A biting novel from an electrifying new voice, Such a Pretty Smile is a heart-stopping tour-de-force about powerful women, angry men, and all the ways in which girls fight against the forces that try to silence them. There’s something out there that’s killing. Known only as The Cur, he leaves no traces, save for the torn bodies of girls, on the verge of becoming women, who are known as trouble-makers; those who refuse to conform, to know their place. Girls who don’t know when to shut up. 2019: Thirteen-year-old Lila Sawyer has secrets she can’t share with anyone. Not the school psychologist she’s seeing. Not her father, who has a new wife, and a new baby. And not her mother—the infamous Caroline Sawyer, a unique artist whose eerie sculptures, made from bent twigs and crimped leaves, have made her a local celebrity. But soon Lila feels haunted from within, terrorized by a delicious evil that shows her how to find her voice—until she is punished for using it. 2004: Caroline Sawyer hears dogs everywhere. Snarling, barking, teeth snapping that no one else seems to notice. At first, she blames the phantom sounds on her insomnia and her acute stress in caring for her ailing father. But then the delusions begin to take shape—both in her waking hours, and in the violent, visceral sculptures she creates while in a trance-like state. Her fiancé is convinced she needs help. Her new psychiatrist waives her “problem” away with pills. But Caroline’s past is a dark cellar, filled with repressed memories and a lurking horror that the men around her can’t understand. As past demons become a present threat, both Caroline and Lila must chase the source of this unrelenting, oppressive power to its malignant core. Brilliantly paced, unsettling to the bone, and unapologetically fierce, Such a Pretty Smile is a powerful allegory for what it can mean to be a woman, and an untamed rallying cry for anyone ever told to sit down, shut up, and smile pretty.
Release date: January 18, 2022
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 320
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Such a Pretty Smile
There was blood in the water—a dull pink bloom—the morning Lila Sawyer heard about the first missing girl. Macie had sent her a screenshot, and the picture showed a girl only slightly younger than they were—twelve, or a mature eleven—with lank, dark hair and deep-set eyes the color of pond water. Lila glanced at her phone as she balanced one slippery leg on the edge of the tub, her mother’s forbidden razor in her hand. The cut on her ankle stung as she splashed water over it.
Holy shit. Have you seen this?
Lila set the razor down and wiped her hands on the towel hanging from the rack before grabbing her phone to pull up the picture. She recognized the girl, the plain angles of her face, how she’d hidden behind a veil of hair as she hurried through the hallways of East Pritchard Middle. Invisible as Lila had been before Macie lifted her into something that resembled popularity.
What happened to her? she typed, and then swiped the blade over her legs again, hoping that this time she’d managed to avoid cutting herself. If she came out of the bathroom looking like a horror show, her mother would know she’d been shaving—a full year before she was technically allowed, even though every other girl she knew had been shaving since ten or eleven. She’d begged when she turned thirteen, but her mother refused to budge. Shaving was something women did and never above the knee unless she wanted people to think she wasn’t a good girl. Lila was tired of feeling like a yeti every time she wanted to wear shorts or a skirt. Her phone chimed again.
Dunno. Her legs were all torn up. Cops are on the news saying she probs got lost in the woods, and coyotes got to her or something. My mom says there’s no way an animal could do all that, and that it’s definitely a murder. It’s freaky.
Lila’s stomach turned over as she stared down at the girl’s eyes, thinking of what she would have seen and felt in her last moments. Teeth? Pressure and pain colliding in the deeper parts of her before bursting outward like a terrible, darker growth, and then the knowledge there would be no more breath to draw. No more sun.
Lila typed out a reply, but there was nothing to say that didn’t sound hollow, so she set the phone on the floor, blinking away the threat of tears. She ran the razor over her legs again without caution. The story had given her goosebumps, her prickled flesh easy to nick. Her leg opened up in three places, small entrances that allowed her blood to cascade into the water.
