“I’ll make a fire,” I said.
“It’ll be like a furnace.”
“It gets cold at night,” I said. “Rest.”
While he lay there with his eyes closed and his arm out to the side like a rag doll, I checked the entire house, window by window, the back door with the chair wedged under the handle, my unlatched bedroom window. Nothing looked disturbed. Last, I stood at the entrance to the master closet, shining my phone light inside. The vent in my dad’s closet was exactly as I’d left it, but for how much longer?
“Nicolette?” Everett called from downstairs.
There was no time.
“Coming,” I called.
I helped Everett up to bed, skirted out from under him as he tried to pull me down with him. “Be right back,” I said.
I unscrewed the vent and took the journals and papers downstairs, where I sat in front of the crackling fire. I skimmed everything—the journals turning out to be more like ledgers—and felt the puzzle pieces lining up for just a second. And the spare sheets of paper: descriptions of my mother’s jewelry, or receipts of sales, or itemized lists from pawnshops. I tore the pages from the journal, crumpling them up, and tossed them into the fire, watched as the edges curled, turning to black.
Then I pulled the papers from the drawer, everything on the dining room table that I’d been trying to find meaning in. The bank withdrawals. The highlighted receipts. I burned them all. They turned to ash, to nothing, to smoke. I no longer had the luxury of perusal, of a gradual and gentle understanding. It was coming with a vengeance, like the leaves in the fall. Turning colors in warning, and then, with a strong wind, they all fall down.
The Day Before
The teenagers scattered throughout the clearing were finally asleep, and I carefully wove through their campsite, stepping over empty cans and sleeping bags, heading for the narrow path to the caverns. Dawn was already breaking through the trees, the sky pink and hazy, but darkness beckoned from the entrance of the caverns. Time didn’t exist down there. Too many angles for the light to slip through. Too much distance. You had to move by feel and instinct. My hands on Tyler’s waist, following in his steps, Corinne’s laughter echoing from deep inside—
Ten years ago, these caverns had belonged to us.
From my house, in a car, they’re a good ten miles away, but through the woods, it’s more like two, two and a half. Corinne and Bailey and I used to walk here before we were old enough to drive. Not just for the caverns. That came after. That was always the dare. First there was the clearing where we’d all meet up, just like these kids.
This site used to be privately run and maintained, but now it was abandoned, halfway to disrepair, yet with old restroom facilities and plumbing that still worked. The perfect place for bonfires or parties. It belonged to the teenagers and, like a spell, was forgotten as soon as they moved on.
We’d sneak through the rusted cavern gates, following the roped path deep inside, as far as we dared. Our flashlights off, the chill running up our spines, a tap on the shoulder: Truth or dare . . .
In the darkness, we were all hands and laughter and whispers. We clung to one another or pressed ourselves against the damp walls, trying to outlast everyone else. Pretending to see ghosts, pretending to be ghosts, until someone gave in and flicked a light back on.
* * *
THE OFFICIAL CAVERN TOURS had shut down a generation before, after an accident. A couple left behind, lost in the total darkness, and only one alive by morning. The woman slipped along the slick rocks, hit her head, and her husband couldn’t find her in the dark. Circled the cavern on his hands and knees, spiraling in, calling her name, never making contact. Yelled for help from the locked gate, his pleas swallowed up by the endless forest. It’s disorienting down there—might seem unlikely to be trapped in the same cave and never find the other person, but if you’ve been there, you knew. It could happen.
They found her in a puddle of her own blood and him not twenty yards away.
They’d been exploring a narrow tunnel off the trail. Didn’t notice when everyone left until the lights went off. Felt their way back into the main cavern, searching for the path, for the rope to follow back to the entrance. That was when he lost her.
Of course, that was his story. But then there were the rumors, the whispers, that lived on. He killed her. He meant to. Or it was an accident, a fit of passion, a push too hard. Or like Daniel told us: The monster made him do it. It lived in the woods, and this was its home, and it would speak to you only in a whisper that sounded like your own echo.
Either way, this place shut down, the generator burned out, and the trail of lights turned off for good—and with it, the town revenue. There used to be more of a tourist draw. The caverns nearby, the mountains all around, and the river cutting through. Johnson Farm and the sunflowers within driving distance—people pulling onto the shoulder of the road, walking through them like a maze, cameras strung around their necks.
We still had the draw of the mountains, the view, the way of life that people found quaint. But the town twenty miles away had a railroad with a cartoonish train and a scenic day trip, and it also had the river and the mountains, the proximity to Johnson Farm, therefore taking all of the remaining visitors.
They bolted the metal gates into the mouth of the caverns, tied it up with chains and a padlock, stuck a sign out front. Danger. Forbidden. Keep out.
Like catnip, a goddamn Bat Signal in the sky—Teenagers! Come!
And come we did.
The gates and the padlock were mostly for show. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who had a key. There were probably eight different copies of that key floating around by the time we graduated, passed down like a rite of passage, senior to freshman—the dares, the bets, the dark privacy of the rooms losing their appeal after graduation. When those seeking privacy and secrets outgrew the cold walls, the damp floor, moving on to the motel halfway between this town and the next.
