No one knows whom to trust in this thrilling tale of suspense and deception.
was born in Ohio and earned her MFA from the New School. She's written two other novels: Circle Nine and The Ruining(published under Anna Collomore). Anne is a book editor who lives in Brooklyn. Visit her website at www.anneheltzel.com.
Book in a Pinch
The mystery in this book will have you on the edge of your seat the whole time.
Go Into This One Knowing
The relationships in this book include cheating and lying. And the ending of the book is a total cliff hanger!
"All opinions are 100% honest and my own."
The girl with the shimmery tights and fringed, calf-high boots is staring in my direction again. She looks like she’s been crying for days now. Exactly twelve, if I were to guess—because that’s the time that’s passed between now and the day Charlie went missing. It’s been twelve days since he took his parents’ Cessna for a joyride—ten since initial debris from the wreckage was found in the North Sea off the coast of Durham, where the Prices have an estate. No one knows why he took the plane out; he’d never done it before, and he didn’t have a license. But the bits of recovered debris have convinced police that the plane exploded. They think it happened in the air, before the plane went down—some sort of fuel leak. Now Charlie is presumed dead.
The girl’s eyes are a startling blue against the blotchy skin of her face; they stand out even from all the way across the room. She’s in the foyer, a few feet north of the entrance to the actual room where we’re supposed to pay our respects. She leans up against a faux wood table while I stand opposite, nearer to the building’s entrance. The table is the foldaway kind they use in cheap offices and cafeterias, and it looks like the girl needs it to support her frame. The table itself buckles a little under her weight, giving the impression that one of them—it or her—is about to collapse. Her black leather jacket has zippered sleeves, and her hair is the kind of blond that’s almost white. It’s long and wavy like a fairy’s or maybe an elf ’s, and it floats in a halo around her bloated red face. It’s difficult to look at her grief. Seeing it makes it harder to force back my own.
I’m chewing on some gum. It’s my worst habit when I’m anxious, and I’ve been feeling frayed for the past few months at least. I’m putting off the moment when I’ll have to walk inside the main room, where the service is being held. I can tell she’s doing the same. It’s in her body language: the way she pushes her heels against the floor and leans back. I wonder who she is and why she doesn’t look familiar. I think about how maybe she’s a cousin—maybe Kate, Charlie’s mom’s sister’s daughter. Kate had straight brown hair in the picture he showed me, but people go through changes; they do funny things with boxes of hair dye and curling irons and magenta lipstick. I look inside the room that contains Charlie’s empty casket, and the pit in my stomach deepens and twists.
My eyes dart back to the girl, and I have to make efforts not to stare too hard. I watch her resist as an older woman tugs at her wrist and pulls her in the direction of the larger room. Strains of tinny classical music emanating from overhead speakers surround me. My jaw opens and closes rhythmically around my wintergreen gum. It’s beginning to lose its flavor. The girl turns toward me again, staring hard. She meets my eyes, and in that brief second I realize: I could be looking into a mirror. My messy dark hair, cut short with bangs, is the opposite of the ethereal image she projects. I wince. I hate looking at my reflection. I haven’t been able to look at myself for months now without feeling sick inside. But I can tell without having to look that my eyes are puffy like hers; my shoulders droop in the same way; my guilt and grief are in evidence all over me, just like hers.
More people are filtering in. There are lots of official government-looking types, probably Charlie’s dad’s colleagues—he’s a British diplomat. Hundreds of people have come to Paris for the memorial. Even though his dad moved around every couple of years, they always kept a home here. Charlie said they considered it home base, since it’s where most of the extended family lives.
Someone must have turned up the sound system, because the music is suddenly drowning out everyone’s soft murmurs. I can’t explain why the girl’s gaze is making me uncomfortable, or why mine keeps returning to her face with magnetic force. I’m jet-lagged and my whole face feels heavy from crying. My boyfriend is presumed dead and I’m alone in Paris for the first time ever. I could be on another planet for how strange it all feels.
I slip into a group of people who look about my age—a guy in a blue blazer and a girl in a black shift dress who are entering with some older people, probably their parents—and follow them from the foyer into the main room. The room is bare despite all the fancy architectural finishes that I’m beginning to recognize are common in Paris: ornate moldings in the shape of flowers, swoops and swirls fashioned from plaster. Other than that, it’s a modestly decorated space with just a photo display set up in one corner, a bunch of folding chairs facing a podium, and a projector screen up front. Charlie’s casket is next to the podium. My heart accelerates at the sight of it, and I blink back the tears that threaten to obscure my vision.
