Excerpt of Ghost Flower

This isn’t how she usually sleeps. She turns slightly to stretch them out and her shoulder screams in agony.

She opens her eyes and sees white tiles, a streak of something blue across them, the underside of a sink. Her heart starts to pound as her mind takes in the details, eleven grey wads of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the sink, a gallon jug of bright pink disinfectant, a purple nail tip next to the base of the toilet.

One of her eyes won’t open all the way and when she reaches up it is puffy. She grabs the white porcelain of the sink and pain lances across the back of her head, blacking out her vision for a moment. She holds on, the pain passes. She’s on her feet now but the room is swaying beneath her.
In the dented mirror she sees a person with the beginnings of a black eye and mascara running down her face. It takes her a moment to realize it’s her, it must be her. She feel something poking her thigh and she reaches into her pocket and finds $18.75, a broken piece of gold chain and a receipt from a carwash convenience store for a diet coke.

She pushes the door open and stumbles outside. The sunshine is piercing. She squints against it and gazes 360 degrees around. She has no idea where she is.

She starts running.

This isn’t how she usually sleeps. She turns slightly to stretch them out and her shoulder screams in agony.

She opens her eyes and sees white tiles, a streak of something blue across them, the underside of a sink. Her heart starts to pound as her mind takes in the details, eleven grey wads of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the sink, a gallon jug of bright pink disinfectant, a purple nail tip next to the base of the toilet.

One of her eyes won’t open all the way and when she reaches up it is puffy. She grabs the white porcelain of the sink and pain lances across the back of her head, blacking out her vision for a moment. She holds on, the pain passes. She’s on her feet now but the room is swaying beneath her.
In the dented mirror she sees a person with the beginnings of a black eye and mascara running down her face. It takes her a moment to realize it’s her, it must be her. She feel something poking her thigh and she reaches into her pocket and finds $18.75, a broken piece of gold chain and a receipt from a carwash convenience store for a diet coke.

She pushes the door open and stumbles outside. The sunshine is piercing. She squints against it and gazes 360 degrees around. She has no idea where she is.

She starts running.

Chapter 1

SUNDAY

It started with a new dawn.

I awoke with the sound of a girl’s laughter in my ears. A shaft of sunlight slanted across my face, painting the space behind my eyelids golden. I stretched, fingers and toes uncurling against rumpled sheets toward the other side of the bed.

Empty.

It had been a dream. There was no laughing girl. The air filtering through the fly specked screen of my rented room was still and silent and warm already at 5:03 a.m.
I had been asleep for more than a thousand days. Not technically, that’s just how it felt.

There were still two minutes until my alarm would go off. That had been happening to me more and more recently, waking up sixty, ninety, one hundred seconds early, as though some part of me was issuing a warning, telling me to stop dawdling and leave.

I am an imposter. A fake. A fraud. But everything that follows is the truth and nothing but the truth. I have no reason to lie anymore.
Dawn is special in Tucson. It doesn’t arrive gently with the sweet smoldering quality it has at the edges of the country. It comes on all at once, a thin, sharp light the color of corn silk that gives the impression of being more honest than its afternoon butter yellow cousin. It may not always be flattering, but it doesn’t pull any punches.

I yawned. A fat bumblebee hummed outside the window. Down the street I could hear the sound of a sprinkler watering a thirsty lawn, clicking one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and then sevensixfivefourthreetwoone as the automatic arm swung back fast. The warm air settled over me like an extra blanket, and I gave myself a moment to savor it. Then my alarm began to beep, and I pulled myself out of bed.

The light did my room no favors, picking out every scar and gash in the battered night table and dresser with the drawers glued shut—$53.50 a week didn’t entitle you to drawers—and making the tiny blue flowers that dotted the yellow wall paper look even more like flu germs. I could have spent ten hours cleaning the place, and it wouldn’t have looked any better or any less lonely.

It was Mother’s Day, and by nine thirty the Old Town Starbucks where I worked was filled with well-fed white men with thick gold bands on their fingers wearing cargo shorts and U of A T-shirts, pushing strollers and taking extra care to get their wives’ double chai latte with wings, light foam, just right. Like this would make up for all the nights they didn’t get home to help with dinner or the way they winked at me when they came in weekdays alone wearing suits. The wives played along with the lie, doing their best to look as if a coffee shop with the family was where they most wished to spend their special day.

Who knows, maybe it was. I should say upfront that I don’t really understand how happy families work. My experiences in foster care gave me a view of “family” as an organism knitted together by convenient lies and inconvenient needs which bristled porcupine-like with protective quills if you dared to point that out.
My third foster mother, Mrs. Cleary, couldn’t understand why fitting in was so hard for me. “You need to learn to think of someone besides yourself and have compassion for others,” she said, leaning back in her La-Z-Boy chair with the bowl of popcorn on her lap and a glass of bourbon in her hand. My stomach growled audibly, but we both ignored it. “All you have to do is put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

I tried, but her shoes were black pointy toed three-inch heels with garish buckles on them that squished the front of her feet and made her red painted lips draw into a tense line every time she stood up. Looking at them made me feel like screaming.
That was the last foster home I lived in.

