Pretending to Be Erica

Pretending to Be Erica

by Michelle Painchaud

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780670014972
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 07/21/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Michelle Painchaud was born in Seattle, but grew up gate-crashing parties in sugar cane fields in Hawaii. Cats and anime take up what little part of her brain isn't harassed by stories of teenagers kicking ass. This is her first novel.
     She lives in San Diego, California and you can find her at http://michellepainchaud.tumblr.com and on Twitter: @michelleiswordy

Read an Excerpt

1: Fake It

I still haven’t gotten used to writing my new name.

It’ll get easier with time. Most things do. But for now the word Erica is strange and unfamiliar as it bleeds from my pen and onto the corner of my math worksheet. It’s a pretty name, a sweet name. Doesn’t suit me.

“Erica?” Mr. Roth, the grandpa-sweater-wearing math teacher, smiles. “Would you like to introduce yourself to the class?”

No. I would rather puke all over your floor.

“Sure.” I stand and walk to the front. The whiteboard is blank, an intimidating ghost. I don’t want to turn. I don’t want to face the class. I pivot.

“Hi. My name is Erica Silverman.”

A murmured hush runs through the crowd of faces staring. They’ve heard of me. A black-haired girl in the front glares, but I avoid eye contact. I avoid eye contact with everyone—Erica is still a little tender from the betrayal. Roth clears his throat.

“That will be sufficient. Perhaps it’s best you don’t share personal facts with us, Erica.” He turns to the class. “Please treat her with respect, as you would any other student, and keep in mind, talking to the reporters outside about Erica will be grounds for detention. The sooner we ignore them, the sooner they’ll leave.”

A grumbled agreement goes around the room. I settle into my seat. The window’s to my right, and I can see the front lawn. The reporters pace the fence, snap pictures. More have joined them since this morning—two news vans are parked outside too. They’re here for me. The cameras are easy to act in front of. It’s the high school kids who are hard. I don’t want to admit I’m nervous beneath it all. Performance anxiety is for greenhorns.

“Vultures.”

The voice comes from my left, low and gravelly. A tall boy sits next to me, slouched in his seat. He looks like he just woke up—wavy longish blond hair sticking at odd angles, and his blue eyes heavy lidded. He’s not remarkably handsome, but his face is symmetrical and pleasant and entirely forgettable.

“Vultures? Who, me?” I whisper.

He winces. “No. Them. Paparazzi assholes.”

Assholes. I savor the word. I haven’t heard someone swear in a month—it’s all been polite speech I’ve imitated. I glance out the window and contrive a soft smile.

“I’m starting to get used to it. This week’s been nothing but cameras and police. I’ll need a Seeing Eye dog if I get another flash in my face.”

It’s supposed to be a lighthearted joke, but he frowns. “You can just tell them to piss off.”

I wanted to. Trust me, guy, I wanted to say a hundred nasty things to them as they bum-rushed the car when I got out this morning. But I can’t say that. I try to look startled, like wounded Erica might. “I don’t know if I’d be that rude.”

He puts his head on his arms. “Kidnapper parents taught you to be doormat nice, huh?”

I darken my expression. Any mention of my parents gets a glower. “It’s not like I don’t want to be rude to them; I just don’t know if they’re worth speaking to at all.”

He smirks. “That’s a better answer.”

The PA system blares with morning prayers, and we bow our heads. This is a private Christian school. The shadow of the cross on the roof stretches over the lawn. The blond boy doesn’t bow his head. The black-haired girl glares at the floor. Some kids in the class look straight ahead. Everyone prays in their own way. I clasp my hands and put them to my forehead, careful not to touch the tender parts of my face. My plastic surgery bruises have faded, but I can still feel the phantom ache in my muscles.

Dear God, forgive me for my sins. I’m pretending to be a girl who went missing thirteen years ago. A girl who’s rich.

A girl who’s dead.

At the age of four, Erica Silverman was a very charming little girl—pale blonde hair, deep brown eyes with long lashes, and a smile full of baby teeth. She was the pride and joy of the Silverman family—Mr. Silverman, an aerospace engineer, and his wife, a lovely southern socialite who came from Georgia money. They settled in Seven Hills, where the savage desert of Las Vegas relented to artificially green slopes and magnificent adobe near-mansions. Erica loved to play Princess and Dragon, and she had a thing for glassy-eyed porcelain dolls.

