Twelve-year-old Ann Gotlib was last seen on June 1, 1983, biking away from a Louisville, Kentucky mall. Her friend Tanya said the girl was headed home, but she never made it. Though Ann's beat up bicycle was spotted outside a department store and authorities searched for decades, she was never found.
Author Ellen Birkett Morris was eighteen at the time, living in Louisville, and while she didn't know Ann, the way the girl seemed to evaporate rattled her. Even now, more than thirty years later, the story lingers in Morris' mind.
"When I was eighteen, thirteen-year-old Dana Lampton disappeared from the strip mall across from her family’s apartment," opens the author's new short story collection Lost Girls. This fictionalized version of Ann's reality is narrated by a young woman similar to the then teenaged Morris. "My mind should have been on other things—guys, college, getting past ID checker at the door of the club—but Dana’s disappearance captured my attention. We lived in the same neighborhood, and the nearness of the crime creeped me out."
Grim and illuminating in turns, this very short story, less than 670 words, establishes a tone for Morris' work. Largely set in Eastern Kentucky, her collection shows girls and women of all ages getting lost in every imaginable way and, sometimes, being found.
A childless woman stumbles into a breastfeeding group and lies so she can stay. When her son dies, a mother finds solace in video games and a teenage boy. A young woman discovers the power of naked selfies before "selfies" is even a word. And, in the below story, after witnessing her older sister hooking up, a girl makes a tragic mistake.
It's all part of a collection meant to reflect the range of women's experiences says Morris. "What we get in the stories are the secret lives, the hidden dreams and fears, and the unnamed passions of these women and girls."
It's an intense mission for seventeen short stories, and we'd love to hear your thoughts. Does "Helter Skelter" hit the mark?
Be sure to leave a comment below.
by Ellen Birkett Morris
My sister Amber told me not to stare at the sun or I’d go blind. She also told me that Beatle’s song “Helter Skelter” drove some guy crazy and he formed a cult and murdered people. I didn’t listen to the radio for a while after that. I still look at the sun though. I can’t help it. It’s up there, daring me to look. My father hardly ever sees the sun. He works nights at the Ford plant and sleeps during the day. Sometimes early in the morning I feel him kiss my forehead.
Once I woke up to find him kneeling by the bed just looking at me and Amber. She slept beside me, on her side of the bed, which was two inches bigger than my side. She put blue painter’s tape down the middle of the bed. When I crossed it, Amber pinched me. When she was out riding her bike, I measured it. I never learned to ride a bike, though Dad swears he taught me. I’m not the athletic type, which is good because if I was, I wouldn’t have anyone to play ball with anyway.
I hang out with Lucy from down the street. She has glasses and feathered hair. We walk down to the library and buy candy at the convenience store. Amber rides her bike and sometimes rides in cars with boys. She made me swear not to tell dad. Every now and then, she’d throw me a bag of candy and say “for our little secret.” I don’t believe in secrets. Sooner or later, everything comes out. Like the truth about our Mama. Dad said she was killed in an accident. But I saw in the newspaper that her car broke down on the highway and that she stepped out into traffic. Right into it. I wonder if the sun got in her eyes and she just couldn’t see where she was going. Those things happen.
Strange things happen all the time. Like when I saw a girl who looked just like Amber smoking in front of Mike’s Pub. Mike’s is where the old guys sit and drink beer in the afternoon. I pass by there sometimes and glance in. It’s dark inside, with clouds of cigarette smoke. The television over the bar always has a game on. Old guys are hunched over on stools.
Dad quit going to Mike’s after mom died. All he does now is work and sleep. He wakes up in time for dinner, which Amber made from a box. Spaghetti from a box. Chicken casserole from a box. Macaroni and cheese from a box. When she was in a real bad mood, she’d “forgot” to drain the grease off the hamburger before adding it to the noodles. I ate dinner Lucy’s on the days Amber made meatloaf. Her meatloaf was nasty. Now we have takeout.
Mama was a good cook. She’d feed me bits of carrot or jelly beans from a jar as she cooked. She’d dance around the kitchen while the food cooked. She always drained the grease.
She hung wind chimes over the kitchen sink even though there is no wind in the kitchen. She’d run her fingers across the chimes to hear the notes. It was my favorite sound. Now, my favorite sound is the theme song to the Flintstone’s, where you get to meet them and know all about them. I’m pretty sure Amber’s favorite sound was a Beatle’s song, even though they drove that man crazy. Crazy like Jim, who came back from Vietnam with a tattoo of a heart on his palm. He goes up to people on the street and screams, “Look at the sacred, bleeding heart of Jesus.” I looked, but I didn’t see any blood.
Sometimes there were spots of blood on our bed sheets when I didn’t cut myself. I showed Amber and she said told me to shut up. She was so touchy. She hated for me to touch her stuff. I’d play her records and put on her white blouse with the gold threads running through it and look through her drawers. In her underwear drawer, I found the map to her secret place in the office park across from the Ford Plant. The office park is full of plain white buildings, but in the middle of the parking lot there is a waterfall. If you walk past it and follow the path up the hill, there is small circle of fir trees. Inside the tree, there is a place with logs to sit on. I went there once during the daytime – the ground was covered with beer bottles, and something that looked like the finger of a glove was lying in the dirt. The place looked kind of nasty if you ask me, which no one ever does.
I woke up in the middle of the night one night, and Amber was gone. I was pretty sure she went to her secret place. I thought about moving the blue painter’s tape or spending the rest of the night trying on everything in her closet, but I decided to go and find her instead. I got dressed and put my house key around my neck. I got out my bike and headed for the secret place. Man, was it quiet at night. I passed dark houses and thought of Lucy snuggled under her comforter in her quiet, pink bedroom. I thought of Dad working the line at Ford, the air humming with noise. Then I thought about Amber hidden in the pine trees and wondered what it would feel like to do anything you wanted.
As I got to the office park, a pink light was spreading the sky. I leaned my bike against a boulder and started up the path. I could hear sounds above me. Breathing, trees shaking, grunts and gasps of air. I ran the rest of the way and into the space between the trees. Some guy had Amber against the tree. Her jeans and panties were around her ankles. Her eyes got really wide when she saw me.
“I’ll go get help,” I yelled and started running down the path. “Jake, get off me,” Amber yelled. Then “Sarah, come back.” I ran through the office park and toward the road that separated the park from the Ford Plant. Shift change. Cars were leaving the plant parking lot, their drivers eager for a cup of coffee, a drink, or a warm bed. I timed it just right and made it through the traffic and across the street. I looked back to see Amber running after me. She wore her Rolling Stones t-shirt, the one with the tongue on it. She didn’t see the car. She was looking at the horizon and the pink morning sun on a bed of clouds.
I love the Rolling Stones, who as far as I know have never driven anyone crazy. I like their song about clouds. I imagine Amber on her cloud, other angels come to visit. I bet when she gets tired of them she says, “Hey you get offa my cloud.” I hate their song “Paint it Black.” It reminds me of the darkness and all the things I’ve ever lost. Stuff that rolled under my bed or just disappeared. When it comes on the radio, I go out in the front yard and look up to the sky. I find the sun and take a good long look until everything goes red and I have to close my eyes.