“Shit,” she said because her mother wasn’t in the room to yell at her for using unladylike language. The word felt good in her mouth. Heavy and exciting and right. Nothing at all like her boring mush of a life inside the tiny apartment her mother had found in Acworth. She’d wanted to get Lila out of the city and had read some article about how it was an “up-and-coming” Metro Atlanta town, only it had never really up and gone anywhere. There were a few restaurants—including Hank’s Cajun Grill, which her mother said was close enough to the New Orleans cuisine she grew up on—and a Target, and a beach on Lake Allatoona that wasn’t really a beach at all but a tiny stretch of dirty sand where kids in soggy diapers dribbled apple juice while tired-looking moms stared out over the unmoving water, as if just looking could change their entire lives into something that wasn’t this. At the very least, Lila wished they lived closer to Atlanta, where her mother taught Art Theory and Sculpture I–IV. Her mom constantly reminded her that the city wasn’t a good place to raise a kid, and she needed to be able to see the sky and stars and take a breath that didn’t feel choked. It was better for her art and better for Lila, and they were staying in Acworth. End of discussion. Still, Lila daydreamed about who she would have become if they’d stayed in Midtown. Some cooler version of herself with neon hair and a nose ring and maybe an illicit tattoo she’d have had done in Little Five by some dude nicknamed something ridiculous like Bone or Animus.
She hurried and finished, then stepped out of the tub, dripping onto the tile, to replace her mother’s razor in the little caddy hanging on the wall of the shower. Using a wad of toilet paper, she swiped at the blood on her legs and then tacked a few pieces onto the nicks, willing herself to heal more quickly. School started in forty-five minutes, and her mother wasn’t the kind of mom who would write her an excuse if she were tardy.
“Come on,” she muttered, but she was still bleeding when she tugged on a pair of dark leggings and then pulled her favorite dress over them. It was the color of an emerald with fabric delicate as a moth’s wing that fluttered around her when she moved. Once she got to school, she’d take the leggings off. If her mother saw her chewed-up legs, she’d be able to tell Lila had shaved them, so she put the leggings on even if it meant she was stifling in the late-spring heat. Sweat pooled against her lower back, and she fanned the dress away from her, already imagining what Macie would say when she saw her bare legs. If her eyes would go wide, a smile curling at the edges of her lips in the way that made her look dangerous and beautiful at the same time.
Lila scanned her face in the mirror and wondered if there was anything hiding there that would betray her feelings about Macie. What had started as awe over this girl who’d offered Lila her friendship had become a kind of agony; a need that had evolved into something larger than calling Macie her best friend. But she knew how Macie saw her. A passion project or a plaything she could hold up and examine like an insect pinned in place before nodding in approval. Yes, hadn’t she done a good job with what she’d created? Hadn’t she taken something drab and made it beautiful? Made it better? But Lila was still the same person her mother had given birth to: the squirming, awkward girl who was treated as if she were five instead of thirteen. No matter how she tried to find the right clothes or the right makeup or the right hairstyle, Lila couldn’t change that.
Lila’s bedroom was painted baby pink with a ballerina border—a leftover from whoever had lived in the apartment before that the leasing company hadn’t bothered to change before they moved in. She hated it. Wished her mom would let her paint it bright teal with a canopied bed and tulle curtains she could close at night and feel like she was sleeping in the middle of the clouds. Maybe some twinkle lights. Or at least some posters. Anything that would belong only to her. But her mom said she didn’t have the money, even though it wouldn’t be that much, so Lila had never asked Macie to sleep over. She’d rather die than have Macie see her room before their friendship had gone any further.
