For those who read (and hopefully enjoyed) Unmasked, below is the original second chapter I omitted after reading so many advice columns and blog posts warning against the first novelist’s classic mistake of including the backstory early in the book.
So, succumbing to self-imposed peer pressure, I jettisoned it, but sometimes I wonder if that was a good idea. Anyway, it’s included below in its entirety. I’m sure it can use more editing; but as is, it serves to enrich the story and the characters a bit, and clues the reader into their motivations. I think it especially sheds light on Warren’s relationship with Karla. Some readers will notice I sprinkled parts of this story throughout the book in flashback scenes.
I’ve always been fond of this chapter. I put a lot of work into it, and I was sad to let it go. Perhaps the greatest peril of self-publishing is the lack of a good editor’s advice. I’ve been wary of hiring someone off some random internet site, and frankly, I can’t afford to take the financial risk. For now, I’m editing my own work, and I’m sure the folly of that shows itself in many ways. When I read indie fiction, I always try to take that into account. I hope my readers will indulge me the same privilege.
UNMASKED: THE MISSING CHAPTER
Warren Mancusi, eight-years-old and tiny for his age, felt an icky feeling in his stomach whenever she was near him. He hadn’t yet learned the word anxiety. That would come much later after his worsening nervous condition affected his health and schoolwork to such a degree that the adults in his life—the aunt and uncle who were his guardians—could no longer cling to the hope that it was only a phase. Therapy was the last resort for a family that relied on the Catholic Church to cure all spiritual ills, and that was only after a school counselor–concerned by his failing grades despite a high I.Q. and the appearance of shallow cut marks on his arms–intervened on Warren’s behalf.
At sixteen Warren began seeing a doctor and his guardians secretly hoped it would make him more masculine. He blossomed under his therapist’s care, helping him to discover for the first time in his life a mere glimpse of an authentic self, but when Dr. Edwards died of a heart attack at fifty, Warren floundered, falling first into reckless promiscuity with several older men, and then excessive partying. His one attempt at college ended in disaster and a near fatal drinking binge.
But then she baled him out, offered him a job and a new start. Not having many options, he took it, and that decision aligned their futures together. But at eight, he couldn’t have known what was coming or have any inkling about this thing she would become. She was his sister, Karla Mancusi, and within a few short years she would become a famous pop music phenomenon, known to the world only as Karla. But that summer, thirty years ago, she was his sister, but more than just that. Even before she became famous throughout the world, she loomed in his life like the goddesses and fabled witches he read about in his beloved adventure stories, beautiful and terrifying.
The oldest of the six Mancusi children, Karla received the best qualities from her parents’ Italian gene pool, from the symmetry of her facial features, to her solid intellect including lightning quick (and frequently scathing) wit. Her body was as strong and sleek as a racehorse, tall and lean with feminine curves contouring in and out at the correct spots. If Karla was the pick of the Mancusi litter, Warren was the runt.
He was the frailest, and the most different. It was a difference everyone noticed, but not in a good way, not in the way that made Emily Dickinson bold (eventually). Decades before calls to end school bullying were common, and children had sensitivity training concerning every conceivable ilk of different, Warren’s difference made him just plain weird. It was a weirdness that inspired impatience from his family, derision from his peers, and in Karla emotional cruelty that went unchecked in the large family’s well-established dynamic. Her treatment of him (meted on a daily basis) had all the subtly and relentlessness of a cat not ready–just yet–to release the mauled to near-death mouse from its claws.
The summer Warren turned eight, the Mancusis were one week into their annual two-week vacation at White Wolf Camp located in upstate New York, roughly seventy miles from their home in Rochester. The annual summer retreat was the working class family’s one luxury, a tradition established by Leo who was determined to expose his children to the outdoor activities he enjoyed. A hard-working man who ran a construction business in the city with his brother, Leo found in Nature’s quiet a balm for his jangled nerves. Fully acclimated to the American way, it was the closest thing he had to the memories of his Alpine boyhood.
