So much strength lies in numbers…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Girl One, a supernatural thriller from author Sarah Flannery Murphy—publishing June 1st with MCD Books.
Josephine Morrow is Girl One, the first of nine “Miracle Babies” conceived without male DNA, raised on an experimental commune known as the Homestead. When a suspicious fire destroys the commune and claims the lives of two of the Homesteaders, the remaining Girls and their Mothers scatter across the United States and lose touch.
Years later, Margaret Morrow goes missing, and Josie sets off on a desperate road trip, tracking down her estranged sisters who seem to hold the keys to her mother’s disappearance. Tracing the clues Margaret left behind, Josie joins forces with the other Girls, facing down those who seek to eradicate their very existence while uncovering secrets about their origins and unlocking devastating abilities they never knew they had.
A spellbinding supernatural thriller, Girl One combines the provocative imagination of Naomi Alderman’s The Power with the propulsive, cinematic storytelling of a Marvel movie. In her electrifying new novel, Sara Flannery Murphy digs deep into women’s extraordinary power and reveals an unassailable truth: so much strength lies in numbers.
April 15, 1994
I learned about my mother’s disappearance from the evening news. I looked up from my textbook when I overheard my surname and recognized the exact cypress tree that grew outside my bedroom window. From that point on, my life turned into a stream of simple equations. How long my mother had been missing (one day). How long since I’d had an actual conversation with her (just over a year). The cost of a bus ticket back to Coeur du Lac, my adopted hometown ($15). The amount left in my bank account after spending fifteen dollars ($110.67). How doomed I would be if I abandoned Chicago for longer than three nights (very: I had four exams looming within the next few weeks).
For a while I lost myself in these calculations and the illusion of stability they offered. This was my standard coping mechanism: turn everything into problems on a checklist to be neatly solved, then filed away. If I pulled it off just right, I could focus on the question of how many pairs of jeans to pack (three) and keep my growing panic at bay.
But when I arrived back in Coeur du Lac, Illinois—Heart of the Lake, with no lake and no discernible heart—I stood in front of the shell of my childhood home in the balmy twilight and everything in me crumpled. Something bad had happened here. Something bad had happened again, and this time it involved my mother.
The footage on the news and the photos in the papers hadn’t prepared me. The wreaths of yellow caution tape around the porch railings looked weirdly festive, like an interrupted birthday party. The porch still stood, but a narrow gash through the living room wall exposed blackened brick, hanging guts of insulation, snaky wires. The rest of the house looked more or less the same. That was almost worse: the untouched parts. I took a deep, shuddering breath.
The house felt both totally vulnerable and like a fortress. Thanks to my mother’s long-standing paranoia, there was no spare key hidden near my home. I went around to the side door and tried the knob. Locked, of course. A small window was set into the door. My mother kept the glass panes covered with a frilly gingham curtain, more for the privacy than for any kind of aesthetic value. She’d hated that window, always eyeballing the distance between the pane and the doorknob, forever imagining a fist smashed through the glass, a hand reaching for the lock. I’d dutifully shared the fear as a little kid, but as a teenager I’d finally snapped. “Who even wants to get in here, Margaret?” I’d demanded, world-weary, contemptuous. “There’s never anything going on in this house.”
I stepped back now and examined the wilderness at the sides of the house, looking for a likely candidate, my pulse already surging with what I was about to do. Everything was weedy and overgrown, thistles blooming to calf-height. I grabbed a large rock, tested its weight in my palm with a few quick bounces. Good enough. Feeling wild, like I was inside a dream, I brought the rock hard against the glass: once, twice, watching the glass splinter into a spiderweb of cracks. The glass was cheap and brittle, hadn’t been replaced since we’d moved in seventeen years ago. It shattered with a satisfying clatter. Then I sobered up, looking around. The block was dark and empty in the rapidly spreading dusk. Our street had always been lonely, occupied by a steady stream of short-term renters, our two-person household the only stubborn fixture.
