Read Death Falls Online

Authors: Todd Ritter

Death Falls (2 page)

One of Charlie’s favorite places was the creek that rushed through the woods behind their cul-de-sac. There was a dirt path there, perfect for biking, that led to a footbridge. From that perch, you could see the water hurtle over Sunset Falls, which plunged thirty feet into a rock-strewn pool. They had allowed Charlie to ride there alone for the first time this summer. Maggie now regretted that decision.

“Did you check the bridge?” she asked.

When Ken sighed, Maggie suddenly felt the urge to hit her husband. She would have done it, too, had she not been holding the baby. She would have let loose with a few good punches while asking Ken why he didn’t go with their son, why he couldn’t find him, why he was talking to her instead of still looking for Charlie.

“Of course I checked the bridge. It was the first place we went. The police are still there.”

Then they needed to look somewhere else.
needed to look somewhere else, since Ken had made it clear his searching was over for the night. Maggie felt herself moving away from him, compelled to do something. Charlie wouldn’t be found with her just standing there.

“Where are you going?” Ken asked.

Maggie didn’t answer. Wasn’t her destination perfectly clear? She was going to find her son. End of story.

Ken called after her, his voice muted in the rain. “I think you should leave the baby with me. I don’t—”

He stopped himself, but it didn’t matter. He might as well have just finished the sentence and let the truth escape. He didn’t trust her with the baby. Not after what happened in May. It’s why he hadn’t bothered to wake her when Charlie went missing. It’s why he had sent Ruth to watch the baby earlier. It’s why he was trying to stop her from leaving now.

But Maggie couldn’t stop. Her body wouldn’t let her. She had no choice but to cross the street, even as the rain increased in force. Even as Ken begged her to come back. And even as the distance between her and her husband grew wider with each passing step.

There were four houses on the cul-de-sac, set apart by wide lawns and rows of sycamore trees. Ken and Maggie’s was by far the smallest—practically a cottage—and the most full. Two parents and two kids, crammed together in a house that Maggie struggled to keep clean. Across the street, in a cruel reflection of her own abode, sat the home of Lee and Becky Santangelo. It was everything Maggie’s house was not—large, rambling, spotless.

With Ken watching her from the driveway, Maggie crossed the Santangelos’ yard. It was so much larger than her own, an expanse of crisp green kept trim by a local teenage boy. At the moment, though, it was soggy with rainwater. It squished between her toes as she made her way to the front porch. Once there, she grabbed the giant brass knocker that dominated the door and rapped twice. When no one answered, she knocked again, this time slamming continuously until Lee Santangelo eventually opened it.

Like their disparate houses, Lee was the complete opposite of Ken. He was taller, for one thing, and far more handsome. Strong build, matinee-idol looks, always clean shaven. Normally, he was pleased when Maggie dropped by with Charlie and threw the door wide open for them. But this night was different. The door opened only a crack as Lee peered at her with a mixture of surprise and annoyance.

“Maggie,” he said, pretending to be happy to see her. “What’s going on?”

They were the same three words Maggie had used to greet Ruth Clark. Hearing them directed at her, she realized just how rude and suspicious they sounded.

“It’s Charlie. We can’t find him.”

Music was playing loudly inside. Something psychedelic that Maggie couldn’t place. Beyond that, barely audible, was a constant whirring sound. When Maggie tried to peek inside, Lee blocked her view with a quick side step. Seeing the length of his body, she realized he was wearing next to nothing—a pair of boxer shorts and an unbuttoned shirt, tossed on no doubt for her benefit. It didn’t matter. He could have been stark naked and she wouldn’t have cared.

“And you think he could have come here?” Lee asked.

“With all this moon business going on, I thought he might have stopped by. You know, because—”

Because Lee Santangelo was an astronaut. Or had trained to be one. Or had almost been one. Maggie didn’t know the details. She only knew that Charlie had driven him crazy with questions all summer.

“He hasn’t been by tonight. I’m sorry. But I’ll definitely keep an eye out.”

“If you see him, please tell him we’re looking for him. And that we’re worried.”

She added that last part in the hope that Lee would fling open the door and let her look around the place. Instead, he tried to close it. Maggie, thinking fast, blocked the door with her foot. The squeeze of it against her big toe made her wince.