I realize with a pang that I really don’t know any of Charlie’s friends, not personally. I met his old roommate Adam from his senior year in Mumbai, when I visited Charlie once in D.C.—but I don’t see Adam here now. I can’t tell whether I’m disappointed or relieved. Everyone else I only knew from pictures; Adam would have been someone to lean on during all of this. At least someone to know—to legitimize my presence here. When I first met Adam, it was a comfort to know that Charlie was friends with such a good guy. Knowing Adam was Charlie’s friend—when we didn’t have any friends in common who could vouch for him—had made me rest easy.
I didn’t even know about Charlie’s disappearance or the memorial service until three days ago. A week before that, I had noticed he wasn’t answering my texts. He always took a little time, sometimes forgot to get back; so it didn’t seem unusual for that first week. And then my texts and calls became more panicked, and he still didn’t reply. Charlie wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter. I didn’t have his parents’ numbers. Then I got the news blast in my email from the local paper in Oxford, something Charlie had suggested I sign up for. And there it was: “University Student Missing,” one of the first headlines on the list. The student in question was unnamed. After that, there was nothing I could do but Google him. I’d hoped to find some phone numbers, someone I could contact.
I found a more detailed article instead.
It still hurts, knowing that after a year, no one knew me well enough to reach out. It hurts that I found out the way I did. That I almost missed the service altogether. But why would I know any body? I only knew Adam. Charlie and I always met up at such random places, spots that were in between Chicago and Oxford and easy for both of us to reach. He paid for most of those trips, and I saved up for the rest with my babysitting money. My parents weren’t too happy about it. None of it ever seemed strange to me. But now, looking around and seeing all the people who knew Charlie—all the people I don’t know—I wonder how I didn’t see it before. He was meeting me in the middle, but also holding me at arm’s length.
I can feel the fairy-elf ’s eyes on my back as I pass the row of chairs where she sits. The room is mostly filled. It’s so big it could be a concert venue. There’s a slideshow of Charlie’s face flashing across the front of the room. I look at his eyes and can’t accept that this is all that’s left of him.
It’s hard to comprehend what his memorial service really means. All I can feel is that he’s not here. But he’s never been present for me the way other people are readily available to one another. Charlie is road trips with pit stops at the Mars Cheese Castle and weekends away in New York City. He’s not breakfast, lunch, and dinner or anything else regular. He never has been.
I walk over to the photo display, keeping his mother and father in my periphery. I haven’t met Charlie’s parents, and I can’t help feeling that now isn’t the moment to introduce myself. I wrote them a letter the minute I discovered Charlie was missing, shortly after the news reports started making their way around the Internet. They would have received the letter by now. But he’s no longer just missing—he’s presumed dead. As of four days ago—when more wreckage was found off the coast of Durham—the investigation was closed. His body hasn’t been recovered and no one knows what really happened when the plane went down; but between plane debris and the charred and bloodstained remnants of his navy Oxford blazer—still marked with an engraved class pin—there was finally enough physical evidence to shut the investigation down. All that was missing was a reason and a body. A short blurb in the Oxford Times mentioned the discoveries, and it wasn’t even on the front page. Closed just like that, with a memorial service thrown together so quickly it barely left me time to get out here from Chicago. I can’t figure out why and how his family could give up on him so quickly.
His mom is crying hysterically, and some of my resentment melts. I notice the elfin girl from the foyer sidle over; she gives Mrs. Price a long hug and whispers something in her ear. I feel a sharp pang of something like discomfort for reasons I don’t understand. I turn back to the pictures, chalking it up to grief and exhaustion—I’m not thinking clearly.
Charlie sparkles in every shot, his dark hair flopping across his forehead. There’s one in front of his high school in Bangkok: his arms are slung around both of his parents, his grin—angled higher on one side—just barely showing, like he’s suppressing a laugh. There’s one of him as a kid in a swimming pool in what must have been Paris—he spent most of his childhood there. His eyes are so wide you can see the flecks of gold in the blue, and his arms are stuffed into floaties.
