Growing up, Dana Carlson and her older sister, Julie, are inseparable—Dana the impulsive one, Julie calmer and more nurturing. But then a devastating secret compels Dana to flee from home, not to see or speak to her sister for sixteen years.
When she receives the news that Julie is seriously ill, Dana knows that she must return to their hometown of Black Bear, Minnesota, to try and save her sister. Yet she arrives too late, only to discover that Black Bear has changed, and so have the people in it.
Julie has left behind a shattered teenage daughter, Peyton, and a mystery—what killed Julie may be killing others, too. Why is no one talking about it? Dana struggles to uncover the truth, but no one wants to hear it, including Peyton, who can’t forgive her aunt’s years-long absence. Dana had left to protect her own secrets, but Black Bear has a secret of its own—one that could tear apart Dana’s life, her family, and the whole town.
“Beautifully written and unsettling . . . leaves you with a lingering sense of dread long after you close the last page.”—Chevy Stevens
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It’s a great line to stop guys from coming on to you in a bar. They ask, So what do you do for a living? They expect to hear, I’m in sales or I’m a paralegal. If I’m wearing my black boots with the stacked heels and maybe some lipstick, they might push me into the lawyer category, or the owner of a little boutique. They never expect to hear the truth. I blow up buildings, I say, and sip my wine. After hearing that, they usually back away a little. Which is good. I don’t like to be crowded.
The crowd that morning was staying far away, lined up all along the twelve-foot chain-link fence encircling the lot, their faces curious and belligerent, the police forming an uneasy barricade between them and me and the building I was going to destroy. A hand-printed banner danced above their heads. You might not think it, but bringing down a building can be a controversial thing. People don’t like change. It makes them worry about what’s headed their way next, and whether it’ll be any worse than what was there before.
Dingy clouds were doing a slow roll along the horizon. Chicago in mid-May could be unpredictable. “How far away does that look?” I asked my foreman.
Ahmed squinted. “I’d say we got a couple hours, maybe three.” His broad face was washed in early morning light.
The guy was a wizard when it came to reading the weather. If he said two, maybe three, we’d be standing in a downpour come four. Two hours was good, three better. “We might just make it then.”
He nodded. “Have you heard from Halim?”
Another worry. “Halim will be here.” Of course he would, but he hadn’t answered any of the six calls I’d placed to him that morning. As decorous as my partner was, he could also be a player. He loved blondes, and Chicago was full of them. But he’d never crossed that line with me. I wouldn’t have stuck around if he had.
A shout. Something sailed through the air and clattered onto the cement near my feet. A beer can. A policeman moved forward and the onlookers jostled.
Ahmed curled his lip in disgust and kicked it with his boot.
“Least it wasn’t a bomb,” I told him.
“Don’t say these things.” Ahmed looked stricken.
Implosions are wrapped tight in superstition: wind the detonation wire clockwise; rap the front doorjamb before entering; wear the same pair of boots from the beginning of a job until its completion, and if a lace breaks, replace it with a borrowed set. Most of all, don’t ever joke about explosives, especially when hundreds of pounds of the stuff lie only fifteen feet away.
My cell phone vibrated. Halim? But no, the caller ID read private caller. The caller had tried earlier, around six-thirty, and I was tempted to flip it open and let off a little steam at some telemarketer no doubt waiting to chirp good morning on the other end. But chances were it would just be a recorded call and it would take ten seconds for me to disconnect. Seconds I couldn’t afford to waste, not with that storm roiling toward us. Fitting the hardhat onto my head, I told Ahmed, “I’m starting the walk-through.”
A troubled look. “Without Halim?”
He didn’t think I could do it. Didn’t matter. I was still the boss, even if it sometimes felt in name only. “Start clearing the site.”
The broad marble steps of the gracious old building seemed to sag beneath my boots. The old girl was ready to come down. She’d been up for a long time and weathered more than her share of storms. She was ready to go.
Shoving aside the heavy wing of fabric draped around the lower floors, I stepped over the threshold into pungent darkness. The interior sprang into view beneath the beam of my Maglite. Hard to believe hundreds of families once lived here, walked these floors. Everything that could have made the place a home had been yanked down and hauled away: walls, ceilings, floors, and window glass. All that remained was bare concrete, rafters, and the skeletal outlines of two staircases. The air hung heavy and blue, dust spiraling lazily down from the open ceiling in ghostly strands like Mardi Gras beads. I spun on one heel, seeing past the empty windows and crumbling columns, hearing the mumbles of long-ago residents, the babies’ cries, and the laughter. The old girl held her breath, waiting. I’m coming, I told her. Hold on.
