At first what people were saying was that it happened in a shop. That he was a stranger. He’d had a small gun that he held to her back. Attention turned next to the middle-aged man who lived out on the island. He wore a captain’s hat and was always driving up and down the causeway, his car filled with cigarette smoke from not letting the windows down. There was talk he’d coaxed her into the car. But the story that ended up sticking, the one that eventually ran in the papers, was that the man was her stepfather, and he’d corralled her into her bedroom with a knife and shotgun.
All Rachel and her friends knew, in the beginning, was that both ends of Division Street were stoppered up with orange barricades, and several police cars were parked in the entrance to Windmill Park.
“Yee ha!” Greg swung a leg over the barricade, slapped the back pocket of his jeans the way you would the rump of a horse. It had just got to be spring, really spring; the lilacs were blooming and their scent was in the air, along with the smell of the ocean, growing warmer under the sun. Rachel, Greg, Sam and Kenny were half-crazy from it, had pulled off their sweaters and sweatshirts on the school steps and said a big fuck you to the bus as it rattled out of the parking lot. They were walking home.
Sam and Kenny each went for an end of the barricade and began to lift it. Greg shot up to his tiptoes, his face shifting comically. “Ow! Guys, my balls!”
Rachel stood on the sidewalk, laughing. They were too old to roll down the hillside of Windmill Park the way they used to, hands and feet pointed out like a diver’s, the green world spinning, so that they ended up at the bottom giddy and grass-stained. Now the joy came from other places, from slinging insults that they did not mean, from pretending to hurt each other in fashions that were never really painful.
Greg tried to free himself, to slide off onto the far side of the barricade. But Kenny and Sam were pulling it higher still, so that Greg’s sneaker caught and he tumbled onto the concrete, the barricade clattering down along with him.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
There was a cop. None of them had noticed him coming. He was different from the cops Rachel had seen before, the ones who directed traffic at the Fourth of July parade, or came into Health class to talk about drugs and how you shouldn’t do them. He’d said hell, for one thing. But mostly it was in his face, the way his mouth was set, hard and sharp under his moustache.
Greg scrambled to his feet. “Nothing, mister. Sorry.”
The cop grabbed hold of the barricade and swung it with a jolt of plastic on concrete, so it stood upright. “Out.”
Greg scooted through the gap left by the barricade. The officer slid it closed.
“This is not a toy. Understand?” The leather holster at his hip shone in the sun. He was speaking quietly, but Kenny and Sam hung their heads as though he were shouting. In her hand, Rachel held a plastic bag full of penny candy. They’d loaded it in the drug store with two buck’s worth of Swedish Fish and gummy worms. Now she wished she could hide it behind her back, or pitch it into the lilac bushes. Somehow, it was making everything worse.
“Do your parents know where you are?”
Kenny opened his mouth to answer, but Greg cut in. “We’re on our way home.”
“You better get going then.”
They turned and began walking away, quickly, when the officer’s voice halted them. It was softer than before.
“And kids, be careful. We got enough trouble without you making more.”
Their contrition lasted them all the way to the dip in the road, where Greg dropped a gummy worm down the back of Rachel’s shirt and took off running. Rachel shouted and went after him, a fistful of sweaty candy ready in her hand.
Hostage situation. Rachel loved the sound of the phrase, the way it jumped about on the tongue, something she’d actually heard reporters say over the radio and on the news. Better yet, her town, a place known only for producing oysters and being somewhere the Mayflower had sailed relatively near to, was actually on TV.
After dinner that evening Rachel had seen, broadcasting all the way from Boston, the image of a familiar house. The camera panned over the cluster of cop cars, showing a slice of Windmill Park. Rachel thought she could pick out the cop who had spoken to them, but his head was turned at a funny angle, so she couldn’t be sure. Another cop, wearing a bulletproof vest, was holding a long pole. Rachel watched as he maneuvered it towards the house’s front door. Something was fixed to the end.