When Corinne disappeared, the cops couldn’t search everywhere. There was just too much area and too few resources, until help from the state arrived. Especially for an eighteen-year-old with no definite sign of foul play. They couldn’t rule out the possibility that she’d run.
But the caverns were close to the main road between the fair and our town, a semi-paved access road from when it had county funding. It was a convenient place to leave a body.
Jackson was the one who suggested it as the cops organized us into search parties two days after Corinne disappeared: Did anyone check the caverns? They couldn’t not check. Not with us all standing around, about to head out on our own with flashlights and desperation and an illegal key.
We were there when the cops went in: Bailey beside Jackson, her face resting against his chest, his T-shirt already stained with her eye makeup; Tyler, his fingers laced with mine, his grip too tight; Daniel, his arms folded across his chest, sullen and anxious. The police had this big tool ready to cut the chains, but they didn’t need it. The padlock was open, the chains unwound, the gate hanging slightly ajar—the darkness beckoning.
Jimmy Bricks went down with a big spotlight, and Officer Fraize tried to keep us all back as we stood with the gathered crowd. We waited forever, the waiting tightening my throat, the summer air too thick and filled with the scent of decay.
They were down there for over an hour, but the only thing they brought back up was the ring.
The ring was beautiful, one of a kind. Interlocking silver bands with a row of tiny blue stones between them. They’d slid it across a table in front of me the next day in a sealed plastic bag.
“Take a closer look,” Officer Fraize had said.
Some of the stones were blackened, coated with dried blood. I’d closed my eyes, shook my head. “Not hers,” I said.
In the following weeks, they tried to track down its origin—we heard a
bout it from Officer Fraize, who was married to the school secretary, who told her book club. They tried to link it to Corinne, then to Jackson, with a receipt or an ID from a pawnshop. But the ring appeared just like Corinne had vanished.
Bailey said it wasn’t Corinne’s. Jackson said it wasn’t Corinne’s. But the police clung to the idea of it, that there was something we didn’t know about her. Something that had led her here, and she’d seeped into the cavern walls—her bone the smooth rock, her teeth the jagged stone, her clothes disintegrating in the darkness—the only thing left behind, the metal of a ring and the blood it clung to.
Why else would Jackson tell the police to search there? It’s what the guilty do when the guilt threatens to drown them. It’s human nature to want to tell. To be absolved.
Then they sealed the caverns back up: fresh chains, fresh gate, new lock. No keys. As far as I knew, they hadn’t been opened in the last ten years.
* * *
I THOUGHT MAYBE THAT was what the kids sleeping in the clearing were here to do last night. I thought they were here to look for Annaleise as we once searched for Corinne. That maybe they knew something more, something they were scared to tell. But no.
We’d scoured the earth when Corinne disappeared. When the police couldn’t, when they wouldn’t, we kept looking. We threw ourselves so deep into her disappearance that some of us never managed to climb back out.
The monster lives in there, Corinne used to say. Then she’d grab my hand and pull me in, all breathy laughter. Come find us, she’d call, and we’d hear footsteps—from Jackson or Tyler—tiny beams of light cast about the floor as we darted out of their paths.
I stood in front of those gates now, my hands encircling the rusted iron bars, listening to the breeze rush into the darkness and echo back in a low-pitched howl. The lock was closed, the chain covered in a coarse moss that slid off too easily, coating my palms.
I traced the path of the chain to the padlock. I tugged at the bars, but they didn’t give at all against the stone. Barely made a noise as the padlock and the chains resisted. My fingers tightened on the bars and I stepped close, my face pressed up against the iron, my eyes focused on the place the light disappeared around the corner. “Hello?” I whispered, listening to the word bounce off the walls. I cleared my throat and tried once more: “Annaleise?”
Nothing but my own voice echoed back.
I tried the gates from a different angle, pulling the metal bars parallel to the rock, seeing if they’d give, slide. I gripped the bars and shook until I heard a girl mumble from somewhere nearby. “Did you hear that?”
I slipped into the trees before she could notice.
* * *
I HAD A MOMENT of panic—that I wouldn’t be able to find my way back home without a path to trace. It had been so long since I’d done it on my own. But it all came back. The downtrodden walking trail to the clearing where I used to meet Tyler, to the sounds of the river, which I followed home.
The heat wave hadn’t broken, and I was sweating and dirty by the time I reached my backyard.
Seeing Daniel’s car parked in the driveway, I froze at the edge of the woods. I walked to the back door outside the kitchen, trying to get a sense of where he was. Heard him on the phone, his shoes pacing on the hardwood. “Just tell me if she’s there.”
A pause. More pacing.
“Just no bullshit. Tell me she’s okay. We had a fight, and . . . she’s . . . I don’t know. Not doing well.”
The pacing picked up.
“No, I showed up and her car’s here and all her shit’s here, but she’s nowhere.”
“Daniel?” I pushed through the back door, same way I came out.
He rounded the corner, the phone pressed to his ear. “Never mind,” he said, sliding the phone back into his pocket. “Hey, Nic,” he said, all drawn out and slow. Hands on his hips, feigned relaxation. “Where were you?”
