Find You in the Dark
CLEANING UP THE DIG SITE took longer than usual, leaving me little time to sleep. I grabbed two hours in my tent and was on the highway to Seattle by four a.m., with a thermos of coffee and some of those legal speed-drinks truckers use. I would have been at the club an hour ago, if the traffic had cared about getting my daughter from swim practice on time as much as I did.
I checked the rearview to make sure I’d ditched every piece of my equipment, and that only camping gear was visible in the back. Nothing was sticking through. My scrapbook was under, not on top of, the backseat where Kylie would throw her gym bag. Looking for traces of dirt or worse on the fabric of the seats, I almost missed an old Camry turning illegally across my lane. I tapped then slammed my brakes, accepting the honks from behind me and kept going, finally pulling up at the curb.
“You’re late,” Kylie said, falling into the front seat and throwing her gym bag overhand into the backseat, nicking my eyelid with the strap. She waved out the open door at Danielle, or Ramona, or one of the other
fourteen-year-old girls on her team—after practice, they all looked eerily identical, with their wet hair gathered and tucked into wool hats and their collars pulled up. Sliding her schoolbag to rest at her feet, Kylie looked hard at me. Driving to the Seattle Athletic Club at five in the morning for half the week and five in the afternoon for the rest of it is only sane behavior under very specific conditions. Vanity couldn’t have gotten me to do it. Love, probably not—not the wife-kind of love I had for Ellen, anyway. For Kylie, I did it, sometimes to my own surprise. I’d been late eight times in the past two years, and this was the ninth.
There was enough resemblance between us—the dark eyebrows, light blue eyes—and between her and Ellen—the narrow nose and the wide mouth, equally suited to smiling or abrupt dismissal—that getting stared down by Kylie was like being in trouble with my wife and confronting a disappointed reflection at the same time.
“Leave before anyone sees you, Dad. Screeching tires.”
I pulled out at normal speed, but got the message. “Sorry. I drove right here from the campsite. Would have cleaned up at a truck stop if I knew I was going to embarrass you.”
“Where were you again?”
“Place near Tacoma. Beautiful.” I had indeed registered and paid in full for a slot at a campsite in Kent, near Tacoma, setting up a small tent there before setting off for my drive to California, just to have a paper trail if I got asked later, by Ellen or anyone else. Anytime I went on a dig it was a cash-only affair. Usually I “forgot” my phone charger, letting that GPS tracker we all carry fade to a dead-battery flicker by the time I was a few miles from the city. Other times, when I knew Ellen would be calling me, I disabled anything that would make me trackable. Twenty years of working in tech had left me with a skill or two, not just a bunch of money.
“You’re late, and you stink,” said Kylie.
“You stink, too.”
“Chlorine isn’t a stink. It’s a scent.”
“I smell of pines and fresh air and the glory of the outdoors, not the stuff they put in a pool to neutralize pee.”
“You smell like unwashed old man, Dad.” She was looking at her phone, and I was looking at the road, but I could feel her holding laughs in, just like I was. For the last year or so, this was what getting along had sounded like: an enjoyable exchange of insults, not much meant by either party. I’d never picked her up right after a trip to the field, and I was surprised how quickly one responsibility synched into the next. Next to the part I played in making Kylie, my digs are the best thing I’ve done with my life. Nothing that has happened since I started looking and finding has ever shaken me in that belief.
At the end of our block, I asked Kylie something I should have asked her back at the pool so I could prep.
“How’s Mom? Things were good while I was away?”
“Noooope,” Kylie said, popping in her fourth piece of the near-flavorless natural gum Ellen bought by the case in an attempt to keep aspartame and sugar out of the family’s bloodstreams.
“Oh,” I said. Ellen’s car, a VW from last year, was approaching the house from the other side, the sun coming down behind it and beaming orange light through the back window to silhouette her head. I slowed down and let Ellen get into the garage long before I hit my blinker and turned in.
Ellen was waiting for us inside, a grocery bag in each hand and the leather strap of her purse in her mouth. While Kylie deliberately took her time getting her stuff together, I got out of the Jeep and walked over to Ellen, hopping up the two steps to the door that opened into our house, feeling the stiffness in my legs and arms from the strain of digging for hours and then sitting down for a long drive. I took both grocery bags from her and she keyed us inside.