She persisted, despite the pain. “What about Becky?”

“What about her?”

“Maybe she saw him tonight.”

Maggie knew Charlie had a crush on Lee’s wife, even if the boy didn’t know it himself. It was well within reason that Charlie could have bypassed Lee and instead sought out Becky, who offered him cookies, tousled his hair, and tut-tutted over his scraped knees.

“She’s not here,” Lee said slowly. “She’s gone until tomorrow. I’m the only one here.”

And that, Maggie realized, was all the information she would get at the moment. Time was ticking, and every second spent with Lee Santangelo was another second wasted in the search for her son. So she thanked him for his time, apologized for bothering him, and moved on.

She was halfway across the lawn when a sudden movement from the Santangelos’ house caught her eye. It was a curtain being rustled in a second-story window. Maggie saw a shadowy face peek out from behind it and stare down at her. She kept walking, pretending she hadn’t noticed. But when she reached the edge of the yard, she allowed herself one last, quick glance. What she saw was a silhouette standing in front of the window. Maggie could make out a thin frame and shaggy, shoulder-length hair.

A woman.

Maggie didn’t have a clear enough view to see if it was Becky Santangelo. But who it was didn’t really concern her. What mattered was that Lee had lied. He was definitely not alone.

Pebbles jutted into the soles of Maggie’s bare feet as she crossed the street. Each stone she stepped on caused a small flare of pain. For that, she was grateful. It took her mind off the knot of worry lodged in her chest. The distraction was only momentary, but considering the circumstances, she’d take what she could get.

In front of her house again, Maggie noticed that Ken had finally gone inside. Through the front picture window, she saw him pacing in the living room. His mood earlier had been maddeningly unreadable—equal parts annoyance, worry, and prickliness. But the unfiltered view through the picture window showed a man who was clearly distressed. He stared at the floor. He tugged at his beard. He closed his eyes and pressed a thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose, which Maggie knew meant he was trying to stave off a headache.

Part of her wanted to return to the house and comfort him. Despite all the mistrust of the past few months, she still loved him deeply. But Maggie needed comfort, too. She knew that would only come once Charlie was found safe and sound. So she pressed on, even though her arms were tired from carrying the baby and her legs were weak with worry.

She was also running out of neighbors. Besides the Clarks and the Santangelos, there was only one other house on the street, and it was the last place she expected to find Charlie. Still, she at least had to ask, even though she dreaded doing it.

Her destination was the house next door to her own. The oldest on the street, it was an exhaustingly ornate Victorian that looked ancient compared with her own home. Charlie liked to pretend it was haunted. He claimed children were buried in the backyard and that their ghosts roamed the house at night. Maggie had no clue what gave him such ideas, but she understood how the house’s appearance played a part in fueling his imagination. Black shutters flanked the tall windows. A widow’s walk on the roof seemed to lean in whatever direction the wind was blowing. The wraparound porch had an unused swing and brittle steps that threatened to break when Maggie climbed them.

Although the house was dark, she knew its owner was home. He was always home.

“Mr. Stewart?” Maggie shifted the baby’s weight to her left shoulder and knocked on the door with her right hand.

No one answered, which didn’t surprise her in the least. Glenn Stewart never answered his door. Nor, as far as Maggie could tell, did he go outside.

“Mr. Stewart? Are you there?”

Maggie knocked again, remembering the last time she had seen him, during that awkward homecoming party. The whole debacle had been her idea. Glenn had no family that she knew of, and she felt sorry he was returning from Vietnam to an empty house inherited from his grandparents. So she baked a cake, rounded up the neighbors, and marched next door, intent on creating a happy homecoming through sheer force of will.

Glenn had wanted nothing to do with it. He wasn’t rude when he opened the door and saw seven people (seven and a half, if you counted Maggie’s very pregnant stomach) applauding on his porch. He looked more scared than anything else, twitching like a rabbit facing a pack of wolves. But he refused to let them inside and declined the cake, which Maggie thrust at him desperately. Not knowing what else to do, she had left the cake on the porch, hoping Glenn would retrieve it later. Then they left, taking the hint. Glenn Stewart wanted to be left alone.

But now Maggie couldn’t leave him alone. Not until she knew if he had seen Charlie. So her knocking turned to pounding.

