Read an excerpt of A MAP OF THE DARK
She likes the feel of the ground underfoot and so she toes off her sneakers and carries them, swinging loosely from her fingertips. But after a couple of minutes she steps on something sharp and changes her mind. She drops her book bag in a pool of shifting shadows. Sits on it. Ties her left sneaker, then plants that foot on the ground and cantilevers over a bent knee to tie the other one. She feels tired. Tired from all the things on her agenda this week. All the schoolwork piling up. Yawning, she stands and continues walking slowly, vaguely, in the direction of her high school.
The whoosh of a car coming. And she remembers: The biology test. She prepared, so why is she nervous about it?
What is a quark? The smallest unit of matter; makes up protons.
What are molecules? Two or more atoms held together by chemical bonds.
What is an organelle? Part of a cell that has a specific function.
What are five types of organelles? Nucleus, mitochondrion, endoplasmic something, something, Golgi body.
Order from smallest to largest: Cell, tissue, organ, organ system, organism.
Again, what are five types of organelles?: Nucleus, mitochondrion, endoplasmic reticulum, something, something.
The third type comes to her but the fifth slips away, though she had it just a moment ago. The fourth one, she can't summon at all. She needs to do well on this test, but, honestly, why is it so important to know every detail about your body when it works just fine all on its very own?
Walking, slowing down, wondering where her life will lead her once she's free of school. Fanning open her fingers, she lets air circulate between her skin and today's rings: the purple glass one she bought at a flea market last year, and the brass braided one that always leaves behind a green circle. Several bracelets jangle on her left wrist. A clutch of necklaces hoop over the little tattoos that climb from shoulder to ear. Four earrings ladder from her right lobe; a long white feather swings from the left. The weight and movement of her jewelry reminds her of who she is. Who she really is, besides school and family and home and town and country and planet and universe.
A shadow moves and she's inspired to draw something on the sunlit patch of asphalt just ahead. She digs into her pocket for the nub of blue chalk she carries just in case. But then she hesitates.
A man is walking toward her. Tall. Brown hair swept back off his forehead, and a crooked nose that seems to get bigger as the distance between them shrinks. He nods at her. Her stomach gurgles. She keeps walking. No cars on the road at the moment. She wishes she'd managed to catch the bus.
"Excuse me." His voice is smooth, intent.
She pauses. "Yes?"
"Do you have the time?"
People always ask her that, maybe because, seeing so much jewelry, they assume she also wears a watch, which she doesn't. Why wear a watch when you can get the time off your phone? (Which is out of battery since, as usual, she forgot to charge it last night.)
Something in the man's eyes strikes her mute.
An impulse to run fires her nerves.
And then he shows her a gun.
Roy's eyes are cloudy. He blinks and suddenly they're hazel again, like they used to be: green-streaked riverbeds of timeworn memory. Elsa gently squeezes his hand, hoping he'll say something, anything, as unexpectedly as his eyes gained color. He hasn't spoken all morning. He lies there, his short salty hair poking in every direction, staring at the charcoal screen of the turned-off television, taking in the latest news of his diagnosis. She feels the movement of an internal shadow, a pull toward grief, but resists it. Not yet. She's just about to lean in so she can feel the soft warmth of his breath and remind herself how he used to flutter his eyelashes against her cheek when she was a little girl—butterfly kisses—when her pocket vibrates with a call.
She releases his hand and it floats a moment before coming to rest on the crisp white hospital sheet.
Marco Coutts flashes on her screen. Her jaw clenches reflexively as she answers. Before she can speak, her boss says, "Yeah, Elsa, I'm really sorry to bother you on your day off."
Her whisper comes out like a hiss of steam. "You know I'm with my father."
"How's he doing?"
"Why are you calling?"
"A lot of red flags waving in Queens. A girl's missing, a teenager—"
A drumbeat forms in her chest: Another one; here we go; please not today. "What precinct?"
"Forest Hills. Some new guy caught the case."
Shitting his pants? is what she wants to ask, but her father is right there, eyes fixed open in his morphine fog of semiconsciousness, possibly listening. So she says, "Marco, I'm all the way up here in Sleepy Hollow. Can't you put Gonzales on it?"
"He's already out in the Bronx today. Anyway, Elsa, I like you better for this one. You have a special feel for the teenagers, always have."
The praise irks her. She says, "We really need more agents on-site," but her comment falls flat between them, a toneless reprise of an unsolvable problem. The Bureau doesn't have the budget to delegate more agents for the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment unit, which makes it tough to deploy rapidly in a city the size of New York, which is crazy, because these are kids. Kids. And each and every time one of them vanishes, an absence echoes through Elsa.
Marco breathes into a pocket of silence, hot, jagged, the way he does when he doesn't want to hear something. She can picture him in his neat office in DC, from which he remotely oversees far-flung CARD teams along the East Coast: Shelves behind his desk, framed photos of his wife and their new baby girl. Good people. But then she corrects the image; he wouldn't be in his office today, he'd be at home, because it's Sunday. As always, doing his best at a difficult job.
Elsa stands up and takes the call across the room to the window. Early-summer flowering trees border the hospital parking lot. A blue station wagon enters lazily and slots itself between white lines; the driver's door pops open but no one steps out. Elsa turns her back to the window, gaze landing on her father—his broken-doll fragility under the sheets, his sallow skin, his wheezing breath—and does a quick calculation. Phelps Memorial Hospital, where the ambulance had transferred him from the assisted-living facility to which he'd moved last winter, is an hour from the city. Her sister, Tara, is on the way from Manhattan and should be here soon. All the doctors and nurses agree that, though the cancer is moving faster now, he's still got time—"Two months," the oncologist said, then on second thought, "maybe three"—enough to be stabilized and released from the hospital to finish out his life, or his death, depending on how you saw it. Elsa could slip away and not miss anything and be back by tonight. Do everything, please everyone. Fail no one, ever again. Plus, if she returned to the city, it would offer an opportunity to get to the family house in Queens for a final visit.
