Kitty Lister tore off her nails, one by one, with her hands. She was determined to get down to the quick, that one. Kitty did it because she was bored and hoping for blood, desperate for a kind of wound that only comes from vulnerable skin. When there’s nothing to shield or protect it. But all she got was a palm of half-moons and a disappointment rivaling the blizzard that threatened to black out their house.
Kitty patted her hair, stiff from a bottle of spray. The sides reminded of her shark fins, sleek and swift, cutting through water on a hunt. At night, she stood over her mother’s sleeping body and shook her head, willing the fins to move. Kitty opened her mouth and bared her teeth until her mother whimpered. Cried in her sleep. Was it because her father had raped a pack of Lithuanian girls and maybe killed one of them? That he’d been part of a ring of balding, paunchy men who paid the town pharmacist to stuff the girls with bottles of Love’s Baby Soft and air freshener? Transformed their pale faces into coconut cream pies? Hey, sweet girl. Daddy’s here with the frosting.
The things men do.
Paul Lister was the do-gooder gone bad making headlines. While her mother adequately scream-cried for the cameras, Kitty was curious. Murder? She didn’t think the old man had it in him.
Kitty leaned over her mother and placed a crescent on each eyelid, whispered, “June, open your eyes.”
Kitty had a feeling of floating, of being a cell divided in two. One version stood still while the other hovered in the distance. One girl opened a window, considered falling out of it like the fifth girl under the floor, while the other watched her mother maw at a pillow. The Kittys bargained and conspired while their mother’s splayed-out body and tear-soaked sheets resembled an after-school special on TV.
They wondered what it would be like to plunge a pair of scissors through their mother’s cheek. What sort of mess it would make.
The pharmacist called the Lithuanians his thoroughbreds. Triple Crown bitches. There were five of them, possibly six, stored under the floor of a cabin outside of town. But when the cops rolled up with their sirens, SWAT teams, and sniffing dogs, only four were left. Huddled in a corner, chained at the ankle, speaking a language the cops first on the scene thought was Russian because they’d grown up in Five Towns and didn’t know any better. The fifth sprung out of a window, still warm, her pulse on a permanent vacation.
The sixth? Good question.
Later, one of the cops cradling a Corona got wistful. “That was some Silence of the Lambs shit up in there,” to which his wife replied, “Oh yeah, numbnuts. Where was the liver and fava beans? The body parts.” That night the wife of a police officer was rushed to the emergency room, her jaw shattered in four places.
The old boys laughed. What they wouldn’t give to have their wives’ jaws wired shut.
Before the FBI stormed the scene in their Men’s Wearhouse suits and the Five Towns police were relegated to the kiddie table, Ned, the evidence collector, botched the crime scene. The pharmacist was his kid brother, who nursed him through a cocaine addiction and a pregnant receptionist, and maybe the cops had it all wrong because wouldn’t these Russkie whores come to America for a better life, and bonus points if they got an orgasm or two out of it? Come now. These mail-order brides were far from innocent — Ned knew this firsthand.
His brother wasn’t the monster the papers made him out to be.
The evidence collector’s wife tipped off the Post about the epic fuckup and the morning headlines read “Ned Numbnuts and The Fools of Five Towns Police,” “The Fools of Five Towns Botch A Crime Scene,” etc., etc. Veteran detectives were tasked with fetching coffee and bagels for FBI agents. Ned locked himself in the bathroom for two days after he was fired without pension.
The wives toasted what they had given to have their husbands’ jaws wired shut. Passed around slices of crumb cake and cream pie. Banded together as suburban wives tend to do.
The day after June Lister spiked her AA group’s coffee with vodka, she took up catatonia as a lifestyle. She got good at playing dead, watching game shows with that somnambulant stare. Wheel! Of! Misfortune! A brief patch of sobriety broken by tumblers of Laphroaig on ice. But who could blame her? The pedophile husband; one daughter a slut and the other a cat killer. Grocery store gossip drove June to walk around town in her old prom dress, shouting there were seven other scumbag husbands on trial — why was she bearing the brunt of the shaming?
Watch the vultures descend, pick at the carcass, and ravage the meat — the scene awash in carrion and revenge so cold it was glacial. “Because we hate you. We’ve always hated you,” her neighbors Greek-chorused.
Fucking monsters, June thought. Bottom-feeders and Snackwell eaters. Fat women with bleached hair on their upper lips. Didn’t they know beauty was plucked and skeletal? You could never be loved until a man felt your rib cage.
June was the homecoming queen who never left home. Instead, she built a life in the town where she had grown up, a victor turned into a punch line. With that Breck girl hair, she was once voted most likely to succeed, but who could’ve predicted June Lister’s success story boiled down to being married to a man who liked fucking little girls?
Most days June was too drunk to speak, but she perfected her remote flipping and soap opera puns. When her daughter Jenny asked her what she was playing at, she said, “Dying slowly.”
