls
left me awestruck, revealing DeBoard’s true brilliance as an author. Spellbinding.”

—Mary Kubica,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Good Girl


The Drowning Girls
by Paula Treick DeBoard is cleverly plotted, full of twists and turns and so well-written that it pulls you in from page one. Genuinely suspenseful, Treick DeBoard delivers a disturbing, multilayered, provocative novel that is impossible to put down.”

—Heather Gudenkauf,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Weight of Silence

“A heart-pounding look at what lies behind the deceptively placid veneer of the well-to-do suburbs. The kaleidoscopic view of innocence, danger, and malice shifts and twists as it races to a shattering conclusion.”

—Sophie Littlefield, bestselling author of
The Guilty One
on
The Drowning Girls

“In
The Drowning Girls
, DeBoard pulls you right into her world and holds you in her grip until the book’s final twist. Fans of
The Good Girl
and
The Luckiest Girl Alive
, and really anyone who enjoys great suspense, have found their next must-read. Sure to be the book everyone is talking about in 2016, I could not put it down.”

—Catherine McKenzie, bestselling author of
Hidden
and
Smoke


The Drowning Girls
casts a spell as brilliant and alluring as the gated community of its setting. Paula Treick DeBoard maps this world of privilege and secrets with a deft hand, and from the novel’s terrifying opening pages reveals a family’s tragic unraveling. These characters long for love and happiness, but the trail of duplicity that ultimately ensnares them creates a suspenseful and compelling page-turner I couldn’t put down.”

—Karen Brown, author of
The Longings of Wayward Girls

“A coming-of-age tale about a family in crisis expertly told by Ms. DeBoard.
The Fragile World
examines how profound loss changes all who are forced to come to terms with it. Touching and compelling, it will move you.”

—Lesley Kagen,
New York Times
bestselling author of
Whistling in the Dark
and
The Resurrection of Tess Blessing

“Assured storytelling propels DeBoard’s first novel.”


Publishers Weekly
on
The Mourning Hours

“Rich and evocative…compelling.”


RT Book Reviews
on
The Mourning Hours

“Tautly written and beautifully evocative,
The Mourning Hours
is a gripping portrayal of a family straining against extraordinary pressure, and a powerful tale of loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness.”


Bookreporter.com

Also by Paula Treick DeBoard

THE FRAGILE WORLD
THE MOURNING HOURS

For Will, for always.

“One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be family.”

—Jonathan Safran Foer
Everything is Illuminated

JUNE 19, 2015
5:40 P.M.

LIZ

Someone was screaming.

For a moment, with the ceiling fan whirring quietly over my head, I allowed myself to believe it was a benign sound—the kids next door on their play structure, maybe, sliding and swinging and climbing, their voices carrying on a breeze.

I propped myself up on my elbows, blinking myself awake. How long had I been sleeping? Twenty minutes, an hour? The tank top I was wearing was streaked with dust and damp with sweat. Dizzy, I focused on my bare feet, where chipped red polish dotted my toes. On the dresser was a nearly empty bottle of Riesling, a slick ring of condensation bubbling on the wood.

I reached a hand onto Phil’s side of the bed, groping and coming up empty. Of course. Phil was gone, and he’d taken everything with him—armfuls of shirts and pants, suit coats and blazers, slippery mounds of ties and belts, even the dry cleaning in its plastic sheeting. Shoes, too: wing tips, loafers, sneakers, the pair of black Converse I’d never once seen him wear. He’d taken the neatly folded stacks of T-shirts and boxers, the lumps of paired socks, the heavy woolen sweater that smelled like a Greek fishing village—or at least, how I’d imagined a Greek fishing village would smell, briny and deep-down damp.

After he left, I’d searched the floor for a button, a collar stay, a lonely sock, as if I could keep that one discarded thing as evidence of our life together. For a long time, I’d wanted to go back, to pin our relationship to a wall and study it, like a specimen, from every angle. I wanted to be able to say:
Here
. This is where it all went wrong. This was the point at which the inevitable was still evitable.

But that was a long time ago. Months now.

I shook my head, chasing away the thoughts, and heard the screams again, over a relentless pounding of bass. Was the television on downstairs? That was the simple explanation, and for a moment, I allowed myself to be reassured by the thought of actors following a script, raising their voices on cue.

And then I remembered: the girls.

The pool.

The screams were coming from outside, distorted by the triple-paned windows, as if they were being filtered through a kaleidoscope, splitting and fracturing.

I swung my legs over the side of the bed and moved toward the door. My head pounded, an angry thing.

Danielle.

