An excerpt from
The Girl Who Stayed
The cell phone on the passenger seat gave a rude squawk. It rang on and on but Zoe ignored it, as though the act of doing so might buy her more time.
Compelled to look at every blond head she passed by—inside cars, along the bike ramp—it crossed her mind that Hannah would have loved biking over the new bridge—the third bridge to span the Cooper since the island’s colonization. Originally, there had been two, standing side by side.
Zoe dated a guy once who’d claimed his grandfather helped build the first Cooper River Bridge. He was an oddball, talking incessantly about an ex-girlfriend, who just happened to look a lot like Zoe. Hearing this had made Zoe look at him differently, not the hunky guy he’d appeared to be, but the obsessive stalker beneath, who’d rather kill and stuff an ex-girlfriend than lose her. Regrettably, this image was further reinforced by his other favorite topic, which happened to be the family business, a mortuary. Not taxidermy, but close enough.
So one night, while crossing the Cooper—about three miles worth of mindless chatter—he’d gone back and forth between telling Zoe about this look-alike ex, explaining the process of embalming, and regaling her with tales of his grandfather’s escapades during the building of the first bridge. Of course, at the time, both bridges had been past their prime, and even without stories about cadavers and look-alike exes, it was creepy enough driving over a swaying expanse of groaning, creaking metal—in the dark, mind you. Suffice it to say, the date hadn’t turned into a second and even now, Zoe couldn’t remember his name.
The bridge Bart’s grandfather had worked on was built around 1929, the second in 1966. The Silas Pearman Bridge was constructed to relieve load limits on the Grace Memorial Bridge, but both had been narrow enough to make driving over them harrowing, especially after the lanes were opened to two-way traffic.
It wasn’t like that anymore. The first two bridges were demolished and a third went up—the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, a cable-stayed, eight-lane overpass that included pedestrian and bike lanes. This bridge was named after a retired US Congressman, although if you asked anyone the name of any one of these three bridges, they’d give you the same answer: it was the Cooper River Bridge.
The point being: on that old bridge, especially at night, you drove all the way across, shoulders tense, black skies overhead, black river below, ignoring the headlights that appeared as though they were coming straight into your lane. There was nowhere to swerve off to, nowhere to escape—unless you wanted to ram through thick sheets of metal and off into the river below.
Once on the bridge, you were at the mercy of oncoming drivers and your choice—the only choice—was to stay the course, fists gripping the steering wheel, holding your breath, hoping today wasn’t your day to end up in the grill of an oncoming vehicle. And all the while, you could feel the bridge shuddering beneath you.
That’s how Zoe felt right now: Tense. Expectant. No choice but to move forward. Hoping to avert impending disaster.
Back when Zoe’s great-grandparents first purchased the house on Sullivan’s, they’d had to take a ferry. It was a short hop from the peninsula in plain view of Fort Sumter. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote that the island, little more than a splinter of land, was “separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime.” Zoe loved his description, unflattering as it was, because it was the way she saw the island too—full of secrets whispered through dense tangles of sweet myrtle . . . secrets kept, no matter how long or hard you searched.
Leaving the bridge, shoulders tight, Zoe passed repurposed buildings and shopping centers that appeared as though they’d already lived out one commercial lifetime during her absence and now were preparing for a dubious rebirth, with freshly painted facades and empty parking spaces out in front. The hamburger joint she and her friends had satisfied munchies at was gone, converted into a ratty tire shop. But the Page’s Thieves Market was still there, with the vintage street clock still guarding the porch, like a shiny silver sentinel.
They sold houses now as well—at least that’s what her brother said. Maybe she could enlist their help.
The last few times Zoe had come to Charleston she’d stayed with her brother Nick, never bothering to check on the house. She left Sullivan’s on the day she turned eighteen and never looked back, except to return long enough to bury her mom. Her dad was already gone before she moved away, puffing on unfiltered cigarettes every minute of his miserable life, until the smoke cleared and he was no more. Throat cancer. But like she told Nick, Rob Rutherford was dead to her long before that.
Of course, Nick led a Hallmark life, like the one they’d always believed they’d shared . . . back before that day in December, back when all the neighbors crowed about their perfect family. Beautiful children. Beautiful parents. A house with a foundation as old as Charleston. How lucky they were.
How lucky they were.
That house. It had weathered Hugo, withstood the sea, but never made it past Hannah Rutherford’s disappearance—or, more to the point, her family hadn’t survived. The house on the feral lot on Atlantic Avenue, with the screened-in porch was standing still . . .
Zoe pulled into the familiar driveway, stopping the car where she remembered parking Hannah’s bike all those years before. The engine idled like an old man with hiccoughs. She pulled out the keys and palmed them, clutching the metal so hard the teeth cut into her skin. The scar on her forehead itched, but she tried to put it out of her mind. Seated in the driver’s seat, Zoe took a moment to survey the dirty white bungalow.
