Authors: Todd Ritter
“About this waterfall,” he said. “Where is it?”
Although the question was directed at Eric, Kat Campbell was the one who answered. “Just beyond the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac.”
“You can walk to it,” Eric added, trying to be helpful.
“That’s a good idea.” Nick grabbed his cane and used it to help pull himself to his feet. “Let’s have a look.”
When Kat also stood, Eric reluctantly followed suit. He had no desire to visit Sunset Falls. Even as a boy, he never wanted anything to do with the spot that had shattered his family. But that morning it was unavoidable. Nick Donnelly wanted to see the falls and Eric was obliged to show him. It was where his brother’s existence ended. Hopefully, it would also be the place where the answers to what happened to him began.
The cul-de-sac was quiet. Forbiddingly quiet, like a graveyard at night. Part of that could be attributed to its status as a glorified dead end, an afterthought by town planners, which jutted into the woods toward the water. But there were other streets in Perry Hollow just like it, and none of them were this silent, this still, this—
That was probably too dramatic a word to describe the cul-de-sac, but it perfectly summed up the vibe Kat got from it. There was no sidewalk, only high sycamores that towered next to the road, blocking out the bulk of the sun. In their leafy shadows, the street’s four houses looked dark and empty. Their lawns were vacant. Their front porches bare. It seemed to Kat like a ghost town.
She was sure Nick and even Eric Olmstead, who grew up there, felt the same way. The three of them walked down the middle of the street slowly and quietly, as if they were afraid of disturbing whatever spirits might lurk there.
Nick was the first to speak, pointing to a large brick home set far back on the opposite side of the street. It reeked of ostentation, from the curving driveway to the giant brass knockers on the front door.
“Who lives there?”
“That’s the Santangelo residence,” Kat said. “Lee and Becky.”
“Lee Santangelo. Where have I heard that name before?”
“He was a politician. State representative for, like, twenty years.”
Until Eric Olmstead hit the bestseller list, Lee Santangelo had been Perry Hollow’s most famous resident. The highlight of his tenure in Harrisburg was never taking a stand on anything and voting in whatever direction the popular wind was blowing. But people loved him. He was a former fighter pilot handpicked by NASA to train for the space program. His wife was a stylish beauty queen turned homemaker. They were Perry Hollow’s own JFK and Jackie.
Kat remembered how Lee would visit the elementary school each year, giving rambling speeches that encompassed everything from the importance of space exploration to state government. Even as a girl, she had thought him a bit too full of himself, a little heavy on the preening. Other girls disagreed. Even as Lee entered his forties, Kat still heard classmates talk about his sheer dreaminess.
“When was the last time you talked to Lee Santangelo?” she asked Eric.
“We’ve barely said ten words to each other our entire lives. The most we talked was when he’d put campaign signs in our yard every election, despite the fact that my mother always pulled them up and threw them in the street. They didn’t get along.”
“My mother never talked about it. Which makes me think it had something to do with Charlie.”
Kat shot Nick a glance. Whether he meant to or not, Eric just gave them their first suspect.
They came to a stop again at the next house on that side of the street. About half the size of the Santangelo residence, it was a two-story clapboard. And although the lawn was mowed and curtains were hung in the windows, Kat didn’t need the
sign at the end of the driveway to tell her it was vacant. It had that air of emptiness homes on the market often possessed.
According to the sign, the Realtor was Ginger Schultz, a former high school classmate. She and Kat had taken algebra together, and they’d spend the class sitting in the back row giggling and slipping notes. Now that Kat thought about it, a lot of those notes had to do with Eric Olmstead. That he and Kat were once again in the same place at the same time would amuse Ginger to no end.
“Who used to live here?” Nick asked.
“Ruth and Mort Clark,” Eric said with noticeable affection. “My mom actually liked them. They were good people.”
“When did they move?”
Kat, whose job required her to know as much as she could about everyone in town, took the liberty of answering. “They didn’t. They died. Mort sometime in the late eighties. Ruth was in the early nineties. The house has been on and off the market a lot since then.”