I snaked my arm through the hole, avoiding the jagged crust at the edges. For a second the realization that I was vandalizing my own house hit me with a lurch of guilt. I was doing exactly what my mother had worried about, all those years. But screw it. The whole house was so ravaged that this broken pane didn’t matter. I’d replace it for my mother myself. I’d replace every window in the house if I just found her safe.
Grappling for the doorknob, I felt the familiar wedge of the lock and twisted it. So many times I’d clicked that lock into place before bedtime, double-checking it to quell my mother’s nervousness. Withdrawing my arm, I stepped into my house, glass crunching under my soles.
I’d wasted too much money on newspapers at the bus station, driven by both a need for the facts and my growing dread, snatching everything from tabloids to the Chicago Tribune. My mother stared up at me, over and over again. Several shots from her Homestead days, hair waist-length and eyebrows unplucked. One candid shot had been snapped on the last day I’d seen her in person, taken just as I was about to drive away, heading into my bright new future without her. Both our smiles were uncomfortable, obviously fake. I remembered the exact blouse my mother was wearing, even the precise depth of the dark circles under her eyes. She hadn’t been sleeping much back then, the tension in our house so thick that it was hard to relax. The months between that day and this one collapsed as I hunched over the newspaper, worrying a fingernail, barely caring how I looked to the other bus passengers.
From the papers, I pieced together more of the story. The fire had started overnight. It was three in the morning before the bright shadow of the flames finally woke the closest neighbors, so a quarter of my childhood home had burned before the fire department made an appearance. Afterward, the police searched the dark, dripping rooms, unable to find any real trace of my mother. Her purse left behind. Her car still there.
The tiny details stung the most. The fact that none of the neighbors could comment on her whereabouts because my mother had been even more of a hermit than usual. Mail piling up, the lawn piebald with brown patches, the windows darkened at all hours. She’d apparently quit her job at the library a month ago.
It was that last fact that nearly made me rip up the paper, as if destroying the words could make them untrue. My mother had loved her job. The public library had been her only refuge when the two of us came blowing into town in 1977, fear-struck, hair singed, unable to sleep at night without the flames chasing us in our dreams. Nobody else had wanted anything to do with a couple of cult escapees, our faces plastered all over newspapers beneath doomy headlines. My mother thanked the librarians who took a chance on her by efficiently working her way from reshelving books to the circulation desk, the farthest she could go without a degree. And now I tried to imagine my mother confined at home, shuffling, unwashed, vacant and alone.
I’d done that to her. I’d left my mother, and she’d become exactly who I worried she’d be without me.
Most of the newspapers jumped at the chance to resurrect the whole grim tale of the Homestead. It was like a game of telephone: every time our story reappeared, another name was misspelled or a date was off by a week, another false bit of gossip was recycled (this time, the claim that our mothers had hosted pill-fueled orgies). One paper included a list of the surviving members, all eight mother-daughter pairs arranged by birth order. It was the original taxonomy that we’d fall into forever, giving each other context though we hadn’t been together in years.
The New York Times ran a full-color photograph of me and my mother in January 1973. It was a photo I’d seen a thousand times, reprinted so often it should’ve been faded by all the eyes on it. My mother stood next to Dr. Bellanger with me propped on her hip, Bellanger’s arm around her. Toddler-me craned my neck to look at him, chubby-cheeked and beaming. The quintessential family portrait. My father (in a way). My mother (in every way). And me. I was the oldest Girl by a full two years, often selected for photographs and interviews, so the three of us—Bellanger, my mother, and me—had become a trio. Set apart in a way the others weren’t.
Sitting on the bus this morning, I hadn’t been prepared to see that photo again; I experienced the quick throb of grief and love I felt whenever I saw Bellanger’s face. Usually, when I looked at this photo, my mother barely stood out. When I was a kid, her face in this photo was just a younger version of the one I saw as she tucked me into bed every night. As I grew up, it become an older version of the face I saw in the mirror. So totally familiar it was uninteresting. Now she grabbed my gaze with a stab of worry. I pressed a finger over Bellanger’s face, then over my mother’s, until I was the only one left.
