The night my sister went missing, I sat in a back corridor of the police station, staring at a tinted glass window to an inner room. The lights were off in there, and so the window looked like a black screen. I remember how my insides felt as blank as that window. It’s a good thing, that numbness, because it keeps you from spiraling into the black-hole-falling routine. Something’s telling you that you don’t need those panic-stricken thoughts yet.
No body had washed up. The police hadn’t found any blood on the pier near the spot where Casey went over. The gunshot, which had sounded more like a weather-wet firecracker, could not possibly have hit one of Casey’s vital organs. Of course, there are always the thoughts that threaten you—like how blood in the ocean draws sharks, and how a storm at sea had created endless riptides this week. But thoughts like that bounce in the first hours after your shock.
The good thoughts strike you and stick. Like, my sister was probably a better swimmer than I was, even though I was a lifeguard. And I thought of Casey having so many friends. None of our friends had any streak of violence. No one had any reason to hurt her.
It had been too dark to see anything but a few clusters of our friends up on the pier in silhouette, and I tried hard not to put anything in my mind that wasn’t real.
The gun had been real, whether I liked it or not. But it was a stupid little collector’s gun, a derringer, or “lady’s pistol,” as my buddies called it, brought to a dune party as a joke. It all seemed surreal now. And all of it smelled of “accident.” Nobody who’d sneaked up on the old pier with us would intentionally hurt Casey. Nobody.
Maybe this was all a big prank that had gone over the top. I thought of Casey painting “drops of blood” out of the cafeteria this year, and also pulling the fire alarm to relieve friends from a couple of boring classes. Maybe she was holed up on some sailboat in the back bay, laughing her airhead butt off, ignorant that the coast guard and the police were searching the ocean around the pier.
I hadn’t seen or heard much in the light of a half-covered moon—except I’d still swear I heard Casey’s laugh, and it was after the little Crack!
I’d been able to relay all that over the phone to our parents in a miraculous calm. Still, they were scrambling to catch the red-eye back from L.A., where my dad had been in film negotiations with Paramount. It was the first time one of his novels had been optioned by a movie company—and the first time our parents had left me and Casey alone overnight since we were fourteen and twelve. I was now seventeen, and I stared at that tinted glass window, seeing Dad’s cockeyed grin in it and hearing his speech about how he trusted a twelve- and a fourteen-year-old home alone far more than he trusted a fifteen- and a seventeen-year-old.
He had tried to tempt us. “Come on, Kurt . . . maybe I’ll strike it rich finally. You kids need to be there. And you and Casey could do Disneyland, while—”
I had stopped him right there. The “rich” part would have struck me better ten years ago, when I was first getting sick of peanut butter sandwiches for lunch seven days a week. By now I was immune to the midlist author no-frills life, and I started blathering about my job on the beach patrol. I probably could have got time off for a Monday through Thursday—it’s weekends that are sacred for lifeguards. But my job was a good enough excuse to balk at leaving Mystic in the middle of July. The previous summer Mom and Dad had wanted to take Casey and me to the Greek isles for ten days, after my dad finally got a better-than-average royalty check. My very first thought had been, Can we take friends? I didn’t ask. I just made excuses until they dropped the whole idea—my point being that if the Greek isles can’t tempt a guy away from summer fun ’n’ games, Disneyland surely isn’t gonna cut it. Not that fun ’n’ games is anything too awful.
I had sworn up and down, while Dad was deciding to let us stay home alone, that we wouldn’t do anything stupid, and I still felt that I had held up my end of that bargain. Mostly.
All we’d done wrong was go to a dune party. My mom and dad wouldn’t object to us going to a house party while they were gone. But a dune party was different. No chance of adults, good chance of a raid by the cops . . . and of course there were always the daredevils, loadies, and lovers who would risk going up on the burned-out old pier. No matter how many times the cops removed the metal climbing spikes from its scorched pilings, more would be found hammered in a week or so later.
We were all just goofing around, risking a rip-tear out on the least scorched portion of the pier’s planking, because it was fun, because of the horror tales about the place, because most people were partied so loose that if a couple of them fell through and hit the waves, they probably wouldn’t feel it. I guessed we’d forgotten about the storm at sea and how big the rips were.
And I guessed the partying wasn’t so good, either. But millions of kids party, and hundreds of kids had climbed up on the pier in the past twenty years, weather not a consideration. Their sisters don’t get shot by some dinky “lady’s pistol” and fall into the surf with barely a splash. That was the weirdest. Through the deepest, darkest corners of my memory, I still kept digging for the sound of a splash. I couldn’t find it.
Your numbness, your denial, might make you have a flash of Peter Pan saving Wendy from walking the plank. I conjured up images of Captain Hook and Mr. Smeed listening for the splash after Wendy walked the plank, but I couldn’t find a splash after Casey fell backward.
But then, Peter Pan hadn’t wandered over to the New Jersey barrier islands to catch Casey Carmody midfall off the old fishing pier. That much, you can grasp. The theory of ghosts doesn’t work well either, suddenly. When my dad was a kid, the old fishing pier, which is actually pretty big, had been turned into The Haunt, an amusement pier with an enormous haunted mansion exhibit at the entrance. It had been a “megaproduction,” as Dad called it, employing half the eighteen-year-olds on the island to dress up like vampires and headless ghouls and jump out at summer tourists and their kids. But The Haunt loomed on the far south end of a barrier island, with only a small toll bridge at the far north end. The island couldn’t hack the traffic that The Haunt needed to survive. About twenty years ago it went bankrupt, and legend has it that some kid was under the pier lighting off firecrackers and that’s how the fire started. No one really knows for sure. It wasn’t a good enough story to attract the attention of kids in high school. Sightings of vampires hovering over the burned-out foundation of the haunted house, plus two tales of the suicides off there—one in the eighties and one in the nineties—those things drew kids to the place like the moon draws water.
But island lore about “sightings of the suicide victims” and “the vampires who made them do it” didn’t fit the mood in the police station, where I now found myself. Spooks are for fun in the dark. This place was lit and immaculate and stinking of floo...