Emma in the Night – Wendy Walker

We believe what we want to believe. We believe what we need to believe. Maybe there’s no difference between wanting and needing. I don’t know. What I do know is that the truth can evade us, hiding behind our blind spots, our preconceptions, our hungry hearts that long for quiet. Still, it is always there if we open our eyes and try to see it. If we really try to see. When my sister and I disappeared three years ago, there was nothing but blindness. They found Emma’s car at the beach. They found her purse inside, on the driver’s seat. They found the keys in the purse. They found her shoes in the surf. Some people believed she had gone there to find a party or meet a friend who never showed. They believed that she’d gone for a swim. They believed that she’d drowned.

Maybe by accident. Maybe a suicide. Everyone believed Emma was dead. As for me, well—it was not as simple as that. I was fifteen when I disappeared. Emma would never have taken me to the beach with her when I was fifteen. She was a senior in high school and I was a nuisance. My purse was in the kitchen. Nothing of mine was found at the beach. None of my clothes were even missing from the house, according to my mother.

And mothers know things like that. Don’t they? But they found my hair in Emma’s car and some people clung to this, even though I had been in her car countless times. They clung to it anyway because if I had not gone to the beach with Emma, if I had not drowned in the ocean that night, maybe running in to save her, then where was I? Some people needed to believe I was dead because it was too hard to wonder. Others were not so sure. Their minds were open to the possibility of a bizarre coincidence. One sister drowned at the beach. One sister run away, or perhaps abducted. But then … runaways usually pack a bag. She must have been abducted. But then … bad things like that didn’t happen to people like us.

It had not been an ordinary night, and this fueled the coincidence theories. My mother told them the story in a way that captivated audiences and gathered enough sympathy to quench her thirst for attention. I could see it in her eyes as I watched her on the news channels and talk shows. She described the fight between me and Emma, the shrill screaming and crying of teenage girls. Then the silence. Then the car leaving the property after curfew. She’d seen the headlights from her bedroom window. Tears were shed as she told the story, a collective sigh echoing throughout the studio audience. Our lives were pulled apart in search of answers. Social media, friends, text messages and diaries.

Everything was scrutinized. She told them how we had been fighting about a necklace. I bought it for Emma for the start of school. Her senior year! That’s such a special time. Cass was jealous. She was always so jealous of her sister. This was followed by more tears. The beach faces the Long Island Sound. There is not much of a current. At low tide, you have to walk a long while to get in over your knees.

At high tide, the water rolls so gently, you can hardly feel its pull against your ankles, and your feet don’t sink into the sand with every wave the way they do at the beaches up the coast that face the Atlantic. It is not easy to drown at our beach. I remember watching my mother on the TV, words coming out of her mouth, tears coming out of her eyes. She had bought new clothes for the occasion, a tailored suit, dark gray, and shoes by an Italian designer who she told us was the best and a statement of our status in the world. I could tell by the shape of the toe. She had taught us a lot about shoes. I don’t think it was because of the shoes that everyone wanted to believe her. But they did. I could feel it coming through the television. Perhaps we crumbled under the pressure at our private school.

Maybe it was some kind of suicide pact. Maybe we’d filled our pockets with rocks and walked slowly into our watery graves like Virginia Woolf. But then, where were our bodies? It took six weeks and four days for the story to stop leading the news shows. My celebrity mother went back to being plain old Judy Martin—or Mrs. Jonathan Martin, as she preferred to be called— formerly Mrs. Owen Tanner, formerly Judith Luanne York. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. York was her maiden name before she took the names of her two husbands. Two husbands are not a lot of husbands these days. Emma and I came from the first one—Owen Tanner.

Emma was named after my father’s mother, who died of a bad heart when he was seventeen. My name, Cassandra (Cass for short), came from a baby book my mother had. She said it sounded like the name of someone important. Someone people admired. Someone people envied. I don’t know about any of that. But I remember her brushing my long hair in front of her bathroom mirror, admiring me with a satisfied smile. Look at you, Cassandra! You should never be without a mirror to remind yourself how beautiful you are. Our mother never told Emma she was beautiful. They were too much alike for words of affection to pass between them.

