Breathtaking—that was the word they used to describe her, before and after she went missing. Charlotte Walters wasn’t one of those girls that you idealized in retrospect; she was stunning, smart, charismatic, everything and anything that a seventeen-year-old wished to be. And then one day, she was gone.
That was in October. The cold had come early that year. Frost crept up the windows of our cars during the night, kissed the telephone poles at school and danced across the windows that gave melancholic views of the lake, which would soon crust over with its own layer of ice. Everything was slowing down, stiffening, draining of life. College applications were being sent in a frenzy; early admissions decisions were only six weeks away, the date ominous and foreboding. Halloween decorations had been scattered across the school, but there was something nightmarish and gaudy about them this year. They seemed, all at once, a little too real.
“Let’s have a Halloween party,” Charlotte said to me one day at lunch, when we had slipped out of the school to skip the whole food thing and drive for a coffee—more specifically, a pumpkin eggnog latte—which was Charlotte’s latest form of dieting. She didn’t need to; of course she didn’t need to. She was always toothpick thin, but with just the right curves, and the delicate bone structure that gave her wrists and ankles the look of something frail and delicate and otherworldly, like a bird’s. When I first met her, I used to obsess about the way she brought her long, thin hands to her teeth, chewing at the nails, fluttering like something trying to take flight. Later those nights, I would look at my own wrists, solid and flat and practical. I would try to move my hands like Charlotte’s, but they only twitched like heavy spiders. I had wavy blonde hair to Charlotte’s dark brown, freckled skin to her olive tones, brown eyes to Charlotte’s brilliant, shocking blue. Not even our wrists, I concluded, could be alike.
“A Halloween party,” I repeated, because I knew that Charlotte was not asking.
“Yes. At my house. My parents will be gone this weekend.”
“What about your brother?”
“What about him? He’s at state.” She flicked her gaze at me, manicured fingernails drumming on the steering wheel. Most weekends this year, Aiden Walters had returned home from state, where he should have been partying and puking and altogether living up his freshman year, his first year of real freedom. Charlotte had only said, with a roll of her eyes, that he was “homesick,” but I had felt the heavy atmosphere of confusion, of wrongness, whenever I visited Charlotte on those weekends. Charlotte’s parents wore smiles even more forced than normal, and Aiden always slipped away from me. If we went to sit in the living room to watch TV, he would pick up his textbooks without a word and drift to another part of the Walters’ lakeside house.
I knew better than to press further. I assumed that she had taken care of it, because Charlotte took care of everything.
“Field hockey?” I said.
“No games. States are next week. Geez, Reese, it’s like you’re trying to find a reason we can’t have one.” Her tone was angry, but she flashed me a quick smile as we pulled into the drive thru. Charlotte ordered for both of us, two medium pumpkin eggnog lattes with whip.
“So anyway,” she said, holding out her credit card to the gawking barista at the window. It was her turn to pay, a wordless rhythm that we never needed to discuss, that we fell into effortlessly. “We need decorations. Food. Booze, obviously. I think Perry will help with that.”
“Maybe we can make a trip Friday to Giordano’s. They have decorations and pumpkins outside. And Halloween-themed food.”
“Excellent.” She handed me my pumpkin latte, and a whiff of sharp cinnamon and nutmeg struck me. “Let’s start working on the invite list. Party will be Saturday, at eight. So basically everyone will start showing up around nine.”
We drove back towards school, sipping on our lattes, blasting the heat our way as we rubbed cold, whitened hands on our legs to warm them up. Charlotte stretched hers in front of the air vents, cursing the chill. She said she’d probably freeze to death if she was outside longer than an hour. An image flashed into my mind, a Charlotte with pale skin and blue lips, frost crystals at the corners of her eyes. In my mind she was a frozen fay, her movements slow but still elegant, her blue eyes even sharper, wider. I shook my head.
“Oh, and Reese?” Charlotte said, as we pulled back into the school parking lot. “Don’t mention anything to Mindy. About the party.”
Mindy. Charlotte’s co-captain on the field hockey team. The person who really should have been Charlotte’s best friend, if she weren’t so loyal to me. Mindy: pretty, athletic, and with a signed letter of intent to play at Dartmouth next year, because athletes and Ivy Leagues could do things their own way, not play the game of admissions letters and bureaucratic waiting.
I didn’t ask why. I thought later about what would have happened if I did, if it would have changed something. Changed everything.
Instead, I just nodded.