The enormous White Wolf Lake got its name from a local legend about a lone white wolf that had wandered from its northern home and lived in the vast wilderness surrounding it. By the turn of the century the site became the private home of a New York industrialist, evidenced by the stone Gothic Revival mansion, Wolf House, holding court in the center of the one hundred acre estate. After the family sold it, the site became a therapeutic retreat for stressed-out city dwellers who bathed in the lake’s natural springs, then a makeshift TB hospital during a particularly virulent depression era outbreak. Since the 1950’s the camp was used primarily for recreation, and over the years several drab cinderblock outbuildings sprouted around the camp’s perimeter for that purpose: modern 1960’s style structures that clashed with the mansion’s grandeur. Used for some time as the camp’s administration headquarters, the old mansion eventually proved too expensive to heat and repair, and by the 1970’s Wolf House was shuttered and abandoned. Parents complained to the camp’s administration about the obvious hazard the dilapidated home posed—a child could get hurt! Everyone agreed it should be torn down, everyone except Warren.
Unless there was an activity he was required to attend, or a family event where his absence would be noticed, most of Warren’s days at camp were spent exploring the mysterious corridors and hidden rooms of Wolf House. Even as a child, Warren possessed an aesthete’s appreciation for antiquity the regulars who returned to the camp each summer seemed to lack. Where they regarded the old house as a decrepit eyesore, Warren saw a castle where a white knight mounted a daring rescue of his lady fair, scaling the stone tower to save her from the evil queen as ferocious wolves circled on the veranda below. Each summer when the Mancusis returned to the camp, Warren would wait in suspense as their station wagon turned down the long drive to see if Wolf House had survived another year. Somehow, probably due to the expense, it was never razed; and it became with each passing year a refuge for Warren: a playground for his imagination and a bulwark against his intense loneliness.
If the old mansion held some allure (for Warren at least) the camp’s greatest asset was its natural beauty, including a forest replete with hiking trails that ran along the water’s edge and a high bluff on one side: a clearing offering a stunning view of the lake. It was a steep drop to the water below, and despite signs strictly forbidding it, every summer the more adventurous kids would throw a rope over a tree and dare each other to swing out and jump. That every few years a kid got injured or killed doing it never stopped them. Warren’s older brother, Mitch, held the record (so he bragged) for swinging the highest and the farthest.
While the other boys were jumping off ropes or at least watching the older kids do it as they worked up their individual courage, Warren was sneaking off to the old mansion, entering through a garage in the back that was used to store lawnmowers. He’d spend hours in the dusty library, his flip-flopped feet dangling from a tufted leather armchair, lost in the pages of antique books: boys’ adventure stories mostly and illustrated classics like The Last of the Mohicans and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Within these words and pictures, Warren found friends; but in his heart he longed for real companionship, a best friend, someone who understood.
Of course there were other boys at the camp, but they were rough and expressed their affection with a punch on the arm, or a dare involving something really nasty like a face fart. Their games left Warren bruised and tearful; he preferred playing with the girls, but that caused inevitable teasing, and the older he got the less he was tolerated in feminine circles. So he spent most of his time (unhappily) alone. When he complained to his mother in an attempt to articulate his feelings, she brushed him aside with a wave of impatience, not understanding how her son, surrounded by so many kids (including his own siblings) could possibly be lonely. Stella loved her all of her children equally, so she told herself and would repeat to them often when they complained about a lack of equity in her affections. She tried to meet Warren’s needs by steering him towards more masculine interests–Leo had recently bought a small sailboat and looked forward to teaching the kids how to use it that summer, but Warren was afraid of the lake. He only swam in the shallow end with the old ladies and the babies, never daring to cross the brightly colored safety line into the deep end.