“Am I in for another high-tension week?” I asked Ellen, being quiet
even though Kylie was still sitting in the Jeep and likely would stay there until her mom and I were in the kitchen and she could safely bypass us both on her way to the upstairs shower.
“Oh, I didn’t realize the point of all of this was to minimize impact on you, Martin. Real sorry.” She smiled midway through telling me off and gave me a kiss.
Ellen wasn’t good at maintaining the exasperated spouse stance, even if she’d had plenty of time to practice. She’d stopped being my girlfriend and started being my wife eighteen years ago.
“You stink,” she said.
“Your wonderful daughter said the same thing.”
“We got in a small fight on Saturday. Should have been a mini one but we were both tired and it got out of hand. She wanted to sleep at Jhoti’s house after they went for dinner. The dinner was planned, the sleepover wasn’t, so I said no.”
“Firm no?” I started emptying out one of the paper bags item by item, avoiding the tomato sauce spatter and sticky milk-glass rings on the counter: the tidiness of the kitchen, in particular, tended to fall off when I was away in the woods. Ellen was watching me, so I just upended the bag and let the produce tumble out for sorting. I’m good at faking carefree.
“With sleepovers or late nights out, all my no’s to her are firm, Mart, you know that. I didn’t think I needed to bicker about it with her or you anymore. It’s just the way it is.”
“Yeah.” I slit a small plastic bag of plums open with my thumbnail, which still had a rim of dirt under its white crescent, a leftover from disposing of the dig tools. I was always thoroughly gloved-up when I was doing the actual work, never leaving any of my skin free to flake over or touch my finds. The fruit tumbled into a wooden bowl on the counter, covering up a shrinking, aged lime. “But I think we’ll all have to talk again about this, and soon. She’s hitting fifteen in what—five weeks?” Before Ellen could answer, I added, “You were totally in the right, stick with the
plan this weekend—not that you need me to confirm. What we need to talk about is if we can be more flexible on future plans for her, not last-minute changes. She’s not a kid.”
“I was less worried when she was a kid,” Ellen said, without the half-smile that I guessed most parents would add. She could tamp her fears down, but the worry was always there, a pressing anxiety I could feel as a static pulse in the room when she didn’t know where Kylie was. She was stocking the fridge, still wearing the wet waterproof shell that transformed her upper body into a rumpled cylinder, disguising the combination of elegant dress and ultrafitness she’d moved toward after Kylie was born. I hadn’t given birth to any figure-destroying children, but was the proud, or at least unashamed, guardian of a healthy gut I bottle-fed with pilsner every evening.
I heard Kylie’s feet on the stairs and took the chance to dodge out. “I don’t know if that’s true, but I get what you’re saying. Going to unpack the Jeep,” I said. “You two play polite until I get back so we can all fight together, okay?”
The camping stuff I stowed in various places in the garage. I always returned lighter than I had left, because I ditched the digging gear, probes, and metal detector in various dumpsters on the way back, after carefully treating everything with solvents, bleaches, and other corrosives fierce enough to chew through the paint on steel and definitely to destroy any genetic traces. Anything I camped in or sweated in and brought back never came anywhere near the actual site of a dig; my focus when I was at work out there was absolute, but the rush of being right, of finding what I was looking for, could get so powerful I had to have a strict procedure on every dig. That meant setting up camp at least three miles away from each site, digging from early afternoon into dusk, going more gently when I thought I was near enough to bring out the brushes. I’d never broken anything yet, and I was proud of that. It showed respect.
The garage was peaceful, as quiet as the air around me last night,
when all I could hear was the silvery chop of my shovel cutting into the dirt above the bones I knew I was about to find. I rehearsed a few lines in my head for the call to the cops I’d be making later that night; I’d been running a few variants on the drive back, testing out what they sounded like in my own voice, a voice I could never let the police hear.
I folded and buckled the last bit of tenting and was left with just the ticking sound of our car engines, mine finally relaxing after the long haul from Northern California that had left me more tired than I could ever explain to Ellen. A syrupy can of Red Bull from the flats of canned goods on the shelves above my stowed camping gear would have to do the work of wiring me up. I opened up the back door of the Jeep and slid out the big, mid-2000s Apple PowerBook I used as my scrapbook, safely cased in a padded canvas slip.
