Body of a Girlby Leah Stewart
In Memphis, where the heat clings heavy like a second skin, it has been a summer of murders. Olivia Dale's job as a novice crime reporter is at once surreal-stepping in and out of strangers' lives with her notebook-and all too real. As she looks down on the twisted body of a young woman who has been kidnapped and gruesomely killed, she wonders if she could have been… See more details below
In Memphis, where the heat clings heavy like a second skin, it has been a summer of murders. Olivia Dale's job as a novice crime reporter is at once surreal-stepping in and out of strangers' lives with her notebook-and all too real. As she looks down on the twisted body of a young woman who has been kidnapped and gruesomely killed, she wonders if she could have been that girl. After all, as she chases the story, she discovers that Allison Avery-so all-American, so like Olivia in age and looks-was just like her except wilder. Drawn deep into the shadows and secrets of Allison's life, Olivia becomes caught up in exploring her own wild side and finds herself seduced by a perilous world where her life may be in danger. Hypnotic, compelling, and gorgeously written, Body of a Girl is a summer must-read.
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This has been a summer of murders. Memphis is so hot people move like they're wearing something heavier than their skin. I can't help but feel that these things are connected. I can't put this in the stories I write. It's not fact. It's not true, in the way we mean true at the newspaper, which is that we got someone else to say it.
There are reporters at this newspaper whose whole job it is to interview zoo workers about new baby animals. One guy wrote a three-part series about how to avoid the lunch rush at the fast-food drive-thru. I'm the one the cops like to show photographs of raped and beaten women, looking at me out of the corner of their eyes to see if I can take it. "Okay," I always say, when I think I've looked at them long enough. "I see." I work the police beat. Murders are my responsibility.
It's cloudy this morning, and so humid I'm sweating just standing still. Here and there patches of light shine through the clouds, as though someone poked holes in my jar so I could breathe. On the ground not three feet from me is the body of a young woman, white, my age. Steam rises from the dirt all around her, and when I look down I can see it coming up between my feet. I'm trying to get it straight in my head, how I'll describe this scene in the paper, how to make it simple, clinical, how to explain that what looked like smoke was only rainwater evaporating in the terrible heat. But all I can think is My God, my God.
She is curled up. Her hands are bound in front of her, her wrists wrapped round and round with what looks like white string.Her white T-shirt is patched red with blood. From the waist down she is naked, tire marks slashed across her skin. On one foot she wears a sandal; the other is bare. She is lying among tire tracks in a patch of sandy ground, and around her tufts of wild grass and dandelions push up through the dirt. She knew that car was coming. I would ball myself up like that, trying to disappear.
This is not where I'm supposed to be. Normally I'd arrive at the scene after the crowd had gathered, and I'd stand behind the yellow tape, with the rest of the press, the crying neighbors, the mamas with babies on their hips leaning in to get a look, lucky to catch a glimpse of the body bag when they brought it out. Today I was about to pull into the newspaper parking lot when I heard it over the police scannerDOA, at the park, less than two miles away. I followed a police cruiser to the site and stopped my car next to it. When I got out, the uniformed cop sauntered over to me and asked me what I thought I was doing. I said I was press and he looked me up and down. "You want to look," he said. "Go ahead and look." He's not supposed to do that, but maybe he thought I would faint and give him a story to tell his buddies. So I kept my face blank, and I walked right up to the dead girl and didn't say a word. The cop watched me, and shrugged, disappointed. "Stay out of the way," he said.
I've learned to stomach the photographs they show me, but now I know it's nothing like being so close you could lean down and touch that dead, dead skin.
I flip open my notebook. This is the first time I haven't had to wait for the cops and the medical examiner to give me a secondhand version of the crime scene. Faced with the real thing, I realize I don't know where to look, what details I'll even be allowed to print. The body lies near the river, not far from the park entrance, where the ticket booths were during the two festivals in May, one for barbecue, one for blues. Whoever dumped the body made no attempt to hide it, or to drag it to the water, only yards away.