My baby.

No—not a baby. Fifteen and so angry we’d barely exchanged more than a sentence in a month.

I stumbled on the stairs, catching myself with a hand on the rail.
Steady, Liz
. I had to navigate around the stacks of boxes in the foyer marked Towels and Office and, helpfully, Stuff.

Closer now, the screams became words, and the words became language, mixed with the thumping of the stereo, the music that had been playing all afternoon.

Help!

Mom!

Ohmygodno!

I yanked open the sliding door, catching my foot on the frame in my hurry. A bright bloom of pain flowered in my vision. After the interior darkness, the outside was a trick of sunlight, bright against the water, a shimmering, endless blue. I squinted into the glare, trying to understand what I was seeing.

It looked at first like a game of tug-of-war, a three-headed, six-armed monster writhing in the water.

But of course, it wasn’t a game.

It was another inevitable, a thing that had been coming and coming, a thing I’d let come. There were three girls in the water and one of them was limp, her head flopped forward, blond hair plastered over her face.

Still the shouts came, an unrelenting swirl of voices. In that half second while my mind puzzled, before my body could snap into action, I realized that the loudest voice, the one that couldn’t stop screaming, belonged to me.

JUNE 2014
LIZ

The Mesbahs’ house was only a block away, but it was a long block, outsize the way everything else was at The Palms—half-acre lots, semicircular driveways, the occasional six-foot frond dropped from one of the signature palm trees like the feather of an exotic, towering bird. Next to me, Phil had his hands in his pockets, his legs shooting forward in confident strides. I kept my eyes on my feet, sure that one of my heels would snag in a sidewalk crack.

“It’s the Spanish Revival, right around the corner from you,” Myriam Mesbah had said during our sole conversation the week before, when I’d called to RSVP for the party. I’d scribbled
Spanish revival?
on the back of a receipt so I’d remember to look it up on Google later. “The
whole
neighborhood
will be there,” she’d said. “You can’t miss it.”

Her words always carried that sense of emphasis—as if they needed italics, air quotes, long deliberate stresses.
What I have to say is important.

Spanish Revival meant curves and arches, white stucco and terra-cotta tile and ornamental ironwork. It meant courtyards and balconies and quiet little nooks. For the Mesbahs and everyone else in The Palms, it meant a minimum of four thousand square feet and a resale value that was climbing—an asset they could list in a portfolio along with the apartment on the Upper East Side, the villa in Tuscany, the time-shares in Bali and Saint Thomas and little islands with names I couldn’t pronounce or locate on a map.

To me, it was just intimidating.

As we passed through the ornamental gate and entered the courtyard, Phil squeezed my hand, already damp and tacky with sweat. His grin belied a fierce kind of optimism.

We were three weeks into our new life, our boxes mostly unpacked, the strong leathery smell beginning to wear off the couches, fingerprints already smearing our stainless appliances. Still, I hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that it was an experiment, like one of Danielle’s science projects on trifold cardboard: hypothesis, observation, data, conclusion.

Hypothesis: the McGinnises will never fit in with these people.

The observations were in progress, the data accumulating.

But I figured it was a foregone conclusion: we didn’t belong.

The Mesbahs’ house was humming with energy—outside the ten-foot mahogany doors, we heard the low pulse of music, a woman’s high-pitched laugh over the other voices. It was seven twenty, late enough to avoid the awkwardness of being too early, of having to stand around and explain ourselves, the new people.
I’d taken my time in the bathroom, selecting a pair of earrings, spraying my hair repeatedly, dabbing the dregs of an old perfume bottle on my wrists—anything to avoid this moment, to prolong the inevitable.

Phil made a minuscule adjustment to his collar and breathed a short huff into his cupped palm, checking his breath. “Ready?”

I caught his fist halfway to the knock, imagining them all standing just inside the door, turning to look at us. “No.”

“Liz...”

“I know. Just give me...” I bent down and began to fiddle with the straps on my sandals. They’d been a last-minute purchase only this afternoon, after I’d rejected every single thing in my closet as being wrong for this kind of event. The trouble was that I didn’t understand the event. It wasn’t a barbecue; it was no one’s birthday. The invitation had read
An instruction on wine and cheese pairing
, as if we were meant to come armed with spiral notebooks and expect an exam at the end. In the dressing room at Macy’s, I’d felt good enough about the silky black pants to put them on my credit card; now, bent nearly double in the Mesbahs’ courtyard, I noticed that the fabric across my thighs was creased horizontally with hash marks. I loosened the skinny strap on one shoe and rebuckled it into the next hole before shifting my attention to the other foot.

