Sometimes, sheet lightning over the orange groves, the sky slate blue and heavy with electricity. Sometimes there's a light rain trickling down through the leaves. One night my sister Gracie wears jeans. The next night, the ropes are wound tight around her favorite pajamas, the ones with white rabbits and a satin trim patterned with lettuce heads and carrots. It's the same dream, the only dream I've had for more than sixteen years. Each time, there are minor variations.
I dream I'm twelve years old again, or else I'm my current age, the hard spine of an orange tree pressed up against the clinical coat I wear to work, the ropes cinching my wrists.
Without exception, Gracie is always fourteen.
Tonight, I dream her hair is gathered in a ponytail. Stray blond ends cling to her face, which has lost its summertime complexion, its haunting flawlessness, and is instead a confusion of sweat, dirt, and tears.
Lucy, my sister's best friend, is there the way she always is—an unseen being amid the neat rows of trees. There's more of an awareness of Lucy than an actual physical presence. I know that somewhere in the groves, she too is bound tightly to a tree, only her head is hanging forward, her body is motionless, her taunting voice inexorably silenced.
Despite the slight alterations my mind makes in the weather and Gracie's clothing, the action always progresses the same way. Geoffrey Beldon picks up his baseball bat, and I scream from an opposite tree while my sister's face goes black with blood.
I never awaken until Geoffrey finishes with my sister and turns toward me. He raises the glistening bat in the air, and at the first sign of downward motion my eyes are shocked open, my lungs aching so hard they feel as if they'll crack apart.
I've accepted that this dream will never go away, that it has grown through my life the way tree roots spread beneath the ground. Unseen. Expanding. Constricting.
I awake with my usual post-dream headache and tap two orange capsules into my palm from the bottle I keep on my nightstand. I swallow them dry while shuffling into the bathroom, the blood-spattered image of Geoffrey Beldon traveling with me, still strong and clear.
My dreams increase in frequency like this each year around the anniversary of the murders. The media uproots the story and suddenly, Gracie and Lucy smile at me from my television set. Suddenly, I can smudge my thumb across the local newspaper and transfer the ink of my sister's eyes to my skin. Their story is dredged up as a warning to parents, a gruesome reminder that despite South Florida's lustrous exterior of scenic beaches and beautiful people, the place is not without its share of monsters.
The story has evolved over time, so that now footage of Geoffrey Beldon is spliced between interviews with internet experts, cautioning parents that today's predators are lurking not just in orange groves, but in chat rooms as well. Occasionally, there will be an interview with my mother, and I'm always surprised by a new hairstyle, the deepening of the lines across her forehead, the thickening of the skin on her neck.
My father is never mentioned. He's a distraction from the core drama, a bleak side note whose story is separate from Gracie's. Nobody wants to see the connection, the way Gracie's murder slowly consumed more and more of him through the years, until there was nothing left.
In the news coverage, the parting shot is always the same: a close-up of Lucy and Gracie taken at Disney World, though it's impossible to tell the photo was taken at Disney because the background has been cropped out. In the original photo, the gray and blue spires of Cinderella Castle rose bright and enormous behind them, and if you looked closely at the crowd, you'd see a six-foot chipmunk signing an autograph book for a young girl who is me.
In the shower I work hard to replace Geoffrey Beldon's face with a mental rundown of my clients for the day. Three massages in a row. Mrs. Krellan at nine, the first appointment, and also the worst. She's seventy years old and her skin is so loose and dry on her frame that when I touch her, I'm afraid she'll peel apart in my hands.
After her is Mr. Stein, a businessman bent on reclaiming a stress-free mentality. He's followed by Janna, a twenty-year-old yoga instructor who brings in spotty produce from her organic garden as a treat for the staff. I have a block of free time in the early afternoon, when I can expect to take a few walk-ins, or, if business is slow, sweep the rooms and tidy the reception area. My last hours at the salon will be spent in the waxing room.
I try to schedule my waxing appointments for late afternoon, so I can get the massages out of the way first. I prefer waxing, not because I'm a closet sadist, but because massages always leave me feeling as if something has been taken from me. I knead my fingers into my clients and it's my warmth, the friction I create, that relaxes their muscles, that renders the sighs that escape their lips so often. I feel as if my clients borrow something from me during massages. Something is taken with no hope of it ever being returned.
