A smart, haunting tale of psychological suspense from the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of Turn of Mind.
Jane loses everything when her teenage daughter is killed in a senseless accident. Jane is devastated, but sometime later, she makes one tiny stab at a new life: she moves from San Francisco to the tiny seaside town of Half Moon Bay. She is inconsolable, and yet, as the months go by, she is able to cobble together some version of a job, of friends, of the possibility of peace.
And then, children begin to disappear. And soon, Jane sees her own pain reflected in all the parents in the town. She wonders if she will be able to live through the aching loss, the fear all around her. But as the disappearances continue, she begins to see that what her neighbors are wondering is if it is Jane herself who has unleashed the horror of loss.
Half Moon Bay is a chilling story about a mother haunted by her past. As Stewart O’Nan said about Turn of Mind—this novel “blindfolds the reader and spins her around.”
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Alice LaPlante is an award-winning writer whose bestselling books include Half Moon Bay, A Circle of Wives, Method and Madness—The Making of a Story, and the New York Times bestseller Turn of Mind. She taught creative writing at Stanford University where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and in the MFA program at San Francisco State University. She lives with her family in Mallorca, Spain.
Read an Excerpt
Half Moon Bay
Six p.m. Fog. Impenetrable, but not cold. Balmy, like Hawaii. That red cottage on the south side of Kauai, near Princeville. Shrouded by eucalyptus, so pungent after rain. Cockroaches scuttled when you pulled back the shower curtain. Where Jane and Rick and Angela stayed their last Christmas. The last year. The last vacation. Last things. So many last things.
As Jane steps outside into the Northern California evening, the fog’s moist veil slaps her face, temporarily obscuring her vision. Dark things loom. Trees, cars. Jane takes off her jacket and tosses it back inside her cottage. The door closes with a click. She doesn’t lock it behind her. No one does, here.
Jane can’t see the ocean from her cottage, but she can hear it and, most important, smell it. She leaves her bedroom windows open when she leaves the house so that when she returns, her pillows are damp and scented of seaweed. Of crabs and fish. Of the larger, mysterious things that swim in the depths. One of the reasons she moved here, to be closer to the sea, that deep insistent body of possibilities. Probabilities.
* * *
Once upon a time there was a woman. Actually, just a girl, when it begins. One of a family of ten children—first seven girls, then two boys, then a female caboose on the end. Jane is Number 3. Tragedy awaits, but she does not know it. She is being prepared. Everything in her life is building toward this moment. As she is hurt, as she is torn apart, she puts herself in a state of suspension, anything to dull the pain. This is not true, she says; this is not my life. It is her life.
* * *
Jane’s cell phone rings from within the cottage. She’d set the ring-tone, in a fit of rage one day, on the Dies Irae and never changed it back. The day of wrath. One of her sisters probably. Or a friend from Berkeley, checking in. Her people. Her community. Worried about her, as they should be. But no contact tonight. No.
* * *
Jane is haunted. Ghosts touch her but deign not to speak. She wakes up in the middle of the night, cold fingers on her shoulder. Others on her arm. The laying on of hands, not to cure but to blame.
* * *
Jane walks toward the sea, avoiding the surfers’ beach that borders Route 1. Despite the fog and the hour, two or three fanatically fit young men will inevitably be catching waves, sleek as seals in their glistening black suits. Instead, she heads over to Mavericks Beach, the home, when conditions are right, of towering eighty-foot waves, recently discovered by the international surfing set, a place so cool that Apple named an operating system after it. Jane’s go-to place when she is in extremis.
It has now been one year, two weeks, and two days. She can calculate the hours too, if asked. Nobody asks. Nobody refers to it, out of . . . ? Kindness? Courtesy? Fear? It should be fear, fear of wakening the beast smoldering inside Jane.
Jane puts one foot in front of the other. That’s how it works for her these days. The fog so thick she can see only a yard ahead, but she knows every step of this route. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot again. She loses herself in the rhythm. Nothing but the muffled sound of her own steps for a quarter of an hour as she winds through the industrial district of Princeton-by-the-Sea. She is nearing her destination. She can smell the rotting seaweed, hear the plaintive calls of the ringtail harriers from the marsh. Then she stops. Something is wrong. Red and blue lights flicker through the mist. Voices, both men’s and women’s, jumbled and unintelligible. A crackling sound, as of an untuned radio.
* * *
Jane had lost people before. Joshua, her postcollege boyfriend. She noticed the lesions first. A beautiful bruised purple. Aubergine. On his back and his thighs. And then how thin he was getting. She’d originally thought he was looking good, more fit. She’d even complimented him. But the constant illnesses, colds, flus. And those lesions. One day she woke up before he did. He had his back to her. She couldn’t see his face, but from the wasted body, she understood that she lay next to a dying man. How could she not have known? Her tears wet his shoulder blades, sticking out of his thin back like chicken wings. He had been so kind to her. She had felt safe with him, even loved. It wasn’t until later that it occurred to her that she had been betrayed. She didn’t feel betrayed but bereft. She might have known that this beautiful gift of this beautiful boy would have strings attached. Oh, Janey, he’d said. Oh, Jane, don’t cry. But he had been crying himself.
* * *
A police car, she can see as it comes into focus. Its lights flashing. White with black geometric markings. And another. And another. A dark figure approaches, grows darker and more substantial as it gets closer.
May I help you, ma’am? When did she turn from a miss into a ma’am? The shift has been imperceptible. Yet it has happened. Maiden, mother, crone. She is no longer either of the first two, so that leaves the final stage. At thirty-nine, her red hair glints gray in direct light.
What’s going on? Jane asks. Even her voice is muffled by the fog.
The figure comes closer. It is wearing a hat, a uniform with a badge on it. It is male, as she should have known from the voice. But somehow that surprises her. What did she expect? Something not quite of this earth. A hobgoblin. Bugbear. But this man seems solid, human. A policeman. The bearer of bad news.
It’s a search party. You live near here?
A silly question. No one lives near Mavericks. To reach it, you have to wind your way through the acres of rusting warehouses and grounded boats Jane has just navigated.
Over there. Jane motions with her head in the general direction of her cottage.
You know the McCreadys, then?
Just the name, Jane says. She tries to conjure up faces, fails.
They live up on the hill. He points into the darkness.
Oh. That explains it. Hill people. They’re different. In another life, Jane would have been one of them. They live in the new houses clinging precipitously to the steep hill above Princeton-by-the-Sea. The ornate ones painted to look like Victorians from the last century. With balconies no one stepped onto, lounge chairs no one sat in. Hill people were the prosperous professionals: the doctors and lawyers and engineers who commuted every day over the hill to Silicon Valley. Another world from here, the San Mateo coast. Although it’s a small community, Jane isn’t on speaking terms with any of the people who live up the hill. Most of them belong to a different species altogether, with their business suits and BMWs that roar off at 7:00 a.m. to make it over Route 92 to Sunnyvale or Milpitas by the start of the workday. Programmers and project managers. Financial analysts, accountants. Men and women who spend more time on the road than at home. People capable of organizing their thoughts into logical code, Gantt charts of responsibility, and numbers that add up. Ambiguity banished from their lives during the day. Then back here, to the rolling sea and amorphous fog. A strange existence. It takes a certain kind of person to juggle the contrasts. Jane knows she sounds scornful, but really she is envious. They have found balance.
What about the McCreadys?
Their little girl, Heidi. She’s wandered away.
Jane considers. Why are you looking here? she asks. It seems an implausible place and time.
This was her favorite spot. She’d been here with her parents this afternoon. The little girl lost her magic pebble. They thought she might have come back to look for it.
Jane considers. Magic pebbles. It hurts to remember. Magic string, magic pencils, even magic bugs. Jane had fixed up a cardboard box to contain the spiders and the roly-polies Angela captured from under the porch, but they all skittered away through the cracks. Jane’s heart breaking to see Angela’s tears of irrevocable loss. A child’s grief, never to be trivialized.
How old was she? Jane asks.
Angela didn’t speak until she was five. Jane and Rick had taught her sign language and communicated with their hands. Eat. More? All gone. Then, suddenly, out came everything in full sentences. Angela had kept it all inside until she burst. She learned that from Jane.
A long way to walk for a five-year-old, Jane says.
A missing girl. Police. This will end badly. Such things always end badly.
Your name? The policeman has taken out a pad. A pen. He looks at Jane, or at least she thinks he’s looking at her. The fog so thick he no longer has a face.
Your last name, ma’am?
O’Malley. Why is Jane so reluctant to give this information? She feels as though she is confessing to something, that he is writing an indictment with his pen right now.
And what are you doing here?
Just walking, Jane says, but it doesn’t sound convincing. Alone, in the dark, in the fog, without a coat or a flashlight, striding along, hands in pockets. She should have brought her landlord’s dog. No one questions you when you’re walking a dog.
I’ll be heading home now, she says, in a voice that sounds deceitful, even to her.
You do that, ma’am, agrees the policeman, but she sees him circle her name on his pad before he turns away.
But Jane doesn’t go home. Instead, she takes a few steps before doubling back and heading toward the sea. She circumvents the official vehicles and walks the dirt path alongside the base of the cliff. Even here she’s not alone. Scores of flashlight beams scan the sand, the bay, the breakwater. The fog is now floating high above her head, wispy threads that glow in the light of the unblocked moon. If Jane were a child, this is exactly the kind of night she’d wander off, excited by the proximity of the sea and the moonlit strands of fog. She’d go straight into this enclosure between the fog and the sand. Straight toward the water. To sink in. To give in. Don’t think she hasn’t considered it.
A seabird calls. Another answers. The sea glows, gives off its own undulating light. Jane sees black heads, unblinking eyes, staring at her from the water. Seals. Selkies. The Celts thought them capable of taking on human form. If a woman wishes contact with a selkie male, she must shed seven tears into the sea. If a man steals a female selkie’s skin, she is forced to become his wife. Selkie women make excellent wives but will always long for the sea. They will abandon everything—home, husband, and, especially, children—if given the chance to return to it.
The fog miraculously clears for a moment, and the stars are so clear Jane can see them twinkle. The air still. Satellites that carry voices and texts crawl slowly across the sky. The moon, full. You must be by the water on such nights. It is best to touch it. Bare flesh to cold water. Jane did this when Angela was small, only then it was the bay, not the ocean. The Golden Gate Bridge shining in the distance as they did their moon dances. Jane had taught Angela to moon-dance, as Jane’s mother had taught Jane and her sisters. And as Jane expected, Angela to teach it to her daughters. Who had remained single little egglets, never united with sperm, unpenetrated, nestled in Angela’s unstretched womb. Not that Angela had been a virgin. No. Just smart about birth control. Jane had taught her that too.
* * *
Jane reads. Jane goes to a shrink. Jane knows many facts. Are they helpful? No.
Approximately 19 percent of the U.S. population has experienced the death of a child. Almost 1 million deaths annually. This leaves 2 million bereaved parents every year.
The loss of a child triggers more intense grief than the death of a spouse or parent. After the death of a child, the divorce of the parents is a statistical probability. This is science.
Parents who experience the death of a child are more likely to suffer complicated grief. This is bereavement accompanied by feelings of separation and trauma distress. To earn this diagnosis, the person must experience extreme levels of three of the four separation distress symptoms—intrusive thoughts about the deceased, yearning for the deceased, searching for the deceased, and excessive loneliness since the death. They must also show “extreme” levels of four of the eight traumatic distress symptoms: purposelessness, numbness, or detachment, feeling that life is meaningless, feeling that a part of oneself has died, a shattered worldview, assuming behaviors of the deceased, and excessive irritability or anger.
Jane reads: These symptoms result in significant functional impairment.
She has to laugh. No shit, Sherlock.
* * *
Intrusive thoughts of the deceased.
Intrusive is a good word. Jane commends the psychologists who coined the phrase. Angela intrudes everywhere; each stone, each glass of water, each cup of coffee resonates with memories both bitter and sweet. Is anything just what it should be? A couch, a sweater, a doorknob? No. Angela inhabits every object on the planet that Jane encounters.
Yearning for the deceased.
Oh, how Jane yearns! Even for the last, bad teen years, for the slammed doors and refused plates of food and terrifying nights when Angela borrowed the car. Jane would take any of it now. And the early years! She looks at the few photos she kept, and weeps—what she wouldn’t do to trade places with that younger, more vibrant Jane! The busy and as-yet-uncomplicated mother.
Searching for the deceased.
Jane searches for Angela everywhere. In the house: Is she in the kitchen, making a mess scrambling eggs with butter and leaving the perishables on the counter? In her room, with her earphones on, listening to retro seventies music? On the street Jane constantly sees Angela and hurries to catch up to her, turns corners only to accost startled strangers.
Loneliness: affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone.
Excessive: an amount or degree too great to be reasonable or acceptable.
Jane is alone. Utterly alone. The suffering is great, but it is both completely reasonable and absolutely acceptable. She deserves it, after all.
* * *
Jane has traveled the world, drunk deeply of its joys and sorrows, and landed here, in Princeton-by-the-Sea, a small village on the Northern California coast, a mile north of Half Moon Bay. She is suffering from complicated grief. She is trying to build a life here. She is building a life here, she tells people. Those who know her from her previous life admire her spirit. They exclaim about her resilience. They call and offer their support, but don’t talk about what drove her here. Those who don’t know Jane from before see a sad-faced woman, late thirties, friendly enough although guarded. The most notable thing about her is her hair: a deep, true red. She wears it long and straight, over her shoulders. She is talked about. That new red-haired woman. You know the one.
Jane works in Smithson’s Nursery in Half Moon Bay, the largest town on this stretch of the coast. Her fingernails are often dark from earth when she shops at the Safeway after the nursery closes, buying vegetables that are a riot of color: red peppers that match her hair, dark green cucumbers, light green lettuces, yellow squash, purple eggplants. She is an expert in native California plants, in which Smithson’s specializes. She can tell you whether to plant Big Sur manzanita (Arctostaphylos edmundsii) or Heart’s Desire (Ceanothus gloriosus) in that half-shaded alcove in your garden. If you speak to her, she startles. It is best to approach her gently, as you would a wild faun.
* * *
Half Moon Bay was once known as Spanishtown. The land was wrenched from the Costanoan Indians in the early 1800s, and Routes 1 and 92 still follow the old Costanoan trails along the ocean and over the hills. A luxury campground, Costanoa, has been built on top of the creekside hollow that was the main Costanoan settlement. Today, tourists feast on roast buffalo and wild pig before going to their “tents,” amid the sand dunes, really small ultraluxurious wooden houses on stilts with shiny bathrooms and king-size beds and down comforters. They do not think of the people they displaced. They do not know the old legends.I Like when the first person died and began to stink. The meadowlark smelled it. He did not like it. Coyote said: “I think I will make him get up.” The meadowlark said: “No, do not. There will be too many. They will become so many that they will eat each other.” Coyote said: “That is nothing. I do not like people to die.” But the meadowlark told him: “No, it is not well to have too many. There will be others instead of those that die. A man will have many children. The old people will die but the young will live.” Then Coyote said nothing more. So from that time on, people have always died. They are still being buried in the cemetery at the corner of Main and Route 92, the evidence of Coyote’s momentous decision the first thing tourists see as they enter the town.
After the Indians were vanquished, the first houses were raised in the 1840s by Mexican settlers given land grants. Whites began moving in after the Civil War, and after another kind of bloody resettlement, the town officially became Half Moon Bay in 1874, renamed for the perfect crescent-shaped harbor just north of town. Which brings us to one of the peculiarities of Half Moon Bay, and indeed many other Northern California coastal towns. Although situated in one of the most naturally stunning landscapes on the planet, the town center is set half a mile inland, its back to the ocean. The harbor itself is ugly, industrial, at the rear of a seedy mall with a Burger King and destitute variety shops. The town, really only Main Street, is itself quite quaint. Many of the original wood buildings still stand, although the adobes and early brick buildings were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.
In 1907, the Ocean Shore Railroad was constructed along the shoreline from San Francisco to Tunitas Glen, south of Half Moon Bay. Developers had grand plans to turn Half Moon Bay and its environs into Atlantic City of the West. Plots were sold. Prices soared. Posters depicting bathers venturing into sky blue waters were printed. The developers imagined large hotels, splendid avenues, swank shops. But they hadn’t accounted for the freezing water and thick fog that covered the coast from June through August. No one came. Or if they came, they left hurriedly, shivering. Due to financial problems and the increasing popularity of the horseless carriage, the railroad ceased operation in 1920, the rails long ago ripped up and sold. Now all that remains are the broad streets laid out in large concentric circles facing the ocean in Jane’s town, Princeton-by-the-Sea. The avenues of Monterey pine trees planted to line those streets are now majestic, fulfilling the long-ago vision of a sophisticated playground for tourists, but underneath them are small rotting wood-frame cottages like Jane’s. The former train station is now a Chinese restaurant. It has a decent Mongolian beef, but do avoid the sweet-and-sour pork.
Who lives here? Who would choose this beautiful but remote spot? It isn’t easy to get to where the jobs are—either the long trek up Route 1 to San Francisco or the dangerous trip up and down the steep hill to Silicon Valley. Still, people do live here and are mostly content. There are the farmers, large and small, mostly organic these days. The shop owners, optimistic and typically disappointed by the clientele, who look but do not buy. These come and go. Some stay after their shops close. They like the fact that everyone pretty much knows everyone else by sight and that it’s a safe place to raise kids even though the schools are lousy. Water is scarce, so building new houses has been banned except for the Silicon Valley billionaires who buy up sections of the coastline and bribe the Coastal Commission for permits.
Take a walk now, down Main Street. See Marilyn Standish, the tough proprietor of the tiny coffee shop. She has had a mastectomy but without the reconstruction surgery. That would be vanity, she declared. She is a Seventh Day Adventist and doesn’t let her daughters celebrate their birthdays, although they secretly defy her and eat birthday cake and accept presents in the cafeteria at school. Keep going. See Bob Orlando, who owns Bogies, the grocery store. Downstairs is the usual food and produce. But upstairs, a trove of oddities. You can buy kissing nun salt-and-pepper shakers, authentic fisherman’s hats, books by local authors on the coastal flora and fauna. Everything jumbled in piles and seemingly forgotten for years. An Aladdin’s cave. Joan Acuesta is there now, sifting through the piles of extra-large flannel shirts and pillbox hats from the 1930s for a gift for her niece, whom she has raised from a baby. Unbeknown to Joan, her niece in seven months will give birth to a child of her own. She will refuse to name a father. Such things happen here frequently.
Go downstairs again and out the door. One block to the left, and you get to the Three Sisters Café. Run by three sisters, naturally: twins and their younger sibling. Opened only one year ago, and now the heart of the town. This is where you go to get the best coffee on the coast, the most flavorful artichoke soup, the freshest and most titillating gossip. You can’t see the walls of the café; they are covered with children’s drawings, notices of births and deaths, advertisements for the Coastal Players’ production of My Fair Lady, hot yoga classes by Martha, dog walking by Ian, and other essential services. You could spend a year reading those walls. By doing so, you don’t feel alone. You understand that life is pulsing around you, that even on Sunday nights, when Main Street is deserted and the fog shadows the streetlights, other hearts are beating around you. The wall brings comfort to Jonathan Hummer, who lost his wife to a sudden heart attack in February. He pulls off a paper tab containing a phone number for Ohlone Singles when he thinks no one is looking and puts it surreptitiously in his pocket. He will get a good one this time. He will get one who doesn’t blow cigarette smoke in his face, who can tolerate having dog hair on the living room furniture. He will.
The Beach Belly Dancers are meeting in the assembly room of the old First Methodist Church two blocks south of Three Sisters. They are mostly women of a certain age who would never wear two-piece bathing suits, who make love with the lights out, who buy their clothes on the Internet. Yet here they are, dressed in gaudy silk-like ballooning trousers and sparkling bras, exposing their pudding-like bellies to the world as they shake and whoop and stop to drink some wine or taste one of Janet Thimble’s homemade oatmeal cookies or plot a political coup on the town council. Together, they are a nation, and they are important. When they leave at 10:00 p.m., their shoulders are a little straighter, their steps a little faster. They return to their sleeping families feeling like army generals after a truce has been declared. What to do with all this energy? They sit at kitchen tables and write lengthy to-do lists and strident letters to the editor of the Moon News.
