The Mothers recount the last time they saw Elise Turner (they were apparently the last ones to see her alive). Entering the church one morning, they found her kneeling in front of the altar, “slumped forward” as if sleeping. Accustomed to shooing away drunks and homeless people, they told her to leave, that they wouldn’t call the police if she got up and went on her way. When she didn’t move, though, they advanced closer and realized she wasn’t homeless. “Elise!” exclaimed one of the Mothers. “What you doin’ in here?” In response, Elise stammered something about having come to the church the previous night, but she doesn’t finish her sentence, instead stumbling down the hallway and out the door. And though the Mothers didn’t know it at the time, she was on her way toward death.
The fact that the Mothers are the last ones to see Elise Turner alive is in keeping with the novel’s interest in gossip and storytelling—having seen Elise in her final moments, the Mothers have a certain authority over her story, since they possess details to which nobody else has access. As such, they find themselves in a somewhat authorial position, a notion that perhaps explains why their collective voice figures so prominently into this narrative.
Nadia spends the summer thinking about her mother’s final days—wondering what she must have been experiencing—and feeling lonely herself. One day, though, Aubrey sits and has lunch with her at Upper Room. At first, Nadia wants to be left alone, but soon they get to talking, and Aubrey tells her that she lives with her sister and her sister’s girlfriend. “At Upper Room,” Bennett writes, “a gay sister was a big deal.” As such, Nadia wonders about Aubrey’s life, suddenly fascinated and drawn to her. “Why did Aubrey live with her sister, not her parents?” Bennett muses. “[Nadia] felt a sudden kinship with a girl who didn’t live with her mother either. A girl who was also a keeper of secrets.”
The kinship Nadia feels in this moment with Aubrey is predicated on the fact that both girls have “secret” pasts kept hidden from the public eye. What’s more, that Aubrey lives with her sisters suggests that she too lives a motherless life, something that naturally sparks Nadia’s interest, since she is grappling with the reality that she no longer has a dependable caretaker. In this way, Nadia finds herself drawn to Aubrey, a girl she used to think of as boring and unremarkable. In turn, Bennett shows that once somebody puts in the effort to learn about another person, it’s easy to move past preconceived notions regarding that person’s identity. Although at first, Nadia carelessly categorized Aubrey as an uninteresting and unrelatable Christian girl, now Nadia sees that Aubrey is just as complex as she is herself.
Nadia and Aubrey start having lunch together every day. In this way, Nadia slowly learns more about her new friend, who discovered Upper Room when she was sixteen and new to California—she attended a Sunday service one morning and, after listening to the sermon, cried as she walked up to the altar to be saved. Aubrey has moved many times throughout her life, due to the fact that her mother leads an unstable love life and follows men all over the country. One of these boyfriends, Paul, used to sneak into Aubrey’s room and rape her, though she doesn’t tell Nadia this in their conversation about her past.
In this moment, Bennett reveals to readers something still hidden from Nadia: that Aubrey has been raped by Paul, her mother’s boyfriend. In doing so, Bennett confirms Nadia’s previous suspicion that, like her, Aubrey is “a keeper of secrets.” The difference between them, though, is that Aubrey has turned to religion in an attempt to forget her tumultuous past, walking teary-eyed to the altar as a way of erasing her traumatic personal history. Nadia, on the other hand, has never found anything about religion particularly welcoming or comforting—not only has the congregation made her feel guilty on her mother’s behalf, but the pastor’s wife is constantly cold to her. As such, Nadia can’t distract herself from her secret traumas in the way that Aubrey can.
When Nadia asks if Aubrey’s mother is dead, Aubrey says, “No, no, nothing like that. I just—we don’t get along, that’s all.” This shocks Nadia, who wonders if this is something somebody can actually do—simply leave a mother behind. Later, when the girls have started spending every evening together, Aubrey and Nadia swing in the hammock in Nadia’s backyard. As they do so, Aubrey reveals that she hasn’t spoken to her mother in almost a year, and Nadia wonders what it must feel like “to be the one who left.”