One day, after kindergarten, Erica wasn’t there when her mother came to pick her up. School security had looked away for a mere thirty seconds. That was all it took for someone to snatch her from the curb.

The hunt lasted for years, until the police force could no longer sustain an intensive search. No ransom demand came through. No trace was left. The private detectives came and went in succession, each failing where the others had—when an actual sign of the girl was needed to continue. The most they could guess was that she’d been taken out of state, possibly over the border. After the seven-year mark, Mr. Silverman broke the way parents break when their children die—frantically, messily, irreparably. One Tuesday morning, he smashed every piece of furniture in his fifteenth-floor office. Then he smashed his office window. They caught him climbing out. His psychotic break landed him in the best mental hospital Mrs. Silverman could afford. She was left in charge of everything—to suffer and wait alone.

The story branches here.

The truth: Erica is dead. She was killed forty-eight hours after being kidnapped by Gerald Brando—a thirty-six-year-old computer salesman from Boulder City who’d seen her in a newspaper article on the family and had become infatuated. He stalked her for a year, watching her schedule, learning her quirks. When he took her, his sheer amount of preparation rendered escape or recovery futile. He had a quiet IQ of 120 with no overblown pride to muck it up. My father—Sal—met him in jail, where Gerald had been arrested for a different child murder. Gerald never told the police about Erica, but he told Sal every last detail during exercise in the yard.

The lie: a couple kidnapped Erica and raised her as their own. The couple, friends of Sal, are promised a cut from the con. They’re currently fleeing the country, leaving the now-seventeen-year-old Erica—me—to the police.

Sal is a con man. I am his daughter. This is our sting.

Before today I’d never been to high school. Or middle school. Or any school, for that matter. School wasn’t possible when you moved around as much as we did. Sal homeschooled me. I’d covered calculus, the classics, and Sal’s personal favorite, tactical military philosophy, a year ago. The classes I’m taking now are too easy. I’d covered this stuff years ago, but I don’t say anything. I don’t raise my hand to offer answers, and I purposely leave some questions wrong. Just a few. Erica is going to be a smart, but not too smart, girl. Too smart makes people uncomfortable. I want everyone to be comfortable around me. Comfortable people rarely hide things.

My free period is quickly becoming my favorite part of the day. No sitting straight and pretending to pay attention. Freedom. Freedom to wander the halls and scope out the land and the people. I get furtive glances from the hallway crowd. I’ve been on the news all month. They know exactly who I am but are acting like it’s nothing. Groups of girls watch me, glances skittering over my face and uniform before turning back like they couldn’t care less. But their whispers are insistent, and their giggles, loud. They’re definitely talking about me, right? I take a deep breath, trying to breathe the confusion away. Remember Sal’s words. His lessons. The number-one rule of a con artist: even if you have no confidence, act like you do.

Make them believe in your make-believe.

I square my shoulders and flip my hair. Confidence. My stride is long and my steps are even. I flash smiles at the groups that stare too long, and they look away abruptly. Confidence. Make them believe in everything and anything. Make them believe in you.

The girls’ bathroom—a sanctuary against the stares. I thought being the center of attention would be easier, less stressful. The moment the door closes behind me, I feel a weight lift from my chest. The mirrors are clean; the barest graffiti scrawls down the stall doors. My new face in the mirror still stops my heart and snap-freezes my blood. I have to look at it. A normal girl doesn’t avoid mirrors—they’re her best friend, worst enemy, and mild obsession all at once. I stare into it and mouth my real name, like the mirror will keep the secret in its silvery depths.

Violet.

My real name is Violet.