Each year of my life revolved around two particular dates, an emotional arc as fixed in my head as the rotation of the earth around the sun. The first came on April 24, the anniversary of one of the most controversial scientific breakthroughs in the twentieth century: my birthday. A date that’d become a question in Trivial Pursuit and the title of a little-known song by the Clash.
The second date landed in June. The anniversary of the fire that’d taken everything from me. Together, those two formed the simple punch line of my origin story: it might’ve been birth that put us on the map, but it was death that kept us there.
Since first grade, I could recite my personal history on command, and often did for anybody who’d listen. In the year 1970, the shiny start of a new decade, a visionary named Joseph Bellanger put out the call for young women to become part of a risky reproductive experiment. Between 1971 and 1975, nine women gave birth to baby girls. There were no fathers. Not genetically, not biologically. Only eggs dividing, impossibly, without the influence of spermatozoa.
The nine of us, swiftly dubbed the “Miracle Babies,” launched Bellanger from crackpot obscurity to global fame. For six bright years, there were photo shoots, interviews, limited-edition baby dolls; conference presentations, sponsorships, endless editorials. Bellanger stayed with us at the Homestead as much as possible, doing his best to protect us from both the shine of the spotlight and the inevitable darkness that collected at its edges.
By my sixth birthday, the darkness started to overwhelm the shine. The people who opposed our very existence got louder, more aggressive. Our most prominent critic was a man named Ricky Peters, an ersatz preacher whose fame grew alongside ours. But Ricky wasn’t the only one. Politicians publicly promised that, if elected, they’d make parthenogenesis illegal. Ministers and priests took to the pulpits to remind the world that we were born pre-damned. Petri dish abominations, our eternal souls only half formed when we were conceived without fathers.
In 1977, everything fell apart, one disaster after another. Lily-Anne, Mother Nine, the last to give birth, was the first to die. She left her two-year-old daughter, Fiona, orphaned in every sense of the word. Doctors around the globe snagged TV appearances and front-page spots to argue that Bellanger’s methods were clearly dangerous, illicit, and untested. Some Mothers fled the Homestead, taking their Miracle Babies with them. Our makeshift family fractured and scattered until barely any of us were left. And then—then the fire.
On June 22, 1977, a fire blazed overnight at the Homestead. When the smoke cleared, two bodies were among the wreckage, barely recognizable. One was Fiona, Girl Nine, always fatherless and newly motherless. The other was Dr. Joseph Bellanger. The secrets of parthenogenesis went with him, his research consumed in the flames.
For most people, the story ended with the fire. In 1978, after a well-publicized
trial, Ricky Peters was found guilty of arson and two counts of first-degree murder, sentenced to life in prison without parole. The surviving Mothers and Girls sank into an uneasy infamy, becoming Jeopardy clues and textbook footnotes.
For me, though, the fire was only the beginning. My story began when my mother transplanted us to Illinois and tried to forge a quiet life out of the ashes, as if we could just disappear into normalcy. It became painfully obvious that wasn’t an option for me when a group of seventh-grade boys surrounded me, asking if I even had a pussy or if my crotch was as smooth and blank as a Barbie’s. My mother devoted herself to pretending our history never happened, forcing me to patch together the story on my own. I memorized each of the precious letters that Bellanger had written for me. Six of them, one for each of my birthdays before he’d died. I’d returned again and again to the line where Bellanger called me his first and favorite daughter and felt that love and protection still surrounding me, glowing in my DNA.
Of all the Girls, you’re the most like me, Josephine. You have that same spark in you. That same curiosity. You see the world through my eyes.
In high school biology, I cut into a frog’s slick, pale belly and a flood of memories returned. Helping Bellanger in his lab at the Homestead. The way it felt to sit with him for hours, being so patient, barely moving, watching him work. Handing him his instruments. In that muggy high school lab, I was the first of my classmates to identify the ovaries, the
oviduct, those delicate, springy coils. Looking around, I knew it was different for me. I was drawn to this secret, interior world, brimming over with the potential to change everything.
