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The Lost Girls
Author: Heather Young


 

Lucy


I found this notebook in the desk yesterday. I didn’t know I had any of them left, those books I bought at Framer’s with their black-and-white marbled covers and their empty, lined pages waiting to be filled. When I opened it, the binding crackled in my hands and I had to sit down.

The edges of the book’s pages were yellow and curled, but their centers were white, and they shouted in the quiet of the parlor. Long ago, I filled these books with stories, simple things the children enjoyed, but this one demanded something else. It was as though it had lain in wait beneath stacks of old Christmas cards and faded stationery until now, when my life has begun to wane with the millennium and my thoughts have turned more and more to the past.

It’s been sixty-four years. That doesn’t feel so long, strange though it may seem to you, but Mother is dead, and Father, and Lilith; I am the last. When I am gone, it will be as though that summer never happened. I’ve thought about this as I sit in my chair on the porch, as I take my evening walk up to the bridge, and as I lie awake listening to the water shifting in the dark. I’ve even taken to sleeping in Lilith’s and my old room, in the small bed that used to be mine. Last night I watched the moonlight on the ceiling and thought of the many nights I have lain there: as a child, as a young girl, and now as an old woman. I thought about how easy it would be to let all of it pass from the earth.

When morning came, I made my buttered toast and set it on its flowered plate, but I didn’t eat it. Instead I sat at the kitchen table with this book open before me, listening to the wind in the trees and feeling the house breathe. I traced my finger along the scratches and gouges in the elm table my great-grandfather made for his new wife in the century before I was born. It was the heart of the cabin he built on their homestead, and of the home their son built in the town that came after, but their grandson thought it crude, fit only for this, his summer house. Its scars are worn now; the years have smoothed them to dark ripples in the golden wood.

As I said, I am the last. Since Lilith’s passing three years ago, the story of that summer has been mine alone, to keep or to share. It’s a power I’ve had just once before, and I find I am far less certain what to do with it now than I was then. I hold secrets that don’t belong to me; secrets that would blacken the names of the defenseless dead. People I once loved. Better to let it be, I tell myself.

But this notebook reminds me it’s not so simple as that. I owe other debts. I made other promises. And not all the defenseless dead, loved or not, are virtuous. Still, I have no doubt that I would have remained silent, waiting for my own death to decide the matter, had I not found it. Its empty pages offer me a compromise, one that I, who have rarely had the fortitude to make irrevocable choices, have decided to accept.

So I will write my family’s story, here in this book that bided its time so well. I will tell it as fully as I can, even the parts that grieve me. When I am done I will leave it to you, Justine, along with everything else. You will wonder why I’ve chosen you and not your mother, and to that I say that you are the only one to whom the past might matter. If it does, you will come here when I am gone, and Arthur will give this to you, and I will trust you to do with it as you see fit. If it does not—which may well be, for I knew you so briefly, and you were just a child—then you won’t come. You’ll be content to let the lawyers and the realtors do their work, to continue your life without seeing this house or the lake again. If that is the way of it, I will instruct Arthur to burn this book unread. For I believe it will then be all right to let that summer slip away, and Emily with it. Like all the other ghosts of forgotten things.

It was 1935. I was eleven, Lilith thirteen, and Emily six. Our family lived in town then, in the brown house my grandfather built, but we spent our summers here, in our yellow house on the lake. The day after school ended, Mother packed our trunks with our sundresses, swimming suits, and hats, and Father drove us the twenty miles that spanned our known world. Lilith, Emily, and I sat in the back of the Plymouth, I in the middle as usual. When I pressed my foot against Lilith’s, she pressed back.

You knew Lilith for such a short time, that one summer twenty years ago when you and your mother came, and I imagine to you we were just two old women living out their days on a screened-in porch. I wish you could have known her—really known her—because any story of which Lilith was a part became her story, and my story is no different. My earliest memory is of her directing me to place my feet in the footprints she made in the sand, leading me in twirls and spins until I lost my balance and fell. It was only a game, but it was also how we spent our childhood years: I followed her everywhere and did everything she did, though never as quickly or as well.

Then, in the spring of 1935, something changed. We still went everywhere together, but she no longer wanted to go to Seward’s Pond or into the tree house Father built in our backyard, and she wouldn’t play hopscotch or swing on the swing. Instead she spent a great deal of time looking in her mirror, brushing the dark curls that fell to her waist. She had an odd sort of face, with a too-long nose and a too-wide mouth that conspired with her delicate cheekbones to make something improbable and arresting. Now she studied it as if it were a machine she was trying to figure out.

She was taller, too, and though she still wore last year’s dresses with the hems let down, her body was changing. In April she pulled me into the bathroom we shared to show me the small buds on her chest. In May, Mother bought her a brassiere. At first she needed my help to hook it in back, its tiny claws slipping into fragile eyes. Afterward, wearing it with her shoulders squared and her chin high like the girls in the Sears & Roebuck catalog, she looked like someone very different from who she’d been.

Of course, there’s a big difference between eleven and thirteen. I know that now. But then, I saw only that I was being left behind on a journey I didn’t understand and didn’t want to make, and as spring deepened toward summer I decided the three months our family would spend at the lake offered my best chance to pull Lilith back to me. Surely, as we played our games in the woods, sat on the bridge over the creek, and lay in our twin beds whispering in the night, she’d shed this odd veneer of adulthood she’d been trying on. When her foot pressed mine in the car, that hope expanded even as the road narrowed around us.

We arrived in that afternoon hour when the sunlight turns from white to gold and the water is its deepest blue. The house, shut up for winter, was chilly and dark, but as we opened the curtains and raised the window sashes, it breathed in the warm breeze and shook off the gloom of the long cold season. It has always seemed a living thing to me, this house, and I felt its spirits lift as it filled with our voices and the clattering of our shoes across its pine floorboards.

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