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The Lost Girls of Willowbrook
Author: Ellen Marie Wiseman

 

 

CHAPTER 1

Staten Island bus station

December 1971

 

 

People still search the woods for the remains of lost children.

Sixteen-year-old Sage Winters picked up the bus tokens with shaking fingers and stepped away from the station window, her friends’ haunting words playing over and over in her mind like a creepy childhood rhyme. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard the warning—everyone who lived on Staten Island understood the need to keep their eyes on the ground when they entered the woods—but the more she thought about Heather and Dawn repeating those words the previous night, the angrier she grew. Why would they say something so awful instead of trying to comfort her? Why would they dredge up old rumors about Satanic rituals being held below the abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium instead of offering to help her find out what had happened to Rosemary? Sure, they’d been drinking, and deep down they were probably scared too, but this was serious. Her twin sister was missing. It didn’t mean she was dead. It didn’t mean that the urban legend they’d grown up hearing was true. “Cropsey” was nothing more than a scary story parents told their children to frighten them into behaving and staying close to home. And Rosemary was a patient at Willowbrook State School—she wasn’t out wandering the streets, where a homicidal madman could pick her up. Doctors and nurses and teachers were taking care of her, making sure she was being properly fed, protected, kept clean, and taught basic skills. At least that’s what Sage’s stepfather, Alan, had told her last night, when he finally admitted Rosemary was alive.

Shivering at the memory of learning the truth about her twin, Sage shoved the bus tokens into her jacket pocket, then dug in her purse for her pack of Kools. She needed a cigarette so bad she could taste it. And a Pepsi too, but the damn soda machine was out of order. On top of everything else, she was totally hung over. Her head was pounding, her mouth tasted like sandpaper, and her thoughts jumbled together in a thick haze. Feeling this shitty made her even more anxious, but she had no one to blame but herself. She must have been an idiot to think drinking six amaretto sours and ten shots of peppermint schnapps was the best way to deal with the shock of finding out Rosemary had been committed to a mental institution.

Still rummaging through her purse for her cigarettes, she crossed the grimy waiting area, hurrying past the rows of blue plastic chairs as she made her way toward the exit. Considering the weather, it probably would have been a better idea to stay inside the station to smoke, but the place smelled like a urinal, and she didn’t want to miss the bus to Willowbrook. The sooner she got on it, the less chance she’d have to change her mind.

But something kept getting stuck under her mood ring, hindering her search through her purse. She stopped. Had she forgotten to put her fake ID back in her wallet after leaving the bar last night? When she pulled her hand out and saw what it was, she swore under her breath. One corner of an empty condom wrapper had caught beneath the ring’s stone, and now it hung from her hand like a banner. She pulled the wrapper free, went over to trash bin, and chucked it in the garbage. Still cursing, she dug the rest of the six-pack out of her purse and threw them away too, not caring who saw. One thing was for sure: Her next boyfriend would be man enough to buy his own damn condoms. Thinking about Noah, tears burned her eyes. If she hadn’t caught him making out with that bitch Yvette the other day, he could have gone to Willowbrook with her. Instead, he was probably still in bed, enjoying the final days of Christmas vacation and dreaming about seeing her later. Well, he was in for a surprise. She’d slipped a letter under his door, telling him never to call her again. Because if there was one thing she wouldn’t tolerate, it was a cheating boyfriend. It didn’t matter that he and Yvette had “only” been kissing—cheating was cheating. And she’d vowed a long time ago that she’d never waste a minute of her life with someone like her late mother, who was always unfaithful to her father, no matter how heartbroken she was.

Thinking about her mother, a familiar resentment tightened her jaw. She used to believe her parents were so crazy in love that no one and nothing else mattered. In high school her father had been the star player on the basketball team, and her mother the head cheerleader; they were married right after graduation. It was supposed to be forever. Sage and Rosemary had thought it would be forever too—until the first time they saw their parents fight. The first time their mother threw a martini glass at him. The first time she told him to get out. And the last.

Rosemary never understood why their parents fought all the time—but it had changed her, and not for the better. Sage, on the other hand, knew they had problems but was powerless to fix them, so she tried to ignore their bickering. In the beginning, when she first realized her mother drank every day, she thought her father was having an affair and she’d hated him for it. But then she learned the truth.

The cheaters are the ones who scream and yell, the ones who try to place blame on the other person. As if it were her father’s fault that her mother lied about working late so she could have sex with her boss. As if he were the one who had destroyed her boss’s marriage along with her own. No matter what Sage’s father did or how hard he tried, he was never good enough for their mother. He didn’t love her enough. He didn’t kiss her ass enough. He didn’t do anything enough. Except he was the one who brought her coffee in bed every morning and cooked dinner every night. He was the one who took Sage and Rosemary to preschool and made sure they had clean clothes. He was the one who decorated the house and bought the biggest tree he could find every year because Christmas was their mother’s favorite holiday. No one had ever cared about Sage’s mother as much as he did. And she’d never had a reason not to trust him.

Sage had never had a reason to distrust Noah either. A lot of girls hung around hoping to get his attention, but he never gave any of them a second look. Heather and Dawn always asked her if she trusted him, but Sage knew how much he loved her—or at least she’d thought she did. She was used to seeing the other guys partying with different girls, the whiskey and beer flowing, the joints being passed around. But Noah was always with her, laughing at his friends’ antics. She never thought he would cheat. The whole year they’d been together, there had never been a note stuffed in his locker, a lipstick stain on his neck, a rumor that he’d even looked at someone else. Until now.

She cursed him under her breath again, then blinked back her tears, refusing to cry over a boy. She had more important things to worry about. Pushing the image of Noah from her mind, she trudged toward the exit. He wasn’t worth another thought. At least that’s what her head said. Heather and Dawn weren’t worth a second thought either. At first she’d felt bad about walking out on them last night, leaving them in the bar without paying her tab, but now she was glad she’d left. Her grief over losing her sister six years ago—the horrible, heavy heartache she could still feel to this day—was not something to joke about. They knew Rosemary’s death was the dividing point of her life. The before and after. It wasn’t a hoax or a plea for attention.

To this day, Dawn and Heather still picked on her about the fact that she hated Ouija boards and was so scared of needles that she’d passed out when they’d tried to pierce her ears using a sewing needle and a chunk of ice, so it should have been no surprise that they’d bring up the rumor of Cropsey and the horrible crimes he’d committed when she told them Rosemary was missing. And even that would have been okay, except they wouldn’t quit talking about him even after she begged them to stop.

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