My hair isn’t as blonde as it should be, but we decided to keep it my dishwater color. Highlighting would make it unnatural-looking, too desperate to mimic a little girl’s hair color. Blonde fades with age sometimes, so the color can be justified. My cheekbones are now more defined. They couldn’t put in implants, since those would show up on X-rays, but they did shave the bone down to imitate the look. My eyes are bigger, rounder. They’d slit those open on the sides (like peeling grape skins, the doctor said). My nose is upturned slightly, no longer hooked (shave the cartilage down, the doctor said). Three surgeries over five years. I look beautiful, but I don’t feel pride. I just feel lost, small, eaten. Erica’s swallowed me whole. The more I throw myself into her life, the more convincing I’ll be. I have to be on my toes, keep aware of my surroundings like Sal taught me. I can’t ruin the con that’ll get us enough money to retire from petty crime. From all crime. Enough money to buy anything we want—houses, cars, small islands. Sixty million dollars is not chump change. It’s not easy-won change either. In the Vegas underworld, the Silverman painting is whispered about in the darkest corners, a holy grail for every security hacker and seedy lockpick expert. It’s the con no one thinks can be done—an Olympic feat. Sal’s people use it in conversation—“If you can outdrink me, buddy, I’ll steal the Silverman painting.” “Talking to the boss is harder than filching the Silverman painting.” It’s Mount Everest for climbers, the Marianas Trench for divers, and the Super Bowl for football teams.

And I’m going to steal it single-handedly.

All my training and all Sal’s resources have culminated here today. This moment.

I make a smile in the mirror. It looks so warm, so genuine. So practiced. I pull the corners of my lips down a little. There. Less artificial. More honest—whatever that is. I can’t be honest anymore. Honesty died a month ago when I stepped out of that cop car and into this world of private schools and fancy uniforms.

Sal took me to study normal high schoolers before I went undercover. We parked across from a school and watched them flit amongst each other, laughing and glaring and kissing. They were honest. I lived and worked around people who lied with their whole bodies. I tricked those people with deceptive body language of my own. I can read people well, but there was no need to read those kids. They were open books of hundreds of mishmashed emotions—flickering to love, hate, and everything in between with the speed of an impatient child with a TV remote.

Sal looked at me and smiled. “See? It’s easy to pretend to be normal. You just gotta not pretend at all.”

I want to call him. I want to hear his voice and his laugh and ask him for advice. But I can’t. This is the most delicate time. I have to convince everyone I’m Erica. Every phone call, every eyelash batting, every smile and wave. It’s the acting role of my life.

The bathroom door swings open. The black-haired girl who glared at me walks in. We lock eyes, hers a deep brown with a ring of heavy eyeliner, making her gaze almost feral. She breaks the contact and leans against a sink to smoke a cigarette. I push into the stall and do my business, suddenly nervous about how loud my pee sounds. When I get out, she’s still there, and she doesn’t budge when I use the sink behind her. Her eyes burn into me. Her smoke clouds are in my face. I dry my hands. She might scare other people, but I’ve seen her type before. Acting tough to hide some vulnerability. We’re both acting.

“I’m on to you.” She coughs.

I put on my practiced poker face, laced with a hint of insecurity to lure her into thinking she has the upper hand. “I’m sure you are.”

She stubs her cigarette out on the enamel and laughs. “You’re not the first to do this whole song and dance. Two girls have tried to pull it off before you. They’ll weed you out like all the others.”

She’s not lying—I’d read up on the two girls, three years ago and eight years ago, who tried and failed to be Erica. They wanted the comfy lifestyle—but that was their downfall. Wanting so much for so long is impossible when you’re faking. You just keep your eyes on the prize, grab it, and get out before someone blows your cover. Their prize was a whole life of luxury. Mine is simpler, cleaner, and much more profitable—the Silverman painting.

The other girls got caught. But they weren’t me. I have DNA—a lock of the real Erica’s hair Gerald kept for himself in jail and Sal swiped. I have the lab assistant who marked it as a fresh sample when Sal hung something—blackmail, I suppose—over his head. I have an identical break in my right fibula, inflicted by Sal’s doctor. The break healed in the same place, at the same angle as the fracture Erica had gotten falling down some stairs.

I have Sal on my side.

Nearly a month ago, “Erica” found out her parents weren’t her real ones. She found out she was kidnapped. Erica might be wounded, a little soft, but she’s not a doormat. She’s frustrated and angry—every police officer and reporter who visited the house has accused her of being fake in the last month. She’s had it up to her pretty brown eyes with being accused.

“You’re not the first to doubt me.” I glower. “And you won’t be the last.”

She laughs, a hyena chuckle. “Like I haven’t heard that before.”

The heavy thunk of the door as she leaves punches a hole in my chest. It’s my first day of school, and I’ve already got someone on my scent. Fantastic. But she’s only human.

Me, I’ve been in training all my life.

