The Last Widow - Karin Slaughter

Part One

Sunday, July 7, 2019


Michelle Spivey jogged through the back of the store, frantically scanning each aisle for her daughter, panicked thoughts circling her brain: How did I lose sight of her I am a horrible mother my baby was kidnapped by a pedophile or a human trafficker should I flag store security or call the police or—


Michelle stopped so abruptly that her shoe snicked against the floor. She took a sharp breath, trying to force her heart back into a normal rhythm. Her daughter was not being sold into slavery. She was at the make-up counter trying on samples.

The relief started to dissipate as the panic burned off.

Her eleven-year-old daughter.

At the make-up counter.

After they had told Ashley that she could not under any circumstances wear make-up until her twelfth birthday, and then it would only be blush and lip gloss, no matter what her friends were doing, end of story.

Michelle pressed her hand to her chest. She slowly walked up the aisle, giving herself time to transition into a reasoned and logical person.

Ashley’s back was to Michelle as she examined lipstick shades. She twisted the tubes with an expert flick of her wrist because of course when she was with her friends, Ashley tried on all their make-up and they practiced on each other because that was what girls did.

Some girls, at least. Michelle had never felt that pull toward primping. She could still recall her own mother’s screeching tone when Michelle had refused to shave her legs: You’ll never be able to wear pantyhose!

Michelle’s response: Thank God!

That was years ago. Her mother was long gone. Michelle was a grown woman with her own child and like every woman, she had vowed not to make her mother’s mistakes.

Had she over-corrected?

Were her general tomboyish tendencies punishing her daughter? Was Ashley really old enough to wear make-up, but because Michelle had no interest in eyeliners and bronzers and whatever else it was that Ashley watched for endless hours on YouTube, she was depriving her daughter of a certain type of girl’s passage into womanhood?

Michelle had done the research on juvenile milestones. Eleven was an important age, a so-called benchmark year, the point at which children had attained roughly 50 percent of the power. You had to start negotiating rather than simply ordering them around. Which was very well-reasoned in the abstract but in practice was terrifying.

“Oh!” Ashley saw her mother and frantically jammed the lipstick into the display. “I was—”

“It’s all right.” Michelle stroked back her daughter’s long hair. So many bottles of shampoo in the shower, and conditioner, and soaps and moisturizers when Michelle’s only beauty routine involved sweat-proof sunscreen.

“Sorry.” Ashley wiped at the smear of lip gloss on her mouth.

“It’s pretty,” Michelle tried.

“Really?” Ashley beamed at her in a way that tugged every string of Michelle’s heart. “Did you see this?” She meant the lip gloss display. “They have one that’s tinted, so it’s supposed to last longer. But this one has cherry flavoring, and Hailey says b—”

Silently, Michelle filled in the words, boys like it more.

The assorted Hemsworths on Ashley’s bedroom walls had not gone unnoticed.

Michelle asked, “Which do you like most?”

“Well . . .” Ashley shrugged, but there was not much an eleven-year-old did not have an opinion on. “I guess the tinted type lasts longer, right?”

Michelle offered, “That makes sense.”

Ashley was still weighing the two items. “The cherry kind of tastes like chemicals? Like, I always chew—I mean, if I wore it, I would probably chew it off because it would irritate me?”

Michelle nodded, biting back the polemic raging inside her: You are beautiful, you are smart, you are so funny and talented and you should only do things that make you happy because that’s what attracts the worthy boys who think that the happy, secure girls are the interesting ones.

Instead, she told Ashley, “Pick the one you like and I’ll give you an advance on your allowance.”

“Mom!” She screamed so loudly that people looked up. The dancing that followed was more Tigger than Shakira. “Are you serious? You guys said—”

You guys. Michelle gave an inward groan. How to explain this sudden turnabout when they had agreed that Ashley would not wear make-up until she was twelve?

It’s only lip gloss!

She’ll be twelve in five months!

I know we agreed not until her actual birthday but you let her have that iPhone!

That would be the trick. Turn it around and make it about the iPhone, because Michelle had purely by fate been the one who’d died on that particular