Waxing is different on so many levels. There's the idea of pain versus pleasure, to be sure, but there's something else as well. For me, waxing feels more professional, less intimate. It's easier to separate myself from the people on my table. Plus, although I haven't been to church since I was twelve, I've attended enough Sunday school classes to know to feel guilty when a sixty-year-old man rises after a half-hour massage and hunches over his erection, trying to cover it up with the stiff white towels the salon provides.
I head into work and there's a message from Mr. Stein that he needs to cancel his appointment due to an unexpected meeting. It works out well because Janna shows up early. She settles a paper sack of oranges on the front desk, and tells me she picked them herself from the tree behind her house. She holds the bag open for me and I glimpse a small mound of fruit, mottled in colors of yellow and pale green and masked with a network of brown scars.
I haven't eaten an orange in years. The thought of it alone is enough to set my stomach on edge, but I tell Janna they look great and thank her for bringing them in.
~ ~ ~
I'm stretched out on my bed, arms folded across my stomach, while Lucy and Gracie rummage through Gracie's underwear drawer.
"I know they were here," Gracie says, "I put them here myself."
The two of them pull the drawer out of the bureau and turn it upside down. Their hands swim through a pile of pastel underwear and floral-print bras. Lucy stands up and reaches into the empty cavity in the bureau where the drawer has been removed. I know I should leave the room, but I'm paralyzed by a need to see how this plays out. Then, almost at the same time, Lucy and Gracie put their hands on their hips and swivel in my direction.
"You took them," Gracie points at me.
"Took what?" I'm a terrible liar and have to concentrate all my energy on avoiding eye contact with the closet, where the letters I stole from Gracie's drawer are hidden inside the pocket of my plum corduroy skirt.
Lucy rolls her eyes and walks over to the side of my bed, breathing heavily and glaring. She stands above me and I can smell her sweat mixed with the baby powder she and my sister sprinkle into their bras.
"Where are they?" she yells.
I start to sit up, but Lucy pushes me back down.
"I asked you a question."
I tell her I don't know what she's talking about but she grabs a fistful of my hair and threatens to pull it out. I look at Gracie, who is standing at the foot of my bed.
"Come on, Lucy," she says. "Maybe I left them in my locker."
Lucy releases my hair and I sink back into my pillow. I hear our bedroom door close, followed a few seconds later by the softer thud of the front door. I walk into the living room and peek outside to make sure they have left, and when I see their bikes round the corner at the end of our street, I head for my bedroom closet.
What I notice first about the letters is the penmanship. The handwriting is looped and elegant, reminding me a little of my mother's but with less of a rush to it. There are five letters. They all begin with "My Dear Lucy" or "Dearest Lucy." Before I read them, I flip to the end and read the same closing on all five letters: "Forever yours, Geoffrey."
I imagine Geoffrey to be one of the older boys in the high school, and in my mind he becomes sandy-haired and lanky, with searing eyes and gentle hands. I read paragraph after paragraph, all proclaiming Geoffrey's undying love for Lucy. He tells her he wants to run away, just the two of them, and live on an island somewhere. He says he wants to breathe her in, to taste her, to swallow her.
I sit on the closet floor reading, and all I can think is that I would give anything to be Lucy, to have a boy fall this madly in love with me. In the last letter of the series, Geoffrey writes that he has watched Lucy in gym class that day. He talks about the smoothness of her legs, the way her hair gleamed. He tells her he loves her and says again that he wants to run away with her, and I feel a tug from somewhere behind my navel.
I hold onto the letters for two weeks, reading them over and over when I'm alone, until I have most of them committed to memory. When I finally decide to burn them to avoid being caught, I stand over the bathroom sink crying, letting the pages burn down to my fingers before dropping them into the basin.
~ ~ ~
Janna leaves, flexing her neck back and forth as she exits, and I take my first coffee break. On the way to the employee lounge, I pass Marjun, the salon owner, and she tells me that Razal called and will be in to see me within a half hour.
"Don't get too cozy back there," she says.