Inside, I took the scrapbook to my enormous desk at the end of the hall and unlocked the bottom drawer. Slipping the scrapbook inside, I fought a deep compulsion to flip it open.
“Can you check if the City Light payment went through?” Ellen called, her voice curving around the hall from the kitchen, where she was probably sitting on the counter eating one of the plums, or rooting around in the little clothes basket she kept in there for quick postwork changes into comfort wear.
“Look on your phone,” I called back, locking the drawer and testing it with a quick, light pull.
“I don’t trust the stupid app. Just do it, okay? And when were you planning to throw this lime out?”
“That’s your lime,” I said. “I thought you were holding onto it. Any limes I buy I put in the fridge, which is where limes belong.”
“Smartass,” she called, then lapsed into silence, waiting for me to actually enter the room to go on with the conversation. I wasn’t ready yet. Talking to Kylie could pull me back into the world rapidly after a dig, and it had, but I still needed a second of total peace to reset my brain
to domestic mode, my internal parallel to Ellen’s change of clothes. My desk faced a blank wall that I wouldn’t allow any paintings or photos to invade. No distractions, just me and that huge block of oak with its four canyon-deep drawers. Only the bottom drawer stayed secure to keep my scrapbook from prying eyes. Not that there were any of those in the household, other than my own. Ellen wasn’t into snooping. She was as trustworthy in our home as she was behind her desk at the credit union, and it didn’t occur to Kylie that her dad’s business could contain anything of interest. I shut my eyes, got where I needed to be, then stood.
“You seen my phone charger, the kitchen one?” I said, rounding the corner.
“It’s in here, genius. The kitchen,” Ellen said while I fumbled the plug off the counter and into the socket. “You going to be cooking?” I could feel the gaze and turned to it. She’d worked a regular eight-hour day but looked more tired than I was.
“I’m not, and neither are you.” As my phone buzzed back to life I pressed it onto speaker and dialed the Szechuan place in the strip plaza a few blocks away, a place that mainly did takeout but delivered for us, because I tipped twenty bucks. “Salt and pepper squid, yeah, ginger beef—”
“Lemon chicken,” Kylie almost screamed from the top of the banister, with a desperation that even got her mother to forget they were fighting for a moment and laugh.
“Lemon chicken,” I said into the phone, pretty sure the guy on the other end had heard her anyway. Kylie thumped back into her room, and I turned to Ellen with a look on my face that must have been apologetic.
“I’m going out tonight. Meeting Keith for a beer,” I said.
“Cop Keith? So you’re out camping for two days, you come back, and we lose you right away to the police?” This time there was a slight pout in her voice, but it was still miles away from real complaint.
“We’ll have a good dinner and good talk, okay? And I have no plans
of going anywhere for the rest of the week. Honestly, I’m pretty run down, but you know how Keith is. Feels like a bad idea to put off meeting him when he’s in one of his urgent moods.”
“I don’t feel like fighting with you and Kylie at the same time, so I’m going to pretend I’m fine with it until I actually feel that way.”
“I am sorry, Ellen, really.”
Ellen only knew about Keith at all because she’d spotted us having coffee a few years ago, across town from her work. She’d taken a half-day off to look for new curtains, and instead came across her husband having a nice midafternoon date with a policeman. I’d invented an elaborate but tight lie about meeting Keith in a long lineup at the post office one day: I talked him through various personal issues sometimes, in exchange for exciting cop-life stories. Ellen seemed to like the idea of me having a pal I helped out, since my social time was mostly spent with her, Kylie, or alone at home. Or in the woods.
I slid-walked over to her in my socks—we’d only put in the slick hardwood floors four months earlier, and I didn’t think I’d ever get sick of doing that Risky Business drift or rolling across the floor in my office chair when I got a beer or club soda from the fridge. When I reached Ellen, I pillowed my head on her shoulder and said, “Sorry.” She patted the back of my head, then gently pushed her fingertips against my forehead. Ellen always kept her own nails short, dispensing with what she called “manicure-bitch bullshit,” which she associated with a couple of loathed coworkers.
