I’m lying on the edge of the lake. My head is cupped by ice-crusted mud. My hands and bare feet tingle. A cop is there, hovering over me. She’s a black woman in her thirties, her eyes wet and shining from the cold wind. She wears a knit winter hat, dark blue with a police insignia. Her chapped lips are whispering, “It’s okay. We’re getting help. You’re safe now.”
More cops are coming. I hear them in the distance. Someone’s called for a stretcher. Sirens are spinning out, whining through air. Our sheep are loose too. I hear them bleating in the woods.
I’ve always known someone would come for us. I tried to hush the past so it no longer existed, so we could be new and whole.
“Can you hear me?” the cop says.
I can. But I don’t say that I can.
And I don’t say what I know she’ll want. The truth of what happened to us — and what we did. I don’t believe in the truth, but truths.
Here’s one: I was lucky.
Here are some more: A body is buried beneath the garden wickets.
A body, roped to stone, is rocking with the lake silt.
There were others before I arrived here. Their graves are in the woods. They were buried holding small tins, pearl necklaces within. They’re down in the seedless dark.
The cop is now holding my wrist, taking my pulse. “Can you speak?” she says. “Can you say something for me?”
Am I supposed to talk about how we were taken? We weren’t taken. We were chosen.
I know that weakness and silence might save me. I say the only thing that I will say for a very long time. “If you assemble the wolf, tooth by tooth,” I tell her, “don’t blame others when it eats you.”
Her face is shadowed because the sun is brightly shining down on her head. Some light bounces up from the snow and ice. She’s confused, but she says, “That’s right. I don’t blame you. Nobody’s blaming you at all.”
One summer afternoon three years ago, I’d finished up my dog-walking for the day and was on my way home. My father showed up, pulling the car over. “Get in,” he said.
“It’s okay. I’ll walk.”
“It’s important,” he said.
I got in.
He told me plainly. My mother shot herself in our spare bedroom, the one for out-of-town guests, the one that smelled like trapped Febreeze.
I didn’t ask many questions. I said, “Isn’t killing yourself hereditary? I mean, didn’t all the Hemingways do it?”
Everyone said I looked just like my mother. My father had often said that my mother and I didn’t get along because we were so much alike. But now he wanted me to forget all of that. He shook his head. “That’s a myth. It’s not true. Do you hear me? It’s absolutely not true.”
I’m in the hospital. They don’t know what’s wrong. It’s not frostbite. It’s more complex. Systemic. Neurological. They’re running tests.
The cop who first found me is here. Officer Debrezil. She tells me that I can call her by her first name, Kira. She’s taken off her coat and hat. She has short hair and a little notebook. She says, “We haven’t found him yet, but we will. I promise you that.” She’s talking about Everett Meade. “You can tell me about him, about anything that happened, when you’re ready.”
She waits as if I’m answering.
“How’d you get that scar on your lips?” she asks.
The hush scar – it runs vertically in the center of my lips, starting above and ending in the dip above my chin. All of the girls had them. It reminded us that the past was over. We had the power to tell it to hush. It’s the feminist empowerment that no one will understand.
“Some folks think you were in on it,” Kira says. “I don’t. I think you needed help. Tell me. You can trust me. Tell me about what he did to you girls out there.”
“If you assemble the wolf,” I tell her.
“Everett Meade was the wolf, right? Tell me about him.”
“Tooth by tooth,” I say but I mean: you think that because Everett is violent, he was stupid. He went to a great college. He’s read every book you can name – history, world religions, neurology, mythology, the history of feminism. He taught us what he knew.
But you’re going to want to see me as a victim because it’s easier. A girl is just a girl. Weak, simple, sweet. Girl = Girl. This is where this cop will reveal herself as a sexist. Everyone will want to see me as a victim – society insists on it – so I must be insane, brain-washed, traumatized. They’re thinking of me as a representation of something, not as a person in my own right.
