Pop culture is obsessed with missing girls. We worry over them, we absorb their narratives, we let their mysteries dominate our dinner conversation. But rarely do we follow through with the nearly-always-tragic result. We can retell, as if we were there, the known details of their last hours or minutes but most of us know nothing about what happens next. The aftermath isn’t quite as titillating as the disappearance. That’s where Saint X comes in.
It’s a novel — out February 18 — about a missing girl, yes, but the missing and death part (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler) of the story is over quickly. The ensuing 200-plus pages follow Alison’s sister as she becomes obsessed with her death, spiraling into a very You-like relationship with a man she believes knows more about Alison’s last moments than he lets on.
Ahead, read a passage from the beginning of the novel, when Alison has failed to return to her hotel room while her family is on vacation on the fictional island of Saint X.
What do a mother and father do when they are awakened by one child to the news that the other is missing? First, they tell themselves not to panic. Their daughter must have simply gone off somewhere on the resort grounds. It is a large property and there are any number of places she could be. Perhaps she has gone for a jog, or to smack tennis balls against the backboard at the courts. The small red blip of a kayak far out on the water might be her — maybe she decided to squeeze in one last water sport before their departure. Perhaps she got too drunk at the hotel bar last night and is sleeping off a hangover in the room of one of the other girls her age. (The parents are not naïve; they know that a teenager is apt to have one daiquiri too many after her parents have gone to bed on the last night of a Caribbean vacation.) Surely she will come groggily across the sand anytime now, and how furious they will be! And how pleasurable it will be to be furious with a daughter who is perfectly fine, and who will be snotty and dismissive when they tell her how worried they have been.
But she is in none of these places doing none of these things. By late morning, a mother and father’s faith that their child will turn up any moment has given way to terror. Everything but Alison is forgotten. Breakfast, lunch…Claire is starving but says nothing.
Word spreads quickly among the guests.
“Did you hear? That pretty girl with the auburn hair is missing.”
“The one with the scar?”
“They’re saying she never came home last night.”
The police are summoned. The chief of police asks the mother and father a series of questions, and they tell him about their vacation in precise, dutiful detail. As guests sun themselves by the pool and climb the StairMaster to oblivion in the fitness center, the Royal Police Force of Saint X combs the property. The time for the family’s flight home comes and goes.
On the first night after Alison’s disappearance the sunset is the most beautiful yet, a flashy display of scarlet and violet that deepens, as the sun slips below the horizon, until it is the shade of a bruise. On the balcony, a mother watches the sun go down, then sinks to the floor. She crouches on hands and knees and dry-heaves over the cool terra-cotta tiles. A father goes to her, holds her. He tells her that everything could still be okay. She repeats this. Everything could still be okay. Hearing these words echoed back to him from his wife, a father breaks down. They remain on the balcony, intertwined, for some time. A sense of distance from the day’s events comes over the mother and she wonders, with detached curiosity, whether she is becoming — whether she is already — the one thing none of the mothers ever want to be. A father is seized by the most unaccountable memory: Alison, one year old and bald as could be, blowing raspberries against his cheek.
From inside, where she has been set up in front of the television, Claire watches her parents. Later that night, they put her between them in their bed. In the middle of the night she wakes to the feeling of a hand on her back; for a moment, she thinks it is Alison. Then she remembers. It is her father’s hand, checking for the rise and fall of her breath. Claire lies awake, eyes wide open in the dark.
On the second day, the chief of police asks the mother and father to take him through their time on the island once more. The father tells him again about their arrival, ten days ago, on a TWA flight out of Kennedy. Alison slept late the next morning. She drank a fruit punch.