“Everyone will be in a much more forgiving mood if you take a shower. Immediately,” she said.
“Okay.” I took the stairs two at a time. Kylie’s bedroom door was closed, and a Drake song that had grown on me despite deep resistance pulsed through loud enough to be heard in the bathroom. I hummed and showered off the dirt and sweat, then took out as much of the muscle tension as I could with the high-pressure showerhead. When I came out the music was off and Kylie was standing at the head of the stairway.
“If you ever sing along to anything I love again, I’m going to move out,” she said.
“Be my guest. I’ll donate your trust fund to a chimp sanctuary if you do.”
“I love chimps.”
“It’s a deal, then, sure.”
Ellen was going for her purse, the delivery guy at the door, by the time we got downstairs. I pulled the wallet out of the inside pocket of my jacket, hanging on the rack by the door, and paid him off. He looked relieved to see me, the customary giver of the extra twenty.
“I was going to pay,” Ellen said when the door was closed.
“I know, I just got there first.”
“I was going to give your stupid huge tip, too. I hate it when you’re fiddly about money stuff, Martin.” She’d pulled on a U of W sweater, one she’d owned since I met her in class back when we were both in college. She barely looked older than Kylie, adrift in the enormous garment. I could remember seeing that sweater for the first time, an October afternoon two decades ago, when I followed Ellen back to her apartment building from class after I found out who she was, who her sister was. The fabric was rich purple then, not the grayed-out blue it was now. I was a professional at following, back then—Ellen didn’t see me, even when I was directly across the street, or right behind her, close enough to pluck the scrunchie out of her hair if I wanted to.
I did want to, but I controlled myself. And it paid off.
“Obviously you could have paid, I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t soothe me like a child, Mart.” She sighed, a short one, seemed to reorient herself. She did this sometimes, a sort of thinking-in-real-time thing that ran counter to the calculated way I had to do everything. I admired it. “Forget it. We have to talk about some bigger things this week. Along with whatever you want to float about Kylie, I need to talk to you about my career. I was going to do it tonight but I guess that’s
not possible anymore.” We could hear Kylie clattering plates in the other room. She liked to undo the takeout containers and use them as the serving plates, but knew that when her mom or I dished out the food we used proper bowls. She set the takeout-table up much more quickly than she’d perform any other kitchen task.
“Yes. Soon. Whenever you want, just when I can give you my full attention.”
We sat down and started to eat, hard, the three of us. Kylie was refueling after a no doubt brutal swim practice, her coach screaming something about nationals and hustle no matter how far away they were. My heart rate was still up from the energy slugs and caffeine, and I needed the food to start flattening out again. Ellen chewed with quiet purpose, a little anger, and the suspense of the conversation we were about to have. I was going to start but Kylie did instead, with a little less elegance than I would have hoped.
“Mom still thinks I’m going to get murdered anytime I’m out of the house past ten.”
“Oh,” Ellen said, with an authentic pain that made Kylie wince, as her newly braces-free teeth nipped a piece of beef off her chopsticks. She’d been going for a fight, not an injury.
“Never say that again, Kylie. That would be past the line in any house, let alone this one,” I said.
“You’re right, Martin,” Ellen said. She’d put down her sticks, and looked like she was reaching for Kylie’s hand, then thought better of it and grabbed the bottle of Sriracha, making a red pool of the sauce at the edge of her plate. “I can’t believe you, Kylie. Yes, I do worry more than a normal mom would. I ask you to understand that, Kylie. My anxiety creeps up. And it’s not something pills can take care of. It’s a real leftover from a real thing that happened.”
“Tinsley,” Kylie said. Ellen had wanted to name Kylie after the vanished sister, but I’d asked her not to. It would just make things worse, I’d
said, back when we found out she was pregnant, a little after I started ReeseTech and began digging seriously.
“Yes, Tinsley,” Ellen said. “Noises from the street talk to me when neither of you are here. Even when it’s totally quiet. I think about my sister, how strong and bulletproof she seemed, and then I think about you, and how no matter how strong I think you are or you think you are, there are men out there who want exactly that. A strong girl to hurt and crush and kill. I wonder if you get that.”