Razal is the only massage client I look forward to seeing. He's a large, stout man in his mid-sixties and he has a habit of talking throughout the massage. In his thick Middle Eastern accent, he tells me stories about the people in his apartment complex. He has no children of his own, but the younger kids in his neighborhood call him Poppa and come to him when they've fallen off their bicycles or when their parents are arguing indoors. When he talks about these children, I find it hard to stop my mouth from watering at the mention of the butterscotch disks and milky caramels he doles out freely to them.
Lately, Razal has been talking a lot about Mrs. Wickham, the widow who lives on the first floor, directly beneath his apartment. He hears her late at night, flicking the television on and off, opening and shutting a window. He claims he can hear her sighing.
"An undecided soul," he says of her, "So alone, so afraid."
From what he's told me, I'm fairly certain that the chances of Mrs. Wickham returning his affections are slim to none, though I would never say this to Razal. I say, in fact, very little to him. When he first began coming in, I worried that my silence would discourage him from talking. But that was two years ago, and he continues to fill me in on the latest details of his life while I continue to quietly absorb them.
Razal has a way of making even the most mundane activities sound extraordinary. Last month, he told me about finding a spider in his bathroom. Rather than kill it, he lifted it from the floor with a sheet of newspaper and deposited it in a houseplant on his coffee table. He told me that this plant would make the spider very happy, because he knew there were tiny gnats living in its soil. A couple of days later, Razal took a nap on his couch, his left hand stretched out on the coffee table. When he awoke, there was a red swelling near the base of his thumb and the spider was making its way along his inner wrist.
"And what," Razal asked, "do you think of that?"
He doesn't seem to mind that I don't answer his questions. He chuckles or sighs and goes right into his next story. By the time he leaves my massage table, I feel as if there's a balance between us, like I've received from him as much as I've given.
During his most recent appointment, he told me about Mrs. Wickham's grocery sack ripping as she passed through the courtyard. He had been sitting in a shady spot, playing rummy with three other men from the building. When he saw her vegetables spill, he jumped up to help, and after capturing her rolling tomatoes, he thought he was doing her a favor by telling her she had made a poor choice.
"They were too soft," he said, "and it wasn't from the fall. I felt them. I smelled them. I could tell they were all wrong inside. Mealy. Gritty. Who wants to eat tomatoes like that?"
Mrs. Wickham wasn't very happy to receive his advice, he said. She plucked the tomatoes from his hand and marched away.
"Like a soldier," he laughed, "like an angry soldier."
What I like most about Razal is the way it feels as if I'm holding an earthquake in my hands whenever he laughs, which is often.
The employee lounge is empty. I pour myself a cup of coffee. Someone has emptied Janna's oranges into a large bowl and stuck a card inside that says, "Delicious! Have one." I lift the metal folding chair and twist it away so I don't have to look at them.
~ ~ ~
It's dusk and Gracie is stuffing pajamas and a change of clothing into her backpack. Lucy stares at herself in the mirror, coiling a blond curl around her finger and releasing it, watching it spring back into place. She bends in close and detaches a tiny clump of mascara from an eyelash, blinking several times before turning to check Gracie's progress.
"Hurry up," she says, "he'll be waiting."
They can say this in front of me because I already know the truth. I was standing at the bedroom window while Lucy and Gracie, wearing bikinis and sprawled on lawn chairs in our backyard, discussed their plans. I also know they lied. Gracie told our parents she will spend the night at Lucy's house, and Lucy told hers she'll stay at Gracie's. Instead, they are meeting Geoffrey in the orange groves near the high school.
Actually, Lucy is the one meeting Geoffrey. Gracie is a tag-along, a lookout. She will patrol the orange groves and clap three times if she sees anyone.
When I heard Geoffrey's name mentioned by the window, I put my hand on Gracie's desk and leaned in closer. A stack of her papers slid off the edge, some landing on the chair with a thud, others spilling noisily to the floor. In less than a minute the girls were in the bedroom, warning me against telling anyone what I had just heard. I promised I would keep quiet.
Tonight, Lucy wears jeans, a red T-shirt, and sandals. She has painted her fingernails and toenails to match her shirt, and her lips gleam with a scarlet sheen. Gracie zips up her backpack and narrows her eyes at me. "Remember," she says, "not a word."