And this cop, Kira, is whoever she is. I’m not telling her that she has to represent anyone or anything. I’m letting her exist – in her own infinite consciousness.
So I ask her to allow me the same courtesy. It comes out this way, “Don’t blame the wolf…”
Everett found me the way he’d found the others, expertly, through obituaries. My mother’s obituary didn’t use the word suicide. It talked about survival. … survived by her daughter, Veronica, and her husband, Adam. Given her age, he could guess mine. He knew where we lived and it was easy to track me down online. It was easy, he said, like following bloody footprints in snow.
I felt like a survivor from the start – but also like a paper target in the shape of daughter, filled with bullet holes.
Each of the girls Everett collected started out as survivors and then it was easy because we’d endured grief and brutality – the kind that people tend to lie about. I wanted to not think about my mother, to not miss her. Grief alters reality or maybe it just creates a handmade reality of its own. I lived in my own grief. And we all knew death’s greedy eye, but we lived in little neighborhoods where the backyards were burial grounds, drilled with graves of dainty hamster ribcages, parakeet beaks, hermit crab shells, occasionally a cardboard coffin is driven home from the vet in the backseat, the stiff dog within it – a father digging a grave that has to feel like his own. Even the smallest horrors were covered up. We had to ignore car wrecks (Nadine lost her dad this way) and cancer (Celeste’s mother died of it) and suicidal mothers like mine.
At home, my father talked loudly on the phone: Fine, fine, everyone’s fine. It’s strange how life goes on. Veronica is so adaptive. Kids are resilient. No, no need to worry about us.
At night, online, Everett said, To understand knives, we have to know them not by handles but by their blades.
We’re almost twins, you and me. I know what you thinking before you think it. I know what you’re feeling even when you’re numb to it.
We’ll wait for you. We’re here, ready.
All Everett had to do was tell the truth.
And then offer an escape.
My hands don’t work right. I can’t walk.
It started as tingling and difficulty with my balance but now I can’t feel my limbs.
“Is it psychological?” the cop asks.
“No,” a doctor whispers. “We’re working on an answer. Give us time.”
Everett says that shame is the greatest obstacle to what we really want.
What do I really want?
And by that I mean, I no longer want. I’ve practiced not wanting and now it’s here, within me.
Except sometimes I wonder what happened to our sheep. And we had two hogs, a cow. The calf was already dead.
Were the livestock taken in by a farmer? Were they sold? Were they eaten?
The doctors come in solo and then in little teams. A police officer is always present, lingering by the door or standing in the room, looking out the window. Sometimes they snack.
The doctors always ask the same questions even though I never respond. Have you had any vaccines recently? Have you eaten undercooked meat? Any travel outside of the US? Or Texas or Florida or the Virgin Islands? Have you had Epstein Barr or a recent flu?
I tell them, “If you assemble the wolf, tooth by tooth, don’t blame others when it eats you.”
Everett didn’t teach us that. I said it and he thought it was brilliant. And so Celeste and Nadine and I would chant it over and over until the words lost meaning. They were just beautiful sounds.
Then a doctor shows up, a doctor who knows something. She has facts, answers. She’s a middle-aged woman with a thick accent – maybe Indian or Pakistani. “It’s called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, GBS. Sometimes we can track where it came from, sometimes not. It would be wonderful if you talked to us a bit.” She smiled brightly and waited.
When I said nothing, she went on. “Your immune system is launching an attack on your nerves. Your paralysis – in your hands and feet – might be the beginning. But don’t panic.” She lifted both hands and they danced a bit in front of her. “We expect a full recovery. But in the next week or so, the paralysis might continue. It can move all the way to your heart and lungs. We will be treating you in hopes that this doesn’t happen, but even if it does – and we have to put you on life support – you will hit a peak and then you will begin to recover. Although the recovery can sometimes be long, it can also be very quick! And voila! You’re back to normal.” She realizes that there is no back-to-normal for me. She glances at the police officer, a ruddy young man. “Okay,” she says. “Anything you want to ask?”
