In Perdita, Arielle’s life is spiraling out of control after her older sister’s best friend Perdita drowns, mimicking the death of her older brother ten years earlier. But unlike with her brother, Arielle is dreaming, haunting visions of Perdita demanding Arielle’s help…
Perdita released on August 1 from Merit Press.
I live across the street from Lake Los Caballos, a hilly, treeshrouded plot of land with what I’d call more of a glorified pond than a lake. It’s lovely, surrounded by trails, hills, and tall grass, and I know every loop and turn. It’s where Justin taught me to ride a bike, where Casey and I used to roller-skate, and where my dad used to take us to feed moldy bread to the dirty swans. I’m planning on walking there this morning when I notice the entrance, about half a block up, is flashing. Disco lights, I think at first. But as I walk nearer to it, my stomach sinks and my pulse bada-bumps: it’s police lights. I get instantly queasy, like life just socked me in the gut.
The blinking red-blue of police lights always makes my stomach turn, ever since Justin died. I know it’s been ten years, but some things never change. Like, for instance, death. And that’s what this scene resembles: the lights, the crowd, squad cars parked and double-parked in the road. DEATH in capital letters.
It takes a gulp and whole lot of curiosity to make me go nearer and not run back into my house to hide in my bed. I mean, really, what could be happening? Nobody’s dead. Maybe there was a fire (but where are the fire trucks?) or maybe a burglary happened (at the lake?) . . . okay, I have to know. I powerwalk closer and spot the yellow tape blocking off the entrance and the crowd—a dozen-ish neighbors, some with unbrushed hair and in sweats, like they’ve come running from their houses to look. And there’s a van that has the words CRIME SCENE UNIT in black block letters on the side. And—yikes—another white van that just says, “Coroner.”
Oh no, oh no, oh no.
My hometown of Velero, California, is a town with three freeway exits. It’s actually a suburb of the fancier city of Santa Katerina, a hundred miles north of LA, where Hollywood celebrities buy second homes and Fortune 500 folks retire. Velero’s not as fancy as Santa Katerina, but it’s nice. It’s safe. Our schools win awards. My parents don’t lock their cars. Cops give tickets for jaywalking, that’s how goody-goody this place is. In my sixteen years in this town I’ve never seen a crime scene unit van, or a coroner van, or police tape—not in real life, anyway.
On TV? In movies? Sure. Of course, I saw ambulances with Justin. That’s why swirling red-blue lights make me want to puke. But that wasn’t in Velero. And it wasn’t a crime scene with tape and a coroner’s van and all that. Although I have to say, right now, the screw grinding sickly in my stomach feels very much the same.
But this scene, a frenzy of flashing lights and bystanders across the street and down a few houses from my home, is crazytown. I join the crowd and try to peek between everyone’s heads and over the yellow police tape. All I can see are cops gesturing, talking.
“What’s going on?” I ask Mrs. Danvers, a woman from up the street who’s always losing her ADD dog and knocking on doors with a leash in her hand.
She squints at me. She clutches a rolled-up newspaper, as if she was walking out to grab it and got distracted by the scene. “They found a body,” she says quietly. “That’s what they’re saying.”
“Here?” I squeak. “Who?”
“A girl drowned,” a man with a comb-over who I recognize from the neighborhood butts in. “I heard them saying that a girl drowned.”
When he says that word, drowned, it’s like someone pushed me off a cliff.
“My daughter’s in the house, thank God,” a frizzy-haired woman says. She looks ready to burst into tears.
Drowned echoes through me and sends my blood into a panic.
Stop it. Calm down. That was then; this is now. There’s no way it’s Casey. Remember, self? You heard her snoring while getting Tylenol from the bathroom. And Chloe lives too far away for it to be Chloe. The people I love are safe. But still. Hairs are standing up on my arms, and it’s sixty-five degrees outside.
A man standing next to me tries to flag down one of the nearby police officers for the skinny, but the officer just says, “Everyone, please stay back.”
I almost think about calling Chloe, but she sleeps ’til noon if she has no reason to get out of bed. And I know telling my family would only upset them and unleash the flashbacks.
This crowd is full of tall worriers and I can’t see a thing. So I backtrack in the direction I just came from—twenty feet or so away from the entrance—and climb into the brush, getting stickers all over my legs and arms, hoping to get a better view. I am so sick as I watch, and yet I can’t look away.
From here I can see the action. I can see the steep cement bank that drops into the lake and read the “NO SWIMMING” sign; I can see the expressions on the officers’ faces— determined, puzzled—and the gurney waiting next to the bank. I draw in a sharp breath, imagining Justin’s lifeless body being strapped to it—stop it, brain, stop. This is different.
A couple people with polo shirts that read “CRIME SCENE UNIT” and someone in plain clothes, with a badge hanging around his neck, stand in the water up to their shins. That’s when I see it there, floating, beside them.
“It”—what am I saying? She’s quite clearly a “her.”
