By Megan Collins
Copyright © 2020 by Megan Collins. From BEHIND THE RED DOOR: A Novel by Megan Collins. Reprinted by permission of Atria, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Now that it’s summer, it’s not my job to protect the children. I have finished the follow-ups on the girl who submitted a suicide note for her English essay. I have closed the file on the boy who came to school with rope burns on his neck. The suicide note was written with pink Magic Marker. The burns were from a jump rope that the teenage stepbrother wrapped around the boy like a scarf, just before he squeezed.
The children don’t stop needing protection, but every job has a contract, and mine stipulates that from June to September, I am to forget everything I’ve witnessed, to not think of what else that girl might be writing, how else that boy might be marked. I am to relax on the couch in our Kendall Square loft and sip the chardonnay that Eric has handed me. I am to scroll through my phone while my husband cooks our dinner and the news drones on in the background.
I should be doing my homework. Fresh off an appointment with Dr. Lockwood, I’ve been told to make a list of anxiety triggers. She thinks if I get them down on paper, I’ll get them out of my head. But on paper, the words growl at me, take on body and breath. Our upstairs neighbors’ footsteps. My recurring nightmare. The guy on the T who coughed without covering his mouth. I filled up a third of the page before I had to throw the list away, my throat tight.
I don’t think my new prescription is working.
“Do you want tomatoes in this?” Eric asks, but I’m looking at a Facebook post from one of my colleagues, the other social worker with whom I share an office. She’s smiling on the beach, her skin glowing, and I’m wincing at the burn I’m sure she’ll get.
“Fern?” Eric says. “Tomatoes?”
I look up. He’s wearing the stethoscope apron I bought him. It was supposed to be cute and stupid and funny, but from here, it looks like a snake is slithering along his chest.
“Whatever you want,” I answer.
“No, whatever you want. This could be your last real meal for days. With Ted, it’ll just be takeout and frozen dinners.” “I think I saw him cook some rice once.”
“Was it instant?” “Might’ve been.”
Eric pinches his lips together, then nods. “We’ll do tomatoes.”
He’s always like this. Indignant about my parents. When you have a mother and father like he does—who leaned across the dinner table to kiss each other, who took Eric and his four siblings to Disney World every summer, who treated each of their kids’ birthdays like a national holiday—it’s hard to feel warm toward parents like Ted and Mara.
He doesn’t think I should go to New Hampshire tomorrow. Ever since Ted called me last week asking for my help in packing up the house, Eric’s been in a mood. He thinks I’m too kind to my father, too “How high?” when he says “Jump”—and he’s sometimes right. But when it comes to Ted, there are certain things I can’t say no to.
After a few minutes, Eric turns off the stove, plates our meals, and brings over two steaming dishes of pasta. During the school year, we eat at the table so I can shovel food into my mouth while writing case reports on my laptop. But it’s summer now and I’m not allowed to bring my work home with me anymore, so we eat in front of the TV, perched on the edge of the couch.
Eric loves to watch the news, so we’re watching the local news. It’s our trade-off for him doing the cooking. When I cook, we watch game shows. I find the rhythm of them soothing. The rules are laid out right at the beginning. Somebody always wins. When Eric cooks, I play it cool so he can have what he wants, but truthfully, I prefer to avoid the news. I don’t need more things to add to my list. E. coli outbreak. Carjackings. A rare disease that killed a woman my age. If I tell Eric I’m convinced I’ll develop this same disease, I know what he’ll say: You will not. It’s extremely rare. As a doctor, the word rare means something different to him than it does to me. To me, it means “possible.”
“Oh, this is crazy. Have you heard about this?” Eric increases the volume on the TV. I look up from my pasta to see a picture of a woman on the screen. Next they show footage of a house on an unpaved road, followed by a shot of police officers traipsing through a forest with German shepherds. I scratch an itch on my wrist.
“Sullivan was first reported missing ten days ago by her wife, Rita Diaz,” the reporter says in a voiceover. “Diaz told police that Sullivan left for her usual morning walk around five thirty a.m. on June seventh and did not return.”
“Where’s this?” I ask. The area looks heavily wooded, not like you’d find around here. “Maine,” Eric says.
“Maine? Why are they talking about it in Boston?” He glances at me. “It’s Astrid Sullivan.”
The reporter continues: “The timing of Sullivan’s disappearance—almost exactly twenty years since her abduction from a small New Hampshire town on June 24, 2000—has residents of Ridgeway concerned that this is the work of Sullivan’s original abductor, who was never caught.”