I want nothing.
My father is here. He’s aged. I have too.
He asks the doctors questions, pummeling them as if they can answer for the years I’ve been gone. When we’re alone, he paces. He talks. He tells me what I’ve missed. He says, “I’ve got someone working on a video montage of everything that happened while you were gone.” I don’t like the word gone. “The way they do for…”
Hostages. I know what he’s referencing. We once watched a documentary together on hostages that were sent back home to the US, how they educated them on what world events before releasing them back into the wild.
I don’t care about world events. I don’t care about what I’ve missed. I missed nothing. My father is missing everything.
He looks at me and I know that he sees someone I’m not and so he’s looking into a different set of eyes. And in fairness, he’s a stranger to me. I look but see nothing at all. I’m a blind eye.
The large hospital window is dark with night. He says, “Veronica? Veronica, remember when we used to … Veronica, remember that time … Christmas, the Rehoboth Beach vacations, Ms. Harris’ class, our inside joke about Baby Seal?… Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember, Veronica?
I hear: Don’t you remember Veronica?
I do not remember Veronica.
“It eats you,” I say. “It eats you.”
Kira comes in one day and says, “We found Everett Meade. He’s dead.” She searches my face for some flicker of surprise or relief – any emotion. I’m not surprised. “His arm was nearly blown off. Tourniquet just above his elbow. But he bled out. He was in a car that had driven off the road into a field of wheat, undiscovered for a while, until some farmers found him. Any thoughts on the arm?”
I have no thoughts about an arm. Not his or mine. None.
I have thoughts though about the necklace he gave me. It was the night he cut me with the hush scar. The pearls were a gift. Nadine and Celeste already had theirs. They always wore them. He helped put the pearl necklace around my neck – his fingers brushing my neck as he worked the clasp.
The pearls had all belonged to his mother. We lived in his sprawling family house – out of the way, decrepit, with lots of land.
So, yes. Maybe I was thinking of his arm, his hands, his fingers, the clasp…
And how, after Celeste died, he had to take the necklace off. She was lying on the kitchen floor. He was breathless from all the work. He stepped over her – a boot on either side of her ribs. And I remember his big fingers doing this delicate work with the clasp. He put the necklace in a tin. The tin would go with her. But what did he do with it? The tin was too big to fit in her pockets. The tin had been used for film of some kind. Was the tin near here, resting in the silt at the bottom of the lake? While some remnant of Celeste herself – a ghostly presence, swayed above it with the tide?
It is brackish water – does salt preserve a body some?
“Everett Meade is dead and I’m going to need you to start talking,” Kira said. “You’re going to need my help. Do you hear me?”
Everett was patient about my decision to leave home. It took a few months. But finally I wrote a private message that I was ready. We made a plan. He told me to pack up all traces – bring my laptop, my phone.
Two days later, at night, he pulled the truck over and walked into the woods with me, on a dark side road. He said, “Go ahead. Bash them against a tree. The splintering will feel good.”
But first, online, he asked again and again, Have you told anyone that I exist?
No, I hadn’t. I was chosen because I wasn’t the type to break promises. We’d spoken on anonymous sites.
He looked just the way I thought he would. *
Everett and I drove for a while. He just wanted us to move around. Get to know each other. Have a journey. It got warmer and warmer. We rolled down the windows. We slept, but not together, in shitty motels. His face at the front desk, never mine.
I felt my old life being erased – the plastic bags of poop from each of the dogs I walked, the daily dread of high school — chemistry, the bustling halls, the parking lot, the art room, the gym. All of it became a joke. “Remember when I used to go to high school? Remember when I collected dog poop in bags for a job? Remember when I was Veronica?”
Within days, it was absurd that high school existed at all, that anyone would ever show up in a high school again.
My mother was already dead. I kept telling myself this simple fact. It needed repeating.
I talked. I talked more than I’d ever talked in my whole life. We lit across highways, passed through storms, under white clouds, stars.
