Dead Girl Moon
By Charlie Price
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2012 Charlie Price
All rights reserved.
At three in the morning, when everyone else is asleep, you can hear your brother's lungs expanding. You can smell the rum and cola on his breath. If your eyes are used to the dark, it's surprising how well you can see. The crinkles in his ear. Sideburns, acne lumps on his cheeks. The edge of his hairline where you're going to plant the hammer. How hard will you have to swing it to break through and still pull it out again?
Grace lowered it to her side and let it move back and forth to get a sense of its momentum, raised it shoulder high and rotated her wrist in a short arc to gauge its heft. Calculated. A medium-hard swing and the weight of the tool should mash through the bone into the goo. He was passed out on his favorites: booze and Oxy. He wouldn't wake. Wouldn't make a sound.
The second brother would be harder to kill. She'd probably have to get him in the bathroom. Before too long he would come home stoned and go in to pee before he went to bed. So Grace would hide behind the door. Smash him in the back of the head, low, base of the skull. Even if he lived, he'd be a zucchini.
And then? No more gang rapes in the Canby house. No more two-on-one late at night when the parents were blitzed and snoring. And, when Mom and Dad were gone for hours taking Caitlin to a soccer match, no more bringing the buds in to play wrestlemania. Caitlin? She'd never have to fight and lose and feel ... she'd never have to go through what was making Grace a murderer.
Two-handed, she was thinking. Didn't want the thing to slip. She raised both arms. Hesitated. A breath to get ready. Found herself looking at the world map on his far wall. Lowered the hammer. What if she just left? Just left for good. Took all the cash in the house. Her brother's stash in his sock drawer, her mom's folding money in the purse on the breakfast counter. Emptied her dad's wallet that was sitting on the top of his dresser. Left and never came back.
It was a good idea.
Starting in sixth grade, her older brothers, eighth and ninth graders, got on her and wouldn't get off. Nights after her folks went to bed. The boys told her they'd hurt Caitlin if she said anything. Grace stayed quiet, fought them. The more she fought, the better they liked it. Finally she told her mom.
Her mother, several drinks into the evening and tired from another day's pressure cooker at the advertising agency, went in and gave the boys a lecture. A lecture! And then forgot about it. Thanks, huh? When the boys reached high school, they began bringing their friends into the mix.
If she killed her brothers, she knew what would happen. Her mother would blame her. Grace would go to jail. Exchange one maggot life for another.
* * *
After you ease the screen door shut, it's easy to walk out of the neighborhood at four in the morning. Dark clothes. Stay near the trees and shadows if anyone drives by. But don't run into some insomniac doofus walking his poodle. Main streets are harder, more police cruising, so use the alleys when you can. The freeway ramp? Find one a few blocks south near the warehouses where trucks will be rolling. Got to wait near the entrance, near cover, so you don't get surprised by a patrol car. Thank god for the bushy oleanders. Cover blond hair with a ball cap. Jeans and denim jacket. Tennies. A boy? Right? Flip the brim to the back and you're ready.
* * *
Grace thumbed a refrigerator rig before dawn.
The guy was eager for company, talked nonstop. Wife problems. Didn't make Grace for a girl.
Grace could feel her energy draining but the guy took an exit. Roused her, surprised her. Highway 37. Grace relaxed again. He was going north to 5. She didn't want her voice to give her away. Made it deep. "Sacramento?"
"Citrus to a bunch of independents," he says, eyes on the road. "Redding in about four hours, Weed—other side of Mount Shasta—in six."
Weed. That made Grace smile. Majorette, B student, gone to Weed. Off the grid. They'd never find her.
* * *
By the time they pulled into the docking bay at Bounty Food in Weed she wasn't so sure. The police would check bus stations, put out a bulletin north and south on 5 figuring she might be hitching. The grocery store was on an intersection: Business 5 and Highway 97 north. She caught a ride with a younger guy driving a flat rig up 97 into Oregon.
He tipped to her early on. "Pretty risky. A girl on the road." He sized her up while they climbed the long grade out of town.
Grace shifted a little so he couldn't get such a clear profile.
"How old are you?"
Don't ask her how she knows, but she knows where this is going. Reached for her pack between her feet. Put it in her lap.
"I got time," he says, "and fifty bucks for a little affection."
Grace ignored him.
He slowed and took a turnout bordered by fir, brought the truck to a stop. Undid his seat belt.
Grace found the door handle. When he leaned toward her, she jerked the hammer out of her pack. Watched his eyes widen. She was out the door before he could move.
Before dark she was on another refrigerator truck. This one going nonstop to 395 and Spokane, Washington. The driver, a quiet older man with a picture of his middle-aged wife and six or seven kids magnet-stuck to his dash. He doesn't say two words the whole trip. Pulls off for a nap outside of Pasco. Grace slept like she was in a coma.
The Spokane bus station is downtown, one block off 395. The trucker is going to a warehouse farther north.