That girl’s intimidating presence was probably enough to break the previous “Ericas.” I’m different. Sal chose me from the foster system because I looked like her. He raised me to be her; he knew one day I could become her, fall into her easily, like a hand slipping into a glove.

Erica was part of me before I even knew her name.

I make my way to the cafeteria and choose a sandwich from the hot bar. I hand my lunch card to the student operating the register. The buttons look worn, old. The register is on its last legs. The student taps the Open button, and the tray pans out and pulls a memory from me.

At five years old, Violet is the perfect distraction.

The smell of gasoline clogs her nose. Cigarette smoke makes her eyes water. Neon beer brands in the window blind her. She waddles up to the counter and musters the fattest tears she can, which, in a strange gas station store with scary people staring at her, is easy to do. The cashier looks around, hoping someone will claim the wailer, but no one does. He doubles around the counter and asks questions—parents, in the bathroom? In the freezer aisle? They look together; her crying gets louder. The cashier tells the girl to wait behind the counter with him until her parents arrive. Ten minutes. Fifteen. A half hour passes before a man comes tearing in, gray hair askew. He’s tall and well built, aging just past his prime.

“Has anyone seen my daughter? My daughter, blonde, brown eyes. Oh God, please, someone has to have seen her!”

The cashier walks around the counter and comforts the man, calms him. The girl isn’t running out to meet him, so something must be wrong. He wants to make sure the man really is her father.

The cashier’s back is turned. Violet is just barely tall enough to reach the Open button of the ancient register, but short enough that the security camera does not see her. Sal’s frantic yells cover the faint ding of the opening register. Little fingers dance over the grooves of plastic—tens, twenties. She grabs as many as she can and stuffs them down her overalls, easing the tray closed.

She shouts, “Daddy!” and runs around the counter, braids waving. The reunion is acted, faked each time they drift apart and come together again, a job well done, a meal of something other than fast food and a soft motel bed, well earned. But Sal’s smile is proud, and Violet’s smile is happy because he’s proud, because someone, anyone, is proud of her.

Today’s the first day in a month I’ve been out of the house.

House isn’t the right word for it. Mrs. Silverman’s place is more of a chateau. Not quite a mansion, but close. The yard is three acres of prime Vegas real estate in a gated community. White stone balconies and stained-glass windows contrast like rainbows on snow. The groundskeeper dawdles among barely budding flower bushes. The landscaping is overwrought, too lush and unnatural compared to the surrounding dry desert.

Mrs. Silverman let her grip loosen for me to attend school. I almost dread getting back in the car when she pulls up to the curb in her silver BMW, but I quash the feeling and try to look happy. Her hair is blonde, cut in a perfect bob. Her dark blue suit makes her pale skin and bright red lips glow. Her nose is thin, her cheekbones high. I look like her now. Too much like her. The smile on her face as she gets out of the car is too huge too be real. Too warm.

She sweeps over and draws me into her chest. The reporters along the fence are pushing toward us, but the police officers stationed there do their best to hold them back.

Put on a good show, Violet. Lose yourself in this woman’s sorrow, her dark relief that’s so easy to fall into—to imitate. Become a current in the river that is her life, and the sea that has been her suffering. The emotions radiate off her in waves as her tiny sobs echo in my hair.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. I’m sorry. I missed you. It’s just school, but I missed you so much—”

“It’s okay.” I sniff, my own tears starting to spill over. She smells like roses and expensive lotion. The brute force of her sadness, happiness, makes acting easy. The trick to faking anything is to believe it’s real. No doubts. Just faith. The bright February sunlight spills over us, onto my face and her face, onto our entwined bodies as she cries into my hair and I do the same. I am a mirror.

In this moment I am Erica Silverman.

2: Sell It

Erica’s house doesn’t look like a prison.

The flight of grand oak stairs shines. Paintings line the walls. High ceilings flood with sun and crystal reflections of chandeliers—dancing rainbows on a dead girl’s domain. The furniture is expensive, the floors hardwood. Everything screams affluence. This is the kind of place Sal and I would rip off. Theft of a huge house is easy when they’re in the dining room having dinner, doors wide open. Dress in a service jumpsuit and nod and smile as you walk in, and very few people think twice about what you’re doing. Sal liked to go as a plumber; I liked the pink polo shirt of a maid service. Expensive perfume, electronics. Sometimes jewelry if you were really lucky.