“Mr. Stewart? It’s Maggie Olmstead from next door.”

Dropping her head in frustration, Maggie noticed something sitting on the porch floor, about a yard away from her feet. It was the cake—ravaged by birds, bugs, and four long seasons—sitting exactly where she had left it a year earlier.

Retreating from Glenn Stewart’s house, Maggie saw two police cars at the end of the cul-de-sac, where the asphalt ended and the footpath into the woods began. Twin beams of light swooped through the trees. Flashlights, scanning the darkness for her son.

One of the lights suddenly stopped. A voice rose from the woods.

“I think I see something!”

The second light bobbed swiftly toward the still one. Maggie moved, too, running toward the forest. She no longer felt the pebbles under her feet or the rain stinging her face. The only things she felt were the baby wriggling in her arms and the knot of worry expanding to all points of her body.

Her other senses, however, were heightened to an alarming degree. When she reached the path and pushed into the woods, her eyesight never dimmed. The smell of wet earth, moss, and maple sap clogged her nostrils. Her ears practically buzzed at the sound of boots tromping through the underbrush and voices murmuring to each other.

Then there was the creek. She saw the water’s glint, smelled its banks, heard the discordant rush as it approached Sunset Falls and plummeted over.

Two men were standing at the footbridge when Maggie reached it. One of them was Deputy Owen Peale, his face obscured by a hooded poncho. The other was the police chief, Jim Campbell. He eschewed the poncho in favor of a wide-brimmed hat. Maggie’s presence startled both of them.

“You shouldn’t be here, Maggie,” Jim said.

“Did you find Charlie?”

He tried to turn her around, away from the water. “What are you doing out here with the baby? You’re sopping wet.”

Maggie refused to budge. She craned her neck until she could see over the chief’s shoulder. Behind him, Deputy Peale had his flashlight pointed toward the stream.

“Is Charlie there?” she asked. “Is he okay?”

“Let’s get you home,” Chief Campbell said, his voice telling Maggie everything she needed to know. It was falsely optimistic, bordering on condescension. Something was wrong.

The baby began to stir in Maggie’s arms, more forcefully than before. A cry erupted from the infant, as loud and fraught with terror as the one that had awakened Maggie in the first place.

“How about you give me the baby,” Jim said. “I’m drier.”

When he held out his arms, Maggie made her move. She swerved past him and sprinted up the path. Deputy Peale lunged for her at the bridge, but she scooted right, just out of his reach. Then she was on the bridge, bounding across it until she was directly over the water. In the distance, about twenty yards away, the creek ended and the falls began.

Looking down at the water, she saw a branch emerge from under the bridge, riding the rain-swollen creek. It floated along the surface before hitting a rock and briefly stopping there. But the persistent current didn’t allow it to stay in place for long. Water swirled around the branch like tentacles until it was dislodged. The branch was whisked onward to the edge of the falls, where it slid from view.

Over, down, gone.

Maggie heard Jim Campbell yelling her name. She saw Owen Peale now on the bridge, approaching slowly and saying “It’s okay, Mrs. Olmstead. It’ll be okay.”

Her eyes turned back to the falls, where the branch had just tumbled into darkness. She traced its path, gaze swimming against the current. Soon she was looking off the other side of the bridge, her back to the falls. The creek there looked just as wild. Leaves, sticks, and globs of trash floated toward her and slipped beneath the bridge. There were rocks there, too, large boulders that poked out of the water like icebergs.

Owen Peale had reached her by that point. He clutched her shoulders and shook his head. “Don’t look. Please don’t look.”

That was when Maggie saw what she wasn’t supposed to see. It was an object caught on the rock closest to the bridge, pinned there by the current. It was blue. A blue so dark she could barely make it out. There were spots of white, too, ragged blotches that vaguely resembled stars.

Maggie screamed.

It was Charlie’s bike. Right there in the water. The current caught the spokes of the front tire and rocked it back and forth.

Jim Campbell joined them on the bridge. One of the men, Maggie didn’t know which, took the baby. The other tried to pull her away from the bridge railing. Maggie allowed herself to be moved. She didn’t have the strength to fight it. She simply went limp as she was dragged off the bridge. Along the way, she took one last glance toward the creek, even though she knew she shouldn’t. She had to see it again. Just to make sure it was real.

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