Locust House Variations, A Weekly Fiction Column by Adam Gnade, Chapter 4
Who Are the Mystery Girls?
A Short Novel in Serial Form
Chapter 4, Turner and Hooch
By Adam Gnade
Driving up 30th from Golden Hill to North Park, the rain hammered against the windshield in wild, spraying gusts, the water sloshing off the sides as the wipers beat back and forth. Traffic crept along, the car windows fogged up, and Agnes and Marigold talked. They talked about animals and they talked about food and they talked about Halloween candy, the 9/11 attacks, fantasy novels, River Phoenix, and comedy movies co-starring dogs.
Marigold asked what Gabby was like and Agnes gave Marigold a brief if not entirely concise biographical sketch of her best friend. Gabby loved hardcore and ‘80s goth records. She had three tattoos. On her ankle—an upside-down cross. On the inside of her wrist—a line from a Smiths song translated to Spanish—“Esta luz nunca se apagra.” “There is a light that will never go out.” Across her left shoulder—the hissing panther face of the Black Cat Fireworks mascot.
Gabby loved chile relleno burritos, flautas, and hot dogs. Was shy about her eyes without makeup and considered them “too small and beady.” She read little but loved to buy books. She started many things and didn’t finish many, yet did so with enough heart and conviction that you couldn’t help rooting for her.
In middle school, Gabby, Agnes, and Arcangelo were outcasts until Arcangelo joined the LH gang and Gabby “got pretty overnight,” leaving Agnes the only unpopular member of their trio. Gabby in high school started numerous punk bands, enlisting Agnes to sing in three. Gabby played guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards proficiently, but refused to front a band, which seemed anachronistic considering her extroverted self.
An avid collector of vinyl, Gabby loved Antioch Arrow, This Mortal Coil, the VSS, Angel Hair, Joy Division, the Cure, Gogogo Airheart, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Man is the Bastard, Bauhaus, Clikatat Ikatowi, Run for Your Fucking Life, Unbroken, Infest, Virgin Megawhore, Hide and Go Freak, Mohinder, Crom-Tech, Huggy Bear, Monorchid, and Heroin (“It’s a band, don’t worry,” said Agnes when Marigold sat up in her seat, wide-eyed). Her favorite music magazines—HeartattaCK, cherished back issues of Ray Gun, Hit It or Quit It, Punk Planet, and Chunklet.
Gabby loved animals but had been terrified of dogs from a very young age after being attacked by one as a child in her uncle’s front-yard. She used the internet at friends’ houses to look at Buddyhead, Insound, MakeOutClub, SignOnSanDiego, and AllMusicGuide but didn’t own a computer. Her favorite films, in order—Mi Vida Loca, Lost Boys, the Hunger, and Mulan.
Gabby’s mother died of a drug overdose a few months after her birth. She (Gabby) had a younger sister who lived in a group home in Rancho Peñasquitos and a half-brother back in Mexico, but she knew neither well enough to have built any sort of familiarity or connection with them. Growing up it was Gabby and her father in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in North Park. Her father worked construction and did contract jobs on the side, played sentimental ballads on guitar every Sunday in the backyard, loved cowboy movies, Pepsi, silver belt buckles, Stetson hats, Norteño music, Limon 7, Pelon Pelo Rico, Ritchie Valens’ brother Bob from La Bamba, Donald Duck, Slimer from Ghostbusters, Vicente Fernandez and Los Lobos albums on cassette, and long afternoons spent eating tacos de adobada at outside cafes after buying clothes and Christmas gifts in Tijuana, where he and Gabby’d spent her first few years, remembered (by Gabby) as dusty, crowded streets, sunlit in washed-out photos, the narrow aisles of the Gigante grocery store, and the smell of tamarind and rotting mangoes. He fussed endlessly over his small garden plot—tomatoes, peppers, onions, yellow squash, honeydew melons, and various herbs. He walked with a limp and wore beautiful lacquered cowboy boots that weren’t much good for long distances. He laughed often, sang as he went about the house, and was deaf in his right ear from a grade school fight. His childhood nickname was “Pollito” or “little chicken” because of the wild feathery hair he’d since lost.