“I was out for a walk.”
His eyes strayed to my clothes, same as yesterday’s, and he frowned. “In the woods?”
“No,” I said. “Down the road.” I cleared my throat. “Hey, do you know, did anyone check the caverns?”
The line between his eyes deepened, the corners of his mouth tipping down. “What are you talking about?”
“The caverns. Did the police ever look inside?”
Daniel looked me over quickly, and I balled my fists to hide the dirt and moss.
“I think we should let them do their job,” he said. “Doesn’t do any good getting involved.”
“Still. Someone should check.”
“Nic,” he said, waving his hand, “I came to talk to you.” He rolled his neck. For a second I thought he was gearing up for an apology, and I mentally prepared to do the same. “It’s about Dad. I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”
Nope, guess not.
“First,” Daniel said, “we have a court date.” We had two affidavits vouching for Dad’s general incompetence, and a petition that Everett had helped me draw up that would put Daniel as the primary guardian, then me, on condition of Daniel’s death. “But it’s not for another two months.”
“Two months?” I asked.
“Yeah. And if Dad still refuses to sign the paperwork to put the house on the market, it will take until after the guardianship hearing for us to list it.”
“I’ll talk to him.”
Daniel cleared his throat. “Maybe you should go home.”
My eyes latched on to his. He was always telling me whether to stay or go, and I wanted to know why. Why he wanted me gone.
“I thought you wanted my help. You told me. You told me you wanted me to come.”
“I can take care of it,” he said, his face closed off. Unreadable. Typical Daniel.
“I’ll talk to Dad,” I said. “He’ll sign the papers. We’ll sell the house.”
He nodded. Stared off into the woods. “Bring your phone next time you’re out. So I don’t worry.”
* * *
THERE WAS A POLICE cruiser in the first row of the half-empty parking lot of Grand Pines, and I instinctively parked near the back. I knew it was irrational, but still.
The cop walked out of the building just as I left the car, and I stood beside the door, reshuffling the listing paperwork. There was something vaguely familiar about the way he walked, looking down at his feet with his hands shoved in his pockets. Something about his jet-black hair cropped perfectly against his light brown skin—cinnamon, Jackson had called it on Bailey. As if her ethnicity had a scent or a flavor.
“Mark?” I called, pushing off my car. “Mark Stewart?” The cop Annaleise had left a message for before she disappeared: I have a few questions about the Corinne Prescott case. Can we set up a time to talk?
Mark Stewart. Here.
He froze halfway to his car, stranded on the blue lines of a handicap space. I was jogging toward him, my flip-flops slapping against the pavement, the papers slipping from their stack under my arm. I secured them between my elbow and waist and gestured to myself, my heart pounding in my chest. “Nic Farrell. Remember?”
His eyes widened in surprise, but he quickly replaced it with a nod and a smile. “Hi, Nic. Wow, it’s been . . .” He let the thought linger in the air between us.
“Yeah,” I said. “God, you got tall.” I searched his face, but it was completely closed off, both familiar and unreadable. Bailey had always been captivating, the type of person you couldn’t tear your eyes from, no matter how many times you’d seen her. Their mom was from Japan—her father had met her there during his four years of navy service—and she had this partially stilted accent that Bailey could mimic perfectly.
The same combination on her brother—the dark hair, the brown eyes, the cinnamon skin—somehow had the opposite effect. He faded i
nto a group, shrank from our focus. I wondered whether he and Annaleise had been close. If he knew something more that he’d kept for himself. Maybe why she’d asked about the Corinne Prescott case in the first place.
Mark had been fourteen when I left. The only thing I really remembered about his personality was that he was exceptionally goofy in that immature-boy way in his own home. Outside, he was morose and quiet. And when I ran into him outside of his house, away from his family, he blushed when he saw me, like he was embarrassed that I knew the other version.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
His cheeks tinged red, and I was glad to see I still had that effect. It would make him overcompensate by oversharing. “Got a tip,” he said, staring past me. “From a nurse. About a potential crime. We’re required to follow up.”
I nodded, tried to steady my hand, tried to slow my breath. Could be anyone. How many patients are there? What did that brochure say? Six hundred and twenty? Maybe two hundred and sixty. Still, less than a one percent chance.
“So how’ve you been? Still living in town?”
“Nah. Just work there. I live a few miles from Bailey. Nice area. You know.”
He was acting like I had a clue about Bailey. I didn’t know where she lived or what she did. Didn’t want to ask around, to draw attention to the uncomfortable truth: Bailey and I didn’t speak. Not after Corinne had disappeared. Hardly ever a day since.
That box in the police station, it does things to people. Makes you tell things about each other. Becomes a permanent record of your betrayal, with your signature below.
“Well,” I said, “it was really good seeing you, Mark.”
I was almost at the door when he called after me. “Hey, Nic,” he said, using some voice I’d never heard from him. His cop voice. “You in town for a while?”
I shrugged. “Just taking care of some loose ends.” I gripped the papers tighter to keep my hands from shaking.
All the Missing Girls Page 11