Around us, cars arrive, their tires kicking up dust. Doors shut, and the rumble of male voices grows louder. Somebody shouts. I don't even turn my head to look, scrawling words in my notebook.
The feet are small and narrow, with tiny pink toenails.
The exposed legs are slender, with just the hint of muscle beneath the skin. There's a little scab near one ankle, as though she nicked herself shaving.
A white T-shirt is pushed up above the curve of the hips to reveal a pale stomach, the edge of a belly button. On the shirt I can barely make out the letters "MUS." Something about the lettering is familiar, and then I realize why. It's the Beale Street Music Festival T-shirt from last year. I have the same one at home in my closet. I wonder if the shirt is what made her killer think of bringing her here.
Her fingers are clenched, the nails painted the same delicate shade as her toes.
Her head is curled in toward her chest. The hair draped across her ruined face is long and dark, clotted with blood, powdered with dust.
Someone bumps me, passing by, and still I don't look. I barely feel it. It's like we are alone here, the dead girl and me, two sides of a coin.
From the ground in front of her face, steam rises, almost like breath.
I lift my hand to write and see that it's shaking. I watch as though those trembling fingers aren't even mine. The body beyond slips in and out of focus as I wait for my fingers to steady. When they do I grip my pen tightly and write in my notebook: T-shirt.
This is just my job.
The crime tape has gone up and detectives are arriving. I know they won't want to see me here. I haven't been on the beat long enough to have the contacts other reporters have, and I don't want to antagonize any of the cops. I take another look at her before I turn away. A few steps from the body, I can't help but look again. I turn around, walking backward. A cop stands over her, obscuring my view. I can still see her bare white legs, her tiny feet.
"Hey," someone calls out. "Get the hell back." I turn and see a cop striding toward me. I think his name is Detective Buchanan. He's young enough to still look a little sick at the sight of the corpse. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm sorry," I say. "The tape wasn't up yet. I didn't realize how close I was."
"The body should've given you a clue," he says.
"I'm so sorry," I say again, flashing him a smile, wondering if he's lead detective. "I'll be more careful next time."
He stares at me a second. "Getting to you, isn't it," he says. "You look sick."
"So do you," I say, and he snorts. "Do you have a positive ID?"
"I can't tell you anything," he says. "You know the routine; when the lieutenant gets here, he'll talk to the press."
"Come one" I say. "Give me something. Off the record."
He just shakes his head, and waves me away.
Behind the yellow tape I watch the rest of the press arrive. The TV stations park their vans so close the cops have to squeeze in and out of the scene. People shout. The satellite towers go up, and the reporters line up in front of the tape. The cops stare at us from the other side. It reminds me of the Civil War reenactments my father used to drag me to as a child, the two lines approaching each other, volleying fire. If this were a neighborhood, I'd be canvassing the crowd, looking for somebody who knew the victim, somebody to tell me she'd been fighting with her boyfriend, somebody to tell me she'd heard the boyfriend hit her, she'd heard the dead girl ran around on him. But here there's nothing to do but wait for the lieutenant, watching the cops' backs as they bend and stand, cluster and part. Detective Buchanan passes by again, frowning. I can't remember where I saw him before, which crime it was.
Off to the right I can make out the taller buildings of downtown, the red letters on the roof of the Peabody Hotel. Somewhere past that, the glass panes of the Pyramid are glinting in the sun. Nearby is Beale Street, its strip of garish bars and souvenir shops isolated among warehouses and parking lots, as if it had been constructed as a movie set and allowed to stand. A hill rises on one side of the fairgrounds, dotted with the houses of rich people and local celebrities. I squint at the houses, trying to judge the distance. They're too far away for the residents to have seen anything.
This is my job, to give you all the details right up front, what time it was, where and how it happened, so you can use them to determine whether it could have been you. I'd never go there alone at night, you think, putting the paper down beside your cup of coffee after you read the headline and maybe the lead. It's my job to keep you reading past that first paragraph, to make you see it like I do, what it is possible for your body to look like, how easily you could be destroyed.