Two years ago, Gabby’s father fell ill—cancer after decades of smoking. Because of his illness he lost his job and because he lost his job he lost his insurance and because he lost his insurance he couldn’t continue his treatments. So, Gabby worked. She waited tables at Rancho’s full-time, painted houses with her uncles Reynaldo and Ricky when they had a big job, put in part-time shifts at Bar Dynamite, Flashbacks, the Ken, and Entertainment Exchange (“before she was fired for shoplifting a Creedle tape, of all things”). All she saved went straight to her father’s medical fund. Still, it wasn’t nearly enough. Without his treatments, Pollito (or Papa, to Gabby) wouldn’t live to see the New Year.
“Marigold, what I love best about Gabby is after you’re done hanging out with her you’re excited to do it again. With some people, you’re exhausted once you’re done being around them. You drive away and your brain is in this shitty awful fog and you’re tired and you’re like, Why do I even hang OUT with that person? With Gabby, I’m like, Why am I even LEAVING? I guess part of it is I spent so long as a friendless picked-on kid and then I got a ton of friends after high school, but not all of those relationships were … I dunno, nourishing? They were good people to hang out with and they were fun, but they didn’t give you much more than that and you were never really sure how they felt about you. A good friendship is like … it’s like you’re a glass of water and the friendship is a water pitcher pouring into you until you’re filled-up and once you’re filled-up you’re not overfull or anything, you’re right where you should be, you’re where you’re MEANT to be, and it feels good to be there. Does that make sense? Okay, cool, so with a bad friendship, you’re drained instead of filled back up, and because you’re drained you know or at least you feel—even if you can’t put your finger on it, and usually you can’t—that you’re in an unhealthy, unsatisfying position. With an average friendship, the water doesn’t go anywhere, it just stays there, and after a while it gets stagnant. Stagnant means … it means when water sits for a long time without any oxygen or movement and it starts to get sick. Yeah, like a swamp. Exactly, you got it. Gabby’s and mine … it’s a friendship that … oh, I think the rain is stopping … it’s a friendship that makes me feel like I’m not alone in the world. Without Gabby … shit, I meant to turn left there … without Gabby there would be this, like … silence to the world … that makes no sense, sorry … there would be … would be … oh, this is the place, let’s find a parking spot … without Gabby I would feel like … like the things I say wouldn’t have anyone to truly hear them anymore and that the world would be smaller, if that makes sense, more pressed-in and closed-up around you, less receptive, less … less aware of your existence, an uncaring place, and not at all open or welcoming or full of possibilities like it was before. Silent. That’s the best way I can explain it. The world would be silent. Is that curb red? Oh, there’s a spot. I think I can fit. So, yeah, that’s Damien Bixby’s house. I know, right? Totally fancy. He lives there with his sister and he and Kelsy’s parents foot the bill. I think Kelsy works actually, but … yeah, exactly, she can’t afford this. You coming in? Of course you’re coming in. YEAH, we are. We’re partners. Turner and Hooch. I’m kidding. You can definitely be the bad cop if you want. Remember, you’re Bat Baby. You’re a fuckin’ warrior.”
At the house, Agnes and Marigold rang the buzzer and were let in the front gate by a bored-looking blonde guy a little older than Agnes, barefoot in black swim trunks and a white t-shirt reading “Bob’s Mission Surf” in red balloon text across the chest.
“He’s gone, but she’s in the back. Hold up,” the blonde guy said, leaving them in the walled Spanish tile courtyard in front of the house.
In the courtyard, the sound of the traffic fell to a swishing hush.
The rain had stopped and the sky brightened to a pale gray.
Then, as if a switch were flicked, the sun came out, the sky rich blue and cloud streaked, the day warm and calm and lovely.
