The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

by Felicity McLean


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A Recommended Summer Read from Entertainment Weekly * Bustle * Nylon * Cosmopolitan

"How do you escape your childhood, emotionally, actually?  This compelling mystery has a rare depth of psychological and emotional truth. It will engage your heart.” —Delia Ephron, New York Times bestselling author of Siracusa
 Tikka Malloy was eleven and one-sixth years old during the long, hot, Australian summer of 1992. The TV news in the background chattered with debate about the exoneration of Lindy (“dingo took my baby”) Chamberlain. That summer was when the Van Apfel sisters--Ruth, Hannah, and the beautiful Cordelia--mysteriously disappeared. Did they just run far away from their harsh, evangelical parents, or were they taken? While the search for the girls united the small community, the mystery of their disappearance was never solved, and Tikka and her older sister, Laura, have been haunted ever since by the loss of their friends and playmates.

Now, years later, Tikka has returned home to try to make sense of that strange moment in time.

Part mystery, part darkly comic coming-of-age story, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is a page-turning read--with a dark, shimmering absence at its heart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616209643
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 06/25/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 63,686
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Felicity McLean is an author and journalist. Her writing has appeared in major newspapers and magazines, and she has ghostwritten six books. She lives in Australia. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


Dusk. That limbo land. And the world blurred by Baltimore rain. The windows of the cab were smudged with grime and muck mixed with the misting rain so that each time the wipers flicked over the glass they made a greasy arc like a smeary sunrise. The driver smelled of smoke and spearmint Tic Tacs, and when I'd got in his cab he'd asked me if I was feeling better.

'Better than what?'

'Than before?'

We were both confused now.

He must have mistaken me for someone else – the sort of someone who could be cured.

'But the hospital,' he said and pointed past the gilt crucifix that hung from his rear-vision mirror, towards the tower of dazzling azure glass that stood by the curb in the rain. 'You came from the hospital.'

'Working,' I explained. 'I work in a lab. At the hospital.'

I held up a pile of papers now damp and softening in my hands. But the driver was looking past me. He was staring at the tower, which was lit up so that a light burned in practically every window and the whole thing – the shiny blue tower, the grid of illuminated windows – looked like a gas flame, despite all the rain.

The trip downtown was slow and wet, and the air in the cab was humid. We crawled along the expressway behind a yellow school bus, its tyres sending up spray. Inside, the bus was devoid of life apart from a driver I couldn't quite see. Our cab turned left onto the avenue and into more traffic. Three lanes inching along. Outside Burger King a fight was breaking out, but you could tell, even from this distance, that their hearts weren't in it.

Past Subway. Past the pawnbroker (We buy Gold! 411-733CASH!). Past the abandoned mini-mart. Past the Union Temple Baptist Church with its arches and its turrets and its torn-in-two sign, ripped clean between the 'l' and the 'c'. Once upon a time that sign must have encouraged sinners to feel 'Welcome'; now it simply commanded they 'come'. Past red-brick behemoths and abandoned car yards. Wrecks turning to rust in the rain. Past row houses in candy colours and past the Candy Bazaar, which stood white as a mausoleum.

And that's where I saw her.

There. There. Bag swinging. Coat billowing. Long hair loose like a kite. The past sashayed down North Avenue (west) caught up in the peak-hour push for the station. (The 'metro' they call it here. Only tourists and Australians go all the way to Maryland and ask directions to Penn-North subway.) Yes, there. She was caught up in the crush surging to Penn-North station, but also not caught up at all. Because she walked just the same after all these long years. As though hovering slightly above the earth.

'Pull over!'

The driver looked at me, startled.

'Here? You want me to – '

'Please! Pull over!'

It was the first time we'd spoken since we hit North Avenue and he said nothing more as he yanked the steering wheel towards the curb. The crucifix swung wildly from its mirror and threatened to take out someone's eye.

'It's a wet walk,' he warned, though the drizzle had stopped. Had vanished with the last of the grey day. I paid and then slipped out of the cab, scanning the pavement for her.

