Read an Extract from The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Read an Extract from The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Prologue

The first time I saw Roanoke was in a dream. I knew little of it beyond its name and the fact it was in Kansas, a place I had never been. My mother only ever mentioned it when she’d had too much wine, her breath turned sweet and her words slow and syrupy like molasses. So my subconscious filled in the rest. In my dream it stood tall and stately, tucked among a forest of spring- green trees. Its red- brick facade was broken up by black shutters, white trim, delicate wrought- iron balconies. A little girl’s fantasy of a princess castle.

When I woke, I started to tell my mother about it. Talking through a mouthful of stale Cheerios drowned in just- this- side- of-sour milk. I got only as far as the name, Roanoke, before she stopped me. “It was nothing like that,” she said, voice flat. She was sitting on the wide windowsill, knees drawn up into her cotton nightgown, smoke from her cigarette gathered around her like a shroud. Her ragged toenails dug into the wooden window frame.

Her death showed a kind of dedication, a purpose, I’d never seen from her in life.

“You didn’t even let me tell you,” I whined.

“Did you wake up screaming?”

A dribble of milk ran down my chin. “Huh?”

She turned and glanced at me then, her skin pale, eyes redrimmed. The bones of her face looked sharp enough to cut. “Was it a nightmare?”

I shook my head, confused and a little scared. “No.”

She looked back out the window. “Then it was nothing like that.”


Then

The second time I saw Roanoke was a month after my mother committed suicide. She hanged herself from her bedroom doorknob while I was at school. Made a noose of her bathrobe sash and knelt in supplication. Her death showed a kind of dedication, a purpose, I’d never seen from her in life. Next to her she left a note scribbled on the margin of the Sunday Times. I tried to wait. I’m sorry. The police officers asked me if I knew what she meant, but I had no idea. Wait for what? As if there was ever going to be a good time for her to off herself.

The first few days after she died I spent with the drag queen who lived in the apartment next door. My mother didn’t really have any friends and, frankly, neither did I. No one rushing over with hugs and casseroles. As far as potential guardians went, Carl wasn’t bad. He let me borrow his makeup. He was kind. And like my mother before him, he wasn’t too concerned with the finer points of child rearing. But even if Carl had been willing, I knew the state wouldn’t let him keep me.

The social worker assigned to me was an overweight woman named Karen, who had a fondness for faded concert T- shirts and sour cream and onion potato chips. “I don’t know why I can’t get a job,” I told her. “Live on my own.”

She shoveled a handful of chips into her mouth, wiped her greasy fingers down Axl Rose’s face. “You’re not even sixteen.”

“Almost,” I reminded her. “Three weeks.”

“Doesn’t matter if it’s three minutes. You gotta be eighteen.”

“I don’t want— ”

Karen cut me off, held up a hand. “I found family that wants you.”

A lifetime with my mother had given me lots of practice with unpredictability.

“What family?” I knew my mother came from Kansas, of course. Grew up in a house that had a name, like a person, like a living thing. But I’d never met any of her family. They never came to visit, never phoned, never wrote. I’d assumed they either were dead or wished we were.

Karen glanced down at the papers on her desk. “Your mom’s parents. Yates and Lillian Roanoke. Live just outside Osage Flats, Kansas.” She slammed her hand on the desk, making me jump. “It’s your lucky day, I’d say.” She raised her hand again and held up one finger. “First, they’re rich.” Another finger went up. “Second, they’re already raising a cousin of yours.” Karen’s eyes fell back to the desk. “Allegra. About six months younger than you. They’ve had her since she was born, from what I can gather. Third, they want you. Not willing to take you. Want you.” She waved the sheaf of paper in my direction. “Already bought you a bus ticket. You leave tomorrow.”


It was weird on that bus ride, how the farther we traveled from New York City, the only place I’d ever lived, the only place I’d ever been, the more I felt like I was going home. As the crowded cities gave way to wide- open space, flat land and endless horizon, something inside me unwound. And strangely, I wasn’t nervous or scared. A lifetime with my mother had given me lots of practice with unpredictability. In her own bizarre way, she had been preparing me for this moment my whole life.

At the bus station in Wichita an old man sidled up to me where I sat waiting on my mom’s Louis Vuitton suitcase, one of the few remnants of her life before me.

“Lane Roanoke?” he said, cleared his throat like he was going to hack something disgusting at my feet.

