The Girl Behind the Door

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To my daughter, Casey, who whispered in my ear,

“Dad, you need to write this book.”

So I did.

All I know she sang a little while and then flew on . . .

—The Grateful Dead from
Birdsong
, a tribute to the late Janis Joplin

ONE

T
uesday, January 29, was the start of another school week after a three-day weekend. It was a dark, blustery, wet morning—typical for a Bay Area winter. My alarm clock went off at six o'clock, but I was too tired to move, enjoying the warmth of a thick down comforter after a fitful night's sleep. I opened one eye and squinted, but all I could see without my glasses was a blurry lump lying next to me. Erika was sound asleep, her dark, shoulder-length hair tousled, her face pressed into her hypoallergenic pillow. She wheezed peacefully through her stuffy nose.

I closed my eyes and rolled over. Just another thirty minutes and then I'd get up. Within minutes, I fell into a mini-dream. I was in an old mansion with a maze of hallways, trying to get out so that I could go home. The more hallways I tried, looking for the front door, the further I sank into confusion. I yelled for help but no sound came out of my mouth.

My eyes blinked open.

Squinting at the red display on the alarm clock in the half-light, I saw that it was 6:35; I was late. I sat up and put my glasses on, surveying the room. Igor, our dog, was a heap of legs in front of our bed. His skinny, whippet racer's hindquarters rested on his sleeping pad while his head and front paws spilled over onto the floor. He opened one of his dark, bulging eyes, following my movements as I got my bearings. With his long, pointy nose, delicate flappy ears, and those big eyes, he looked like a friendly deer.

He'd slept with us that night so that our daughter, Casey, could be left alone in her room. We'd had a nasty fight over the last few days that had left everyone exhausted. She'd been grounded all weekend over her complete disrespect for us and for her continuing use of foul language. Another battle of wills between an angry teenager and her parents.

I left the bedroom, heading down the hallway that opened into our great room to my left: a living room, dining room, and kitchen all flowing into one large, airy space. Straight ahead of me, the hallway split into a T, my office to the left and Casey's room and her bathroom to the right. An oversize Keith Haring poster, with its graffiti-inspired cartoonish shapes, hung at the junction of the T.

Instead of turning left toward the kitchen, I headed for Casey's room and stopped at her door, or what was left of it. She'd suffered from violent tantrums and meltdowns since she was an infant, thrashing, screaming, wailing, and pummeling that door until cracks opened in the seams. I'd vowed not to replace it again until she left to start college in September, just nine months away.

I put my ear to the door and heard music, faint and tinny, as if it were coming from a toy speaker. I knocked lightly. Should I let her be late for school and suffer the consequences? No. I didn't want to add to the tension in the house by letting her be late out of spite. First period at Redwood High School started at eight o'clock. If she got up now I could drop her off on my way to work.

“Casey? You up?”

Nothing.

I cracked the door open and peeked in. The darkened room seemed neater than usual. I could actually see the blue-gray carpet, stained from spilled food, coffee, and Igor's vomit. Her clothes were piled neatly on her bamboo papasan chair in the corner and her bed was made.

On the bedside table, her clock radio had been set to the local hip-hop station. The irritating beat of gangster rap drifted from its small plastic speaker; the red display flashed 5:00. That was odd. What could she have been doing up at five in the morning?

Feeling uneasy, I turned off the radio and left for the living room. When I went to bed the night before, she'd been encamped on the burgundy leather sofa watching
America's Next Top Model
on Bravo, at the same time drumming away furiously on her laptop, probably chatting with a friend online. But in the gray of the winter morning, the sofa was empty. The cable remote lay on the floor, an open can of Diet Dr Pepper on the coffee table. No coaster under it, of course.

I headed for my office. Sometimes she'd fall asleep on the futon bed. But she wasn't there either.

My pulse quickened as I hurried back through the living room to the front door. Outside, the darkened street, still wet from rain, lit by streetlamps, was where I'd parked the Saab the day before.

It was gone.

I felt a surge of anger. How was I going to get to work? Erika needed our other car, the family SUV, to get to her job. But irritation turned to fear as the reality of Casey's disappearance sank in. She could storm out of the house and stalk around the neighborhood smoking a cigarette and griping to her friends on her cell phone. But she'd never done anything like this; never gotten up this early, never taken my car.

I rushed back to her room. In the half-light I caught sight of a spiral pad of thick white parchment paper for sketching watercolors. It was open to a short note that Casey had written in green ink with her minuscule, precise lettering sloping slightly downward from left to right, a trademark of left-handed writers.

The car is parked at the Golden Gate Bridge. I'm sorry.

My body froze as I stared at the words
Golden Gate Bridge
. The blood drained from my face, the air sucked from my lungs.

I hurried back to our bedroom. Erika was buried under the comforter and a pile of pillows. I touched her arm. “Honey, you need to get up.” I struggled for calm. “There's something wrong with Casey.”

“What? What?” Erika lifted her head, alarmed and confused. She wore a T-shirt, pajama pants, and ankle socks. Her feet were always cold.

“Her room's empty. The car's gone.”

