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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

American Girls

A Novel

Alison Umminger

Flatiron Books




I would never have gone after my mother with a knife, not while a credit card was cleaner and cut just as deep. It’s not like I was going after her at all—mostly, what I wanted was to get as far away from her as possible, and her wife’s wallet was sitting on the dining room table with the mail, just waiting to be opened. A person can only take so much. My mom had saged the house the week before and told me that she couldn’t even enter my room, the energy was so vile. She spent all her time with my new baby brother, talking about how he was the real reason she must have been put on this earth, that the universe was giving her a “do-over,” which made me what? A “do-under”? Once I added in the whole nightmare at Starbucks the week before—where my parents sat me down and put a price on my future like they were getting ready to list me on eBay—it seemed to me more likely that she wanted me to take the credit card. Was begging, even.

My sister, Delia, an actress in Los Angeles, told me last summer that everyone needs a “thing.” She’s beautiful, with silver-gray eyes and ink-black hair that goes halfway down her back, and a voice that sounds like she makes dirty phone calls for a living. She was almost cast as a Bond girl, but she told me that beauty isn’t enough. Everyone here is gorgeous, she said, so you have to figure out something else. You’ve got to be good at at least two things, and known for one. She’s a decent gymnast and can still cartwheel on a balance beam, so being able to do her own stunts is her “thing.” I visited her last summer, and she took me to a boutique in Santa Monica and helped me pick out a new pair of glasses for when I started high school. It is safe to say that being beautiful is not what I am going to be known for, but she told me that with the right glasses I could rule the world of “nerd chic.” I think she forgot that nerds are not, nor will they ever be, chic in Atlanta, or maybe in any high school in America. I bought a pair of thick black frames that you normally see on blind old men and wore the reddest lip gloss my mom would let me leave the house with. Flawless, my sister had said. Very French. The only person who noticed my makeover was my best friend, Doon, and she pointed out that I had lip gloss on my teeth. I didn’t get beat up, but I didn’t get asked to homecoming, either. I think my sister forgot that I don’t live in a movie, or even in France.

Stealing, contrary to my mother’s latest take on me, is not my “thing.” Now, if you asked my mother, she would probably make me out to be a criminal of the first order. To hear her tell it, I’m no better than those actresses who shoplift from Saks and whine on the news about being bored with their lives. Blah, blah, blah, You cant be trusted. She was actually crying when my sister gave me her phone at the airport. Blah, blah, blah, How could you have violated Lynettes privacy like that? (Ummmm. Easy?) Blah, blah, blah, I wish Id known more about how I was raising you when I was doing it. Like I’m some kind of paragraph she wishes she could delete and rewrite, but she already accidentally e-mailed it to the world.

The good thing is that I was now in Los Angeles, while my mother was still in Atlanta with her awful wife and my new brother, Birch. How? my mother asked. How did anyone let a girl whos barely fifteen through security at the Atlanta airport? Are you on drugs?

She yelled at my sister for a while, who pulled the phone away from her ear and stage-whispered with her hand half covering the receiver, “Don’t think this means you’re not in a huge pile of shit, Anna. Because you are.”

But huge piles of shit are relative, and it was hard to feel threatened in the Hollywood Hills, not in my sister’s apartment, at any rate, which was all mirrors and white light. The space was carefully underfurnished. The living room had a Zen fountain, an oversize white sofa, a coffee table, and not much else. The doors between the living room and bedroom were translucent, and they slid to open. Her bedroom was like a crash pad from The Arabian Nights, with embroidered pillows and velvet curtains and a bed that sat close to the floor. I think if my sister were less pretty, her apartment would have seemed kind of ridiculous—there were too many pillows and candles in the bedroom and too few decent snack-food choices in the kitchen for your standard-issue human being. Instead, it felt like the inside of some Egyptian goddess’s sanctuary, full of perfumes you could only buy in Europe, expensive makeup in black designer cases, and underwear that was decidedly nonfunctional. It had crossed my mind that my sister might be a slut, but a really nice-smelling, clean, and carefully closeted slut. Even I knew better than to ask if that’s one of the two other “things” that she was good at, though Doon and I had some theories.

“Can we go shopping tomorrow?” I asked.

