Cawdor, Oklahoma, 1968
Even dead, she was the prettiest girl Hollis ever saw.
The doctor's flashlight shone down on her steadily, like a spotlight. One of her eyes was open. It was blue as the bluest sky, and it stared, unblinking, off into the shadows.
The doctor leaned over and with his sure fingers pushed the blue eye shut. He straightened again, keeping the ray of light trained on her face.
Her eyelashes were long and cast still shadows across her cheeks. Her nose was small and straight. Her full lips were open enough so that Hollis could see the white rim of her upper teeth.
She lay there with her head tilted at an angle as if she were puzzled. The doctor put his foot against her face and nudged her head straight. His shoes were Hush Puppies, and the thick rubber sole left a mark on her jaw.
A sick feeling jiggled the pit of Hollis's stomach.
"A shame," the doctor said. "A damned waste. Did you boys bring what I told you?"
Hollis made himself nod.
"Yessir," said Luther. His voice did not sound scared, but it did not sound like ordinary, either.
They had been waked up in the middle of the night. They had been handed two old horse blankets sewn together with strong thread. Their orders were to get the half-blind mare and take her to the cellar door of the clinic and not to say anything to anybody. The doctor would be watching for them, they were told.
Even then, Hollis had a terrible feeling that something bad was happening and it would get worse and he could not stop it no matter what. It was like being caught in a nightmare that was stronger than you and would not let you go, no matter how hard you fought.
When they reached the clinic they'd hitched the mare in a grove of cedar trees where she couldn't be seen. The doctor had opened the door of the cellar and told Luther and Hollis to come in. The only light was his flashlight.
"I got something," he'd said. "I want you to get rid of it for me."
Somehow Hollis already knew: It has happened at last. There is somebody dead.
But he had not expected a girl so pretty. Or so young. She looked no more than sixteen years old.
She lay on her back, next to the basement-floor drain. Her hair was blond-like and must have hung past her shoulders, but now it was tangled and stringy and looked all dirty, like before dying she had sweat a lot.
She wore a little white gown-thing. It had blood on it. It was hitched up so high, Hollis could almost see her privates. This made him feel ashamed, so he forced himself to keep his eyes on her face instead.
Her skin was fine and smooth like a girl in a magazine picture. It was very white. Hollis wondered if she had always been that pale, or if that's what being dead had done to her.
"I want you to take this into the woods to the fire pit where the old still used to be," said the doctor. "I want you to burn it."
Hollis made himself nod again. But he thought, Lordy God. Set fire to her. Set her on fire. Lordy God.
"Yessir," said Luther.
"You stay with it until it's all gone," the doctor said. "I don't want anything left of it. Not one thing."
"Yessir," Luther said.
But Hollis thought, This is a sin what we are about to do. It is a sin and a crime. He swallowed hard. He knew right then that this girl would come back to haunt his mind and curse his soul.
They wrapped her in the horse blankets and carried her out into the darkness and slung her over the back of the mare. They each took a ten-gallon can of gasoline.
It was nine miles into the pine woods to get to the cave where the still had been. Every step of the way Hollis wanted to cry like a frightened child. He thought of God, hell, damnation, demons, spirits, and haunts. There was no moon and few stars, hardly any light. He could barely see where he was going except deeper into the tangled darkness.
But Luther, who was ten years older than Hollis, knew the way through the woods by heart. So did the half-blind mare. She plodded on, her hooves sure on a path Hollis could not see, a path he would have sworn was not there at all but that she followed as if it were inevitable.
At one point Luther said, "You ever fucked a dead girl?"
Hollis nearly burst into tears then. I don't want to do that. I don't want him to do that. Please, God, don't let him do that.
"No," he said. It was the first word he'd said since they'd left home.
"They're too still," Luther said with an air of knowledge. "There's no pleasure to it."
Lord God, thought Hollis. Lord God, help me, please. The dark woods around him seemed like the mouth of hell, swallowing him up. Although the dead girl was thrown over the horse's back, at the same time she seemed to float palely above Hollis, a spirit following him as if she were hooked to him by a thin silver wire.
They say you cannot completely burn up a human body unless you are a mortician and have the right sort of furnace in which to do it. They say that if you try to burn a body, it would take you days and days, and that the black smoke is greasy with fat, and it has a special, sickening smell that tells the world what you are doing. People are sure to notice such a long, hot, stinking fire, they say.
But this was not true. Hollis and Luther took the girl to the cave and laid her in the fire pit, still wrapped in the horse blankets.
Luther peeled back the blankets, just from the girl's upper body. He took out his knife and, to Hollis's shock, he hacked off the little finger of her right hand. Hollis nearly threw up. His knees shook, and he turned away, knowing now for certain sure he would go to hell because he had watched such a thing.
"A corpse's finger bone is powerful magic," Luther said somberly, wiping the knife clean on the blankets. "Mama Leone says so. She's been to New Orleans, she knows things like that."
Hollis shuddered, his mouth tasting sour and sick.
Luther wrapped the finger up carefully in a blue bandanna handkerchief and stuck it in his back pocket.
He covered up the girl again, unceremoniously letting the blanket fall over her face. He doused her with one can of the gasoline. Then he made a kind of a fuse-thing out of twine so that he and Hollis could run for the mouth of the cave and take cover before the gasoline ignited.
But Luther calculated wrongly about the fuse. The two of them had barely reached the cave's entrance when some force made Hollis turn back to look.
Excerpted from Whose Little Girl are You? by Bethany Campbell. Copyright © 2000 by Bethany Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.