That initial spark grew and grew until I appreciated what it actually meant: That I should be the one to pick up the loose thread that had started with my conception. Who better than me, Girl One, born with Bellanger’s curious eyes and hungry brain? Before his death, Bellanger had described a world where any woman could achieve parthenogenesis with his help. I was tired of sitting by and watching his legacy shrink a little more every year, my birth becoming a weird hiccup in the timeline of human reproduction instead of a bold turning point.
And so I’d done everything I could to make Bellanger proud. I went to school in Carbondale, majoring in biology, commuting from home. A two-hour round trip every weekday, followed by the late shift at Coeur du Lac’s all-night diner. I was saving money living at home with my mom, but there was a growing chilliness between us that made it increasingly uncomfortable. We had less and less to talk about. I couldn’t really chat with her about my courses. It wasn’t just that she was uninterested, it was the growing hum of disapproval, like an electrical appliance on the fritz, nagging at first and then piercing and unignorable.
It all led up to last year, when I’d finally left Coeur du Lac behind to attend medical school, stepping out of our quiet, careful life and into the waiting world.
The stench of smoke hit as soon as I stepped inside my mother’s kitchen, sticking to the back of my throat. I panicked immediately, chest tightening as I reached for the edge of the counter. Had she been home when it happened? I imagined my mother coughing, crawling on her stomach beneath the heavy layer of smoke—
No. I couldn’t let myself get caught up in this overwhelming fear. I had to focus. Find her. Figure out where she’d gone, get her back, return to my own life. I straightened, took a steadying breath.
The light switch next to the doorway clicked uselessly. I felt my way to the storage closet and reached for the highest shelf, groping for the sturdy stem of the flashlight my mother kept there. Never candles. Only this ancient, heavy Maglite, which I pulled down now and tapped against my palm. After a flicker, a watery beam spilled out. It hadn’t been used in a while.
The ruined living room lay just beyond the kitchen. I stopped in the doorway and swept the beam slowly. Dense scabs of black ran along the walls, tufts of grimy insulation poking from the ceiling like stalactites. The TV set was a gnarled clump of plastic. The couch was half-scorched, the darkness lying over it delicately as a drop cloth. I swallowed hard, fighting down my nerves. There was an explanation for all this.
I walked through the hallway. Something felt off. Some layer beneath the obvious, gut-punch wrongness of the burned house. Everything looked just a little different. The pictures that had once lined the hallway—portraits of me, all taken by my mother, framed in cheap plastic—had been removed entirely, or knocked crooked. The baseboards were furry with dust; a chair was toppled in the hallway, legs sticking up like a dead insect. The place looked abandoned. I wandered down the hall, catching the staleness that drifted under the sharp scent of smoke. Mounds of neglected laundry moldering along the baseboards. I caught a flicker of movement and jumped, stifled a yelp. A cockroach, huge and shiny, stuttered across the hall and vanished under a vent. I swallowed hard.
I made my way to the garage, where our unreliable old Chevy still sat surrounded by musty boxes. My mother’s purse was on the front seat, hanging open. Goose bumps rose along my arms. Maybe she hadn’t actually vanished, but she was doing a damn good impression of it.
Yanking open the creaking Chevy door, I fished around in the purse and plucked loose the keys. I slipped them into my pocket, the pulse of worry growing stronger. How the hell could she have left town without the Chevy? I dumped the contents of her purse onto the seat. Her wallet was gone; I wasn’t sure whether she’d taken it, or if it was at the police station, abandoned in a plastic baggie. Only trivial junk was left for me now. A piece of mint gum, stale-smelling. A thick hair elastic. A local gas station receipt from months back. A yellow Post-it note, the adhesive strip gray with dust and lint. Her handwriting was quick and sloppy.
T.A.—KCT. Then a string of ten numbers, randomly spaced. Maybe a phone number? The letters didn’t mean anything to me. I stuck the note into my pocket anyway. Even a tiny clue was helpful at this point.