“Are you deaf? You’re in some serious trouble,” my sister said. Then she laughed a little; she couldn’t help herself. “So you stole Lynette’s credit card.”

“I didn’t steal it.”

“Have you considered law school? You stole the number.”

“I used the number,” I said, annoyed that she even wanted to talk about it. “It was under five hundred dollars.”

She kept an eye on me like I might make a break for the door as she leveled green powder and yogurt into a blender. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“What’s that?”

“Greens and probiotics,” she said. “Fish oil, B vitamins, acai berry juice, and herbs from my Chinese doctor. It’s like licking the bottom of a compost pile, so let’s hope it’s doing something besides bankrupting me.”

Dramatic, my sister. But at least she makes money for it.

“And don’t change the subject. You could have gotten nabbed by some pervert. Mom was scared to death. Oh yeah, roll your eyes and make me another mean, mean grown-up, but you’re lucky you got here. What if I had been on location somewhere?”

“I’m fifteen, it’s not like I’m twelve.”

“And it’s not like you’re forty-two, either. People are disgusting, or have you forgotten?”

“How could I?”

My sister put on music and I checked to see what she was playing: Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here. Lonesome music that seemed like it could only belong on the West Coast. My sister only thinks music is good if it’s a thousand years old. I sent her some music by the band that Doon and I love best, Freekmonkee, and she told me that it sounded like bad Nirvana covers, which proves she didn’t even listen to it. They’re British but just relocated to LA. Doon had a shrine on her computer for the lead singer, Karl Marx, and I was mildly obsessed with the guitarist, Leo Spark. When I first got on the plane, I actually checked first class to see if any members of Freekmonkee were on board, but no luck.

My sister and mom always thought that something awful was going to happen to me—they acted like the only option for running away was winding up in pieces in some stranger’s freezer. My family was clearly the place where optimism went to die. What about the hope that something amazing might happen? Half the time I wondered if they weren’t wishing for the worst, then they could turn me into a sad story they told their friends instead of having to deal with me as an actual life-form who shared their DNA.

“What if the taxi driver had been a serial killer?” I said. “What if terrorists hijacked the plane? I did get here. I’m fine. I’d like to know how long it took her to notice I was gone.”

“You laugh, but stranger things have happened. Did you know they found a severed head in Griffith Park last week? I jog there, or at least I did. And as to your second question, not long.” My sister sipped the grass-shake. “Lynette’s credit card company called a few hours afterward about a suspicious charge.”

Lynette’s bank called. I’ll bet they did. Before my mom decided she was a lesbian, I thought lesbians were all these really nice, earthy, crunchy, let’s smother you with our twenty extra pounds of lady love and fight the power people. But Lynette wasn’t like that at all. She was thin and smart and mean, and probably slept with her cell phone to get bank alerts like that.

“So it’s really their money they’re worried about,” I said.

“That’s not what I said at all. That’s how they found out. Are you depressed or something?”

I didn’t shake my head either way. I hadn’t really thought about it.

“I’m not taking sides on this one. Cora’s clearly lost her mind and I regret that you’re living the crazy, but you can’t just steal people’s credit cards. You can’t. Okay?” She ran her finger inside the glass to get the last of the sludge while I reopened the refrigerator door to see if anything with refined flour or sugar had materialized. No luck.

But it wasn’t really theft. It wasnt.

One thing I didn’t tell my sister, and I wouldn’t tell my mom or dad, or anyone, really, because it’s the kind of thing that just makes you look sad when you’re supposed to be having a good time, but when I charged the ticket I imagined that when I got on the plane I’d try to order a wine, or see if they’d upgrade me to first class, or at least spend some money on the snacks they make you pay for. Traveling with parents meant sad dried fruit and chewy popcorn in Ziploc bags. I was going to have Pringles! I thought it would be my reward for talking my way through security, but the crazy thing was that after I flashed my passport (stamped once from a horrible weekend “getting to know” Lynette in the Bahamas), they let me through security like a fifteen-year-old traveling alone was the most normal thing in the world. Maybe it was, but I’d never done it. They didn’t even find the mini can of mace attached to my key chain. By the time I got on the plane, I felt even more invisible than I had at home, and I munched my sad peanuts like there were no other options. I had become the human equivalent of one of those balloons we used to send into the air with our name and address on the string in the hope that someone might mail it back, but no one ever did.