Praising someone who looks the same or acts the same or is wearing the same clothes is like praising yourself and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Instead it feels diminishing, like that other person has stolen praise that should have come your way. Our mother would never allow Emma to steal something as valuable as praise. But she said it to me. She said I had the best of both gene pools. She was very knowledgeable about these things—things like how children got blue eyes or brown eyes or math brains or music brains. By the time you have children, Cassandra, you might be able to choose nearly every trait! Can you imagine? Oh, how dif erent my life could have been if those scientists had worked a little faster! [sigh]. I didn’t know what she meant then. I was only seven. But when she brushed my hair like that, when she shared her secret thoughts, I listened with great interest because it would fill me with joy from my toes to my eyebrows and I never wanted it to end.

But it always did. Our mother knew how to keep us hungry for her. When we were young like that, she would ask us if she was pretty, the prettiest girl we’d ever seen, and if she was smart, the smartest woman we’d ever known, and then, of course— Am I a good mother? The best mother you could ever want? She always smiled big and wide eyed when she asked. And when we were young, Emma and I, we would tell her yes in our most sincere voices. She would gasp, shake her head and finally squeeze us so hard, like the excitement at being so wonderful was too much to contain, like she had to wring it from her body with some kind of physical exertion. After the squeezing came a long sigh to exhale the excitement she’d freed from her bones. The excitement would exit her body on hot breath and fill the entire room, leaving her quietly satisfied. Other times, when she was sad or angry at the world for being cruel to her, for not seeing how special she was, we would be the ones to say it, knowing it would bring her back from her dark place. You’re the best mother in the whole wide world! And we believed it, Emma and I, when we were young like that. I remember these moments in bits and pieces that won’t fit together anymore, like sections of shattered glass that have been weathered, their edges smoothed.

Strong arms squeezing hard. The smell of her skin. She wore Chanel No. 5, which she told us was very expensive. We were not allowed to touch the bottle, but sometimes she would hold it for us while we inhaled the fragrance from the top of the sprayer. Other fragments contain the sound of her voice as she screamed and thrashed around on her bed, tears wetting the sheets. Me hiding behind Emma. Emma staring quietly, studying her, making calculations. Waking up to our mother’s elation. Waking up to her despair.

I remember, too, this feeling I would have. It is not attached to any particular moment. It’s just a memory of a feeling. Opening my eyes each morning, fearful because I had no idea what awaited us that day. If she would hug us. If she would brush my hair. Or if she would cry into her sheets. It was like trying to pick your clothes without even knowing what season it was, winter or summer. When Emma was ten and I was eight, our mother’s spell started to fade in the bright light of the outside world—the real world, where she was not that pretty, or that smart, or that good a mother. Emma had begun to notice things about her and she would tell me when she felt like it.

She was wrong, you know. It didn’t matter what followed, whether it was some opinion our mother had about another mother from our school, or a fact about George Washington, or what kind of dog had just crossed the road. What mattered was that she was wrong, and every time she was wrong, our voices grew less sincere when we answered her. Aren’t I a good mother? The best mother you could ever want? We never stopped saying the word. Yes. But when I was eight and Emma was ten, she knew we were lying. We were in the kitchen that day. She was mad at our father. I can’t remember why. He has no idea how lucky he is! I could have any man I want.

You girls know that! My girls know. She busied herself with some dishes. Faucet on. Faucet off. The dish towel fell to the floor. She picked it up. Emma stood on the other side of a giant island. I stood beside her, my shoulder tucked in next to hers, and I leaned toward her so I could disappear behind her body if I needed to. Emma felt so strong to me then, as we waited to see which season it would be. Whether it would be summer or winter.

Our mother started to cry. She turned to look at us. What did you say? Yes. We answered as we always did when she asked us if she was the best mother. We walked to her side, waiting for our hug and the smile and the sigh. But none of that came. Instead, she pushed us both away, one hand on my chest and one hand on Emma’s. She studied our faces incredulously. Then she gasped, breath going in, not out. Go to your rooms.