I scratch my wrist again as a new photo appears on the screen. It’s the same woman as before, evident by her mane of curly red hair, only she’s much younger. A teenager. I set my plate on the coffee table and lean forward. There’s something about the freckles sprayed like splatter paint across the girl’s nose that makes me squint at the TV.
“Hold on.” I reach for the remote and press pause. The screen freezes right as the picture enlarges to fill the frame. The girl has a wide face with high cheekbones, a closed-lipped smile that borders on a smirk. Her freckles fan out onto her cheeks, and there’s a rogue one below the arch of her left eyebrow that’s darker than the rest. “I think I know her,” I say.
Eric looks at me as his mouth closes around his fork. “Well yeah,” he says, chewing. “It’s Astrid Sullivan.” “You keep saying that. But who is she?”
His brow furrows. “Are you serious? She’s that girl who was kidnapped twenty years ago.” “They said that. But why would I know who she is?”
“Everyone knows her. It was national news.” “Why?”
Eric shakes his head a little. “You really don’t remember?” “Twenty years ago, I was only twelve,” I remind him.
“And I was thirteen,” he says, “but I still remember.”
“Well, I didn’t have TV growing up. You know Ted and Mara.”
He shrugs. “Still. It happened in your state. Down in Virginia, everyone was talking about it, so I can’t imagine that Cedar somehow missed the story.”
I stare at the girl’s face, trying to remember where I’ve seen her before. It feels like trying to remember a dream. “What is the story?” I ask.
Eric sets his plate beside mine. As he speaks, he kneads my back with his knuckles. It’s a gesture I usually love, but the itch on my wrist demands so much attention, I can hardly feel his hand.
“She was missing for weeks,” he says. “She was fourteen, I think, and she disappeared during some party her parents were having. The front yard was supposedly packed with people—but nobody saw what happened to her. And then, like a month later, they found her on the side of the road a couple blocks from her house. She was blindfolded and drugged and said she’d been kept in a basement that whole time by some guy in a mask.”
Girls who disappear. Kidnappers. Masks.
My scratching reminds me of the crickets in Cedar. Growing up, I would listen to them through my window screen at night, marveling at how their rhythm was the same as Ted’s when he clawed at his psoriasis. I have not inherited my father’s skin condition, but sometimes I itch.
“And this happened in New Hampshire?” I ask.
“Yeah, hang on.” Eric grabs his phone, opens an app, and types. “This says it was Foster, New Hampshire, which is…” He pulls up a map and zooms in. “Maybe forty-five miles from Cedar?”
Astrid’s eyes stare out at me from the TV. They’re green like the oak leaves that hem in my childhood home, and the longer I look at them, the more I feel the need to look away.
“I’ve never heard about any of this,” I say, “but I really think I know her from somewhere.”
Eric pulls his plate back onto his lap, takes a bite of tomato and feta. “Her face was all over the newspapers. There’s no way you could have missed it. Everyone was obsessed with the story since her reappearance was so weird. Oh—also…” He eats another forkful before continuing. “She just had a memoir come out, so she’s been doing a bunch of publicity for it. I think she was on Good Morning America recently.”
I don’t remind him that, until a couple days ago, I was still Mrs. Douglas, school social worker at Stuart Halloway Middle School, juggling meetings and home visits and paperwork. This is the first news of any kind I’ve watched in weeks.
I press Play on the remote, but Astrid’s picture stays frozen. If the reporter wasn’t speaking, I’d think the TV was still on pause.
“Oh, see?” Eric says after a moment, and the sound of his fork clanging against his plate makes me jump.
He gestures toward the screen, which has filled with a picture of Astrid’s book. Behind the Red Door: A Memoir. On the cover, a bare bulb illuminates a door the color of rashes, of sunburns, of things that must be scratched. The reporter mentions the book’s recent spike in sales, how it’s zoomed up all the bestseller lists since news first broke about Astrid’s disappearance.
“Some readers of the memoir are speculating that it was the book’s publication that drew Sullivan’s original kidnapper out of hiding. Some even say he might have used the memoir to track her down and take her for a second time. Those close to Sullivan, however, say these theories are unhelpful distractions.”
The shot switches to a woman with dark hair speaking to a microphone held in front of her face. Rita Diaz, wife of Astrid Sullivan, reads a bar across the bottom of the screen.
“I appreciate that people have taken an interest in my wife’s book,” Rita says, her forehead creased, her hair in a messy bun. “But right now, these conspiracy theories aren’t helping us find her. I know, to many people, the why of her disappearance is important, but honestly, all I care about is the where. And the when she will return. So if you have any information to share that might help us find her, please—don’t go on Reddit or Twitter or Facebook; go to the police.”