Everyone already talked constantly about Lila’s mom. Caroline Sawyer didn’t bring orange slices to soccer games, or go to PTSA meetings, or talk to any of the other moms if there was a recital or a concert or a potluck, or gossip about whatever someone named Susan said on Facebook that week. Instead, her mother hovered at the back of everything like something you could see through. Like some painfully lovely ghost wearing the skin of something alive. But they all talked about Caroline. All the other moms chattered on and on about the artist who was semi-famous and known in the city, who made those disturbing sculptures that looked like something you’d see in a scary movie or in a haunted house. How strange to think that Caroline with her impeccable makeup, her shining hair, her toned body, which made the other mothers narrow their eyes whenever their husbands made no secret of staring at her, was capable of making such awful things. Tucked inside their voices was the discordant combination of awe and disgust, and whenever they started up their babbling, Lila would shrink further and further into herself, willing herself invisible, but of course, they always saw her, were forever asking in their syrupy-sweet voices what Caroline was working on now? Or marveling aloud how they would have never guessed that Lila was Caroline’s daughter since they looked nothing alike. “Your mother is so pretty! Funny how genes work out sometimes.” And there was Lila shrugging her shoulders before excusing herself, the inside of her mouth aching from biting down on her cheeks.
Every morning, Lila hoped she would wake up magically transformed into the kind of girl who looked or behaved like her mother’s daughter. Effortlessly beautiful. Talented or athletic or intelligent. Or even just one of those things. Anything to set her apart. Instead, every day was a reminder of exactly how average she was. Her plain face, devoid of her mother’s high cheekbones and full lips and large eyes. The constant parade of Bs and Cs on her report cards. The complete lack of any artistic talent—her childish attempts relegated to the trash can before anyone could see them. If she hadn’t seen her own birth certificate, she would have wondered if she’d been adopted.
Lila grabbed her strawberry lip gloss and swiped it over her mouth and then dragged a brush through her hair and hoped it would dry straight instead of the frizzy mess it normally was. She’d inherited her dad’s curly, dark strands, and it was yet another thing to resent him for. Knowing her luck, her hair would go crazy the second she stepped outside, and Macie would sigh and tell her she should try harder or at least get up earlier and straighten it before school; Lila was so lucky because her skin was fucking flawless, but she had to do something with her hair.
She left her bedroom without glancing at the mirror again. It was pointless to imagine she was going to look like anyone other than herself, and anyway, she was already cutting it too close with the time. Soon enough, her mother would come barging in, hurrying her along. In fact, Lila was surprised she hadn’t done exactly that already, but her mother’s bedroom door was closed, and the voice leaking from beneath was the kind of hush that didn’t want to be heard. Lila crept closer, pausing after each footstep, and then pressed her ear to the door.
“It’s just like before,” her mother said. “There were bite marks on her thighs. And there was a woman on the news who said she saw the girl with a man. Tall and wearing a dark coat. That doesn’t strike you as too similar to be a coincidence?”
Lila’s heart leapt into her throat. Her mother was talking about the girl whose body had been found. That much was normal. Probably that’s all anyone was going to be talking about for a while. But it was the before and similar that made Lila hold her breath so she could hear more clearly.
“I know there are terrible people everywhere, Daniel, but it’s just … eerie. Something about it doesn’t feel right…” Her mother paused and let out a loud sigh. “Well, you don’t have to be an asshole about it.” Lila pictured her father on the other end, a frown dominating his face, his forehead creased in frustration. “I’m perfectly aware of what you’re going through, and I understand how difficult it is, but you have another daughter, too. Or have you forgotten again?”
Lila withdrew quickly, tiptoeing down the hallway and into the kitchen to search for a granola bar or another distraction. She didn’t want to hear the rest, didn’t want to hear that same argument rehashed for the hundredth time.
Before. Her mind snagged on the word like something thorned. Her mother never spoke of her past, of her life in New Orleans, where she’d met Lila’s father. All Lila knew was it hadn’t worked out, and Caroline had moved to Atlanta shortly before Hurricane Katrina to finish art school. Now, she taught at the same university, and life had fallen into a comfortable rhythm. Whenever Lila brought up her mother’s past or asked about it, her mother only shrugged and said it had been a long time ago, and it hurt too much to think about. Leaving her father had been messy and left more emotional baggage than she cared to unpack.