Right now! We did as we were told. We went to our rooms. I tried to talk to Emma, I remember asking her as we walked upstairs, Emma storming and me scurrying, What did we do? But Emma talked about our mother only when she wanted to—when she had something to say. The story of our mother would be written by her, and her alone. She pushed my hand from her arm and told me to shut up. We did not get any dinner. Or any hugs. Or any kisses good night. The price for these things, for our mother’s affection, went up that night and in the years that followed. The things we had to say and do to convince her of our admiration inflated the more we said and did them—inflated and also changed so that her love became scarce.

A few years later, when I was eleven, I looked up my name, Cassandra, when I saw it in a book about myths. It actually comes from Greek mythology, the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy: “Cassandra had the gift of prophecy but the curse that her prophecies would never be believed.” I stared at my computer screen for a long time. My mind had run away. Suddenly, the entire Universe made sense and it was all centered around me, how my mother had given me this name, but really it must have been fate. Fate, or God, or whatever—he had entered my mother’s mind and put this name in her head. He knew what was coming. He knew that I would predict the future and that no one would believe me. Children have a way of believing in fantasies. I now know that my mother naming me Cassandra and what happened to us was nothing more than a random concurrence of events.

But at the time, when I was eleven, I felt responsible for all that would happen. That was the year of my parents’ divorce. That was the year I told them what I knew—that I could see what was going to happen. I told them that Emma and I should not live with our mother and her new boyfriend, Mr. Martin, and his only child—a son named Hunter. My parents’ divorce was not a surprise to me. Emma said she wasn’t surprised either, but I didn’t believe her. She cried too much for that to be true. Everyone thought Emma was tough, that nothing bothered her. People were always wrong about Emma because she could react to upsetting things with an unsettling hardness.

She had dark hair, like our mother, and her skin was very soft and pale. When she was a teenager, she discovered bright red lip gloss and dark black eye shadow, and how she could hide behind them like paint covering a wall. She would wear short skirts and tight sweaters, mostly black turtlenecks. I don’t have just one word to describe how I saw her. She was beautiful, severe, tortured, vulnerable, desperate, ruthless. And I admired her and envied her and drank in every moment she would give any piece of herself to me. Most of the pieces were small. Many of them were meant to hurt me or exclude me or win points with our mother. But sometimes, when our mother was asleep and the house was quiet, Emma would come to my room and crawl into my bed. She would get under the covers and lie very close to me, and, sometimes, she would wrap her arms around me and press her cheek into my shoulder.

It was then that she would tell me things that fed me and kept me warm and made me feel safe even when I woke up to our mother’s winter mood. Someday it will just be the two of us, Cass. You and me and no one else. I can remember her smell, the warmth of her breath, the strength of her arms. We’ll go wherever we want and we’ll never let her in. We won’t even care anymore. I can still hear her voice, my sister whispering to me in the night. I love you, Cass. When she said these things to me, I thought nothing could ever touch us. I let Emma convince me to betray our mother during the divorce.

She could see the next move of every player on the board. She could change their course by changing her own. She was responsive, adaptable. And she was never committed to any particular outcome except her own self-preservation. Cass, we need to live with Daddy. Don’t you see? He will be so sad without us. Mom has Mr. Martin. Dad only has us. Do you understand? We have to do something and do it now! Or it will be too late! Emma didn’t have to tell me this.

I understood all of it. Our mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Martin, moved into our father’s house the second our father moved out. His son, Hunter, went to boarding school, but he lived with us when he came home for vacations and weekends, and he came home a lot. Mr. Martin’s ex-wife had moved to California a long time before we ever knew them. Mr. Martin was “semiretired,” which meant he’d made a lot of money and now played a lot of golf. I could see that our mother never loved our father, Owen Tanner. She ignored him so glaringly and with such indifference that it became difficult just to look at him, to look at the pain that radiated from his body.

So, yes, our father was sad. I told Emma that I could see our father’s sadness. What I didn’t tell Emma was that I could see other things as well. I could see the way Mr. Martin’s son looked at Emma when he came home from school, and the way Mr. Martin looked at his son looking at Emma, and the way our mother looked at Mr. Martin when he was looking at them. And I could see that this was going to result in a bad future. But seeing the future is a worthless gift if you don’t have the power to change it. And so when the woman from the court asked me, I said I wanted to live with my father.

