The Absence of Alice Bell
The news is all over town, how Alice has gone missing. Erin first hears about it between homeroom and first period. She is standing inside a bathroom stall, holding a Sharpie, waiting for the swarm of kids passing between classes to ease so she can slip out of the building through the gym’s side door and skip out on school the rest of the day. She hears the name Alice Bell and pauses. Alice is a junior, one year ahead of Erin, a girl whom everyone has seen around but few seem to know well. The girls talk about how Alice was snatched from her house while her parents slept soundly in the room next door. Her mother found Alice’s bedroom empty, the blankets tangled, the window seal snapped, left halfway up and hanging crooked. The police said the window had been pried open with a tool—something as simple as a crowbar. The detail Erin couldn’t shake: Alice left behind a stranger’s clump of hair and a smattering of blood on the mattress; both the hair and the mattress now tagged and taken by the police.
Campbell is a smaller city than San Jose, where terrible things happen all the time, but even in Campbell cars get stolen, fights break out, someone overdoses. Even so, girls don’t often go missing. Sure, a mother skips town without telling anyone, or a girl goes off to college and never comes home again, but these are choices they make. These are their own decisions.
“Alice is dead,” says one of the girls. Another sniffles and says she’s never known anyone dead before. The girls murmur, making soft moans.
Erin keeps her eyes on the back of the bathroom stall door where she has inked in thick, black Sharpie: Erin Callows is a S L U T.
Angeline is taken with Jacob. She can’t stop watching the way he leans. Against walls, against lockers, against the hood of his beaten-up old Camaro—Jacob is either leaning or leaving a room, either leaning or laying his head on his desk in the back row of history, either leaning or loping through the hall with that slow drag he’s perfected to let everyone know he couldn’t care less. It’s clear he cares about Angeline; he leans into her best. Angeline doesn’t hear anything about Alice Bell until the end of lunch. She’s in Jacob’s car, drawing hearts and smiley faces in the steamed-up windows, when he turns on the radio, and a local deejay is recapping the story. Jacob leans in to switch the channel but Angeline stops him. “Didn’t she go here?” Angeline asks. She feels cold and wraps her arms around herself.
“She lives in my neighborhood,” Jacob says, “or did, I guess,” and sets his head against the headrest. He closes his eyes and Angeline thinks about how beautiful he looks, even with the pained expression, and she wonders if her own face is beautiful in this moment. Lately her face has been unpredictable. One minute she will see herself and think, Yes, that’s a perfect face, but then she looks back and begins to see how different it is from the most beautiful girls in school, how her mouth is too large, her nose overrun with freckles. Jacob looks over at her and says, “I’d be wrecked if you were gone.” Angeline smiles, forgetting about Alice Bell, and climbs over the gear shift into Jacob’s lap to kiss him.
After school Erin goes straight home and turns on the news. On the television Alice Bell’s parents clutch at each other as if letting go might make one or both of them dissolve. Alice’s father stares into the camera with the blank, startled look of an animal come too close to the highway, and when the reporter asks him a question, his voice breaks and he can’t stop swallowing, his only sound strangled. Alice’s mother hides her pretty face in his arm and cries. The television flashes a school picture of Alice: she looks fresh, her face blank, her red hair smooth and shining, falling against the edges of her round face. Her gray eyes are dulled and she isn’t smiling. Erin remembers that day, the way the older man who took their photographs whispered his compliments and made all the girls nervous. It was an instinct, she knew, the way girls would move away from a man like that, stand in clumps and laugh together about how weird. Erin thinks about how embarrassed Alice would be if she knew this picture had been on television.
Erin pulls the curtains closed on all the windows, then imagines a man slipping around the edges of her house unseen. In her mind: a man lifting open a window. When she pulls back a panel of curtain, she sees only a boy and a girl walking slow, hands clasped. She lets the panel fall closed.
Last summer she’d been at the community pool with Angeline when Alice showed up alone. Alice was always alone that summer. The way Erin heard it, Alice had flirted with her best friend’s boyfriend, and none of her friends would talk to her. A simple and effective method of punishment among girls. Erin remembered the way the boys stared at Alice in her bikini and how Alice moved as if she was the only person at the pool, as if every movement of her body went unwatched. Erin remembered wondering what kind of girl could move like that, so freely, as if invisible. Erin was aware of every bare patch of skin on her own body and how even the T-shirts she covered herself with made her feel naked once she got wet, how the other girls grew into lanky, lean bodies while she turned curvy, weighted in what seemed the wrong places. That was the summer she lost her virginity to a boy she hardly knew after following him into one of the bedrooms at a house party because he’d made her laugh, and she was determined not to be the only girl there who went unnoticed. When he pulled up the hem of her skirt, she went quiet, unsure of what she should do, and when it was over, it was over, and she felt little difference except for the sure feeling that as they left the room together, adjusting their clothes, everyone could see them.
No one has seen Alice. Standing in the living room, Erin thinks about the mortician who will brush powder over Alice’s cold skin if they ever find her, blushing the pale gray of her cheeks to make them more alive. Erin listens for sounds she doesn’t recognize in the house. There is only the collective hum of every light bulb lit, an occasional click of something electric in the kitchen, her own breath steady and slow.
