She said hold onto your toothbrush and don't let go. Pointing it at her head she said shoot to kill.
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She said head or heart. She said if you miss, you'll shoot something else. These are my practice places, my kickbacks. They don't notice anything. They have other guns, other kids from other lives.
They have books on tape and barbecue sauce. Mom's boyfriend Luke makes soundtracks for commercials. Like that commercial for auto insurance where the whole family dies except the sister, left behind in the rest stop, still combing her hair. Straddling the train tracks where kids go to smoke I name all the names and the mean girls go down. One by one, blood on the tracks. My make-believe movie; in real life, they just laugh.
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We don't have metal detectors at school. We have signs that say No Drugs No Guns. We have signs that say Dirty Hands Spread Disease. We spend hours on dead names and hours on kickball. We kick and we kick but our teachers can't text, can't navigate the internet. They want to be our friends on Facebook. They want us to teach them what it means to live now. After school, I walk to Mom's. The walls of the yellow house howl around me. When I close my eyes, I'm surrounded by puppies.
I feel their warm fur, smell the meat on their breath. Sometimes Sadie and I watch shows while Dad's working late, or whatever he calls it. Dad doesn't deserve her, but maybe I do.
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We binge watch the bloodiest shows on TV. Sometimes Dad stays out all night. Sadie and I sleep head to toe on the sofa. We name all the cats, working backwards from Z. We sleep soundly in Kevlar, guns safe in our holes. Because the house has fifty-five rooms, thirty-eight beds, and twelve bathrooms, seven televisions are far too few. She knows she will never get out when the mansion's owner tells her to tie a string to her wrist so she can find her way back to the living room.
Night and day, she walks, attached to a giant ball of string, unspooling. The mansion's owner tells her to talk to the architect's grandson, also an architect, like his father before him. Later, she realizes the entire mansion is this way, its designers having found ways to create beauty out of accidents, terrible in other contexts, away from the mansion. Wealth, she realizes, transforms everything. That's when the owner tells her something she didn't want to know, something she will never forget.
To see the first girls, the girls of — I have a girl for every year. You're the girl of The architect leads her into the gallery. Near the front, most girls are her age, but as she goes farther into the long gallery, the girls get older and older and older until she begins to realize not all of them are alive.
The girls in glass cases are exquisitely preserved, but the owner is careful not to call these cases coffins. She understands without words that this is a dollhouse, and that if she calls it a cemetery, the owner will ball his soft hands into fists and tighten thin lips. So many people are dying so much of the time. There isn't enough fire to burn all those bodies, so the dead wait in hotels, and the living wait, too. The girl steps out of the string, which rings her ankles. When she wobbles the owner takes her elbow to steady her.
His smile flickers. It's very dangerous outside the mansion.
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Girls go unprotected, wolves and knives and rubble. Even the snow is sharp in the outliers. Everything you need, everything you could ever want is right here, waiting. The girl knows waiting, just as she knows the owner is also the architect, and his father before him, and his father's father. The long line of architect-owners with their gallery of girls, mansions lined with ornate frames, pastel women holding little dogs, girls in short skirts and soft shoes, pale hair and blue eyes, seasides and high tides, prairies and poppies, forests filled with stags and foxes, doors walled off with velvet ropes.
She follows him. They walk forever. Photos of girls turn to sketches to glass boxes filled with torn fabric and locks of hair.
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She read a novel once where the heroine said "Oh my" on every page. Her mind is also tangled in string, and tightening. He walks ahead of her, so fast she runs to catch up. Running feels uncomfortable because her loose skirt has turned tight, leather or something like it, cinched at the waist and the knee.
She can barely breathe.
Walking turns to hobbling and then she's crawling down the longest hall in the world. She's sorry she said yes to the ride when he pulled up beside her outside Discount Grocery Express, where her car had broken down in the parking lot and both paper bags split, cans of soup rolling down the asphalt slope. It seemed simple; besides, saying no was a thing she wasn't good at, was a word she never used, so yes, of course, and now gritty cherry-scented soap in the bathroom from the cracked dispenser, dirty tile on the floor where she crawls to the toilet and throws up in the bowl.
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She knows what glints at the end of the hall. Don't you want to help other girls? She wants to help other girls, really she does. She was always a helper, wanted to be a nurse or a pre-school teacher. The girl gets up and wipes vomit off her chin.
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Washes her hands in the rusty sink. She figures this rest stop is halfway across the country from Discount Grocery Express. They've been in his car for at least three days, hours ticking by on the dashboard clock. Above the sink is a mirror which covers a wall. She sees her fist as she punches glass, blood on her knuckles, as she faces the wall behind the mirror and knows she'll do anything to get through to the other side. He's at the ATM, so there's a security camera. Corporate Responsibility Coughlan Companies. Submissions Contact Us.
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