It was strange, prescient almost, the way Roy decided to sell the house where he raised his family so soon before his diagnosis, as if his body were telling him, Hurry, do this now, while you still have time and energy. She hadn't believed he'd go through with it, but he did, just two days ago on Friday, with Tara as his proxy. It's really done. And he's really dying. Seeing him as weakened as he is today, she can no longer deny these facts. The shock of this, along with the loss of the house, has the effect of awakening her from a stupor of wishful thinking. She has to go back, even if she doesn't want to. When you grow up in the same house your whole life, it becomes a monolithic presence you can't escape fast enough, a shadow you need to outrun—and a shell that holds your secrets.
As she understands it, the new owners, in their hubris, intend to build a pool in the modest backyard immediately, wasting as little of the summer as possible. They plan to take possession of the house tomorrow, Monday, which leaves her with only today for an errand that suddenly feels important. A ribbon of sorrow twists around her. Yes, she'll be a good employee and run to the job her boss is assigning her; she'll be a good daughter and be back here tonight; and in between, she'll take a detour into her past.
Reaching down to scratch her thigh, hard, through the tough fabric of her jeans, she says to Marco, "Tell me about the girl—what makes you think she's been abducted?"
"You're a saint."
"You know I'm not."
"Her name's Ruby Haverstock. She's seventeen, almost eighteen, and her parents haven't heard from her since Friday night. She went to her job at a local café, left work on time, and that was that. The detective on the case—"
"You said he was new," she interrupts. "How new?"
"First day at the precinct was yesterday."
"Shh…oot"—transitioning the expletive into something nicer, for her father's sake. She glances over at him and he's looking at her now, drinking in the sight of her. She smiles at him, forcing back incipient tears. His dry lips open, just a little, and close again.
"My understanding is he transferred in from somewhere else in the city, not sure where," Marco says. "Alexei Cole, goes by Lex."
"First, second, or third? Because if he's a third-grade detective, Marco, you know as well as I do that this will take twice the time it should."
"First, I think. At least second. He isn't new-new. He's not panicking about the girl, not yet, but he could use some guidance. Let's reach out, Elsa, help him however we can."
"So what makes him so sure she didn't run away? Eighteen years old—"
"Almost eighteen. And I know what you mean, but I talked it over with Detective Cole, and, Elsa, I share his concern. He's done his due diligence. This is a good kid, never stepped out of line, never any real problems, college-bound. Something feels wrong here."
Roy's lips part again. Elsa's pulse jolts. If there's something he wants to say, she needs to hear it.
"Okay, Marco. Text me his info. I'll get right on it."
As soon as she slides her phone into her pocket, it pings with Marco's incoming text. She sits on the edge of her father's bed and leans in close. "What is it, Daddy?"
His lined, bony face contorts on a wave of complex emotion. "Daddy," he echoes. It's true, she hasn't called him that in years. It just slipped out, and she's glad it did if it makes him happy.
"How are you feeling?"
He manages a twitch of his eyebrows, a familiar gesture she reads instantly: Don't ask the question unless you want the answer.
"Are you thirsty?" Honing her inquiry to specifics. "Want some water?" She takes hold of his glass, straw bent at the ready, but he shakes his head.
"Your mother's almond…" His memory fades at the final word.
"Butterballs?" Her mother, Deb, has been dead twenty-four years. "You mean the cookies you love—the ones Tara makes sometimes?"
"I was thinking about them just before."
Elsa nods. Their mother called them almond butterballs, her cinnamon-laced version of Mexican wedding cookies or Russian tea cakes, depending on where you came from, rich nutty orbs doused in powdered sugar. Elsa can still picture Deb all those years ago, standing over a mixing bowl in her flour-dusted apron, struggling to tame the dense dough with a wooden spoon before giving up and plunging in her bare hands. The way the long muscles in her forearms would tweak with effort, her power resonating into the dough.
Roy says, "I'm trying to remember how they…" His words ease into a coughing fit. Taste, he wants to say. She's sure of it. Such a simple wish.
"I'd ask Tara to bring some, Dad, but she's already on the road. She's almost here. Mel too."
She waits for him to tell her that it's okay, he can do without the cookies. But he doesn't. His eyes go cloudy again, blank, and his gaze drifts to the ceiling.
He struggles to refocus his attention on her face. Smiles. "Elsa. My Elsa."
"I'm heading to the city, for work, but I'll be back later, promise."
"While I'm there I'm going to swing by the house."
"They probably already changed the locks."
"I can slip in through a window."
The lines on his forehead compress. "Why? There's nothing left for us there. It's over."
But it isn't; not for her. Still, she gives him one of her acquiescent smiles, an old habit from their days of collusion when his passivity ruled. She's old enough now to see him with as much clarity as love, and she does love him, but she also recognizes that he let her down when she was a child, when his judgment might have counted.
He closes his eyes and retreats into silence. She waits. Leans close enough for him to feel the heat of her breath on his face, to remember what she remembers of their shared past. But his eyes don't open. After five minutes, ten, fifteen—she isn't sure, the way time has seemed to both race and blur from the moment she walked into the hospital this morning—she gathers herself. Standing at the door, she blows him a kiss, but he's sleeping, and it sails right past him.