He stopped, let Grace off on the corner. Spokane was cold beyond what she'd known in California. The bus station was poorly lit and full of people in shabby coats, carrying cheap suitcases. Here and there a kid with a duffel, probably heading to college or back to the army.
Grace sat on a wooden bench next to a woman wearing layers of clothes, a striped serape over head and shoulders. Mexican? South American? A long way from home.
Time to take stock. She had two complete changes of clothes but no warmer jacket. She'd find a heavier wrap at the Salvation Army. She had almost three hundred dollars in cash. Enough for meals and at least a week in a bare-bones hotel.
An hour's exploration told her she was wrong. Only enough money for three days if she wanted to travel at the end. And she did, by bus. Wanted to disappear. Away from the I-5 Corridor, so she'd go east. She asked around. Heard: "Missoula's cool. University stuff happening all the time." And Billings, "Biggest city. Lots of business. Two colleges." Both good towns, large enough to have jobs, opportunities. "Take Interstate 90."
The day she left, she picked a newspaper off the bench while she waited. Read that a girl named Grace Herrick had been killed in a car accident coming back from a party. Good enough. From now on she would be Grace Herick, drop one "r" so nobody could bust her alias. Get new ID wherever she landed.
She bought a ticket to Missoula under that name. There were two buses waiting in the parking bays. Grace avoided people. Didn't want to be remembered. Waited to board until the driver was distracted putting a heavy suitcase in the luggage bin. Went down the aisle to the back, covered her head, wouldn't surface until she felt motion. At the outskirts of Sandpoint, the driver announced the town name and the final destination, Calgary, Canada. That can't be right.
She moved to the front and asked the driver about options. If you take the wrong bus? There weren't many. No bus station in Sandpoint. Even if there were, the ticket back to Spokane and on to Billings costs more than she has left. The driver told her Highway 200 would get her to Missoula, let her out at the intersection.
She'd hitch. She made it easily around the top of Lake Pend Oreille but her luck ran out past the Montana border. She was stranded outside someplace called Heron for hours and then got a ragtag series of short rides in ranch pickups. Each guy warning her: Don't do this. Too dangerous.
After dark it got pretty chilly. She found an empty barn near the highway. Next day, a woman in a GMC towing a horse trailer let her out by the hardware store in Portage, Montana. Grace was almost broke. Didn't want to risk another night out in the mountain cold. Inside the hardware store, a cashier told her Social Services was two blocks up, one block over, black-and-white sign out front.
Grace had been to civic buildings back home in Marin County for parking tickets and registrations. Didn't like them. Remembered they were sterile, impersonal, but she was broke now. Looking for help. The lobby fit her picture. Antiseptic, worn gray linoleum, metal folding chairs along one wall with magazine-strewn end tables on either side.
A dumpy middle-aged woman wearing a headset looked up from something she was reading. "Help you?"
"I need work and a place to stay," Grace said, wishing she'd checked herself in a bathroom mirror before she started this, knew she looked like she'd been jumping trains. The woman half stood and leaned over her counter, appraising. "Runaway?" she asked, pursing her lips.
The woman sat back to her reading. "Main Street across from the hardware store. Human Services. See Mackler."
* * *
Mackler's office was more plush than Grace expected. Maroon carpet. Polished wood trim and accessories, velour couches. Attractive woman at a desk in the center of the room looked Grace over. Frowned. Said, "What?"
"Work and a place to stay," Grace said. Hated feeling needy.
"Grace Herick, one 'r.'" It got easier all the time.
* * *
Mackler escorted her into a large office with a flat screen TV on one side, two recliners on the other. Went to a short refrigerator beside his desk, took out bottles of water and gave her one without asking. Began with "What can I do you for?"
Grace answered the same she'd told the woman earlier, but her mind was running. Two-bit town, one main street, middle of nowhere. Sleazy guy playing at his job. This couldn't really be Social Services. More like the talent agency she'd seen for models back in California. But lame.
Mackler wrote a couple of words on his desk pad, picked up the phone, turned his back to her.
Grace couldn't hear the conversation.
Finished, Mackler asked her if she needed to use the restroom.
The tone of his question made Grace's neck sweat. She shook her head.
He told her to have a seat on the couch. Left her in the office.
A few minutes later another man walked in. Introduced himself as Sam Hammond. Expensive haircut, pressed slacks, tassels on his loafers. He asked Grace questions about herself.
She was polite but vague. "I'm from Washington. Lost my home. Lost my job. I need a place to stay and I need work. Do I have to say more than that?"
Hammond looked her over: hands, hair, clothing, shoes. "Smile for me?"
Why? Grace shot him a look, thought the request was ridiculous. Then got it—her teeth—did the family she was raised in have money for braces.
"High school," Grace told him. "I got good grades."
Hammond continued to study her, picked up Mackler's phone.
* * *
Twenty minutes later another man came in. Said, "Hi. Gary Stovall. Hammond gone?"
Grace shrugged. Had no idea where that man went.
"Got a bag?"
Grace showed him the pack.
"You can stay with us," he said. "Like a foster child, until you're eighteen. Tina and I have a girl your age, JJ. You'll probably like her. Hammond'll give you a job in a few weeks when you get settled."
