The Church of Dead Girls: A Novel

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9780143107828: The Church of Dead Girls: A Novel

One by one, three young girls vanish in a small town in upstate New York. With the first disappearance, the townspeople begin to mistrust outsiders. When the second girl goes missing, neighbors and childhood friends start to eye each other warily. And with the third disappearance, the sleepy little town awakens to a full-blown nightmare. The Church of Dead Girls is a novel that displays  Stephen Dobyns’ remarkable gifts for exploring human nature, probing the ruinous effects of suspicion. As panic mounts and citizens take the law into their own hands, no one is immune, and old rumors, old angers, and old hungers come to the surface to reveal the secret history of a seemingly genteel town and the dark impulses of its inhabitants.

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About the Author:

Stephen Dobyns is the author of more than thirty novels and poetry collections, including Cold Dog Soup, Cemetery Nights, and The Burn Palace. Among his many honors are a Melville Cane Award, Pushcart Prizes, a National Poetry Series prize, and three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. His novels have been translated into twenty languages, and his poetry has appeared in the Best American Poems anthology. Dobyns teaches creative writing at Warren Wilson College and has taught at the University of Iowa, Sarah Lawrence College, and Syracuse University.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

This is how they looked: three dead girls propped up in three straight chairs. The fourteen-year-old sat in the middle. She was taller than the others by half a head. The two thirteen-year-olds sat on either side of her. Across the chest of each girl was an X of rope leading over her shoulders, down around her waist, and fastened in the back. All three girls were barefoot and their ankles were tied to the legs of their chairs. Even so, the ropes were loose, as if to hold their bodies erect rather than to keep their living selves prisoner: meaning they had been tied after they were dead.

I didn’t witness this. I only looked at the photographs my cousin showed me. There were many photographs. And he said the police had a videotape of the entire attic, but I never saw it.

Perhaps the chairs were two feet from one another. Because of the dryness of the attic, the girls looked old. They didn’t look like teenagers anymore. They were gaunt and bony and resembled women in their seventies. A large air conditioner and dehumidifier had been kept running all day long, day after day, and the moisture had been sucked from their bodies. They were dried out and their skin looked like dark wrinkled paper. But they were not equally dried out because they had been killed at different times, so the girl killed most recently looked youngest. The girls’ heads were tilted back or to the side. The one in the middle had blond hair. Long strands hung across her face. The others had brown hair. All three had hair down to the middle of their backs and perhaps this meant something. It gave them a virginal appearance. Although now, looking so old, they appeared nunlike, spinsterish. And by the time the photographs were taken their hair had become dusty. And they were emaciated, at least two of them were, as if they hadn’t been fed. But perhaps this was an effect of the dryness. All the vibrancy had been leached from their skin. The hollows of their cheeks were startling indentations. Their gums had receded from their teeth.

What were they wearing? Not their original clothes. Those had been taken from them. They wore handmade gowns cut from thick velvet. The middle girl’s was dark green, with long sleeves and a hem that nearly reached her ankles. The girl on the right wore a gown of dark red, the one on the left a gown of blue. But to speak of the colors is to say nothing. Sewn to the dresses, pinned to them, even glued to them, were stars and moons and suns cut from white or yellow sparkling cloth. But also animals, or rather their silhouettes: dogs and bears, horses and fish, hawks and doves. And there were numbers that seemed random—5s, 7s, 4s—the glittery numbers one buys at the hardware store to stick on mailboxes. There seemed no pattern to them. And pieces of jewelry, cheap costume jewelry, were pinned to the velvet and were draped over the numbers and stars and animals: bracelets and necklaces and earrings. It took a moment to see the actual color of the dresses because they were so covered with numbers and jewelry and patches of fabric.

Did I mention the words? Some of the patches had words written on them, but not words that made sense, “CK” and “NT” and “TCH” and “FIL.” Fragments of words, the beginnings and ends of words. What could they have meant to anyone? Also attached to the cloth were brass bells and little mirrors, pieces of metal and multicolored glass balls.

Presumably this clutter of patches and jewelry, words and numbers had been affixed to the dresses after the girls were wearing them and once they were tied to their chairs, because there were none behind their backs or under their bony buttocks. One understood that the girls had been placed in the chairs and decorated after they were dead. And such a labor must have taken days because nothing was helter-skelter.

What of the chairs themselves? They were straight-backed, but they hadn’t been bought anyplace. They were amateurishly made, knocked together from two-by-fours, and they leaned crookedly. But one didn’t notice they had been built from two-by-fours right away because nearly every inch of their surfaces was covered with the shiny tops of tin cans or round red reflectors or the bottoms of glass bottles, green and yellow and clear and brown. Most were nailed down but the circles of glass were held in place by bent nails tacked around their edges.

