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Authors: Heather Young

The Lost Girls

BOOK: The Lost Girls
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For my father—my inspiration

and my mother—my hero


Sister—if all this is true, what could I do, or undo?



I found this notebook in the desk yesterday. I didn't know I had any of them left, those books I bought at Framer's with their black-and-white marbled covers and their empty, lined pages waiting to be filled. When I opened it, the binding crackled in my hands and I had to sit down.

The edges of the book's pages were yellow and curled, but their centers were white, and they shouted in the quiet of the parlor. Long ago, I filled these books with stories, simple things the children enjoyed, but this one demanded something else. It was as though it had lain in wait beneath stacks of old Christmas cards and faded stationery until now, when my life has begun to wane with the millennium and my thoughts have turned more and more to the past.

It's been sixty-four years. That doesn't feel so long, strange though it may seem to you, but Mother is dead, and Father, and Lilith; I am the last. When I am gone, it will be as though that summer never happened. I've thought about this as I sit in my chair on the porch, as I take my evening walk up to the bridge, and as I lie awake listening to the water shifting in the dark. I've even taken to sleeping in Lilith's and my old room, in the small bed that used to be mine. Last night I watched the moonlight on the ceiling and thought of the many nights I have lain there: as a child, as a young girl, and now as an old woman. I thought about how easy it would be to let all of it pass from the earth.

When morning came, I made my buttered toast and set it on its flowered plate, but I didn't eat it. Instead I sat at the kitchen
table with this book open before me, listening to the wind in the trees and feeling the house breathe. I traced my finger along the scratches and gouges in the elm table my great-grandfather made for his new wife in the century before I was born. It was the heart of the cabin he built on their homestead, and of the home their son built in the town that came after, but their grandson thought it crude, fit only for this, his summer house. Its scars are worn now; the years have smoothed them to dark ripples in the golden wood.

As I said, I am the last. Since Lilith's passing three years ago, the story of that summer has been mine alone, to keep or to share. It's a power I've had just once before, and I find I am far less certain what to do with it now than I was then. I hold secrets that don't belong to me; secrets that would blacken the names of the defenseless dead. People I once loved. Better to let it be, I tell myself.

But this notebook reminds me it's not so simple as that. I owe other debts. I made other promises. And not all the defenseless dead, loved or not, are virtuous. Still, I have no doubt that I would have remained silent, waiting for my own death to decide the matter, had I not found it. Its empty pages offer me a compromise, one that I, who have rarely had the fortitude to make irrevocable choices, have decided to accept.

So I will write my family's story, here in this book that bided its time so well. I will tell it as fully as I can, even the parts that grieve me. When I am done I will leave it to you, Justine, along with everything else. You will wonder why I've chosen you and not your mother, and to that I say that you are the only one to whom the past might matter. If it does, you will come here when I am gone, and Arthur will give this to you, and I will trust you to do with it as you see fit. If it does not—which may well be, for I knew you so briefly, and you were just a child—then you won't come. You'll be content to let the lawyers and the realtors do their work, to continue your life without seeing this house or the lake again. If that is the way of it, I will instruct Arthur to burn this book unread. For
I believe it will then be all right to let that summer slip away, and Emily with it. Like all the other ghosts of forgotten things.

It was 1935. I was eleven, Lilith thirteen, and Emily six. Our family lived in town then, in the brown house my grandfather built, but we spent our summers here, in our yellow house on the lake. The day after school ended, Mother packed our trunks with our sundresses, swimming suits, and hats, and Father drove us the twenty miles that spanned our known world. Lilith, Emily, and I sat in the back of the Plymouth, I in the middle as usual. When I pressed my foot against Lilith's, she pressed back.

You knew Lilith for such a short time, that one summer twenty years ago when you and your mother came, and I imagine to you we were just two old women living out their days on a screened-in porch. I wish you could have known her—really known her—because any story of which Lilith was a part became her story, and my story is no different. My earliest memory is of her directing me to place my feet in the footprints she made in the sand, leading me in twirls and spins until I lost my balance and fell. It was only a game, but it was also how we spent our childhood years: I followed her everywhere and did everything she did, though never as quickly or as well.