* * *
On the Tuesday before the Fourth of July weekend, Warren got out of bed early. The camp was quiet; the crowds from the city would arrive later in the week. The thought of more kids sank in Warren’s gut like a lead fishing lure. Their loud voices and endless hijinks made the moldy, screened-in bunkhouse where the boys slept even worse than they were now under the dominion of Mitch and his rowdy friends. Mitch came crashing in early that morning, drunk again, and fell into the bottom bunk so hard it shook like an earthquake and nearly knocked Warren’s skinny ass to the concrete floor. Then came the loud snoring, and Warren knew sleep was impossible. He considered forcibly pressing Mitch’s mouth closed, a trick he tried once that had worked, but hanging over the bunk and staring down at his brother he decided not to risk it. Mitch seemed to have grown a lot in the past few months. Flat on his back (his body barely fitting on the bed) one foot on the floor and arms suspended on either side of the mattress like glider wings and his mouth open and sawing logs, Mitch looked ridiculous. If the Polaroid camera had been handy Warren would have snapped a picture and kept it for future revenge. He didn’t like Mitch much. And why should he when he teased him incessantly and never came to his defense when the other kids picked on him? Sixteen that summer, Mitch was handsome and athletic, with skin that tanned easily, thick black hair, and an even thicker skull. Leo had threatened to knock some sense into it many times, but he never did. Besides Karla, Mitch was the obvious favorite: spoiled, confident without cause, and about as refined as the warped pine boards of his sleeping bunk.
Anne, Mitch’s twin, was his opposite in looks and temperament. With dark blonde hair, slanted green eyes and a delicate frame, she was an elegant (if nervous) beauty: a cool Grace Kelly to Karla’s smoldering Liz Taylor. Passively feminine, she was naturally close to her mother, but she could be easily led astray, and often was–by Mitch. Like most twins, they shared an enviable closeness including their own silent language. No one ever got between them, not even Karla.
It was an open secret among the camp kids that Mitch and Anne snuck out at night to drink at Tappy’s Tavern, the biker bar on the dirt road leading to the camp and the only sign of civilization (if one could call it that) for miles. Someone must have blabbed about their nightly excursions because Stella grew suspicious one night and checked on them. Sure enough, Anne and Mitch were missing from their bunks, but so was Warren who had fallen asleep on the pier looking at the stars. Mitch came up with the brilliant plan to blame Warren, and in a rushed conspiracy they concocted an alibi concerning a midnight swim—all Warren’s idea. And although all three were punished–Warren unjustly so–he never breathed a word. He knew better than to mess with Mitch. If his wit wasn’t that quick, his fists certainly were.
Mitch was a brute Warren avoided whenever possible, but he adored Anne. She was the epitome of glamor and romance, and watching her get ready for a date was a special treat for him. Wearing his favorite ivory flannel pajamas with the red piping (an item from the Sears Christmas catalogue he had insisted upon) he’d belly-flop across her pink chenille bedspread upsetting all her stuffed animals, and gape at her while she applied her make-up in a special lighted mirror–her hair done up in hot rollers that she’d allow him to remove once they cooled. Then with a soft brush he’d help her arrange the loose curls around her face in the style that flattered her best, setting it in place with a light spray of Aquanet. When she was thoroughly primped, she’d let him spritz her with cologne (Warren adored the genie shaped bottle) before she headed out the door with one of her many beaux.
Warren and Anne also shared a passion for movies, and on special occasions she’d take him to a Saturday matinee at the restored Deco movie palace in downtown Rochester. But the older she got the less Anne included him in her routine. At camp she slept late, hung out with her girlfriends by the lake in the afternoons, and spent most nights with Mitch and his friends at Tappy’s.
That Tuesday morning in July Warren rose early, his skinny ass shivering in the cold spray of the cinderblock shower, his head swiveling over his shoulder on look-out lest some bully appear to inflict the standard torture. Afterwards, he sat on the swing of a rusted jungle gym, his bare feet skimming the ground. As he planned his adventure for the day, his nose caught the yummy scent of bacon and eggs coming from the woods. The families who camped there tended to keep to themselves, and were considered poor, a social rung or two below the summer regulars who stayed in the buildings closer to the lake. Some of their campsites gave the ominous impression of permanence—older model campers with flat tires buttressed by cinder blocks and dingy laundry strung between trees. If White Wolf Camp were a town, this section—referred to as The Woods–was considered the slums. And after Jenna, his twelve-year old sister, contracted Impetigo the summer before from one of the girls whose family camped there, The Woods was off-limits for the Mancusi children. Even at eight, Warren thought this was bullshit, and he wondered what would happen if he just wandered in and sat down to some breakfast with one of the families. Would all Hell break loose? He doubted it. For all his fears, Warren possessed his own brand of courage. With his nose in the air and his mouth watering he considered doing just that, until he detected a scent stronger than the smell of wholesome food. He knew it immediately as her scent—a dark, woodsy amber. He breathed the fragrance deep into his clean lungs and nearly swooned from the tingling sensual pleasure it provoked, or was that fear he felt?