Only, in the time it had taken us to pull over, I'd lost sight of her in the crowd. I tried not to panic, tried to keep my breathing calm. On my left traffic roared, on my right – industrial blocks. I fell into step with two men in cheap suits fast-walking in the direction of the station and complaining about someone who worked in their office.

'She's a fake.'

'You're right,' his friend agreed. 'Total fake. She acts like she wouldn't but when it comes down to it? She's no better than all the rest.'

I could see the station up ahead. Its blue metro signs were the same shade as the hospital: regulation Baltimore blue. We crossed a side street together, the cheap suits and I.

And just like that I saw her again, maybe ten people ahead. She cut along the path beside North and Woodbrook Park, scaring the crows. Sending them up in a black fume above the trees. My heart lurched.

'Cordie!' I called. 'Cordie! It's me!'

She didn't hear me. Couldn't have heard because she never looked back.

'Cordie!' I yelled again. 'Cordelia!'

She crossed the road ahead of me and walked quickly across the small paved square before she disappeared inside the blue-lipped mouth of the station. I broke into a run, crossing the street and then the square, before following her into the metro.

Inside I glimpsed her briefly, then she was swallowed up. Swept out and over the abyss of the escalator.

'Cordie! Cordelia!'

I pushed past crowds of people.


'Freakin' shut up,' someone muttered.

Down on the platform: wet floor, wet wall tiles. Vast overhead beams dripped. Commuters stood shoulder to shoulder while the departures board counted down. I had two minutes, now one, left to find her.

'Sorry, sorry,' I shuffled along the platform on the wrong side of the fierce yellow line. 'Sorry. Excuse me, I just need to –'

And then there she was. Leaning against a pillar at the far end of the platform. Coat no longer billowing. Hair rain-darkened and shrouding her face. She held her bag under her arm.

'Cordie!' I shouted, and I reached out to touch her. In that same instant the train rushed into the station. A hot wind blasted my back, propelling me forward. I flung myself at her and she turned to me in surprise.

'Sorry,' I stammered. 'Wrong person. Oh God, sorry.'

She waved dismissively – no big deal – then she picked up her umbrella, closed it, edged around me and walked to the train doors as they hissed opened.

She disappeared inside the carriage without looking back.

'I thought you were someone I haven't seen –' I called after her, but my words fell short and they landed in the crevice between the train and the platform.

'Someone I haven't seen for a while,' I finished.

Actually, it was twenty years ago that week.

* * *

I'd seen so many Cordies over the years that it became a nervous tic. Seeing the back of her head. Spotting her in a crowd. I saw her in the line at the supermarket checkout, buying petrol, at the dentist. She surfaced in the lane next to me at the pool, her stroke inefficient but beautiful to watch.

I was unnerved at first. As a kid, I was spooked. But as I got older I found it comforting. It calmed me somehow, and I felt disappointed if too much time elapsed between sightings. On my way to exams and job interviews, blind dates arranged by friends, I'd settle my nerves by trying to find Cordie.

And it was Cordie, always Cordie. Never Hannah or Ruth. Cordie was the one that came back. Who appeared and then evaporated before my eyes. Often it would be nothing more than a flash of eyes set ever so slightly too far apart. A wisp of stringy blonde hair. But that would be enough for my brain to make the leap, and I'd reach out and ask and she'd turn and face me, puzzled. Do I know you? Can I help you? Have we met?

And when she turned around, the illusion would shatter in an instant. Sorry, wrong person, I'd mutter. And she'd smile and shrug and melt back into the day, and I'd be left standing on the street, wondering where she learned such a trick.

* * *

I lived in a rundown row house in Baltimore. Red brick, white window frames. It leaned on its neighbours like crutches. It had rained so hard and so often during the time I had lived there that some days I expected to come home from work and find the whole row had spilled into the gutters and sluiced down the hill into Chesapeake Bay.