A cop in uniform stands in front of me, turning his head from side to side. It's his job to keep the media and the curious out of the way. His white hair is damp with sweat, and the skin of his neck droops over the too tight collar of his shirt. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and mops at his face and neck. Then he says something about a little white girl.
"What?" I say.
"Heard she's a pretty little white girl," he says, leaning toward me.
"It'd be hard to say if she's pretty," I say.
"D'you see her?" He's surprised when I nod. "Are you the one that found her?"
"No," I say. "I just saw her. Do you know who found her?"
My notebook is in my hand, but I keep it closed. If he's going to tell me something, I don't want to scare him off.
He doesn't answer the question. He says, "That'll give you nightmares."
"I don't have nightmares," I say. He looks skeptical, but it's the truth. Lately I dream in words. My dreams aren't movies, with images and sound. Instead I watch them scroll past like a story typed out on a computer, like when you play a video game so long that you still see the figures moving even with your eyes closed.
The cop leans in like he's going to tell me something, then he sees the notebook in my hand and stops cold. "You a reporter?"
I say yes, wishing I'd kept the notebook in my bag. You never know what casual comment you might be able to use.
"Big story for you, ain't it," he says. "White girl killed, probably raped. Not the usual black-on-black killing we get here, This girl's young. Innocent."
"Nobody's innocent," I say. "There's always something."
He laughs. "That's nice thinking for a little gal like you," he says. "You sound like a cop."
Here we go again. I say, "We cover a lot of the same territory." Detective Buchanan comes up behind the cop and says something I can't hear. The cop nods, then moves a foot to the right and doesn't speak to me anymore. Now it comes to me where I saw the detective before. He was the officer in charge three weeks ago, when four men carrying semiautomatic rifles kicked down a couple's door in the middle of the night, mistaking it for a crack house. They raped the wife in front of her husband, then shot them both. Their toddler hid under the bed until the men left, and when the police arrived they found her sleeping, curled up against her dead father's chest with her thumb in her mouth. My roommate, Hannah, says, how can you write about these things?
Verb follows subject, I say. Object follows verb.
Lieutenant Nash keeps taking his jacket off and putting it back on, torn between his need to look professional and his need for relief from the unbearable heat. He's a large man, and his round dark face is shiny with sweat. When he takes off his jacket his white shirt clings wetly to his back, though I can see that he's wearing an undershirt. I'm right behind him, close enough to touch that back, and around me is the rest of the press. We follow him as he makes his way around the perimeter of the crime scene, all of us looking around for someone who might tell us more, who might tell us something no other reporter knows.
Nash, the official spokesman for this case, has told us nothing I didn't already know. I wrote it down in my notebook anyway: dead girl, white, mid-20s, no ID yet, no cause of death yet, no suspects yet. So far I barely have who, what, when, where, and how, let alone why, which is what everybody wants to know anyway, like they want to know why that athlete got AIDS, why the neighbor's husband left her, why that house burned down and all the children in it died. They want to know, what made them choose this girl over another, over me? I find the reasons for them.
"Any idea when you might have an ID?" I ask Nash.
He looks exasperated. "By the end of the day," he says. "We'll call you at the end of the day."
That does me no good. By the end of the day, I'll have no time to track down anyone who might know her, my story will be nothing but her name and no one will read it because they'll have gotten all their information from the evening news. "Thank you," I say, and smile prettily at him. A reporter from Channel 7 jostles against me and I resist the urge to elbow her in her pink-suited side. Instead I drop out of the pack and drift back toward the tape to watch the activity around the body. I can't see anything until they all part to let the body bag through.
I swear I must be feeling faint from the heat. When they bring the body bag out, that plastic shimmers beautifully, like water under the sun.
In the police station, it's always cold, even now in the middle of June. The furniture looks as though it hasn't been replaced since the '70s. Twenty years ago, the chairs were bright orange, and maybe when they were new they made the place look cheerful, but now they're just tacky, part of the general drab-and-dirt atmosphere. The interview room in homicide is white, with files spilling everywhere on the rows of metal desks. I'm sitting on a file, because it was in the chair when I went to sit down, and I couldn't see anywhere on Sergeant Morris's desk to put it.