As the amber scent came closer, so did the poppy dance beat thrumming from the portable radio—an early birthday gift from their parents—that she carried with her everywhere that summer. Warren dropped his bare feet to the soft dirt and stopped himself mid-swing so she wouldn’t hear the creak of the swing’s chain. Willing himself invisible like his favorite comic book character, he closed his eyes tightly. Once he heard the music fade, he opened them again in time to see her shapely bare legs pushing through the tall grass in long, confident strides, her fall of dark hair swinging to the beat of the music. He was safe…for now.
* * *
Karla, oblivious to Warren’s presence or if she did notice him had more important things on her mind, passed through the grass to the clearing that opened onto the lake—a vast expanse of blue water meeting equally blue sky peppered with just a few clouds on that particular summer’s day. She spotted Dave and smiled at the sight of the young man sitting cross-legged on the pier, his sandy blond hair falling over one eye as he worked on an outboard motor. Although they had been intimate with each other for two summers now, she didn’t consider him a boyfriend. Having solid plans to attend college that fall and being far too sophisticated to date a local yokel, she thought of him only as a make-out partner, and appreciated him for what he was: a horny teenager with an impressive bulge in his tight shorts and taut muscles developed from spending his summers working on boats. Dave was less certain about what Karla was to him, but he knew he was smitten with the stunning brunette even if he felt less sure of himself when she was near. He knew that she was not only beautiful, but smart; when he attempted to converse with her about the books he’d seen her reading—popular horror fiction mostly but also classics like East of Eden—he always sounded like an idiot, causing her to laugh at him in a way that made his scalp burn. He knew he wasn’t book-smart, but he was confident in his mechanical abilities, and he thought about Karla’s body in the same way: if he tinkered long enough and properly greased up the parts, eventually the motor would catch. He hoped so anyway. Dave felt secure about his future, and enjoyed earning his own money at his father’s boating business across the lake while picking up side jobs at the camp. At age seventeen his parents allowed him to stay in a makeshift apartment over his father’s garage at the marina. It had a kitchen and a small, but comfortable bed covered with new sheets and blankets, courtesy of his mom. And although he always ate dinner at his family’s home in town, he spent most of his summer nights in his room savoring his independence, drinking beer, watching the moon rise over the lake, and fantasizing about Karla.
They met each other nearly every night. The Mancusi family frequently played board games after dinner–Monopoly was a favorite, although Warren and Jenna preferred Life. Karla would complain that she found board games dull, telling her parents she’d rather read in her room; she was working her way through her college’s summer reading list. Impressed by their daughter’s studiousness (something they never had the luxury to pursue) Leo and Stella always gave Karla leave. And, playing the innocent scholar to a tee, Karla would head towards the girls’ bunkhouse with a book tucked under her arm. Then, when she was hidden from view, she’d toss the book into the weeds, and beat a fast track through the woods to meet Dave.
Mitch and Anne were onto her deception, but they said nothing lest she squeal about their underage drinking escapades (Karla never joined them). She wouldn’t be caught dead consorting with that local riffraff, but she kept their secret as a weapon to wield against them if necessary. If their vice was drinking, hers was sex, and their strict Catholic parents greatly disapproved of both.