Then, in the spring of 1935, something changed. We still went everywhere together, but she no longer wanted to go to Seward's Pond or into the tree house Father built in our backyard, and she wouldn't play hopscotch or swing on the swing. Instead she spent a great deal of time looking in her mirror, brushing the dark curls that fell to her waist. She had an odd sort of face, with a too-long nose and a too-wide mouth that conspired with her delicate cheekbones to make something improbable and arresting. Now she studied it as if it were a machine she was trying to figure out.

She was taller, too, and though she still wore last year's dresses
with the hems let down, her body was changing. In April she pulled me into the bathroom we shared to show me the small buds on her chest. In May, Mother bought her a brassiere. At first she needed my help to hook it in back, its tiny claws slipping into fragile eyes. Afterward, wearing it with her shoulders squared and her chin high like the girls in the Sears & Roebuck catalog, she looked like someone very different from who she'd been.

Of course, there's a big difference between eleven and thirteen. I know that now. But then, I saw only that I was being left behind on a journey I didn't understand and didn't want to make, and as spring deepened toward summer I decided the three months our family would spend at the lake offered my best chance to pull Lilith back to me. Surely, as we played our games in the woods, sat on the bridge over the creek, and lay in our twin beds whispering in the night, she'd shed this odd veneer of adulthood she'd been trying on. When her foot pressed mine in the car, that hope expanded even as the road narrowed around us.

We arrived in that afternoon hour when the sunlight turns from white to gold and the water is its deepest blue. The house, shut up for winter, was chilly and dark, but as we opened the curtains and raised the window sashes, it breathed in the warm breeze and shook off the gloom of the long cold season. It has always seemed a living thing to me, this house, and I felt its spirits lift as it filled with our voices and the clattering of our shoes across its pine floorboards.

Lilith and I carried our trunk to our airy green bedroom. We loved the annual ritual of hanging our summer dresses in the closet, lining our shoes on the shelves, arranging our hats on the hooks over the dresser. In town we slept in separate rooms, so our unpacking here was more than a simple filling of drawers and closets; it was a ceremonial reclaiming of a shared territory. As we unpacked that day, Lilith was very like her old self, making plans for us to visit the Hundred Tree as we laid sheets on our beds
and shook out the quilts that had spent the winter sealed in the hallway linen press. Meanwhile, Mother settled Emily in her small bedroom across the landing, and Father unloaded the rest of the suitcases and trunks, which seemed to get more numerous every year. Outside, up and down the dirt road that fronted the lake, our summer neighbors greeted one another as they, too, opened their houses to the sun.

There are seven houses here, all built between 1905 and 1910. That was when our self-styled Minnesota aristocrats, emulating New York's Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, built summer homes to which they escaped while the lesser citizens sweltered in town. The Joneses, who owned the general store, were the first. Then came the Pughs, two generations of whom were the town's doctors; the Davieses, whose grandfather was the circuit judge; the Lewises, whose father was our dentist; and the Williamses, who wrote our wills and gave the town its name. My own father ran Evans Drugs, which his grandfather had founded. The biggest house belonged to Robert Lloyd, who owned almost everything else and who, like his father and grandfather before him, was the town's mayor. All of us were descended from the small group of men who fled the coal mines of Wales to found Williamsburg some eighty years before, and we considered our prosperity and social prominence to be our birthright.

Today these houses are in disrepair, but surely you can see how lovely they once were. In the summer of 1935 they were just beginning their decline: paint was fading and would not be freshened; a broken screen here and there would not be replaced. As a child I didn't know the extent of the hard times, although I saw Mother's little economies—the let-down hems, the resoled shoes—and resented them. The very next year, the Joneses and the Davieses would not come to the lake at all. Their houses would sit closed until they were sold to families from Minneapolis who came up for a week and rented them out for the rest of the season. Within
a few years the other lake families would do the same, until Lilith, Mother, and I were the only ones left.