Morris is saying, "I'm not supposed to tell you anything." On Saturdays he brings in barbecue for everyone, even me, and tells me stories from his decades on the force. Right now he holds a photograph, up and away from me.
"Just give me her name, please," I say, looking at his name tag, which I can't stop reading over and over. I don't know if they call those things they wear name tags. It seems like they should have some more official term, like breastplate. "Please."
"I don't know," he says. "The brass is cracking down."
I look at my watch. "Please, Sergeant. You know I never quote you," I say. "I won't print anything without confirmation. Please. I'm on deadline."
"I hate to think about you on a story like this," he says. "A nice little girl like you."
On the streets all over Memphis, I see cops whose muscles are thick under tight uniforms. They stride in twos or threes down the street like a posse in a Western movie, eyes scanning back and forth, their whole bodies heavy with assurance. I never talk to these cops. My cops are always fat and old and grimly sad. They have thick southern accents and call me "little lady." There are female cops, too. The female cops never talk to me.
Morris fingers some papers on his desk. I lean in closer. He's about to give up the name. I can feel it.
"Had a little girl killed a couple days ago," he says. "Guy shot a revolver in the air, bullet came down, hit her."
I nod. I already wrote that story.
"You know what really bugs me?" he says. "On TV? When they take a revolver and put a silencer on it." He shakes his head. "A silencer doesn't work on a revolver."
My leg starts to jiggle, impatience slamming through my body. "Sergeant ...," I start.
"And bodies?" he says. "They don't float. When you're dead ..." He mimes a shooting, pointing an imaginary gun at me and jerking it back. "You're dead, you sink to the bottom like a rock. Watch when they shoot somebody on TV. They fall into a swimming pool and they just float like a cork."
"Yes," I say. I've heard all of this before. I know if I listen long enough, he'll have to give me something in return.
"Olivia," Morris says. "Does your mother know what you do for a living?"
"She knows I'm a reporter." I hold my pen ready.
"But does she know what you report? Does she know her little girl is crawling around crime scenes?"
"Do you have an ID?" I say.
"You saw the body?" he asks, and when I nod, he shakes his head. "I don't know why you have to look at things like that."
"The other detectives like to show me homicides," I say. "They get a kick out of it."
"Because you're a girl," he says.
"So how come you don't want me to see them?"
"Because you're a girl," he says, and a slow grin spreads across his face.
"I can't win," I say, and I'm surprised by how grim it comes out sounding when I meant to be joking. "Who was she?" I say. "Tell me about her. I need to know."
He hesitates, shaking the photograph like a sugar packet between two fingers, then finally he gives it to me. It's not the crime scene photo I expected. In the picture, a young woman stands holding a beer in one hand, an expression of exaggerated surprise on her face, eyebrows up, mouth open, laughing. A guy in a baseball cap is kissing her cheek. She has shiny dark hair that falls to her shoulders, green eyes, a large mouth. It takes me a moment to understand that this is the girl whose crumpled body I stood over this morning.
Morris tells me that her friends reported her missing this morning, after looking for her since late Saturday night, when she didn't show up to meet them. Neighbors saw her car parked out in front of the apartment building, instead of around back in the lot, so the cops think she must have run in to get something, and somebody got her when she came back out. She worked in the outpatient clinic at the Madison Medical Center. Her name was Allison Avery.
I'm looking for something in her face, some detail, that will tell me who she was. She laughs up at me. She could be any girl who went to my college, any girl I pass between stores at the mall.
Morris reaches out to take the picture back. "Good luck," he says.
"Can I keep this?" I ask, holding on to the picture.
"No," he says. "But I'll let you make a photocopy." He looks from the photo in my hand to my face. "You look a little like her," he says. "Same hair color. Same shape to the face." In the air he traces the curve of my cheek.
"She was prettier," I say. I drop the picture on his desk. He doesn't contradict me, just picks the photo up and stares at it. "What about the car?" I say.