Or, I mean, was a her.
The corpse resembles a mannequin floating face down in the murk.
I gasp and clutch a tree branch for support. I taste puke in my throat and swallow hard, close my eyes, and then will them open again. The tree branch is ant-swarmed, so I pull my hand away and swat at my arm as I keep spying on the scene and remind myself to breathe. I crawl over a few bushes to get closer—I’m hidden in oaks and shadows, so there’s no way anyone can see me at this point, from inside or outside the lake. But I can see everything.
And when they pull her bloated, discolored body from the water and lay her on the gurney, her wet platinum hair falling stringy, her face with clouded, open eyes falling my way as if she’s looking right at me, I recognize her. I hear people in the crowd gasp and break into murmurs, too. We all seem to recognize her at once.
My skin pales fast. I don’t need a mirror to verify. I feel like I just lost a quart of blood. My eyes hurt with tears and I start whispering, “No, please, please, no . . .”
It’s Perdita Dell.
I clamp my hand over my mouth and start crying. It’s Perdita. I know it’s Perdita—I just stared at her face like twelve hours ago! I even recognize the cheetah-print dress she’s wearing and her leather boots. My mouth hangs open and I can taste my tears. This horror is so familiar—to stumble upon a scene of panic and death, and to recognize the dead person as someone you know—it’s beyond nightmarish. It’s so terrible it’s unreal.
I can hear a mix of talk through the bushes, to the left of me, where everyone buzzes with information for the cops.
“It’s the Dells’ daughter . . .”
“She lives around the block. I can show you, officer . . .”
“Perdita’s her name—I think she’s in high school . . .”
“So sad . . .”
“Looks like an accident, the way the water drops off there . . .”
“We need a fence up here to prevent these kinds of tragedies . . .”
“I’ve heard that kids do drugs here after it closes. It’s dangerous . . .”
“Yeah, I’ve seen beer cans and litter around here. It’s not safe . . .”
“So dark at night . . .”
Meanwhile a photographer in one of those CRIME SCENE UNIT polos snaps pictures of Perdita, lifts her arms while the detective guy jots notes in a black book, not crying, not realizing this was a girl who graduated only months ago and whose life was supposed to be just beginning. This was a girl who was never mean to anyone, who gave me rides places when I needed them sometimes, who always poked her head in my door and asked me how I was doing and, unlike my own sister, treated me like a person who deserved to be listened to. And all I can think is, Casey. Casey’s brother and best friend of many years, both drowned. What are the odds? In Velero? This is going to be so traumatic.
I have to bite my own tongue to double-check I’m not nightmaring.
It’s when they bust out the bright-blue body bag and put Perdita inside it and zip it up over her boots, her legs, her torso, that I know this is pinch-me real. I’ve never seen a body bag in real life before. With Justin, they just draped a blanket over him and put him on a gurney. Perdita’s face is turned my way, stiff half-open lips, violet-blue tinge to her skin, some hair mashed wet against her cheek, and soon that too disappears into the crayon-sky-blue bag, zipped up like the saddest unspoken goodbye you never heard. They wheel her bagged body on the gurney up the trail that leads away from the cement bank. That sound—those wheels creaking—it’s been ten years but I still remember. I hear a cop telling people to clear the way. I sit there, on a stump, with my head in my hands for a long time, stunned and stop-and-start crying. I emerge from the bushes and turn in the opposite direction from the vans, cop cars, and flashing lights. I cross the street to my house and stand, stumped, on my own doorstep. This is where Perdita stood yesterday, fastening her necklace back on. This has surpassed unreal. And now I have to go inside and break the news to my family—I’ve never had to do something like that; I don’t know how! I don’t know if any of us have even uttered the word drown in years. It’s just—it’s a word we avoid. This is going to bring it all up again. I dab my tears with my fingers and try to catch my breath to go inside. The lights are on in the window. Everyone’s up. I wish I could just disappear.
The body bag, bright blue, her lifeless face—even from so many feet away it was obvious who she was and that she was very, very dead. It was the same way with Justin. The moment all the kids at camp went running to the shore, I recognized my big brother from forty feet back and I knew he was no longer alive, no matter how much the camp counselor huffed and puffed with mouth-to-mouth. Casey shrieking and pulling her hair and my heart swelling too big for my body. With Perdita, she didn’t even have a chance—it was beyond late. No CPR, no fighting chance, no ambulance. When, then, did Perdita die? Early this morning? Late last night? Right after she ran out of our house? Did she slip and fall? Was she drunk and stoned like the people I overheard were implying?
God, why did I have to see that thing I will never be able to un-see?
I don’t know if I can hold down that energy bar. I want to go back to bed and shut my eyes and wake up again and find out none of this has been real. I want to go back.
But I know, as I put my hand on the front doorknob, that’s an impossible wish. I know well what death means. We never get to go back to the way things were before. Deep breath, Arielle.
I push open the door.
Copyright © 2015 by Faith Gardner and published by F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.