Grace hadn't told anyone her age. Just turned sixteen. She wouldn't have gone anywhere with the other men. This guy was different. Gary. Maybe forty. Long and slender. Brown ponytail. Red plaid cotton shirt, rolled-up sleeves, old jeans. Logger boots. Had a soft smile to match his voice. Kind eyes. She'd go with him and pay attention. Learn how to play the game in this town.
She knew something sly was going on here. Portage. Nothing was official. No paperwork. Seemed like Hammond was the man, Mackler his flunky. This was a place she could figure out. Way less horrid than home. And she might be able to make some money in this town. Grow up.
Grace Herick. Businesswoman. She could play that. She just had to stay tough.
Grace expected Gary to have a car. He didn't. At least not one he was driving. They walked about six blocks to an alley off Main that quickly became gravel on its way toward a bank of willows and the Clark Fork River. About a hundred feet in, the alley widened into a big dirt parking lot bordered by two trailers. The one to her left, freshly painted, cedar deck that overlooked the river. The one on her right, downstream, rusty and dilapidated. She couldn't believe that was the one he headed for.
Past a junker car, they walked up weathered two-by-six steps that led to the small plywood porch and front door. When Gary opened it, Grace made an effort not to wince at the smell: old garbage, unwashed clothes, maybe even a whiff of urine. A slack-faced woman sat on the couch facing the door, a drink in her hand.
"That's my wife, Tina," Gary said, "and JJ's around here somewhere."
The woman turned from the small TV she'd been watching.
"This is Grace," Gary said. "She'll be living with us for a few months."
Tina nodded. Lifted part of her mouth in a smile. Went back to the TV.
Grace heard a noise to her left. Sitting on the floor, ankle cuffed to the kitchen table, was a boy nine or ten years old.
"That's Jon," Gary said. "He's on a time-out."
The boy stared at Grace, unfocused, uninterested.
"JJ!" Gary yelled at a back bedroom to the far right.
"Oh, right. She's in school till three-thirty. You'll meet her. Let me show you where you're staying." He headed toward the bedroom he'd yelled at.
* * *
At least this room smelled clean. Smelled like some kind of incense, actually. The double bed took most of the space. A small closet was surprisingly empty of clothes: a couple of pairs of jeans on hooks, T-shirts on a high shelf, a raincoat and a wool mackinaw on hangers. On the left side of the bed a makeshift dressing table with a brush and a hand mirror. The two-drawer bureau that doubled as an end table held a gooseneck lamp and a book. Grace picked it up. Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion. Man or woman? She had no idea, never heard the name.
There was room on the right side of the bed for her pack. Looked like someone had either just built or just cleared a board-and-brick bookcase, two shelves, so Grace could lay out her clothes if she wished. She sat on the bed corner, stomach empty and growling. Should she run? What had she gotten herself into?
* * *
JJ woke her. Said hi. Smiled. Shook her head. "Welcome to the palace."
Grace sat up. Didn't know what to say.
"I'm JJ, right? I've been living here for years. How do you think I feel?" When Grace didn't respond, JJ went on.
"It could be worse. Gary's nice enough except the way he handles Jon. Tina's a zombie, 24/7. Jon's hell. Avoid him. Gary cooks okay. Cooks a lot. He tokes around the clock so he's always hungry. You got to be careful not to put on weight like me. I'll trim down when softball starts."
Grace was trying to get up to speed with this girl. Younger, clearly. Almost Grace's height. Built sturdy with big shoulders, big wrists, short spiky black hair. Dark eyes, full lips, olive skin a little like Tina's. Reminded Grace of a tree cutter her dad had hired back in San Rafael last summer: strong, pretty without makeup, mannish figure. Grace checked her for a chain on her wallet or a wad of keys clipped to her belt loop. Checked for a nostril ring, tongue stud, tattoo. The girl looked butch but maybe she was ... a jock?
"Yeah, I know," JJ said. "Not much to look at, but I got a few brains and I got your back, so get to know me."
IN THE MONTHS THAT FOLLOWED, Grace learned that Portage was a sewer, rotten with secrets and deals. She learned that Sam Hammond ran the town with partners: Mackler, the director of Human Services, for sure, probably a judge named Bolton and a banker named Greer. Maybe also a highway patrolman named Scott Cassel. She learned that Hammond had something going with Cassel's older son, Larry. Twenty-five, no experience, and suddenly he was the town's new building inspector. The day she met Larry, she learned something else. He fancied himself a Casanova.
Hammond hired runaway girls. He'd arranged for Human Services to make her Gary Stovall's foster child. Until she turned eighteen, if she stayed, the Stovalls would make an extra six hundred dollars a month. Like a beat-up single-wide full of dope and booze was a "suitable" placement!
Grace told JJ very little about herself; nothing that was true, including her real age. She did say that she'd appreciate JJ's help learning how to fit in here. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Dead Girl Moon by Charlie Price. Copyright © 2012 Charlie Price. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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