The pictures show Charlie with friends, Charlie with his parents. Charlie with the basset hound they used to have. My favorite is one of Charlie caught off-guard: he’s somewhere beachy—I can see a stretch of white sand like a long blanket wrapping itself around him in the background. The expression on his face is playful, like he’s teasing the person behind the camera. There’s one of Charlie and Adam wearing wide grins, their arms slung around each other’s shoulders against the backdrop of their dorm room, and it ignites something sharp in my heart. There’s an open checkerboard on the coffee table behind them. The memory that follows leaves me breathless.
Charlie places the checkerboard between us. We’re in the corridor outside a hospital room; my little brother has just gotten his appendix out.
Charlie banned checkers from our relationship shortly after we began dating, when he realized that I’m basically a checkers savant and win every single time. Checkers, however, keeps me calm and focused. On the checkerboard, I feel in control.
“Like a lamb to the slaughter,” I inform him in a serious tone, and he laughs loudly.
“I like that. Well, I’m happy to dig my own grave as long as you’ll lie in it too,” he says. Then he winks, and his whole face lights up with this mix of things: playfulness, secrecy, confidence, charm. When Charlie’s playing nice guy, he’s at his best.
The problem is, he’s always playing.
The thought crosses my mind before I can help it, and I react by reaching across the board and squeezing him again, extra tight.
“I love you,” I whisper. I desperately need to hear it back. “You sweetheart,” he says instead, and I feel my heart sink.
I pull away and look him in the eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of what he’s thinking. But there it is again: that smile. Charlie being playful.
The image leaves me shaking. My armpits are damp, and I realize I’ve been lingering too long in front of the photo that triggered the memory. I push forward, shaking my head in an effort to clear my thoughts. There aren’t any pictures of Charlie and me in the photo display—not even the one he kept in a frame next to his bed in the dorm. We’d have been dating for over a year by now. Still, a lot has changed in the past few months.
I don’t even notice that I’m the only one still examining the photos until a man in a navy blue suit—maybe a funeral coordinator—taps me on the shoulder. “Miss, could you please take your seat? The ceremony is about to start.” He gestures toward the seats, which are almost all filled.
“Thanks,” I tell him as I scan for an empty chair. I’m about to take the one closest to me, right on the end by the aisle, when I see an older lady walking with a cane a few paces behind me. She’s clearly moving toward the same chair; so instead I squeeze halfway down the row behind this one, where there’s one remaining seat toward the center, next to a middle-aged couple that I’d mistake for siblings if they weren’t holding hands. The woman keeps clearing her throat loudly and blowing her nose into an elaborately embroidered handkerchief. I reach for my bag and hand her my extra pack of tissues, just in case.
The service passes in a blur: a few thoughtful words, some psalms. Then Charlie’s philosophy teacher from high school is at the podium saying a few nice and funny things about how Charlie once wrote an entire term paper in a series of haikus and still managed to hit on the relevant arguments; so technically, the teacher couldn’t fail him even though it wasn’t exactly a scholarly essay. That produces a chuckle. And an uncle tells a story about how when Charlie was a kid and crashing at his place, he’d had a hell of a time keeping Charlie away from the tree that stretched past the second-story terrace, and how Charlie had been found more than once clambering down it to the 7th arrondissement sidewalk, and how he’d never met a kid cleverer or sneakier. I laugh at that one because it’s so true. Charlie was always catching me off-guard—it was one of the reasons I cared about him.
After an hour of listening to other people’s memories, I’m exhausted. My boyfriend was beloved by more people than just me—that much is clear. It’s one of the main reasons I was drawn to him—at first, Charlie was a perfect fit. It doesn’t occur to me to offer some memories of my own, though; I feel like an outsider here. My throat constricts as it hits me: I’ll never see him again. The tears come from somewhere deep and indecipherable.
I blink rapidly, eyes stinging. I reach for my purse and rummage around for my other pack of tissues. I’ve just found them when I hear murmurs. When I look up to see the elfin girl stepping up to the podium. She smiles in the direction of Charlie’s mom, and for some reason my heart goes cold. She’s gripping the sides of the wooden frame like it’s a lifeline. I watch her draw in a breath. And then she begins to talk.
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