Occasionally he and the bear saw each other, but they had a truce and ignored each other. The bear was old, and although this was his territory, he didn’t seem to mind the company. Perhaps the boy was himself a bear, a foundling left on a step in Albany, raised among humans but reviled for his innermost traits. In the woods, he did feel himself becoming more of whatever he was. He ate blueberries and looked at leaves. He didn’t think about winter, but he was well aware of its approach. He worked more quickly on his shelter. He knew everything ended.

ONE AFTERNOON HE heard voices ringing. A group of children were climbing down from a hike in the woods. It was a field trip from the local summer camp, fifteen or so boys and girls from the Blackwell Community Center along with a counselor, a teenaged girl named Kate Partridge. Kate had long hair that was so red it didn’t even look real. She had a take-charge manner and a luminous complexion, even though her face was now smudged from hiking with a bunch of eight- and nine-year-olds. Her job earned her extra credit at school and twenty-five dollars a week. She had her charges paired up and holding hands. The children were kept busy by singing “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Kate knew the camp director probably wouldn’t approve of the song selection but she didn’t care. Kate was fifteen and felt the world belonged to her, or at the very least, this section of Berkshire County did. She lived with her mother and her aunt Hannah in the oldest house in town. The women doted on her. When they told her she was a brilliant, beautiful, one-of-a kind girl, she had no reason to doubt them.

Kate could be selfish or selfless depending on her mood. She had definite ideas about everything, including politics (she was a Democrat) and education (she intended to go to Wellesley).

People said she’d be a heartbreaker soon, if that wasn’t already the case. Neighborhood boys already had begun to follow her home, and although they tried their best to get her attention, she had no interest in them. She wanted to study art history and live in Paris, as her mother had. That was where her parents had met, but her father had been killed during the war and her mother came home to Blackwell to live with her unmarried sister. Kate had grown up knowing that she wanted to travel the world. She wanted to get as far away from Blackwell as possible, to fall in love fifty times over, to swim in the Nile, walk along the Seine, see war and life and death.

Kate was one of those girls who thought she knew exactly what fate would bring her, but that was all about to change. Halfway down the road, as they were heading down Hightop Mountain, Cal Jacob disappeared. Cal was nine years old and trouble. One minute he was holding his partner’s hand and the next he was gone. Another boy said he thought Cal had gone looking for fish. Kate didn’t like the sound of that. Fish meant water and water meant drowning and drowning meant Cal would ruin both their lives. There had been a well-known drowning in their town over a hundred years earlier, in the Eel River, and it was said that the little girl’s ghost could be seen on certain nights. They called her the Apparition and there was a play about her that was always staged by schoolchildren during the summer festival that celebrated the town founder’s birthday. Kate had played the part of the Apparition when she was six years old. She’d been such a good actress that when she’d looked into the audience, she saw that both her mother and aunt were crying, as if she were indeed that little girl lost in the Eel River rather than their own darling, confident, one-of-a-kind Kate.

She went to the edge of the road and called Cal’s name, but there was no answer. Kate went into panic mode. She had the other children hold hands and stay put, leaving Cal’s sister, Lucy, in charge before dashing into the woods. Her heart was pounding; it was all she could hear, the thud of her own blood in her ears. She was the girl who won every contest, who always came out on top, the most beautiful girl in her class, the one who would travel the world and succeed at everything she tried, not the girl in whose care a local boy had gotten lost and drowned, the one gazing mournfully out her window while the entire town held candlelight vigils and blamed her for the tragedy.

THE WOODS WERE cool and deep and green. Kate called for Cal over and over. Her voice sounded thin and helpless even to her. The forest smelled of moss and earth. Bands of light streamed through the trees and left a delicate lattice of brightness. Kate could hear the children up on the road singing in their sweet high voices about bottles of beer. She reproached herself for losing Cal, for that was the unalterable truth. She had been in charge, and whatever happened next could mark the rest of her life. Maybe she wasn’t who she thought she was. Maybe she wouldn’t win everything.

Most Popular