Morris shakes his head. "Haven't found it yet."
"You got any thoughts on this?"
"Point me in the right direction," I say.
He sighs, hunched over his desk. "How long you been doing this? Months?"
"Three," I say.
He nods. "Long enough to know," he says. "Nine times out often, girl dead like this, it had something to do with sex, You know that. She turned him down, slept around on him, whatever. If it's a stranger, maybe he raped her and got carried away, or scared she'd identify him after."
"What's your guess here?"
"None of this is for the paper?" He waits for me to nod, then says, "I'd say the way she was found, outside, some stranger grabbed her, drove around trying to figure out what to do with her. Boyfriend kills you, it's usually at home. He shoots you or beats you to death. Now, could be a premeditated thing, or could be she was out someplace with a guy she knew and he brought her there." He hunches down lower, his voice heavy with exhaustion. "You know," he says again. "We're gonna be looking for any boyfriends, any exes, trying to figure out where she was those missing hours between when she left work and when the neighbors saw her car."
This is all he knows. "Thanks," I say. "I really appreciate it."
He stares at the picture, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. He says, "She was just your age."
Outside the interview room, I sit and make a list in my notebook. Get family. Go to workplace. Call Peggy. Where's the car? Boyfriend? Cause of death? Call medical examiner. Get milk. Deposit check. Do dishes. Call Mom. It's not a list I need to make, but it passes the time. I'm hoping to catch the family coming out after they talk to the cops. They're easy to identify because they're always crying. I draw a series of little flowers across the bottom of the page, thinking about the dead girl's body. When I close my eyes it's not the image that I see. It's the words I wrote in my notebookT-shirt, string, blood.
I've been a full-time reporter for three years, and I can't remember half of what I learned in college, but these words are growing in me like weeds. It's been three months since they put me on the police beat. All summer I've had photographs of dead bodies fanned across my desk, buried under stacks of paper until I come across them looking for something else. It's not these pictures that appear in my dreams, but the words I used to describe them.
Again and again I check my watch, every second putting me closer to deadline. After a long time the flowers on my notebook page have overtaken the list, and I'm thinking this may be a lost cause when a couple walks out clinging to each other. The man has obviously been crying, the woman has the look of someone who's just been slapped, and her cheeks are red, the rest of her face white as paper. I'm certain these are the girl's parents. I stand up slowly. The trick is to make it sound like you're giving them some kind of opportunity, and never, never ask how they feel that's for television reporters. Refer to the victim in the present tense, say nothing directly about her being dead, ask whether she has a boyfriend, because more often than not it turns out to be him. Be polite. Be apologetic.
"I'm very sorry to bother you," I say, "but I wanted to talk to you about your daughter."
"Are you a reporter?" the woman asks.
"Yes, ma'am." I'm staring at her face. She looks familiar. I can't place her.
"We can't talk to you right now," she says. Her voice breaks, but she doesn't move to find a tissue, or bury her face in her hands or her husband's shoulder. Instead she stares angrily at me, even while tears start down her cheeks. I notice that her husband doesn't comfort her. His eyes never move from her to me, as though as long as he doesn't look at me, I'm not here.
"I know this is difficult," I say. "I'm sorry."
"Difficult?" she says. "What do you know about it?"
It's a conversation I've had so many times I feel like I'm watching it from outside, like something on a television drama. There's only so many ways you can say these things, only so many ways they can respond. What was she like, I'll say. She was our daughter, they'll say. We loved her. Some people are eager to talk, grateful for your desire to listen. Some, like this woman, have to be coaxed.
"Ma'am," I say as gently as I can, "I just want to write about Allison's life."
"If she weren't dead," she says, "you wouldn't give a shit about her life."
They turn their backs on me and walk away. I listen to the sound of their footsteps receding, then I glance at my list and put a line through Get family. I rummage through my bag for my car keys. Go to workplace is next.