Karla would meet Dave in the same spot: a mossy clearing beneath a large tree. She liked to keep him waiting. And when their bodies came together, he was more than ready. To his great frustration, she would demur at first, enjoying the prolonged sport of lovemaking: with every punch he threw, she countered, ducked, and danced. It wasn’t until he—much to her delight–exhausted himself on the rope-a-dope, that she’d give in. Their activity was limited mostly to deep kissing and caresses, but always standing up, never lying down, and every attempt he made to hit below the belt, was met with a swift karate chop to the throat. As a Catholic girl, she had her rules and stuck to them…religiously. She wasn’t going to risk pregnancy by some fumbling greaser, plus she enjoyed teasing him too much. On rare occasions, she’d allow him to feel her up but only through the fabric of her blouse. He loved these moments of sweet surrender, and after each encounter he’d busy his brain plotting ways to up the ante for the next bout.
Knowing she liked books, he once wrote a poem in her honor. It was awful, but sincere, comparing her lips to buttercups. She was so delighted by his attempt (amused more than moved) that she rewarded him the special treat of removing her blouse. She was braless, and he was so excited by the sight of her white breasts against her tanned skin that he immediately came in his pants, and she nearly fell to the ground in a fit of malicious laughter. He was humiliated, but undeterred. The thought of actually penetrating her hard and forceful the way he knew he could—and imagined she wanted him to—occupied his thoughts from morning to night. There was no doubt in his mind that Karla was what his buddies at Tappy’s Tavern referred to as a cocktease. The only way to deal with a cocktease was to give her a hot load of cock, one of the cruder guys had said. Dave bristled at the suggestion, but secretly concurred. And gulping down his draft beer he knew he was up to the challenge, and he was determined that this was the summer he’d make it happen.
That morning he was hard at work. According to his father’s instructions, he had pulled a motor from one of the boats and set it on the dock to have a go at it. His greased fingers moved intuitively inside the machinery, reminding him, again, of what he’d like to do to Karla. She seemed more responsive to him lately. Just the night before when he had slid his tongue between her white teeth, he noticed that her mouth opened with less resistance, and she barely hesitated when he moved his hand into her blouse to cup her firm breasts. Next time, he vowed, he would be bolder. These were the thoughts occupying Dave’s brain (fuzzy from the heat and the beers he’d drunk the night before) when Karla sauntered onto the pier, pretending to ignore him as her eyes scanned the lake’s calm expanse. Her eighteenth birthday was still a few weeks away, but she had wanted a radio a pink mini boom box with a built-in cassette tape player for the summer, and she’d gotten it. Karla got her way a lot. Her other siblings, especially Jenna, in full puberty that summer and moodier than usual, complained about the lack of fairness to anyone who’d listen. The problem for Jenna was that no one did, and like the other children, she was no match for Karla’s natural dominance in looks and charisma.
Jenna could see through Karla’s bullshit, even if her parents were conned. As the family truth-teller, Jenna pointed out the obvious no one cared to acknowledge. Every family has its own unconscious dynamic, and woe to the child who questions it. But at twelve, she couldn’t have known that, and her habit of drawing attention to life’s inequities made her unpopular, and miserable as a result. Skinny and flat-chested, with hair that frizzed in the summer and a too-serious face made more serious by straight, thick eyebrows, Jenna understood at a young age that life wasn’t fair. To cope with this harsh reality, she retreated into a private world of hurt: writing down every slight in the diary she kept locked and hidden away from her siblings’ prying eyes and teasing tongues. Fantasy was her escape, and she thought about romance–and sex–a lot; she consumed like junk food the bodice-ripper paperbacks (historic tales of forced seduction) she found in the common room at the camp and kept squirreled away under her bunk. In Jenna’s mind, every heroine or evil villainess looked just like Karla—maybe a blond or redheaded version, but Karla nonetheless. As much as she despised her position of favor in the family and envied her looks, Jenna was obsessed with her oldest sister–secretly trying on her clothes, stealing her lipsticks, and following her into the woods after dinner to spy on her trysts with Dave.
On that July morning, Jenna got stuck watching Chrissie (just shy of two that summer) while her parents took the sailboat out on the lake to test its safety. She hated babysitting, and resented the spoiled Chrissie immensely. When she’d whimper, Jenna would reach over and pinch her pink, fat thighs till she cried. She knew her mother would greatly disapprove of her childcare tactics, but she didn’t care. Sprawled across an old plaid sofa, skinny legs splayed, staring at the split ends of her frizzy hair, she wondered, miserably, if she would ever be loved.