I had just finished attempting to put myself into the Lilly Pulitzer lime-green flip- flops of a woman with a Botox permasmile—“Have a super day!” I chirped—when the guy and the girl reached the front of my line.
“Hi, remember me?” the guy said, shooting me a conspiratorial smile and leaning close to the register.

I treated it as a rhetorical question. It would have been as impossible to forget him as it would have been to not notice when he and the girl next to him had walked in that day. For one thing, they blended in with the Mother-Father-Stroller crowd as well as sand in a Frappuccino. For another, he looked like he’d stepped out of an advertisement, the kind with the half-naked guy with abs like the sculpted bottom of a riverbed squinting at the horizon. Rich. Spoiled. With a perpetual expression of being pleased with himself. The kind of face that could easily haunt your dreams.
Plus he had been in five times during the last two weeks. I felt like I might have seen the girl recently as well, but I wasn’t sure.
“I’m Bain,” he said when I just kept looking at him. “Bain Silverton. And this is my sister Bridgette.”
“Eve,” I told him, nodding my head toward my name tag. “My name is still Eve Brightman. The same way it was the other times you asked.”
“You do remember me.” His eyes lit up with pleasure. “I believe you, I do. It’s just—damn you are a dead ringer for someone I used to know.” He turned to the girl next to him. “See, Bridge? Isn’t it weird? I mean the hair is short, but it could seriously be her.”

She nodded. Like him, she had early-morning-blue wide-spaced eyes with heavy lids and a perfect oval face, but while his gaze was mischievous and warm, hers was cool, appraising. I’d guessed she had his same light brown hair that mellowed to gold in the sun, but she’d dyed it a subtle red and had thick bangs across her forehead. I had the sense that in her world, this was an act of thrilling rebellion. I watched her place my Target jeans and T-shirt with a two-second glance. She was wearing a denim shorts jumper with a loose cashmere sweater over it, driving moccasins, a large leather bag with subtle hardware, and aviator glasses on top of her head. On the pointer finger of her left hand, she wore a Cartier triple-band gold ring. Simple, understated. I guessed the outfit, not counting the ring, cost four thousand dollars. Mine cost $34.53.
Bain said, “I told Bridgette all about you.”

I couldn’t imagine what he’d told her, and before I could ask, Roman, my boss, came up. “What have I told you about chatting with your friends at the counter, Eve?” he asked in his nasal voice, somehow managing to glare at me and smile smarmily at Bain and Bridgette at the same time.
“We were just ordering,” Bain said and proceeded to do it. He and Bridgette took their cappuccino (him) and mint tea (her) to a table that a family of five had just vacated in the corner.
Roman rounded on me. “You’re on probation, you know,” he told me, his little eyes flashing. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Bridgette carefully brush the crumbs the family had left behind into a napkin and fold it precisely into a little envelope before throwing it away. “We’ll discuss this after work.”

The anger on his face was just a mask for the excitement beneath it. Roman knew I needed this job. He suspected there was something hinky about my ID, that I should probably be in school, which meant he felt he had power over me. In the past he’d tried to use that power in ways which—
Well, in ways. And even I wasn’t lonely enough to want that.

I’d managed to avoid his attempts through a combination of skill and luck. But it was getting harder.
Bain and Bridgette sat, heads bent together talking earnestly for fifteen minutes, glancing over at me every few seconds. They reminded me of sleek, well-groomed mountain cats—they were beautiful, but there was something predatory about them. I pretended not to notice. But my heart was pounding, and I’m pretty sure several people got their coffees for half price because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing.

Bridgette’s grey stingray Filofax was on the table, and Bain grabbed it. From the corner of my eye I saw him take out a piece of paper, scrawl something on it, push his chair away, and stand up. As Bridgette gathered her bag, sweater, and sunglasses and moved to the door, he walked to the front of the line and slipped me the paper.
“We have a proposition for you. Call if you want to hear about it.”

I quickly palmed the paper into the pocket of my apron, aware of Bridgette’s eyes on me. There was something unreadable in her expression, something I couldn’t put my finger on, but it wasn’t friendly. She was toying with the ring on her finger.
When I got my break, I pulled the paper from my pocket. On one side was some kind of list written in pencil. On the other, in pen, two numbers. One was a phone number. The other was “$100,000 cash.”

I could hear Nina’s catcall whistle, the one she was so proud of having perfected, as if she were standing next to me. God, I wished she were. “You must have something they really want,” her voice marveled in my head.

I must, I thought. I flipped the paper back over and scanned the list. I assumed it was in Bridgette’s writing; it certainly seemed to fit what I’d seen of her. The top said “For Marisol,” and below it: “Remove contents of spice rack, wipe with damp cloth, replace in alphabetical order. Remove contents of medicine chest, wipe with Clorox antibacterial wipes (blue not yellow), and replace in chronological order from earliest expiration date to latest.” I had a sudden vision of her doing the same with me, remove contents, wipe clean, and replace in a new improved order.

This is a person I don’t want anything to do with, I thought. I shoved the note into my pocket, rearranged my face, and went back to work.