The debut novel by the author of American Housewife.
Eating the Cheshire Cat lures us into a world of perfectly planned parties and steep social ladders, where traditional rites of passage take unpredictable and horrifying turns as three girls and their overbearing mothers collide.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, beauty is as beauty does, with axes and knives and killer smiles.
Sarina Summers and her mother will stop at nothing to have it all. Nicole Hicks harbors a fierce obsession with Sarina, which repeatedly undermines Mrs. Hicks's ambitious goals. Bitty Jack Carlson, a nice girl from the wrong side of the tracks, is caught in the crossfire but struggles to succeed outside the confines of this outrageous yet eerily familiar Southern community. It's survival of the fittest. Which girl will come out on top?
Covering everything from summer camp to the University of Alabama's Homecoming game, this fast-paced and unforgettable novel will keep readers guessing until the bitter end.
On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Sarina Summers got an overnight stay at Druid City Hospital. As her mother helped her through the emergency room doors, Sarina knew there was no turning back. This was it. She was serious about her future.
"What happened to this child?" the doctor exclaimed. "This child is drunk as a skunk and her fingers are broke!"
Sarina could not answer. She was totally shit-faced.
"Honey?" Mrs. Summers said.
"Miss?" said the doctor as he held Sarina's eyes open by the brows. He lit up her pupils with a tiny flashlight. "Let me know if you can hear me." He flicked the flashlight on and off. "Anybody home?"
"Honestly," said Mrs. Summers. "Does she need to be fully conscious for this? Could you just fix her fingers, please?"
Sarina nodded furiously and tried to sit up on the gurney. She offered her hands to the doctor. She said, "Hurts." The room was spinning faster now. Noises echoed. She fell back. The impact against the pillow pushed her long brown curls across her white-washed cheeks.
"I know it hurts," said Mrs. Summers and, with her hands, combed the hair away.
Sarina tried to focus her attention on how good her mother's nails felt against her scalp. How the square-shaped acrylics were softer than what her mother grew naturally. It was a dull, comforting sensation. Her mother's magic fingers. For a moment, she was calm. Sarina said, "Mmm."
"Yes," said Mrs. Summers. "That's my girl. Show the nice doctor that you're ready."
Sarina felt the back of her mother's hand against her jaw, her forehead.
The doctor said, "What she's ready to do is get her stomach pumped."
"Oh, no," Mrs. Summers said. "No, that's uncalled for. Fix her fingers. She'll sleep it off. She's drunk, not poisoned."
"I assure you," said the doctor, "she's as good as poisoned."
"Hurts," said Sarina. She rolled her head from side to side.
"Sarina," said the doctor. "Are you with us? Can you tell us what happened?"
Sarina kept her eyes shut. She choked back the sobs that crawled up her throat.
"Mrs. Summers," said the doctor, "I don't know what kind of drinker your daughter is."
"She's not one."
"Well, ma'am, she is one tonight."
Mrs. Summers crossed her arms and pressed down her breasts.
The doctor said, "From the smell of her and from her limited response, I'd say she's put down a bottle of Jack Daniel's."
Sarina heard her mother let out a long sigh.
The doctor said, "Believe me, I want what's best for your daughter. Her fingers can wait." The doctor motioned to a woman in green scrubs drinking something from a Styrofoam cup. He said, "Nurse, take this patient to room nine. Prep her and get the hose."
The nurse held the rim of the cup in her teeth and used her free hands to push Sarina down the hallway.
Sarina reached her hands, the bones of her two smallest fingers sticking out of the skin like straws, first in the air, then over her head toward her mother's voice as it fell away with the pace of the gurney.
Sarina heard her mother ask, "Can't I sit with her?"
She heard the doctor's voice. "Waiting room." She heard him say, "It's the right thing."
She lost them.
The nurse pushed Sarina's arms down. "Keep still. This will be over before you know it."
Sarina rocked in the darkness. The gurney like a hammock. The cool, clear corridor like her big backyard.
The party was great, thought Sarina as the nurse pried her teeth apart and the doctor pushed the hard warm hose to the back of her throat and then down and down.
"Don't fight it," said the doctor.
"You're doing so good," said the nurse.
Sarina tried not to gag. She tried to be still. Mom, she thought, You said the worst part was over. You didn't tell me this part. "Hurts," Sarina tried to say, but all that came out was a strained gurgling noise.