The chairs shone and glittered and—how shall I say this?—they seemed to stare back at the viewer. They were not stationary. Their color and shininess made them active, even aggressive. The legs of the chairs were wrapped in tinfoil and the metal circles and glass and reflectors were stuck on top of the foil. But again one realized it had been done after the girls were already seated, because where they were leaning or where they touched the seats the wood was bare.

And the attic? It was a large room with a pitched ceiling. At its highest it was perhaps twelve feet, but it sloped down to two feet on either side. The room was about thirty-five by fifty feet, with a curtained window at either end. The air conditioner had been fixed into a skylight in the middle and near the peak of the roof. But I never saw the whole thing; I only saw it from different angles by combining the photographs. Between the studs were strips of insulation with shiny foil backing, so the whole room sparkled and must have seemed absolutely alive in the light from the candles. Hundreds of strips of tinsel also hung from the ceiling. Perhaps they moved slightly in the drafts from the air conditioner. And how they must have sparkled.

Because that was the other thing: the candles. Many were stubs but the stubs had been replaced and replaced again, so that whoever lit them had come to the attic and lit them many times. In the photographs the candles were not burning. One had to imagine them, to imagine their reflections in the insulation’s tinfoil backing, their flickering in the glass and red reflectors and metal discs adorning the chairs, their twinkling in the cheap costume jewelry pinned to the girls’ dresses. How busy the attic must have been in the light of these candles and each candle reflected hundreds of times. The walls, chairs, clothing: a conversation of light, an ecclesiastical shimmering. And how the faces of the three girls must have glittered. The combination of light and shadow must have made their faces quicken, as if the girls weren’t dead, as if they had never been dead.

But all this must be imagined. I know for a fact that the authorities never lit the candles. They simply took their photographs, removed the bodies, and dismantled the whole spectacle. I don’t know if it is being stored someplace or if it was destroyed. One can imagine the unscrupulous trying to steal it, planning to put those flashing chairs on display for others to pay money to see. Perhaps they would put mannequins in the chairs and dress them as the girls had been dressed. The Church of Dead Girls it might be called, or the Monster’s Den.

Because surely the person who killed the girls was a monster. But hadn’t this person lived among us? Our town is not large. This person came and went, conducted business, had acquaintances, even close friends. Nobody looked at this person and thought, Monster. Perhaps this was the most disturbing aspect of the business: that the person, on the surface at least, never seemed extraordinary, or none of us had the wit to identify the signs. What would those signs have been? Wouldn’t evil or monstrosity call attention to itself? And yet this person had a place within the community. How do you think it made us feel about one another, even afterward, when the discoveries were made? If one of us who had such an awful secret seemed innocent, then what about the others? What were their secrets? And were they looking at me as well? Of course they were.

Three dead girls in three straight chairs, collapsed against the ropes, heads tilted, their skin papery, their bare feet on the wood floor looking more like paws than feet, brown and bony. Their mouths were slightly open and their lips pulled back. One could see their small teeth, imagine the dark dryness of their tongues, the darkness of their silent throats. How their teeth must have glittered in the candlelight. And their eyes, half open as if the girls were drowsing, they too must have shone.

But there is something else. Their left hands were missing. Each girl had her left hand severed at the wrist. One could see their wrist bones. And those stubs, they must have glittered as well. In the photographs, there was a startling milkiness to these wrist bones. The skin and flesh had receded, shrunk back, letting the wrist bones jut from the stumps. Their whiteness and roundness made me think of eyes, blind eyes, because, of course, how could these white bones ever see?

And the missing hands? They weren’t in the attic, nor were they in the house.

Part One

One

Afterward everyone said it began with the disappearance of the first girl, but it began earlier than that. There are always incidents that precede an outrage and that seem unconnected or otherwise innocent, a whole web of incidents, each imperceptibly connected to the next. Take the case of a man who cuts his throat. Isn’t it a fact that the medical examiner finds several practice nicks, as if the deceased were trying to discover how much it might hurt? And in the case of our town, even before the first girl’s disappearance, there were undoubtedly several events comparable to two or three nicks on the skin above the jugular.

For example, on a Tuesday morning in early September, just after school began, a bomb was found on a window ledge outside a seventh grade classroom of the Albert Knox Consolidated School. It appeared to be three sticks of dynamite wrapped together with silver tape. Two green wires descended from the dynamite to a paper bag resting on the grass. A student pointed it out to the English teacher, Mrs. Hicks, and she rang the alarm. We get bomb scares sometimes; all schools do. They are malicious pranks and no bomb is ever found. Mostly when school is closed during the day because of a bomb scare there is a party atmosphere. No one believes in the threat and you can hear the students laughing and chatting as they hurry from the building.

But on this day in early September news of an actual bomb spread quickly. Students were frightened. Sarah Phelps, an eighth grader, was knocked down on the stairs as she ran from the building. Other students were bruised as well. There was no orderliness in our departure. The officious teachers like Lou Hendricks and Sandra Petoski stood at the head of their students and kept control. But others weren’t as capable and in some classrooms—Mrs. Hicks’s, for example—there was panic. Mrs. Hicks is a nervous, excitable woman and she must have felt that she had at last found something to be sincerely excited about.