Right before the news moves on to the next story, the station shows a phone number for police in Ridgeway, Maine, along with another recent picture of Astrid. There are lines around her eyes that weren’t in her photo as a teenager. Her freckles aren’t as vivid, but I can still see the one beneath the arch of her eyebrow that sits like a stray punctuation mark. Staring at it, I feel a pinch in my throat, as if, for some reason, this single freckle belongs on my list of triggers. It makes me certain—with a level of conviction I can’t explain—that I know her. And not just know her. Not just seen her picture
in a newspaper. I’ve met her. But when? But where? “Hey, what’s this?” Eric asks. “What happened?”
I look down to where he’s pointing. My wrist is slashed with thick stripes of pink. I’ve scratched so hard that I’m bleeding, the beads of red perforating my skin.
The sheets scrape against my Band-Aid as we get into bed. The bleeding stopped hours ago, but Eric did such a good job patching me up that I’m reluctant to peel off his handiwork. The bandage is clean and smooth and perfectly square. Looking at it soothes me.
Eric reaches for me before I’ve even shut off the bedside lamp. His hand rests on my hip, then inches upward, his fingers spidering along my ribs. I turn to him, nuzzle my face against his neck.
“You’re insatiable,” I say. “Can’t help it, Bird.”
I kiss his Adam’s apple. It’s been six years, and I still love that nickname. He’s been calling me Bird since the night we met, when he misheard my name at a noisy Harvard Square bar. It stuck because it suits me: sparrow-brown hair, a slightly hooked nose, bony and petite (so small, in fact, that from behind, I sometimes get confused for students at school). But what I love most about Bird is how, every time he says it, I’m reminded why I decided to go out with him in the first place. The reason I thought, like I never had about anyone before, I could marry this guy.
I’d been standing with him at the bar, the two of us talking so long I didn’t notice my friend getting sick at one of the tables. When she stumbled past us, puking, I lurched forward to help her toward the door. Eric grabbed a napkin off the bar and followed. When we got outside, he wiped at the vomit in her hair. Never mind that she was a stranger to him. Never mind that the puke was clotted with chunks of olive from her martini. He stepped right in, a hero with a bar napkin. Afterward, when I thanked him, he said, Of course, Bird, shrugging it off like it was nothing. But it was the
kindest thing I’d ever seen.
“Do you want to try one more time before you go?” he asks now.
I stiffen, and he pulls me closer, reading the tension in my body as desire. “I’m not even ovulating anymore,” I tell him. When those circled days passed on my calendar this month, I let out a breath that took a long time to exhale.
“We can only have sex when you’re ovulating?” He’s kissing me as he says it, slowly and teasingly, his words fluttering against my mouth. “It can’t be because I’m going to miss you?”
I arch my neck as he slides his lips toward my collarbone. “Of course not,” I breathe. “You just said ‘try,’ so.”
I’ve been off the pill for three months now. I want to make my husband happy. He spends his days caring for other people’s children—same as me, I guess—and when his patients’ parents ask if he has kids of his own, I know it hurts when he has to say no. That’s where we’re not the same. When I do home visits, and the parents get defensive, ask me if I know from personal experience how hard it is to raise a child, I feel momentarily weightless as I get to shake my head no.
I like kids. I do. Sometimes, I even get that primal, womb-stirring feeling when I see a baby. But I’ve witnessed so many ways that a parent can fail a child, and it seems so easy to do. Easier than being good. And then there’s everything else, every little threat that hisses in the air or coils into genetic code, waiting to strike. I can’t imagine how much I’ll have to add to my list if I ever become pregnant. SIDS, heart defects, car seats improperly installed. Girls who disappear.
Kidnappers who catch and release, then catch again. My hands grow slick on Eric’s skin just thinking about it.
I keep hoping I’ll get infected by his enthusiasm, come down with baby fever. But so far, I still react to my period each month as if it’s a miracle.
“Hey,” Eric says. “Bird.” He moves back a little to meet my eyes. “If you’re not into this, we don’t have to do it.” For a moment, I think he’s talking about having a baby. Then he takes his hand off my breast.
“No, I am,” I say. “I’m just a little distracted.”
“Yeah? What’s going on?”
I want to make my husband happy. I don’t like to burden him with the lists that scroll through my mind. I know he’d be sweet, talk me through each anxiety until he’s sure his logic has tamed it. But I’d still feel it clawing inside me, still hear its nails skittering across my skull, and even Eric has a limit to his patience.