"Almost over," said the doctor.
"You're doing so good," said the nurse.
Sarina kept her eyes closed the way her mother had taught her (In painful situations, you want to keep yourself from seeing what's happening). Sarina reasoned with herself. I'll just go to sleep. Over the course of the evening, she slipped in and out of consciousness.
When she came to, the light through the blinds showed her it was morning. She felt as if she had slept for a week. She bet her eyes were bloodshot. Her neck ached from the position her arms were set. They were raised like Barbie's in the box. Outside the window of the closed metal door, Sarina could see the heads of her mother and the doctor.
"Mother," she said, surprised by the scratch in her voice. "Mom," she said a little bit louder. She watched her mother turn her head, bring her hand over her mouth, push open the door, and take three long strides to sit on the bed.
"Honey," Mrs. Summers gushed, "how are you feeling?"
"My throat hurts."
"I bet it does," Mrs. Summers said. She looked accusingly over her shoulder at the doctor.
The doctor said, "Sarina, can you tell us what happened?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Summers. "What on earth?"
Sarina said nothing.
"Did you fall?" said the doctor.
"Did you shut your hands in the car door?" Mrs. Summers suggested.
Sarina shook her head as the doctor and her mother continued to guess.
"Did you stick your fingers in the fan?"
"Did that nasty camp trunk shut on you?"
Sarina shook her head at all of these. She said, "I can't remember."
"Well," said the doctor. "In any case, you're lucky your mother found you. That must have been some party."
"It didn't happen at the party."
"I would have seen it," said Mrs. Summers.
"Ho-kay," said the doctor. "I've given your mother a prescription to help the pain when you come off the morphine. Take one pill when you need to. They'll make you sleepy, which is okay, but they'll make you nauseous if you don't take them on a full stomach."
"My throat hurts," said Sarina.
Mrs. Summers again looked over her shoulder at the doctor.
"Well," said the doctor. "Try to force something down. It will hurt a lot more coming up than it will going down. The nurse will be in to help you with your checkout." He put his hands in his pockets and pulled the door open with his hands still in his lab coat.
Sarina and her mother were alone.
"How do your fingers feel?"
"I don't really feel them. I'm pretty woozy."
Mrs. Summers stood up and smiled down at her daughter. "You've had some birthday."
Mrs. Summers ran her fingers across the soft pad that covered the metal splint of Sarina's left pinky. She frowned. She said, "They cut your nail."
Sarina twisted her mouth in disapproval.
Mrs. Summers peered over the bed to examine Sarina's other pinky. They were identical, like two pieces of chalk. Mrs. Summers lightened. She smiled as big as her face would hold. She said, "They're going to be beautiful!"
"I know," said Sarina.
The nurse came in.
As she was helped out of bed, helped into a wheelchair, helped into her mother's car, Sarina remembered her party the night before.
The invitations had read, "Please Join Me for a Sweet Sixteen Luau!"
Her mother had gone all out. She had cooked for days. She wrapped pineapple chunks in bacon and soaked them in honey. She went to Winn-Dixie and Piggly Wiggly and Kroger's to gather enough from Alabama's low supply of coconuts to gut them and make punch with the insides, drinks with the outsides. She bought tiny umbrellas and hung tissue-paper lanterns. She had the florist make leis for all the teenagers.
When Sarina got home from the last day of tenth grade, she walked into the backyard, dropped her books, and spun until she could not stand it anymore. Hypnotized by the pastel colors and rented picnic tables, she dropped to her knees and fell back onto her hands. "Mom!" she said. "This is so great! I can't believe you did this!"
Mrs. Summers sat down on the cement step in front of the sliding glass doors to the den. She smoothed her bangs into her new bob haircut sprung loose by the humidity of the approaching summer. The haircut was meant to make her look thin. To make herself look thin, Mrs. Summers wore tunic tops, black pants, and two coats of Maybelline Great Lash. Mrs. Summers smiled at her daughter sprawled in the grass like a little girl. She said, "You're not a little girl anymore."
"Maw-hum!" Sarina opened her mouth and rolled her eyes. She got to her feet and rushed to her mother. She sat in her lap and hugged her neck. "Stop!" She put her head against her mother's. She said, "Gawd, it's not like I did anything special."
"But you will," Mrs. Summers said. "You'll do so many great things."