Darkness descends on Half Moon Bay. Fog mixed with smoke from wood stoves hovers above the houses. The surf pounds the sand, a full half-mile from Main Street, but the rhythm of the sea and its tantalizing scent permeate the porous window frames of the old wooden houses, soothing the inhabitants, luring them to their beds. They know they live in a bubble. They know that dark things, unimaginable things, wait in the wings for their turn to propagate and thrive. The Costanoa’s Coyote, the trickster, will ascend again, in more alluring form, in retribution for past sins. But for now, the town sleeps, content in its innocent ignorance.
* * *
That night, Jane can’t stop thinking about little Heidi. This is unusual. Jane has gotten good at not thinking. She has gotten very good about not feeling. She settles on her couch with a book, something a previous tenant left behind, the cover art portraying a bosomy sorceress fighting an army of horned beasts. But Jane can’t concentrate. She’s agitated. She thinks about the distraught parents. If she had sufficient generosity, she’d walk up the steep hill, offer to sit vigil with them. She’d tell her story. She’d reassure them that everything would almost certainly turn out all right. For them. And she’d be lying and secretly reveling in it. She considers the scenarios the parents are inevitably conjuring as they await news. Jane pictures Heidi as the little Swiss mountain girl in Angela’s version of the book by that name, snub-nosed with blond braids, puffed-out white sleeves, and an embroidered dress. Jane goes to bed and dreams of Heidi, safe on her mountain picking bluebells.
* * *
There is little talk of anything but Heidi at the Three Sisters Café, where Jane gets her coffee the next morning.
Have you heard? asks one of the young café owners as she refills Jane’s cup. Jane has finally gotten to where she can tell the sisters apart, they look so similar, even though only the two older ones are twins. They share a pale oval face with small dark eyes. They look like marmots, with their manes of dark hair caught up in ponytails, their large blue unblinking eyes. Somewhat feral, but nevertheless approachable. Sympathetic.
It is a closely knit community, and although this misfortune has hit outsider over-the-hill people, locals are feeling it deeply, Jane can tell. Voices are subdued. Children too young to be in school are being hugged close by their parents.
They’re organizing a search party, said the sister, her name is Margaret, on her next trip around the tables. Sign up at the sheriff’s office. Jane can’t—she has a job to do; she is, despite her fragile state, gainfully employed—but she leaves Margaret an extragenerous tip in recompense. People nod to her as she leaves. It’s that kind of place.
* * *
As it turns out, Heidi is dark-haired. She is not adorable. It is not an attractive photo that appears on the signs on the street, in the shop windows, in the Moon News. How can a five-year-old girl be so plain? Jane remembers Angela, her friends at that age, so heart-stoppingly lovely, the mothers universally convinced that strangers would be tempted to snatch them away if left unguarded for even a moment. So they weren’t. A generation of tiny prisoners.
* * *
Sometimes Jane walks, and talks, and acts as if she were still a mother, still a woman with a family, not a woman alone. A mother walks slower. She has much on her mind. Where is the daughter? Who is she with? What is she doing? And, most important, what could go wrong? A woman without a family is lighter on her feet, less distracted. She’s not thinking, Nearly dinnertime. What shall I feed her? Or see a dress in a window and stop and think, Wouldn’t she look cute in that? before reality sets in.
* * *
Two days pass. Three. People start shaking their heads in the Three Sisters Café. This will end in tears, Jane would tell Angela when, as a child, she played too roughly with her toy soldiers, her Barbie princesses, in an all-out war of the sexes, the pink bosomy Barbies overwhelming the small green plastic soldiers. Rick’s idea of bringing Angela up without gender biases. Jane walks past the photos of the singularly unattractive Heidi papering the windows of the stores along Main Street. This will end in tears.
* * *
Jane is not a believer in Dr. Kübler-Ross. The five stages of grief do not exist. Or rather, they are not stages. Or rather, they are not grief. They are madnesses. Jane accepts the fact that denial, anger, bargaining, and depression are now her life. Acceptance is not, nor will it ever be. Always a maker of lists, Jane has created an Excel spreadsheet on her laptop. She checks off the madnesses as they engulf her minute by minute, day by day, on a scale of 1 to 10. Is what her shrink calls the intensity dissipating? Jane’s shrink says yes; her spreadsheet says no.
Kübler-Ross missed some of the most important madnesses. Shame. Guilt. Hope. And yes, ecstasy. Sleep can bestow glorious gifts, as when Angela arises, whole and unmangled, acting as though nothing has happened. What’s for dinner? she asks. Or, Can I have the car? Or, worse, just a plain inquiring Mom? Then Jane wakes, and it is like hearing the news for the first time.
* * *
How do you define loss? Jane has posted Merriam-Webster’s definition on her bedroom mirror. Deprivation. She has been grievously deprived.
* * *
Here’s what Jane remembers. Heat. Even for July, it had been unusual. All the climatologists saying Get used to it. A hotter world. An increasingly inhospitable planet. Berkeley was certainly hostile that summer, if Jane remembers properly, if she is not fantasizing, if she is not transforming emotions into facts, as her shrink often accuses her of doing. You are the unreliable narrator of your own life. Yet surely it is true that at that time, the garbagemen are on strike, and stinking refuse is piling up on the street, overflowing onto sidewalks. Fans sell out at the hardware stores, as do rat traps. People stop picking up their dogs’ poop. The homeless, who refuse to shed their layers of clothing no matter how hot the temperature, are passing out from heatstroke and dehydration. The university lets them bathe in the fountains, an unusual concession of humanity. And then there is that night, when Jane sits in her living room waiting and worrying. No, she is not psychic. This is simply what she does when Angela is out at night. Where does this fear come from? She had grown up in a middle-class family in a safe middle-class town. Was the word fear? No. Terror. She waits, terrified, night after night.
When the police car pulls up in front of the house—of course, her curtains are open, of course, she makes sure she had a clear view of the street and sidewalk—you could say she was prepared. Jane had anticipated this day from the moment of Angela’s birth sixteen years ago. She hadn’t known what the details would be, of course. There were so many possibilities! But the two uniformed men who tread heavily up to Jane’s door fit in well enough with her fantasies. Yes. It could happen like this. Yes, it could. And then the knock on the door.
* * *
It is 2:00 p.m. at Smithson’s Nursery, and no one has taken lunch yet. Mid-August, time to start gearing up for the annual Pumpkin Festival, the biggest weekend in Half Moon Bay, when people come from all over the state to get lost in corn mazes, drink local designer wines, and pick out their pumpkins for Halloween. Children choose their own pumpkins from the piles of small pumpkins. Parents look for the biggest and most symmetrical to carve into leering faces. At the end of the weekend, they drive home, a pumpkin nestled below each pair of feet like a small pet. Smithson’s doesn’t sell pumpkins, but from experience knows that tourists will also swoop on any plants that flower in autumn. There has been talk of canceling the Pumpkin Festival because little Heidi has not been found. But the talk is not serious. The Pumpkin Festival is essential to the health of the local economy.
Jane likes watching her colleague Adam as he digs up tiny shoots of pepperweed (Lepidium lasiocarpum) from a seedling tray. He is pleasant to look at, his fingers brushing dirt off the leaves, deftly inserting the tiny plants into the larger plastic pots. He’s got one earpiece in, listening to dreamy neo-hippie music that would put Jane to sleep in a moment. Even half hearing it, combined with the somnolent humidity of the greenhouse, makes her drowsy. Adam’s long body is bent over the rough wooden table, over the plants he has nurtured from seeds, his longish blondish hair brushing the green tops. They’re among Smithson’s best-selling ground cover. Suddenly he stands up straight. Dirt falls from his fingers. His eyes are wide. He presses the earpiece closer. The Big Kahuna! he says. Surf’s up! He’s already got one hand out to grab his jacket off the back of the chair and the other hand starting to unbutton his shirt.
Whoa there, cowboy, says Helen Smithson, the owner of the nursery, but she’s laughing like the rest of the staff. Adam keeps his wet suit and surfboard in the back of his aging Volvo wagon, and he changes into it by semicrouching in the parking lot. If you think, as many of the staff do, that Adam looks good in his jeans and T-shirt, you should see him in his wet suit. You should see him out of his wet suit. He’s oblivious to the attention.
Adam has been making noises lately that he wants to be friends with Jane. She hasn’t decided if she’s ready to let anyone into her life, especially someone as sunny and seemingly uncomplicated as Adam.
* * *
They find little Heidi McCready eight days after she disappeared. Her body discovered by the side of Route 1 just south of Montara, in a field of late-blooming tiger stripes (Coreopsis tinctoria).
She had been carefully, even lovingly, wrapped in a woven Indian-style blanket, the kind they sell at the San Gregorio Store and a thousand other places in the Bay Area. Nothing unique about it. Her black hair had been combed and tied back with a pink ribbon. Most disturbingly, her eyes were open, and she had been made up expertly with foundation, rouge, and lipstick, nothing excessive, but enough to make her appear still alive and blooming to the teenagers who’d found her. According to the Moon News, they’d tramped through the field on their way to a grove of Monterey pines that was a popular high school party site and literally stumbled across her, a small figure lying flat, peacefully contemplating the night sky.
* * *
What? Why? Who? There are nothing but questions. The town is horror-struck. But Jane welcomes a sort of equilibrium: for once, the atmosphere in the external world mirrors her internal darkness. The weather cooperates, serving up wind and fog and pelting rain that feels like tiny bullets to the face. For the first time in more than a year, Jane feels human again, connected to others of her species by a common grief.
* * *
The loss goes forward as well as back. The loss of what would have been in addition to mourning what was lost. Today Angela would have been seventeen. She would have started her senior year in high school, would have been applying to college. Jane is looking ahead at grim milestones of this kind for decades. By now, Angela would be graduating from college. By now, advancing in her career. What would she have done? Jane would have bet on a scientist. Angela, underneath her teenage rebellion and emotionalism, possessed a fact-centric personality. Jane would never have dared to make an argument without backing it up with numbers. A data-driven girl.
• The average teenage hours per day spent goofing off: 5.81. (See! I’m not weird!)
• The most valued or essential relationship for high school students: their mother (47 percent). (Angela hated that one.)
• Percentage of high schoolers who have had sex: 41.2 percent. (So there.)
• Twenty-nine percent of teens have posted mean info, embarrassing photos, or spread rumors about someone on Facebook. (That doesn’t make me feel any better.)
Not that any of this helped much in the combative teenage years. But it held out hope for the future. A future that didn’t exist anymore.
* * *
The Moon News says the police are not releasing the cause of death, but the buzz at Three Sisters, always on the money, is that there weren’t any apparent wounds or injuries. Nothing that marred Heidi’s appearance, as unprepossessing in death as it had been in life.
That poor kid, says Helen to Jane quietly the morning the news broke. That poor poor family. Already, a shrine has appeared, a large one, with a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and hundreds of bouquets of flowers strewn at her feet alongside Route 1 near the field where little Heidi was found. Half Moon Bay has never experienced a child abduction, much less a child murder, in anyone’s living memory.
Jane is conflicted. She should be ashamed to feel joy in someone else’s misfortune, yet the inevitable schadenfreude has raised its ugly head. I told you so. The madnesses descend, one by one. Jane takes out her spreadsheet, and with shaking fingers, types 10s in all the cells. She calls her shrink for an unsatisfactory session of hand-holding. But the madnesses have taken over her world.
* * *
Naturally the teenagers who found Heidi documented the scene with their cell phones; that’s what this generation does. They order a meal, they take a photo and post it. They find a dead body, they do the same. The police tried to clamp down on the distribution of the crime scene photos, but it was too late. Jane sees the phones being taken out at the Three Sisters, studied, handed around, but manages to decline with a semblance of sanity when someone offers to show her what’s on one of them. She’s seen it all already.
Jane held her own child like that, just so. What remained of Angela had also been carefully wrapped in a blanket. We’ll leave you alone, then, said the doctor, and she and the nurses exited the room. Jane’s daughter’s upper torso was intact but cold. She had inherited Jane’s bright red hair from some long-ago Irish ancestor. Her eyes so black you could barely see the irises. Yes, they were open too, Jane could see herself reflected in their dark depths. A modern Pietà. Jane did not look any place but Angela’s face, miraculously unscathed. The doctors had been considerate. What was left of the lower body had been tightly wrapped in hospital linens. Jane remembers swaddling Angela as a colicky infant, wrapping the soft cotton blanket tightly around the small, furious, kicking red body. Jane knows she should be in sympathy with Heidi’s parents, but she isn’t. She has more in common with the murderers. She’s killed, and then held the victim of her deed in her arms. Somehow Jane knew this had been the case with little Heidi as well. She had been loved to death.
* * *
Jane studies the photo of Heidi on the front page of Moon News—the same photo that was on the flyer distributed after her disappearance. The parents were lucky, Jane thinks, that Heidi was taken at this age and not later. The McCreadys’ grief was pure, unblemished by disappointment or bitterness that would have inevitably arisen as Heidi grew older. None of Jane’s friends with teenage children were altogether happy with their choice to reproduce. The ones with full-grown adult children even less so. The worry! The pain! If I had known then what I know now, they had told each other at book club meetings and coffeehouses, only half joking. What an idiot I was, thinking I needed to have children to be whole, they’d say. I wish I could write a letter to my younger self, explaining how wrong she was. Jane had been one of them, the regretful, complaining mothers. She had that on her conscience too.
* * *
The police are everywhere. Not just the limited Half Moon Bay police force, but San Mateo County sheriffs are making the rounds. They are interviewing everyone. There is word that the FBI will be coming in, forming a task force, because of the child kidnapping angle. Something about the Lindbergh Act. But the two men in uniform who come to Jane one afternoon at the nursery are locals.
Jane recognizes one of the cops by his voice. It is the one she’d spoken to the night Heidi disappeared, the one who circled her name on his pad. She can finally see his face clearly. He is much younger than she would have guessed. An unlined, untested face, and therefore one not to be trusted. Jane finds herself ill at ease these days with those inexperienced in life. Does that include children? It does.
You said you didn’t know the McCreadys, the policeman begins abruptly. No social niceties.
Jane is carefully wiping the leaves of the lilyturf (Liriope spicata) plants to keep them moist. Each leaf coming out a deep pure green after her wet cloth passes over it. She continues what she is doing. She breathes in deeply, as she’s been taught to do in times of stress.
I didn’t. I mean, I don’t, Jane says, finally. I knew that people with that name lived up on the hill, but I’ve never spoken to them.
But you have. This was the other cop, the one with the San Mateo Sheriff’s Department patch sewn on the shoulder of his uniform. If it wasn’t an interrogation, Jane would have warmed to this man. He reminds her of Rick, with his narrow blue eyes and sandy-colored hair that curls around his ears. A deep quietness that reassures.
They came here and bought some plants from you. Quite a large order. They remember you distinctly. Your red hair. Your boss remembers them too.
Jane feels trapped. She’s never been good with authority figures. She invariably feels guilty of whatever has occurred. She is willing to admit to anything anyone accuses her of. In middle school, when her teacher called her to the front of the room to commend her on an essay she’d written, Jane blurted out, I didn’t plagiarize! Which of course caused the teacher to treat her with suspicion thereafter. Jane learned not to say what she was thinking, instead tried hard to look nonchalant and innocent when lunch money went missing or obscene graffiti was scrawled on the gym walls. But she’s not a good actress and can’t always force herself to do what liars apparently did to convince people of their innocence. Look people in the eyes. Don’t swallow. Don’t put your hand near your face, especially don’t hide your mouth or eyes. Don’t make any grooming gestures. Jane had practiced not lying in the mirror. She was terrible at it. Her hand was always straying to her face, and she always hesitated and swallowed before answering even the simplest questions. Jane would appear a liar even if asked for her name, or her favorite color.
When was this? Jane knows it sounds like she is buying time. She is.
Last January. January fifteenth, to be exact.
Jane considers what to say.
I was not . . . myself . . . back then, she says. I had only just arrived here. A lot of things from that time are a blur.
The nicer-looking policeman nods in what could be interpreted as a sympathetic manner.
Nevertheless, it was a little odd to find you wandering alone in the dark the night the little girl disappeared, he says. At that place, at that time.
I often wander in the dark. Especially to that place. Especially around that time of night.
Even though the beach closes at sundown?
Not to locals, Jane says. Not to me.
This makes both cops stop and look more closely at her.
You’re somehow privileged? the friendly one finally asks without hostility, just interest, it seems to Jane.
You know you could be ticketed for trespassing after hours, says the other, at the same time. He is hostile, Jane decides.
Yes, and yes, says Jane. But it’s not patrolled, and everyone knows it. Then, fiercely, You’re wasting my time. She turns her back on the cops to tend to her lilyturfs. She’s learned, over the last year, that being rude rather than polite, pushy rather than obsequious, gets her what she wants: to be left alone.
But it doesn’t work. The questions continue.
Where were you earlier that evening? (Home.)
Can anyone vouch for you being there? (No.)
What were you doing? (Straightening up. Organizing stuff. Reading.)
Do you have a car? (No.)
How do you get around? (Motorbike.)
Her answers to the last questions seem to terminate their interest. We might have more questions for you later, the friendly cop says finally, and they turn to leave, but not before the unfriendly cop plucks a glorious white rose from one of Helen’s prize bushes and holds it to his nose.
Why don’t flowers smell like anything anymore? he asks no one in particular.
Jane considers this a victory.
* * *
Despite all the police activity, no plausible suspects emerge. No one is charged. It must be a stranger, people say. They view anyone who recently moved to the coast with suspicion. There haven’t been many of them. The Schroeders, a boisterous family of six. The parents opened a frozen yogurt store on Main Street six months ago, are wonderfully patient with all the kids who hang out there. Greg and Jim, a young cohabiting couple, doing something in the arts scene up in San Francisco, and frequently away on trips. A few other unlikely persons. No single older men, normal or strange. Everyone in couples or families. No weirdos, unless you count the ones who have lived here for years. And Jane of course. Jane tries to look innocent. She tries to look concerned. She keeps her hands away from her face, doesn’t pat her hair. But she feels the burden of the unasked questions. Who are you really?
* * *
The faces of the townspeople, the shopkeepers, are grim. This is when the coast typically gets its most beautiful weather, but even that isn’t cooperating. The usually joyous preparation for the big Pumpkin Festival scheduled for the third weekend in October have begun, but sotto voce. Posters are being placed around town, fields mowed, pumpkins harvested. Local stores are gearing up for their busiest time of the year—pumpkin harvest brings in even more than Christmas—but everyone is subdued. Fewer families come to the beach on weekends, fewer customers from over the hill stop by Smithson’s on their way home. The sky is a metal gray and the wind chills you even if you’re wearing layers. Jane shivers as she rides her motorbike to and from work. Bad juju is in the air.
* * *
Jane is kneeling by the side of Route 84. Five hundred yards west of the old San Gregorio Store. Within spitting distance of the Pacific Ocean. Tending the roadside memorial that’s been here for nearly a hundred years. A small wooden cross. A teddy bear and a companion stuffed rabbit. And always fresh flowers. This is one of Jane’s secret places.
A child died on the road here, a long, long time ago. Whether in an accident involving an early automobile or an unfortunate fall from a horse and wagon, no one alive knows. Jane has asked, but people just shrug. Jane discovered the shrine soon after she arrived on the coast, in her meanderings during endless solitary weekends. A clandestine society to which she anonymously belongs tends the site, keeps the flowers fresh, and replaces the teddy bear and rabbit when they become wretched and stained from the rain and sun. A community that mourns together yet alone.