Eventually I could smell the Gulf itself – pungent low tides. The heat steamed me open. Only then did Everett touch me, gently.
We rode over bridges, the expanse of blue stretching in either direction.
“What will it be like?” I wanted to know.
“They already love you. They helped pick you.”
“Who? Who are they?”
He listed their names – Celeste was first then Nadine.
“Am I the third then that’s been chosen?”
“No. It’s not right for everybody. Some take off. The one right before you left.”
“Where did she go?”
“Back to the mouth of the wolf to be swallowed whole. Back to the dirty world.”
“What was her name?”
“Gone. That’s what we call all the ones who leave: Gone.”
We headed north again, farther north than Delaware, past the knot of New York City, until the nights got cool and mountains loomed. It grew colder.
Eventually he pulled down a long gravel driveway that curved and dipped under arched trees. And he said, “Welcome home.”
Another doctor explains the treatment. I am being pumped full of other people’s immunities, intravenously. They’re not sure why this works except that if your own body is attacking itself, flooding the system with other people’s immunities sometimes calms your own. One set of foreign antibodies telling your own, It’s okay. They can stop fighting so hard now.
I close my eyes.
I can stop fighting so hard now.
Celeste became Gone.
Nadine became Gone.
I understood. They needed to be Gone. Or they would have left and they would have told. The hush scar was meant to empower us but also bind us together. But like all scars, it faded.
I understood that it would not last. I would become Gone or they would come for us. I knew people were looking for Celeste and Nadine and me and others… No one had put it all together yet, but they would.
When it was down to just Everett and me, he was restless to find more – he read obituaries online from all over the country, obsessively.
But I knew that I had to prepare a path, a way out.
The oldest nurse – a white woman, grandmother age – is changing my IV. She says, “This used to be a labor ward in the sixties. They gave the women a drug that didn’t ease the pain but erased it. If I have pain, I want to remember it. I want credit for it.”
I want to say, The babies never remember. It’s dark. They writhe. And then it’s light and they’re alive. Did you ever think of them? But I say, “If you assemble –”
“I know, I know,” she says. “The wolf.”
My nervous system continues to deteriorate.
I lose my ability to turn over in bed, to swallow.
There’s talk of a ventilator, intubation… It’s a shock to be going dead from the extremities inward. I always thought I would die from the inside out.
And then my voice goes. I can’t speak.
“If she decides to talk,” Kira says, “I want her to be able to talk.”
They set me up with a machine that reads my eye movements as they glide across an alphabet and simple words – yes and no — and if my eyes stop on a letter, I’m starting to spell something out.
“You know what she’s going to spell out,” the ruddy cop says.
“That’s fine with me,” Kira says. “I’ll wait until she gets bored of that.” She looks at me and I look at her. “She’s going to want to tell us about the wolf one day. When the mood strikes her.”
I look at the screen. My eyes move and pause, move and pause: I-F_Y-O-U…
The cop pulls up a chair and takes a tangerine from her pocket and starts peeling it.
And I was like…
And he was like…
And, like, I was like… That was, like, how it was…
This is how I would have once told the story.
I washed away the dirt of this world you have all cultivated. It’s sad how much we’ve actually lost. Read the letters of ordinary people a hundred years ago. We all used to be able to speak and write and think.
Maybe that’s how it came out of my mouth when I first confessed to Everett — like, like, you know — that first time, whispering it through the knothole in the closet door in the attic, my lips there, but my hands spread against the wood door between us. It was a makeshift confessional – part of the process to get clean.
Everett always caught us when we spoke like idiots. “Was it like or was it real? Did you speak or was it like speaking? You’re here now. Not like being. That was the old dream.”
He taught me to speak, to exist, and to own my power.
We read about so many feminists. Even the murderer, Lizzie Borden. She killed who she needed to – her father and stepmother. And she got away with it. Everett admired her power.
“Do you know how Lizzy Borden got away with murdering her father and stepmother?” Everett said. “No one would believe her capable of such a hideous, violent crime. She was a lady.”