Karla stepped onto the pier and walked right past Dave as if he didn’t exist even though he took up half the rough planks with his work that morning, the greasy motor occupying the space between his wide-open legs, his balls nearly spilling out from the gap in his shorts. Shielding her eyes with an elegant hand, she scanned the lake like a seafarer’s widow. From the expanse of blue sky, a quiet cluster of gray clouds began to form on the horizon. Dave followed her gaze. She stepped in front of him, her pert ass blocking his view, then turned and flashed a bright smile, the kind that made her dimples dance in her cheeks. Despite a facile attempt to keep his cool, he beamed from behind his shaggy bangs. He was powerless in the presence of that smile. But she had another look that wasn’t so nice, and a cruel laugh that could cut him to the quick, one that could make his hands tremble in her presence. He could guess the source of his rare show of nerves. If she’d only go all the way.
A hit song that defined the summer started up on the radio. She turned up the volume, set the radio down, and her eyes never leaving his face, slowly began to remove her clothes. He abandoned his work on the motor, wiped his greasy hands on his t-shirt, and sat back to enjoy the show. First she removed her plaid blouse, undoing each button slowly before letting it fall to the rough planks. The bikini top she wore underneath barely concealed her full breasts. Then, as skilled as any Vegas stripper, she turned her ass to meet his eye level and slowly wiggled out of her shorts, and kicked off her Dr. Scholls. When the song was finished, she stood before him, nearly naked in her red bikini.
“Going swimming?” The nervous catch in his throat belied his attempt to sound casual.
“What’s it look like?” She said, with a quick smile and a flash of her blueberry-hued eyes. He smiled back, although he always felt a bit thrown by her changing winds. He could never tell if she were serious or not, and sometimes it really bothered him, the way she messed with his head.
Her eyes panned the lake again; its surface was a clean sheet of glass except for a small gray blur bobbing in the distance: her parents’ sailboat. He looked out as well, saw the clouds rolling in fast like black exhaust shot from a furnace. Then he remembered something, something important his father had told him the night before. A thunderstorm was predicted. In his haste to get the motor done, and with his mind preoccupied with sexual fantasies, he had forgotten all about it, till now. The temperature dropped suddenly. Ever darkening clouds denigrated the sky and purple sparks danced along the lake, immediately followed by a crash of thunder so loud it shook the pier and nearly toppled Karla off the edge. Dave was on his feet and at her side at once, his arm protectively looped around her slender waist as she shivered in her bikini.
“You better go inside,” he said, looking out to where the boat bobbed up and down, its sail white sail flailing in the wind. Lightning flamed across the sky, articulating the lake in an artificial whiteness. It was followed by another deafening crash, then rain in a thick, cold sheet fell from the sky, striking them and driving them back several feet.
A lump growing in his throat, Dave brushed his wet hair from his eyes and watched as the churning black skies enveloped the small boat, the mast listing sharply to one side then righting itself. “They gotta reef that sail or she’ll roll!” He said.
“Huh?” Shouted Karla over the pelting rain.
“They need to get that sail down, now!”
“That’s my parents’ boat!”
“I’ll use the bullhorn!” He jumped into his fishing dinghy he always kept tied to the pier. He grabbed the bullhorn then saw, too late, what she was about to do.
“Wait!” He shouted, reaching his hand out to stop her.
With the focus and grace of an Olympic gymnast, Karla ran the length of the pier, jumped, and dove deep. When she surfaced, she found herself in the center of the lake, now an undulating blanket of short, choppy waves. She looked back at Dave on the pier yelling through the bullhorn for her to turn back, his hands waving frantically in the air. Using the strong strokes her high school swimming coach had taught her, Karla swam towards the sailboat.