There were the rows of orange pill bottles in the medicine cabinet, and the days when her mother could not get out of bed and ignored her artwork, and the hours Lila had spent in a waiting room, flipping through the same Highlights magazines while her mother offered up her secrets to her psychiatrist. Eventually, Lila had learned to stop asking. But now, that word, that before, had brought forward an unrecognizable piece of her mother, and Lila unwrapped a granola bar and bit down. It was stale.
“Morning,” her mother said, and Lila turned, waited for her mother to spill out everything Lila had ever wanted to know, to explain how this missing girl was similar to something her mother had once known, but her mother didn’t say anything more, the dark circles under her eyes she’d tried to cover with concealer evidence of her lack of sleep. But that was how it had always been. Always busy. Always working. A never-ending line of classes to teach or students to advise or projects to finish or galleries to visit.
“You ready? We’re going to be late if we don’t get a move on,” her mother said, and Lila waited another beat—to give her mother the chance to explain, to say anything that might be real—and then she nodded.
Once they were in the car and buckled, her mother brought her fingers to her eyes and patted at the dark circles as if she could get the blood there moving to lessen the appearance of fatigue.
“I talked to your dad this morning.”
Lila tucked her hands underneath her thighs to keep them from fidgeting. Her mother would tell her now, about before, and there would be no more mystery. “Yeah?”
“He said you weren’t returning any of his calls. He wants to see you, Lila. It’s been months since you were out there. He misses you.”
Lila let her breath hiss out of her. So that’s what this conversation was going to be. A continued silence about her mother’s secret past and a reminder of something Lila would prefer to forget.
“Misses me so much he said maybe five words to me the last time I was there.”
Her mother sighed. “Rebecca had just had Brina. Having a preemie with a heart condition is a lot to deal with.”
Lila stared straight ahead, her lips pursed tight. It wasn’t just that her dad and stepmother had been distracted or concerned about the health of their new baby. It was like Lila had actually been invisible. He was so completely absorbed by his new daughter that he was four hours late picking Lila up from the airport. The attendant, with her pinched face and sad, drooping eyes, had led her away from the crowds streaming to their cars and into a tiny room that smelled of reheated food and coffee, so she could call and remind Daniel of his forgotten daughter. After that trip, her mother had finally caved and bought Lila a cell phone.
Even after her father finally picked her up, he didn’t apologize but spent the car ride in silence, drumming his fingers against the wheel as he sped back to the house, where he dropped Lila off with instructions for how to find the spare key.
“I’ll be home later. There’s a pizza in the freezer. Call my cell if you need me. Reception isn’t great in the hospital, but you can call the NICU if you have to. You can look the number up online,” he said as he popped the trunk so she could grab her suitcase. He didn’t even get out of the car but lifted his hand in a wave as he backed down the driveway.
For the rest of the trip, she’d stayed inside the extra bedroom they kept for her, with the plain white walls, and the plain navy sheets, and the boring dresser that held extra pillowcases for when guests came to visit. It had never been her room. Even with her clothes hanging in the closet and her books scattered next to the bed, her dad and Rebecca had never kept it for her. Not really.
She’d stayed in the room and read her books and came out at night like some nocturnal creature to watch television and eat the takeout her father brought home, and Rebecca would stare around her with bleary eyes as if seeing Lila for the first time. Her father would sometimes ask Lila how her day had been, and then Rebecca would ask for something or mention something about Brina, and her father would stop listening to anything Lila had to say.
The week passed, and when her father dropped her off at the airport, he didn’t walk her to security like he normally did. “Love you, kiddo,” he said, and then left her standing there at the automatic doors.
She did not cry until she got onto the flight and then covered her face with a blanket so no one would see.
“You should call him, Lila,” her mother said. Lila felt her face growing hot, and she bit down on her tongue. She would not cry. Not now.