The clop of boots. Halim emerged from the shadows, his slim frame tidy in navy chinos and a crisp white workshirt. “Sorry I’m late,” he told me. “I got an overseas call from my brother.”
I looked at him with both relief and annoyance. So not a pretty girl he’d met at a bar, but something far, far worse. “How much this time?” I asked him.
He pursed his lips. He wanted to tell me it was none of my business how much money he lent his loser brother, but in point of fact, it was my business. Very much so, ever since we pooled our resources and started Down to Earth three years before.
“Don’t worry.” He glanced around. “We should get started, eh? What with the storm moving in.”
“A thousand? Two thousand?” The business account only had three and change, but the frown on his face told me plainly that it now held nothing. “Halim.” I felt a pinch of fear. “Tell me.”
“A temporary setback,” he said. “We finish this job and all will be fine.”
It was the last time. Tomorrow morning, I’d be meeting with the bank manager to make sure any checks drawn on our business account in the future required both our signatures. But there was nothing I could do about it now. “I’ll take the eastern half.”
No railing along the staircase, the bottom riser chewed to rubble to discourage trespassers, the support walls smashed to pieces. Testing my weight with each step, I climbed to the twenty-sixth floor, winding past the narrow Chicago streets, to the furled tops of the trees, until finally the sleepy skyline spread before me. A month ago, I would have been gasping. Today, I made it in one long trek, with only my thigh muscles protesting the effort.
Streamers of sunlight spooled through the empty windows. Amid the drab grays and browns were daubs of neon yellow paint marking the load-bearing columns, and dense cobwebs of yellow, pink, and orange tubing. Colorful and deadly. I traced the lines up to the crevices we’d chipped into the columns and then packed with dynamite. The connections looked good. Untouched.
Halim walked toward me from the other direction, and we exchanged places silently, our worlds shrunk to fluorescent strands, electrical tape, and metal clips. We descended two floors to the next dynamited level.
The buzz of a jet overhead, the shrill blast of a policeman’s whistle below. The protestors were growing more belligerent. Great. As if we didn’t have enough to deal with, outracing the storm. Shouts sailed up.
Again, Halim and I crisscrossed paths; again, we retraced each other’s steps.
Outside, a Bobcat started with a rumble.
Halim waited on the ground floor. “We’re behind schedule.”
And whose fault was that? I glanced at my phone and saw I’d missed another call from private caller. We’d used up one of Ahmed’s hours.
“You finish here,” Halim told me, “and I’ll check the basement level.” He descended the crumbling stairs.
Stepping over a latticework of detonation cord, I ran my flashlight beam over the connections. A water leak had sprung up from somewhere—a pipe only recently turned off—and a shallow pool had collected in one corner, scummy with dust.
The Bobcat’s roar stopped. In the sudden silence, I heard the slow plink of water splashing metal, and something else.
The noise didn’t repeat itself. Rats usually flee buildings about to be demolished, driven by some fierce primordial instinct that tells them D-day is at hand, but maybe one had just gotten the message. I turned, sweeping my flashlight beam across the uneven floor.
A crumpled Styrofoam cup, boot prints stamped in the dust, a balled-up lump of rust-colored cotton splotched with paint. Light sparkled across a smooth surface. Glass. I frowned. All the glass had already been removed.
My walkie-talkie buzzed.
“Ready?” Halim’s voice.
I depressed the Talk button. “Just about.” I held up my flashlight, squinting into the shadows.
An empty bottle of Budweiser glinted back from the gloom beside a wall brace. Dust-free, it couldn’t have been there long. How had we missed the bottle last night? The broken brick lying beside it must have been the source of the noise I’d heard.
Footsteps echoed. Halim strode toward me. “Showtime.”
The crew gathered as Halim issued final instructions. There was confidence in his every gesture; his stance was easy yet authoritative. “Countdown in fifteen minutes.” He broke up the group with a clap of his hands.
A plastic bag skittered across the pavement. A uniformed police officer stood beside a small makeshift enclosure composed of sandbags. He nodded. “All yours.”
I dialed the prearranged number. “Stop the El,” I told the operator.
“I’ll tell them,” she answered.
Overhead, a police helicopter swept by, searching rooftops for hidden onlookers. Television crews clustered a safe distance away. A covey of birches stood on the northwest corner, swaddled in geotextile fabric and shivering in the gusting wind. The dust and debris could be carried for miles; all of Chicago could be affected. “Think we should hold off?” I asked Halim, uneasy.
“Just run the monitor afterward and make sure to download the readings.”