She kicked off the covers and groped the bedside table for her glasses. Igor was jolted off his sleeping pad, shivering nervously, fixing an anxious look on us.

“Maybe she went to a friend's house,” she said, still trying to absorb my words.

“Honey, she left this.” My hand trembled as I held out the note.

“Oh my God. No!” Her face was frozen in terror. I picked up the bedside phone. It was 6:40, just ten minutes since I'd gotten up.

“Nine-one-one. What's your emergency?”

The words tumbled out of my mouth.

“My name is John Brooks. I live at 15 Claire Way in Tiburon. My daughter Casey's disappeared. She left a note saying that she left the car at the Golden Gate Bridge parking lot.”

“Okay. Sir, please try to calm down. What kind of car is it?”

“A red 1999 Saab 9-3.”

“And you said the Golden Gate Bridge parking lot?”

“Yes. I'm assuming the southbound lot on the Marin side.”

“Can you describe her to me? Do you know what she was wearing?”

“She's seventeen, about five-five, five-six, thin, with brown hair cut shoulder length. I don't know what she was wearing.”

“Sir, when did you last see her?”

I returned to that last image of her, sulking on the sofa the night before, ignoring me.

Jesus, was this about that fight we had last weekend?

“In the house at around ten thirty last night.”

“All right, sir. Please stay where you are. An officer will be there in a few minutes. We're contacting the Golden Gate Bridge Patrol and the CHP to check on the location of the car.”

I hung up, stunned and light-headed. Erika and I were disoriented, looking at each other, racked with fear, unable to concentrate. I sat on the edge of the bed, staring at a photograph on my dresser. It was Casey's formal eighth-grade prom portrait. She wore a white party dress with red trim that showed off her bare neck and shoulders. Her hair—then blond—was tied back, her braces were off, and her hazel eyes were highlighted with mascara and eyeliner. She had a self-conscious smile but to me she was a knockout.

Think, God damn it!

I hurried back to Casey's room to look for her phone. Her friends should have known where she was. But it was only 6:45, too early. They'd be pissed at me for waking them up and freaking them out at this hour if this turned out to be nothing. I scanned her room.

Her phone was gone, along with her wallet and pocketbook; not the expensive Marc Jacobs handbag we'd bought together in Greenwich Village the year before for her seventeenth birthday, but the cheaper, everyday knock-around one. I rushed back to the kitchen where Erika, now dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, paced aimlessly.

“Honey, I'm dialing Casey's cell.” Erika looked at me, lost.

The standard greeting voice answered,
“Please leave your message for . . .”
and then Casey's voice,
“Quasey.”
That was the nickname bestowed on her by her friends. It was short for Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, in reference to Casey's slouchy posture, but all the kids slouched.

“Casey, it's Dad. Do you have your phone? Where are you? We have your note. Please call me. Everyone's looking for you.” I paused for a moment. “Honey, we love you.” Another pause. Lacking more words, I pressed
END.

At 6:50 the doorbell rang. I opened it to an officer from the Tiburon Police Department. His white-and-blue cruiser was parked on the street behind him. He was young, maybe late twenties, average height, with a strong build and blond hair shaved close, military style. Igor sidled up and sniffed his uniform.

“Mr. Brooks? I'm Officer Gilbreath.” He looked familiar.

In the living room, Erika and I gave him a quick rundown of the last twenty minutes. The young officer's expression grew somber. He asked to see Casey's room and I led him in, hoping he wouldn't notice the battered door. He looked around for a minute but found nothing helpful. His radio crackled with a garbled voice, but he ignored it.

“Officer, what's going on with the car down by the bridge?” I asked, my mind still racing. “We have to go down there.”

“The CHP's been dispatched to look for it. They'll contact us when they find something. But sir, you really need to stay put.”

“I'm sorry, Officer. We can't stay here. We have to go to the bridge.”

He thought for a moment. “Okay. Is there a neighbor or friend nearby I can contact?”

I gestured toward the house next door. “Our neighbors Jerry and Laura. They should be home.”

I needed to use the bathroom before we left. As I splashed water on my face, I studied the person in the mirror staring back at me. He looked like he'd busted out of a mental institution—hair like some kind of fright wig, eyes bloodshot, eyelids puffy, every flaw magnified.

Returning to the living room, I gave Gilbreath my cell phone number as Erika and I hustled out the door. We stumbled into our SUV for the eight-mile trip down the 101 freeway to the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was 7:10, rush hour. As we drove, I glanced at other drivers around us in their BMWs, Mercedeses, and Jaguars. Just another Tuesday-morning commute into San Francisco. Their impassive faces suggested nothing was wrong.

For a moment, I felt a wild sense of relief. Casey was probably at a friend's house. She'd show up later, apologizing for taking the car without permission. Or maybe she did go to the bridge in a dramatic impulse but changed her mind and was already on her way home.

We emerged from the Waldo Tunnel—a hole bored through the Marin Headlands—to the Golden Gate Bridge in front of us, shrouded in fog, with the bay and the city in the background like a Department of Tourism poster. Normally, this would have been the highlight of my commute to work in San Francisco's financial district, but that morning the fog-shrouded bridge looked cold and menacing.

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