I felt a sudden hopelessness, bottoming out beneath the frustration. I was worried for my mother; I was furious at her. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. All the time I’d been in Chicago, my mother’s place in Coeur du Lac had been a given. She’d scarcely ventured beyond the county lines since we’d landed here in 1977. I’d been safe in the knowledge I could walk back into our house and find her absorbed in a library book, looking up and reminding me to lock the door behind me: You’re too trusting, Josie. I might’ve been identical to my mother in every other way, but on the inside we were opposites. Her ironbound caution, my restless curiosity. She was the one who stayed. I was the one who left.
Walking back through the kitchen, I caught the muffled sound of an engine from outside. The cops? Gawkers? A news van drawn to the hot scent of scandal? I dropped into a half crouch as I went down the hall, hoping my flashlight beam wasn’t visible through the windows. I couldn’t let anyone find me here. I had wanted to get in, get out, get my mother, not end up as a tabloid headline myself.
My bedroom was a wreck. I had to quash the sudden sense of betrayal. It wasn’t like my mother had any obligation to keep my bedroom intact, with its outdated Popples pillowcase, my Rubik’s Cube one spin from being solved, the stack of ratty thirdhand textbooks from my undergrad courses. But I hadn’t expected her to tear the room apart. My mattress bare and sagging against a wall, my dresser pushed aside haphazardly. Strangest of all, the books and the papers. My whole collection, I realized. Scattered all over the floor, a chaotic layer of Homestead headlines and titles and photos. The entire fucking timeline of research that I had painstakingly put together on my own, now rooted from the top shelf of my closet and spread everywhere, some of the pages ripped, some with big squares cut out. My gaze landed on a photo of me and my mom, taken when I was a toddler. Our heads had been sliced out, replaced by a bare rectangle that showed the ugly green carpet pushing through.
I left my bedroom with my heart hammering. “What the hell?” I said, and it kept repeating. What the hell, what the hell. A mantra blaring through my head in the eerie silence. Somebody had been going through my things. Digging up the Homestead.
Moving on the balls of my feet, like someone would overhear, I made my way up the narrow staircase. In my mother’s small, angled bedroom, the feeling of weirdness grew even stronger, dizzying. My mother had been tidy. Not a neat freak—neither of us were—but I’d never seen this level of chaos. Books and notebooks and papers scattered everywhere. A half-full coffee cup growing lily pads of mold.
My mother hadn’t taken many clothes, wherever she’d gone. Most of her blouses and pants had been kicked to the floor of the closet in ungainly heaps. In the bathroom, her hairbrush was curled through with dark brown strands that matched mine, but threaded with gray. A preview of what my own follicles would do in another twenty-three years. The jar of coconut oil she used as moisturizer sitting half-open, releasing its warm, nutty smell. Her smell. But the trash can was overflowing, and the shower curtain was removed, and the grout was darkened into stark outlines between the tiles.
I breathed in, out, shut my eyes. I’d find her. Our DNA was identical. Our heartbeats once synced up. Our menstrual cycles, too, much to my adolescent embarrassment. Maybe our mindsets would finally match as well.
My eyes landed on the clock, and I hesitated. The clock was as big as a dinner plate and broken, a cheap plastic thing perpetually stuck at a quarter past four. I started toward it, stopped. It couldn’t be that easy—
I lifted it off the wall. My mother used to stash things inside the clock’s interior. A hiding spot I’d discovered when I’d peeked inside to see if I could replace the batteries, back in May of ’82. That time, I’d discovered the letter inviting us to the Homestead reunion, already a month late, our chance long gone. Later, in sixth grade, I’d retrieved a packet of fruit-flavored Nicorette pellets, even though I’d never once seen my mother with a cigarette.