“Cigarettes.” Rachel’s dad snorted. “Honey!” He shouted to her mother in the kitchen. “The guy’s asking for cigarettes! Do you believe it? Why didn’t he just hold up the CVS?”
The next day at school, in between bells, under the opening and closing of lockers, it was all anyone could talk about.
“I thought it was that weird guy who drives around the causeway.” Tracy Eldredge was wearing a tank top, which was against the rules. She leaned up against the lockers and one of the straps slipped off her shoulder. Her bra was pink.
“It’s her stepdad, stupid.” Greg told her, but he wasn’t acting like he thought she was stupid at all. “Don’t you watch the news?”
Rachel took a bite of her granola bar. Her mom would never buy her a pink bra. The granola bar tasted terrible, like it was stale.
“What I wanna know, is who is this girl?” Kenny had taken Mr Hyatt’s Magic Marker and was using it to draw checkers on the toes of his Converses. “How come we don’t know her?”
“She’s younger than us.” Rachel crumpled the rest of the granola bar into the wrapper and pitched it at the trashcan. Swish.
Kenny looked up from his sneaker. “You know who she is?”
“We played together when I was little, but I don’t remember. Her mom used to be my babysitter.”
Rachel had only found this out last night, in front of the television.
“Was she the lady who had all the cats?” she’d asked her dad.
“No,” he said.
“Was she the one who knitted me those puke-colored slippers?”
“That was your aunt Amanda.” He laughed. “You ingrate.”
“So she was the lady who always tried to get me to eat that nasty soup made out of beets.”
“That woman was Russian. You’ve had a lot of babysitters, kiddo. No wonder you don’t remember them all.” Her father got up for another beer. “You were right about that guy, Char.” Rachel heard him say to her mom. “Total wackjob.”
“Wait.” Greg turned away from Tracy. “You’ve been in that house?”
Rachel felt something, a prickling. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Well? What’s it like?”
The windmill in the Windmill Park used to be a sort of museum. Inside, a few plaques still hung at odd angles, explaining when the windmill had been built, and who built it, and whatever it was the windmill had been built to do. Maybe the idea was, at some point, somebody from the town would come and fix everything up, make it suitable for the tourists who came in summer. The lock on the door suggested this. Rachel, Greg, Sam and Kenny had never told anyone the lock was broken. It suited them fine the way it was.
“Ow! Watch it!”
“Turn on the flashlight then. Think I got night vision or something?”
It was just after eight. Rachel’s parents thought she was at Sam’s, working on a science project.
“Shut up,” Greg whispered. “Give me that.”
The flashlight’s dull yellow glow showed them their feet and the rough wood of the floor, mottled with bird shit. A mouse stared with tiny, glistening eyes before making a break back into the darkness. Kenny gave a cry as it passed over his sneaker.
“It surprised me, alright?” he muttered as they started forward, though nobody had said anything.
Rachel grabbed the railing hard as she followed Greg up the stairs to the lofted space at the top of the windmill, wincing every time she felt her skin connect with the thread of a cobweb. “Sick,” moaned Sam from behind her, “I think I just touched bird crap.”
Greg had made his way to the windmill’s only window. Rachel could see his silhouette, the outline of his head and hands pressed to the narrow opening. “You can see pretty good,” he whispered. “C’mere Rach.”
Rachel crawled forward, the boards creaking beneath her. She put her face to the window, alongside Greg’s. The window was covered with two layers of thick screening, and she could smell the dust and must of everything that had ever got caught in between. She could smell the shampoo that Greg used in his hair, a scent like apples, and the detergent his mom washed his clothes with.
“So you think her room is the second floor on the left?” His cheek brushed against hers as he whispered.
Rachel could feel the guilt starting in her stomach. She looked out, over the trees. Greg was right: you could see pretty good. The streetlights shone down on the hoods of cop cars. A few figures in dark uniforms shuffled around them. Across the street was the house. Its porch light was on, sparkling onto the crushed white shells of the driveway. There was a glow in a downstairs window, and also in the left second story window, slightly dimmer because of a gauzy curtain.