“Any particular reason?” Nick asked.
Eric started walking again. “I’d say it was the street. People know what happened here. Word gets around. It makes the place feel …”
His voice trailed off, but Kat knew what word he had intended to use. It was the same word that had popped into her head earlier.
As if they needed further proof of that feeling, Kat turned to the house across the street. Absurdly tall and run-down. The only way it could have looked more haunted is if there had been a cemetery in the front yard. Kat’s gaze started at the widow’s walk on the roof and slid down the house’s façade. The windows were wide and rounded at the top, giving the impression of many eyes staring outward. Some were cracked. Others were missing shutters. The siding—Kat assumed it had once been white—desperately needed stripping and a fresh coat of paint. The front porch was in equally bad shape. Holes gaped willy-nilly in the floorboards and a whole section of railing had broken off. It now lay on the ground, partially hidden by knee-high crabgrass.
“Let me guess,” Nick said, “this one is also vacant.”
“You’d think that, from the looks of the place,” Kat replied.
Nick jabbed his cane in the house’s direction. “Someone actually lives there?”
Kat nodded. “Glenn Stewart. He’s the town’s recluse.”
Other than the fate of Charlie Olmstead, Mr. Stewart was Perry Hollow’s biggest mystery. Kat, who could recognize almost every one of the town’s residents, had never knowingly laid eyes on the man. She also didn’t know too many people who had. In order to see Glenn, you’d have to go inside his house or he’d have to come out. As far as she knew, neither of those things happened very often.
“He was here in 1969?” Nick asked.
“Yes,” Eric said. “But according to my mother, he didn’t leave the house back then, either. He just stays inside, in his own little world. If it wasn’t for the occasional light in the window, you wouldn’t know he was there at all.”
Craning his neck, Nick scanned each window that faced the street. “He can hear us,” he whispered.
Kat whispered back. “How can you tell?”
“Because he’s watching us.”
She tilted her head upward until she, too, saw what Nick was looking at. It was a lace curtain hanging in the window, yellowed by the sun. Holding it away from the glass was a pale hand. After a few seconds, the hand retreated and the curtain dropped into place.
“Weird,” Nick said.
“How much do you know about this guy?”
Kat struggled to come up with something—a random tidbit, a minor piece of gossip—and failed. She knew absolutely nothing about Glenn Stewart, a fact that bothered her immensely.
They moved forward, not speaking, until they reached the end of the cul-de-sac. A thick swath of trees created a green wall in front of them. Emerging from deep inside it, barely audible, was the muffled rush of water.
“It’s this way,” Eric said, pointing to the remnants of a path that had once cut through the woods but was now camouflaged by weeds and brush.
He led the way, tamping down the weeds in front of him. Kat went next, kicking away anything that had the potential to trip up Nick. When she checked to see how he was faring, she saw his eyes narrowed in concentration as he carefully made his way.
In the distance, the roar of Sunset Falls grew louder as they continued to trudge through the woods. Soon they cleared the trees and emerged along the water’s bank, where the sound enveloped them. It was a steady thrum that echoed off the trees and forced them to raise their voices.
“This is it,” Eric announced. “Sunset Falls.”
In front of them, the creek rushed along with abnormal speed. It had been an unusually rainy summer, with the clouds opening up more often than not. The result of all that precipitation was a swollen creek that sparked into white water near the lip of the falls.
A wooden footbridge spanned the width of the creek, about fifty feet. It was narrow—barely wide enough to let two people pass—and of dubious strength. The trail continued on the other side, although it looked more neglected than the one on which they stood.
“Where does that path go?” Nick asked.
“Nowhere,” Kat said. “It just slopes down to the bottom of the falls, where it dead-ends. It used to be a popular place for picnics and pictures. Then Charlie Olmstead vanished, and no one wanted to go down there anymore.”
“Is there any other way to get there?”
Kat knew where he was going with the question. If an abduction did occur at the falls, he wanted to know all the ways to get in and out of the area.