Kylie was quiet, so I winced for us both. I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt, but I hunched over my noodles, shoveling them in and listening closely. Ellen had never spoken this graphically about Tinsley to our daughter, at least not when I was around. At her most serious, Ellen could talk to you and make it seem like she was talking to herself, like you’d intruded on a truth she hadn’t intended to share.
“That fear I have when you’re out, when we haven’t planned where you are, when I don’t know where you are, Kylie? It’s a pretty legitimate way to feel, I think. Even if it was twenty years ago.” Ellen looked at me and I nodded, then looked at Kylie.
Twenty years. She had it right: next week would be the anniversary of Tinsley Schultz’s disappearance. I understood what Ellen lived with, the emotional intensity of her days and years after that vanishing. I still had my own leftovers to deal with when I saw a woman with a certain kind of hair or neck, or heard a laugh that had the right combination of unashamed enjoyment and elegance. I made a point of never looking for too long—I had to concentrate to make sure I never went back to the person I was in college, when I was following Ellen. But I kept every one of those impulses stored up for my digs.
“But we need to find a way that you can have a normal teenage life and that I can feel comfortable, is what your father is about to say, right, Martin?”
“I was gearing up for that. Look, can you two start eating so we
can do this without knowing that the reward at the end is cold Chinese food?” This didn’t get a laugh, but there was a hairline crack in the tension, and chopsticks started moving again.
“The thing we need, all of us, is to talk in advance, premeditate, stay in touch. No last-minute plans for you, Kylie, and you have to make sure your phone is charged up and you text your mom back as quickly as you text Ramona back.”
“You can’t talk, Dad. We never hear from you when you’re out camping or whatever.”
“No one’s worried about me. We worry about you, okay?”
“I’m not insane,” said Ellen. “Your aunt was kidnapped and murdered.”
“We don’t know that,” I said.
“I do. I know that. She would never have left us without saying why, and she would have come back to us by now. I just fucking worry about my daughter, okay?” For a second Ellen seemed to have forgotten that said daughter was at the table, because she never swore in front of Kylie.
“Mom. Mommy. I know. I just need to—we can organize it, I can make sure you know where I am when I’m not here. But someday I’ll be at college and then someday maybe in another city, so we have to start to find a way to make us both feel good about this, alright?”
Annoyed that Kylie had found a better way to put this than I had, but proud enough to mask it, I ate while they talked, checking my watch. I had an hour and ten. I was meeting Keith to get more files, ones he’d been hyping up for days as being the best ones yet. He said that every time, but I couldn’t resist being excited, anticipating what he’d have for me, who’d be inside those scanned pages. Ellen and Kylie were still talking when I left, about swimming, about a celebrity divorce, about an upcoming break from the rain, not about kidnapping and murder. Our greasy plates were still on the table, and my goodbyes were barely noticed.
I couldn’t stay patient about looking at my scrapbook any longer, though. I had to go back to my desk before I left. Leaving my family talking, I moved down the hallway, quietly keyed the drawer open and slid the scrapbook out. It powered up in a few seconds, the old software rustling to life, aided by the processor and the rest of the new parts I’d swapped into the machine, and I clicked open the ancient version of iPhoto where I’d dumped yesterday’s pictures before wiping my camera. I sat and rotated my chair so I could see both screen and kitchen doorway at once. It would just be a quick flip-through—I couldn’t allow myself to lose my grip on time, not with Kylie and Ellen so close by.
The first shot was of my shovel, as it always was, the blade of this tool I’d only use once before laying it to a dishonorable dumpster rest like its predecessors. My left hand had been just outside of the frame of this photo, gloved, ready to start, to seek her out in the earth that had hidden her for decades.
Then: the dig site unspoiled, if dirty with highway trash, shots of the markers I’d laid out, of the evidence of a small mound only a few feet away from where I’d estimated it would be from the case files. I looked up at the kitchen door and counted out five seconds with my right index finger on my left wrist, a trick I had to slow my pulse. I flicked through the rest of the pictures quicker, wanting to get to the end before the voices in the kitchen slowed and I had to stow the scrapbook and leave. I made it through the digging, the carefully arranged dirt, until I finally hit the first bone: an ulna, the thin forearm bone of a woman in her early twenties. The next few pictures uncovered the rest of her, showing how carefully I’d taken the dirt off her yesterday evening.