“Have you seen Nicholas? Nicholas Handemeyer?” Toni gasped. Belatedly Mary Louise clocked her distress and the muted sobbing of the children huddled behind her. They looked like they’d been to war. “Did he come back here?”
Toni let out a wail.
“ I mean, I don’t know.” Mary Lou backtracked. “I haven’t seen him, but let me go ask the others.”
One by one the other counselors and Camp Williams faculty emerged from their various cabins. No one had seen Nicholas Handemeyer. But Toni shouldn’t panic.
He was bound to have gotten out of the water.
Little boys ran off sometimes.
He couldn’t be far.
A group of the boys, including Don Choate, who was a varsity swim star, set off for the beach to help the rescue efforts. Billy Hamlin and Charles Braemar Murphy had stayed to help the coast guard, while Toni took the children back to camp.
Toni stood uselessly, watching them go. Not sure what else to do, she escorted the other boys back to camp, got them changed into dry clothes, and prepared some food for them. Mary Lou Parker arrived to find Toni mindlessly chopping cucumbers and staring at the wall.
“I’ll take over here,” said Mary Lou kindly. She didn’t like Toni Gilletti, but everyone knew how fond Toni was of little Nicholas. You could see the misery in her eyes. “You go and clean up. I bet you he’ll be back by the time you’ve had a shower. He’s probably getting hungry by now.”
Walking back to her cabin, Toni tried to make herself believe what Mary Lou had said.
He’ll be back any minute.
He’s probably getting hungry.
Other thoughts, horrific thoughts, hovered ominously on the edge of her consciousness, clamoring to be let in. But Toni pushed them aside. First the kids in the rowboat. Then Billy. Now Nicholas. The afternoon had been one lone roller coaster of terror and relief. But it would end happily. It had to.
When Toni saw Nicholas she would hug him and kiss him and tell him how sorry she was for allowing herself to be distracted by Billy. Tomorrow they would catch crabs together and play possum. They would build entire sand cities. Toni would not be hungover, or tired, or thinking about her love life. She would be with the children, with Nicholas, one hundred percent present.
She stopped at the door to her cabin.
The boys emerged from the beach path one by one. They walked with their heads down, in silence. Toni watched them, numb, aware of nothing but the distant lapping of the waves ringing in her ears.
In later years, she would dream about their faces:
Charles Braemar Murphy, her lover up until that day, ashen white and ghostly.
Don Choate, his lips set tight, fists clenched as he walked.
And at the rear, Billy Hamlin, his eyes swollen from crying.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh went the tide.
The boy’s corpse hung limp in Billy’s arms.
“So let’s get this straight. When did you first notice—first notice—that Nicholas was missing?”
Mrs. Martha Kramer cast her beady eyes from Toni Gilletti to Billy Hamlin. Both young people looked terrified. As well they might.
Martha Kramer had been running Camp Williams for twenty-two years now, first with her husband, John, and for the last nine years as a widow. Never, in all that time, had there been a single serious accident involving any of the boys in her care. Never. But now tragedy had struck. And it had struck on the watch of the carpenter’s son and the electronics’ millionaire’s daughter.
At only five feet tall, with perfectly coiffed gray hair and a pair of trademark pince-nez spectacles permanently suspended on a chain around her neck, Mrs. Kramer was considered a Kennebunkport institution. But her diminutive stature and soft-spoken, grandmotherly manner led many people to underestimate both her intellect and her business acumen. Camp Williams might sell itself as an old-fashioned, family-run retreat. But since her husband’s death, Mrs. Kramer had doubled the prices and started strictly vetting the boys she admitted, ensuring her reputation as the owner of the elite summer camp on the East Coast. Teenage labor was cheap, overheads were low. She’d even gotten a great deal on the carpentry for last year’s refurbishment project. Put simply, Mrs. Martha Kramer had been sitting on a cash cow. And these two irresponsible children had just slaughtered it.
