The Girls - Emma Cline Page 0,1

to be suffered through. I wouldn’t try to run.

I only got out of bed after I heard the girl. Her voice was high and innocuous. Though it shouldn’t have been comforting—Suzanne and the others had been girls, and that hadn’t helped anybody.

I was staying in a borrowed house. The dark maritime cypress packed tight outside the window, the twitch of salt air. I ate in the blunt way I had as a child—a glut of spaghetti, mossed with cheese. The nothing jump of soda in my throat. I watered Dan’s plants once a week, ferrying each one to the bathtub, running the pot under the faucet until the soil burbled with wet. More than once I’d showered with a litter of dead leaves in the tub.

The inheritance that had been the leftovers of my grandmother’s movies—hours of her smiling her hawkish smile on film, her tidy cap of curls—I’d spent ten years ago. I tended to the in-between spaces of other people’s existences, working as a live-in aide. Cultivating a genteel invisibility in sexless clothes, my face blurred with the pleasant, ambiguous expression of a lawn ornament. The pleasant part was important, the magic trick of invisibility only possible when it seemed to fulfill the correct order of things. As if it were something I wanted, too. My charges were varied. A kid with special needs, frightened of electrical outlets and traffic lights. An elderly woman who watched talk shows while I counted out a saucerful of pills, the pale pink capsules like subtle candy.

When my last job ended and another didn’t appear, Dan offered his vacation house—the concerned gesture of an old friend—like I was doing him a favor. The skylight filled the rooms with the hazy murk of an aquarium, the woodwork bloating and swelling in the damp. As if the house were breathing.

The beach wasn’t popular. Too cold, no oysters. The single road through town was lined with trailers, built up into sprawling lots—pinwheels snapping in the wind, porches cluttered with bleached buoys and life preservers, the ornaments of humble people. Sometimes I smoked a little of the furry and pungent marijuana from my old landlord, then walked to the store in town. A task I could complete, as defined as washing a dish. It was either dirty or clean, and I welcomed those binaries, the way they shored up a day.

I rarely saw anyone outside. The only teenagers in town seemed to kill themselves in gruesomely rural ways—I heard about their pickups crashing at two in the morning, the sleepover in the garage camper ending with carbon monoxide poisoning, a dead quarterback. I didn’t know if this was a problem born of country living, the excess of time and boredom and recreational vehicles, or whether it was a California thing, a grain in the light urging risk and stupid cinematic stunts.

I hadn’t been in the ocean at all. A waitress at the café told me this was a breeding ground for great whites.

They looked up from the bright wash of the kitchen lights like raccoons caught in the trash. The girl shrieked. The boy stood to his full, lanky height. There were only two of them. My heart was scudding hard, but they were so young—locals, I figured, breaking into vacation houses. I wasn’t going to die.

“What the fuck?” The boy put down his beer bottle, the girl clinging to his side. The boy looked twenty or so, in cargo shorts. High white socks, rosy acne beneath a scrim of beard. But the girl was just a little thing. Fifteen, sixteen, her pale legs tinged with blue.

I tried to gather whatever authority I could, clutching the hem of my T-shirt to my thighs. When I said I’d call the cops, the boy snorted.

“Go ahead.” He huddled the girl closer. “Call the cops. You know what?” He pulled out his cellphone. “Fuck it, I’ll call them.”

The pane of fear I’d been holding in my chest suddenly dissolved.

“Julian?”

I wanted to laugh—I’d last seen him when he was thirteen, skinny and unformed. Dan and Allison’s only son. Fussed over, driven to cello competitions all over the western United States. A Mandarin tutor on Thursdays, the brown bread and gummy vitamins, parental hedges against failure. That had all fizzled and he’d ended up at the CSU in Long Beach or Irvine. There’d been some trouble there, I remembered. Expulsion or maybe a milder version of that, a suggestion of a year at junior college. Julian had been a shy, irritable