When her mother comes home, Erin goes up to her room and shuts the door so she can be alone. She sits on the floor in front of her full-length mirror, legs crossed, to practice inconsolable weeping. She twists her face, practicing horror, revulsion, a grief that turns comic. Being afraid is easy, almost instinctual, so she doesn’t practice that. She forces herself to consider fighting back, imagines the feel of hair ripped from skull, of knees connecting with muscle. Even though it terrifies her, she tells herself it’s better to be prepared.
To calm herself she looks at the faces of girls in magazines, studying the perfected pretty, the styles of hair. There is small comfort in knowing she doesn’t look like these girls. She thinks of Alice, pulls out her makeup box, and does her face like the dead.
At dinner her mother recoils. “What did you do to your face?”
Erin shrugs and says, “I’m trying something new.”
“Less is more,” her mother says, frowning as she pushes a bowl of salad toward Erin’s plate.
The next day Angeline and Erin go up to Angeline’s bedroom after school. Erin can’t stop worrying about Alice. She goes over it again and again, telling Angeline every detail until Angeline puts a hand on her hip and says, matter of fact, “I’ll pretend I’m a serial killer,” and gives one nod of her head as if it’s been decided. She says it will be like practice and tells Erin to fight back, but Erin discovers she enjoys the way her skin is flush with the joy of capture, the way Angeline presses her body against Erin’s, grabs at her. She tells herself there is nothing wrong with enjoying the scuffle. It’s not real. We’re just friends. It would be different if it were real, she thinks. They are both breathing hard, sweating a little, when Angeline swipes a plastic jump rope with pink hearts on the handles from the floor—something her little sister left behind when she was kicked out of the room—and binds Erin’s wrists together behind her back. The plastic ends clack together like teeth as she pulls the knot tighter. Angeline pushes Erin into the closet and commands her to sit on the floor in the dark. “This is how it could happen,” she says. Erin feels okay, hidden away with the clothes brushing against her face. She whispers, “Come to me,” and Angeline crawls in and leans against Erin’s side.
“I’m sorry,” Angeline says. “Did I scare you?”
Erin shakes her head no. They lean against one another, and Erin feels excited to be in the dark with Angeline, the smell of her coconut shampoo in the air.
“Is this where it ends?” Erin asks.
Angeline pushes Erin forward so she can undo the rope. Erin brings her hands from behind her back and lifts her wrists to Angeline in offering. They are red where the rope bit against her skin, and her left hand tingles with the pinpricks that come before numbness.
“Oh, you poor thing. You sweet, poor thing,” Angeline says. Lifting the wrists to her mouth, she holds each for a time, blowing cool air on the red spots. Erin can’t stop watching Angeline’s mouth, how close it gets to skin.
The windows of Angeline’s house are locked tight. Erin is asleep, stretched out on the bed with one arm flung over the side. Angeline hears her mother moving slowly through the house, double-checking each lock. Angeline wants to tell her a lock is nothing in the face of a crowbar. Instead she listens to her mother moving from window to window. Angeline has decided if something is going to happen, it’s going to happen. She feels special enough to be safe.
When her mother goes to bed, Angeline hears a tap at her bedroom window. She creeps to the blinds and looks out. Jacob is leaning against his car. He waves for her to come down, and she holds up a finger to signal: Just a minute.
She tiptoes through her room in socked feet, easing open her bedroom door and slipping down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the back door. She turns back to the glass pane in the door and looks at her reflection, pinching her cheeks to brighten them, then swiping at her tired lids and wetting her lips with her tongue.
The neighborhood is patched with shadows tinged gold from the streetlight. Angeline moves quietly along the side of her house. As she appears at the front lawn, everything stills. Jacob is already inside the car, and she goes to it, pulling open the passenger door and slipping inside.
Jacob leans back against the headrest of the driver’s seat and rolls his head in her direction to look at her. “I missed you,” he says.
Angeline fidgets and says, “You shouldn’t be here. You’re going to get me—” but Jacob is already leaning toward her, and he kisses her hard before she pushes him away, “ . . . in trouble,” Angeline says. She wipes at her mouth and looks out the window. Her house, her bedroom window—it doesn’t look familiar. It’s hers but a different girl is in her bed. She feels dizzy, in the wrong place.
When Angeline starts to explain her feelings to Jacob, he is already leaning over to kiss her, and her thoughts are lost beneath the pressure of his mouth. She doesn’t want to get in trouble, but she doesn’t want to stop kissing him.
She wavers on shaking legs after getting out of the car, lightheaded from kissing. She has to get back inside before anyone notices. The last few nights her mother’s been checking to make sure Angeline is still in her bed, but they don’t talk about it. As she slips back into the house, Angeline listens for movement upstairs. The house is quiet. She has left and returned, despite her mother’s worry, and her absence has gone unnoticed. Angeline locks the back door, checks the lock, and goes up to her room. The hair on the back of her neck rises as she shivers and sneaks up the stairs.
