Fiction · 04/17/2019

Lost Girls

The window sill in Louisa’s bedroom has fallen off again. She is about to push the sill back in place when she notices that the wall is hollow. A feeling comes over her, a voice whispers put your hand inside. She reaches in, feels something smooth, and pulls. Out comes a man’s loafer, the tassel torn off, the heel worn to nothing. The second time, her fingers close around something thin and metallic. It’s a hanger with a child’s Easter dress: faded pink silk, a yellowed white collar, a line of pearl buttons down the back. Tiny spots of black mold speckle the lace. Once, it must have been very pretty. Once, a girl not much younger than her must have worn it to an Easter egg hunt. She probably carried a basket and wore patent leather shoes with little gold buckles. Louisa has never worn patent leather shoes, though she has seen them for sale at the mall where her father used to work as a security guard.

Louisa puts her eye to the opening. She can make out more vague shapes. The wall is a secret space, and it’s full of things. Anything could be inside. There could be shoes her size, tucked away. She reaches in again and pulls out the matching loafer, two towels, and a moth-eaten cardigan. After that, her knobby elbow catches at the opening.

She finds Char in the dark living room, playing a game on their father’s cell phone. Next to her, their father is passed out on the futon mattress. At least he is not on the bare floor where he sometimes lays like a felled tree, his arms spread wide like bare branches in winter. Tonight, his mouth is an open knot and Louisa can smell how the wine has soured on his tongue. She motions for Char to follow her.

Though she knows her father is out, she shuts their bedroom door before she leads Char to the window. “Look,” Louisa whispers. “There’s a space between things. A hidden, secret space.”

Char peers into the space as tendrils of her long, dark hair slip inside. “It’s only the wall, Lou.”

“But look at what I found.” Louisa holds up the dress, hoping that Char won’t notice the mold. Louisa knows that Char loves pretty things: earrings, bracelets, beads. Sometimes, in Char’s pockets, Louisa finds wilted daisies or tiny acorns.

Char fingers the pearl buttons. “But how did you know it was in there?”

“I felt it, calling to me like a lost spirit. Stick your hand in and pull out whatever you can grab.”

“What if there are spiders?”

Louisa scoffs. “There aren’t any spiders.” Before Char can object, she drags a wooden chair over.

Char hops up. She is four years younger than Louisa, and her elbow slips through the space. She swishes her arm around. “I feel something!” Up comes a newspaper. She wrinkles her nose and drops it at Louisa’s feet.

“Try again,” Louisa urges.

Another newspaper, and another, all rolled tight. Finally, a stuffed lamb, its left eye loved right off. Probably it belonged to the girl who wore the dress.

“Darn. I wanted to find a diamond necklace,” Char says. But she takes the lamb, stroking it absently, and curls on the edge of the bed they share.

Louisa shines the light from her father’s phone into the space and finds only more newspapers, rolled up tight.

“Tuck me in,” Char calls.

Ever since their mother left, this has been Louisa’s job, and so she pulls the sheet up to her sister’s chin so that, in the darkness, her pale face seems disembodied, as if she is just a head.

Louisa unrolls one of the newspapers, so brittle, it tears in places. “The Sacramento Union, 1 November 1912. This is more than one-hundred years old.” She reads a few headlines out loud. “Three Arrested Over Klan Trouble.” “Turkeys Cheaper than Last Year.” “Pastor Paid Price for Unfaithfulness.”

“Pastor paid price, pastor paid price” Char chants slowly, and then faster and faster, until the phrase crumples in her mouth, and she laughs.

“Clothing Discarded to Save Wayward Man.”

“What’s ‘wayward’ mean?”

“I don’t know. But I think someone threw their clothes away.”

Char giggles. “Read that one.”

The writing is so tiny and smudged in places, Louisa’s eyes strain. The light from the phone barely helps. “James Daugherty, a farmer, objected to his wife going without clothing and fasting with two other women and two men to keep the husband of one of the women out of hell.”

“They were naked together?”

Louisa laughs at her sister’s shocked face. “I guess so.”

“Adults are weird.”

“So he had the quintet ‘pinched’ and put in jail. The wayward husband continues to pick cotton and worries little about the devil.”

“The devil!” Char whispers. “Do you believe in the devil?”

Does she believe in the devil? It is a question Louisa has never seriously considered, but sitting there with Char, it seems too unbelievable. A demon, skin as red as a fruit roll-up, running around tempting people? The wayward husband was probably right to go on picking cotton while his naked wife and her naked friends sat around, refusing to eat. The things adults do! Louisa doesn’t understand any of it. She tells Char the devil is make believe, like the Easter bunny.

“I believe in angels,” Char says.

Why not? Anything is possible, isn’t that what adults believe? Or at least what they say?

Louisa turns the page to two advertisements with hand-drawn pictures of smiling women. “It’s Really Fun and a Big Savings to Paint, Varnish, and Wax Things Yourself!” one reads, and “Do you Wear Furs in the Pantry?

“Furs in the pantry? What for?”