“Come on,” Phil breathed.

Sure—I was stalling. Every minute spent on the Mesbahs’ porch was a minute I wouldn’t have to spend inside their house. In our previous lives, Phil and I had lived in a three-bedroom rental a few blocks off the freeway. When friends invited us over, we stopped by Trader Joe’s for a bottle of wine or a six-pack of microbrew. That was a social convention I understood. On the bottom of this invitation had been printed, in delicate scroll:
Donations will be accepted for Shriners Hospital, Sacramento.

“So this is a thing?” I’d asked Phil, showing him the invitation. “Come to our house, bring your checkbook and we’ll teach you about wine?”

He’d shrugged. “It’s just an excuse to get together. It sounds fun.”

“We’re going?”

“Why wouldn’t we?”

I’d been saying it in a hundred ways, and he hadn’t heard me yet.
Because these aren’t our kind of people. Because we don’t belong.
It was all a mistake, beginning with Phil’s new job and our move to The Palms, and ending with me standing in front of the Mesbahs’ front door in these silly pants and uncomfortable shoes.

“All right,” Phil said now in the voice he sometimes used with Danielle, when she took too long in the bathroom or kept him waiting in the car. I secured the second buckle and straightened, spotting the outline of the folded envelope in his breast pocket. Two hundred dollars, payable to the Shriners Hospital of Sacramento, the going rate of admission into the social world of The Palms. It was both more than we could afford and ridiculously cheap, considering the heavy door knocker and the immaculate tile work.

“We wouldn’t want to miss any instruction,” I said, trying to bring back a note of levity, of shared camaraderie and let’s-make-the-best-of-it. But Phil was looking away from me, the door was opening and the joke was lost.

Victor Mesbah stood in the doorway, a glass of wine in one hand. In the golden light from the wall sconces, it looked like blood sloshing in his glass. “Here they are!” he boomed in a voice that echoed off the floors. “Just when we were beginning to think you wouldn’t show.”

Phil met his aggressive handshake. “Wouldn’t think of it.”

I extended a hand, too, but Victor threw his free arm around my shoulder. “It’s so nice to meet you,” I said, but his neck smothered my words.

“Liz,
finally
,” Myriam said, and I disentangled myself from Victor’s half hug. She was slender and severely beautiful, with a nose that would have been too much on another woman. She hooked me by the arm and led me through a wide foyer to an open great room, our heels clattering on the mahogany floors. “Our new neighbors, the McGinnises,” she announced to the room at large, where at least a dozen couples were gathered in polite clusters. Everyone turned, chorusing their hellos. They looked so smooth and shiny, as if they’d all arrived, en masse, from appointments at the salon. Overhead, an enormous ceiling fan moved like a sluggish insect.

“Of course, most of us have met Phil by now. But you’ve been so
elusive
. I’ve wondered about you, alone in that house all day,” Myriam continued.

“Not alone, exactly. My daughter, Danielle...we’ve been unpacking, getting things in order,” I said. This was only half-true. Danielle was gone for the week, and after a few days of diligent unpacking, I’d stacked the rest of the boxes in the living room, with vague plans to tackle one a day for the rest of the summer.

Next to me, I could feel Myriam’s interest waning, her eyes roving the room. “Come on,” she said, her hand still at my elbow. “Let me get you something to drink and I’ll make some introductions.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Phil, who had already forgotten his promise to stay by my side. That was one of the benefits of being a couple, after all—in new situations, we could share the little anecdotes about each other that we wouldn’t have mentioned about ourselves, play off each other like a straight man and a comic. But already a few of the men had stepped forward to talk to Phil, and Victor had a possessive arm clapped to his back.

I smiled at Myriam. “That would be wonderful.” She released my arm and left me standing alone, in front of the frank stares of my neighbors. It was the adult equivalent of a naked-at-school nightmare. I felt the blush rising up my neck, settling in rosy splotches on my cheeks. It was funny—back in our old lives, I never gave much thought to who my neighbors were or what they thought of me. But The Palms was so exclusive, so tightly knit, it was like living in a fishbowl.

“So, you’re in the Rameys’ house,” someone said, the voice rising disembodied from a corner. “Thank goodness. That place was empty for what...eight months?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure.”

“Oh, it was more than eight months,” someone else answered. “Don’t you remember how the lawn just about died out?”

“Well, however long it was, I’m so glad someone finally bought the place.”