This memorial isn’t the only one on Route 84. This road is hazardous, twisting as it snakes up the mountains that overlook Silicon Valley and then heaves over the summit and down through the redwoods onto the California coastal plain. Cars as well as bicycles and motorcycles go too fast around the blind curves. They crash into redwood trees, plunge off precipices, run headlong into deer. Drink is frequently involved. Fatalities galore. It’s become a bit of a tradition for people around here to put up these crosses, leave flowers at these sites of conflagration and death.
Most of these homemade shrines don’t last more than a couple of months before being vanquished by the elements. People lose interest. The memories fade, the urge to honor the dead dissipates. The flowers on little Heidi’s memorial, over on Route 1, are already wilting.
Jane doesn’t approve. She’s seen too much death. She’s smelled its breath. You can’t—shouldn’t—forget such things. Nine months ago, still mad with grief for Angela, Jane closed her mother’s mouth, held it shut so that the face didn’t freeze into an unsightly gape. They’d been warned by the funeral director to do this immediately after her last breath. He didn’t want to have to break her jawbone to make her presentable for the viewing. Jane had taken the night shift at her mother’s bedside with full knowledge of what might be expected of her.
It’s heavy stuff. That’s meant literally. The weight of your mother’s chin in your palm, the upward pressure you exert to bring her lips together. The muffled click as her teeth meet. These are sensations Jane will remember forever. She holds the jaw in place for five long minutes. Then she says a quick prayer—although she’s not a believer, not really—and releases, and to her relief, the mouth remains shut. Her mother will have nothing more to say now. Jane more or less successfully represses the impulse to laugh. The face was still warm. To caress a face is an intimate act, an intimacy her mother mostly denied Jane when alive. This thought does something to Jane. She decides she’s had enough. She leaves the room, changes her plane ticket, and goes back to California early, skipping the wake and funeral.
She adopted this shrine in recompense, for that and other sins. She’d passed it numerous times before finally stopping, curious about a grief so fresh that someone placed fresh flowers here twice or even thrice weekly. That’s when she saw the date: October 18, 1917. The cross is white, and that too is constantly refreshed with new paint, but you can still read the D-A-R-L-I-N-G carved into it. Whose darling? A mother, of course, Jane thinks. Although her word for Angela when little was sweetheart. She didn’t realize how much she used the endearment because it came so naturally. Sweet. Heart. Yes, of course, that is what you call your daughter. Jane had never used an endearment before in her life. She didn’t realize the force of her habit until she understood Angela thought sweetheart a synonym for child Now I’ll be the mommy, and you’ll be the sweetheart, she’d say in the car. Or, Look! Sweethearts! as they passed a playground with children on swings or seesaws.
* * *
Behavioral psychological studies have shown that if you intermittently reward rats with food pellets for pressing a lever, they will obsessively press that lever, even when nothing comes out for long periods of time. Hungry for pellets and not able to discern a pattern to their disbursement, a rat will press and press the lever until it dies of exhaustion. That was Jane in her previous life. Seeking emotional sustenance from unlikely places. And randomly getting it, occasionally being blissed out of her mind with it, which turned out to be considerably worse than never being rewarded at all. She remembers Tennyson from her undergraduate days: ’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Don’t fall for that line. Tennyson was never in that cage pushing the lever.
* * *
The night Jane’s husband told her he was leaving, she had just washed her hair. A new shampoo, one that smelled of peppermint. A rather momentous occasion. For the first time since Angela’s death, Jane had showered. She had rubbed this new peppermint-scented shampoo into her hair. She had soaped her body with lavender body wash. She was trying to excite her senses. She was trying to bring herself to life again. She was going through the motions. Later, in the living room, toweling off her hair, she even smiled when Rick walked into the room, even grasped his hand when he placed it on her shoulder. The therapist had told them, Touching is healing. Then Rick said those words. I’m in love with Clara. Clara? Oh yes. Jane remembered. The girl at work, the one in HR. The one with the big personality. That of course had made Jane feel particularly small. The girl resembled a young Charlotte Rampling. He’d laughed about it at first, telling Jane how all the men in the office were obsessed, how she’d charmed the head of IT to the point where he’d spontaneously invited her home for dinner, to the mystification of his wife. Then Rick had simply stopped talking about her, about this Clara. Jane should have guessed. But she had been at that point otherwise preoccupied, so she missed the signals, was stupidly blindsided. She supposed the faint sting of hearing Rick’s words was good news of a sort: she was still alive. If you pricked her, she could still bleed. But there was surprisingly little pain. It hurt to breathe, but then it always hurt to breathe nowadays. Her mouth was dry, her skin numbed as if encased in rubber. The shower notwithstanding, Jane was not yet feeling things. So what did she do? She proceeded to comb the tangles out of her wet hair. And then took a steak knife from the kitchen drawer and made five precise incisions on her left wrist. Jane watched the blood well up from the cuts, then bent her head and licked it off her skin. A sweetish, slightly salty taste. From then on associated in her mind with betrayal.
* * *
Little Heidi’s funeral is a bit of a circus. Everyone in town attends, as do many, many strangers. Death attracts. Jane knows this from experience. Heidi’s story is featured on CNN the night before the funeral, and the rest of the media come sniffing for something people will tune in to or read. Dead child as clickbait. Reporters from the major newspapers from San Francisco and San Jose and a dozen national media outlets show up. Titillating stuff, after all. Everyone of course wanting to know if little Heidi had been sexually violated, so much so that the police spokeswoman has to repeat We found no evidence of sexual assault throughout the press conference that preceded the funeral. Television vans with satellite dishes on top block Main Street near Our Lady of the Pillar, where the funeral service is held. Crime bloggers show up—Jane hadn’t known such people existed until she meets one in Three Sisters. We’re better journalists than traditional journalists, and better detectives than the real ones, the woman boasts. The bloggers even specialize: murder blogs, murder-of-children blogs, murder-of-little-girls blogs. This one, a woman in her fifties, dressed a little casually for a funeral in jeans and T-shirt, is a specialist in young girl abductions. Certainly she asks Jane more pointed questions than the local police had. Are local children free to play outside by themselves? How vigilant are parents? Any strange characters living here? Jane notices the blogger surreptitiously tapping an icon on her phone before laying it on the table between them. Jane tries to leave. The woman puts a hand on Jane’s arm. It is a seemingly casual gesture, but the pressure hurts. Jane shakes it off but sits down again. She is easily bullied.
Who do you think did it?
I have no idea, Jane says.
None, Jane says firmly. But in fact there have been. About Fred Barnes, the football coach for the Half Moon Bay Cougars, whose wife suddenly divorced him two years ago and left with their two little girls without saying anything. And Jim Yang, who runs the local lumberyard, who is married but childless and known to ogle younger teenage girls, offering them sugar-free chewing gum and cans of Diet Coke when they walk past in their groups of three or four, giggling and taking selfies. Both men. Both clearly needing something from the world that they weren’t getting.
The blogger catches something in Jane’s hesitation.
Tell me, she says.
But Jane resolutely shakes her head. Bad karma to snitch. Even if Jane had anything to say—she didn’t—she would have kept her mouth shut. Jane learned that early in life.
She later sees the woman in Three Sisters and hears she was at the site where Heidi was found, casually stepping over the police tape that had been wound around the place to keep her ilk out. The Moon News includes a link to the woman’s blog: In Memory of Her. EVERYTHING POINTS TO A LOCAL CONNECTION is the headline. POLICE HAVE A SHORT LIST OF SUSPECTS. In the blog is a list of locals, all men, Fred Barnes among them. The woman’s name is Emma. Emma Jones, her byline almost as big as the headline. Jane wonders how this Emma found out who is on the list. Jane wonders how Emma can sleep at night, given her job.
* * *
After the funeral, the mood remains heavy in town. There is no sign of progress from police. But then, two days after the funeral, something happens. Something that perks people up. A certain vibe. Jane hears the news when she stops in at the Rite Aid to pick up some aspirin. She’s been battling headaches lately, fierce ones that accompany nightmares. Not about Angela. And not about important things. In one, she loses her driver’s license. In another, her keys. She wakes up weeping from the grief of these losses. Other dreams have more weight. In one, she kills a sister. She often kills sisters in her dreams.
Jane gets the news waiting in line at the checkout counter at Rite Aid. She senses a certain buzz. Two women ahead of her have the scoop. Nancy Oster and Susan McLean. They talk about new arrivals in town. Interesting people. Not tourists. Not transients. They’ve got substance, says Nancy. A couple. She, an adjunct professor at Stanford. He, an environmental activist, setting up an office. YourBeaches.org. Jane listens. She senses excitement coming from the women, especially when they talk about the man.
The timing is unfortunate, but they don’t seem to be put off by it.
They’re staying in the Coastal Cottage B&B until they find a permanent place to live.
He seems like kind of a jerk, Susan says, but she says it like she possesses a secret. She smiles in a curious way.
He can check out my beaches anytime, says a woman in line behind Jane who, like her, has been eavesdropping. Open laughter. A women’s coffee klatch at the Rite Aid. The single man in line is looking down at his basket, pretending to tune out.
God knows we need a group like that to take interest in the overdevelopment.
This last is from Janet Holcomb, the mayor of Half Moon Bay. She is in the next line over. The owner of that rare thing, a successful clothing boutique on Main Street. A staunch opposer of new developments on the coast. The previous year, before Jane had arrived, some precious land adjacent to the surfer beach in Princeton-by-the-Sea had been developed into what the builders called an “aparthotel.” Before completion, the place was torched and burned to the ground twice, and rebuilt each time, the third time with twenty-four-hour security guards stationed around the perimeter. The authorities never found out who was behind the fires. Now, farther south, near Secret Beach, a much more grandiose development is being planned, against the wishes of the locals, but very much to the liking of San Mateo County due to expected tax revenues. To everyone’s surprise, the Coastal Commission signed off on it. There is much talk of money changing hands.
Jane listens to the chatter but feels only a great lethargy. Since the day of Heidi’s funeral, she has found it difficult to raise herself from her pillow in the morning. Sleep crusts her eyes, which still look red and puffy when she gets to work. Oddly enough, her plants are doing extraordinarily well. Helen and Adam and the other nursery workers exclaim. The young plants have exhibited unusual growth spurts for no reason. The more mature ones bloom early and luxuriantly. But Jane herself is in a state of dread. This is not over. The proverbial other shoe has not dropped. This will end in tears.
* * *
Sleepy. So sleepy. The heavy air of the nursery is casting a spell over Jane. She can barely keep her eyes open as she checks on her seedlings. The dusky, seductive smell of damp earth. If she’d owned a car, she would have taken a nap in the backseat, the way she’d seen Adam doing in his Volvo, his surfboard and wet suit in back. Adam. The man-child. Jane would have put his age at thirty or even younger, but was surprised when he told her he was thirty-eight. Just a year younger than she is. Still, she can’t help treating him like a younger brother. With affection but no edge. For Jane, attraction has to have an edge to it. Not that she is in any shape to feel attracted. That part of her died with Angela.
* * *
One week after Heidi’s funeral, Jane encounters unexpected traffic on her way home from work. Driving north on the usually empty Route 1, she pulls up behind a long line of cars stretching at least half a mile ahead. As she inches closer, she sees that a large crowd has gathered at Surfers Beach, one block west of Jane’s cottage. She has to wait ten minutes to turn onto her street, obstructed by gawkers as drivers pause to stare at whatever is causing the snarl. Jane gets a glimpse before she turns the corner. An astonishing sight. A whale has beached itself on the sand. People in official-looking emergency vests are gathered around it, with yellow police tape keeping the crowds at a distance from the huge gray mass. An alien in their midst.
Jane decides to check it out. She parks her motorbike in front of her cottage and heads toward the beach. The crowd is growing by the minute as cars pull over to the side of the road and people pile out to stare. Two trucks with satellite dishes park in the bicycle lane. The media have arrived. Or perhaps they never left. Jane can just see the headline: ANOTHER DEATH ON THE COAST.
Jane picks her way carefully down the rocks to Surfers Beach. It’s not easy. No path exists, merely sharp-edged boulders piled on top of each other. You have to balance on odd surfaces to prevent yourself from falling. Surfers somehow manage it carrying six- and eight-foot boards, and look graceful to boot. Jane has always marveled at them.
Jane finally reaches the beach. In addition to the whale and the crowd, the water is full of surfers. It is a great day for the sport. The waves are perfect blue-green tunnels that roll in as if generated by a machine. The foam-topped water dotted with bobbing black bodies on boards. Otherwise the weather is mixed. The sun is shining through a low-hanging mist, too porous to be called a fog. It throws the entire scene into an unreal light.
The surfers come in and out of focus as they glide on top of the waves, the mist wafting around them. One especially is an object of beauty, his taut body in his black wet suit shining, his feet securely planted on the long surfboard. The mist is inseparable from the white of the breaking wave, so it looks as if he is magically gliding above the water. Then he tumbles and comes down with a splash twenty feet from where Jane is standing. He stands up in water that comes up to his waist and effortlessly hops onto his board again, lying on his stomach this time, paddling toward shore. Five feet out from the edge of the water, he slides off the board, tucks it under his arm, and strides toward the beach. With a shock, Jane recognizes Adam, his wet hair long and lank behind his ears. He sees her and cracks a wide smile. He comes splashing through the shallow water at an easy trot.
Jane realizes she is pleased to see him. His uncomplicated face shines. A good sprite. He rests his board on the sand.
Can you believe this? he asks, pointing to the whale. It towers over the heads of the people in the crowd. But as Jane and Adam walk closer, Jane can see that something isn’t right. On the whale’s side are splashes of color, lines, and loops of red, blue, and green.
Some asshole, says Adam. Last night. At first Jane isn’t sure what he’s talking about, but now she can see that WE’RE ALL FUCKED has been spray-painted on the whale’s enormous side. A majestic creature turned into a platform for obscenities. A smiley face has been added on the creature’s tail.
Who would have done such a thing? Jane asks. Adam shrugs. He seems to have taken it in his stride. She would have thought it would have insulted his sense of cosmic justice.
It’s worse than you think, he says. The whale was still alive. The rangers had put wet blankets on it and were coming regularly to hose it down. They hoped it would go out in the second tide today, which is going to be a high one. But whoever did this also poured water into the whale’s airhole. It drowned.
Jane hadn’t known whales could drown. How horrible, Jane says, and means it. So much killing, so much death. She shivers.
Do you think it’s related? she asks. Adam knows exactly what she’s talking about.
No, he says firmly. This is the work of kids. Rotten kids, but kids. That Heidi thing . . . that’s something else.
And yet Jane felt the desecration of the whale is associated with the dead child in some way. As Adam would say, Bad vibes. And the wind chilling you through and through. Jane has never been as cold as when she first moved here, to the edge of the Pacific.
That last Christmas, in Hawaii, Angela had reluctantly agreed to go on a whale watching trip with Jane and Rick. At the age when parents were toxic. She sat sullenly on the other side of the boat from Jane and Rick, her back to them, staring moodily out to the horizon. No whales. Nothing to see. Rick enjoyed himself by making friends with a couple from Ohio, trading work stories, recalling the horrors of the midwestern winters of his youth. Jane, who could not be happy if her child was unhappy, sat with her back to the boat railing, keeping an eye on Angela without being obvious. Then, suddenly, a whale leaped out of the water. Right next to the boat, next to where Angela was sitting, a spectacular full breach in which it flung its body twelve feet into the air and flipped its massive weight head over tail. It was at most five feet away from the boat.
Jane’s first conscious thought was, She’s going overboard. For Angela had stood up and now appeared to be standing directly under the arc of the descending whale. Her arms were raised above her head. She waved them up and down, something she did when terribly excited as a toddler. Then, a miracle. She turned her glowing face away from the whale toward Jane, who saw the raw joy of the child Angela had once been. Angela opened her mouth and called, Look, Mom, look! Jane felt a pleasure so intense her chest hurt. Her girl.
* * *
The people in Three Sisters are subdued by little Heidi’s murder, but not so subdued that they can’t talk about the new people in town. The woman, the physicist, seen purchasing tampons at the Rite Aid, the man, the environmentalist, at the hardware store purchasing a hammer, other tools. Exciting sightings, as of some fabulous creatures. Jane was curious about how they could make such a stir. Why?
They’re something, Margaret, the youngest of the Three Sisters tells Jane. The couple had stopped by one morning right before official opening hours. She’d let them in early and served them black coffee, the only thing ready at the time. The man, he was impatient, she says. But it was okay. I didn’t mind. She paused. Then she said, They were beautiful. Just so beautiful.
* * *
Jane continues to see Angela everywhere. On the street, in the grocery store. In the pages of magazines. Jane sees her as a baby being rolled down Main Street in her stroller. As a toddler, on the verge of falling as she staggers, naked, across the loose sand of the beach. Jane sees her as a teen, chattering on her cell phone, driving a car badly. As the adult she never became—a doctor at the clinic, a young mother with two squalling children. Jane talks to Angela constantly, as she used to keep up the running commentary when Angela was a baby riding on her right hip. And now we buy some lettuce for our lunch! And here we look from left to right and back to left before we cross the street!
But if this is madness, Jane is a high-functioning madwoman. She goes to work and plants seedlings of elegant Brodiaea, and she talks sense to colleagues, and she eats and she drinks and she jogs every morning as if nothing has changed. As if everything hadn’t changed forever. But inside the darkness is devouring her, cell by cell.
* * *
Time passes. Then two weeks after Heidi’s funeral, a second child goes missing. Another girl. Older than Heidi but still young. Just eight years old. Heartbreakingly, she had disappeared on her birthday. While her mother was out picking up the cake. She’d begged to be allowed to stay home by herself for the thirty minutes. This time it is a little farther south, but still on the coast, in Aptos, a well-heeled beach community beyond Santa Cruz. The mother is interviewed by the Moon News. She pleads. She is already using the past tense. She was my baby.
* * *
She was mine. Who can fully understand the impact of those words, spoken in the past tense? No one who has not had a child. No one who has not been inflamed by the fever of mother love. No one who has not stroked the silken skin of a tiny hand and thought she belongs to me. To hold a small head to your breast and feel the pull of hungry lips. Jane had marveled at her own ability to give sustenance from a place she thought could produce only bile. When her child was born, for the first time in her life Jane felt that she truly belonged on this planet. Did not this child finally make her a member of the human race? And to have this taken away from her! But not right away. The child had lived, was destined to grow and thrive for many years. And each day Jane had with her fed a hunger of Jane’s own, one that could not be satisfied. She wished for the child’s immortality. For she knew that if anything happened to her child, she would not survive.
The cruelest thing that God wrought is that Jane did.
* * *
The FBI finally arrives. Men and women in suits—unusual in Half Moon Bay—descend on the town. Jane gets stopped on the street multiple times. You’re Jane O’Malley, right? Then a nod and they continue walking. She has been profiled.
* * *
The second missing child, Rose, is on everyone’s mind. The FBI have established an office in an empty storefront that used to be called Pleasant Things, full of local handicrafts and food. It had lasted about two years before the owner ran out of cash, as with so many of the interchangeable Main Street shops. The strange men and women are everywhere, as well as the T-shirt-and-jeans-wearing journalists who have established camp. All the area hotels, B&Bs, and Airbnbs are full. Bloggers are driving down from accommodations in San Francisco to get a piece of the action. That’s how Jane thinks about it. When Angela died, the fuss was on a much smaller scale. Much less drama, although the end was the same: the death of a child. Although Angela was sixteen, nearing the end of childhood. The age of innocence had been over for her for some time, and the manner of her death was much less spectacular. The only mystery about it, the only suspense, was whether the wealthy and well-connected driver who mangled Angela’s body would get off. She did. End of story.
Here, search parties are being formed. Volunteers are being directed by police to trawl through the marshes and on top of the cliffs overlooking the sea. They’re also putting up signs as far north as Pacifica and as far south as Santa Cruz.
You know, you are free to take part in any of these search parties, Jane’s boss at the nursery, Helen, tells her. If you feel you need to help out in some way, I’d understand. We could get by.