I said that I thought things would be bad in our house with Mr. Martin and his son. I think Emma was surprised by my courage, or perhaps taken aback at what she perceived to be her influence over me. In any case, when I made this move on the board, she adjusted her course and sided with our mother, sealing forever her position as the most favored child. I never saw it coming. Everyone believed her and no one believed me because I was only eleven and Emma was thirteen. And because Emma was Emma and I was me. Our mother was irate because the people I had told this to could have made it so that we didn’t have to live with her. How could she be the best mother in the world if she didn’t have any children left? When she finally won, I found out just how angry she was. After everything I’ve done for you! I knew you never loved me! She was wrong about that.

I did love her. But she never brushed my hair again. And don’t ever call me Mother again! To you, I’m Mrs. Martin! After the dust had settled from the divorce, Emma and our mother would dance together in the kitchen as they baked chocolate cake. They would laugh hysterically at YouTube videos of cats playing the piano or toddlers walking into walls by mistake. They went shopping for shoes on Saturdays, watched Real Housewives on Sundays. And they fought almost every day, loud, screaming, swearing fighting—the kind of fighting that seemed to me, even after years of watching them, to be terminal. But the next day, sometimes the same day, they would again be laughing as if nothing had happened. No apologies were made. No discussions about how they could get along better.

No boundaries for the future. They would just carry on. It took me a long time to understand their relationship. I was always willing to pay the price for her love, whatever price she decided to set. But Emma knew something I didn’t. She knew that our mother needed our love as much as we needed hers, maybe even more. And she knew that if she threatened to take it away, to raise the price on her affection, our mother would be willing to negotiate. Back and forth, they made their trades, resetting the terms almost daily. And always looking for ways to improve their power at the bargaining table. I became the outsider.

I may have been beautiful, as my mother said, but I was beautiful like a doll, like a lifeless thing people look at once before moving on. Emma and our mother had something else, something that drew people in. And so they were fierce competitors in their secret club, for each other’s love, for the love of everyone around them. And all I could do was watch from a distance, one short enough that I could see the escalation. Two nation-states in a constant battle for power and control. It was unsustainable. And so it continued, this war between my mother and my sister, until the night we were gone. I remember the feeling I had the day I returned. Having made my way to Mrs. Martin’s house—to my house, I guess (though it did not feel like my house after being away for so long)—on a Sunday morning in July, I stood frozen outside in the woods.

I had thought about my return relentlessly for three years. Memories had filled my dreams at night. Lavender soap and fresh mint in cold iced tea. Chanel No. 5. Mr. Martin’s cigars. Cut grass, fall leaves. The feel of my father’s arms around me. Fear had run away with my thoughts during the day.

They would all want to know where I’d been, and how I came to be missing. And they would want to know about Emma. The night we disappeared haunted me. Every detail played over and over and over. Regret lived inside my body, eating me alive. I had thought about how to tell them, how to explain it. There had been time, too much time, to construct the story in a way they would be able to comprehend. I had thought it through, then unraveled it, then thought it through again, self-doubt and self-loathing erasing and rewriting the script. A story is more than the recounting of events. The events are the sketch, the outline, but it is the colors and the landscape and the medium and the artist’s hand that make it what it is in the end.

I had to be a good artist. I had to find talent where none existed and tell this story in a way they would believe. I had to set aside my own feelings about the past. About my mother and Emma. Mrs. Martin and Mr. Martin. Me and Emma. I loved my mother and my sister in spite of my selfish, petty feelings. But people don’t understand any of that.

I had to not be selfish and foolish. I had to be the person they wanted me to be. I had nothing with me but the clothes on my body. I had no evidence. No credibility except for the fact of my own existence. I stood frozen in the woods, filled with terror that I would fail. And there was so much at stake. They had to believe my story. They had to find Emma. And to find Emma, they had to look for her.