Rachel hadn’t meant to. She wasn’t really sure how it had happened. One minute Greg had been looking at her beside the lockers, his blue eyes expectant, and the next thing, she was describing the picture of a fishing boat that hung above the couch in the living room, and the red carpet that ran up the stairs. She had stood in the school corridor lying to her friends, watching their eyes grow wider, and for the life of her, she couldn’t make herself stop.
But maybe it wasn’t a lie. Because now, closing her eyes, it seemed to Rachel that she could see the inside of the house, the picture, the carpet. She could see a little girl, crawling across the floor. Her mother at the stove, making them something to eat.
“Yeah, I think so,” Rachel told Greg.
“I dunno,” Kenny was saying. “It doesn’t seem so bad. She’s missed like, two days of school. And they brought her pizza for lunch. If that’s being held hostage, it’d be fine with me.”
“He’s got a shotgun, Kenny,” Greg whispered. “And a knife.”
“Yeah,” Sam said. “He could do her any time he wants.”
“Do her?” Kenny asked, above a whisper. “What d’ya mean, do her?”
“You know,” Sam mumbled with a trace of embarrassment, “kill her. That’s how they say it in the movies.”
“He’s not gonna kill her. Didn’t you hear? When he put her on the phone, she told the cops they’d been playing cards all day. You don’t shoot someone after you’ve played like, twenty straight games of gin rummy with them.”
“You might if they kept winning,” Sam said.
Something moved against the upstairs window. “Greg!” Rachel hissed.
The window slid up. Rachel could see the curtains moving in the night air. Something appeared in the window and then fell—a dark, oblong object dropping past the shingles, the first story window, into the flowerbed.
“The shotgun!” Greg shouted, forgetting all about the need for silence. “He just threw it out the window!”
Sam’s hands pressed down on Rachel’s shoulders. Kenny’s knee jammed into her hip. The boards beneath them shifted in protest, as if after so many years of birds roosting and animals nesting, this was the final straw. Rachel imagined the four of them falling, all arms and legs and rotting timber. What would the cop say to them then? But she didn’t move her face from the screen.
“Dude, that guy’s jacket says FBI! Do you see that? The fuckin’ FBI’s here!”
Greg’s finger thudded against the screen. “Look!”
The outer door at the side of the house was opening. At the same time, the figures by the cop cars were moving closer, encircling the edge of the driveway. Some were holding their guns, pointing them at the door.
The door opened all the way to reveal two shapes, dark against the light from within. One was tall, almost filling the doorway. The other was much smaller.
One of the cops shouted something that Rachel couldn’t make out, and the figures began to come down, onto the steps. They moved into the glare of the porch light, and she was able to see the pair clearly. A man in a checked shirt, a bit too thin, his bald spot obvious under the glow. A girl with dark brown hair that was falling out of its ponytail. She had on jeans, and a too-large navy blue T-shirt that might have belonged to the man. She was holding the man’s hand.
The man and the girl put one foot, then another, onto the driveway. The cop continued to call out to them, his voice an encouraging sing-song. They moved obediently forward, the girl taking two steps for every one of the man’s. The neck of the T-shirt had slipped off to one side, exposing a pale shoulder. The night was still and clear but far from warm, and Rachel was thinking that the girl must be cold, wearing only that, when the siren started up in the distance.
The man froze, jerked the girl to a halt. Behind them, the side door was still in the process of swinging shut. For a moment there was no noise other than the moan of the siren, no motion besides the door. Then the man’s free arm shot out, as if to pull the girl in towards him. His head twisted in the direction of the house.