But it’s your busiest time! Jane protests. She realizes that what she’s feeling is resentment. She does not want to search for Rose, put up posters, or bring coffee to hard-working cops. No one did that for her. Why the fuss over this one life? What was one life worth?
* * *
Jane is careless. She is always losing things. Her comb, her keys, her lipstick. She long ago cultivated the habit of keeping multiple copies of important things. An extra set of keys in the motorbike saddlebag. A second toothbrush in her bathroom cabinet. But Angela was one of a kind. No heir and a spare. Jane had wanted another child, specifically, another daughter. She and Rick had talked about it, had calculated the funds for day care, for medical insurance and braces and broken arms, and college. They had almost agreed to do it. Then Jane was flattened by influenza. It lasted more than four weeks. Thirty-two days before she got out of bed. In the midst of her illness, everything aching, it hurting even to blink, she thought, I can’t do it. Even though Rick was watching Angela, he couldn’t keep her out of the bedroom, couldn’t keep her from snuggling up to Jane shivering with chills in the sickbed. No, I can’t do it, she murmured out loud. On the third day back on her feet, Jane went to her gynecologist and had an IUD fitted. Enough was enough.
* * *
With this latest disappearance, the town closes into itself. The mood on the street, in the stores and restaurants, goes past uneasy to unstable. Neighbors pass on the street without saying hello. Arguments break out among the kitchen staffs at restaurants. The air has a burned, bitter smell. Heavy clouds sink to blanket the tops of the hills, turning the entire San Mateo coast into a dank, unwelcoming cave.
Jane takes long walks on the beach at dusk. She drinks in the darkening air. Signs admonish: MIND THE SURF—MANY PEOPLE HAVE DIED IN THESE DANGEROUS WATERS. But the current mood of the sea is not one of anger but grimness. The ocean a gray plate of water reaching out to infinity. Flat. This is what despair looks like. This is hopelessness. The horizon erased, the sea the same color as the sky. Jane remembers that the sea itself is dying, as degree by degree its temperature rises, killing off everything that lives in it. But before it goes, it will have its revenge. Jane imagines the ocean rising up, engulfing the harbor, Route 1, and eventually her cottage. She once clicked on an interactive map on the Internet that showed what different parts of the world would look like in ten, twenty, thirty years as humans continued to ruin the planet. In Angela’s would-be lifetime, Half Moon Bay would no longer exist.
Jane is bundled up against the wind, the hood of her jacket over her hair. Still, some strands have escaped and blow behind her like a bright red scarf. Her face is visibly raw from the salt in the brutal breeze. She likes being the only one intrepid enough to be out on the beach in this weather, is resentful to see another figure farther down the beach, walking toward her. Unisex at this distance, but as she gets closer, she sees that it is male—the height and something about the way he carries himself, a superior swing of the leg forward before planting his foot confidently on the sand and the next leg following. A solid straight trunk. She thinks of Neptune, how his torso is always massively developed, his abdomen muscles tight and visible, his shoulders broad. Jane could desire a man like that. The man comes closer. Jane believes she is sexless in her garb and imitates his aggressive walk so as to pass him without notice. She doesn’t want to be a woman to this man; that feels dangerous in these conditions. The sea so flat and nonresponsive, an impassive witness. The wind invasive and the sand soft and sinking underfoot with no one in sight for the miles of beach that stretched in either direction. But at the last moment, her hood blows off and her hair streams out behind her in the wind. Still she strides resolutely past the man. She sees him nod. Then he pulls down the scarf covering his mouth and chin. She doesn’t look straight at him but has a sense of a naked visage, one that is open to the universe, a lovely face. He shouts through the wind, Do you know how beautiful you are? without stopping or slowing down. Jane keeps going, but her mind whispers an exhilarated how beautiful, how beautiful as she continues to walk. An unexpected gift.
* * *
Dread paralyzes everyone. Parents hold on to their daughters’ arms, lock their doors at night. Even Adam at work, usually so sunny, is subdued. Jane? She’s back to her normal state, barely containing her terror and rage. At night she can’t sleep. Instead, she paces the cottage, walks to Mavericks Beach at 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., greedily sucking in the sea air with each step, exhaling noisily. Breathing, breathing. But instead of calming her down, it revs her up, increases her adrenaline, makes her stride faster and faster to reach the promontory of land that is Mavericks, in the depth of the night, feeling like the edge of the world where the earth touches the sea.
* * *
A few days after Rose’s disappearance, a headline in the Main Street newspaper stand jumps out at Jane. SIX CHILDLESS WEEKS. She pulls her motorbike over, stops, inserts a quarter in the newspaper dispenser, and puts the Moon News in her saddlebag. She reads it when she gets to the nursery. It is a profile of the first victims, the McCreadys, Heidi’s parents, on how they are coping. Or rather, how they are not. The mother has quit her job as a systems analyst at a big Silicon Valley software company, the father has taken a leave of absence from his San Francisco law firm. Jane hadn’t realized that Heidi was their only child. They are in marriage counseling. They are falling apart.
The woman in the picture looks washed out, vapid. The man, resolute, even smiling a little bit for benefit of the camera. They are not touching each other.
Been there, done that.
* * *
The anguish of loss. The agony of betrayal. Bereft twice over. Three times if you count her mother. Four if you count her father (she doesn’t). To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. What about losing both parents, a husband, and a daughter within nine short months? Catastrophic negligence.
* * *
A Sunday morning in mid-September. 8:00 a.m.
Jane is at the D-A-R-L-I-N-G shrine in San Gregorio, patting the earth around a cluster of California asters (Corethrogyne filaginifolia)—she plants indigenous flowers here, they last longer than exotics, and a lot longer than cut flowers—when she hears a car approaching. Early Sunday mornings, not many vehicles pass on this isolated coastal road, which is why she usually comes at this hour. But the car doesn’t drive past. She feels, rather than hears, it stop behind her as she kneels, the heat of the engine warming her back. It’s the coast’s usual balmy September, but there’s still a chill in the air, a promise of rain. The weather here predictable for its unpredictability.
So you’re the one. A male voice. An uplift at the end of the sentence so it sounds like a question.
Jane doesn’t turn, but continues tamping down the soil around the base of the asters.
One of many, she says finally. She doesn’t want to acknowledge the person or persons in the car or encourage them. No one who understands the significance of the shrine, who truly gets it, would approach in such a way.
You make quite a startling picture. A deep voice. He would sing bass in a choir. O freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen. Beethoven. Beethoven understood what was what.
Jane doesn’t look or answer, and so the reverberations from the idling car are the only sounds for a few moments. She knows what’s coming. And, yes, here it is: Can I take your photo?
This happens a lot. Don’t assume anything, Jane isn’t any great beauty, especially not now. It’s the hair. A shade of red that makes people stare, makes them ask—sometimes quite rudely—if it’s real. Jane wears it straight and long, past her shoulders, and today it’s loose, down her back, and, she knows, dramatic. Only a few wisps of gray that, if anything, make the red stand out more. Recent DNA studies in Ireland have determined that all red-haired people are descended from one person. Another exclusive society to which Jane belongs. She likes that, belonging has been a lifelong struggle. Although she’s not enamored with the fuss people make about her hair. Whether she’s at work in the greenhouse or walking on the beach, people surreptitiously lift up their cell phones, snap pictures. Annoying. Intrusive.
Jane sighs and answers without turning around. I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing, and I’d rather you just left.
He doesn’t depart even though she hears nothing but silence after she speaks. The car continues to idle. She imagines him pulling out his phone, centering it, trying to frame her against the memorial and the pale yellow pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) that encroaches wild everywhere up and down the coast, displacing the precious native flora.
Finally, the man’s voice again.
Okay, I’m leaving, O Ammut. Then, with a hint of laughter, Greeter of death, eater of hearts, I do you homage.
This finally makes Jane look. A silver late-model Mercedes sedan, with the big hood and long trunk. A man is the only occupant. He is leaning out the passenger’s window, the side closer to Jane. She nearly forgets to breathe. He has a face that would heal wounds. Dark-complexioned, high cheekbones. Very black coarse wavy hair. Deep brown-black eyes. A hint of sadness, the way the lines around his eyes crease downward. A dark archangel. He looks vaguely familiar. She remembers the walk on the beach. How beautiful. It’s he.
Don’t mind me. It’s just that you make for quite a startling image, against the grave there.
It’s not a grave, it’s a memorial, Jane says, and turns back to the flowers. She is afraid of what might show in her face. She hears a faint Keep up the good work as the car moves on.
Something has begun.
* * *
Later that day, Jane can’t settle. She keeps thinking of the encounter at the shrine. She’s wound up. Agitated. What will she do with the rest of her day? Sundays are very quiet in Half Moon Bay. Read a library book? She is finally making her way through the twentieth-century French writers Rick had loved so much: Maurice Druon, Boris Vian, Sartre, Camus. Jane had always thought it an affectation—Rick read them in the original French—but she now finds herself attracted and, in an odd way, comforted, by the bleakness and absurdity of the worlds portrayed. They make her world tolerable.
One excerpt from The Stranger has been her companion for several weeks now:
I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.
That’s what Jane tells herself these days. One life was as good as another. But she is perturbed after meeting the stranger at the shrine. Stirred up. Something in the universe has been disturbed. If she believed in past lives (she doesn’t), she would think she knew him from one. There was some familiarity, recognition, between them. She wonders if he is the new man in town. If so, she understands the town women’s barely suppressed excitement. She is excited too. Darkly thrilled.
* * *
Jane’s mother used to tell her that doubting others led to wisdom but doubting yourself led to madness. When Jane was small, she thought she was mad. She was mad, by her mother’s standards. Jane doubted everything she said, felt, or did. At dinner she’d watch her parents and sisters eat the same food as she did, but with more apparent enjoyment. She wondered what they were tasting. Was it as salty, as sweet, as savory as her meal? When they drank water, was it as clear and cold and good as she thought? Was their milk richer than hers? She ached with questions over such things.
When they watched television, she knew for certain that her experiences differed from the rest of her family’s because they would nod and laugh at spectacles that had Jane close to tears. Videos of a toddler getting gobsmacked by a snowball in the face, a man wearing Plexiglas wings jumping off a roof and plummeting to the ground, all sorts of extravagant accidents and, presumably, injuries, and Jane’s family roared. This was the most popular show on TV at the time.
Jane was considered odd for that, and for other reasons. Her sisters could talk her into doing anything. Don’t you have any sense? her mother would ask after finding her plastered in mud from being instructed to roll in a large puddle after a thunderstorm. Or moral compass? she’d ask after Jane was caught stealing various items—chewing gum and, later, lipstick and mascara—for her sisters. Jane had no answer to these questions. On one particularly shame-making occasion when she was eleven, this odd tendency to be cajoled into doing things she knew were not quite right made her the laughingstock of the neighborhood. Jane had been babysitting for a mischievous six-year-old neighbor. One of her duties was to supervise her bath, and somehow as she rinsed the conditioner out of her charge’s hair, the little girl managed to convince Jane that she too was meant to remove her clothes and take a bath. It was expected. And so the mother came home to find Jane naked in the bathtub. The six-year-old, by now in a towel and sitting on the toilet observing, laughed uproariously, as did the mother, after a nonplussed silence. The news was all over the neighborhood within twenty-four hours, and Jane’s sisters had a field day. Time for a bath, Janey, they’d taunt.
Eventually Jane escaped, and came west, where having her own thoughts seemed less dangerous. She was wrong. It wasn’t having her own thoughts, but having her own life, that was the risk. After giving her too, too much, the God Jane only half believed in couldn’t resist. He took it all back.
* * *
When Jane quit her job at the Botanical Gardens in Berkeley—or, rather, when it quit her, since she woke up one morning simply unable to go on—her supervisor got her the position at Smithson’s Nursery. He was a close personal friend of Helen Smithson, the owner, although Jane knew her by reputation only. Smithson’s Nursery about as far away from Berkeley as you could get and still be in the Bay Area. At least you’ll be tangentially in your field, Dr. Blackman, Jane’s supervisor, had said. Helen’s doing interesting work with Zone 15 and 16 indigenous plants. He’d taken his glasses off, massaged the indentations on either side of his nose, and looked at Jane before putting them back on again and continuing to type out his email to Helen. He was, is, a kind man. He knew Jane was in trouble, understood many of the reasons, but, unlike other people, didn’t probe. When you’re ready to come back, call, he’d said.
Jane didn’t intend to do anything of the kind. That life was gone forever. If there was another life for her, it lay elsewhere. Perhaps on the coast. Jane loved the sea. She looked on a map, located Half Moon Bay. Yes. She thought she’d leave her ghosts behind in Berkeley. She thought she’d feel free. But no. Wherever you go, there you are. Jane remembers that adage from her father’s many attempts to get sober. Yes, here she is.
* * *
The second missing little girl, Rose, is found on Pebble Beach, just south of Pescadero. Exactly eight days after her disappearance. Where children go to collect the multicolored stones washed smooth by the rough surf on that stretch of beach. Technically it’s against the law to take any stones from the beach, a directive no one with kids pays any attention to.
Like Heidi, Rose has been carefully made up and posed, this time propped up against a rock next to a half-finished sand castle. Like Heidi, she has not been violated in any way. Nothing has been taken from her. Except my life, except my life, except my life, Jane thinks when she hears the news from Adam, who passed by the crime scene on his way to work on Route 1 from Santa Cruz that morning. He’d gotten the scoop straight from an officer guarding the scene. There’s a monster out there, the cop had said.
Rose had been found by a man walking his dog—or rather, by the dog—at dawn. Given the tidal schedule, authorities were able to calculate that Rose had been placed on the beach after 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Another two hours, and she would have been washed away by the waves. So it was someone who knew the locals’ habits, or they wouldn’t have taken that chance. The horror of it seeps into everything in town. People look at neighbors with suspicion, at strangers in the streets with something akin to terror.
* * *
The Moon News publishes guest articles written by experts. An FBI agent writes that a serial killer is someone who commits a series of two or more murders as separate events. Usually, but not always, such murders are committed by one person acting alone. It is typically in service of some abnormal psychological gratification.
The agent writes in a stilted, pedantic voice. Although it is true that most serial killings involve sexual contact with the victim, the motives of serial killers can include anger, thrill seeking, financial gain, and attention seeking. The murders may be executed in a similar way, or the victims may have something in common: age group, appearance, gender, or race, for example, he lectures. Women serial killers are rare. The fact that the majority of serial killers are men leads researchers to believe this abnormality is associated with the male chromosome set.
Jane thinks of all the people she has known whom she distrusts. No. She has no reason to believe that such madness is confined to the male sex.
* * *
Helen Smithson is Jane’s hero. Mid-fifties with iron-gray hair, she runs Smithson’s Nursery efficiently yet with kindness and humanity. The lines starting to appear on her face are all laugh lines; she will be a remarkable-looking old woman. She has taken Jane in with kindness. She is the only person who knows Jane’s full story, and Jane trusts her to keep it that way. She is married to her second husband, Hugh, and her two children from her first marriage are grown. They all seem to coexist amicably together. Holiday meals at their house are confusing. Once, when Jane was there for Sunday dinner, Helen’s ex-husband introduced himself as Hugh’s husband-in-law.
How are you coping with all this? Helen asks Jane to her office, invites her to sit down. She takes two bottles of water out of the mini-fridge next to her desk, hands one to Jane.
This being . . . ? although Jane knows well what Helen is talking about.
Helen gives her a look.
I’m fine, Jane says. The plastic bottle is cool. She longs to place it against her cheek, which she fears is burning. Just fine.
Good, says Helen, but she doesn’t move or smile, and Jane knows she isn’t done yet.
I’ve noticed that you’re spending less time on the retail floor.
Perhaps. Jane gives in and brings the water bottle up against her forehead. Ahh, lovely coolness. My plants have needed some extra attention. I had to dig up the batch of Ceanothus and repot them due to some mold.
Your plants are fine. If anything, they are way past expectations. You have the proverbial green thumb. Here Helen smiles.
But, she continues, I do need you on the floor. You’re my native plant expert. I know we discussed how you’re not a salesperson, but your knowledge is essential for making some of the tougher sales.
Jane studies Helen’s coffee mug. Emblazoned on it was a smiling sunflower with a bubble coming out of its mouth. Everybody digs me!
The thing is, Jane begins, and stops. She puts both hands on the seat of her chair and pushes herself straight. The thing is, people want to talk. They want the local gossip. They want to talk about the girls. And I can’t. I can’t do it.
Helen nods. I thought as much, she says. And then, Are you still seeing Dr. Blanes? Dr. Blanes is Jane’s shrink.
When Jane shakes her head, Helen says, It’s time to go back to her. You need to be in touch with and talking to someone smarter than me.
Helen left it at that, but Jane went back to her Ceanothuses knowing she has been given a warning.
* * *
It is the last week in September. The weather has changed for the better. Some of the coast’s most beautiful days come in autumn. In summer, the heat from the peninsula meets the bitter cold of the sea, creating fog so thick that the summers are often the coldest days of the year. On the rare day in summer when the fog bank hangs just offshore, Route 92, which connects the coast with Silicon Valley, turns into a virtual parking lot. Everyone from Redwood City to Sunnyvale eager to get to a sunny beach.
Of course, the water is still too cold, even in July and August, to swim. But out come the volleyball nets and the beach barbecues and the coolers and umbrellas, and for a day or maybe, miraculously, two, people in Northern California get a taste of what it’s like on an East Coast beach. Then the fog rolls in and shrouds the landscape again, turning it into a painting by Schoenhausen. Gray shapes in the mist rather than houses, cars that suddenly appear out of the dense fog, startling you when you cross the street. That’s summer in Half Moon Bay.
But autumn and winter belong to its inhabitants. Thus, September 23 dawns a glorious morning, the bluest of blue skies and the ocean a deep aqua to match.
Jane gets a call on her cell. No one ever calls her, so at first she stares at her buzzing phone. It’s a 202 number. Washington, D.C. Who does she know in Washington, D.C.? No one. So she ignores it. In a moment her phone pings to tell her she has a message. She listens. It is a woman’s voice. She identifies herself as FBI. She wants Jane at temporary headquarters today at 11:45 a.m. Please be punctual. You can find us at 854 Main Street. Jane knew the place. Everyone did. They’d papered over the windows of the storefront with old Moon News copies so you couldn’t see in. The address alone is displayed on the door, no other identifier. Nothing gives it away except the suited men and women coming and going.
The unmarked door is locked, but when Jane identifies herself over an intercom, she is buzzed in. Inside, the space is surprisingly vast, filled with desks and four men and two women working on laptops and talking on phones. A hive of activity. Papers are pinned to walls, photographs of the two girls, both alive and dead, are everywhere. Jane averts her eyes. The woman who greets her and leads her to a chair is brisk. Blond hair, cut in a neat bob. Not unkind. But not wasting any time either. She clicks her phone on record and places it on the desk in front of Jane.
Where were you Saturday, August 17, at midday?
Jane has to think to remember. This would have been a day or so before Heidi’s body had been found. Was Jane reading at home? At the beach? One thing is for sure: she was alone. She tells the FBI agent this.
And the night of September 23 and early morning of September 24? From, say, 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.?
In bed? Asleep?
That I couldn’t say, Jane says. She had decided to answer their questions precisely, no more or less information than the question required.
But you were at Mavericks the evening the McCready girl disappeared.
We’re not happy that you were at that location at that particular time, the woman says. She had introduced herself to Jane when first greeting her, but Jane has forgotten her name already. Agent . . . Brady? Haden? Something unmemorable.
Jane shrugs. I can’t help that. She is indifferent to the woman’s questions. Of all the crimes Jane has committed, this is not one that can be pinned on her.
The woman leans back. Frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that you don’t have a car, you could be in a lot of trouble right now.
Well, I don’t. Have a car. Jane finds her right hand straying to her mouth. She deliberately moves her hand away, fiddles with the button on her jacket instead.
No, you don’t, the agent agreed. Silence for a moment.