It has something to do with keeping food cold, she tells Char. “I guess they didn’t have refrigerators back then.” Their fridge never has much in it — ketchup, bread, butter if they’re lucky.

On the next page is the Classifieds. Louisa knows about the Classifieds because sometimes their dad looks for jobs. “Wanted: Situations Female. To cook on a ranch where I may take two girls, 11 and 7, some wage required.”

Louisa feels a jolt go through her. She is eleven, Char is seven. What if…what if it was their mother who placed this ad? Their mother who went out for milk and never came back. Louisa struggles with the idea, this possibility. Their mother was not alive in 1922. Still. What if their mother slipped through the space between things and ended up in another year, in 1922? What if she is trying to find a way to bring them to her?

Char tugs at her arm. “Read one more.”

It could be her, Louisa thinks. Strange things happen, things that can’t be explained, like ghosts and people who can tell the future. And what about the devil? If you can believe in the devil, why not a place where lost things go?

“Looouuu,” Char whines.

“Okay, okay.” Louisa skims a few headlines. “Second Victim Dies from Poisoned Soup,” “New Treatment Cuts Leprosy Death Rate.” “No Trace of Girl.”

“Read that one.”

Louisa obeys, reading slowly. “An all-day search failed to reveal the whereabouts of a 12-year-old Rosaline Shanley, the ‘swimming girl’ who disappeared after attending Sunday school.”

Louisa’s heart beats faster. The space between things! The space where missing things and people go.

Authorities declared they believed she was taken away by a man who had witnessed her fancy swimming exhibitions at a local beach last summer and had either become infatuated with the child or planned to train her for a stage or circus careers.

“The circus!” Char says.

“The space between things,” Louisa whispers.

“What space? The wall?”

“It’s more than a wall. It’s like…a portal. Like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, how the kids slip inside and disappear into another land — or like Doctor Who!” Char knows Doctor Who since they sometimes watch the TV show — all the old, grainy episodes — with their dad, who has loved The Doctor since he was a kid.

“Doctor Who is a Time Lord, Lou. People are not Time Lords.”

“I know that!”

“Anyway, how would anyone get in there?”

Louisa looks over at the wall. It would be like the TARDIS, she imagines, deceptively thin on the outside, but when you step inside, much larger, a whole world even.

“Do you think they found her?”

“Who?”

“The swimming girl!”

The swimming girl could have slipped through the portal, too. Maybe she’s with their mother, the two of them holding hands, comforting each other in their lost place.

“Well, I hope she joined the circus,” Char says, yawning. She raises herself on an elbow and the sheet slips down, revealing her shoulders. She is, of course, more than a head. “Maybe we should put something inside the wall.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno.”

But the idea sets off a buzzing in Louisa’s brain. Maybe they could send their mother a message. She will write something like, Mom, where did you go? How do we get back to you?

Then Char is standing there, holding out their father’s phone.

“He’ll kill us.” But the idea appeals to Louisa. She pulls Char in tight, holds the phone up, and snaps their picture. She checks to make sure it isn’t blurry. There are their two round faces, two sets of hazel eyes, their heads tipped together, touching at the temples. And behind them, the open window, the black night.

Will their mother recognize them? It has been several years since they saw her. Louisa has lost her baby fat, her face has narrowed, and Char’s hair has darkened, but these changes are not so drastic; a mother should be able to recognize her own children even with the span of decades, shouldn’t she?

Louisa turns the phone off and drops it into the space. Then she slips the pane back in place and shuts the window.

She lays down next to Char and puts her arm around her sister’s waist.

“I wonder who will find it,” Char says.

“Mom will,” Louisa says.

Somehow, powered by her wish, the phone will travel through time and space and land in the pocket of their mother, who may be, at this very minute, scrambling eggs and hash for a bunch of cowboys. She will find the phone, and open it to the image of her long-lost daughters. Her heart will race. She will go somewhere private to catch her breath and hold the phone to her heart. Then she will take a picture of herself, slip the phone into her pocket, and it will end up back in the wall, where Louisa will find it. In this way, they will stay connected, wherever each might be.

Char shakes her head. “It will be a girl from the future. A hundred years from now, some girl will stick her hand inside and find dad’s phone.”

“Or maybe Rosaline Shanley will.” Louisa imagines Rosaline, still dripping in her wet bathing suit, marveling over this strange device. What will she think when she sees their picture?

“And the girl from the future will charge it…” Char prattles on, while Louisa half-listens. “…because the wall is a time capsule…”

Maybe Char is right. The idea is a little appealing, Louisa admits. She thinks about this girl from the future — who knows, maybe she will be named Rosaline — how she will scroll through her father’s text messages, his notes, and finally his photos until she comes to the last picture of Louisa and Char. Who are you, the girl will wonder. Who were you? Are you still out there? Whatever became of you, two little lost girls? What did you do with your lives?

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This is Nicole Simonsen’s second story in Necessary Fiction. Other stories have appeared in Tin House Online, Jellyfish Review and Washington Square Review, etc. She lives in Northern California with her family, and works as an English teacher.