But today, I’m a different girl. One who doesn’t know how to pick almost every industrial lock on the market. One who can’t accurately discern a personality just from the clothes someone wears. I throw my backpack on my bed and look around Erica’s room. My room. Dolls line the shelves, glass eyes reflecting my new face. They’ve been waiting thirteen years for Erica to come back and play with them. They know. Every curled strand of fake hair and plait of silk mocks me; they know I’m not her. Unlike Mrs. Silverman, dolls don’t get desperate. They don’t let it blind them to the truth. The vanity is lined with nail polish and pony stickers from another time. A crayon masterpiece portraying a stick figure family is taped to the mirror.

Mrs. Silverman’s been possessive.

In my heart I know it’s vital to the success of the con. She looked at me when I stepped out of the car and her knees gave way. Collapsed. Started crying. I inched over to her and picked her up, and she hugged me and didn’t let go for a full hour. Hands like claws into my back. She felt it—felt me. It couldn’t have just been my new face—while it was eerily similar to the composite the police drew up of seventeen-year-old Erica, moms can always tell. There was something else. Desperation, maybe. Two Ericas were fakes; her hopes lifted and smashed and repaired, only to be smashed again. Mr. Silverman retreated into a shell of madness. She lost her daughter and her husband.

Desperation.

I am convincing. The face, the DNA. The DNA cinched it. They didn’t let me see her until it was confirmed. Erica was four when she was kidnapped—old enough to be loved, but young enough that time is my ally. Time distorts the little flaws Sal worked so hard to hide, erase, and pay off. Mrs. Silverman lets time and emotion distort her hopes; she sees me as the real thing. Her heart tells her I’m real.

She canceled all her appointments, charity balls, and dinner appearances, and spent a month with me in the house. Nail painting. Talking. Mostly talking and making food, like sustenance would fill the gaping maw of lost time. She asked about every year, every birthday and Christmas. I wove a story for her, a story that had her crying and me crying. A story that’d been carefully crafted by Sal and me, rehearsed in the months before I came here. I know every detail, every supposed bike accident and pet, as if it was my own life.

If the cameras caught my performance in that month, I would’ve earned an Oscar. At least two. Simple acting didn’t cut it. I revived Erica from the grave, pulled her soul from air. I channeled her, invited her spirit to live through me. Violet was suppressed so deeply, I started to worry I’d lost her, but being at school today brought her out. Slipping from the shadow of Mrs. Silverman’s grief brought her to light a little. Just a little. I can’t show Violet too much.

A knock at my door.

“Come in.”

Mrs. Silverman walks in wearing a hesitant smile. “How are you doing?”

I shrug. “School was tiring.”

“Were they nice to you?”

“I don’t know.” I finger the childish pink bedspread. “They stared. I felt like they were accusing me. Doubting me.”

She winces and sits on the bed beside me, squeezing my hand.

“You have to understand: there were other Ericas. They’re just confused, is all.”

“Like I am,” I murmur.

She squeezes again. “What are you confused about?”

“I don’t know!” I stand. Anger. Confusion and anger. “How could they do that? How could they take me, not tell me for thirteen years? Thirteen years! I loved them. I trusted them—”

“Them.” Mrs. Silverman bites her lip, eyebrows knit. She knows I mean my kidnapper parents. “I don’t have any answers for you, Erica. They were just bad people—”

“They weren’t!” A shout. She flinches. “They weren’t bad people. They were my parents. And every time I look at you, every time I see those reporters, or see them on TV, I—” I choke. “I want to hurt something. I want to hurt something until someone gives me a reason.”

“Erica—”

“A reason!” I kick the door.

“Erica, please.” She sweeps over and holds me. “Breathe. Deep breaths, like we practiced.”

“The reporters treat it like it’s entertainment,” I say with a hiccup. “It’s my life! My life!

“I know, I know,” she chants, holding me closer. “I was hoping they’d die down. I’m sorry. They’re getting worse because we haven’t made an official statement yet.”

“Can we just make one and get it over with?” I wipe my eyes.

“Is that something you really want to do?” Mrs. Silverman’s gaze crinkles with worry. “You might not be up for it.”

“I’m up for it,” I insist. “I’m tired of this. I just want to go back.”

Mrs. Silverman twitches, a jump in her shoulders. I went too far, too fast.