It’s just that we find certain . . . coincidences in dates and time that make us unhappy.
You keep using that word unhappy, as if it’s an emotional thing for you, Jane says.
Does that surprise you? the agent asks. She holds Jane’s eyes for longer than Jane is comfortable with. Jane looks away first. Two little girls have been murdered. Isn’t that something to be emotional about?
I mean yes. Of course. Jane remembers whom she is talking to. She must pretend normalcy. One doesn’t think of the FBI as acting on emotions.
The agent allows herself a smile. Call them professional instincts, then.
The agent pauses before continuing. There are certain facts that we are . . . pursuing . . . that make you a person of interest.
She holds up one finger. First, you yourself lost a daughter last year.
Jane is startled, although she knows she shouldn’t be. She knows certain facts are a matter of public record. Yet she has flown under the radar here in Half Moon Bay for so long. She should know, in this age of free-flowing information, that she would be caught. Busted.
Then there’s the fact of your erratic behavior at that time. Allowances were made. But still. Evidence suggests you are not always in control of yourself, that you are capable of unpredictable, not to say illegal, activities.
Jane nods. She has nothing to say on this point.
Then there’s the fact that this all started about eight months after you moved here. She holds up another finger. Three. Then she hesitates.
Jane speaks up. And you think it’s a woman.
The agent’s face is impassive. A pause. Then she makes a decision, and nods. She is watching Jane closely as she speaks. Yes, we do. There’s the makeup. The tenderness with which the girls are posed. The tableaux suggest a woman rather than a man.
A bell sounds. The front door buzzes, and the door to the storefront opens. Both Jane and the woman stop and turn. In walks the man whom Jane had last glimpsed in his Mercedes at San Gregorio. She would know him anywhere. The dark broodiness. Out of his car, he is tall. Loose-limbed with broad shoulders. Casually dressed. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He doesn’t look in their direction but is greeted by a man in a suit—another agent, Jane assumes—and led away to a far corner of the room.
The woman agent’s eyes have followed Jane’s.
Know him? she asks.
Seen him around, Jane says. Another suspect?
You know I’m not going to tell you that.
Jane likes this woman. She’s straightforward and blunt. She’s efficient. She’s doing her job—all qualities Jane admires.
The woman plunges in again to the questioning. So we know your history.
Jane says nothing.
We know that you have been what many would call unstable. That you are, as they say, capable of going off the rails.
Jane pushes back. These . . . abductions . . . are the work of a planner, not someone impulsive, she says.
We know you’re that too. A scientist. A careful and precise thinker. Someone who is patient enough to allow things to grow naturally.
So I’m being investigated, Jane says. The agent nods.
Jane’s attention drifts. She has her eyes on the man at the other end of the room. He seems cheerful. He is smiling as he answers the agent’s questions. His shoulders show that he is relaxed; he leans against the back of the chair, stretches out his legs. Now he is laughing at something the agent has said. She sees why the women were smiling in the grocery store as they talked about him. Even from here, she feels his energy, the pull.
The agent clears her throat to recall Jane’s attention.
Don’t leave town without telling us. We may have more questions.
Jane nods meekly and gets up to go. But she has no intention of obeying this woman.
* * *
Jane is accustomed to inquisitions. She is nearly always deemed the guilty party. When growing up, her father would call all eight of the sisters into the television room, where he sat in his reclining chair, the judge and jury for their crimes. Who borrowed my razor? Who opened the box of cookies? Who left their bicycle in the driveway? Jane was punished most frequently. Oh, was she punished! She refused to cry, would hold out until she couldn’t bear it any longer. Then she’d given in, finally. This delighted the father.
Other things amused her father. When bored, he’d summon the daughters. He’d bark out orders. Age! he’d say, and they’d line up, oldest to youngest. Height! And they’d rearrange themselves accordingly. But often he challenged them. Beauty! he’d call. Intelligence! There’d be squabbles and jostling as they fought for positions. There’d be animosity. Hitting, pinching, even biting on occasion. For this game was important to them. It was a competition. They took it seriously. Sister raised hand against sister. The father laughed. That’s entertainment! he’d say.
But these games also hurt the sisters deeply. Because in other ways, they were all so close. Each could say the names of all the sisters quickly, in birth order, to the amazement of friends and neighbors, none of whom could keep the daughters all straight:
They knew each other’s secret names too. Vain One. Hairy Breasts. Smelly Butt. Pimple Back. Ugly names.
Shameful names, especially Jane’s. Black Heart. Her sisters would taunt her because of a fascination with a Mass card she’d found in her grandmother’s underwear drawer, of Jesus opening his chest to reveal a glowing red heart. Yours is different. We know. Black Heart! Black Heart!
* * *
The Three Sisters Café has been open only a year, since just before Jane moved to the coast, but is already the place in Half Moon Bay to have coffee, power up the laptop, and hear the local gossip. The owners are the twins, Daphne and Chloe—their parents had a sense of humor—and their younger sister, Margaret. Jane now can tell them apart. She knows Daphne is the cook; she has a burn mark on her right wrist from an accident involving a frying pan and hot oil. Chloe is the marketer and businessperson—she orders the supplies, puts the ads and coupons in the Moon News, and pays the bills, always before they are due. But it’s the twins’ younger sister, Margaret, who holds it all together. She knows everyone and everything that is happening in town. But unlike some natural gossips, there’s no hint of meanness or pettiness in her reports. When she tells Jane, They say it’s Fred Barnes, they say he has a thing about dolls, she is withholding judgment and there is no joy in her passing along what is actually quite terrible news. Fred Barnes!
Look at Jane. Look at how she is attempting to calm herself down. See how she takes a small bottle out of her messenger bag and pops a small white pill. See how her fingers gradually unclench. See how her leg stops going up and down. The pill works fast. It helps that Jane hasn’t eaten anything yet today.
Why should Jane care? She hardly knows Fred Barnes. Just to say hi to, just from the photos in the newspaper as the football team loses again and again. Fred Barnes has a broad, open face, a triple chin, and a beer gut so massive, it is said, he has to custom-order his belts online. She thinks of him as a genuine, yet crude, sort of man. The killings would seem to require someone with a more delicate touch.
What’s the evidence? Jane asks next time Margaret comes around with the coffeepot.
They found a weird collection of dolls in his basement. He’d painted them too. Just like those poor girls.
Is he in custody?
He’s at the FBI offices now. But they haven’t charged him yet. Margaret moved on.
It doesn’t feel right to Jane. As she told the FBI agent, the abductions seem to have a woman’s touch. Although she supposes she should be grateful that eyes have moved past her.
* * *
Jane, unstable? Capable of acting irrationally, as the FBI agent had said? Oh, yes.
One week after Angela’s funeral, Jane tracked down her daughter’s murderer. It was all so easy, what with Facebook and LinkedIn. The woman had a large modern house in Oakland Hills. Surrounded by other new houses in the area where the massive Oakland fire of two decades before had burned down all the charming turn-of-the-century wooden craftsman homes. This house was like all the other glass McMansions that had been built with insurance money. Treeless and exposed to the glaring sunlight, large windows glinting in the sun, many-gabled roofs. Jane parked outside the house. No one was visible.
The woman had been charged and found guilty of vehicular manslaughter. But she had connections. Her husband was a special prosecutor high up in the court system. The woman was put on misdemeanor probation. She was told to pay $1,000 in fines. She strutted out of the courtroom in red high heels without a glance at Jane or Rick.
One thousand dollars would barely pay the monthly gardener’s fee for the embarrassment of rose bushes surrounding the steel-and-glass monstrosity. Jane knew the enormous care and feeding—and the gallons upon gallons of water—it would take to have a rose garden of that kind. There must be two hundred rose bushes there, magnificent specimens of Damask, and Centifolia, and Gallica. Angela had always loved roses.
The woman had wept on the witness stand in court, but the tears had all been for herself.
If you could know what I’ve gone through.
Yes. If you could know, thought Jane, sitting in the courtroom, her hands clenched, her fingernails biting into her skin. The woman had had her own five-year-old child in the car. Neither had been injured. The car hadn’t a scratch or indent. Killing Angela had not made a mark on it.
The woman had not been texting, she insisted. She had not been talking to anyone. Yes, her cell phone was in her lap. Yes, there was a call to her husband of fifteen seconds duration at approximately the time of the accident, but that was a mistake. A butt call? the prosecutor asked scornfully. When your butt was in the seat? Still, the jury declined to convict her. They accepted her story that Angela had run out suddenly from behind a parked car on the dark street. There were no witnesses. The woman got away with murder.
Jane chose a night when the moon was on the wane. Some light, but not a lot. Two a.m. She carried her industrial sprayer from the arboretum and a five-gallon vat filled with sodium tetraborate. She sprayed all the roses thoroughly. She didn’t miss a single one. She made sure to get the roots as well as the leaves.
One week later, she drove past the house. It was a glorious disaster. Withered stalks and the blackened remains of the once-towering bushes. A grotesque wasteland, the house’s ostentatiousness mocked by its surroundings. The woman, Hope was her name, came out the door. She did not look at the devastation around her. She got into her BMW and began backing out of the driveway.
Jane pressed gently on the gas and pulled out of her parking spot so that when Hope finished backing out of her driveway and straightening out her car, her car was face-to-face with Jane’s. They were perhaps five feet apart, but there was no room on either side to pass. Hope made a preemptory gesture with her hand. Get out of my way. Jane is sure she was not recognized. She stepped on the gas and slowly edged her car forward so that it was nearly touching the BMW. Hope looked enraged. She shook her finger at Jane. Jane smiled. She stepped on the gas so that her car kissed the front fender of the BMW. She kept her foot steady on the gas. The BMW, a heavier car, held firm. Jane put her car in reverse. She backed up two feet. She put the car into first gear and stepped on the gas, hard. This time she felt the fender of the BMW give. Hope opened her mouth and shrieked. Jane saw her put her car in reverse, but by that time, another two cars had pulled up behind her and she had nowhere to go. She honked her horn but was merely answered with more honking behind her. Hope picked up her cell phone and began pushing buttons while Jane backed up her car again, this time farther. Ten feet. Changed gears. Gassed it. This time there was a distinct crunch. Jane backed up, and again accelerated, harder and faster this time. Again. Until the front of the BMW was crumpled metal and the windshield cracked, smashed. Broken glass was strewn all over the road. Hope opened her car door and made for the house, talking on her cell phone as she ran.
Jane calmly turned her car and drove home.
* * *
One of the policemen who came to the house later that day had delivered the news about Angela. He was sympathetic but firm. Charges were being pressed. Jane had to come into the station. Jane had to be booked. In her mug shot, she looked mad, her hair awry, an elated expression on her face. Truly insane.
They found the sodium tetraborate in her garage. Rick had been spending more and more time away—business travel, he’d said—so he couldn’t confirm her presence at home the night the roses had been destroyed. Ultimately all the evidence was circumstantial. Still, that was enough. Jane was fined the exact same amount as the woman who killed her daughter for willfully damaging property—$1,000—and had to pay a $6,500 car repair bill on top of that. She handed over the check with hands shaking in rage. Next time, she thought. Next time she’ll lose more than a car and some roses. She gloried in having an enemy. A face. A body. Bodies can be broken. They can feel pain.
The court is very sympathetic to your situation, the judge had said. Nevertheless, this is not behavior that can be tolerated.
Her shrink told her to get away.
Her boss found her a new job.
The woman, Hope, got a new cell phone number. She took down her Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Later, a SOLD sign went up on the lawn, scraped bare of the desecrated rose bushes.
Jane’s friends took turns staying with her. Babysitting time, Jane heard one whisper to her phone from the spare bedroom.
Jane moved to Half Moon Bay. To keep herself safe. To keep herself out of jail. To go where no one knew her or her history. But nothing could rid Jane of the rage and shame. It was merely tamped down. Waiting to be ignited.
* * *
Every Saturday morning, no matter the weather, the flower growers show up at the parking lot of the First Methodist Church in Half Moon Bay a little after dawn and begin setting up their stalls. Jane never misses the market. She’s not there in a professional capacity, since Smithson’s doesn’t sell cut flowers. It’s known instead throughout California for its indigenous plants, some of them impossible to get elsewhere. But the Ferrochinis, Garibaldis, and small organic farms from Bonny Doon and Santa Cruz come with their vans full of blossoms, which they sell to tourists and locals alike. Jane likes the vibe. The busyness. The canvas tents, as much to protect against wet wind and fog as sun, as the weather can turn in minutes. The large plastic white tubs filled with banksia (Banksia), bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), and zinnia (Zinnia elegans), amid the usual roses and lilies. And of course the people. Only happy people buy flowers at 7:00 a.m. on a foggy Saturday morning. Maybe the sad people come later, Jane didn’t know. Perhaps that’s why she never buys flowers. She’s not emotionally qualified. Her plants at the nursery, they’re used to her moods, they even feed on them; her melancholy somehow nourishes the hairy alumroot (Heuchera villosa) and threeleaf foamflowers (Tiarella trifoliata) that she’s growing there. That’s what she tells herself, anyway. The other employees, they just say Jane has a green thumb.
Saturday, September 27. The flower market. 7:30 a.m. Poorly attended despite glorious weather. Posters of the two lost girls, Heidi and Rose, still papering the streetlight poles and shop windows. Jane makes her rounds as usual. She has found that conforming to habits, going through the motions, is better than the alternative. Structure, Dr. Blanes had told her, is the key to survival.
She’s on her way back to her motorbike when she hears a call. Hey. Red!
Naturally Jane looks. You don’t grow up an O’Malley in Big Cabin, Oklahoma, without answering to this, among unkinder things. Other people are looking too.
She locates the origin of the voice, a man about ten feet away. Dark complexion and hair and eyes register before she realizes she’s looking at the man from the D-A-R-L-I-N-G shrine in San Gregorio. The same one she saw at the FBI office. Closer, he is at first glance less impressive. Tall, but perhaps a bit too thin, his jacket sleeves falling over his wrists. A scarecrow with insufficient stuffing. A narrow leather bag hangs from his shoulder. A man purse, Jane thinks scornfully. But then he smiles. She likes his face. Like is perhaps not the right word. She understands why the women who had seen him kept something back. Secrets about him, themselves. His smile is so personal it should be an affront, yet somehow it isn’t. He is recognizing her, he is promising that he will take her, Jane, seriously.
And then, with the smile, it happens.
Jane feels dizzy. She’s worried she will lose her balance.
She slowly approaches the man. She finds she is reluctant to get too close. It’s not safe. When she is within easy conversing distance, he smiles again. Another powerful hit. Jane is definitely unsteady on her feet. The man holds out his hand.
We finally meet properly, he says.
She takes his hand. It is a shock to feel its warmth, its solidness. She grasps it tighter than she intended. It feels like a lifeline. It steadies her.
Jane struggles to think of what to say.
What did you call me? Back at the shrine? she finally asks. They are perhaps two feet apart. It feels too close. It feels too far.
He thinks for a moment, then laughs. The lines on his face indicate he does this often. She estimates him to be in his early to mid-forties.
Ammut. An Egyptian goddess. She sat in judgment of the dead. She weighed the hearts of the deceased on the scales of Ma’at. If found wanting, she devoured them.
Jane takes this in.
What is your real name, O Ammut? He takes his hand back—Jane hadn’t realized she was still holding it—and hoists his leather bag up further on his shoulder. He bends to one side to let a family pass on the crowded street. He is not a scarecrow, she realized. His body is lithe, agile. The clothes simply a little large for his wiry frame.
Jane. Jane O’Malley. The handshake felt too intimate. Now she finds she can barely look at his face, afraid of what hers might look like. She turned her face toward him, but her eyes focus over his shoulder. She looks directly into the face of a striking dark woman who, like the man, is smiling.
Edward, are you going to make introductions?
It takes several beats. But Jane eventually understands that this woman is in fact talking to the man, that she is his companion. Jane’s face grows hot, she can feel the flush traveling from her head down her body. Why should Jane feel ashamed? She’s done nothing wrong.
I’m Alma, the woman says. And this is Edward.
Jane takes a step back. Out of confusion, she ignores the woman’s extended hand. But the woman doesn’t appear disconcerted. Her arm goes back to her side, gracefully and naturally, as if she meant to raise and then lower it all along in precisely that way.
The woman is carrying nothing. No purse. Jane can admire that. A woman without a purse is a true revolutionary.
Where can one get a good breakfast here, O Ammut? The man again. This time Jane looks directly in his face. It requires all her willpower. She remembers reading that it takes a hundred muscles to execute a smile, and understands she doesn’t have the power to control those muscles at this moment. So she stands straight, unsmiling.
There’s the coffee shop down at the other end of Main Street. And the German bakery across the street has good coffee. Jane motions with her hand. She is still looking at the man. He is still looking at her, Jane.
The woman, Alma, moves forward until she is shoulder to shoulder with the man. With any other woman, this would have seemed aggressive, proprietary. He is mine. Back off. But somehow that’s not the case here. Jane pulls back her gaze to include both the man and the woman. Edward and Alma. Margaret from Three Sisters is right. They are beautiful.
Jane relents and tells them what no one tells strangers in Half Moon Bay. Go to Three Sisters, she says. That’s the best place in town. You’ve already been there, I understand. Keep going. No place else is worth it.
The woman smiles. Like Edward, when she does, she has your full attention. Despite her dark hair and skin, her eyes are a strange blue-green, very intense. Sometimes flipping through a magazine, Jane gets stopped by the images of beauty served up by the advertising agencies. Fantasies, she knows; no one looks like that, really. But here she is looking at flesh-and-blood beauty. How can you resist? She notices that other people around are looking at the couple, equally struck as Jane.
Yes, we’ve been there! she says. We loved it.
Come with us, says the man, who is Edward, Jane now knows. You can help us out. Tell us more about the town.
Alma nods. We’re new here. Just getting to know our way around.
To her astonishment, Jane is tempted. They have broken through some barrier. They are offering something. They are the perfect match, her beauty, his . . . what? Empathy? No. Not that. Perhaps perception. As if he can see her soul, if she believed such a thing existed. He is not feeling her pain. No. But he sees it, recognizes it. And he has positive energy—for she sees that underneath the too-big clothes is a body pulsing to move, to get things done.
No, she says hurriedly. It would be too much. Allowing these people into her life would not be wise. This she knows. Yet magic is in the air. Dangerous magic.
Please, says the woman, Alma, and Jane almost relents. Then she shakes her head and breaks the spell.
Another time, she says, not meaning it, anything to get out of the situation.
Until later, then, says Edward.
Let’s make it soon, says Alma.
Jane makes a noise that could be interpreted as an assent, and escapes. But for how long? She is caught, and she knows it.
* * *
Rose’s funeral is even larger and more of a circus than Heidi’s. Now that the words serial killer have been used, every story-hungry reporter, employed or independent, is in town looking for something, anything, that has been overlooked and can be fed to an insatiable public. The local channel even has a Coastal Murder Countdown icon on the television screen that states how long the murders have gone unsolved. More than forty-five days by now since Heidi disappeared.
The people in town don’t call them serial killings. That feels too impersonal. These are deep, personal losses. If one has to, one refers to them as the deaths.
All families with daughters between three and thirteen years old are warned to keep them close, inside if possible, and to know where they are at all times. Doors and windows are to be locked at all times, especially at night, but also during the day. Dogs are left free to roam at night in the house or stationed near the door. Alarms are to be set.
We are under siege, the mayor says. Behave accordingly.
* * *
Across the street from Three Sisters, a storefront left vacant since Millie’s Yarns closed six months previously is suddenly occupied. A hand-lettered sign, YOURBEACHES.ORG, is taped to the front windows. Inside, bustle. A notice for an administrative assistant, minimum wage but satisfying work goes into the Moon News, and economic times being what they are, a stream of young men and women are seen going in the door, dressed better than your average Half Moon Bay millennials.
Jane is leaving Three Sisters with her morning coffee and heading toward her motorbike when she is accosted. That’s how she thinks of it. She doesn’t allow herself to think that she may have been lingering in the street, or may have deliberately crossed the street to walk past the YourBeaches front door, that she had tried to see inside past the blinds.