Now, her hair fell out in clumps. June’s skin resembled waxed fruit.
This was June Lister’s life — a slow crawl to an open grave.
On a rare sober morning, June watched her youngest, Kitty, stuffing her book bag with duct tape, trash bags, and pliers. Christ on a cross, this kid. “We need to talk about the cat,” June said. What she really wanted to say was the head and paws you brought home, but she didn’t. Because what kind of child dismembers a house pet? Kitty had to have seen the missing cat posters — they were all over the neighborhood. That sweet tabby called Snowball. The two phone numbers and a big reward. What 14-year-old stores an animal’s hands and feet in a zip-close bag? Who murders a Snowball? June Lister refused to believe her daughter was Ted Bundy reincarnated with a better haircut.
“No, we don’t have to talk about the cat,” Kitty said. Her daughter smiled, stared at her with those vacant eight-ball eyes. Handed June a class of clear, cool liquid and said, “We don’t have to talk about the cat at all.”
Paul Lister was banned from the house. When he first made bail, June gave him 20 minutes to gather his things before torching the room with him in it. Now, he lived with his parents in Syosset. A few weeks after he left, June ransacked the house for pills. In the back of one of his drawers, she found a pair of pink underpants. Folded into four, tied in blue ribbon.
It was Kitty’s, spotted with dried blood.
Decades later, when DNA evidence will place the remains of 14 women and eight men inside Kitty’s home, when the news vans come for her daughter, and Jenny Lister will assume the role of a public mourner, before the parade of the bereaved march into a courtroom and hiss and spit at the pretty girl in wool crepe, people will ask if June knew. Did she know her daughter was made a monster, not born one?
“Did I know?” June will say, exhaling smoke into a camera. “22 people are dead. You don’t cut up people because your daddy put his hand in your pants. So, why does it matter now what I knew or didn’t know?”
That winter, everyone followed the trial of the “Four Below the Floor” like it was religion. The papers served as wafers, blood, and body. The Daily News reported the dead girl was ruled an accident while the Post got a scoop about the sixth, rumored to be hiding out in Bay Ridge. Journalists and pundits negotiated book deals and movie rights before the trial had even begun. Everyone was making down payments on bigger houses on the North Shore. Parking was a nightmare.
Business was booming in Woodmere because the Lithuanians were holed up in a rental house awaiting trial. “Can’t complain,” all the shop owners said, when reporters asked about takeout orders and potpourri sales. Counting their stacks, they beamed at the overhead boom mics and tape recorders on the counter.
There was talk of a town tour, but the women were against it. They had limits. They were decent people, after all. Except for that June Lister stumbling around town in a fox fur and her old prom dress. Feet burned blue from walking on black ice.
The beauty of being a teenager was no one registered your existence. Especially if you were a doe-eyed girl carting around limbs scrubbed-clean and polished in your backpack.
Kitty Lister savored the parts, never the whole. She marveled over the patchwork quality of her collection — the coarse and soft coats, the twig and flat feet, the onyx and jade eyes. Bones you can crack with your teeth. Before you wheel in the couch and talk about reverse Oedipus complexes, know that Kitty Lister had a perfectly healthy mind even if parts of it were permanently closed for repairs. It wasn’t that she was bad; it was more like she had little interest in being good. And let’s not make the assumption she lived to torture animals. Kitty loved animals. Four years later, and she still mourned the death of her dog Phillip.
Kitty wasn’t a tail-snipper or neck-wringer; she quieted with kindness. It was the limbs she was after, not the breath that flowed through them beforehand.
If you asked her what she considered home to her, she would unsheathe a bird’s beak, a handful of Doberman teeth. While she thought of her family as co-workers and her house an office of daily inconvenience, the limbs were what she believed to be love.
And she did love them, down to the bone.
Kitty remembered the day she found the girls below the floor and the still-warm body of the one who jumped out of the window and how it felt to press her lips against the girl’s. She wanted a part of the girl for herself, a sample, but she was nothing if not disciplined. One didn’t discover a body and take apart the limbs. If she had time, she could’ve thought this thing through, but then her father and her sister’s algebra teacher stormed out of the house, and Kitty had to make a run for it.
It had been months since the girls were wrapped in blankets and carried out of the house. And Kitty had a plan. Her town was a foreign country to her, and the thoroughbreds were its souvenirs. All she wanted was a small memento, the equivalent of a keychain or a snow globe.
The head of the horse in her hand, in her house. That will do.
When Kitty was eight, her father grazed the inside of her thigh and said, “We kill what keeps us alive.” He was talking about the deer and rabbits he hunted and how their house smelled of rot. The fish he skinned and cooked in butter and brine. The head of the snake he once cut clean during a trip they took to the mountains. Roots wrenched from the ground.
What breathed was ours for the taking, he said, his hands a Houdini beneath her dress.
Hidden in the trees, Kitty saw a buck and had the urge to bite its neck.