“He was after her all week,” the mother interrupts. Her body trembles. “That blond boy. He couldn’t leave her alone.” As she speaks, a film reel of horrible possibilities flickers through her mind. She’d liked this boy, found it sweet the way he lingered, at once cocky and unsure, around her daughter. What if she’d misjudged him? What a fool she’d been, thinking herself a good mom, a fun mom, for letting her daughter go off with him. How had she allowed herself to forget that in the end a mother has only one job? Suddenly she cannot breathe. The warm tropical air clogs in her throat. When she begins to hyperventilate, the chief of police calls for the hotel doctor, who arrives promptly, examines the mother swiftly, and writes a prescription for a sedative. A porter is sent to the local chemist’s to collect it. The doctor pulls the father aside. “I might suggest that you have a babysitter called for the little one,” he tells him quietly, gesturing at Claire, who is sitting in a wicker chair, eyes on her mother. “Give yourselves some time and space.”
“If you think we’re going to let our daughter out of our sight, if you think we’re going to leave her with some person who could be anyone, you’re out of your mind.”
“Of course. I apologize.”
“Everyone here could be anyone. You could be anyone.”
“I’ll go now, sir.”
The couple in the room next to the family’s asks Indigo Bay’s manager, very tactfully, if they can be relocated.
“It’s so awful, what’s happened. The thing is, we can hear them,” the husband says.
“Going through…what they’re going through,” the wife adds. She places a hand protectively over her stomach; she is four months pregnant, this trip a last hurrah before their lives change. She laces her other hand through her husband’s and squeezes, a gesture that means, Something like this could happen to us. Her husband squeezes her hand back, an assurance that it won’t and, more generally, that this thing that has occurred is not a bad omen, not some harbinger of terrible things on the horizon. (He will turn out to be right. Often, in the decades to come, as their son grows up and their family’s own small troubles reveal themselves, the wife will think that this ruined vacation was the darkest of blessings, because however her child struggles, however he tests her, hurts her, what does it matter when she carries within her the indelible sounds of another mother’s undoing?)
The manager upgrades them to a private villa.
The rest of the guests do their best to balance concern with the pleasure of their days. They do not know the girl, after all. Their worry is tinged with excitement. There are rumors.
“They say the police are questioning that blond boy.”
“Did you hear they’re talking to the skinny one and the fat one?”
“I heard the police picked them up for something the night she went missing. People are saying they spent the night in jail.”
“It’s always the pretty ones, isn’t it?”
The island is turned upside down with searching. Members of the civil service are given days off to join the search. Prop planes loaned from a larger island nearby scan the shallow seas. The lagoon into which, mere days ago, Alison watched the blond boy hit golf balls is trawled to no avail.
The search turns up answers to other, older mysteries. The body of a beloved family dog, who disappeared during a storm last season, surfaces in the thickets beside a salt pond. A wedding band is found in the dusty lot behind Paradise Karaoke. In a limestone cavern on Carnival Cay, a customs worker uncovers a small black notebook in which are recorded the debts of a local man who left the island in an unexplained hurry last year. But no sign is found of Alison.
When the chief of police arrives at the family’s hotel room on the third day after her disappearance and delivers this update, the father looks around — at the marble floor, the scarlet orchid in the white vase, the canopy bed — his gaze darting and unfocused, as if the coherence of these things is beginning to come apart before his eyes. “I don’t understand. What’s taking so long? Where is she?”
“I assure you we are deploying every available resource. Our officers are working in fifteen-hour shifts. We are coordinating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We have search-and-rescue units from three islands and a patrol ship from the British navy devoted to finding your daughter.”
“But this island is tiny.” The father squints at the chief of police. “Why the hell can’t you find her?”
The actor’s girlfriend finally persuades him, grudgingly, to charter a boat to Faraway Cay. As they slice through the water, he keeps his eyes shut tight and listens as his girlfriend chats up the two men who comprise the boat’s crew. (“I love reggae. That whole rasta spirituality, you know? I’ve always found that so interesting.” “I’m an L.A. girl. But he” — gesturing, he knows, at him — “grew up in a really small town in Kentucky.” He knew she’d tell these men this; she mentions Kentucky to anyone who will listen. It hurts him. His childhood was not a happy one. If he asked her to stop mentioning it he knows she would, but she wouldn’t understand why, so he doesn’t ask.)