It was all on me, finding my sister. They had to believe me that Emma was still alive. TWO Dr. Abigail Winter, Forensic Psychologist, Federal Bureau of Investigation Abby lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, contemplating the extent of her defeat. It was six o’clock on a Sunday morning, mid-July. The sun was up, pouring light into her room through sheer curtains. Her clothes were strewn across the floor, shed in an effort to find comfort in the thick summer heat. The air conditioner had begun clanking again, and she’d chosen quiet over cool. But now even the sheets felt like a burden against her skin. Her head pounded.

Her mouth was dry. The smell of scotch from an empty glass turned her stomach. Two drinks at midnight had overpowered her restless mind and brought her a few hours of relief. And a hangover, apparently. At the foot of the bed, a dog moaned and raised his head. “Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “It was worth it.” Three hours would get her through a day of catching up on paperwork. She had reports due on two cases and corrections to a deposition she’d given back in February—as if she would have any memory of what she’d said that long ago about anything. Still, this was no victory over her mind—the mind that controlled her body, and sometimes seemed intent on destroying it.

The contemplation was interrupted by her phone ringing on the nightstand. Her body ached as she reached for it beside the empty glass. She didn’t recognize the number. “This is Abby.” She sat up and tugged on a twisted sheet to cover her body. “Hey, kiddo—it’s Leo.” “Leo?” She sat up straighter. Pulled the sheet higher. Only one person called her “kiddo” at age thirty-two, and that was Special Agent Leo Strauss. They hadn’t worked together for over a year.

Not since he’d transferred to New York to be closer to his grandchildren. Still, his voice reached into her very core. He had been like family. “Listen. Just listen,” he said. “I know it’s been a while.” “What’s going on?” Abby’s face drew tight. “Cassandra Tanner came home.” Abby was on her feet, searching for clean clothes. “When?” “Half an hour, maybe less.

Showed up this morning.” Phone pressed between shoulder and ear, Abby pulled on a shirt, then jeans. “Where?” “The Martin house.” “She went to her mother?” “She did, not sure what that means…” “Emma?” “She was alone.” Abby buttoned her shirt, stumbled to the bathroom. She felt the surge of adrenaline, her knees buckling. “I’m heading to the car … Christ…” A long silence made her stop. She took the phone in her hand, braced herself on the bathroom sink. “Leo?” Abby had not forgotten the Tanner sisters. Not for one minute of one day.

The facts of the investigation into their disappearance had lain dormant in the shadowed corners of her mind. But that was not the same as forgetting. They were with her, even after a year of being off the case. They were in her bones. In her flesh. She breathed them in and out with every breath. The missing girls. And the theory of the case that no one else would believe. One call and the dam was broken. All of it was flooding in, sweeping her off her feet.

“Leo? You still there?” “I’m here.” “They pulled you in from New York?” “Yeah. You’ll get a call from New Haven with the assignment. I wanted to make sure you were okay with it first.” Abby looked up into the mirror as she considered what to say. Things had not ended well when the case got cold. “I’m working this case, Leo.…” “Okay … I just didn’t know where you were at. They said you had some counseling.…” Shit.

Abby hung her head. It was still there, the anger or maybe frustration, or disappointment. Whatever it was, she could feel it stirred by the concern in his voice. The Bureau had offered her counseling and she had taken it. “It’s normal to feel this way,” they told her. Yes, Abby had thought at the time. She knew it was normal. Some cases get under the skin. Everyone agreed this case had been maddening. No one knew what to call it at the time.

Murder, kidnapping, accident. They’d had an eye on the disappearance from the runaway angle as well— sexual predators, terrorist recruiters, Internet stalkers. Everything was in play. The car at the beach, the shoes of just one of the sisters left by the shore. They’d found nothing to suggest the younger one had been with her except Cass’s hair—which could have been left there on any number of occasions. There was nothing to suggest they had planned to run away together. And nothing to suggest foul play, either murder or abduction, of either one. There were no bodies, no suspects, no motives, no strangers on their social media sites or phone logs or text messages or e-mails. Nothing obvious had changed in recent years. The truth is, they might as well have brought in NASA and called it an alien abduction.