The last time she’d hidden anything inside the clock, I was in seventh grade, maybe eighth. I’d retrieved a letter. Urgent loops of handwriting. Like a love letter—I think about you all the time—but devolving into sudden fury—You can’t ignore me forever. The only signature a letter T. My mother had never dated, barely even had friends, so it must’ve
come from one of our stalkers, those lonely strangers who loved us and hated us with the same unearned intimacy. Why had she kept it? Fascinated, I reread the letter again and again until my mother caught me one night, crouched in front of the disemboweled clock. She tore up the letter without a word, flushing the torn confetti down the toilet. Since then, she’d stopped hiding anything where I could find it. And I’d searched everywhere. Even pulled out a floorboard looking for secret crawl spaces.
My mother’s refusal to acknowledge our past had chafed between us for years. Our twin resentments, forever at odds. She hated my constant need to know-know- know. I hated that she couldn’t embrace the world-changing history that she’d—we’d—been part of. The letters from Bellanger were my only direct lifeline to the Homestead, and sometimes I wondered what I’d have done without them. With only my mother in my life, would I have forgotten that I was a scientific milestone in the flesh? My own memories were fading around the edges, a little fuzzier every time I handled them. I couldn’t even get a pure image of Bellanger’s face in my mind anymore. Just a vague sense of height and warmth, leaning over me.
I stared down at the clock now. Why not? Using the tip of the car key, I maneuvered the screws out of the flimsy plastic and then lifted the backing away. My heart jumped, that old thrill of illicit discovery. A smallish marble-cover composition notebook had been tucked next to the battery compartment. Bingo. My hands shook as I flipped through the pages, tucking the Maglite under my chin. The pages were full of cutouts, clippings, tattered edges,
and taped-down corners. Familiar headlines about Bellanger’s death, Fiona’s death, Lily-Anne’s death. Notes scattered in the margins. Some in pencil. Some in pen. One note seemed to be in crayon or smudged eyeliner. This wasn’t like my mother, whose fastidious handwriting had been passed down to me. For a moment I couldn’t make sense of anything. I was holding a scrapbook of the very things she’d forbidden me from exploring my entire life. Even in these circumstances, I couldn’t help feeling betrayed.
I paused at a page near the front. The edges were embroidered with notes. Numbers, the word REDBUD. My attention settled on the list at the center of the page.
- Trish/Isabelle (VT)
- Tonya/Catherine (AR?)
- Angela/Gina (?)
- Tami/Emily (KS)
- Vera/Delilah (??)
- Debbie/Bonnie (MN)
- Barb/Helen (?)
- Fiona (deceased)
I sat back on my heels, my mind whirring over the other Homesteaders, heart racing in my throat. My mother had been listing us, in our forever order, documenting our last known locations. Seeing the names in her handwriting was so intimate that it took my breath away.
This was the most attention I’d seen my mom give the other Homesteaders. Ever. She’d barely spoken their names when I was growing up. I’d tried to tease revelations out of her, traps I had to set ahead of time, catching her after a long weekend shift at the library and plying her with her favorite tea (orange pekoe). My mother would soak her legs in Epsom salts while I crouched on the other side of the shower curtain. If I played my cards right, the dim bathroom became a time capsule where my mother’s usual reservations didn’t apply.
What were they like, Mom?
Drowsy splashing. Who?
You know. The Mothers. The other ones.
Each grudging glimpse into our lives at the Homestead was precious. My mother’s memories were more detailed than mine, sharper and fuller. Tonya Bower’s love of fresh apples. Patricia Bishop’s habit of stealing cigarettes. Bellanger’s favorite cologne: Eau Sauvage. I’d mouthed those alien syllables at night until they were imprinted on my tongue.
Well. I’d come back home looking for a puzzle, some clues to my mother’s disappearance. I thought that if I could get the pieces back into place just right—click—she’d emerge safe and sound. I’d found a puzzle, all right. Not so much the names themselves, but the fact that my mother—Margaret Morrow—had been documenting the women she’d been avoiding for the past seventeen years. The scattered articles and chopped-up photos in my old bedroom hadn’t been the work of an intruder; it’d been my mother.