“Why are you taking his side? You were mad at him, too,” she said.
“I’m not taking his side. I’m just saying he wants to talk to you.” Caroline dropped her voice to a whisper. “Even if he is being a jerk.”
Lila smirked, and Caroline nudged her with an elbow. “I’m not going to force you to call him if you don’t want to. Just passing along the message. I don’t blame you for being angry with him. Just try to give him a little bit of a break. He’s under a lot of stress.”
Her mother went quiet then—no further mention of the other thing she and Lila’s father had talked about—and Lila stared out the window. Everything growing green and lush and humid and thick. She wanted to tug off her leggings and let the air run over her skin. Instead, she fidgeted against the seat and pretended that the silence hanging between her and her mother wasn’t at all like a blade pushed deep inside her gut. There was something else to know, and she wished her mother would just tell her what it was.
“You heard about the girl they found? The one who’d been missing?” Lila asked, turning to Caroline so she could watch her mother’s face, watch for the twitching of a muscle, a slight frown, anything that would indicate there was an actual person behind this bland mask of calm.
“You heard how they found her?” Her mother winced then, and Lila pressed on. “All torn up?”
“Stop it, Lila. I don’t want to talk about that.”
“You think they know how he did it? Like with a knife or something? Or maybe it was worse than that. His teeth or his fingernails.” She felt sick with her own words, unable to keep her need to talk about what happened from bubbling out of her, but she couldn’t stop. She needed her mother to tell her about before, something to fill out the hurt she felt over her father, but her mother set her jaw.
“I said stop it.”
They both went quiet then, Lila’s fist pushed against her stomach to keep everything she wanted to say contained.
Only when they pulled up to the front entrance of the school did her mother speak again. “Look at me,” she said, but Lila was already pulling her backpack over her shoulder, her weight pushing against the door.
“Lila, look at me.”
Lila paused and turned to stare at her mother. Tell me. Tell me about before.
“What happened to that girl is terrible. It’s disgusting, and the thought of it makes me sick and angry, and I don’t know what I would do if something like that happened to you.” Her mother’s breath caught and hitched, her eyes going glassy, and Lila wished she could pull everything she said back inside of her, swallow it back down and bury it so her mother would not hurt like this.
“I worry so much. How I can’t be there to protect you, and you’re older now, and I can’t … I can’t…” Her mother dissolved into tears then, and Lila leaned over the console, the gearshift jabbing against her ribs, and hugged her mother. Her hair smelled of mint and rosemary. The way a mother’s hair should smell. A smell that reminded Lila of how her mother used to carry her, to sing her to sleep, to sit beside her when she had a nightmare until they both drifted off.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, and her mother nodded into her shoulder.
“I love you, my girl.” Her mother’s hands fluttered against her back and then her shoulders, pushing her away as she dashed the tears from her eyes. “Now go or you’ll be late. I’ll be right here to pick you up after school. Only early classes today and no advisement sessions,” she said, and Lila climbed out of the car.
Only when she knew her mother was gone did she realize she had not responded. “Love you, too,” she mumbled, already guilty over not saying it when her mother was still there.
“Where the hell have you been? We were supposed to meet early so I could do your makeup.” Macie appeared at Lila’s elbow, her golden hair shining in perfect spirals.
“Nowhere. Running late,” Lila said, trying, without success, to hide the thickness in her voice. Macie rolled her eyes and reached out to fluff Lila’s hair.
“I guess it’s fine. You need some eyeliner though. Andrew would die if he saw you with eyeliner. Super sexy. And ditch the leggings. It looks weird. We can tell Ms. Shakib you’re on your period and do it in the restroom real quick.”
Lila cringed at the mention of her period. Here was another thing Macie had that she didn’t. Another reason Lila felt like a kid instead of a teenager. “She’ll never buy that. I haven’t even gotten my period yet. And I don’t like Andrew that way.”
Copyright © 2021 by Kristi DeMeester
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