At first, Nadia finds herself drawn to Aubrey because she senses that their lives are perhaps similar. As their friendship progresses, though, she realizes that their situations are notably distinct from one another. Although it’s a relief to find somebody who also has secrets and leads a motherless life, Aubrey’s decision to abandon her mother stands in stark contrast to Nadia’s own circumstances, since Nadia’s mother was the one to leave her behind.
Nadia starts spending all of her time at Aubrey’s house, where Aubrey lives with her sister, Monique, and Monique’s girlfriend, Kasey. When Aubrey first moved in, she tells Nadia, she had trouble sleeping, so she and Monique decorated her room together, making it into her ideal bedroom. “Mo thought we needed to do something together,” Aubrey says to Nadia, explaining that they hadn’t seen each other in several years because Monique never visited home because she didn’t like Paul, her mother’s abusive boyfriend. In this moment, Aubrey reveals to Nadia that Paul used to hit both her and her mother sometimes, though she still doesn’t reveal that he also used to rape her.
Once more, Aubrey only partially reveals her past to Nadia, keeping her secret about Paul hidden. Likewise, Nadia has yet to tell Aubrey about her abortion. It’s worth noting, then, that despite their closeness, both girls hide important things from one another, secrets that are constantly on their minds but that they can’t bring themselves to vocalize. In this way, secret-keeping becomes yet another form of internalization.
Bennett notes that Latrice Sheppard—with her unique eyes, one of which is blue and one of which is brown—has a certain ability to “look at a girl and tell if she [has] been hit before.” She told Aubrey this the third time they had tea together, and since then Aubrey has wondered what the first lady knows about her own life, asking herself whether “her entire past [is] written on her skin.” Over tea one afternoon, Aubrey asks her what happened to Elise Turner. She asks this because the pastor never mentioned a cause of death, a fact that caused “lurid speculation” from the congregation. Although Aubrey now knows that Elise shot herself, she wants to know why she did so. “The devil attacks all of us,” Mrs. Sheppard says. “Some folks just aren’t strong enough to fend him off.”
Latrice Sheppard’s ability to “look at a girl and tell if she [has] been hit before” suggests that she thinks certain traumas are impossible to fully internalize. Indeed, Aubrey worries that her past is “written on her skin”—if this were the case, it would be a blatant externalization of her painful history. This is similar to how Nadia fears that her father will be able to sense the change in her body after her abortion. Of course, Robert remains unaware of what Nadia is dealing with, and Latrice Sheppard never seems to mention anything about Aubrey’s past. In this way, Bennett implies that the fear of externalization is rarely more than just a fear. With their intense traumas lurking inside, Nadia and Aubrey feel exposed to a world that, in reality, hardly notices them. On another note, Aubrey’s curiosity about Elise’s suicide is evidence of just how strong the impulse toward gossip and storytelling can be.
Mrs. Sheppard is highly perceptive, but she still doesn’t know that Paul used to get drunk and hit Aubrey and her mother. “He’d moved in a year before [Aubrey had] left,” Bennett explains, “and for a year, he had made nightly trips to her room, pushing her door open, then her legs, and for a year, she had told almost no one. Almost, because she’d told her mother after the first time it happened and her mother had shook her head tightly and said ‘No,’ as if she could will it to be untrue.” As Aubrey sits on Mrs. Sheppard’s couch asking about Elise Turner, the first lady asks why the girl wants to know so much about the incident. “Nadia never talks about it,” Aubrey says, but Mrs. Sheppard only warns Aubrey about getting too close to Nadia, who will be leaving soon for college.
Once again, Bennett shows that Aubrey’s fear of revealing her painful history is first and foremost a fear, since Mrs. Sheppard remains unaware of the terrible things Paul has done to Aubrey. In keeping with this kind of sheltered secrecy, Aubrey comes to see that the story of Nadia’s mother is shrouded in mystery, and that she may never understand why Elise killed herself because “Nadia never talks about it.” Of course, Nadia never talks about it partially because she doesn’t even know why her mother committed suicide—an uncertainty that further drives the curiosity surrounding the story of Elise’s death.