But this was not the reason Abby had seen the shrink. She had been doing this work since she finished her PhD nearly eight years ago. There had been other difficult cases. She could see them all when she summoned them. The brutal beating of a prostitute. The execution of a neighborhood drug dealer. The hanging of a dog on the branch of a tree. The list went on and on—cases that were never solved, or never prosecuted, the victims’ families, and sometimes the survivors, left choking on the injustice. There had been relief in talking to another professional. Though Abby had never been a practicing therapist—“I don’t have the patience for patients,” she used to joke—that did not mean she wasn’t a believer. Talking could bring perspective. Talking could dull the edges of the blade. But even after a year of talking and talking, the endless talking, the Tanner investigation remained with her. That it cut less deep did not help wrestle the demons it summoned in the dark of night. And now her sessions with the shrink were coming back to bite her. “I’m working the case, Leo.…” “Okay, okay…” “What do we know? Has she said anything?…” Abby heard a short sigh as she turned away from the mirror and headed back into the bedroom to find her shoes. “Nothing, kiddo. She took a shower. Had some food. Now she’s resting until we can get there.” “A shower? How did that happen?” “It was her mother. She wasn’t thinking. She almost started the wash—” “With Cass’s clothes? Before forensics? Christ!” “I know … just get moving. Call me from the car.” The phone went quiet again, but this time he was gone. Shit! Heart racing now, she pulled on a pair of boots, called out to the dog, who followed her through the small ranch house to the kitchen. She poured some food into a bowl. Rubbed his neck. Opened the back door so he could go out. “Keys, keys…” she said out loud, back in the living room, searching. She was frantic to get to the door. To get to her car. To get to Cassandra Tanner. Her head felt light, her vision starting to blur. Chronic sleep deprivation had its side effects. She stopped and braced herself on the back of a chair. No one had believed her theory three years ago, not even Leo, and he had been like a father to her. It was one thing to have a cold case. It was another thing to leave stones unturned. The company shrink listened, but she did not hear. She said things like “I can understand how you feel that way.” Classic feeling validation. They taught that in undergraduate psych classes. She would ask what had not been done. She would let Abby ramble on and on about the family, the mother, Judy Martin, the divorce, the new father, Jonathan Martin. And the stepbrother, Hunter. Together, they had deconstructed every piece of the investigation and in a way that was meant to lead Abby to a place of comfort. The shrink—“You did everything you could.” Abby could still hear the conviction in her voice. She could see the sincerity on her face, even now as Abby closed her eyes to stop the spinning in her head. She took a long breath and exhaled hard, her hand clenched on the wood back of the chair. Their analysis of the investigation had become Abby’s Bible, the verses giving her rambling, desperate thoughts a path to salvation. Verse number one. The normalcy reported by the outsiders—friends, teachers, the school counselor. Cass envied her older sister. Emma was annoyed by Cass. Cass was quiet but determined. Emma was more free-spirited. Some used the word “undisciplined.” But she had been looking at colleges, filling out applications. Everything indicated that she was just biding her time until she could get out of that house. The shrink—“All of that sounds pretty normal, Abby. They were on time for school. A very prestigious private school. The Soundview Academy. They spent summers at expensive camps, some in Europe. They did sports. Had friends…” Abby had grown impatient with her. Verse number two. Abby explained that whatever happened to them, they had been vulnerable to it. And that vulnerability had started at home. It always did. In spite of how these stories were depicted in the news, it was not a mystery what lured teenagers from their homes. An acute traumatic event. Chronic neglect, abuse, instability, dysfunction. The dark void of unfulfilled need. The vulnerability to sexual predators, terrorist groups, religious fanatics, antigovernment extremists. The perpetrator found a way to satisfy that need, to give it what it craved. The predator became a drug. The teenager, an addict. So when the initial frenzy died down, when they realized the girls were long gone and that finding them would require a slow and methodical unraveling of their lives, Abby had turned back to the family. When she opened her eyes, the room was still. Her keys were there, on the table next to the chair, and she took them in her hand. She walked to the door and let in the harsh sunlight and a burst of hot, oppressive air from the outside. No one had objected then. In fact, the entire investigation turned inward, on the family, and on the Martin home in particular. Physical forensics