The cops were on the man before he could do another thing. They grabbed at his arms and shoulders; they jumped onto his back. Rachel was dimly aware of her friends cheering, whispered hoots and hell yeahs. The man went down heavily under the weight of the cops, and the girl, her hand caught up with his, went down with him. She fought against it, her feet raking little furrows through the shells. But the she didn’t do the thing that would have kept her standing. She didn’t let go.
“HOSTAGE SITUATION RESOLVED,” the morning paper declared. At breakfast, Rachel stared at the front page over her father’s shoulder. She saw a picture of the men in FBI jackets and felt a little thrill—she’d been there.
“Can I see that?” Rachel asked, working to make her voice casual. Last night, to make curfew, they’d had to bolt through the damp bushes at the backside of the park while the sirens wailed. They hadn’t seen the man get taken away, or what had happened to the girl.
“Not right now, honey.” Rachel’s father answered in a strained way, without looking up. But he set an elbow down on the countertop, revealing a photo of a woman who had to be the girl’s mother. She was shown standing in front of an ambulance, her arms clasped in front of her as though cradling something invisible.
Rachel leaned forward over her cereal. This, then, was the lady who’d once taken care of her. She seemed familiar, especially her hair: thick, black curls that billowed out around her face. Rachel thought she could see her putting it back with a scrunchie and getting out a vacuum. She vacuumed her living room, pulling out the couch, above which hung the picture of a fishing boat. But then, that could have been another woman. It could have been another house.
When her father grew distracted with the Sox scores and let the pages fall, Rachel slid them closer. The police chief was crediting the success of the operation to the “combined efforts of town and federal forces.” He described how the man had “abandoned his weapon” and “surrendered to officials peacefully.”
“That’s not right,” Rachel muttered, her finger stalling under the word “peacefully.”
At first Rachel didn’t think her father meant the word for her, thought perhaps her mother had come into the room and that this was the end of some other conversation. But when she looked up, her mother was nowhere in sight and her father’s eyes were on her. “It isn’t right,” he said, and sighed. “A lot of things in this world aren’t.”
Rachel was about to ask what he was talking about, when something towards the bottom of the article caught her attention. It wasn’t a word she’d seen in the paper before. She let her eyes drift over the next couple sentences. When they came to the part about what the man had done to the girl, she had to put down her spoon.
Rachel, Greg, Sam and Kenny walked home together every day that next week. The lilacs were still blooming and the sky had never been bluer, but they didn’t stop for penny candy, and they hustled on past Division Street even though the barricades were gone.
Rachel had never thought about how often the four of them touched each other— jabbed ribs, threw hips, pulled hair. The boys even had a favorite game that involved slowing their steps and letting Rachel walk on ahead. Just as she started to sense the strange stillness, they’d grab her behind the knees and catch hold of her wrists. They carried her down the road while she hissed and twisted like a snake pinned by a branch.
Underneath the hissing, Rachel felt something else. She liked the way her shirt bunched up so the cold air rushed over her midriff and made her shiver. She liked the sickening, weightless feeling that started when the boys began to swing her back and forth, counting one two three, pretending to be about to throw her. She’d scream then, and the scream was one of happiness mixed with fear. It was exactly the same scream as the one you’d let out at the top of a rollercoaster, just as the car is about to drop.
Rachel hadn’t realized how necessary all of it was until they began walking home with their arms hanging at their sides, or their hands shoved into their pockets. Their conversations were strained and stilted. They sounded the way their parents did when they ran into each other in the supermarket:
“Sox could win tonight,” Kenny said.
“They could, if they don’t get rained out,” Sam said.
“They could get rained out,” Kenny admitted.
“They could,” Sam agreed.
It was probably her imagination, but Rachel thought it grew even worse when it her friends spoke to her. They’d become oddly cautious, sometimes even biting off words mid-sentence, as if there was a secret they’d suddenly remembered she wasn’t in on. But she might not have felt this as keenly if she hadn’t needed so badly to talk to them.