As they exit the room, I see a small bit of fabric hanging out of Gracie's backpack and recognize her rabbit pajamas.
The next day, a Saturday, my mother pushes gently on my shoulder. It's a little after noon and I haven't gotten out of bed yet, having spent most of the night awake, imagining what Lucy and Geoffrey have been doing in the orange groves.
My mother sits on the edge of my bed and tightens her robe around herself. On weekends, she and my father make something of a game of lounging in their robes for as long as possible.
She asks if I'm awake and I rub my eyes and mumble, "What?"
"I need to ask you something," she says. "I just spoke with Lucy's mother and she says the girls didn't sleep there last night. Do you know where they are?"
I pull my pillow over my head to avoid eye contact.
"No," I say.
My mother pulls the pillow away and stares directly at me.
"This is important. Gracie could be hurt or in trouble. Can you think of where they might be?"
"I said 'no'," I tell her, rolling over.
I feel my bed shift as it releases my mother's weight.
By two o'clock, my mother has called everyone in Gracie's phone book and Lucy's mother has done the same. Nobody has heard from either of the girls.
When the police come to get a description and borrow photographs, my mother sits on our sofa with her arms wrapped around herself, still in her bathrobe, rocking back and forth. My father provides all of the information. His voice is calm and even, intent on getting things right. But I can see his jaw clenching and unclenching, his eyes settling into a daze while he pauses and waits for the officer to transcribe his words.
I'm remembering the letter Geoffrey wrote to Lucy, telling her he wanted to run away with her. Clearly, this is what has happened. Gracie has gone with them for a few days, accompanying her best friend long enough for Lucy to feel comfortable with her decision. She will be back in a couple of days. There is no need to mention their secret meeting, the orange groves. They are not there.
The police leave and my mother moves her hands in front of her face, a wet tissue caged within her folded fingers. She is unable to still her body. When I place my hand on her shoulder, she stops abruptly and pulls me close.
Much later, I will recognize this as the first time I no longer want to be held by my mother. It is more than a sense of repulsion at her wet face and runny nose. It is the way she holds me from that day onward, not as if she is happy to have me, not as if she is hugging a daughter she loves, but she clings to me, needy and determined. If she squeezes hard enough, she can go through me to reach that other daughter, the one who has gone away.
When Gracie comes into my room that night, I sit up and start to ask questions. Where's Lucy? Did she run off with Geoffrey? What happened? What kind of punishment did she get?
But Gracie is silent. She stands near the door and opens her hand. An orange rests in her palm, and she tips her wrist up so that the orange falls and spins across our floor. Just before it rolls under my bed, I notice it is streaked with red.
I bend over the edge of my bed and look underneath but nothing is there. When I sit back up, Gracie is gone.
This is how I come to tell my parents, at two a.m., about the secret rendezvous with Geoffrey in the orange groves. I am crying when I tell them, terrified of what has happened in my bedroom. I do not tell them about Gracie standing by the door. I say nothing about the orange rolling under my bed. My parents believe I'm crying out of guilt from not having spoken up sooner.
My father calls the police and gives them the new information. They promise to head over to the orange groves, and check things out right away. The three of us go to the kitchen and sit around the table while we wait. My father makes tea, but I am the only one who drinks it. Tiny sips of clean hot liquid, oversweetened by my distracted father. My mother clutches her cup without drinking.
~ ~ ~
I hear Razal's voice from the employee lounge and brush off my lap, though I have eaten nothing that would leave crumbs. I rinse my cup, flip my chair back toward Janna's oranges, and head into the reception area. Razal smiles broadly when he sees me, and I can't help but smile back.
"There she is," he says. He holds his arms out as if he might hug me and I let myself imagine what that hug would feel like. Soft, warm, like falling into pudding.
Razal claps his hands together and rubs them. "Okay," he says, "I've got something different in mind today." I raise my eyebrows and he laughs and says, "Today, I find out if you are as skilled at waxing as you are at massage."
He says the word waxing as if it were two words: whack, sing.
"Waxing?" I ask, "You want me to wax you?"
He laughs again, nodding. I have massaged Razal so many times that I am familiar not only with his sand-colored skin, but with the rampant peppery curls of hair I rub down each session. I can't imagine his back swept clean.