Dave dropped the bullhorn and grabbed the binoculars he kept handy, silently cursing himself. His father had told him not to let any boats out, and yet he had stupidly helped the Mancusis, inexperienced sailors, out of the slip that morning. Leo, who brought his new boat hitched to a rented trailer to the camp the evening before, was excited to take it out on its maiden voyage. He’d planned to sail with his older children once he got the hang of it. He had even asked Dave about the weather forecast. Fine, he had said. With a sickness growing in his stomach, he peered through the binoculars, focusing the lenses till he spotted the sailboat. He then saw Leo pulling a soaking wet Karla on deck. Stella clung to the side rail. The sail was still up and flapping.
“They gotta tie that down,” Dave hissed through clenched teeth.
He looked at the dinghy. He had gassed her up that morning and planned to do some fishing later. He could help them get the sail down, and tow her back in. His heart racing, he used the t-shirt to wipe the lenses of the binoculars and peered through them again. He scanned the surface of the lake just in time to see the sail jerk violently from side to side, then drop out of sight completely.
The elderly groundskeeper and his wife were suddenly at Dave’s side, wearing yellow rain slickers and asking if he needed help. His said nothing, but his ashen face told them there was trouble. They looked out over the lake and saw in the black clouds only a section of white sail, bobbing in the choppy water at an odd angle. Dave jumped into the dinghy, caught the motor on the first pull, revved it, and raced across the lake towards the wreck, the rain smacking against his face like tiny bullets.
* * *
Warren waited out the storm inside a depressing cinder block building designed for rainy day play. It smelled of dampness and mildew, and he found nothing of interest in the Lego building blocks and crushed boxes of scenic jigsaw puzzles. Then he spotted an old-fashioned doll he’d never seen before. He ran his fingers along its finely cracked bisque face and over what looked and felt like real hair: short bangs and long blond curls trimmed with faded white ribbons. She was dressed in a yellowed white cotton gown that appeared handmade, with fine embroidery of faded pink flowers on the yoke. He wondered if the doll had come from Wolf House, and his heart beat at the potential discovery of a playroom filled with long-neglected toys. He was mentally planning his exploration for the day when he heard a commotion outside, voices calling and feet sloshing through the mud. Then Anne’s scream, a soprano-pitched banshee wail, penetrated through the hiss of rain like a razor cutting through flesh. Warren dropped the doll to the concrete floor (adding a deeper crack to its face) and bolted to the pier, forgetting all about his fear of storms.
By the time Dave reached the wreck, the Mancusi sailboat was nearly upside-down, the half-submerged sail and mast floating next to it. There was no sign of Karla or her parents. He balanced his bare feet on the side of the wobbly dinghy and dove, realizing mid-jump that he had stupidly neglected to bring a life jacket with him. The water was dark and much colder than he expected. Some debris from the boat: a paddle, a tin picnic basket, floated beneath the surface, but he saw no one. With a tightness rising in his chest, he fought against the instinct to surface. He knew there was little time, that maybe it was already too late. Just as his straining lungs were about to burst, a ray of sunlight pierced the water and he saw her, skin white and glowing in the dark water. Soft bubbles poured from her lips, and her hair streamed out in a fan around her face as her body, suspended in slow motion like a ballerina, sunk to the bottom. He kicked his strong legs and dove deep, reaching her just as the darkness was about to swallow her forever. He grabbed her waist and pushed with whatever reserve he had left and surfaced with a loud gasp.
All the confidence and haughtiness had left Karla’s body, and she was now just a limp doll in his arms, her skin impossibly pale, edging on blue. Remembering his lifeguard training, he tucked his forearm under her chin and swam to the dinghy. Karla regained consciousness—a soft moan passing through her bluish lips—just enough to help pull herself up and over the side of Dave’s boat while he pushed her from behind. Then she collapsed on the deck, shivering violently in her tiny red bikini. As they raced back to the pier, Dave felt the sun poking out from the clouds, warming the skin on his back. The storm had left as quickly as it came.
A crowd now crammed onto the small pier. One of the camp fathers helped lift Karla’s limp body onto the rough planks, and Dave immediately began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Was it even necessary? She was breathing, after all. Or had he just wanted to touch his mouth to hers, to possess her limp body, now offering no resistance at all as his fingers pressed between her breasts. She coughed out a little water and rolled onto her side. The groundskeeper’s wife covered her with a blanket.