Rachel stole a glance at Greg as he plodded along. She wanted to talk to him most of all. Greg loved to clown as much as Sam and Kenny, but whenever Rachel looked his way during math it was to see him bent down over the desk with his face nearly touching the page. He chewed his lip, and wouldn’t release his wide, nail-bitten fingers from the pencil until he came away with the only answer that was true, right and correct.
After her father left breakfast the other morning, Rachel had torn the front page from the paper and put it, folded neatly, into the drawer of her nightstand. By now she must have read that last bit, about the girl and the man, a hundred times. But no matter how often she read it, pawing at the newsprint so it smudged, she couldn’t erase the image of their two joined hands.
What Rachel needed to know was this: if the man had done what the paper said he had, why hadn’t the girl run towards the cops as fast as she could? Why instead, had she held on tight? Rachel wasn’t sure why answering these questions mattered so much. She pushed and prodded at them in the same senseless way she once had her loose teeth: feeling the gaps widen, tasting the blood.
She watched Greg kick at a pebble. It skittered down the road and into a gutter. Greg would be able to figure it out, Rachel was sure. If she could just talk to him, she would get her answers.
The four of them came to a crosswalk. Sam bent over to tie the laces of his sneaker. Kenny scratched at the back of his neck where his hair had just been buzzed. Rachel took a step closer to Greg. She opened her mouth, to try to begin.
Greg’s hands were at his sides, and as Rachel moved towards him, the back of her right hand brushed against his left. Greg was staring at the traffic light and his gaze didn’t waver, but when their hands touched, he immediately pushed his into his pocket and took a half-step away.
She hadn’t been imagining it. Rachel looked down at the pavement, blinking hard. She wished they’d never snuck into the windmill that night, never seen the girl. This was all her fault, she told herself savagely, rubbing a fist against the corner of her eye. This was what she got for telling a stupid lie.
The light changed and they walked on. Rachel couldn’t look at her friends. She wanted to be home, to sink into a chair in her mother’s kitchen, which by now would be warm and fragrant with cooking. She lengthened her stride and hoped her mother had a chore for her, rolling out dough or peeling potatoes, something she could get lost in as the sun sank into a pink smudge beyond the windows.
By the time Rachel stepped into her house, the smells and sounds of the kitchen were so fixed in her mind that it took a moment to realize the room was dark, that the cabinets were closed.
From the living room, she could hear the drone of the television. Rachel moved towards it, not bothering to set down her bag.
Her mother was on the couch, the light from the TV playing over her face. Rachel stood in the doorway and tried to remember if she’d ever seen her mother—a woman who was rarely off her feet, even at dinnertime—sitting on the couch. The screen was showing a man, walking in between two bailiffs down the steps of the district courthouse. When he got to the bottom of the steps the man looked up, into the camera. Rachel must have made a sound when she recognized him, because her mother turned her head.
“There’s going to be a trial.” Her mother said the words slowly, like she couldn’t believe them. She held a Kleenex in one had and now she balled it up, her fingers moving crablike against the pastel blue.
Rachel wanted to go back to the kitchen, to pretend she’d never opened the living room door. She’d start dinner herself; she knew what to do.
“Rachel, come here,” her mother said. Her voice had a catch in it. “I need to ask you something.”
In the locker room after gym on Monday, Jenny Stone and Jessica Connick fooled with their hair in front of the mirror, and Rachel struggled with her combination. It was a thing she usually did without looking— three quick motions. Focusing on the black knob, the little white numbers, made her doubt which digits she wanted, and what order they came in.
“Well it’s not like they’re actually related.” Jessica said.
“That doesn’t matter.” Jenny told her. “It’s still bad.”
“What do you mean, why? It just is.”
Rachel closed her eyes and willed her hands to do the right thing. She just wanted to change. The tumblers clicked under her hand once, then twice.
“They’re saying on TV now that he was doing it to her for years. Like, since she was a little kid.”
Her fingers faltered.
“Eww. That’s definitely bad.”