"She's just a nice, nice person," the receptionist at the Madison Medical Center keeps saying. Tears are starting in her eyes. "Just the nicest person in the world." She has also told me that Allison was a nursing tech in the clinic, that she had a big smile and was good with patients. I resist the urge to drum my fingers on her desk.
One thing I know, people hardly ever say anything about someone that couldn't be said about anyone. I don't know if this is because lately the people I talk to are almost always talking about someone who's dead, and therefore immediately becomes a nice girl, a great guy, a loving mother, a generous friend. I'm beginning to think it's because this is how people see each other, as members of these sad generic categories. Allison Avery, Nice Girl.
The receptionist tells me Allison was friends with Angela Schultz, one of the nurses in the clinic. She directs me down the hall to the third door on my right.
"Thank you," I say. "You've been very helpful." She never even asked me who I was. People don't, in general. If you ask them a question, they answer it.
Before I tell her, Angela Schultz doesn't know her friend is dead, and the way her eyes empty and her face drains of color when I say it, I think for a moment her heart has stopped.
Angela is one of the friends who was supposed to meet Allison Saturday night, so from her I learn that Allison had some errands to run after work and then was going home to change and drop off her groceries. She was supposed to be at the Lizard Lounge at nine. I write that down, Lizard Lounge, and sit staring at the words. I've been there, with my boyfriend, David.
"How long did you wait before you called her?" I ask Angela.
"Half an hour," she says. "Allison was always late." At midnight, after calling Allison's house, her parents' house, and another friend's house, Angela called the police. That's all she knows, and she's choking as she talks, so it takes me a long time to get her to say it. Angela is another version of the girl I saw in the picture this morning, her hair dark and sleek and pulled back from her face, her features even and unremarkably pretty. She is made up in the manner of a respectable southern girl, light foundation, peach lipstick, muted eye-shadow, and mascara that's now smudged around her wet eyes.
This won't be the last time today I'll bring this news to some unsuspecting friend or relative. It's exhausting, my throat tightening with the grief of someone I don't know, for someone I've never met.
When you're told something terrible about someone you don't knowyour cousin says her sister-in-law is dying of canceryou have a moment of anxiety about what to say. Maybe you've met the woman once, and for a moment you really do feel bad, but in the end you're just going to say, "That's awful," and let some silence pass before you talk about something else. When you're a reporter, you're always talking to strangers who have just had something terrible happen to them. In college, I interviewed a famous journalist for the school paper. "In Vietnam, the rivers were thick with bodies," he said. "Either you had the stomach for it or you didn't."
I have the stomach for it.
If I didn't I couldn't sit here listening to Angela Schultz talk while the image of her friend's dead body rises in front of me, as real as this live woman's face. "That's all I know," she is saying, her hands covering her eyes as she begins to rock back and forth in her chair. "Oh God. Not Allison. Oh God. Oh God." I write in my notebook: all she knows. She lifts her face, ghoulish now with black streams of mascara tears, her lipstick half chewed off. "Are you sure it was her? Are you absolutely sure? Did you see the body?"
I hesitate. Then I nod. "It was her. I'm sorry." She wails and drops her head again. The room is a typical examining room, chair, rolling stool, someone's diploma framed on the wall. Altogether sterile, except for a vase of lilies tucked in the corner of the counter, near the sink, and a framed photograph nearby on the wall. I go over for a closer look while behind me Angela's wails quiet into sobs. It's a staff photo. Allison and Angela smile on either side of a tall man in a white lab coat who must be one of the clinic doctors.
I'm glad I've seen these pictures of the dead girl's face, and not the eight-year-old senior yearbook shot they'll probably run on the front page. If you die young, they always pull out those high school pictures. No one really looks like thatthe false smile, the cocked head, the hands folded awkwardly against the cheek.
Next to the picture, you'll see my byline. Then the copy. The victim was twenty-four years old. She was a nursing technician from a middle-class family, and she had just moved into her own apartment in Midtown a year ago. Saturday night, she worked late at the office, went to the grocery store for a few things, and drove to her apartment. She was late to meet friends at a Midtown bar, so she parked her car on the street in front of the building, instead of behind the building in the lot. When she came back out, hurrying, maybe checking her watch, someone grabbed her. What happened next is not entirely clear. I'm guessing that they'll tell me someone drove her in her own car to Tom Lee Park, raped her, beat her, and killed her finally by running her over.