I could throw him off the scent, say that I’m dreading my trip to New Hampshire. He’d appreciate that. But the truth is, I’m looking forward to going home. Ted is retired now, and sometimes, I find myself mouthing that word—retired— because it feels as good as it does impossible. I had to stalk the Psychology Department’s Facebook page, scour the
pictures labeled “Professor Brierley’s Farewell Reception,” to believe it was true. He finished up his final semester last month, and without the pressure to publish or perish—“jump through hoops or jump into the grave,” he always says— things might actually be different. That’s why I agreed to help him, even though Eric keeps saying he doesn’t deserve it. When Ted called last week to tell me he’s moving to Florida, he said, “Now that I’m free from the tyranny of academia, I want to be equally free from the tyranny of snow.” Then he said, “I need you, Fern.”
I had to ask him to repeat it. And when he did, I tried to savor it. Ted has never needed me, not outside the context of his Experiments, anyway, so it seems his retirement has already changed him, made him think twice about his daughter, see that she can offer him something his work cannot. Without Ted’s compulsive need to compete with the superstars of his field, this time won’t be like all the others. This time, he won’t keep typing his ideas as I clutch my stomach, suffering from what turns out to be appendicitis. He won’t retreat to his office as soon as I return from the hospital,
wearing a bandage I’ll struggle to change on my own. He won’t imply that I’m wasting his time simply by wanting his care.
To Eric, stories like these are enough to warrant me never going home again. He calls what I went through child neglect. But I’ve seen true neglect, gone to fly-infested houses where parents are passed out with needles in their arms, a diapered five-year-old eating cat food while his sister cries in the nurse’s office at school. Whatever I endured with Ted and Mara—it’s miles away from that. No one from Cedar Public Schools or child services ever came to our house.
“Wow, you really are distracted,” Eric says now. “Is everything okay?”
I have to say something, but everything’s a minefield. I look at the Band-Aid on my wrist, and it’s as if I can hear my wound whispering beneath it. After Eric patched me up, I read the Wikipedia page for Astrid Sullivan. It did nothing to clarify where I’ve met her before, but I’ve added sedatives and blindfolds to my list.
“I keep thinking about that woman,” I finally say. “Astrid.”
Eric stretches out his arm so I can burrow into him. “Yeah, it’s crazy,” he says. “But I’m sure they’ll find her soon.” “You don’t know that.”
“No. I don’t. But they found her last time.”
Only because whoever took her brought her back. Dragged her from the basement where he’d kept her. Tied a black sash around her eyes, plunged a syringe into her veins, left her on the side of the road like trash. I shiver against Eric, and he rubs the goose bumps flecking my arm.
“There weren’t any witnesses, right?” I ask. “Twenty years ago?” “To her kidnapping? No. That was the whole problem.”
“And no one saw who brought her back?” “No. She just—reappeared,” he says.
I shake my head against his chest. “I feel like…”
He tucks my hair behind my ear, then massages my scalp. “Feel like what?” “Like I’ve seen her before. In person. Like I actually knew her.”
Eric’s hand goes still. “She lived almost fifty miles away, Bird. Have you ever even been to Foster?” “I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe. But—”
“Don’t you think you’d remember if someone you knew was kidnapped?”
“Not if I didn’t know she got kidnapped.” When Eric doesn’t respond right away, I keep going. “I told you, I have no memory of that story. So if I knew her but didn’t—or even if I did—hear about the kidnapping, maybe it… I’ve had students who—you know, there’s some trauma or they find out about something—and they can’t even—”
“Fern.” He uses my real name because he wants to make sure I’m paying attention. “What?”
This is what he says whenever my thoughts get away from me. I picture a marble shooting through an endlessly curving slide, corkscrewing down and down along a tube so smooth there isn’t any friction to stop it. Dr. Lockwood has offered me another metaphor. “Think of your brain as a record,” she’s said. “Sometimes the needle gets stuck, and the record begins to skip. It keeps coming back to this one little nanosecond of a song, plays it over and over again. That, right
there, is your anxiety. It’s telling you that you have to stay on this thought. But it’s a lie. You can actually train yourself to move the needle, set it on top of another thought altogether and keep on going.”
Sometimes these images help. Sometimes I can picture myself plucking the marble from the slide, the needle from the record, and I can carry on, calmer than before. Other times, like right now, my nerves still feel like wires buzzing with electricity.