“Yeah.”

“I’m Charlie. Work for your granddad. He sent me to fetch ya.” He motioned me up and grabbed my suitcase and backpack with the vigor of a much younger man. “Come on then.”

I followed him out of the bus depot into sunlight so blinding I thought at first my eyes might burn right out of my head, no tall buildings to block it, no masses of people to hide behind. The heat was different, too, wet and clinging, coating my lungs with moss. Charlie threw my bags into the back of a rusted pickup, the original bright red faded to the lackluster sheen of an old bloodstain. “Hop on in,” he told me, gesturing to the passenger door.

The interior was as hot as I’d feared, even though he’d left the windows down, and I had to resist the urge to hang my head out like a dog. “How far is it?” I asked. “To Roanoke?”

“Couple hours.” He made that noise with his throat again and this time twisted his head and spat out his open window.

Wichita seemed empty of people compared with what I was used to, but as the miles unspooled the terrain turned even more desolate. We went long minutes without passing a single other car, only field after field with Charlie pointing out what was growing— corn, wheat, soybean. Occasionally, in the distance, I saw a combine working the land or a cloud of vultures overhead. I’d never known the world could be so quiet. Turned out Charlie wasn’t a talker, which was fine with me. He spoke only once more, when we turned off a two- lane country road onto a gravel driveway, passed under an archway with a wrought- iron R in the center. “Sorry to hear about your mama. Was there the day she was born.”

It was equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing.

“Yeah, thanks,” I said. Already my mother felt like something that had happened in another lifetime, one I was only too happy to forget. I edged forward on the bench seat, hands curled around the ripped leather, craning for my first glimpse of Roanoke. Unlike my single dream of the place, there was hardly a tree in sight. Instead, oceans of wheat stretched out in all directions, wind surfing along the grain. And there it was . . . Roanoke. Nothing like my imagination. Nothing I could have imagined in a hundred years of trying.

I coughed out a laugh, half- delighted, half- terrified. “That’s it?”

Charlie made a noncommittal sound as he brought the truck to a stop in the semicircular drive. Roanoke had clearly started out as something resembling a traditional farmhouse— white clapboard, wraparound porch, peaked dormers. But someone had tacked on crazy additions over the years, a brick turret on one side, what looked like an entirely new stone house extending from the back, more white clapboard, newer and higher, on the other side. It was like a handful of giant houses all smashed together with no regard for aesthetics or conformity. It was equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing.

I slid from the truck, my eyes still bouncing over the house trying to make sense of all the strange angles and materials. It looked like something an insane person would build, or someone who didn’t give a sh*t. It wasn’t until I looked at the wide front porch for the second time that I noticed the girl standing there balanced on her tiptoes, as if she was about to fly down to greet me.

“Hi!” she called out, waving frantically with both hands. Her hair was arranged in two long braids, tied at the ends with blue and white gingham bows. She wore cutoff jean shorts and a tank top, but teetered on sky- high red glittery pumps. “Welcome to Oz!” she yelled, flinging her arms wide.

I stared at her, speechless, and her arms dropped. “Jesus f***ing Christ,” she said with a put- upon sigh, kicking off the shoes. They arced through the air and landed on the lawn near my suitcase. “I was joking. It was a joke.”

She raced down the porch steps, came to a stop right in front of me. Her eyes flicked over my face, then focused on something behind me. She flapped her hand like a bug was in her way. “Stop lurking. Get out of here, you old coot.”

It took me a second to realize she was talking to Charlie, not to me. I watched as he gave her a long, measured stare before he walked away, still hacking. “So gross,” the girl said, wrinkling her nose and bringing her attention back to me. She tilted her head and stared. “Well, hell,” she said finally. “You’re prettier than me.” I could tell from her tone of voice that this was a rare occurrence.

“I don’t think— ”

“No, you are. Don’t deny it.”

Honestly, I couldn’t see much difference between us. She had my dark hair, and the sun caught on the copper highlights exactly the way it did on mine. We had the same long, coltish legs, same willowy frame and big boobs. Although this girl, who I assumed was my cousin Allegra, was showing a lot more in her low- cut tank top than I was in my plain white T- shirt.

“Not that I wanted your mom to kill herself, but you know… I’m glad it worked out.”