As I look back, knowing everything that was to come, the first day of my family's last summer together takes on a melancholy it did not have then. To the contrary, I loved that day as I had loved all the first summer days that came before. It was one of the few times when I felt our family was like all the others, not just in appearance, but in truth. Father's stern manner softened as he deferred to Mother in the domestic matters of unpacking and moving in, and Mother's voice had a lilt that I never heard elsewhere. Emily, normally so somber, skipped around like the six-year-old girl I often forgot she was. Best of all, Lilith chattered and laughed as if she were twelve again. I watched all this, the normal happiness of a family on holiday, and I smiled until my cheeks ached.

For supper that first night, as we did every year, the lake families prevailed upon the Millers, the half-Chippewa family who owned the fishing lodge, to cook for us. The hours we spent laying out our bed linens and placing our clothes in freshly papered drawers the Millers spent roasting chickens, boiling corn, and baking bread. No doubt they worked for days to feed all of us, more than sixty people, but times were hard for them, too; I imagine they were glad to have the money we paid.

Abe and Matthew, the Miller sons, brought tables and chairs to where three picnic benches sat on the sandy grass between the road and the narrow beach. There the women, cheeks rosy from the exertion of moving in, clustered in knots and patted wisps of hair into place while the men rattled the ice in their cocktails and speculated on the season's walleye catch. They wore cardigans and light coats; in June the evenings were cool, though the sun hung high above the hills that crowded the lake's western shore. When it was time to eat, everyone bowed their heads as Father, the closest thing among us to a minister, said grace in a quiet that was as profound as it was temporary. Then the feast began, the children eating as
quickly as their mothers would allow so they could resume running up and down the dock and around the trees. Even Lilith and I, who otherwise kept to ourselves, always joined the games of tag and kick-the-can that heralded the start of summer.

But this year, Lilith sat on a picnic bench with her hands folded in her lap while the other children chose up teams. I sat beside her, digging my toe into the grass, unease shifting the creamed corn and chicken in my belly. I couldn't bring myself to join the game without her—she was my conduit to the others, her imperious confidence paving a way for me and my small awkwardnesses.

“Don't you want to play?” I asked.

“We're not children, Lucy,” Lilith said.

I wanted to say that all the teenaged boys were playing, even Stuart Davies, who'd just graduated from high school, but I knew she was talking about the teenaged girls, who sat nearby, whispering as they watched the boys run about on the sandy road. So I said nothing and tried to remind myself that tomorrow we were going to the Hundred Tree. She'd promised.

I heard Mayor Lloyd's voice booming from a picnic table behind us. “If you keep giving everything away, Hugh, it'll be my name over your door before long.” I glanced over my shoulder. He was smiling at Mr. Jones, but Mr. Jones's timid features were flushed. Father had told us the grocer wasn't collecting on the accounts of families that were struggling to put food on their tables. He was a true Christian, Father said. Mayor Lloyd reached for another roll from the bread basket.

Mother and Father sat at a separate table with the Williamses and the Lewises. Father and Mr. Williams had grown up together, the sons of best friends, and Mrs. Williams and Mother had become close over the years of their marriages. As usual, Mrs. Williams was doing most of the talking in her quick, laughing voice while Mother nodded and Father rested his elbows on the table, his dark eyes quiet. Like us, he'd spent his childhood summers at this lake,
and the tension that always simmered in him seemed to ease when he was here.

Emily sat between Mother and Father, her feet dangling almost but not quite to the grass. She rarely played with the other children, either. She was a serious child, not inclined to play the kinds of games children that age play, and even had she been, she was Mother's pet, so Mother kept her close. In fact, in her six years I don't believe she'd made a single friend. I suppose that's why, before long, Mother, Lilith, and I were the only ones who remembered her as anything other than a local mystery. Aside from Abe Miller, of course. Though he would never speak of her to us.

BOOK: The Lost Girls
4.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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