Maybe my sister was onto something, and I was depressed. A normal person would have at least bought an in-flight snack box. The thought did cross my mind that once I landed in LA, I could take a taxi to Disneyland, or hightail it to the Hollywood sign, or get one of those maps of the stars’ houses and maybe even become the youngest member of the paparazzi and get accidentally famous for my pictures in a straight-to-Pay-Per-View-movie kind of way. I thought those were optimistic ideas, but maybe they were really depressing.

When we landed, my sister was waiting right outside the gate, inside security, plastered to her cell phone.

“Yes,” she’d said. “She’s here. I see her now. She looks fine. I know. Okay. Love you too.”

“What are you doing here?” I thought about hugging Delia, but her hands were crossed over her chest and she didn’t make a move in that direction.

“What am I doing here? Have you completely lost your mind?”


“I’ll be the judge of that. Well, right now, I’m missing work because my phone rang this morning and I had to talk Cora off the ledge. Seriously, I’ve got to hand it to you. I thought I was a grade-A fuckup for not going to college, but you’re leaving me in the dust. Is something happening?” Her voice lowered a bit. “Is anyone molesting you? Because I wouldn’t send you back, and I would always believe you.”

“No!” I said. “Gross. Who would molest me? Dad? Lynette? No, it’s just … I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You flew all the way across the country and you don’t want to talk about it. Fine for now, but I’m gonna let you in on a little secret, they’re gonna want you to talk about it.”

I hadn’t seen my sister in almost a year. She’d always been pretty, but now she had the smoothed-down look of a Barbie doll. Her hair was straight and the glossy black of an expensive magazine cover. She had on a wifebeater, blue jeans, and five-inch-high dominatrix heels: black leather with silver studs. But she could still walk faster than me, in my Converse low-tops, Old Navy denim, and red Georgia sweatshirt.

“They wanted to send you right back home,” she said. “You can thank me for the fact that you get to stay here to cool off for a couple of days. But you’re under house arrest, okay? No running off to the Coffee Bean for celebrity sightings. I want to understand what’s going on. You know this makes me feel guilty too, don’t you?”

Just walking through the LA airport made me glad that I wasn’t in Atlanta. When you go up the escalators at the Atlanta airport there’s a mural on the walls that features a mystery-race toddler with creepy blurred-out genitals playing in a fountain. I think it’s supposed to be friendly and We love everyone, yay! but it’s just weird. The LA airport is the exact opposite; no one is trying to look friendly, and everyone we passed looked half starved and almost famous.

“You’re not listening,” she said. “Does it even bother you that I could lose my job for missing work today? Finding an actress to fill my shoes is like finding a clover in a clover field, okay? A thank-you would be in order.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Delia stopped walking and stared me down, like the old days.

“And thank you. Thaaaaannnnnnk youuuuuuuu.

“A little sincerity never killed anyone,” she said, and then she gestured for me to hand over the bigger of my bags.

“So what are you working on?” I asked.

“Were you even listening when I called last weekend? It’s an indie horror flick about zombies and the organ trade in China.”


I hadn’t checked any other luggage, so we headed straight for the parking lot. It felt like I was going on vacation.

“Did you know that part of the reason they won’t get rid of the death penalty in China is the organ trade? And they don’t just execute people in prisons, they have these vans that drive around and pick people up and do away with them on the spot. So I’m supposed to be this American woman who sees a body thrown from one of the vans”—she paused in creepy horror-movie style—“only it’s not really dead yet. I think they’re trying to make a point, the director keeps talking about human rights and Amnesty International, but I think that’s to hide the fact that he can’t write dialogue. Not my problem as long as he can pay my salary,” she said. “You want to know what it’s called?”


Thief of Hearts. I mean, unless your lead zombie is Internet dating, it’s too tragically idiotic, right?” She was cracking herself up.

“I guess.”

We got into a BMW convertible that was definitely not my sister’s. It had magnets on the bumper that advertised private schools, or where someone vacationed, code letters that only other super-rich people would recognize.

“What’s the HH for?” I asked. “Heil Hitler?”

“What are you talking about?”

“The sticker, on the bumper. And SSI? Is that Nazi too?”

“Hilton Head and St. Simon’s Island. Vacation spots. Lord, Anna, there are more of those on bumpers in Atlanta than here. Where do you get these things?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “The Discovery Channel?”