He promises to explain everything and starts to head down the hall to the massage room. I tell him we use a different room for waxing. "Of course, of course," he says, and follows me down the opposite hallway.
In the room, Razal removes his shirt and reveals his large, fleshy middle. He reaches with one arm over his shoulder and points to his back.
"I want it all gone," he says, "back here. All of it. Pfffft."
I make it a rule never to question my clients' decisions, especially when it's clear that their minds are made up. Razal's is an unusual request, but if Mr. Stein had come in asking for the same thing, I would have distanced my mind from the task and performed without question.
Distance. Something at which I excel. Something for which I'm known.
For the past five years, during my work reviews with Marjun, the only criticism she's had is that I haven't made any real connection with the other employees. Distant is the word she uses each time.
I start to stir the wax, but stop and turn to face Razal. I'm only mildly surprised to find that my hands are shaking when I ask, "Why? Why do you want to do this?"
There's a flutter in my stomach and I feel as if I've just stepped off an elevator, the slick linoleum lurching beneath me. New ground.
Razal simply raises his shoulders and lets them fall again and tells me that he is in love.
"That Mrs. Wickham," he sighs, and shakes his head.
I lean against the counter while Razal tells me about an article he has read. They polled three hundred women and found that eighty-two percent of them preferred men with smooth bodies as opposed to hairy ones.
"It is the new masculine," he says.
I want to warn him that a smooth back will not make Mrs. Wickham love him. I want to tell him how doubtful it is that any of those three hundred women were elderly widows. But I look at my hands, still trembling, and instead I say, "It's going to hurt, you know. A lot."
He grins and waves his hand, dismissing my concern. "I trust you," he says, flipping over and resting his chin on folded arms. "Completely."
~ ~ ~
My mother breaks quickly, loudly. She screams when the policemen come to our door at five-thirty that morning and deliver the news that the bodies have been found. She shocks everyone by punching the taller man, Officer Davies, squarely in the face, hard enough to bring blood to the corner of his mouth. He doesn't get angry, but wipes the blood away with the back of his hand, and gently turns my mother around, pointing her back toward us, directing her anger inward.
While Officer Davies and my father settle on a time for us to meet at the station later that day, my mother begins with our teacups, sweeping them off the table in a wide arc of her forearm. The tea splashes over the refrigerator and makes a dripping amber mess of our kitchen.
My father rushes the men out the door, and once they're gone, my mother turns to the dining room and her Blue Willow display in the china cabinet. She wrecks everything inside, hurling it piece by piece across the room. My father and I sit together on the sofa, watching, terrified and amazed. I want to stop her, but my father holds me in place.
"Let her do this," he whispers in my ear, his voice cracking slightly.
So we sit together while my mother creates a magnificent mound of porcelain, a thin white dust settling over the tables and chairs, her hair chalking over. It seems she has aged twenty years.
At the police station later, I feel as if everyone is watching me. I walk through the maze of desks with my father, following Officer Davies. My mother is lost in a chemically induced sleep back home, neighbors around to keep an eye on her.
Officer Davies takes us to a small room, with a table and a few chairs. He brings out coffee for my father, a can of soda and a raspberry-cream cheese pastry for me, but the cream cheese has a parched look, cracked in places from sitting too long in this airless room.
The details of what happened in the orange groves have, for the most part, been kept from me, though I have heard the word bludgeon, a soft sounding word, which stung like a wasp in my throat when I looked up its meaning in the dictionary.
Officer Davies rubs the small scab that has formed on the side of his mouth and directs his attention to me. "What can you tell us about Geoffrey?"
In my head, an assemblage of characteristics I've imagined for so long gathers force. I picture the tall, soft-spoken boy whose features I have supplemented over the weeks so that by now they include bookish eyeglasses, a smile that whisks up higher on one end, and eyes the color of seagrass. The reality is that I know almost nothing about Geoffrey. I remember his penmanship, the contents of his letters.
"I think he was older than Gracie and Lucy," I say, "I think he was in Lucy's gym class."
"You've never met him?" Officer Davies narrows his eyes when he asks this, and when I shake my head in response, it feels like a lie.