“Nothing. This street is the only way to reach it.”
She should have said it
the only way to reach it. The bridge leading to the trail was now closed, a decision made sometime between her father’s reign as police chief and her own. Signaling its closure was a rusted sign nailed to a decrepit sawhorse that sat in the way.
“Do you think it’s safe?” Eric asked.
Kat, who hadn’t been on the bridge in probably twenty years, said, “There’s only one way to find out.”
Moving the sawhorse aside, she contemplated the span. Age and exposure to the elements had turned the wood slate gray, and cracks and termite holes were visible everywhere. But the bridge seemed sturdy enough, so she took a single step onto it.
Nothing happened. So far, so good. Only about fifty more steps to go.
“You guys coming?”
Nick shook his head and backed away. “No thanks.”
Kat bobbed up and down on the bridge’s first plank, testing its sturdiness. “It seems fine to me. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“The last time I felt adventurous,” Nick said, tapping his right knee, “this happened. So I’ll just lean against a tree and watch.”
This was unlike him, cane or no cane. Kat knew only one thing could keep Nick from going out on that bridge: an ulterior motive. He was giving her time alone with Eric, presumably so the two of them could get reacquainted.
As Nick gingerly backed himself against a nearby oak, Kat faced forward again. She took another tentative step, practically on her tiptoes. Although the bridge seemed fairly solid, she did the same with her next two steps as she gripped the waist-high railing. After another two steps, she eased up on the caution and was walking normally.
The bridge creaked slightly under her weight, but that wasn’t cause for concern. All bridges creaked. It wobbled, too, which worried Kat more than the creaking. But by that time it was too late. She was at the halfway point. Through the cracks between the bridge’s planks, she saw the creek flowing swiftly beneath her. If the bridge collapsed, there was nothing she could do about it.
To her left, the creek was a ribbon of water that curved slightly through the trees. A couple of large rocks jutted through the surface, sending the water swirling around them in ripples that caught the sun. On the right side of the bridge, the water picked up speed. It gathered in long white streaks that slipped over the falls and vanished from view. If she fell in, there was very little to prevent her from tumbling down the falls.
Her only hope, Kat noticed, was a low-hanging branch from an oak tree next to the creek. Strong and sturdy, it stretched over the water at the point where the stream ended and Sunset Falls began. If she managed to grab the branch and hold on tight, she could survive. If she missed, then she’d be dead.
Thankfully, Eric caught up to her and she no longer had to think about survival plans, which made her nervous. To put her mind at ease, she engaged in small talk instead.
“How long are you going to be in town?”
“A few more weeks,” Eric said. “I still have to pack everything up and put the house on the market.”
“Your mother was a good woman. I was sorry to hear about the cancer.”
Kat had considered going to Maggie Olmstead’s funeral but eventually decided it wasn’t a good idea. Seeing Eric again under those circumstances would have been awkward for both of them. Being alone on the bridge with him was awkward enough.
Yet it was also oddly exhilarating. For a moment it felt as if she was once again that shy freshman finally freed of braces and Eric had become that cute senior in Buddy Holly glasses. Memories she hadn’t thought of for decades suddenly flashed through her mind. Most of them were good. Only one was bad.
“Should we push on?” she asked.
They crossed the bridge to the other side, where the path was practically invisible. Now a strip of dirt, it slanted downward, pointing the way to the bottom of the falls. Kat took a deep breath and began the descent, with Eric following close behind. It was rough going. A few rogue branches swiped at their heads while weeds scraped their legs. The waterfall, plunging directly to their right, sent off clouds of mist that stuck to their skin and made the ground muddy and slick beneath their feet.
“So,” Eric said, “are you and Nick Donnelly …”
His voice trailed off, letting Kat pick whatever euphemism she wanted. Dating? An item? Lovers?
“We’re just friends,” she said. “Good ones.”
“How do you two know each other?”
“Nick used to be with the state police,” Kat said. “He helped me with a murder investigation last year.”
“I heard about that. It’s hard to believe something like that could happen in Perry Hollow.”