“You’re right,” I say to Eric. It’s our last night together for at least a week. I don’t want to ruin it by spiraling. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. I know the news kind of freaked you out. But like I said, her picture’s been everywhere. You must have seen it at some point.”
I tilt my face toward his, kiss his bottom lip. “I know. You’re right,” I say again. Girls who disappear. Girls who can’t remember. “Let’s get back to what we were doing before, okay?”
“Yeah?” He smiles a little, his fingers skimming my skin. “How much before?”
I put my hand on his cheek, feel the dark stubble he’ll shave off in the morning. Then I cup the back of his neck and pull him so close that, as we kiss, our bodies are practically seamless. I’m certain that if I leave even an inch of space, the woman from the news will slip between us.
The girl has no face.
Where her eyes and nose and mouth should be, there is only skin. A flat plane of flesh stretched tight as a mask.
Bent at the waist at a forty-five-degree angle, her body looks crooked. Not wholly human. Her head is tilted down, toward my feet. She stretches out her arms. Lurches and lurches toward me.
Her fingers twitch as she reaches out, trying to grab or scratch or gouge me. She’s so close, I can almost feel her nails piercing my skin.
But now, hunched over, she stops. Lifts her head—slowly, agonizingly—toward mine. And as I stare at her, bracing myself for that grotesque mask of skin, I open my mouth to scream.
I shoot upward in bed, gulping for air in the dark. My hair is stuck to my neck, my lips trembling, the sheets bunched in my fists.
The nightmare is back. The same one I’ve been having since I was a kid, once every few months.
I look over at Eric, who hasn’t stirred. Sometimes he sleeps right through it, especially when the whir of the AC drowns out the sharpest of my gasps.
My heart knocks hard, and I slip out of bed, head to the bathroom. I’ve learned how to drag myself from the powerful suction of that dream: splash water on my face, stand beneath the light, stare into the sink until reality clicks into place.
But something is different this time. Water drips from my chin, I see it swirl away, but my heart is still pounding. What is it? What is it?
I go against instinct, allow myself to reel the nightmare back in. I play it again, starting at the tips of her fingers as they come so close. Her hands are the same, trying to grasp me. Her arms are the same, extending with urgency. Her body is bent as it always is. But now as the face tilts up—I have to cover my mouth so I don’t cry out.
Where there was skin, there are eyes, green as summer leaves. A nose dotted with freckles. A mouth forming words I can’t hear. And her hair, always dim and unremarkable, is suddenly bright as fire.
Moments pass. Maybe minutes. After the initial shock of it, I relax. I’m only dreaming of Astrid Sullivan because I saw her on TV, because my thoughts were tangled up with her right before bed. That’s what Eric would say. Dr. Lockwood, too.
But I look at my fingers. They’re gripping the lip of the sink, knuckles white. My arm is taut, the bandage on my wrist peeled back. As if I’ve been scratching in my sleep. As if my body knows something my mind hasn’t caught up to yet.
I force myself to picture it again. And again and again, until I’m sure of what I’m seeing. Those hands—empty. Beseeching. Open as wide as a mouth gasping for air. That face—Astrid’s. And with her features filled in, I see her actions differently, too. She wasn’t trying to hurt me, like I’ve always thought. She was asking—no, begging—for help. Because as I play back the images in my head, recall her moon-wide eyes, I see it so clearly: the girl isn’t terrifying; she’s terrified.
My jaw falls slack. The itch on my wrist flares.
I watch the questions solidify on my face, reflected in the mirror in front of me. The nightmare that’s haunted me for so many years—what if it hasn’t been a nightmare at all? Hasn’t even been a dream?
What if, all this time, all these nights, it’s actually been a memory?
When Fern Douglas sees the news about Astrid Sullivan, a thirty-four-year-old missing woman from Maine, she is positive that she knows her. Fern's husband is sure it's because of Astrid's famous kidnapping--and equally famous return--twenty years ago, but Fern has no memory of that, even though it happened an hour outside her New Hampshire hometown. And when Astrid appears in Fern's recurring nightmare, one in which a girl reaches out to her, pleading, Fern fears that it's not a dream at all, but a memory.
Back at her childhood home to help her father pack for a move, Fern purchases a copy of Astrid's recently published memoir--which may have provoked her original kidnapper to abduct her again--and as she reads through its chapters and visits the people and places within it, she discovers more evidence that she has an unsettling connection to the missing woman. With the help of her psychologist father, Fern digs deeper, hoping to find evidence that her connection to Astrid can help the police locate her. But when Fern discovers more about her own past than she ever bargained for, the disturbing truth will change both of their lives forever.