On Monday the police inform us that Gracie's high school has three Geoffreys enrolled, and all of them have been cleared. They tell us they are looking into a school janitor with the same name who did not show up for work that morning. His record shows an assault charge against a former girlfriend. Officer Davies tells my father he is bringing over a photograph and would be grateful if I took a look at it.
He shows up within fifteen minutes and my father walks him into our living room. I hear my mother whimpering in her bedroom, even though the door is shut. My father asks if I'll be okay while he goes and checks on her. I nod.
Officer Davies does not trust me, I can tell. I wasn't forthcoming about the orange groves and now, apparently, I have provided false information about Geoffrey's identity. He opens a file and passes me a photo of a man with a small gash of a mouth and tight, angry eyes. He looks to be in his thirties.
"Look familiar?" Officer Davies asks.
I look at the narrow jaw, the hair that hangs like icicles around his forehead. I shake my head.
"No," I tell him truthfully, "Not at all."
Officer Davies eyes me closely. I feel my stomach twisting at the thought that the man in the photograph is Geoffrey, and I have to ask, I have to be sure.
"Is that him?" I ask, "Is that Geoffrey?"
There's a moan from my mother's bedroom that starts low and continues to rise in pitch until it evolves into a scream. I look at the floor. Officer Davies puts the photo back inside the file. He says nothing.
The following Sunday, the paper runs a special tribute to Gracie and Lucy, featuring an enlarged photograph of them at the beach, arms iridescent with cocoa oil, smiles sharp and permanent. Beneath their picture is the same black and white photo of Geoffrey Beldon shown to me by Officer Davies, and another one that shows Geoffrey in handcuffs, being led away by police outside a convenience store in Georgia. There is a short interview with the clerk who recognized him and alerted the authorities. There is an accompanying article which makes mention of a younger sibling who may have inadvertently impeded the investigation.
At the funeral my mother sobs loudly, embarrassingly. She throws her body over Gracie's casket and pounds on the lid with her fists. She has to be helped to the limousine by two assistants from the funeral home, while my father and I walk together, at a distance.
My father holds things together initially. He strokes my hair at night and promises we will all feel better one day. He feeds my mother her sleeping pills and brushes her hair for her when she wakes. When I tell him about my nightmares, he pulls a camping cot out of our garage and brings it into the room I once shared with Gracie. He cannot sleep on Gracie's bed. My mother forbids it.
~ ~ ~
I trim the hair on Razal's back to a quarter of an inch while he talks on and on about Mrs. Wickham. He tells me that she made an obscene gesture at him just that morning when he brought her a bag of good tomatoes from the fruit stand on Johnson Street.
"A feisty, feisty woman!" he says.
I tell him that the wax will feel warm, and when I spread it across the left flank of his back, he sighs.
"Last chance," I tell him, "Are you sure about this?"
He tells me yes and I smooth a cloth strip along his back. I tell him I'm going to count to three, and then pull.
"Yes," he says, "okay."
His skin breaks out in goose bumps and I can see his muscles flexing involuntarily, little bursts of movement like explosions under his skin. My hands have stopped shaking, but I still don't want to do this. I hate the idea of being responsible for his pain and wonder if he will still come to me once his back has been ripped smooth.
I count to three but instead of pulling right away, I hesitate. Razal sucks in his breath and holds it and I yank the cloth strip free in one quick tug. He doesn't scream or grunt, like many of my clients. I don't even hear him exhale. I ask if he's okay and he replies with a terse yes.
His back has a single swath of smooth skin, with tiny leftover globs of wax clinging to a few hairs around the edges. It looks obscene and coarse, and I'm embarrassed that I am to blame for this.
"Are you sure you want me to continue?" I ask.
"Of course," he says, "this is nothing. Besides, no stopping now." He chuckles when he says this and hitches a thumb over his shoulder at his striped back.
I smear on more wax. He is quiet the rest of the time while I work. Without his stories to fill the spaces between us, the room feels cold. All of its energy converges on Razal's blazing back, the sharp sting and held breath accompanying each pull.
I feel like I should speak. I think about telling him how I once pulled my car into a shady spot across from his apartment complex. From there, I watched for almost an hour while he played cards with his friends. They drank beer and laughed, and once in a while paused to stand up and stretch, or kick a ball back and forth with one of the children.