After Celeste was Gone but before Nadine, I realized that, if they came for us, I looked guilty. But then I thought — the worse we make it, the more likely I’ll be seen as innocent.
I pushed Everett to be more ritualistic.
I pushed him to kill the calf.
We ate its liver. Raw.
We made this part of our practice.
My dad was good to his word. On the wall-mounted TV, he shows me a reel, very carefully piecing together the time I’ve missed, as if I’d been a hostage.
But I notice all the things I’d have never known about if I’d stayed. A meteor exploded over a Russian city. A 3D printer created a live ear in a lab. A pope resigned.
The cop is here telling me about a Rihanna song.
“Shhh,” my father says. “She needs to know this.”
“Like she would have been paying attention to all of this anyway? She was just a girl when she was taken. Just seventeen.”
My father looks at the cop and then at me. And then at the screen. “I could lose her,” he says to the cop. “All over again. Don’t tell me what to do.” But the world always tells my father what to do and how to be.
Flustered by his anger, he walks out.
Campylobactor. It’s a Gram-negative bacteria. This is the kind of infection I have. “She’s consumed something undercooked or contaminated water, raw milk? Or she’s handled animal feces…”
The questions return.
I never answer.
Kira is angry now. “We found Nadine Pritchard’s body,” she says. “The dirt was fresh from some kind of croquet court you all set up.”
It was just me and Everett by then, yes, Celeste was already Gone. I remember the feeling of wedging the metal wickets into the fresh dirt.
“The autopsy,” Kira says. “It shows a surgical procedure, gone wrong.”
I let my eyes roam the letters, but I never let them stop. My eyes swim and swim.
“Was she sick? Were you trying to save her?” Kira is done. “Things got dark in that house. I know they did. But you better fucking tell me how dark. You’re the only one left.”
I am the only one left by design.
“I’m not blaming you.” She tries to get in my head. “I’m blaming the wolf. He’s dead. He can’t hurt you now. He can’t hurt you. Not anymore.”
My eyes are roving. I don’t let them hitch on any letter. Keep moving. Don’t stop.
“I know you’re sick. But you’re already improving. You’re going to come back strong. Look, you were in really bad circumstances. It’s how you got sick. Did he make you eat something you shouldn’t? Something gone bad … something raw…”
Kira stops. Her mouth opens like she’s about to speak, but she doesn’t. She arches her back and turns away from me. Both hands on her hips, she stares at the ground. Then she spins again and faces me. “Jesus.”
There are conversations. Cops, the doctors, a nurse – in the hallway, sometimes in my room when they think I’m sleeping.
There were the remains of the calf, right, but now we also have the fresh remains of a body. With no liver.
If she ingested something raw … that could cause this disease, right? You said that.
No, no, no. Raw animal meat, I’ll grant you that. Calf’s liver, undercooked? Yes. But a human?
What’s the difference?
Look at that girl. She’s brainwashed. She’s terrified.
No. She’s not terrified. This is Kira’s voice. That’s the thing about her.
We make others believe in wolves so we can prove the wolves aren’t inside of us. They’re out there. But I am my own creation. I know the wolf, tooth by tooth, because the teeth are my own. I was to be devoured or to devour. I was devoured and I devoured.
We were out in the woods when I pulled the trigger. Both barefoot and breathless. Did it feel good to blow off Everett’s hand, the one that so delicately worked the necklace clasps? It did. Did I think of my mother shooting herself in the guest bedroom – the splintering of all that bone and tissue? I did.
And somehow the wounds locked together and folded in, collapsing on each other.
I made the tourniquet on Everett’s upper arm, my hands already feeling unsteady, my nerve-endings dimming. I tightened it and helped him to the car and told him to drive. I headed back to the house, along the edge of the lake.
I look at these strange people – doctors, nurses, cops, my father floating in and out, lost and sick — and they see what they want to see – the wolf or the girl. They want one or the other. They want things to be simple. They never will be.