Not that I would have been home to see it happen. I was at the lab every weekday between eight-thirty and six and on more weekends than I liked to admit. There I watched the world through the glass eye of my microscope, pinning things under my focus. I worked as an assistant lab technician at a medical research centre, coaxing cells into existence and then towards survival. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium lactis, Streptococcus thermophilus. I grew them in tubes of sterile milk, baptised them in water baths, and once they'd turned into curd I streaked them out onto agar plates to check for purity.

On a good day I could get through around a hundred and twenty plates. Standing with one hip hard against the lab bench, one foot forward, the other behind, streaking out cells. Standing and ignoring the dull ache in my Achilles, the twinges of fire at the backs of my knees. Standing because – despite what Detective Senior Constable Mundy instructed all those years ago – I never got the hang of sitting. ('Sit tight,' he told us after the disappearance of the girls. 'Sit tight and we'll find your friends.' Sit tight he'd said, and we'd more or less done as asked. Had done nothing else for twenty years.)

It took forty-eight hours to incubate each plate in the lab. From there they were suspended in sterile milk and transferred to tiny cryotubes that were stacked, packed and frozen – thousands of tiny vials like bricks in a wall – and shipped off to bigger labs elsewhere on campus. They went to other parts of the research centre where people investigated the effect of various strains on chronic medical disorders. Where those same people wrote papers, presented symposiums. Slept with their PhD students. Where they came up with answers to critical questions. While all I ever learned was how to get good at waiting. Streaking out life onto tiny agar plates while my own slipped quietly away.

But those were the good days. On a bad day – and there were a few – I'd be distracted. My mind would wander. On those days, dropped curd would puddle on the floor, flecked with shards of smashed glass.

Each December the bad days outnumbered the good. The anniversary of the disappearance always left me unsettled. There were days in December when it seemed like more cells got slopped on the floor than ever made it safely into cryotubes.

Sometimes I could go for days, even weeks without thinking about the Van Apfel girls – though even that made me anxious at first. As if I was scared of letting myself off the hook. But I soon learned that I didn't need to worry. The sorrow, the shame – I could conjure them in an instant, as sure and as real as growing bacteria in a lab. Escherichia coli and a lifetime of remorse. I could streak them out onto agar plates to prove their purity. I could pile them high in their tiny vials.

Things had got worse six months ago, at the start of the Maryland summer. Tuesday 12 June 2012 – I have the clipping stuck to my fridge. That was when the Chamberlain case was in the news again, this time because the coroner had ruled the death certificate be changed to acknowledge what everyone knew: that a dingo had snatched and killed nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain more than thirty years ago. And as the coroner pointed out, that meant it was more than thirty years, too, since the baby's mother, Lindy Chamberlain, had been wrongly convicted of murder. Since she had been sentenced to life in prison and had served three years in a Northern Territory jail cell, before the baby's jacket was discovered outside a dingo lair. That was when Lindy Chamberlain had finally had her conviction overturned.

The most notorious court case in Australian history, they reckoned. The Chamberlain case was the background to my entire childhood. Outside, we had smiling Safety House signs screwed to each letterbox in the street. Every house safe. Every house a refuge. While inside, the court case of a mother alleged to have murdered her child played out each night, in prime time, in the lounge room.

And even though Azaria Chamberlain disappeared twelve years before the Van Apfel girls did, and almost three thousand kilometres away, even though the Chamberlain case was resolved, while what happened to Hannah, Cordie and Ruth is still a mystery, the two things are tied so tightly together in my mind that I can't think about one without fixating on the other.

And so, ever since I'd walked past an electronics store six months ago and seen a wall of Lindy Chamberlains looking back at me (still wearing those dark glasses, still wearing her hair short, though it was lighter and spikier now), ever since then I'd had that old familiar feeling of dread.

It never stayed buried for long.