“Actually, we—” I began, then stopped. Didn’t everyone know? The house had come with Phil’s job, a package deal. Parker-Lane covered our lease and $1,495 in monthly HOA fees, or room and board, as I’d come to think of it, with a salary that left us house-rich, cash-poor. In practical terms, this meant that the people who were fawning over us now were also paying dearly for the right to hit tennis balls and jog along the community trail, while we could do those things for free. I tried again, feeling the need to set the record straight. “My husband, Phil, is...”

But my husband, at that moment, let out a hearty laugh from somewhere behind me. He was telling a story, his accent strong despite two decades away from Melbourne. Men and women alike were drawn to that accent—imagining, I supposed, a swashbuckling hero in the outback. Heads turned to look in his direction, and in the swirl of voices, my words were lost.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Myriam said, stepping in to clarify. She handed me a glass, saying, “Cabernet.” Then to the room at large, she announced, “Phil is our new community relations specialist, but they’ll be living right here, on-site. Isn’t that fantastic?”

I nodded, ducking my head as if to study the wine more closely. Maybe she thought of us as charity cases, worthy of a fund-raiser.
Donations will be accepted on behalf of the McGinnises, who have only been able to furnish half of their four thousand square feet.

“Let’s see,” Myriam said. “Where should we start? I suppose you’ve met the Sieverts.”

“I haven’t really met anyone,” I confessed. “What with all the unpacking...”

“Well, then, here we go,” Myriam said, taking a swallow from her own glass, as if to fortify herself.

For the past three weeks, I’d been watching my neighbors from the safety of my front porch with a morning cup of coffee, like an anthropologist afraid to actually encounter the natives. I’d seen them entering and exiting the community trail in their jogging clothes, the men with their long shinbones, the women with their tight ponytails. Our greetings had never gone beyond a raised hand of solidarity, a brisk
Hello!
Who were these people? I’d wondered. What did they do, how could they afford such extravagant lives? The answers were in a stack of file boxes temporarily relocated to our dining room while Phil’s office was being repainted. I knew it was wrong, or at least
wrongish
, as my sister, Allie, and I used to say, to sneak these clandestine peeks into strangers’ lives, but from the moment I opened the first manila folder, I lacked all willpower to stop. I pawed through housing applications, ogled the lists of assets (three thousand acres in Montana! The yacht, the wine collection, the jewelry!) and raised an eyebrow at the alphabet soup that trailed their names—CEO, CFO, MBA, MD. Someone in Phase 2 had paid $750,000 for a
racehorse
, and I still had four years of payments on my student loan.

I’d emailed Allie in Chicago:
One of my neighbors has an actual Picasso.

She replied,
I have a set of four Picasso coasters. I’d fit right in.

Being at the Mesbahs’ party was like playing a real-life game of Memory—matching the faces of the people in front of me with the snippets of information I already knew.

The Sieverts were our closest neighbors across the street. Rich owned a string of fast-food restaurants in the Bay Area; Deanna (only twenty-four, I remembered from their file), was his second wife. It was Rich’s son, Mac, from his first marriage, who drove the monster truck that blasted to life several times a day and was often parked crookedly in their four-car driveway.

“Don’t you just love living in The Palms?” Deanna asked. She shimmered next to me in a strapless green pantsuit, her question punctuated by the grip of her glittery fingernails on my forearm. Up close, her hair was a brassy, yellowish blond.

“I do,” I said, and then with more emphasis, as if I were performing for a lie detector test, “It’s really great.”

“Moving on,” Myriam murmured, her hand at my elbow.

The Berglands owned the colonial farmhouse closest to the clubhouse; they passed by our house a few times each day in a burgundy Suburban loaded with kids. Carly Bergland was so petite, her baby bump stood out like a ledge, perfectly positioned to hold a glass of mineral water. “You’d think we’d learn,” she said, rubbing her belly. “This is number six. But babies are our business, I guess you could say.”

“Carly and Jeremy
own
Nah-Nah Foods,” Myriam explained.

I remembered this from their files—Nah-Nah Foods was an organic baby food business. “That’s fantastic,” I said.

Carly smiled. “Have you seen our displays in Whole Foods? We mostly do formula, but we’ve been venturing into the world of purees.”

The one time I’d gone into Whole Foods, I’d left with a twelve-dollar carton of blueberries and vowed never to return. “I’ll have to look for it,” I said.

Carly took a sip of her water. “I have a mommy blog, too. Between the two ventures, we’ve been very successful.” There was no trace of modesty in her voice, none of the sarcasm or self-deprecation that was my staple. In his first weeks, Phil had received a number of complaints about the Berglands—kids’ toys on the lawn, bikes left at the curb. I wondered if she knew that.

BOOK: The Drowning Girls
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