Erin and Angeline get drunk in the alley dividing the 7-Eleven from a row of squat office buildings, emptied for the night. They’ve been sitting there since nightfall, comparing the size and shape of their feet, sharing one red tube of lipstick, kissing the open mouth of a whiskey bottle until they both feel dizzy, almost sick. Erin tilts her head back to see the stars, but the sky is clouded over. It smells like garbage, rum, and concrete. She tries to think of Alice Bell but the thought is blurred. When she drags her fingers through her hair, brushing out the knots, her fingers get stuck. It takes her breath away, the accidental tug of it. Angeline mistakes the intake of breath for boredom.
“Let’s go,” Angeline says. “It’s late.”
Erin stands, straightening her dress, and reaches down to lift Angeline up. The night feels too heavy to walk through; she wishes she could see inside the shadows slanting from the walls and the dumpsters. As they exit the alley, Erin sees two guys leaning against the trunk of a car and smoking cigarettes. One of them looks sweet, almost stupid. He’s wearing a baseball cap and looks wholesome, fresh-faced. The other has a meanness around his eyes and dirty-blonde hair that’s nearly chin length. He wolf-whistles and makes kissing noises as they approach.
“Well, well. Look at you,” the guy says, his eyes scanning their bodies.
Erin senses an opportunity. She says, “Can you get us some Boone’s Farm?” wobbling on her feet, unsteady from whiskey.
“How old are you?” the guy in the baseball hat asks. He seems nervous; his eyes keep moving from Erin to the people inside the 7-Eleven.
“Get it yourself, then,” the other one says, tucking his hair behind his ears.
“Oh, come on,” Erin says. “Just do us this one tiny favor.”
“We’ve got beer in the trunk,” the guy says, moving toward her. “You want to go somewhere? We could do each other a favor. Seems only fair.”
Angeline moves closer to Erin.
The friend, the sweet-looking one, says, “They’re pretty young. I don’t know about this.”
Angeline says she doesn’t want to go. Erin thinks of how cramped a backseat can become, how fast a car moves. She thinks of Angeline’s mother, checking and rechecking each window at night, and Alice Bell, gone.
“We’re fine,” Angeline says, taking Erin’s hand to lead her away. “We don’t want to go anywhere.”
The blond guy reaches out, grabs Erin’s arm, and spins her toward him. “How about you?” he asks, his voice quiet.
Erin tries to pull her arm free but his grip is firm.
“Let’s just go,” the guy’s friend says. “Come on, man.”
The guy is holding Erin too tight. He pulls her close. She can smell alcohol and cigarettes, something sharp like anger. She thinks of the collision of her hardest bones against his face.
“Let me go,” she says to him. She’s surprised at the way her voice is even, sure.
“Why should I?” he says, smirking. “You started this.”
“Let her go, man,” his friend says and starts to pull at him. “You’re drunk.”
Erin is trying to stay steady in her shoes, but she won’t break eye contact. The empty whiskey bottle is tight in her hand. Even though she knows it is too much, that she shouldn’t do it, she raises the bottle high in the air and flings it down to the pavement, where it shatters. The man is startled enough to loosen his grip, and Erin drops to pick up a large sliver of glass, clutching it in her fist. She rises and holds it in front of her. She feels electric, like she is filling up with lightning.
The guy moves away from the glass and says, “You’re fucking nuts. Crazy bitch.”
Erin sees but doesn’t understand the cashier running toward them through the store and the way people inside the store have turned to look. She doesn’t hear the two guys get into the car, doesn’t hear them start the engine and peel away.
Angeline opens Erin’s fist and shakes the glass free, worried about all the blood. They can’t tell how deep the cut, can’t tell how serious. Angeline pulls Erin to her and says, “You’re okay. You’re okay.”
A short while later a police officer drops Angeline off at the corner near her house so her mother won’t see. “Don’t do this again,” he says, and Angeline agrees, although she isn’t sure what exactly she’s done. Erin is already home, had entered an empty house, waving once from the open doorway to Angeline, and then was gone.
Once inside her own house, Angeline takes off her shoes and goes over to her mother, who is sitting on the couch watching television. She leans down and kisses her mom on the cheek, then sits, curling her legs up under her, and leans into her mother’s side like she’s still young. Her mouth feels too bright from Erin’s lipstick. Angeline swipes her palm across her lips, pulling the color off. It’s a color she never would have chosen, too much red in it.
Alone in her house, Erin studies her face in the mirror. When she looks at herself, something hurts, but she doesn’t know how to name it and doesn’t know if she wants the hurt to stop. There is comfort in it, instinct and an understanding that this pains is her own. It belongs to her. Her palm pulses, the cuts light and superficial. She turns out her bedroom light, walks over to her bedroom window, and lifts it all the way open. Outside the street is quietly humming with streetlight, but she imagines a long, blue car at the end of the block, the engine idling. She imagines someone has been watching her, waiting for just the right moment to reveal themselves. She sneaks to her bed, her heart grinding with desire to get back to that lightning feeling of fullness she felt in the parking lot. In the night she strains to hear the sounds of intrusion, waiting for the moment she will squeeze her eyes shut and pretend she is sleeping.
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