It was older now, not so old as some. The wood and cinderblock siding needed a good coat of paint. The yard had returned to scrub. The native sweet myrtle had overtaken the lot. It clambered toward the house, clawing desperately at the siding. In one spot, it managed to stab meanly through the porch screen.
Fifteen feet high in some places, the shrubbery on the right side of the lot obscured the neighbors’ house from Zoe’s vantage in the drive. On the other side, a six-foot-high row of red azaleas were in full bloom—blood-red blossoms dripping from every branch.
On the front side of the screened-in porch remained a baseball-sized hole in the mesh. Zoe remembered when it happened. She and Nick had been throwing the baseball out in the yard, just the two of them. Wearing her dad’s stiff glove, she’d made a sad attempt to help her brother improve his game.
Standing in the front yard, her brother had looked sullen, ready to give up. “Come on,” Zoe had said. “You’re so much better than me.”
The comparison hadn’t cheered him. He was better than Zoe, but Zoe rather sucked. “I’m no good, Nicky. Why don’t you ask Kevin to come throw with you?”
Kevin was Nick’s friend who’d lived over on Goldbug Avenue—a kid whose family still ate dinner together and who sometimes went fishing with his dad.
Her baby brother had given a half shake of his head, as though the effort might be more than he cared to make. He’d dropped the ball into his glove, then picked it up again, dropping it yet again, probably wondering why their dad was inside yelling at their mom. Again. Or maybe he’d simply been wishing he had a brother instead of a sister—one sister. That was key. By that time, Hannah was already gone, her twin bed donated to a new mom from church, whose three-year-old had outgrown his crib.
There was something about the look in Nicky’s eyes that had made Zoe feel his life—all that he could be—hung in the balance.
It had been hot and humid that day, not unlike today. The hair had stuck to the back of Zoe’s neck. The inside door shut tight to keep the argument contained within, probably hadn’t improved either of her parents’ moods.
Staring into his glove, Nicky had continued dropping the ball, picking it up again, decisions being made . . .
“It’s my fault,” Zoe had reasoned. “I’m not very good, Nicky. Let’s just do it again.”
Her brother had seemed to consider this. His wavy, blond hair was sweaty at the ends, dark—as dark as his somber brown eyes. At nine years old, he was already becoming a crusty old man. Shifting uneasily from foot to foot, Zoe had pounded her fist into the oversized glove the way she’d watched them do on TV.
“Come on,” she’d coaxed. “I’m ready now. Come on, Nicky Boy!”
Nicky Boy. That was the name her dad would have used—mostly when he was in a good mood. But good moods had become few and far between.
A half smile had turned her brother’s lips then, a little gleam in his eyes that brought to mind Casey at the bat. He’d taken a ready stance, thinking, thinking, aiming . . .
Rearing back, he’d set the ball loose. It flew over Zoe’s head, powered by all the anger he’d had mustered up inside, ripping through the flimsy screen, and crashing into the inside window, shattering glass.
No longer contained, her parents’ voices had risen to a crescendo. Zoe’s brain had refused to recognize coherent words and phrases. She and Nicky had given each other wary glances, and then their father had exploded onto the screened porch—red face, tan khakis, silver keys. He’d flown out the screened door, toward his pickup, mouthing obscenities, and Zoe had pretended to be a statue until Robert Rutherford was safely inside his truck. And then, just to be certain, she hadn’t moved until after he’d peeled out of the driveway, kicking up gravel and shells in his wake.
And now, seated in her own car, with the windows rolled up, Zoe stared at the hole in the porch screen. The mesh was curled with age, never repaired. One month after Nick ripped the screen with his baseball, Hurricane Hugo had thrown more than baseballs at the house. It managed to stave off that assault as well, but as far as the will to set things right went, it pushed any remaining resolve over the edge, never to return.
Across the street, a brand-new triple-story house on stilts had gone up since Zoe left the island. Only because she was checking the housing market, she knew it was now in foreclosure. Sitting empty, with its lovely peach facade, it was a million-dollar oops for somebody. Somewhere near two dozen homes remained of the original dwellings that once complemented the old military base. A few of the island houses were as ancient as Fort Moultrie, but not included in the registry as original base housing.
Fort Moultrie was where Edgar Allan Poe was once stationed. All these years later, the man had a street, a library, and a pub named after him. In return, he had immortalized the island in his story “The Gold-Bug”—not Goldbug, as some dummy had named one of the back streets on the island. Only a writer would get the difference. And there, behind Goldbug Avenue, up against the salt marsh, was Raven Drive. Here, you see, was a going theme. Probably not because of it, though certainly not in spite of it, this pinprick of land on a splinter of sand was worth more than Zoe could walk away from. So here she was, at their “Kingdom by the Sea,” appropriately named by her great-grandmother in honor of Poe’s Annabel Lee. Clever.
Very clever, indeed.
The wooden sign out on the porch hung stock-still, despite the proximity to the beach, as though the world itself held its breath to see what Zoe would do.
It’s just a house.
Zoe opened the car door, stepping out. Heavy and oppressive, the island heat smacked her full in the face. She moved through it, stepping through a time warp . . .