“Quit hogging the mirror.” Tracy Eldredge had a tube of red lipstick. She pushed past Jenny and Jessica and put her face up to the corner of the mirror.
“But if he was doing it for years, why didn’t she like, tell anyone?”
Rachel yanked at the lock. It rattled against the metal.
Tracy looked up from blotting her lips against a paper towel. “You know her, don’t you Rachel?”
“Really?” Jenny asked.
“You do?” Jessica wanted to know.
They were all looking at her now.
“Her mom was her babysitter.”
“Oh my god, really?”
“Wait. What about him? Do you know him?”
“Yeah, do you?”
“What’s he like? He looks so creepy.”
Rachel let the lock go.
“I hated that he smoked around you,” her mother had said, and all at once Rachel could smell it, rough and acidic. It used to make her throat hurt. It drifted from his armchair and spiralled towards the ceiling. There was a small table beside the chair, and on it was a green glass dish with little mounds of ash and ends in it, and that smelled too. Rachel knew because she’d knocked it over once, liking the color. He’d shouted then, and the woman with the curly hair had gone to get the vacuum.
“Mostly I just felt like there was something off about him. But I couldn’t tell Peggy that. God, I wish I had.” Her mother started to cry: a thin, miserable sound. She put her arms around Rachel.
“Oh Rachel, if something was wrong you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”
Rachel looked at the other girls. Jenny, who had worked her mousy brown hair halfway into braids. Tracy, with her bright red lips. She thought about the newspaper article, which she’d taken out of her dresser later that same night, ripped down the center, and thrown away. She thought about all the other copies that had been flattened out under breakfast plates and ringed with stains from coffee mugs. Someone had crumpled one to start a fire. Someone else had rolled one up and used it to hit their dog.
“I don’t remember,” Rachel said. She went out the door, into the hallway.
When the FOR SALE sign appeared in the lawn of the house on Division Street that June, it set off a ripple of conversation among those who liked to talk about such things. But even they spoke of it half-heartedly, the way people do with old news. Everybody else seemed to forget long before then. Lunchroom banter slipped back into the old channels. Rachel’s mother clattered around the kitchen, crooning Joni Mitchell to herself. Kenny got a hold of some fireworks from an uncle in New Hampshire and the four of them spent the evening on the beach, laughing and watching the night go from green, to indigo, to rose.
Rachel saw the girl exactly once before she and her mother moved away, by the water fountain in the shopping plaza downtown. She was bent over, putting her lips to the faucet. Her hair was falling out of its ponytail again, spilling across the back of her shirt. It was an appropriately sized shirt this time, a cute one, with little ruffles at the sleeves. The girl let go of the handle and stood up, wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand. But Rachel was on her way to meet Greg in Dunkin Donuts, and she stepped inside before the girl could turn around.
They bulldozed the windmill just before school let out. Town officials decided it had to be done before the thing fell on someone. Rachel, Greg, Sam and Kenny stopped on Division Street to watch the men taking it away. They were throwing the many jagged pieces into the back of a truck. There was a deep, brown hole in the grass at the top of the hill.
“They’re gonna have to change the name,” Sam said.
“They can’t do that,” Kenny said. “You can’t just go around changing names of stuff.”
“But it doesn’t make sense anymore.”
“So what?” Kenny said. He grabbed the cap off Sam’s head.
Kenny took off down the road, Sam after him.
Rachel and Greg stayed under the lilac bushes. The truck was making a beeping sound as it backed into the street. One man stood on the roadside, waving his arms for the driver. Go, go, stop. Rachel felt Greg take a step towards her. She whirled around, a grin twitching at her lips. When she saw his face, her grin disappeared.
Rachel stood and let Greg put his arms around her. She could smell his smell, mixed in with the lilacs. She could hear the beep beep of the truck. Everything was still, but the feeling was stronger than it ever had been: a close-to-painful sense that the world was about to drop away.