My pulse pounded in my ears, a surge of excitement, curiosity, fear. That noise of the engine outside was still itching at me. Setting the notebook aside for a moment, I crept to the dark window. A car idled across the street. A maroon sedan. I couldn’t make out the interior from here. The taillights were dull blobs against the growing dusk, the license plate obscured. I tried to pinpoint exactly when I’d first noticed the sound. Five minutes ago? Maybe ten? Did someone know I was here?
Stupid—stupid and reckless. I hadn’t told most of my professors and classmates why I was leaving or where I was going, figuring I’d be back in Chicago before they had time to wonder. But the inescapable reality of the house had me spooked. My mother was gone: really and truly gone, her absence telegraphed from every corner. Her favorite armchair reduced down to the stark lines of the frame, padded with a nest of blackened upholstery. The house was a strange, abandoned wreck. Something had been going on for a long time before this fire brought it all bursting to the surface. That car outside: Were they looking for my mother? For me? Whoever was after Mother One could be after Girl One too. We were a matching set, whether we liked it or not.
For a second I fantasized about running out there, ripping the car door open, demanding answers. But I thought of Bonnie Clarkson and was gripped with a well-worn fear. Girl Seven, attacked in 1982 when she was barely eight years old. Five years after the fire, just when we’d started to breathe again. The assault happened right on the heels of the much-televised reunion between the Homesteaders. As my mother and I had huddled silently in front of the news, I’d known exactly what she was thinking. That she’d been smart to avoid the reunion. That it had been a red flag waved in front of the bitter, seething masses who still listened to Ricky Peters’s proselytizing from his prison cell.
When I glanced out the window a few minutes later, I saw taillights vanishing around the corner. My heartbeat dipped with relief. But it was a reminder that I couldn’t hide here all night. I had to figure out my next step.
I went back down to my bedroom, pausing for a moment before going inside. Knowing that my mother had been the one ransacking my things made the room feel unnerving. Like I’d just missed her; like she was about to step out from the corner. Kneeling, I looked again at the butchered bylines, the sliced-up photos, all of which had apparently gone into my vanished mother’s creepy scrapbook.
I shifted the papers around with my fingertips. “What were you doing, Mom?” I whispered. So many faces I hadn’t seen since I was a little kid, my sort-of sisters. Some of us had been better than others about staying out of the public eye. The Kims and the Grassis hadn’t been heard from for years. Others—like the Clarksons—were right there in the spotlight. I paused at an image of Emily French, Girl Five, her solemn eyes and wispy bangs. It was a piece from six months ago, last October, when Tami French died in a car crash. I remembered seeing Emily’s face staring up at me from a discarded newspaper in the dining commons. The haunted and unmistakable look of a girl who’d lost her mother.
I pulled the paper closer. The story was in the Kansas City Telegraph, a publication that wouldn’t have caught my attention normally. But now everything was covered in the layer of significance my mother had left behind as strongly as her fingerprints. I checked the byline. Thomas Abbott. Kansas City Telegraph. I fished in my pocket for the Post-it note, smoothed it out. T.A.—KCT. The phone number. Voilà.
For a second my excitement over figuring out the code overshadowed the actual implications: Why would my mother—a woman who wouldn’t even talk about the past with her own daughter—keep the name and number of a reporter?
The phone lines in the house were down. I looked around before venturing back out of my shell of a house, making sure there were no strange cars lingering. The street was dark and empty. I hurried out, sticking to the shadows, mentally tracing the way to the nearest convenience store. I was so focused on keeping a low profile that I didn’t notice it until I stepped on it: a crunch underfoot. I backed away. It was a bird, belly-down, eye filmy, lying near the overgrown rhododendron. The bird—a robin, maybe?—looked almost as if it could fly away, but one outstretched wing was scorched and blackened. As if the little bird had dipped a single wing into the fire. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but my stomach twisted, and I hurried away from the little body, clutching the Post-it in my hand as if it would fix everything.
Excerpted from GIRL ONE by Sarah Flannery Murphy. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 1st 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Sara Flannery Murphy. All rights reserved.