“Not back to my old parents!” I scrabble. “I mean, go back to the way things were. Quiet. Peaceful.”

She relaxes but still looks on the verge of breaking. “It’s going to take time.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

She smiles and traces my shoulder. The touch is feather light, laced with a hesitance I can’t place. Disbelief that I’m here. Gratitude. The intensity of the emotions in her every look and touch hasn’t diminished at all from the first day I got here. Thirteen years of love is pouring out of her every day, and I soak it up. I’d never been hugged so fiercely, with so much burning protectiveness. Her hug lasts years—thin arms quivering, as if she thinks the moment she lets go, I’ll vanish into smoke and broken lies.

Sal was my mother and father wrapped into one. He’s hugged me once or twice. More when I was younger. I had foster home mothers before Sal adopted me, but I don’t remember any of them.

Mrs. Silverman is my first real mother. But I haven’t called her “Mom.” Not yet. If the real Erica were in my shoes, she’d be hesitant to call Mrs. Silverman Mom—at least for the first month or so. But that month’s running dry. I’ve played the mentality of a kidnapped girl straight and true, and now it’s time for the next step.

“I’ll see what I can do.” She finally lets go and makes her way to the door. “A few daytime shows want to interview us. One visit will silence them all, hopefully. In the meantime come downstairs. Marie made croissants.”

“Okay.” I inhale hugely. “Deep breaths.”

“That’s right.” She breathes with me, smiling now. “Deep breaths. We will get through this. Together.”

The hall echoes with her footsteps. When I come down, she’s not in the kitchen. Marie, Mrs. Silverman’s hired help, flits around the marble countertops. She asks questions without looking at me.

“How was class?”

“Boring.” I settle on a barstool.

Her laugh is the sort people make to tactfully cover something up. She’d heard my fit. She’s older than Mrs. Silverman by at least twenty years; her weathered skin tells the story of a long journey through hardship. Other than the occasional fast-food deliveryman, Marie was the only one allowed in on our month of recuperation.

Marie hands me a croissant, still warm. “Did you go to high school when you were with your other parents?”

“I was homeschooled. I guess they didn’t want anyone to find out I wasn’t their kid. They’d have to give birth certificates and stuff. Things they didn’t have.”

“Did you ever—” Marie cuts off. “Never mind. It is not my place to ask.”

“Did I ever suspect them of not being my real parents?” She’s easy to read. “No. I didn’t look anything like either of them. I thought that was weird, but they said I looked like some aunt I never met. They didn’t have any newborn pictures of me when I asked for them. Small things like that. Things that didn’t make much sense until now.”

Marie’s tactfully quiet. I clench my fists on the countertop.

“I’m never going to forgive them.”

“Neither would I,” she agrees, and slices through a tomato with renewed vigor.

“Are you ready to go, Erica?” Mrs. Silverman’s voice comes from the hall. “The hospital closes soon.”

“Yeah, coming.” I wolf the croissant down, shake off the anger. “Thanks, Marie. You’re a really good cook.”

Mrs. Silverman hesitates in the doorway. Her eyes glaze as she stares into the distance. Reporters gather at the front gate, the security and wrought-iron fence holding them back. I grab her hand, reassure her.

“Together.” I nod.

“Together.” She smiles, glaze lifting and leaving a clear sapphire blue.

Erica’s kidnapping broke Mr. Silverman like a toy soldier.

I put myself in his shoes; she was his angel. She was the reason he worked so hard, hurried home after dusk, and bought so many dolls. She was the reason his steps were light and his mind worked like it did—quickly and cleanly. When she was gone—when she’d been taken—his razor-sharp intelligence turned on him, the way a shark attacks its prey, shredding his sanity. And then he was gone, too. Only his body remained, macerated by hopelessness. Mrs. Silverman put him in Whiteriver Rehabilitation Center, where he’s been for four years now. We’ve visited him every Wednesday of the last month. He hasn’t spoken a single word to me or Mrs. Silverman. It’s like he doesn’t even know who we are, or that he’s still in the world of the living. All he wants to do is play checkers. He’s held together by the shallow will to keep moving forward as a Darwinian life form. Breathe, blink, breathe, sigh. He’s here, but not really here. This linoleum table in the visitor lobby is where his body is, and only his body.

“Dad.” I lower my voice. “It’s me.”