Sarina rolled her eyes again. She stuck her flat tongue between her teeth freed from braces a few weeks after Christmas. "Come on," Sarina said, tugging her mother off the step. "Help me get ready. It's an hour to five and you know one of the boys will show up right on time."
Mrs. Summers said, "Okay." She pulled open the sliding door and followed her daughter into the den. As she slid the door shut, Mrs. Summers stared out into the big backyard. She thought, Once the sun goes down, those pines will almost look like palms. She said, "Did you see the roses your father sent? They're in your room."
Sarina had reached her room by this point. She called to her mother, "Mom! Come on!"
Mrs. Summers turned from the party-in-waiting. With her back against the glass, she prayed for it not to rain, then walked through the house to sit in her daughter's room while Sarina put her hair in rollers, lined her lips, and asked for help with the zipper to the sundress they had chosen two months ago.
After the party, Sarina grinned and swayed like a punching bag in the center of the kitchen.
Mrs. Summers said, "Somebody's had too much punch."
Sarina said, "Somebody spiked it!"
Mrs. Summers looked at the ceiling. She put her index finger to her chin. She said, "I wonder who."
Sarina gawked. "You are too cool."
"I suppose I am," said Mrs. Summers. She pointed to the glazed ham. "Put some tinfoil on that, will you?"
Sarina did as she was told and helped her mother lift the ham and slide it onto the bottom shelf of the fridge.
"That's the last of it," Mrs. Summers said. "You ready?"
Mrs. Summers slapped her daughter's face so hard Sarina lost a clip-on earring. She studied her daughter, who stretched her eyes wide and bit her lip in an effort not to cry.
Mrs. Summers frowned. "No you're not." She offered her daughter a sheet of Bounty to dry her tears. "I bet that smarts. Goddamn weak punch."
She took her daughter by the wrist to the rumpus room downstairs. She sat her in a chair by the edge of the Ping-Pong table. From her apron pocket, Mrs. Summers produced a shot glass and bottle of whisky. She said, "Pour yourself a drink and I'll get things ready."
As Sarina screwed the lid off the bottle, she took a good look at her crooked pinkies. The top joints bent toward the other fingers. Her father used to tease her. He said it was like those pinkies were trying to do a U-turn.
On a routine physical, Mrs. Summers had asked the pediatrician, "Can these be fixed?"
"Not in any way you'd want to," the pediatrician had told her. "There's no doctor who'll do it. What your daughter's got is a recessive trait. Like widow's peaks and attached earlobes."
Sarina filled the shot glass to the lip. She held it with both hands. She whispered, "Like braces."
She had four more shots.
Mrs. Summers stood behind her and ran her fingers through her daughter's hair. She twisted it. Let it loose. Started a braid. "How you doing?" she asked and put the back of her hand against Sarina's damp forehead. "Feeling no pain?"
"Don't slap me again."
Mrs. Summers said, "I won't."
Mrs. Summers walked around the Ping-Pong table. She poured a shot. She put it in her daughter's hands. "Drink, honey."
Sarina nursed the whisky. "I don't feel so good."
"That's a good sign," said her mother. "Keep working that drink. Shut your eyes. Don't pay any attention to me."
Sarina let the whisky drain into her mouth. She tried to decipher the weird sounds in the room. A giant thud on the Ping-Pong table. A lot of ripping. Then her mother took the shot glass away. She fiddled with Sarina's wrists and hands and fingers.
"Have another," Mrs. Summers said. "Be a good girl."
Sarina could feel the shot glass at her mouth. She felt her mother tilt her head back and guide the liquid down.
She took a peep.
In front of her, Sarina saw her arms outstretched, her wrists duct-taped to a cinder block. Except for her pinkies, her fingers were curled into fists and taped. Her pinkies laid out and taped. The cinder block taped to the table. Her mother standing before it all.
"Oh," cried Sarina. She was too drunk to speak.
"Be a good girl," Mrs. Summers said as she picked up the ax. She lifted it, blade backwards, over her shoulder. "Keep your eyes closed."
Sarina did as she was told.
On the ride home from the hospital, Sarina thought It wasn't that bad. The last thing she remembered was her mother bringing the ax down and the crack of the first of her two fingers breaking.
Helen Ellis is the acclaimed author of Eating the Cheshire Cat and American Housewife. She is a poker player who competes on the national tournament circuit. Raised in Alabama, she lives with her husband in New York City.