O Ammut, woman of mystery, don’t pass me by again!
It is Edward. He has stuck his head out the door of the YourBeaches office. This time he’s wearing jeans that fit more closely and a short-sleeved white T-shirt, appropriate for the day, which is surprisingly warm and sunny for late September.
When are we having our lunch? Alma has been wondering, he says.
Jane is not having a good day. She hasn’t showered. Her hair is pulled back in a stern ponytail. She had woken that morning in a rage and could barely restrain herself from driving across the bay to Oakland to track down her daughter’s killer, the restraining order notwithstanding.
Edward takes his phone out of his pocket, taps some keys. He looks up. Today okay? It works for us. Jane can’t keep her eyes off his hair, so dark and full, with thick waves in it. James Dean hair. Any woman would kill for it.
No, Jane says, but she doesn’t move. She is, she realizes, desperate to agree but is waiting to be convinced. She wants to be wooed.
Edward seems to know that he must proceed carefully. He comes closer to her. He leans in.
Please come, he says. You’re on the short list of people we’d like to know better.
I don’t see why, says Jane. She waits for his response, hoping for something that will flatter her, make her feel that she is truly wanted. But Edward does something audacious. He reaches around and pulls the end of her ponytail.
We’re not asking you to marry us, he says, and Jane flushes as if that is exactly what he has been doing. Being near him makes her think of sex in a way she hasn’t since she was in her twenties. Images are teasing, exciting her.
See you at the Sisters at 1:00 p.m., he says, and then puts his hand on her shoulder. Jane, the untouchable, has been touched for the second time by this mesmerizing near-stranger. Her skin burns under her shirt. She shrugs but the sensation remains. Edward doesn’t seem to notice.
Catch you then, he says.
* * *
The word is that the FBI has let Fred Barnes go without arresting him. That they have no one else in their sights.
Everyone is on edge. They know more is coming. Terrible things are coming. Parents of small girls buy dog leashes at the Feed and Grain, hook their children to them just to walk down Main Street. Strangers are everywhere, distinguished from the usual tourists by their laconic attitudes. They are waiting. They are ready. They are predators as much as the murderer. When he or she is caught, they will descend and destroy. In the meantime, they are bored. They interview and reinterview the same people. They learn about Margaret, at Three Sisters, and camp out there, drinking cup after cup of coffee and peppering her with questions. They wait. Everyone is waiting.
* * *
Jane is early for her lunch with Edward and Alma. She is always early. This is her curse. When invited to a party, she inevitably is forced to walk around the block twice or stop by a café for a cup of coffee so as to not show up embarrassingly early for the event. Once in Berkeley she’d gotten the time absurdly wrong. She came two hours early. The hostess, a woman she worked with at the arboretum, was still in her shorts and sports bra. Jane was given a glass of water and waited miserably in the living room, her offers of help refused. Now she checked invitations twice, three times, to make sure she understood the time right. And still she was early.
She didn’t want to be seen alone at a table obviously waiting—even though she was frequently alone at tables in the Three Sisters. But this was different. She should have brought a book. She studied the time line on the back wall. The sisters had created a huge wall collage of their lives’ paths to the café, which encompassed high school, college, law school for Margaret, MFA programs in creative writing for the twins, and countless rejection letters for stories, poems, jobs, and, later, bank loans for when they opened the café. The Trail of Tears, the twins said. Everyone else had been invited to post their rejection letters—from prospective employers, colleges, former girlfriends, boyfriends, and other failed endeavors. The Bong Wall, it was called. Margaret explained to Jane that it was the sisters’ stand against the shame and silence that typically accompanies failure. It’s so depressing to always hear about people’s successes, she says. What we needed were some good failure stories.
Jane longed to post her own failures up there. Bad mother. Doctoral program dropout. Failed wife. Stalker and harasser. Destroyer of property. She certainly had the documentation to show it. One day she would post it all.
Edward and Alma finally arrive. Jane has chosen a table that is too small for the three of them, so when they sit down, Jane’s knees momentarily touch Alma’s. She pulls them back, hurriedly.
We’ve done some googling. Edward is speaking in a low voice so no one but the three of them can hear. Not that anyone is paying any attention, everyone absorbed in their own business. We know, Edward says.
Alma places her hand on Jane’s. Jane’s first instinct is to pull away. But she doesn’t. A sense of calm is somehow transmitted. A drug. Jane has a cache of Xanax and clonazepam large enough to make any college student jealous. But this is more powerful than any drug. Alma’s hand is firm and holds Jane’s tight.
It’s okay, Edward says; his voice is low.
Margaret comes for their salad selections and Alma orders a bottle of wine, red, for the table. I think we need this, she says.
Why talk about needing? This is a celebration! says Edward. We’ve captured the elusive Ammut. Let’s see if she finds our hearts wanting or not. It’s said as a joke, but Jane is pricked awake by the words. Their hearts. Isn’t that what she wants to know about? What is in their hearts? What their intentions are? Jane is suspicious. What do they want from her?
What’s happened to these girls must be traumatizing you, says Alma. Her dark eyes are sympathetic, her hand still firm as it covers Jane’s.
Yes, says Jane cautiously. It has been deeply . . . unsettling.
A loss of the kind you endured does not go away, says Alma. It’s a wound that won’t heal.
Jane says nothing.
You must experience a certain amount of . . . satisfaction . . . ? And then there’s the inevitable shame that accompanies this satisfaction. It’s complex. All on top of an open wound.
There was a moment of silence, Edward turned his chair slightly away from Alma, as if giving her space to expand.
Jane is stunned to be named so precisely.
How do you know this? How could you possibly understand?
Alma doesn’t answer at first. Then she says, It’s possible I’ve suffered similarly.
The way she says it forbids questions. But that, plus the drug being transmitted through her hand, touches something deep inside Jane. She nods. She will wait to learn more.
The wine comes. Jane drinks hers, too fast. Edward immediately pours her another glass. She has not looked at him directly since he arrived. She does so now. She finds his eyes on her. The dark features. The strong thick hair. Again she feels that pulse in her neck, her chest. What a beautiful, beautiful man. She drags her eyes away and drinks her wine. The effect of the wine combined with the touch of Alma’s hand makes Jane feel that she is not quite in the world. It’s not an unpleasant feeling.
I have to get back to work, she finds herself saying.
But we haven’t eaten yet. Look, here are our salads. Relax and eat.
To Jane’s surprise she does. Everything has a fresh taste to it. She discovers she is hungry as well as a little tipsy.
I won’t be able to drive back to work in this condition, she admits.
I’ll give you a ride, says Alma. You can pick up your motorbike later. Now eat.
Jane picks up her fork.
Change of subject, says Edward, and his voice is brisk. Jane glances at him. The electricity has been turned off. Here is an efficient man, getting down to business. She feels herself relaxing.
Tell me about Dunes Resort, he says.
Jane pulls herself together and does.
It’s being built in a special place, she says. You drive south of downtown Half Moon Bay for about a mile. You park at Bob’s Fruit Stand, on the east side of Route 1, or you risk getting towed. Bob—if there is a Bob, as the stand is manned by local farmworkers who don’t speak much English—doesn’t seem to mind. You cross Route 1 and walk about half a mile due east on a dirty path through the artichoke fields. It’s hard to find, but it’s there. You climb down the cliff. There are two ways down: a steep and a steeper. And you don’t go down at all unless you’re quite confident that you can make it back up. Most people come this far and then turn back. But for those who persist . . .
You have to really want to go there, Jane finishes. But when you’re there—it doesn’t matter what the weather is. You’re on a long stretch of pure white sand, the cliffs shielding you from the sight of everyone except the occasional fishing boat. Nothing but you and the waves and the sand. But you have to be very careful not to stand under the cliffs. They’re eroding. Once I got caught in a rock slide, had to run straight into the ocean. My back and legs got hammered pretty badly, needed stitches.
And that’s where the Dunes Resort will be built, says Edward.
Yes. Right at the top of the cliff. Replacing the artichoke fields. There was a lot of talk against it, but it went through, Jane says. They’re going to build concrete steps down to the beach for the guests, she adds. She is more bitter about this than she can express. Desecration of a sacred site. Secret Beach, another one of Jane’s places. This is where she scattered her daughter’s ashes.
Edward reaches into his leather satchel and pulls out a card. He hands it to Jane.
We’re organized, we’re funded, and we’re ready to go, he says.
But it’s too late, Jane says, and hands back the card. You were needed last year. There were protests, but it didn’t do any good.
It’s never too late, says Edward, and picks up his fork. This I can promise. Now eat.
* * *
That night, Jane dreams of Edward and Alma. It’s all right, Alma tells Jane in her dream. You can love him too. There’s enough for both of us.
Jane wakes up, thinking not of Edward but of Alma. She-who-was-oh-so-lovely. She wasn’t a competitor. She wasn’t a sister—sisters were natural predators in Jane’s experience. She was a different kind of woman altogether.
How beautiful Alma was! The skin, patterned into exquisite spider wrinkles emanating upward from the edges of her eyes. An eye smile, Angela used to call it. Give me an eye smile, she’d say if Jane had been cross with her for some transgression—chocolate on her shirt or evidence that she’d gotten into Jane’s things. Alma’s cheekbones that would retain their high-sculpted sharpness, growing more angular, more powerful, with age. And that dark hair, turned white! Never would Alma cut it, Jane was sure. She would wear it long and straight, a white mane that would flow over and past her shoulders, contrasting with her velvet dark skin. A muse for all ages.
Jane relaxes and goes back to sleep.
But the next day brings more horror.
A three-year-old girl goes missing while her father is shopping at the Twice as Nice warehouse in Princeton-on-the-Sea. The alarm previously reserved for earthquakes, tsunamis, and other catastrophes wails through the towns of Princeton, Half Moon Bay, and Montara. Jane, at work at Smithson’s, chills when she hears it. All the customers in the nursery look to the staff for answers. They have none. People block the exits in their hurry to get out. Jane finds out later that parents froze in the street, grabbed the hands of their children, and crowded into the police station, the Moon News offices, and the Three Sisters, anywhere there were others, to get news and comfort.
When the child is later found a block away, behind a warehouse, playing in a mud puddle, the people in town don’t relax. They are reminded that they are in a war zone. Jane doesn’t sleep that night. Adrenaline pumping through her veins, she washes down the walls of the kitchen, scours the toilet, does anything to avoid her cold bed.
* * *
In many ways, Half Moon Bay is a strange place to live. Small but not small enough to be called neighborly. People know each other by sight. They know many names. But they can’t necessarily put them together. Instead, they identify each other by their jobs, the clubs they join, unique physical characteristics. The tall sixtyish man who plays sidekicks in the theater group productions. The woman who leads the coastal trail preservation group. A member of the poker club.
There are no jobs on the coast except service and retail. Professionals like scientists or engineers or accountants, even doctors and dentists, commute to San Francisco or Santa Cruz, Stanford, or Silicon Valley. So the sort of people whom Jane would previously have consorted with are gone from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and tired when they are in town. They-who-work-over-the-hill. That’s how they are referred to. Jane is known as the redhead who works at Smithson’s Nursery. She is distressed by even this level of familiarity. Anonymity was and is her goal.
When Jane escaped Oklahoma for Berkeley at the age of seventeen, she discovered the amazing fact that things grew, actually flourished, in the soil. In Oklahoma, if they were lucky, tufts of crabgrass might appear in the field surrounding the truck stop before the summer heat parched the dirt into jigsaw puzzle pieces. But in Berkeley, between the cracks in the sidewalks on College Avenue or Shattuck grew gorgeous blue, pink, and yellow flowers. Jane began collecting them, pressing them between waxed paper in the pages of her chemistry textbook. Jane began learning their names. Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora). Peppermint candy flower (Claytonia sibirica). Hummingbird sage (salvia spathacea). Her decrepit student rental house included someone’s long-ago garden grown out of control. She began spending her time outside, weeding and taking more specimens for her chemistry book. New delights every day. After her flowers were dry, she’d glue them to small white canvases bought at Utrecht Art on University Avenue and carefully label and frame them. Her own private gallery.
Then one day during class, Jane dropped her book, and out fell the dozen or so flowers she was currently pressing. Her professor noticed. She came down the aisle and helped Jane pick up the treasures. Then the professor said, You should take Professor Silbert’s class on native California plants, and added, and of course you’ve been to the university’s Botanical Gardens? Two sentences that changed Jane’s life. She felt like a new person. A new start to a new life. She thought she would feel the same moving to Half Moon Bay. But this time she was too laden with emotional baggage to make it work.
* * *
Alma hands Jane an avocado. This one should work. She is right. It is firm but gives slightly. When Jane slices it open, the pale green foamy interior smells musty, full of mysteries. She doesn’t do anything for a moment except marvel at it. Nothing that has been picked ever ripens for Jane. Yet it is perhaps a sign of her madness that she keeps hoping. She buys hard avocados, firm pears, hard peaches. She places them in a bowl on her kitchen table, where they inevitably go from hard to rotten, brown-spotted, smelling of fermented alcohol, festering with fruit flies. Inedible. Jane cuts off pale soft green slivers onto a plate, which Alma takes and shunts into the greens she has been washing. Two women preparing a meal. A man outside waiting to be fed. As traditional a suburban scene as you could get. Yet it feels like anything but. It isn’t safe. So why is Jane excited rather than frightened? Unsafe was generally toxic. Hadn’t she spent the last seven months attempting to build up a haven of safeness and predictability? A job with opening and closing hours? Limiting her contact to other flawed humans? Growing a thicker skin?
They are at Edward and Alma’s rental house in Pescadero. It had surprised Jane. She’d driven past the huge iron gates twice before she saw the No. 12 on the side of the high wall surrounding the property. She had to push an intercom button and announce herself before a buzzer sounded and the gates swung slowly open. She drove up a long winding paved road to a pink stucco monstrosity. Even then she couldn’t believe she was at the right place until she saw the familiar silver Mercedes parked along the side and a nondescript beige foreign import compact car she’d never seen before parked next to it.
What is this place? Jane asks when she gets inside. It is furnished like a mausoleum, with heavy, ornate dark red and black furniture and fringed lamp shades. The sofa cushions are blocks of green foam that are stiff and don’t give when you sit down on them.
Alma greets her with a kiss on both cheeks, European style. Jane is at first surprised, then charmed. It is friendly but nonintrusive. Alma, dressed in a deep blue sari-like garment that sparkles when she moves, and black leggings and bare feet, laughs.
We had three requirements: clean, private, and no rats, she says. In other parts of the country, rats are a sign you’re doing something terribly wrong. There’s a stigma. If you have rats, you don’t mention it to anyone. Here everyone complains in the grocery store line about their rat problems.
Roof rats, Jane explains. A hazard of living in Northern California. Even the high-end places suffer.
I can’t stand them, Alma says, and shudders. She had called Jane the previous Thursday and asked her to come to Sunday brunch. Now they are standing in the kitchen of the rental house preparing the meal. Edward is writing a newsletter decrying the Dunes Resort hotel that had broken ground in the summer.
So how long have you been married? Jane says, to start conversation.
Three years, Edward, who has wandered into the kitchen, says. Six years, says Alma simultaneously. They turn their heads to look at each other and laugh.
So which is it?
Both. We’re each married—but to other people. This was Alma. She seems amused, not at all embarrassed. It depends what you call together. I’m counting from the moment I left my husband. He’s counting from the time we first got together.
Neither of us had the confidence that our soul mate would come along. This was Edward. So we settled. Too soon. Then we found each other.
And we both paid the price. Alma.
Gradually the story came out. Alma was married to a prominent lawyer in New Orleans, mother of two small children, girls both, and a professor of physics at Tulane. She met Edward on a school trip she was chaperoning for her older daughter’s preschool to the local swamp. He gave a demonstration of how the acidity in the water was killing the native plants. He was married to a fellow environmental activist. She had left him a year previously, but they had never finalized a divorce.
He made a big impression, says Alma. On the kids. And on me.
The feeling was mutual, Edward says. Jane feels slightly embarrassed, but they are being very matter-of-fact. Jane senses, however, that below the matter-of-factness lies great emotion.
But, Jane says, what happened to your husband?
It wasn’t easy, Alma repeated.
You left him.
Eventually. It was pretty brutal.
But the children! What about them? Jane asks. She’s been distracted. How could she forget the children?
It was brutal, repeats Alma.
You left them? Her voice is louder than she intended. Then she stops. She doesn’t want to be insensitive, although Alma doesn’t seem upset.
It was necessary, says Alma. Her face now looks different to Jane. A face capable of things.
To lose your children . . .
Is something you understand quite well.
But to give them up. Voluntarily . . . I don’t get it. Jane’s voice comes out hard and flat.
You’re not expected to. Alma’s voice remains even. I would have lost them, anyway.
Jane considers Angela at thirteen, at fourteen. The yelling, the hatred, the vitriol.
Yes, she says. You would have.
I mean because of my husband. He was turning them against me. He was poisoning their minds with lies about me.
A moment of silence. Then: Enough of this! says Edward. This is supposed to be a celebration! We’ve captured Jane for lunch!
Captured. What a strange word, thinks Jane. And yet, she realizes, it’s true. Only the word she would use is captivated. Yet despite Edward’s words, Alma persists in carrying on the conversation.
Haven’t you ever done something . . . unacceptable . . . in the eyes of the world?
Jane thinks back. She remembers slapping her father, hard, across the cheek when she was fourteen. They were in the middle of one of their fights. She had been waitressing to save money for college, and every night when she came home, he demanded that she turn over her tips. I’m paying for your everyday living. You owe me. It’s my money.
Her father’s face was close to hers, looking smug. He thought he was in control. He thought he had the power. At that point, he was still taller than she was. Weighed considerably more than she did. Was less inhibited than she was. She slapped him but couldn’t bear to do it hard. She could feel the whiskers on his cheek from the day’s growth of beard. It was more like a caress, she realized later with shame.
He threw her down the stairs. Nothing was broken. No permanent damage done physically. But something switched in her. She would kill him one day. She would. She actually thought of how she would do it. Put ground glass in his wine. Push him down the stairs when he mounted them, heavily, soused and unstable one night. But she never did anything. She’d never acted. She’d felt that way about Angela on occasion. Only then it was more passive. I wish she would die. Then she thought of the woman who had killed Angela. Jane was a murderer, in thought if not in deed.
There are things I’m not proud of, Jane says finally. What an understatement.
But they were things you had to do.
At the time, yes.
And there were things you thought about but didn’t act on.
Do you wish you had? Acted?
Yes, says Jane. I wish I’d had the nerve.
We did. Have the nerve. We did it.
But what about the children? Jane persists. Does your husband have them?
He does and he doesn’t, Alma says, oddly. They’ll always belong to me. She says this without any emotion.
But think of what they’ll think when they get older. Think of what your husband will tell them?
No. They are mine. Her voice was clear: conversation was over.
* * *
It’s the last Tuesday in September. At 10:30 p.m., the half-full moon is bright. Although the fog is hovering offshore, it hasn’t made landfall yet, so Jane can see the stars as she walks down her street, across Route 1, and toward the beach. Princeton-by-the-Sea is little more than a scattering of small houses and a sort of peninsula that juts out into the ocean, forming a natural harbor. There are a handful of seafood restaurants, a brewery-restaurant, and some industrial buildings. Everything is closed and quiet. The peninsula culminates with a tall hill on which a navy station once stood. A huge structure that looks like a giant golf ball sits on top, surrounded by twelve-foot-high barbed wire fencing. Signs are posted warning people away. You can either skirt the bottom of the hill to walk around and see the now-famous Mavericks Beach, or climb the hill and walk around the barbed wire to the bluffs that tower a hundred feet above the breakers. Jane decides to walk to Mavericks. As usual, she ignores the sign that announces it closed at sundown and makes her way around the base of the cliffs. Although she brought a flashlight, she doesn’t need it; the moonlight is enough for now. All is silent except the foghorn that bursts out with its mournful four-syllable song every three minutes exactly. Be-care-ful-boats. Be-care-ful-boats. Two enormous raccoons waddle past, their eyes shining as they catch the light of the moon. They ignore Jane, who lets them pass in respectful silence. This is their time, their space. She is here on their tolerance.