Her name was Allison Avery. She was a nice girl.
I turn from the picture. Angela is folded in on herself, not making a sound. I go toward her and let my hand hover over her shoulder, not quite close enough to touch. My voice low, I ask her if Allison was seeing anyone, if she had been on a date lately, if anyone had shown any interest in her.
She shakes her head, not looking up.
"She didn't have a boyfriend?"
Angela lifts her face. She says no with such finality, her eyes so deliberately fixed on mine, I'm certain she is lying.
"There was no one?"
"No," she says again. We stare at each other for a moment. Then she returns her head to her knees. I stand looking at her bent neck, the wisps of hair escaping from her bun. Who could Allison's boyfriend be, that her best friend would keep him a secret, even after death?
A man comes hurrying in, like the answer to a question. I recognize him from the picture on the wall. He steps between us and scoops Angela up into a standing position and into his arms, as easily as lifting a baby. He is startlingly handsome, between thirty-five and forty, with a strong jaw and dark hair lightly touched with gray. He wears a wedding ring. "Is it true?" he asks me.
"I'm afraid so, sir," I say.
Angela shudders and presses her face to his chest. She's going to leave black smudges all over his straw-colored linen jacket. "I'm so sorry," he whispers. "Poor girl." I wonder which of them he means.
When I ask, Dr. Gregerson tells me what I expected, that Allison was a hard worker, a good worker, a nice girl. She used to bring in flowers for the office, unasked, which is, finally, a detail I can use. She liked carnations, because they last a long time, but every once in a while she brought in lilies because, she said, they were too beautiful to resist. "There, in the vase," he says. "Those are hers."
Straightening up, out of his embrace, Angela carefully pulls her loosened hair back into place. Her sobbing has slowed into an occasional hiccup and she seems oddly calm, her eyes glazed over. Over her shoulder I see the doctor noticing the black and tan traces of mascara and foundation on his jacket. I'm staring at his face, eyes narrowed, looking for signs of grief. He brushes at the streaks of makeup, frowning, then catches my eye and drops his hand, embarrassed. After a moment he lifts the same hand and squeezes Angela's shoulder.
"Angela," I say gently, brushing my fingertips lightly against her forearm, "do you have a picture of Allison I could borrow?" I move to indicate the framed photo on the wall, though I'd prefer to have a shot of the girl alone. I open my mouth to give the speech about why we need a picturepersonalize the crime, make it visceralbut Angela just nods, reaching numbly for a red purse and extracting a wallet. She flips it open to one of those plastic picture holders and slips a small photo from its casing. She says nothing when she hands it to me. "Thank you so much," I say. I look down, and there it is, the high school yearbook photo, teased hair framing the dead girl's carefully made-up face, some boy's class ring heavy on the hand beneath her chin.
Angela is saying that if I really want to write about Allison I should know she had a secret ambition. She wanted to be a singer in a rock and roll band.
"She's too practical to give up her job for it," Angela says. "She had gigs around here sometimes." When I nod, she goes on. "That was what she really loved. If you saw her up there, you knew right away, the way that big voice came pouring out her little body, it just washed you away. That was her. That was who she was." She tells me Allison's voice made your heart acheit was the sound of longing, just hanging in the air. It moved you, she says. You couldn't help but cry. And now she's crying too hard to say any more, but that is enough.
It was the truth, what I said to Allison's mother. What you want to write about is someone's life, even if her death is the reason you're writing about her at all. Allison Avery has slipped out of her category, and I come out of what used to be her office scribbling in my notebook, circling lilies, underlining rock & roll, crossing out nice girl, nice girl, nice girl, all down the page.
Meet the Author
Leah Stewart's short stories have appeared in various publications that include The Kenyon Review. A former associate editor of Doubletake magazine, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This is her first novel.
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