It was dark when I flew into Sydney. Starless and flawless and dark. I almost missed the overpass driving to Mum and Dad's from the airport. That bridge hadn't existed when I'd left for Baltimore; somehow, while I was gone, it had surfaced, sleek and confident and geometrically satisfying, from the sludge of the valley floor. It hung forty metres in the air, connecting our ridge to the rest of the world with a wide inverted grin.

As I checked in the rear-view mirror of the hire car, as I fumbled, one hand on the wheel, the other feeling around for the indicator, the bridge curved on behind me into the distance like the tail of some terrible thing.

We used to joke about tails. And teeth and claws and eyes. Hot breath on the back of your neck. We used to try to scare one another with stories about wild things that lived in the valley. A panther. A python. A river bunyip that pulls people under and disembowels them as easy as peeling prawns. (As if the things we dreamed up in our thin backyard tents could be worse than what lurked down there.)

People saw things too. Every few years the local newspaper would report a big-cat sighting and publish a photo of a polypheme paw print in the dirt with a cigarette lighter next to it for scale. Or there'd be a bull shark scare at the river. Once half a mutilated dog washed up in the mangroves, and the newspaper claimed a shark was responsible. At the time I thought it should have been easy to prove because, whatever it was, it had swallowed the microchipped half of the dog. But Dad had explained: no, microchipping didn't mean we could track the thing down. Just that if we had the chip, we could learn the name and address of the dog.

Another time the paper ran a series of night-vision photos proving the existence of a panther. Darks smears with pellucid eyes peered out from the front page, but by the time the newspaper had been printed, folded and flopped out of a car window by the Tooleys, who did the paper deliveries each Tuesday after lunch, it was impossible to tell what was a big cat and what was sandwich-grease stain.

When I arrived the house was lit up like a hotel minibar. It looked smaller, flimsier than I remembered. In the driveway the huge angophora overhanging the garage shook its leaves at me. Scent of eucalyptus like a punch in the gut.

'You're here!' Mum threw her arms around me on the doorstep. 'She's here, Graham! She's here – Tikka's home!' She slipped the bag off my shoulder and took another out of my hand, and then she hustled me down the hallway with her hip and into the yellow kitchen.

'How was your flight?' Mum wanted to know. 'Have you eaten anything? Sit down and I'll make you a cup of tea. Dad will get your things out of the car. What, just these bags? Is that all? How long are you staying for?

'We've been at the Heddinglys' all afternoon,' she told me. 'Did you hear Jade Heddingly is getting married? And the Van Apfel house has been sold again. Mrs McCausley can tell you the price.'

She rattled through the list of the things she would have been willing herself not to mention. How long was I staying? Another wedding. The Van Apfels. On the kitchen table an ancient Women's Weekly cookbook lay dog-eared in anticipation.

Dad wandered in then and wrapped me up in a hug.

'Good to see you, Tik.' He ruffled my hair.

The kettle complained on the bench.

'Flight okay?' Dad settled himself at the kitchen table, arms crossed, glasses gently cockeyed. 'I was following it using Flight Tracker.'

Flight Tracker was Dad's favourite app these days.

'You took off a bit late,' he told me, as if I hadn't been on board, 'but you made up the time over the Pacific.'

'That's when they asked us to lean on the seat in front. To go faster,' I explained.

'Cheeky bugger.'

'It's a fuel-economy policy.'

'That why your flight was so cheap?' he said drolly.

Because it might have been my idea to come home to see Laura, but Mum and Dad had to subsidise my flight.

'Something like that,' I said sheepishly.

Mum carried three mugs of tea over to the table and placed them on cork coasters. After they'd retired, Mum and Dad had bought a lightweight caravan, and each coaster on the table had been collected from a different tourist attraction around the state. The Big Banana! The Big Bull! The Big Merino! those coasters shouted.

'Big tour for a little caravan,' I noted.

'Drink that.' Mum ignored me and nodded towards the hot tea she'd placed in front of me. The mug was heavy and unfashionable. The tea was just how I like it.

'I'll make you some toast, Tik,' she said. 'You look like you haven't eaten in months.'


Excerpted from "The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Felicity McLean.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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