Allegra pointed at one of my eyes, her red lacquered nail stopping mere inches from the iris. “You got the Roanoke eyes, you lucky bitch.” But she said it with a smile. My eyes were my mother’s, ice blue with starbursts of pale green around the pupils. Allegra’s were a solid blue, the exact same hue as the cloudless sky overhead.

“I’m Allegra,” she said, linking her arm through mine as she pulled me toward the house.

“Lane,” I said, allowing myself to be dragged along.

Allegra laughed, high and bright. “Well, duh.”

“What about my suitcase?”

“Charlie will get it.”

Once through the front door, Allegra let go of my arm and grabbed my hand instead. “I’m so happy you’re here. I knew your mom would never move back, but I used to lie in bed and pray you’d come home.” She squeezed my hand, grinding the bones together.

“Not that I wanted your mom to kill herself, but you know . . . I’m glad it worked out.”

I couldn’t even formulate a response before she was leading me down a dark hallway, deeper into the house. I wasn’t as shocked by her comment, by her almost- crazed energy, as other people might’ve been. She reminded me of my mother, had the same mercurial spirit. Like she was walking a tightrope between light and dark, joy and sorrow, and all I could do was stand beneath with arms outstretched and hope to make a catch. Or at least that’s what I’d done with my mother when I was younger. In recent years, I was more likely to yank away the net just to watch her fall.

Allegra pointed out rooms as we passed: parlor, living room, formal living room, library, dining room, music room, office, sunroom, down there’s the screened porch, up there are bedrooms and a sleeping porch, but she walked too fast for me to get more than a glimpse of each space. Some rooms were flooded with sunlight, others so dim and dark I’d have sworn it was night outside. Stairwells sprouted at bizarre angles, curving up and down, leading who knows where. The temperature varied from room to room, cold pockets of air- conditioning running smack into walls of heat like the interior of Charlie’s truck.

“Where are . . .” I paused, unsure how to phrase it. “Our grandparents?”

“Gran’s around here somewhere,” Allegra said. “Granddad’s probably out in the fields.” She led me through a crooked doorway, the floor slanting slightly under our feet. “Here’s the kitchen.” The room was a hodgepodge, much like the rest of the house. Brand- new stainless- steel appliances kept company with ancient wood floors. The lighting was modern, but the tiles were old, cracked, and held together with grimy grout. It was like someone had lost interest right in the middle of redecorating. The best part of the kitchen was an addition on the far end with a wall of windows and a long plank table lined with a padded bench on one side, chairs on the other. An older woman stood at the counter cutting vegetables. I thought at first she might be our grandmother, but she didn’t look up when we entered, and Allegra acted as though she wasn’t there, moving around her to lift two aluminum tumblers down from a shelf.

Her eyes felt greedy, like she was trying to drink me instead of her water.

“Purple or red?” Allegra asked me.

“Huh?”

She shook the tumblers in my face. “Purple or red?”

“Oh, I don’t care. Purple, I guess.”

Allegra danced over to the faucet, filled both tumblers, and shoved the purple one into my hand. I took a sip. The water was ice- cold but tinged with a metallic aftertaste, like drinking through a mouthful of nickels. Allegra watched me over the rim of her cup. Her eyes felt greedy, like she was trying to drink me instead of her water. I set my cup down on the counter.

A woman entered the kitchen from the far side, near the long table. She was slender and delicate with blond hair pulled back in a chignon at the nape of her neck. “Allegra,” she said, “where did you put those pearls you borrowed yesterday?”

“I don’t know.” Allegra flailed one hand in the air. “They’re around here somewhere.”

The woman clucked her tongue but said nothing more. Her eyes drifted over to me. “You must be Lane.”

“Yeah.”

She nodded, came closer. “I’m your grandma, Lillian. You can call me Gran like Allegra does.” She reached forward and took both my hands in hers, held my arms out from my sides. Her hands were cold, her skin soft and smooth. “Let’s get a look at you.”

Before this moment I was in possession of exactly two facts about my grandmother. She came from old money on the East Coast, and she was beautiful. I’d always pictured her as some eastern Blanche DuBois, booze- soaked and lipstick- smeared, wandering through her days in a silk nightgown, leaving a trail of cigarette ashes in her wake. This woman was nothing like that. She wore black capri pants and a white blouse, the sleeves rolled up on porcelain forearms. Her hair was glossy, her makeup refined. She didn’t look much older than some of the mothers of classmates I’d known back in New York. Her blue eyes weren’t cold exactly, but they didn’t invite me in, either. She seemed very capable, very calm. The direct opposite of her daughter who raised me.