The noise had roused Mitch who ran to the pier to find Anne hysterical; the two now held each other in a tight embrace. Jenna, with a squirming baby Chrissie in her arms, stood on the bank and beheld the bizarre tableau in shocked silence. Warren, trembling from the top of his black hair to his bare feet, walked the length of the pier, pushing past the adults and their gawking children to where Karla lay. He was suddenly in a kaleidoscope, the edges of his world splintering around him with only Karla, lying limp and appearing almost dead, in sharp focus at the center. Two senior staff members, older men who liked to pull rank on Dave at every opportunity, took control of the scene. They jumped in the dinghy and sped off across the lake.
“It’s too late,” Dave whispered into the dying wind.
At this pronouncement Karla began to cry softly, her slim body shaking beneath the gray blanket. Anne buried her face in Mitch’s brawny shoulder, and Mitch clamped his eyes tight to keep from crying. Jenna handed off Chrissie to one of the camp moms, and ran into the woods where she threw herself onto the same mossy bank where she had spied on Dave and Karla, collapsing into a heap of sobs. She was an orphan now, like many of the heroines in the books she had read, only this didn’t feel romantic at all. This felt like ice water running through her veins.
Warren stood over Karla’s limp, trembling body for a moment, then knelt next to her and gently pushed the dark strands of hair from her face. She opened her eyes weakly, her lips parted in an attempt to speak. Then wordlessly, she lifted her arms from beneath the blanket and pulled him close to her. Her embrace was cold, like death.
* * *
The following days were a blur of interrogations. The lake was dragged, but the bodies of Leo and Stella were never recovered. Dave was given time off to rest. He spent it in his dinghy, floating aimlessly down the small tributaries only the locals knew about, far away from prying eyes. He couldn’t forgive himself for the stupid mistake he’d made, and wondered secretly if Karla ever could either. He longed to speak with her when the moment was right, to beg her forgiveness, but she was holed up in the camp’s nicest cabin. The town doctor had given her a check-up and declared her right as rain, advising rest. The women of the camp brought her meals and magazines, and some tried to hold her hand, but she insisted (sweetly) that she wished to be alone.
The night before relatives came to pack up the Mancusi children and take them back to Rochester to attend a funeral without bodies, Karla came to Dave’s room. Wearing only a light cotton nightgown and drenched in cool blue moonlight she stood before him, telling him how she’d crossed the lake in one of the small motor boats. Dave blinked at her incredulously, convinced he was dreaming. But before he could fathom the reality of it, she pulled the nightgown over her head and slipped in naked between the sheets of his bed. That night his wish was fulfilled, and when she spread her legs wide so he could enter her, his first thought was that she wasn’t a virgin, that she had done it before, but he didn’t care. When he woke the next morning after a heavy sleep, she was gone. He ran to the window, but saw nothing on the lake but the few boats still searching for the missing bodies.
* * *
The next time Dave saw Karla was a few years later on a TV program. She looked different—blond streaks in her dark hair, skimpy costume and heavy make-up, but it was unmistakably Karla. He watched, stunned, as she performed on a national pop music program. Soon, the songs she sang and danced to would be everywhere, playing on the radio at the marina where he worked, and blasting from the jukeboxes in the local bars and bowling alley. Then she exploded as a pop phenomenon–known to the world only as Karla: a sexy and outrageous superstar.
Dave went on to marry a local girl, have a few kids, and live a good life on the lake, working on the boats, and taking over the business when his father retired. When the camp closed in the late 1990’s, he opened a hardware store in town and prospered. At times someone would broach the subject of the famous Karla and what had happened that summer. For many years his buddies would kid him over a few beers, asking him if he had ever done her and pressing him for details, but he’d only smile and shrug. Once he got hitched, they stopped asking out of respect for his wife. But in his private moments, he thought of her often, and late at night, when his family was asleep he’d go to the computer in his office and watch her music videos over and over again, as if trying to understand a great mystery that had always eluded him.