The building was closed and everyone hurried out to the parking lot. I guided a few of my own biology students, tenth graders, but most of my charges had disappeared. Harry Martini, our principal, had gone to see the bomb and came running back. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt with large half-moon sweat marks discoloring the fabric beneath his armpits. Harry is rather stout and running takes effort. He made us move to the far end of the parking lot and onto the playing fields, where the ground was muddy. We have six hundred students and we made quite a crowd. Luckily it wasn’t raining.

Ryan Tavich, who had recently been made lieutenant, was the first of the town police to arrive, quickly followed by three squad cars. Ryan took charge. He was in plainclothes—a gray suit, as I remember—with a tweed cap balanced on the back of his head. The police set up a barrier. Then we settled down to wait for the state police bomb squad to arrive from the barracks in Potterville. The students milled around. When it became obvious that school would be closed for the day, some students with cars drove off and a few others went with them. But most chose to remain, to see if there would truly be an explosion.

That morning I watched events through my own good-humored ignorance. No girls had disappeared. The town had a certain wholeness and the mayor could speak of a sense of community. Now I look at that same scene through the filter of other events and I see fragility where I had imagined resilience, the fleeting where I’d seen permanence. It was a warm morning and only a few maples had begun to turn. Crows called from the oaks beyond the baseball diamond. The sky was that deep blue one gets in the early fall with two or three small clouds scudding across it. The school was situated at the northern edge of town, and over the trees I could see the steeple of Saint Mary’s and part of the red roof of the four-story Weber Building, our biggest building. A golden retriever had appeared from one of the nearby houses and it rushed from one group of students to another, pausing only long enough to have its ears scratched or to be thumped on the back.

I see them standing together. Meg Shiller with her long brown hair talking to shy Bobby Lucas, whom I had recruited for the chess club. Bonnie McBride with her usual stack of books, Hillary Debois carrying her violin case. Sharon Malloy running her fingers through her blond hair again and again. There must have been students whose names I didn’t know, but it felt like I knew them all. In some cases, I had been a classmate of their parents. A few boys began tossing a football. Two others had a Frisbee. Teachers looked at them impatiently, as if to say that we weren’t there to have fun.

The students are better dressed in September: new clothes, new shoes, new haircuts. In September, even the teachers feel hopeful. Harry Martini paced back and forth between the students and the town police, forming his own barrier. I’m afraid I have never liked him, and he walked splayfooted like an old mother goose, heaving his stout belly after the movement of his legs. The teachers themselves reminded me of mother hens. It was not the first time that such comparisons occurred to me.

It took thirty minutes for the state police bomb squad to arrive and by then the school buses had come to take most of the students home. Many wanted to stay but Harry Martini wouldn’t allow it. The thing on the window ledge looked quite formidable and there was no telling how much damage it might cause. The school was a two-story building of yellow brick, built in the mid-1950s, and one imagined the bricks flying through the air like shrapnel. And of course Harry was terrified of doing something that would get him in trouble with the school board.

I myself decided to stay to see what would happen, though Harry gave me a look. From where I stood at the edge of the police line, the bomb was a silver shape against the window. About twenty other teachers remained as well and some people had driven out from town. Franklin Moore had come from the Independent and he interviewed Ryan Tavich. The two were close friends, played basketball on Thursday evenings in the high school gym, and often were together on weekends. Both looked very serious. Ryan kept taking off his cap and pushing back his short black...

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Book Description Blue Rider Press, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. One by one, three young girls vanish in a small town in upstate New York. With the first disappearance, the townspeople begin to mistrust outsiders. When the second girl goes missing, neighbors and childhood friends start to eye each other warily. And with the third disappearance, the sleepy little town awakens to a full-blown nightmare. The Church of Dead Girls is a novel that displays Stephen Dobyns remarkable gifts for exploring human nature, probing the ruinous effects of suspicion. As panic mounts and citizens take the law into their own hands, no one is immune, and old rumors, old angers, and old hungers come to the surface to reveal the secret history of a seemingly genteel town and the dark impulses of its inhabitants. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143107828

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Book Description Blue Rider Press, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. One by one, three young girls vanish in a small town in upstate New York. With the first disappearance, the townspeople begin to mistrust outsiders. When the second girl goes missing, neighbors and childhood friends start to eye each other warily. And with the third disappearance, the sleepy little town awakens to a full-blown nightmare. The Church of Dead Girls is a novel that displays Stephen Dobyns remarkable gifts for exploring human nature, probing the ruinous effects of suspicion. As panic mounts and citizens take the law into their own hands, no one is immune, and old rumors, old angers, and old hungers come to the surface to reveal the secret history of a seemingly genteel town and the dark impulses of its inhabitants. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143107828

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