“I think we’ll put you in the white bedroom,” she said, dropping my hands. “Allegra, show Lane her room.” She left the kitchen as quickly as she’d entered, trailing not cigarette smoke but the faint scent of expensive perfume. If some small part of me had hoped for hugs and loving words, sheer relief at my grandmother’s restraint drowned it out. I had no experience with maternal affection, wouldn’t have known what to do with it if it was offered.

Allegra pointed to the far corner of the kitchen. “There’s a back stairway there. But come this way first. I want to show you something.” We exited the kitchen, still without acknowledging the woman working at the counter. But when I looked back over my shoulder, her dark eyes followed me.

“Wow,” I said, goose bumps sprouting along my neck, even in the closed- in heat of the hall. “That’s a lot of dead girls.”

“Who was that?” I asked Allegra as we branched off the central hall and went down three shallow steps into a second hallway.

“Who?”

“That woman in the kitchen. The one chopping vegetables.”

“Oh, that’s Sharon. She’s our maid, basically. She does the laundry, cleans, cooks. Her food totally sucks, though. I keep telling Granddad to fire her, but she’s been here forever.” Allegra stopped in front of a series of framed photographs. “Here,” she said, pointing, her cheeks feverish. “Ta- da! It’s the Roanoke girls!”

My eyes followed her finger to the biggest frame, golden and gilt- edged. Someone had carved a tiny R G into the bottom of the frame, the letters ragged and uneven. The hallway was shadowy, with little natural light, and I had to move closer to see. The frame held a collection of large oval- cropped photographs— two on the top row, four more below, and Allegra on the bottom. I recognized my mother in the middle row but no one else. “Who are they?”

“Us!” Allegra screeched. She stabbed at the top two pictures. “These are Granddad’s sisters, Jane and Sophia. Then this row are Gran and Granddad’s girls. Penelope. She was actually Jane’s daughter, but Gran and Granddad raised her. Then my mom, Eleanor. Your mom, Camilla. Who totally got the best name, by the way.” She jabbed me with her bony elbow. “And the baby, Emmeline. We can take a picture of you and put it right here.” She tapped the empty space next to her own face, clapped her hands like a little girl at a birthday party.

All of the pictures were black- and- white close- ups, giving them an old- fashioned feel, although even the ones of Granddad’s sisters couldn’t have been more than thirty or forty years old. They were all taken when the girls were teenagers, except for Emmeline, who was still an infant, which I figured didn’t bode well. It was eerie how much they all looked alike, how much they looked like me. As if the Roanoke genes were so strong they bulldozed right over anyone else’s DNA.

“Where are they all now?” I asked.

Allegra’s pointing finger reemerged. She started at the top, with Jane, and moved down the line. “Jane’s gone. Sophia and Penelope are dead. My mom’s gone.” She paused before lightly brushing her finger over my mother’s face. “Your mom’s dead, obviously. Emmeline died when she was only a baby. And I’m right here.”

“What do you mean, gone?”

“Jane disappeared right after Penelope was born, probably ran off like my mom. I was only two weeks old when she hauled ass out of here.” Allegra’s tone was matter- of- fact, but her mouth pinched up and her eyes clouded over. She thumped Eleanor’s face hard with one knuckle.

“And all the dead ones?”

Allegra shrugged, already bored. “Sophia drowned in the North Fork during the spring floods. She was twenty- something. Penelope fell down the main stairs and broke her neck. Tripped on her nightgown in the middle of the night. She was like our age, maybe a little younger. Totally tragic. Emmeline was crib death. Sharon said Gran didn’t get out of bed for six months after. They all thought she was going to waste away. Die of grief.”

Hearing their stories turned the faces in front of me from beautiful to tragic. They watched me now with haunted eyes. The only one left was Allegra. And me. I suddenly didn’t want a place on the wall. “Wow,” I said, goose bumps sprouting along my neck, even in the closed- in heat of the hall. “That’s a lot of dead girls.”

Allegra did a quick pirouette away from me, her smile a little too wide. “Roanoke girls never last long around here.” She skipped along the hall, her voice growing fainter as she moved, like we were standing at opposite ends of a tunnel. “In the end, we either run or we die.”