Not twenty-four hours After Tea, somebody goes missing. It’s shocking for the first day, but later the people who become her friends laugh about it over illicit substances they buy from the law enforcement.
They throw cigarette stubs at the back of her head.
“Aren’t you in high school?” They ask her as she shudders her way down the street.
“You know you’re supposed to smoke.”
She catches their emissions in her lungs and chokes on her breath and their words. “Isn’t that illegal?”
Across the curbless street, Gracetown Sheriff’s Department stares them down, cinder blocks flaking.
“You’re already a criminal,” laughs one.
“I am not a criminal.”
“I did not kidnap Maisy Gray.”
“Yeah, and the day you moved in she just happened to disappear.”
They are used to the coming response.
“I had nothing to do with it,” she tells them, yet again. “I never even met her.”
In their heads they think, “We know; you’re just like us,” but it’s easier to alienate the new girl, so they roll their eyes. She refuses to smoke and leaves them huddled there in cold November, beneath gas station lights and rotating neon letters.
The joke lasts a while, until Maisy’s dead body actually does turn up, bloated and frayed, in the greenish waters of the lake. This is two weeks after Tea moves in, after Tea screams at her mom for bringing them to this garbage town, after Fin-down-the-street closes the struggling P.I. business he runs from his garage, and after the Grays exhaust every phone number in the county.
(For the record, Fin Cruise is a terrible P.I. He’s unobservant, seventy-five percent deaf, and tends to zone out in stressful situations. However, when equipped with a pair of Oticons and a penknife, he is almost if not as useful as the sheriff. At least Fin comes to work sober.)
Fin's the one who finds Maisy.
He swims and so does she. They train on a team together at the YMCA: twenty miles into the country, but worth it. On weekends, they make the lake their kingdom, crossing and recrossing it until they collapse on sandy edges in threadbare grocery-store swimsuits.
In the third grade they colonize Isla Maisy, a strip of sand and trees out in the center of the lake where the water shallows until it becomes land.
In the tenth grade, Fin returns there to look for her. He finds a body, half-beached, with lake water lapping at her waist and soaking what’s left of her clothes. Just blood and skin, blue jeans, and muddy underwear. He has imagined how she’d look half-naked, but this isn’t it. She’s tangled in herself, in flesh and flies and twisted marsh grass.
The scream that eats his throat is so loud even he can hear it.
“Oh, she’s back.”
“Sure you don’t want one?”
Tea groans. “The police station is literally right there. You’re going to get caught.”
“Oh, god, is she serious?”
“Are you serious?”
“Where do you think we get them?”
A gutter juts over the street awning and drips old rainwater in a continuous stream. The boys dance around it, revelling in the novelty of adult regret. This time, Tea stands her ground.
“I’m looking for the church.”
“The First Church of Sheetz?”
She goes for it. “Definitely.”
“It’s on Maple,” one boy says. He’s in leather.
Tea’s face is blank, all blue eyes and expectation. She has not yet ventured further than her own street and the lake shore.
“By the Sheetz,” adds another boy, whose hair is such an unfortunate shade of red it matches the towering neon sign. His cigarette’s unlit. Maybe it is his first; maybe it is his twelfth.
When the comment garners no response, he says, “I’ll just take you.”
He grinds the cigarette under his shoe, like it’s been lit all along. “C’mon.”
She goes, dragging her coat and their staring eyes behind her. The leather boy is the first to look away, turning his attention from the possible-delinquent to his own oral fixation.
The street is wide and only has sidewalks on the side with the storefronts. Tea follows the redhead past two restaurants and a barbershop before he says, “Where are you from?”
He waits for more, but there’s nothing. “I’m Connor.”
“Like, tea, Tea?”
“You got it. My mom tries to be eccentric.”
“Explains the choice of house.”
“Hence church on a Thursday.”
"She sent me for holy water."
In the distance, there’s the vague whirr of sirens. In the city, it is a natural occurrence, but Connor’s conditioned to look up in their direction. When he does, he loses his slouch and grows three inches, so Tea gets up on her toes in squeaky high tops. The noise crescendos:
One police cruiser, followed by one ambulance, followed by a boy on a bike.
Connor keeps walking.
They were headed toward the lake.
Connor turns up his coat collar and turns down a side street.
“First Church of Sheetz,” he says with a vague gesture, and there it is, all siding and clean lines and a tall steeple- classic southern Baptist. Piano leaks out the doors. The whitewash peels, in calculated places, not too much, like it’s been done on purpose for the aesthetic. It hasn’t; the buildings here suffer, and so does God’s. It just suffers more beautifully.
One fire truck peels down Maple. It’s out there now: Gracetown’s entire fleet.
His follower notices his unease. She mistakes it for fear. “What’s wrong?”
He really has no idea what’s wrong, does he, but the sinking feeling in his stomach points him away from the gas station and the weekday worshippers, toward the lake, toward Maisy Gray’s dead body.
How does he know it’s there? Instinct? The knowledge that the Gracetown Sheriff hasn’t been out of his chair for months, so this must be something serious?
Maybe it’s because he loves Maisy, and he’s so terrified she might be dead that his brain is coming up with things.
Or maybe he’s the one who put her there. You never know.
(In Spanish, you can say te quiero, and it means I love you. However, if you just add one word, and say te quiero matar, it means I want to kill you. Sometimes, the difference gets weirdly small.)