He’s balding. He was once a very handsome man, but age and emotional storms weathered him thin and malnourished-looking. Stubble tints his face a sickly gray. Dark eyes dull with a milk of apathy. He glances up, looks me over, and looks down at the checkers again. Moves a black piece. I capture it with a red piece of my own.

Mrs. Silverman watches us from afar, wrapped in a vintage fox-fur coat as she taps on a vending machine for a coffee. She looks out of place, nervous. She wants to see Mr. Silverman frown, grin, something. Anything. I’m supposed to be the charm that brings him back. Even I can tell he’s too far gone. The nurse pity-smiled when I said he’d remember me. Anything he says is inadmissible. The police will never believe a man who’s been in a crazy house for years. Maybe I can give him some comfort. Some truth. If he says something about me, no one will believe him.

I lean across the table and put my hand over his, my whisper low.

“Your daughter wasn’t in pain long, Mr. Silverman.”

Gerald used a knife to cut her wrists. Clinical, quick, silent. She died of blood loss, probably just felt herself getting colder and sleepier. The violation happened long after she was dead. Her soul wasn’t around to feel it.

A nurse passes, dropping a cup of water and pills for Mr. Silverman.

“Just to help keep him level,” she assures me. Mr. Silverman downs the pills mechanically, a reflex. His eyes rivet to the checkers game. It’s the only thing he seems to care about. I envy him. This game of strategy is so much simpler than the one I’m in the midst of—the one I’m living. The one in which I’m the star piece. Everything rests with me.

For once, it would nice to be a pawn instead of a queen.

Mr. Silverman smiles sweetly and moves a checker to my king line. Eyes surrounded by fine lines look up at me, his voice singsongs.

“I win.”

“Did he say anything?” Mrs. Silverman presses. I shake my head and dredge a nice lie from my mental bank.

“He said something about a ballet class?”

Hope gleams in her eyes. “Yes, you took ballet when you were younger. Maybe he’s coming to. We should keep visiting him. Work him out of his shell.”

I don’t have the heart to tell her the truth or disagree. She’s still in love with him. A mother and father who love each other. I wonder if Erica knew just how lucky she was.

When we get home, I realize Marie picked out new bedcovers for me—blue with white flowers, smelling of fancy department stores. I hug her and she laughs something in Spanish. I flop onto the bed and spread my arms, feeling the high-quality softness, so different from the thin motel blankets I’d slept in most of my life. Dinner is short ribs practically falling off the bone. Dessert is sorbet. I’m in heaven. These meals are a million times better than Sal’s burnt monstrosities or convenience store takeout. Mrs. Silverman pushes a glass of wine toward me, her eyes twinkling.

“Try it. Sip slowly. It’s a very good wine from a very good vineyard.”

Sal’s let me have sips of his favorite whiskey. This is milder, more fruity. It doesn’t burn as much as whiskey. I still cough. Mrs. Silverman laughs and takes a sip.

“Now that you’re officially in high school, let’s lay some ground rules.”

“Rules,” I echo.

“Alcohol, for instance.” She spins the wine glass by its stem. “A few sips here and there won’t do you any harm. But you’re young, and groups of young people like to drink. You’ll make friends soon, I’m sure. The Erica I know is loved everywhere she goes.”

I want to grimace, but Erica forces a flattered face instead.

“Believe me when I say there is plenty of time for drinking in your life. You don’t have to do it all at once. That’s not healthy. I don’t mind the occasional drink—as long as you’re at home with your friends, and I have the keys to everyone’s cars. Is that clear?”

I’d seen glimpses of her stern side before, when she’d demanded to know the details of my life with my kidnappers. If it concerns my safety or my past, she becomes an iron-spined demon of willpower. I nod meekly.

“Crystal clear.”

“If you ever find yourself in a position where everyone is drunk, where you are uncomfortable or feel scared about getting in the car, call me. I’ll pick you up no matter what, and I won’t ask questions.”

“No questions asked?” I tilt my head.

“None at all. I might need answers after incident two, though.”

I nod. It sounds fair enough. Sal never gave me any restrictions, really, except that I had to be home in time to pull a con or catch the bus/train/plane with him to our next port of shelter. Partying was redundant when you pulled cons in nightclubs on a daily basis. Loose pockets on the dance floor, easily blackmailed Johns with overeager libidos and the stupidity to hit on an underage girl like me. Sorority girls looking for coke and scoring baking soda instead. The possibilities were endless. But going just for fun? Just to drink and not to make money? That sounds like a waste of time.