She walks around the stone labyrinth that someone started building years ago, and to which everyone who passes contributes. Large rocks spiral out in concentric circles on a ridge of land that juts out over the water. She walks the circular path in the moonlight, the deep silence broken only by the foghorn. She reminds herself what the woman at the New Moon bookstore says of the labyrinth: it is walking meditation, a path of prayer. It has only one path. There are no tricks to it and no dead ends. Unlike a maze where you lose your way, the labyrinth helps you find one, the woman had said. New Age nonsense. Still, Jane walks along the stones until she reaches the center, then reverses her steps until she is out of the labyrinth, free. She clicks off her flashlight. It is very dark. She cannot even see her feet on the ground.
Jane takes off her jacket, she is so heated, and moves to the edge of the cliff to let the spray hitting the rocks below refresh her. She then continues her walk. She has done this so often her feet know the way almost by touch.
She finally reaches the breakwater and turns the corner. This is where the water from the bay and ocean meet. At high tide, there’s barely enough sand to walk on. Crabs scuttle out of Jane’s way. The air always smells fresher here, and the headache that has been hovering all day dissipates. Jane breathes deeply. She has to proceed carefully, not to trip. She doesn’t turn on her flashlight, instead embracing the darkness around her. She reaches the end of the beach and sits down on one of the boulders, careful to stay out of the reach of the waves. The breakers aren’t that high tonight, perhaps four or five feet, but she’s seen the Mavericks superwave—the one that reaches seventy, eighty feet in height. Local surfers used to have this beach to themselves, and Jane liked sitting on the sand watching them navigate the monster breakers and rocks that populate the shallows. But then word got out. Like everything. Everything gets spoiled sooner or later. Now there’s the international surfing contest every winter, and fifty thousand people descend on Princeton-by-the-Sea to watch. Last year the police had to set up roadblocks to keep the crowds from the beach, forcing people to watch the contest on huge video screens set up in the local bars and restaurants. Hundreds of pounds of food and thousands of gallons of beverages were consumed. Silly memorabilia were purchased. The people of Half Moon Bay cashing in on the Mavericks craze. You can’t blame them. What else did they have? Pumpkins.
Jane picks up her flashlight, but again without turning it on, gets up, and starts to walk back toward the harbor. When she reaches the corner where the beach meets the breakwater, and beyond that the dirt path, she first senses rather than sees movement. About a hundred feet ahead. It’s too large to be an animal, at least a safe animal. As she fumbles with the switch of her flashlight, the moon emerges slightly from behind the inevitable fog, and a shape can be distinguished from the darkness. A man, by the figure and gait, approaching slowly but steadily. Jane can’t make out the face yet. Friend or foe? By now the man is fifty feet away, heading directly toward her. Jane freaks out, drops her flashlight, bends down, picks it up, now gritty with sand, and finally gets it turned on. She shines it on the face of the man—for it is a man—who is now just ten feet away. Edward. It’s Edward. Jane exhales and sits down on a nearby rock, weak with relief.
You scared the shit out of me.
Sorry. Can you turn that off? The flashlight is still trained on his face. His eyes glitter like an animal’s.
Jane complies. They are facing each other, but it’s so dark now she doubts that he can see her.
What are you doing here? Jane finally thinks to ask.
Looking for you, he says, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. You weren’t at your house, so I took a chance you’d be here.
Some chance, Jane says. I could have gone in any number of directions. Had he been watching her? Followed her here?
How did you know my address? she asks.
Jane, you’re listed online, Edward says. Don’t be paranoid. And no, you wouldn’t have gone anywhere else but here. For a night walk, Mavericks is clearly the only show in town.
Why were you looking for me? Jane finally asks. Away from the protection of the cliffs, the wind is chilling. She should have worn a warmer coat. She’s afraid to hear what he will say, she realizes. It feels dangerous to have asked.
Edward doesn’t answer right away. He walks over to where she’s sitting and crouches down next to her. It is way too intimate—Jane, with her knees up from sitting on the low rock, Edward, leaning in, his head slightly higher than hers. She can see his lips clearly in the moonlight and wonders that she’d ever thought them womanly.
Because I wanted to see you, he says. This terrifies Jane. She instinctively moves away from Edward. He slowly rises and, with a deliberate step, closes the narrow gap between them. Then he squats again. His eyes, always dark, look black in the fog-veiled moonlight. Jane finds it impossible to read his expression. Her heart is pounding so hard in her chest she wonders that it doesn’t scare the seagulls roosting nearby on the sand. She fears she will lose control of her bladder. All she can think is Go, go, go, but she can’t move from the rock she’s sitting on.
They stay in that position for what seems like a long time. He bends down. His hand moves. He raises it up toward Jane’s face, then swerves off at the last minute to the hair. Always the hair. He caresses it with such a light touch that she can barely feel it.
Jane is crying. She can feel prickles of sweat on her neck. She endures his touch until she realizes he isn’t going to stop of his own volition. The pressure on her hair intensifies. Jane shakes her head violently, throwing off his fingers.
Jane, Ammut, woman of mystery, Edward says. That does it. Something inside Jane contracts.
Leave me alone, she says.
She struggles to get up from the low rock—awkwardly and with mortification—and turns to go, but realizes she doesn’t have her flashlight. She loses whatever dignity she had left by going back to the rock and scrambling about on her hands and knees until she finds it. After heaving herself to her feet again, Jane begins following the path around the hill, the flashlight beam trained on the ground two feet ahead of her.
Don’t be silly. Here. Wait. I’ll walk with you. Edward from twenty feet behind.
Jane starts to say no and then thinks of the alternative: herself walking ahead, followed at a short distance by Edward, who would naturally be watching her. How discomfited would that make her? So she silently waits for him to join her, then begins the walk back. The path skirts the water of the harbor. At this hour, all the fishing boats are tied up, the docks deserted. A seabird calls from the marsh that adjoins the hamlet and is answered by the foghorn, which, now that the entire area is shrouded in a thick fog, comes out as a muffled melancholy lowing, a mechanical sea cow.
I wasn’t mocking you, Janey, says Edward. His voice is so soft she has to lean toward him to hear. Alma and I are . . . interested . . . in you.
The mention of Alma calms Jane a little.
I like Alma, Jane says.
You and everybody else, says Edward. Jane feels, rather than sees, him smile.
Jane is breathing easier. They’re walking through the industrial warehouse district of Princeton at this point, with the high chain-link fences and dry boatyards with boats up on blocks to be repaired or painted. Right in the middle of all this, on the edge of the water, sits the so-called yacht club, little more than a glorified bar. True, you had to own a boat to belong, but if an actual yacht had ever moored in Princeton Harbor, Jane had not seen it.
Ever been inside? Edward asks, gesturing toward the yacht club building. Jane shakes her head. She’s frequently walked along the beach that borders it and seen all the men—for they are invariably men—sitting on the open wooden porch drinking. They have a wooden raft and a sort of pulley rigged up that ferries them out to a platform in deep enough water to anchor their ragtag boats. They look like little boys with toys as they pull each other out from the shallows to their small vessels.
Let’s go, then, Edward says, and walks up to the front door. He takes a key ring from his pocket and carefully inserts two wires into the lock. He jiggers them until Jane hear a click and the door swings open.
What did you just do? Jane asks.
He doesn’t answer or wait for her, but enters the dark building. Jane hesitates, then reluctantly follows him in. She finds herself in a large moonlit room with a bar taking up most of the left wall and, directly in front, a wall of windows that look out onto the sun porch that in turn overlooks the sea. The water glints faintly through the fog.
“What will you have?” asks Edward. He is standing behind the bar. Jane can see his teeth flash in one of his smiles. It’s fully stocked. Name your poison.
Jane thinks, Why the hell not? in a rare moment of abandon.
Tequila, straight, she says.
Coming at you, he says, stooping down below the bar counter where Jane can’t see him. He stands up again with two limes in his right hand and a knife in his left. So he’s a lefty, Jane thinks, as if that meant anything, as the knife glints palely in the moonlight. She hears rather than sees the knife saw through the thick skins of the limes, then the murmur of liquid being poured from a bottle, and he is suddenly next to her, holding a tray with six shot glasses filled to their brims with amber liquid, and a small bowl of quartered limes.
Jane lifts her eyebrow. He shrugs.
I didn’t want to have to go back after each shot, Edward says.
He carries the tray out the back door to the porch, still without turning on any lights. He pulls two chairs close to a little table and sets the tray down. He motions to the closest chair, but Jane isn’t ready. She goes to the railing and looks out over the bay. She can’t see far because of the fog, but she can hear the lapping of water against the pier and see the little pulley contraption the clubbers had contrived swaying in the breeze. The wooden boarding platform bobs in the restless sea.
Now, this is the strange part: here is a place Jane truly doesn’t belong, with a man, another woman’s man, who makes her uncomfortable. And yet a sense of well-being floods over her, related to having her two feet firmly planted on the worn wooden floor, the cool air that blows on her face, the faintly sour bar smell of booze and sweat, and three lovely shots of tequila to ingest. She feels that she has found a place of respite on a difficult planet. She walks over and picks up one of the full shot glasses and a quartered lime. Pouring the liquor back in one motion, she then squeezes the lime into her mouth, wincing at the sourness. Suddenly Edward is beside her. Two of his shot glasses are already empty. He reaches over, takes the lime from between Jane’s teeth, throws it over the railing. He is not gentle. Jane feels the pressure on her front teeth where he tugged, hard.
And now Number 2, he says, and holds up another shot glass and another quarter of lime. Jane repeats the drinking, the sucking. The liquor goes down warm. She hadn’t eaten enough dinner and is running the risk of getting drunk. The hell with that. She picks up the third glass and a third lime, and does it again. She is drunk. She puts her hand out to steady herself on Edward’s arm. He lets her. Then he reaches out and suddenly pushes her, forcefully. She loses her balance and, for a panicked moment, falls backward into space. Then she lands, hard, on a chair.
Stay put until you get your sea legs, says Edward. Then come over and look at this. He gestures to his right, at a wall that is covered with what look like nonsense scribbles. As Jane’s vision clears, she sees they are words, written haphazardly on the wall using permanent markers of various colors and widths.
Nothing like a little housebreaking to make one appreciative of the idiosyncrasies of one’s fellow humans, Edward says, pointing. Jane gets up and walks unsteadily over to the wall. At the top of it, written in large block letters: YOU CAN’T LIVE WITH THEM. Jane attempts to look more closely at the scrawlings. They swim in and out of focus. They are words, all about women, and many are accompanied by crudely drawn pictures. They range from quotes that Jane believes are Shakespearean (she makes hungry where most she satisfies) to lyrics from punk rock songs (you suck at love / get your heart on) to obscene (today I ate pussy twice) and plain insulting (a pessimist is a man who thinks all women are whores. An optimist is one who hopes they are).
Hell is empty and all the devils are here, says Edward. He has come up behind her. She feels his hands reach out and touch her from behind. He places them on her waist. Then they gently lift up her cotton T-shirt, slip inside, and slide up her back. Fingers against skin. He holds them there, flat against her back. She can feel his breath on her neck, the warmth of his hands under her shirt. She is intensely aroused. She waits.
But he pulls away, withdraws his hands, pats down her shirt.
Jane turns. Her back, robbed of the warmth of Edward’s hands, feels suddenly cold. Edward has moved to the window. He is not looking at the wall of indictments and praise of women. He is staring out at the shrouded sea.
Do you include yourself when you say that all the devils are here? Jane asks, trying to recover. Her voice is somewhat breathless.
Especially myself, he says, and smiles, but it is a humorless smile, more of a grimace. And then, of course, there’s you.
Jane doesn’t ask what he means. She knows. Black Heart.
Tell me, Edward says, and leans toward her. What do you most fear? Jane is thinking of his hands withdrawn, the warmth denied, but she says the next thing that comes to mind.
Edward raises his eyebrows. That’s a bit abstract, he says. Can you be more specific?
Okay, she says. My dead.
Ah, but how do you decide which are yours and which belong to other people? he asks. He turns his back on Jane to look out at the sea. He asks no more questions, but something has shifted. There is a stiffness in his stance, in how he is holding his head. Both hands are now in his pockets.
Jane is uneasy. Yet another transition? To what? The evening has taken too many turns. She is exhausted.
Let’s go before someone notices we’re here, she says. She is moving unsteadily away form Edward as she speaks, toward the front door. Edward doesn’t budge.
After midnight, no one is likely to come by, he says. A beat passes. Then another. Jane feels a flutter in her stomach and her hands feel cold. She is suddenly aware of the blocks and blocks of industrial waterfront warehouses and work spaces that are completely uninhabited between here and her safe cozy cottage. Edward is not smiling. But neither is he frowning. He has turned and is looking at Jane. He is evaluating her, the situation. Jane thinks of the knife in his left hand as he cut the limes, the adept way he wielded it. She can see the handle sticking out of his front pocket of his jeans. He follows her eyes down and smiles. It is his usual captivating smile. But who is it for?
I thought I might need this again, he says, and reaches down and pulls it out. It flashes in the dim light. He then pulls a whole lime out of his other pocket and places it on the table before swiftly quartering it. He hands one of the sections to Jane. Suck on this, he says. It’ll sober you up. Jane finds she can breathe again.
They walk back to Jane’s cottage in silence. She does not invite him in. He doesn’t appear to expect her to. After a perfunctory good night, he leaves.
And Jane goes into her solitary bed, where she doesn’t sleep until dawn.
* * *
Jane meets Alma for a promised excursion to the beach at Three Sisters Café the following Saturday. She doesn’t mention the yacht club evening. Alma makes no sign that she knows about Edward’s visit to Jane.
They’d agreed to meet at 5:00 p.m. Daylight saving time was still on, so it would stay light until 7:30 or 8:00. The light isn’t exactly fading, but has softened, festooning everything with a muted glow. A tranquil time.
Jane is naturally first. Alma arrives at five minutes past the hour, motions to Jane to keep sitting, and goes to the counter. I need caffeine, she says, coming to the table. And we have plenty of time.
She sits down opposite Jane, who is still nursing her own black coffee. The first thing we are going to do, Alma says, leaning forward and speaking deliberately, is talk about the lost children. Not Heidi and Rose. But our own lost children.
Jane panics. No.
I can’t, Jane says. She reaches into her jeans’ front pocket, feeling around for enough change to pay for her coffee and leave a tip. She is more agitated than she can express. She feels that she has been ambushed. Brought here under false pretenses.
Why not? Alma stirs sugar into her coffee, tastes it, puts in another spoonful.
It’s not possible. Now Jane is standing up, putting her jacket on. Alma stands up too and puts a hand on Jane’s shoulder.
Yes it is, says Alma. Although she is speaking softly, people from surrounding tables are listening with interest, scenting drama. It’s been— When was your daughter born? Seventeen years ago now?
Then it’s been sixteen years since you lost your baby. It’s time to face up to all the real losses you have suffered. Only then can you put last year’s loss in perspective.
Jane stops agitating She takes deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out. She is thinking that Alma mirrors something she, Jane, often felt herself as she watched Angela grow up.
Alma pulls out Jane’s chair and indicates she should sit again. Alma sits down herself, continues speaking in the same low voice.
Raising a child is a series of little deaths. The death of the infant. The passing away of the toddler. The end of the preteen.
Jane doesn’t say anything. Images of Angela crowd into her mind. Angela in her ridiculously furry one-piece snowsuit at one year old when they were in the mountains skiing. Angela at three tearing off her clothes as she ran down the beach toward the waves. Angela slamming her door at fourteen.
Think of it another way. Alma has taken Jane’s hands and is holding them tightly. By losing Angela when you did, you missed out on more deaths, more grief. With children, you lose, and you lose and you lose again. And it doesn’t end when they’ve grown and leave the house. If anything, it gets worse.
And what do you know about all this? Jane asks, her voice deliberately monotone, expressionless. She is feeling much and doesn’t want to give anything away.
I remember when I lost my first baby, Alma says. It’s as if she hadn’t heard Jane’s bitter words, instead concentrating on what she has to say.
Jane and Alma are now sitting very still, facing each other. They are still holding hands. My baby was perhaps eight months old She was crawling. She could say mama and could point to the rain and say agua, which she’d learned from her Mexican babysitter. I wasn’t with her. I was in my office at Tulane, meeting with students, and making the final edits on my latest research paper. That’s when I realized it. I hadn’t thought of Emily for three hours. I hadn’t been a mother for three hours. We were no longer conjoined. Where was my baby? She was no longer. She was gone.
Tell me about leaving your daughters for Edward, Jane says. Tell me how you could possibly do that. She wanted to hurt Alma for her beauty, for her apparent serenity when telling of such horrors.
I weaned my youngest. Susan. It was difficult. Susan was about fourteen months old. It was time. People were starting to stare when I nursed in a restaurant or looked at each other when I took a nursing break at a party. My body rebelled. I got a breast infection and had to bind my breasts. They ached so badly I was eating aspirin by the handfuls.
The day was coming. So I killed my daughter, that daughter, the one I’d been nursing. And then I knew it was time to leave before I got attached to the next version of her. Before I’d experience even more grief.
What about your older daughter? You left her too?
That was even harder, Alma says. She was four years old. I was deeply attached to her, and she to me.
Why didn’t you take them with you? Would Edward have been so opposed to that?
Bring them with me? Alma gives a half laugh and shakes her head. No.
Why not? Jane persists. I could never have left Angela. Never. Not even when she was being so horrible at thirteen and fourteen.
Alma’s answer startles Jane.
I needed to be pure. I was tainted as a mother. Tainted by love. Exhausted by love. Exhausted by the constant loss that was motherhood.
Most women think of it as additive—they get new joys every day, says Jane. The words sound false even as she says them.
Did you think of it that way? asks Alma. Be honest.
Jane doesn’t know if it is because of the tenor of the conversation, but the memories that are being aroused are not of the tender kind. She remembers thinking, many times, I didn’t have to do this after all, meaning, have a child. She’d always felt, before getting pregnant, that her life would not be complete without a child. But having done it, she frequently thought, I could have done fine on my own. Without Rick. Without Angela. With Angela’s birth had come great love. But also great fear.
Jane has a revelation: she wishes Angela had never been born. That would solve the problem of the always-on pain. It sounded like the name of a church, Our Lady of Perpetual Pain. It was physical, hitting her right below her rib cage, making it hard for her to breathe, causing her shoulders to cave inward and her body to refuse the commands she was giving it. Walk. Talk. Smile.
Let’s get out of here, says Alma abruptly. She takes her hands away from Jane’s. Jane suddenly feels cold, unsupported. Alma stands up, pushes her chair back. Let’s do this beach walk.
Where did you park? Jane asks when they exit the café. Her own motorbike is right next to the door.
I didn’t. Edward dropped me off. I thought I could catch a ride with you back.
It doesn’t matter. Jane gestures toward her bike. This will get us there. It’s only two miles to the beach.
Can we both ride on that? Alma asks. She looks doubtful, but not nervous, Jane is glad to see. A nervous rider on a small motorbike is always problematic.
No problem. We aren’t going far.
Jane straddles the motorbike, then, still standing, gestures to Alma. Okay, get on. Alma swings her leg over the back and sits down.
You settled? Jane calls over her right shoulder.
Jane sits down. She can feel Alma’s hands around her waist, her knees touching the outside of Jane’s thighs. Jane hasn’t been this physically close to another human being for more than a year. When was the last time? When her sister Dolores had tried to hug her, at the airport in Tulsa, after their mother died. The touch then had been so poisonous that people had stared at the violence with which she’d thrown off Dolores’s arms. But now, no revulsion. Instead, warmth. And what was that? Comfort? Jane is being held, her whole body in the protection of another’s.