were done at the house. Bank accounts, credit cards, phone records were collected and analyzed. Friends and neighbors were interviewed. Abby could recall the conversations then, at the start of the investigation. “Yes, yes, this is all good information. All good.” Teenage girls had gone missing. Where there’s smoke, there must be fire—so they looked for the embers close to home. The girls’ father, Owen Tanner, had been happily married to his first wife before they were born. He and his wife had a little boy, Witt. They had a nice house, family money. Owen worked in New York City at an import firm his family owned. They specialized in gourmet foods, which were his passion. He had a healthy trust and didn’t need the income, but his wife thought it was good for him to work. Ironically, that’s where he’d met Judy York, the sexy brunette with large breasts and a magnetic personality. Owen had hired her to manage the office. After the affair, his divorce and the new marriage, Judy and Owen had the two girls in four years. According to Owen, Judy had not been an ideal caregiver to her young daughters. She was capable, he’d insisted. But she was not willing. Owen said that she slept twelve hours every night, then watched reality television and shopped for clothes all day. She would open a bottle of wine at five o’clock and finish it by ten when she went to bed, words slurring, that magnetic personality suddenly repulsive. She told him, allegedly, that she had done her part by giving birth. This had been the first alarm bell. With her Bible now open, the verses spilling out, Abby bounded to her car as if she could somehow outrun them. None of this would matter now. Because Cassandra Tanner was home. Because soon she would know the truth and whether she’d been right or wrong. Because soon she would know if she could have saved them from whatever it was that had happened. Agent Leo Strauss had been the lead on the investigation. It had not been their first time working together, so there had been a rapport. He had been her mentor, in work and in life. His family had included her in holiday dinners. His wife, Susan, baked her cakes on her birthday. There had been a bond between them that made it difficult for Abby to hide what she was thinking. How Judy had seduced Owen Tanner. Neglected her children. Had an affair with a man from the country club. About the bitter custody fight. And about the toxic home Judy made for her daughters with Jonathan Martin and his son, Hunter. Abby had thought the investigation would barrel down this freeway once they had the divorce file and, in particular, the report of the attorney who had been appointed to represent the children. The guardian ad litem, or GAL, as they’re called in Connecticut. It was right there in an independent record—the voice of Cassandra Tanner four years before she disappeared. Telling them all that something was not right in that house. Something with Emma and Jonathan Martin and Hunter. To Abby’s ear, it was a ghost from the past telling them where to look. That report had been the second alarm bell. But the forensics had not supported her theory. Verse number three. The shrink—“What did you think they would do with this report from the divorce file? After all the forensic evidence came up clean? The house, the phones, the money? All they found was one broken picture frame—isn’t that right? Which the mother said resulted from the girls’ fight over a necklace?” She thought they would order psychiatric evaluations. She thought they would conduct more coercive interviews. She thought they would see what she could see. The shrink—“The woman who wrote that report during the divorce—the GAL—she dismissed Cass’s concerns about the Martins, didn’t she?” Yes, she did. But she was an incompetent hack. She dismissed the fears of an eleven-year-old girl, believing her mother instead—believing that girl was lying to help her father. The shrink—“Because the father, Owen, was so devastated by the affair and the divorce, right? Parents do that in custody fights. Use the children…” Yes, they do. But Owen agreed to settle, to spare the children. Anyone who’s worked in that field knows that the person who cares more about the children usually loses. And Owen lost. There was nothing to indicate he had told his daughter to lie. Then there was the story about the necklace. Verse number four. The shrink—“This is when you decided to push for the psychiatric evaluations? When you found out about the necklace?” Judy Martin told the story to the press. How she bought the necklace, a flying-angel medallion on a silver chain, for Emma and how Cass was bitterly jealous—and how they’d been fighting about it the night they disappeared. Only that wasn’t the truth. Leo interviewed the woman at the store who sold Judy that necklace—a twenty-dollar trinket. The woman was the store’s owner, a small shop that catered to teenage girls with overpriced jeans, short miniskirts and trendy throwaway jewelry. She knew the girls and their mother. They’d been shopping there for years, and the mother never failed to express her disdain for the