But of course, I can't tell him this. Nothing else comes, so I remain silent.
~ ~ ~
When it becomes obvious that my nightmares are not a short-term phenomenon, my father makes an appointment with Dr. Janet, a kindly man with a patient smile and a soft voice. It is Dr. Janet's task to help me accept the death of my sister, and learn how to move forward with my own life. I come to understand that success in this endeavor means my nightmares will have to be eradicated.
At our first meeting, I try to explain my dreams to Dr. Janet, but I get confused and the words tangle up and die around me. Finally, I ask for a piece of paper and a pencil. I draw a line down the center of the paper and title one half "Real Life" and the other half "Dream." I start with the "Real Life" side of the paper, sketching two trees with stick figures outlined flat against the trunks. I write Lucy's name beneath the first tree, Gracie's beneath the second.
I show it to Dr. Janet. He nods.
The "Dream" side of the paper has three nametags. Gracie's name is beneath the first tree, and my own name is beneath the second, taking my sister's factual place. Lucy's name is encapsulated in a bubbly cloud that floats over both trees.
Dr. Janet has enough background on the story to know that Lucy went first. The press made a big deal out of that—how much worse it must have been for Gracie to watch what happened to her best friend, knowing all the while that she would be next.
When I show the "Dream" half of my diagram to Dr. Janet, he pulls at his short white beard, looking puzzled for a moment, before lucidity washes over him. He had already realized what I was seeing each night as I slept was the murder of my sister. What I have to sketch for him is the fact that my vantage point in the dream is the vantage point which belonged to Gracie in real life. So each night, I don't just watch her die. I experience what she experienced. I feel her same grinding fear of being next in line.
After several months of weekly visits with Dr. Janet, it becomes evident that, in spite of his best efforts, he will not be able to end my nightmares. I feel badly that after all his years of study and despite all the certificates and diplomas on his walls, he can't undo a child's bad dreams, even when he desperately wants to. I feel so badly that I eventually tell him my dreams have stopped, but mention that I am getting headaches—a small truth in that large bed of lies. He seems almost giddy as he reaches for his prescription pad and scrawls out a cure.
My mother eventually finds an outlet for her grief. She spearheads a campaign to promote background checks on school employees. She writes letters to several newspaper editors and congressmen. She organizes petitions, and travels to meetings and legislative sessions in different states to tell them her story. Our house becomes another hotel room for her. She stops in two or three times a month to reorganize, then heads back out the door.
There are pieces of her left behind like fossils: her blouses hanging in the closet, a few pairs of shoes lined up along the closet floor, her lipsticks drying out inside her makeup drawer.
My father becomes the parent who signs all my permission forms. He takes me to buy new clothes for school in the fall and drives me to doctor and dentist appointments. Nobody is surprised in my junior year of high school when my parents divorce.
At graduation my mother shows up wearing a purple suit with a green and gold scarf. My father sits next to her in a plain white oxford, his hands dormant in his lap. They seem so different from each other that it is hard to believe they were once married, that they once looked forward to spending weekends together, lounging around in their matching robes.
I move out of the house when I start classes at the Healing Arts Center. It takes me three years to get through my classes and clinics and then, two weeks after I become a licensed massage therapist and esthetician, my father kills himself in his bedroom.
The gun had been purchased several years earlier. Since he never mentioned its existence to me, I assume he had his plans worked out from the beginning, from the moment he made his selection and wrote out the check. The years that followed the purchase were spent waiting.
I imagine him living with the knowledge of his intentions every day. Waking up and wanting it. Considering it. Perhaps even pulling out the gun and handling it, practicing how he would lift it to his temple. Then reconsidering. Enduring his misery for another day because there is a daughter, a living daughter, to think about. There is her education that must be completed, her career that must be decided.
At my father's funeral there are a handful of people from his office and a couple of neighbors, no doubt showing up out of a sense of community. Since Gracie, since the orange groves, our family had stopped having friends over for dinner, and the number of invitations we'd received from others had dwindled as well.
A Federal Express envelope from my mother arrives the day of the funeral, her handwriting almost completely covering a sympathy card inside. She writes that she is sorry she cannot be there, but there are previous commitments from which she cannot extract herself. I read it from beginning to end, knowing that the interviews she has scheduled, the lectures she's promised to give, are a front for the fact that she's closed the book on the part of her life that included my father. The part that included me.