Let’s go, Alma says. The words tickle, so close is Alma’s mouth to Jane’s ear. Alma’s cheek must be almost touching Jane’s hair.
Jane turns the key. The motorbike hums to life, and they take off. At first Jane drives slowly, conscious of the need to balance with this new, foreign weight on back. But as she gains confidence, she speeds up. They leave town, merge onto Route 1 going south. Gas stations and Mexican restaurants flash by. Jane turns right on Hawkins, on the access road that leads to a small beach, protected by high cliffs, one that only the locals know about.
Jane stops at the end of the road, right at the top of the cliffs. Sixty feet below, waves crash. There isn’t a cloud in the sky, but the wind is strong, blowing easterly from the ocean to the land. The sun is edging toward the horizon in the west—in this case, the blue line where the sea meets the sky. Jane notices this. She notices the gulls circling overhead, their raucous calls that echo across the expanse of water and sand below. Alma’s arms are still around her waist. So this is what it’s like to feel normal, Jane thinks. This is what other people experience every day.
Cut across here! Alma shouts against the wind. She gestures to a footpath that meanders alongside the sea, along the top of the cliffs. A sign proclaims: NO MOTORIZED VEHICLES. DOGS MUST BE KEPT ON LEASHES.
Jane points to the sign. I don’t want to get in trouble, she calls back.
No one is here!
I’m not good at breaking rules, Jane shouts over the wind and motor. By which she means that when she transgresses, she gets caught, always, and is punished accordingly. Angela being taken away from her was such a punishment. Jane had wondered why for nearly a year now. What had she done to deserve that? But today she knows. She had had the audacity to be happy. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But she had experienced happiness in her life. And that was against God’s plan.
Jane turns the motorbike off.
So what if it’s against the rules? Alma asks. The words come out too loud in the sudden silence.
The air is fresh and salty. The sky a dark blue. The sun is closer to the horizon, a big orange ball. Jane’s face and neck are cold from the breeze, but she is still warmed by Alma’s body.
Come on, girl! shouts Alma suddenly. She presses her arms tighter around Jane’s waist. Jane turns the motorbike back on, lets out the clutch and steps on the gas, noses the front tire onto the paved path. First slowly, then faster. It is spectacular. They are so close to the edge of the sea that one missed curve would send them shooting out and down into the water, which is frigid this time of year. Jane feels the excitement deep in her belly.
Jane obeys. She wishes she had her goggles on, her eyes are tearing up from the chill wind. But she doesn’t want to stop. She navigates around a rock, comes close to the edge of the cliff, then steers her way back to the pathway. Her heart is beating too fast, her breath is jagged.
Then, trouble ahead. A lone pedestrian, accompanied by a small dog. Off leash, of course. No one obeys that rule. An elderly man, bundled up against the wind, shakes his finger at them as they race past, and they both laugh. Jane is laughing! She astonishes herself. The dog barks as they whoosh by.
They cross a bridge over a ravine only to find the paved path ends. A bumpy dirt trail continues along the cliff tops. Jane slows to a stop, idles the engine. A grove of eucalyptus trees is bending almost double in the wind. A bench sits at the very edge of the cliff. It must have once been a safe distance back, but the cliffs have eroded, and a huge chunk of ground almost directly under the bench has recently fallen. The earth is still red and raw from where it shuddered off. Spidery cracks stretch out in the dirt from where the cement base of the bench was once solidly in the ground. One foot of the bench hovers over empty air, sixty feet above the water.
A yellow tape printed with CAUTION DO NOT CROSS has been wound around the trees, blocking access to the bench. A small hand-lettered laminated sign says DANGER—ERODING CLIFFS.
Come on, says Alma, and Jane doesn’t hesitate to obey her this time. They dismount from the bike. Alma leads the way to the edge of the cliff. She steps over the yellow tape and slowly, carefully, sidles over to the bench. Jane follows behind her, step by cautious step. Waves dash into rocks below. A child playing on a finger of beach gets angry at something, throws a handful of sand at another child, and runs away. Her voice as indistinguishable as the cry of the gulls.
Jane hates Ferris wheels, roller coasters, anything that dangles her above empty space. Yet here she is. They climb onto the bench from the right side, from where it is still solidly planted in the earth. The back left foot is cemented into rock, giving Jane confidence. But the front left foot of the bench rests on nothing. Their feet hang unsupported in space. Jane can feel the updraft from the water sixty feet below cooling her ankles. Alma has her hand again.
Just breathe, Alma says, and Jane obeys again. In. Out. In. Out. She realizes she is doing this in sync with the breaking of the waves below. They are too high for the spray to reach them, but the noise is deafening.
That’s good! says Alma. Keep it up. She reaches her left arm up and around Jane’s shoulder. Jane feels herself leaning forward, drawn toward the hypnotic whitecaps below.
The reason Jane hates heights is that they rob her of her free will. She is strangely drawn to edges. She knows she would throw herself off bridges, jump off cliffs, step off narrow paths on steep mountains if she let herself get too close. It would be irresistible. So she usually stays away. More than that, she grows dizzy with fear when near a precipice. Too much temptation. She feels that now. The inexorable draw. The tingle in her fingers and toes. She moves an inch forward on the bench. Now her knees are over the abyss. Alma removes her arm from Jane’s shoulders. She places her hand flat against Jane’s neck. It is slight, but it is pressure. It would be so easy. So easy. Another half-inch forward. Jane wiggles her toes. Her right shoe, always a little loose, comes away at the heel. She wiggles her foot some more. Now the only things holding her shoe on are her toes. She gives a little kick and the shoe falls. She counts one two three four five six before she sees it bounce off a rock into the foamy water below. The kick has somehow unbalanced her, and the pressure against her neck continues. She is on the edge. She is wavering. What should she do? Her now-naked foot is cold, sending shivers up her leg. She feels something like arousal. This is foreplay. This is nothing compared to what the real thing will feel like.
Both Jane and Alma turn their heads. A man is standing by the scooter. He is wearing a uniform. A badge on his chest. He has a pad in one hand and a pencil in the other. A ticket. Jane is getting a ticket. Busted again.
Get down from there this instant! Don’t you know how dangerous these cliffs are? We lost a kid last month who went too near the edge. It collapsed under him.
Alma edges off the bench first, then, when she is on solid ground, holds out a hand to Jane, who gingerly slides over. She feels like she has woken from a trance. What had she been thinking? She looks back at the bench, at its front left foot hovering in air, and shudders. She walks, unsteadily because of her missing shoe, over to the ranger.
He is silent as they approach. Jane imagines they must appear a strange couple, their hair in disarray from the wind and the ride. She knows her face must show how high she is, how pumped up on adrenaline, almost beyond endurance. She needs to scream, to let something out, but somehow holds it in.
Officer, we’re sorry, Jane says finally, not because she is, but to break the silence. She is vaguely conscious that there is going to be a scene, a script to be followed. She must get a grip.
“Have you been drinking?” the ranger asks. He is young, younger than either of them. He is extremely serious. He is not acting as if he caught them with an off-leash dog. Jane herself isn’t sure what just transpired. The ranger steps forward and looks straight into her eyes. He is sniffing, for some trace of alcohol or pot, she supposes.
We’re sober, she says, although she knows her eyes tell a different story. The ranger looks at her for a moment, hesitating.
I should take you in for a sobriety test, he says finally.
For being crazy? Alma speaks up. She is composed, even smiling.
The ranger looks at Alma, at her glowing face, and his official face relaxes a little. He reluctantly smiles back. I should, he says. But the moment for punishment has somehow passed. They’re going to get away with it. He puts his pen and pad back in his pocket.
Still, I’m interested, he says. Why?
My friend here was trying to satisfy her curiosity about something, says Alma, and takes Jane’s arm. Jane feels warm at the words my friend. Then, secondarily, a sense of relief. So that’s what she’d been doing! Nothing that bad. Just satisfying her curiosity. It sounded wholesome, even, like something you could earn a Girl Scout badge for.
So she sits on the edge of an eroding cliff? the ranger asks. Right. That makes perfect sense.
Sometimes it’s necessary to force a decision, says Alma.
Do you agree? asks the ranger, turning to Jane.
Jane thinks back. The wind on her naked foot. The tingle of arousal. Alma’s hand pressuring her neck forward.
You came at an opportune time, Jane says finally.
And if I hadn’t come?
A decision would have been made, Jane says.
The ranger looks at her.
As you can see, I’m not going to write a ticket, he says. But I’m going to recommend very strongly that you get some help.
Jane links arms even more tightly with Alma, drawing strength from the other woman’s solidity and the feel of warm flesh on her own.
Thank you for your concern, she says. But I think I have all the help I need.
* * *
We know what we are, but not what we might be. Jane’s favorite quote from Hamlet when she was an undergraduate, because she found it so apropos of her life. She’d be going off in one direction, then suddenly shift due to nothing more than chance or whim. Jane frequently never knew what she might be from day to day. Her relationship with Rick before he left, a case in point. Her relationship with Angela, another. Was she a good wife? A good mother? A bad one? Yes, and yes, and no. Depending on the hour, even the minute, the category she fell into changed. And now Alma and Edward. What lay ahead? Who would she be? Jane didn’t know.
I. Source: A. L. Kroeber. “The Origin of Death.” Indian Myths of South Central California (1907). http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/scc/scc11.htm. Accessed December 26, 2016.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Half Moon Bay includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Half Moon Bay is a smart, haunting tale of psychological suspense from the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of Turn of Mind.
Jane loses everything when her teenage daughter is killed in a senseless accident. Jane is devastated, but sometime later, she makes one tiny stab at a new life: she moves from San Francisco to the tiny seaside town of Half Moon Bay. She is inconsolable, and yet, as the months go by, she is able to cobble together some version of a job, of friends, of the possibility of peace.
And then, children begin to disappear. And soon, Jane sees her own pain reflected in all the parents in the town. She wonders if she will be able to live through the aching loss, the fear all around her. But as the disappearances continue, she begins to see that what her neighbors are wondering is if it is Jane herself who has unleashed the horror of loss on the town.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. LaPlante has crafted a deeply complicated protagonist. Discuss the author’s decision to write this story in close third person. How does the choice of this point of view impact our understanding of Jane? If LaPlante had written this novel in first person (I, me) or third person omniscient (where we would have understood others’ thoughts) how would this have impacted the narrative and our understanding of Jane?
2. Instead of fully revealing Angela’s death at the beginning of the novel, LaPlante creates suspense and intrigue, slowly doling out details—about Angela’s life, about the day she was killed, about the effect her death had on Jane—before fully revealing the accident. Discuss the effect of LaPlante’s decision to hold certain details back before revealing others. Where else does she does this do this in the novel?
3. Jane is consumed by her own tremendous loss and has “posted Merriam-Webster’s definition [of it] on her bedroom mirror. Deprivation. She has been grievously deprived” (page 19). Discuss your own definition of loss and the effect it can have on a person.
4. Throughout the novel, Jane refers to herself as a madwoman. Regarding the first child abductions: “Jane is conflicted. She should be ashamed to feel joy in someone else’s misfortune, yet the inevitable schadenfreude has raised its ugly head. I told you so. The madnesses descend, one by one” (page 23). Discuss Jane’s relationship to madness.
5. Jane experiences multiple interactions with characters who believe that she may be behind the murders. In a conversation with the FBI, an agent says: “We know that you have been what many would call unstable. That you are, as they say, capable of going off the rails” (page 57). Did you question the reliability of Jane’s account of events? Did you ever doubt Jane’s innocence? When?
6. The town of Half Moon Bay feels like a character itself. How would you characterize the community? Do you think these crimes have happened anywhere? Discuss why LaPlante may have chosen this setting.
7. Consider the moment when Jane is with Alma on a literal edge: “[Jane] is strangely drawn to edges. She knows she would throw herself off bridges, jump off cliffs, step off narrow paths on steep mountains if she let herself get too close. It would be irresistible” (page 98). Discuss LaPlante’s character building in this passage. How does revisiting this passage illuminate what happens later in the novel?
8. After Jane has allowed Edward and Alma into her life, she becomes obsessed with them, both separately and together. Edward and Alma seem to give Jane a sense of belonging and purpose, and they quickly develop an intimate and secretive bond. What were your initial impressions of the couple? How did your feelings about Edward and Alma change over the course of the novel? What were the turning points?
9. Consider the following quote from Sheree: “Have you noticed how much grief is like fear?” (page 141). Discuss with your group the heart and meaning of this quotation—where do we see this in the novel? Does it have emotional truth for you, in your own life?
10. Near the end of the book Edward, Alma, and Jane are involved in a protest that involves “civil disobedience.” Worrying about the consequences, Jane asks, “What have you done?” “You mean we,” Edward replies. “You’re implicated in this. If we go down, you go down” (pages 206–207). Reread this passage and then the final pages of the novel. In what ways does this statement foreshadow the events that take place later in the novel?
11. Edward and Alma “are drugs [Jane] has unknowingly become addicted to” (page 234). Did you ever wonder why Edward and Alma were interested in Jane or what their intentions were? Were they truly magnetized by Jane? What did they want from her? Were they merely looking for someone to take the blame for their crimes?
12. After discovering Megan, Victim Number 5, in Edward and Alma’s home, Jane wonders what would happen if she were to do nothing: “They would be closer, bound by a deeper, darker bond” (page 255). Do you think Jane is really tempted at this prospect? Why? Discuss the scene with your group. How did it make you feel?
13. The end of Half Moon Bay comes almost as a landslide. How did LaPlante’s ending leave you feeling? Compare this narrative structure and climax with other psychological thrillers you’ve read.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. LaPlante’s psychological thriller Turn of Mind was a New York Times bestseller. Read Turn of Mind with your book club, then compare and contrast the two books. In what ways are they similar? How has LaPlante’s writing style evolved from her earlier work?
2. In addition to novels, LaPlante has written guides to the basics of creative writing—both fiction and creative nonfiction. Method and Madness: The Making of a Story has tips for finding inspiration and getting ideas on the page. Complete some of these exercises with your group and share them.
3. Jane is passionate about native plants and botany. Plan a trip with your group to a nearby botanical garden or plant seedlings together so that everyone can take something home.
4. Unreliable narrators have appeared recently in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and in classic novels like Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita. Part of the challenge and enjoyment of these stories is working out the truth and understanding why the narrator is not straightforward. Read one of these novels and discuss how the book’s narrator compares to Jane. Discuss why the narrators are not always truthful.
To learn more about Alice LaPlante, read more about her other writings, and connect with her online, visit her official website at alicelaplante.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2.5 I've really enjoyed Alice LaPlante's previous two books and was eager to read her latest - Half Moon Bay. Jane is very emotionally wounded. She has moved to the small town of Half Moon Bay from San Francisco. She has found work at a nursery, but avoids people as much as possible. When young children start to go missing in Half Moon Bay, she becomes a suspect. You see, her own daughter died in San Francisco. I chose to listen to Half Moon Bay. The reader was Gabra Zackman. She did an excellent job capturing Jane's confusion, fogginess and grief with her interpretation of LaPlante's character. Her voice is measured, easy to understand and well modulated. Zackman has a nice gravelly tone to her voice that makes it quite pleasant to listen to. Listen to an excerpt of Half Moon Bay. So great narrator, but for me the book was a miss. A wounded, unreliable lead is a great addition to a mystery. But Jane's inner monologues go 'round and 'round to the point where I got quite bored of her angst. This rambling discourse had me tuning out. Jane's 'oddness' is reiterated over and over again, punctuated by two other workers at the nursery. Adam is just as odd, so of course the listener suspects him as well. Honestly, I could not buy Adam's attraction to Jane at all. And Jane's attraction and relationship with also newly transplanted to Half Moon Bay couple Edward and Alma. Sorry, big what the heck, ugh and really? The final ending and 'whodunit'? Telegraphed well in advance. And the reason? Sorry, can't buy that either. The cover is great and the descriptions of Jane's plants and the physical settings were well done. But overall? Sorry, I can't recommend this one at all.
It has been over a year since Jane O’Malley’s daughter, Angela, disappeared and was later found dead. Not long after, her husband left her and she moved to a little town on the Northern California coast called Half Moon Bay. She works for a nursery and is very knowledgeable about plants. She is trying to build a new life for herself while dealing with her grief. She has insomnia and so takes long walks on the beach late at night. All she can think about is Angela. When young girls go missing and are later found dead but perfectly poised and made-up, the townspeople are in a state of panic and do everything they can to protect their young daughters. One day, Jane meets Alma and Edward who extend the hand of friendship to her. Unlike other townspeople who seem to shun her, the couple welcomes her and she becomes very drawn to them. But the relationship turns suspicious and Jane is afraid she might lose her lifeline with them and is desperate to not lose them. But, how far will she go to keep their friendship? This is a dark and depressing book about a woman on the edge of sanity. I found it sad at times and irritating at other times. I didn’t fully understand how Angela died so I was a bit confused about that as well. I cannot say I would recommend this book unless readers like some a bit different. Copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Half Moon Bay by Alice LaPlante is a so-so dark mystery/psychological study of a grieving mother. A year ago Jane O'Malley lost her teenage daughter, Angela, to a car accident. Ever since that day, Jane's grief has been overwhelming, all-encompassing, and consuming her every thought. Her marriage ended. In an effort to find some way to live her life, Jane, a botanist, has moved to the tiny seaside town of Half Moon Bay to work at Smithson’s Nursery with the native plants. Awkward handling interpersonal relationships and conversations, Jane is just trying to find her way through her grief. When the young girls start disappearing, though, Jane's loner ways and inept social skills put her on the police and FBI list of suspects. It doesn't help that Jane has no alibi for the time the girls disappear and for later, when their bodies are found. Her one, albeit weird and odd, obsessive need becomes her recent friendship with new residents, Alma Godwin and Edward Stanton, and her affair with Edward. But, as more information comes to light, Jane has been making bad decisions since her daughter's death. Can you trust her? I'm not a fan of the writing technique LaPlante utilizes in Half Moon Bay. The dialogue is italicized, and part of Jane's thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness style. The narrative is told through Jane's first person account but, because Jane is so consumed with grief, and has her thoughts stray all the time, this can make the narrative difficult to follow. While readers will feel sympathy for Jane, she is not a trustworthy or likeable character. Well, no one is in this dark, atmospheric psychological study (with the exception of Adam, a co-worker at the nursery). The ease in which Jane can be manipulated and seduced by Edward and Alma is annoying and disturbing. I've got to say that there is no great surprise about the plot or the ending of Half Moon Bay. Astute readers are going to know with certainty what direction the plot is going to take very early in the novel and will be correct. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.
It all comes down to choices. The Elders family are known as con-men, liars, cheats, all around the sort of people you don't want your children associating with. Teenager Jamie gets caught in the middle while trying desperately to leave this small town and her family. One bad decision on her part puts her at her uncle's mercy. Because of what she did, she now owes her uncle an insane amount of money ... and she has to stay until it's all repaid. And then there is her younger brother, Toby. Could she walk away and leave him behind? One night her uncle demands that Jamie help him ... dispose of a murdered man cover up his connection to the town's most powerful judge. When it comes out that the victim was a beloved athlete and uncle pins the murder on Toby, only Jamie can save him. But with a dogged detective on her trail and her own future at stake, she’ll have to decide: embrace her inner criminal, or defy it—and face the consequences. Jamie is one smart cookie .. but is she smart enough to stay ahead of the law to save her brother ..and herself? This is a down-and-dirty look at illegal gambling and corruption that reaches the upper echelon of this small town. The people of this community are not always nice people ... mostly who Jamie has to deal with seem to live on the edge of humanity. This is a riveting debut novel, slowly moving heating up to an inferno with characters that stick with the reader far after reading the last page. There are twists and turns along the way to keep the reader rapidly turning pages to see what happens next. Many thanks to the author / Crooked Lane Books for the advanced digital copy of this most fascinating debut novel. Opinions expressed here are unbiased and entirely my own.