“I told you, Mrs. Kramer. I had a concussion. Toni was looking after me. We thought all the kids were right there on the beach, until Graydon came over and said Nicholas was gone.”
Billy Hamlin, the boy, was doing all of the talking. The girl, Gilletti, normally a chatterbox of the worst order, was curiously mute. Perhaps it was shock? Or perhaps she was smart enough not to say anything that might incriminate her later. Something about her eyes made Mrs. Kramer uneasy. She’s thinking, the little minx. Weighing up her options.
Both Toni and Billy had gotten dressed since the beach, he in bell-bottoms and a Rolling Stones T-shirt, she in a floor-length skirt with tassels on the bottom and a turtleneck sweater that covered every inch of her skin. Again, the demure clothes were uncharacteristic of Walter Gilletti’s wayward daughter. Martha Kramer’s eyes narrowed still further.
“And you raised the alarm right away?”
“Of course. The coast guard was already at the scene. I stayed to help them, and Toni came back here, just in case . . .”
Billy Hamlin let the sentence trail off. He looked at Toni, who looked at the floor.
“Miss Gilletti? Have you nothing to say?”
“If I had something to say, I’d have said it, okay?” Roused from her stupor like a sun-drunk rattlesnake, Toni suddenly lashed out. “Billy’s told you what happened. Why do you keep hammering at us?”
“Hammering at you?” Martha Kramer drew herself up to her full five feet and glowered at the spoiled teenager in front of her. “Miss Gilletti, a child is dead. Drowned. Do you understand? The police are on their way, as is the boy’s family. They are going to hammer at you until they know exactly what happened, how it happened, and who was responsible.”
“No one was responsible,” Toni said quietly. “It was an accident.”
Mrs. Kramer raised an eyebrow. “Was it? Well, let us hope the police agree with you.”
Outside Mrs. Kramer’s office, Toni finally gave way to tears, collapsing into Billy’s arms.
“Tell me it’s a dream. A nightmare. Tell me I’m going to wake up!”
“Shhh.” Billy hugged her. It felt so good to hold her. There was no more “poor Charles” now. He and Toni were in this together. “It’s like you said. It was an accident.”
“But poor Nicholas!” Toni wailed. “I can’t stop thinking how frightened he must have been. How desperate for me to hear him, to save him.”
“Don’t, Toni. Don’t torture yourself.”
“I mean, he must have called out for me, mustn’t he? He must have screamed for help. Oh God, I can’t bear it! What have I done? I should never have left him alone.”
Billy pushed the image of Nicholas Handemeyer’s corpse from his mind. The little boy was floating facedown when Billy found him, in a rocky cove only yards from the shore. Billy had tried the kiss of life and the paramedics had spent twenty straight minutes on the sand doing chest compressions, trying anything to revive him. It was all useless.
Toni said, “They’ll send me to prison for sure, you know.”
“Of course they won’t,” Billy said robustly.
“They will.” Toni wrung her hands. “I already have two counts on my record.”
“One for fraud and one for possession,” Toni explained. “Oh my God, what if they drug-test me? They will, won’t they? I still have all that coke in my system. And grass. Oh, Billy! They’ll lock me up and throw away the key!”
“Calm down. No one’s going to lock you up. I won’t let them.”
Billy was enjoying being the strong one. It felt good having Toni Gilletti lean on him. Need him. This was the way it was supposed to be. The two of them against the world. Charles Braemar Murphy wasn’t man enough for Toni. But he, Billy Hamlin, would step up to the plate.
As he stood stroking Toni’s hair, two Maine police squad cars pulled into the graveled area in front of the Camp Williams lobby. Three men emerged, two in uniform, one in a dark suit and wing-collared shirt. Mrs. Kramer bustled out to greet them, a grim look on her wizened, old woman’s face.
Pulling Toni closer, Billy caught a waft of her scent. A surge of animal longing pulsed through him. He whispered in her ear.
“They’re going to separate us. Compare our stories. Just stick to what you told Mrs. Kramer. It was an accident. And whatever you do, don’t mention drugs.”