The small courtyard—surrounded by grey stone walls draped in ivy and vining rose, and bordered to the north by a well-kept English-style garden of honeysuckle, jasmine, peony, larkspur, and hollyhock—was, if not large, very “open feeling” Agnes remarked. “I mean the place isn’t huge, but it’s impressive. This is definitely Kelsy’s work, not Damien’s.”
Marigold sniffed. “What’s that smell?”
“A pot of what?”
“Weed. Marijuana. Drugs.”
“Oh. Yuck. It smells like burning trash.”
The house, a two-story red brick Colonial, sat on a double lot on a quiet corner in North Park. Agnes had been inside once—during a 4th of July party. Gabby, disguised in a blonde wig and a black trucker cap pulled low over her eyes, had used the party as an excuse for another round of revenge, and had, she told Agnes upon fleeing the scene, shat on Damien’s bed and pulled the covers back over it “as a nice surprise for the end of the night.”
Just then, the front door opened and a girl Agnes’ age stepped out.
Kelsy Bixby wore an oversized green cable knit sweater and tight jeans, her light brown hair held back by a gold fabric headband.
Seeing Agnes, her face darkened.
“Oh. Hi Agnes. What’s up?”
“Looking for your brother. Seen him today?”
“What’d he do?”
“HE KIDN—” Marigold began to shout before Agnes clamped a hand on her shoulder and shushed her.
“We just need to talk to him, Kelsy. That’s all.”
Kelsy sat down on the top step of the porch, pulling her sweater over her knees.
“He left about an hour ago. Said something about going to a pirate’s house.”
“The Pirate Radio House? I guess there’s a party there today.”
“Maybe. Agnes, I’m sorry about … y’know, all this … all this shit with my brother and—” A plane flew over, drowning her out. They waited for it to pass then Kelsy continued, “Growing up with Damien … he’s not an easy person to live with. I mean, I love him, he’s my brother, but … Damien’s fucking psycho.”
Agnes smiled. “Yeah, he’s kind of the worst person in the world.”
“Pretty much,” said Kelsy, laughing.
“Thanks, Kelsy. We’ll go see if we can’t find him at the party.”
“They find out anything about your friend?”
“The cops? The San Diego Police Department is fucking useless. We’re looking into it ourselves. Oh, this is Mar … my friend Marigold Ramos.”
“Hi Marigold. Your costume’s rad.”
“Thanks,” said Marigold, bashful, lifting her arms to show the pumpkin’s face. “I love Halloween.”
“Congrats by the way, Agnes.”
“What’d I do for congrats?”
“When are you due?” Kelsy asked, jutting her chin in the direction of Agnes’ belly.
“Oh. Around Christmas. Woo hoo,” Agnes said unenthusiastically, twirling her pointer finger in the air. “Best. Christmas. Ever.”
“Hey, if you find my brother, tell him his friend from London has been calling like every ten minutes.”
“Damien just got back this morning. He’s been in Europe since June.”
“Alright, thanks Kelsy. I will. Thanks again.”
“Happy Halloween, you guys.”
Out on the street, Agnes and Marigold walked to the car.
“Agnes, you think Kelsy’s telling the truth about Damien being in Europe?”
“Kelsy? Yeah, she’s alright. She’s always been cool to me.”
“We’re still looking for Damien though, right?”
“Yeah, let’s go see what this party is all about.”
“I’m not allowed to go to grownup parties.”
“You are now. I hope you like gettin’ wasted.”
“You know I’m kidding. Get in the car, pumpkin. We’ll just go in for a minute and find Damien and ask some questions and maybe kick the shit out of him just because.”
Marigold climbed in the passenger seat and shut the door.
Agnes stood next to the car with the keys in her hand, thinking—if Damien had been in Europe it would make organizing a kidnapping harder but not impossible. Who was this London friend? Did the London friend have something to do with Gabby’s disappearance?
A car passed and broke Agnes out of her thoughts.
She looked at her watch—5pm.
Agnes opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat.
(Continued next week)
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