Each time the boat lofts over a swell, time becomes a glass cube he’s trapped in. The cay is only a few hundred yards off the coast, so the ride must take only five minutes, though to him it feels much longer. They anchor offshore, so he has to climb the metal ladder down from the boat and wade through the shallows; he keeps his back to the open water, his eyes fixed on the land. She’s right — it is beautiful. The cliffs are covered in green growth, a color so vivid it seems to cast out vibrations. The beach is a crescent of sand so brilliant he has to shield his eyes. Palms curve outward in invitation.
While the men prepare a picnic for them on the beach, the actor and his girlfriend hike a path inland to the waterfall. When the ocean slips from view he feels like himself again. At first, they climb steeply uphill through humid green growth, the birdsong so thick you couldn’t sort through it if you tried. The understory is a sprawl of ferns and vines and the buttressed roots of trees that rise to form a nearly solid canopy high overhead. (The trees are silk-cotton, and have stood for centuries.) After half a mile or so, they summit abruptly onto an arid plateau, silver scrub and cacti and dust, a transition like leaving one dream and entering another. A few stark, knotty trees jut from the cracked earth, leafless and stunted. Lizards that seem made of nothing but dry air scuttle in and out of the scrub. A small white butterfly floats over the hot earth.
Not far from the path, a cluster of goats snort and chomp at the scrub.
“Gross,” the actor says.
“I think they’re cute.”
“I think you’re cute.”
Whether he says it because he means it or because he doesn’t but wishes he did or simply because it’s the sort of thing he knows she wants him to say, he couldn’t tell you.
The path descends back into dense and steamy thickets. He smells growth, soil, sweet wet rock. He hears falling water. They are close. Around a bend, and there it is. The water sluicing down the rocks is glitter and mist. The pool into which it tumbles is utterly circular and glassy. At the pool’s edge, mosses fur the stones in newborn green, and white flowers bloom, their perfume carried lightly on the vapor cast off by the waterfall. He has the feeling then that he is seeing something he shouldn’t be seeing, that maybe there really is such a thing as too much beauty, as so much you can never move on from it.
“You like it?” his girlfriend says. He notes the curl of triumph in her voice and a familiar urge rises in him to fuck her till she hurts for days. But then he looks at her and sees that there are tears in her eyes. She laughs at herself, wipes them away. “I know I’m a sap.”
He has been unkind. All she wants is his happiness. Is that so terrible? He takes her in his arms, feeling the blunt realness of her. What the hell is wrong with him? Where is the problem here?
He leads her to the water’s edge, holding her hand in case she should slip on the slick rocks, and they wade in. He surrenders to it. They swim together to the very center of the pool. The water is so crisp and clean you could understand how a baptism could change everything. He squeezes his hands together and squirts her.
“Hey,” she splashes back.
He wraps his arms around her. “You’re mine.”
She shrieks and kicks and protests with delight. “Let me go! Let me go!”
“Never.” He makes a silent vow. From now on when she asks for things he will do them, give them, say them.
They swim to the waterfall. They dunk their heads beneath the rushing water and let it pummel them. They slip behind the curtain of water. They kiss. She reaches for him but he shakes his head.
“Lie back,” he says. He cradles her head as she lies against the wet rocks. When she comes, her cries are lost in the roar of water.
After, they float, spent and open on the surface of the pool.
“They’ll be waiting for us,” he says finally.
“Do we have to?” she pouts.
Together, they stroke toward the edge.
Years from this moment, the girlfriend, who by then will have been the girlfriend of quite a few Hollywood men, will publish a memoir (the back cover promising to reveal “the juicy private details of the lives of some of America’s favorite leading men”). In the chapter about the actor, these details will include his thalassophobia and his various chemical dependencies, which the girlfriend will theorize stem from a loveless childhood. It goes without saying that the memoir will recount this day: the boat ride across the topaz shallows to the cay, the birdsong and the goats, the waterfall and how, just before leaving it, the girlfriend looked down and saw an arm, puffed and white, reaching up from the bottom, as if frozen in the act of beckoning.