~ ~ ~
"Stop, please," Razal says suddenly, and I freeze just as I'm about to spread the fourth swath of wax.
"What is it?" I ask, "Are you okay?"
He pushes himself into a sitting position and smiles at the floor.
"Hoo," he says, "Maybe I need a little break."
I pull a clean towel from the cupboard and cover his shoulders.
He sits, slightly hunched, with his hands in his lap.
"You think I am foolish," he says.
"No, of course not." My words fall weak and flat and useless into the room, and I feel certain that if I'm not careful with how I handle things, Razal may never return. Whatever shame or humiliation he feels will keep him from coming back to me. "You're not the first person to need a break," I say, but I don't sound convincing.
He lifts his attention from the floor and stares at the wall. We're both quiet. I know that he is waiting for me to speak, to reassure him. Instead, I offer to turn on the small television.
"It helps," I explain, "to focus your attention on something else."
Razal nods and settles his body back into position. I hand him the remote control and point at the power button. MTV comes on. Most clients who watch television during waxing are young girls. They hum along with the boy bands and move around a lot and I have to ask them to hold still.
Razal looks at the video. A group of curvy women in bikinis, engaged in a squirt-gun fight at a beach. He laughs.
"I think maybe no," he says, sounding a bit more like himself. He presses the channel button and switches through a succession of programs. I tell him I'm going to begin again, that we don't have much longer to go. My back is turned to the television when Razal finally stops changing channels and settles on the local news station.
I don't have to look to know the anchor is talking about Gracie and Lucy. I know there is footage of Geoffrey Beldon, of miles and miles of orange groves, of my sister and her best friend, still here, still staring down at me after all these years.
I mix the wax in slow circles and focus on the consistency, but what I'm thinking about is this little catalogue of tragedy I've been lugging around, the way it tears little bits out of me, then funnels them away. It strikes me how ludicrous it is that I'm stirring wax in this room while a man rests behind me, half-naked, waiting to be made smooth in order to increase his chances with the woman he thinks he loves. I stir and stir and the same things keep swirling around me. My sister in the orange groves. Geoffrey with his baseball bat. My father at my graduation ceremony, staring somewhere past me, guns in his eyes.
Razal clucks his tongue behind me. "A shame," he says, "Such a shame. These girls, they are so young."
I spread the wax along his back. Razal takes a deep breath. His tension is unmistakable.
I feel as if the television is a window and I'm being watched through it. Everyone is watching me perform this absurd act on an old man in love. Lucy, Gracie, Geoffrey, my mother. My father, Dr. Janet, Officer Davies, they're all there, somewhere.
My mother's voice fills the room now. She recites the four steps parents can take to ensure their children's safety. I drop the stirring rod into the wax and watch it sink slowly down. I'm calm as I walk over to the table and take the remote from Razal's hands. He's confused when I flick the power off, just as the image of Lucy and Gracie at Cinderella castle appears onscreen.
"What is it?" he asks, "There is a problem?"
I shake my head and return to spreading wax along Razal. His skin jumps and goose bumps spread along his body.
"That girl," I say. "Gracie."
"The girl on TV. Yes?"
"She was my sister," I tell him, reaching for a cloth strip.
"I am sorry," Razal says, and I know it's true.
I tell Razal everything while I work, startled by the way my story lifts out of me so easily. Razal listens without speaking.
I tell him about the letters I found, then burned. My voice sounds strange and I feel as if I'm listening to my story along with Razal, hearing the events of my life as if they happened to someone else. I smooth the cloth strip over the wax and I'm separated from the events that took place in those orange groves. I'm hearing the story told for the first time.
I place my left hand into the cleft between Razal's shoulders for support. When he reaches his hand over his shoulder and rests his fingertips on mine, it feels as if my entire nervous system rushes to my fingers, receptors firing until my whole arm reverberates with energy. I take a deep breath and walk Razal through the orange groves, pointing out the way the trees go on endlessly, the gaps and chasms in the landscape through which an entire family has disappeared. I tighten my grip on Razal's cloth strip and when I pull it off, he barely flinches.