merchandise in a whispered voice that would carry throughout the store. The woman recalled two encounters with Judy Martin and the necklace. In the first, Judy, Cass and Emma stopped to browse while shopping for school clothes. The younger girl, Cass, picked up the necklace and sighed. She asked her mother to buy it for her. Judy Martin took it from her hands, told her it was “cheap garbage” and that she should learn to have better taste. The girl asked again, telling her mother how much she loved it. The angel reminded her of Tinker Bell from Peter Pan—and that had been her favorite book when she was little. Apparently, her father had read it to her every night. Peter Pan. This did not help her cause. Judy Martin admonished her even more harshly, and then started walking away. Both girls followed. The older one, Emma, bumped shoulders with her sister, making her trip. She held up her hand to her forehead in the shape of an L. Loser. The next day, Judy Martin returned and bought the necklace. The woman remembered smiling because she thought the mother was buying the necklace for the girl who’d asked for it—the younger one. Leo asked her, holding two pictures in his hands—“Are you certain it was this girl, Cass Tanner, and not this girl, Emma Tanner, who picked out the necklace?” The owner was certain. “When I saw that interview, the one with the mother, Judy, I couldn’t believe it. She was saying how she’d bought the necklace for the older daughter, Emma. And I guess she did—right? Gave the necklace to Emma and not to the other sister, who wanted it?” Emma had worn the necklace every day. Friends confirmed it. Her father confirmed it. The school confirmed it. There was no doubt that Judy Martin had gone back to the store and bought the necklace for Emma. Not Cass. The shrink weighed in. “Maybe the clerk was mistaken, Abby.” That’s what Leo had thought. And that’s what the department had said when they dismissed her theory about the family after the evidence came up with nothing solid—and after the family had started to push back with lawyers and tears in front of cameras. But Abby knew the truth. This is what they do, people like Judy Martin. They are masterful in their deception. They are relentless in their manipulation. Abby had not only studied these things; she had lived them, too. Verse number five. The shrink—“Was she ever diagnosed? Your mother?” No. Never. And Abby had been the only member of the family to know there was something that needed to be diagnosed. Not her father. Not her stepmother. And not even her sister, Meg, who to this day still thought of their mother as “overindulgent” and “free-spirited.” The shrink—“Do you think that’s why you went into this field? Why you wrote your thesis on the cycle of narcissism in families?” And what did that prove? It had not been a conscious decision, studying psychology. But when Abby had first read about narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder, the adrenaline had rushed in so hard and fast, it sent her to her knees. Right there in the library at Yale. Right there in front of her roommate, who thought she’d had a stroke. Abby had wanted to curl up on the floor and swim in it —the understanding that was seeping from the words in that textbook. It was an illness that everyone thought they understood, assigning the label “narcissist” to every girl who looked twice in a mirror and every guy who never called. Books and films labeled every selfish character a “narcissist,” but then there would be redemption, reconciliation, seeing the light. Few people really knew what this illness was. What it really looked like. There was never redemption. Or reconciliation. There was no light to be seen. It was the combination of these things— misperception and overuse—that made this illness so dangerous. Verse number six. The shrink—“Let’s play it out. Let’s say they did push harder—went to court to get orders for psych evals, battled the local media, which was squarely behind the grieving parents. Let’s say they found that Judy had some kind of personality disorder. And maybe Owen Tanner had depression. And maybe Jonathan Martin was an alcoholic and his son ADHD. On and on—let’s just say they found the mother lode of psychiatric conditions. That does not mean they would have found the girls.” And there it was—the lifeboat. Abby had climbed into it, and it had saved her. Anytime she fell out, when she thought about that necklace, the third alarm bell that had convinced her beyond doubt that the family was involved in the girls’ disappearance—she would climb back into that boat and keep herself from drowning. “It may not have saved them.” It may not have saved them. This verse, this lifeboat, had saved her. But it had not brought her one moment of peace. As she peeled out of her driveway, the sun’s light piercing her eyes, she turned to the last page of the Bible, the one verse that had been left blank. The one that called out for words. For answers. And she couldn’t stop herself from hoping that now, finally, it would be written.


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