“Did those people tell you everything?” Mrs. Silverman presses. “About growing older, and, ah, interactions with the opposite sex?”

“I got that talk. Pretty sure I know how it works.”

“You should know there’s always a condom involved. Always. I’ll have no STDs or pregnancies from you. I want you to have the best life you can now that you’re home.”

Violet rolls her eyes. Erica blushes. “I’ll be safe. Common sense, right?”

“If you want to get birth control, we’ll schedule a doctor’s appointment. Just tell me. Be open with me.”

This is what parents do. It feels weird. Moving around with Sal left me little time for solid friends, let alone boys or love. It was never an option when every day was spent plotting a con for tomorrow or running from yesterday’s. I’d pretended to be in love before, when it was part of a con. The emptiness bleeds through in my words.

“I doubt anybody will like me enough to do that sort of thing with me.”

Mrs. Silverman’s brow wrinkles. “Of course someone will like you, and you’ll like them. It’s just a matter of time. I want you to be properly prepared when it does arrive.”

It won’t arrive. I smile like it might. People like it when you’re stupidly optimistic. Makes them want to protect you.

“Thanks for dinner. And everything.”

“What have we said about thanking me?” She looks at me sternly.

I sigh. “Don’t do it, because families help each other without expecting gratitude.”

Her smile comes back. “It’s just what mothers do.”

That final sentence echoes in my head as I brush my teeth and then scrub my hair with the fancy shampoo and my body with the loofah that probably cost more than all the secondhand clothes I used to own. I don’t know what mothers do. My real mother, the one who’d birthed me, left me on the steps of a church. She was probably too young to have a kid. The priesthood turned me over to foster care, and Sal picked me up when I was five. I don’t know what mother really means. Sal loves me, I guess, but not so deeply, so desperately. I’ve seen movies and stuff, but that sense of longing hasn’t hit me until now. I’ve gotten a taste.

My bed is cold. The dolls leer down at me from the shelves.

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Pretending to Be Erica 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
MissPrint More than 1 year ago
Erica Silverman was kidnapped when she was five years old and she hasn't been seen since. Two other girls came to Las Vegas to pretend to be Erica and try to steal her life. They were both caught. But they didn't have Violet's father Sal backing them. Sal knows that Erica is gone and he has something none of the previous con artists did: Erica's DNA. He also has been training Violet to con the Silvermans since she was five years old. Violet shares Erica's blood type and has undergone plastic surgery to make sure her face matches the age projections of Erica. She isn't going to make the same mistake the other Ericas made. Violet isn't there to stay; she doesn't need to become Erica forever. All Violet has to do is keep up the charade long enough to steal the coveted Silverman Painting. It should be easy. Except the longer she spends as Erica, the more Violet wants the stability and comforts of Erica's life for herself. Violet knows why she is living with the Silvermans, she knows exactly how to sell the lie, she knows the endgame. The only thing Violet doesn't know is what to do when she wants to believe the con herself in Pretending to Be Erica (2015) by Michelle Painchaud. Pretending to Be Erica is Painchaud's debut novel. Violet narrates her time impersonating Erica in the first person while flashbacks to her childhood as Violet are related in third person. While the writing is sleek and sharp, this novel really shines with its protagonist. Violet has no idea what a real family or a true friend looks like before she arrives at the Silverman home. Affection and basic comforts are alien concepts to her and even the friends she begins to make when Erica returns to high school feel strange and dangerous. Against the backdrop of her con, Violet begins to understand that she's allowed to want more than a precarious life built on lies and tricks. Pretending to Be Erica has all the earmarks of a traditional thriller or heist mystery. Tension is high as the stakes increase and Violet's carefully drawn lines between her real life as Violet and her fake life as Erica begin to blur. Suspense and the numerous moving parts of the con come together for a high action conclusion. Pretending to Be Erica is the perfect choice for readers who like their heroines to be as intense and unexpected as their mysteries. A fast-paced yet introspective story about a con, a heist, and a girl doing the best she can to save herself when it start to feel like she could lose everything. Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Don't You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, Thieving Weasels by Billy Taylor, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Michelle Painchaud is a brilliant writer and I couldn't stop reading this book.