It had been my idea, a way to issue a preemptive strike against possible lawsuits. Running the air-sampling monitor wouldn’t stop the dust from spreading, but I didn’t argue. I was as eager as Halim to finish the job.
He picked up the blasting machine, a steel box with two buttons connected to the lead line, and held it out. Did he want me to hold it for him? He smiled, seeing my confusion. “This one’s yours,” he said. “You’ve earned it.”
I’d never initiated the blast. Never. Halim was the expert; I was the trainee. But there it was, the small box that signaled I had finally broken through the final barrier. Automatically, I folded my fingers around the machine and held it tight. Halim couldn’t pry it away from me now, even if he wanted to.
He held up his walkie-talkie. “All clear.”
A round of “Clear’s” sounded from the crew bosses.
What People are Saying About This
“Beautifully written and unsettling . . . leaves you with a lingering sense of dread long after you close the last page.”—Chevy Stevens
“Family secrets, environmental crises, complex characters, and lyrical, thoughtful prose: What’s not to love here? This richly layered story will remain with you well past the final page.”—Emilie Richards, author of One Mountain Away
“Carla Buckley once again reveals the frightening things we can’t see. Invisible made me question everything surrounding us in our homes and our neighborhoods. Do we really know what we’re touching? Do we even know our own families? This chilling book reminds us of what’s important in our lives.”—Randy Susan Meyers, author of The Murderer’s Daughters
Reading Group Guide
A CONVERSATION WITH CARLA BUCKLEY
S I S T E R S: An essay by Carla Buckley
When I was young, I would pester my mom. She had three sisters, I knew, but one she never talked about. I’d met my aunt Jennifer a couple of times, but then the visits abruptly stopped. When would we see her again, I asked my mother. Why couldn’t we visit her? My mother was vague in her responses.
She’s busy, she’d say. Or, we live too far apart. As a family, we had traveled all around the world for my father’s work, so I knew that crossing a few hundred miles wasn’t really the issue. There was something else there, but whatever it was, my mother wasn’t telling me. Deep down, I worried: if she could stop speaking to her beloved sister, could she stop speaking to me?
My mom had grown up during the Depression. She was the oldest of four sisters, and she regaled me with stories of how she once persuaded Jennifer to yell out the window to beg passersby for a chocolate bar, and how she had to sleep under the kitchen table that night as punishment. She told me how she and Jennifer would take turns wearing one pretty dress in a single evening so that they could both go out on dates with soldiers on leave. She watched over her sisters when her father went to jail and her mother worked the night shift. It was a childhood beyond my imagining.
My mother wanted me to be a good sister to my own siblings.
You’re all you’ll have left after I’m gone, she warned. But I wasn’t sure how to do that. I was troubled by the example she and my aunt set. Would history repeat itself in my own generation?
Would there be warning signs, or would alienation strike out of the blue?
I never did see my aunt Jennifer again, and my mother passed away without ever telling me what had come between them. My other aunts wouldn’t tell me, either. Whatever it was had to be huge, though. It had to be enormous.
Years later, when I set out to write Invisible, I thought about that. What could come between two sisters who had once been so close? My imagination took fl ight. In writing this story, I would rewrite my own history. I would get to the bottom of the mystery that had haunted me all my life. Who had wronged whom? Had it been my aunt for committing some terrible infraction, or my mother for refusing to forgive her? I understood, or thought I understood,
the power of family and the way silence could start out small, then fi lter down through the generations, taking on weight and substance and power. One way or another, I would work to understand my mother and why she kept her secret to the grave.
It proved diffi cult for me to come up with something plausible that could keep two sisters, who had once loved one another very much, apart. Everything I tried made no sense. My characters,
Dana and Julie, kept pulling back together. They wanted to rely on each other, confi de in each other. So was it really possible to excise someone so completely from your life? My mother evi-
dently thought so, or at least, she had tried, but I wondered, Did her estrangement from her sister gnaw at her, tinge her dreams,
and stalk her waking hours? As she watched me and my siblings grow up, did it remind her of all she had lost?
I remember returning home during my fi rst college break.
Everything seemed more intense—the autumn leaves burned with unusual brightness; the hardwood fl oors gleamed like gold.
My mother’s homemade vegetable soup had never tasted more delicious. I’d only been away for a few months, but everything was colored with poignancy. I had already taken my fi rst few steps away from home. I was becoming an adult and I would never again view my childhood home in the same, carefree way. Already
I was pulling away from my younger siblings. Those complicated feelings, I thought, would be magnifi ed for Dana, who would be coming home after many years of being away.