For the longest time she was dating Roger, a film student who would have been hard-pressed to drive a ’92 Corolla off a used-car parking lot. But now she’s “just good friends” with the producer of the Bond flick that she lost the part for, and he lets her use his car when he’s abroad. Because friends do things like that in LA, especially when one of the friends is extremely good-looking.

“Let me finish about the film,” she said. “Not that you were listening. I’m practically the lead, only I’m down a kidney or something by the end.”

It was three hours earlier in California and the sky hadn’t started to get dark, but I felt tired. I leaned my head against the window and watched the traffic, the palm trees, the fruit stands on the sides of the streets. It was easy to be in California with my sister. She was the kind of person who people didn’t just buy drinks for—they offered her their cars, their homes, their credit cards. I knew what the week would be like if I stayed here—Pilates and yoga, a trip to the old perv who balanced her energy, a few days on the set, a manicure or a haircut, and maybe a sip of a beer when we went out with the producer when he came back, just to prove how “cool” he was. People were nice to me when I was with Delia because I was her sister. My sister would never have to steal five hundred bucks—if she so much as looked a little sad, someone was there to open his wallet.

If only my sister were my mom. “Overrated,” she said when I told her that once. “Cora was my sister-mom, and we’re a real portrait of functionality, right?”

I’d heard stories about my mom in the old days, how she would take Delia on dates with her when she couldn’t find a sitter, or the time they took off for the World Series of Poker in Vegas because my mom had a dream that she was going to win big. The mom I got, Cora 2.0, always made me call her Mom, and until their divorce she and Dad were sort of like the living room furniture—around, but nothing to notice. I guess they were fine, but they definitely weren’t fun. When my sister talked about Cora, it was like she knew a totally different person.

I thought that maybe my mom was going to call back and I was going to be forced to get on the phone to apologize, but after my sister clicked off the second time, the phone never rang. While Delia was learning her lines, I sent Doon a message: “In LA. Hiding from Mom and Lynette. May have taken a credit card.” Doon said I was evil for leaving without her, but she was on top of the credit card situation. She told me that I should Google “punishments for stealing” so that I would be ready for anything when I talked to my mom. Then she said that she’d read that Freekmonkee was recording a new album, and that the band had moved into a neighborhood not far from my sister’s. She signed off with, “PLS buy me ticket! TRAITOR!!!!! JK. Not!”

We figured out a while ago that my mom likes to get advice from the Internet. After reading about how a child who steals probably already feels ashamed enough (please God, let her decide that I’ve suffered enough!), I found a site that showed a truck running over the arm of a boy who’d been caught stealing in Iran, only it turned out that the picture was a fake and it was just a scam for money. Then I searched those death trucks in China that my sister was talking about, and they looked like the kind of RVs that I used to think would be fun to take on vacation, where you could shower and poop and sleep and wake up in New Mexico, only in China they were sleek and black like giant police cars, and you woke up dead. I wondered if Doon had heard about those. I was pretty sure she hadn’t, so I sent her a link to a page. China definitely sounded worse than Atlanta, even if my sister swore by Chinese doctors.

While I was surfing the Web, I started getting more and more nervous, like I was going to have a panic attack. So I Googled “panic attack” and decided that I didn’t want to start having those at fifteen, but it didn’t make my chest feel any less tight. I don’t think I missed my mom and I know I didn’t miss Lynette, but I wondered if Birch had noticed I was gone. At night, he liked to bring me this book about a duck and a cat and an owl who make soup out of pumpkins. I’d make these big slurping noises and he would die laughing, and when Birch laughs it’s pretty disgusting in terms of cute. I wondered if he brought the book to Lynette, or what they told him had happened to me. He wouldn’t have understood either way, but I kind of wished now that I had said good-bye, or left him a picture of me by a plane.

In the other room, I could hear my sister practicing her lines. It pumps. It bleeds. But does it feel? Her bed felt like the bed in a hotel, with white-white sheets and pillows everywhere, and the room smelled faintly of roses. Do you love me? Or do you just think you love me? What is it beating inside of you? From through the wall, those same lines over and over. Louder, then soft. Scared. Happy. Excited.



Copyright © 2016 by Alison Umminger