A homecoming to a large city—where people are always moving in and out—might go unnoticed. But someone returning to a small town, where everyone knows one another, and where loyalties and confl icts run deep, would have the right resonance. I decided to place my fi ctional small town in northern Minnesota,
where I have spent the past twenty summers. In some ways,
northern Minnesota feels like home to me; in other ways, it’s clear that I’m an outsider. It would be that way for Dana, too.
My fi rst few attempts to reunite Dana and Julie were awkward.
They were wary and watchful, and it was hard to believe that they had once been close. Would it have been that way between my mother and her sister, if they had ever met again? Now
I began to think about things from my aunt’s perspective. What had it felt like to know that she had pushed her sister away? Were her dreams dark and fractured, too? I knew my aunt had made overtures to my mother, attempts at reconciliation that were shot down. At some point, my aunt gave up. Would it be like that for
Dana and Julie?
Being capable of maintaining a long silence indicated that there was a dark side to both Julie and Dana. It would have to color their relationships with other people. Having been away for so long, Dana might fi nd she had nothing in common with the people she had once known so well. She might not be able to rebuild old friendships, or rekindle a lost romance. Too much time might have passed and the differences between them were insurmountable.
I wondered, Could you ever go home again?
Peyton showed me the world unfi ltered, through her clear adolescent eyes. Like me, she would be bewildered by the estrangement between her mother and her aunt; she would wonder why her mother couldn’t tell her the truth, and she would resent
Dana’s absence from her life. I loved the idea of a child who lived in the middle of the country dreaming of becoming a marine biologist.
In many ways, Peyton is just like Dana. She, too, keeps the world at arm’s length. It was in thinking about this young girl who is overcome by loss but can’t talk about it, that I struck on the idea of having her begin her chapters musing on the one thing—the ocean—that she feels most passionate about, thereby revealing herself in the only way she can.
The ocean passages are among my favorite parts of the novel.
Other than the occasional trip to the beach, I knew nothing about the sea or the life that inhabits it. During the day, I would write,
and at night, I would read everything I could get my hands on about sea urchins, sharks, rays, and clownfi sh. The ocean is far more vast than I’d envisioned, inhabited by creatures I never knew existed. I was most astounded to learn that fi sh can behave in very human ways. The more I grew to understand these creatures,
the more I grew to understand Peyton. And I saw how the ocean, like families, is much more than what is visible. There are all the undercurrents, the dark secrets that lie hidden beneath the surface. Some are washed ashore and reveal themselves. Others never come to light.
I’m cautious in mothering my own daughters. Talk to one another,
I tell them. No one can understand you like your own sister,
I say. I speak from personal experience. There is no one who understands me better than my own sister, no one with the same sense of humor, with the same perspective on the world. I know that, no matter what, my sister will always be there for me. In the end, I’ll never know what drove my mother and her sister apart.
But my mother had been right: there is no one like your sister. I
just wish she had been able to know that for herself.
1. Do you believe it is ever justified for a company to put people at risk? When, and how much risk?
2. What lengths would you go to for your sibling? Would you make the same choices Dana and Julie made?
3. Do you think of Peyton as a typical teenager? What makes her unique?
4. A major theme of Invisible is the idea of going home again. Has Dana outgrown her hometown? What does that mean to you?
5. If Dana’s sister had not died, do you believe she would have made the same crusade against nanochemicals? If she had returned to Black Bear for unrelated reasons, do you think she would have taken up this cause? Why or why not?
6. Is there a company or industry that you would want shut down? Why?
7. On page 280, Eric says to Peyton: “Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost you, which is dumb.” He reached up and set his baseball cap facing forward again. “Because how can you lose something you never really had in the fi rst place?” Do you believe this is true?
8. Is Brian Gerkey a villain? Why or why not?
9. On pages 293 to 294, Dana narrates: A tube of sunscreen poked out of my purse. I’d automatically started to apply it that morning and caught myself just in time. A new tube, an expensive brand fi lled with antioxidants. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out. Was the danger in the manufacturing process, or in the product itself? Until I knew, I’d hold on to it, just in case. It would serve as a reminder for all the other things I’d have to be on the watch for. What would you do if you found that you had to live your life constantly checking products to see if they contain something you believe harmful? People already do this for other things, like cholesterol,
or sodium. How would you manage if every product you used had to be carefully reviewed?
10. If you knew you would survive, would you willingly donate a kidney if there were only a chance that the person you were donating it to would survive? If so, what would the chance have to be before you would agree to do it?
11. How are Dana and Julie alike? How are they different? How do siblings help shape your worldview and personality?