They checked the stormwater drains for Henry first. Then the swollen banks of Shallow Reservoir. The previous night’s thunderstorm had been the biggest and wildest the area had seen for years. It dumped two months’ worth of rain and hail in half an hour, stripped trees of limbs and turned street gutters into rapids. Sheets of corrugated iron were ripped from the post office roof, and a mudslide took out the same section of Cutler Bend that had been scorched by bushfires only a year ago.
It was the kind of night that chewed everything up and spat it out again. None of us wanted to imagine that Henry might have been caught in its jaws.
We doorknocked homes and searched shops, checked the library as well as his favourite fishing spot. It wasn’t until early afternoon that somebody stumbled across a muddy mountain bike inside the train station’s waiting room. It was propped on its kickstand, the front wheel turned on a playful angle, as if to say, ‘What took you so long?’ At first it was a relief to realise Henry had made it to the station unscathed. He must’ve boarded the previous night’s final service, or one of the morning trains. It was just a matter of waiting a few hours until he came home.
But hours turned into days.
Days into weeks.
Now those weeks have somehow stretched into months.
Since January I’ve been reading everything I can about missing persons. Some people go missing intentionally, like running away or needing time out; others disappear unintentionally, like having an accident or suffering from mental illness. In some cases, such as abduction or homicide, people go missing because they are forced.
And when a person has been missing for more than three months, they are considered to be long term missing. Henry has been gone for two months and thirty days.
Tomorrow he will become a long-term missing person.
His fourteenth birthday is next Friday.
I’d never really thought about what happens when a teenager disappears. Most of those local teens you hear about on social media seem to turn up after a few days, a little worse for wear and with some explaining to do. Beyond a passing curiosity about why they chose to run away, I’d never given much consideration to the days they were actually missing, as though there was a black void between them leaving home and turning up again.
Now it’s all I can think about.
Where do these kids sleep? Are they warm enough? Do they have money for food? Can they shower, clean their teeth? Do they fall asleep easily or do they lie awake in the dark feeling completely alone?
One website explains that a missing person could be a victim of misadventure, which sounds almost silly, like a fun escapade that somehow veered off track. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Henry a couple of months before he disappeared. We were at the service station overlooking the railway line on Bridge Road, and Henry watched on as a train pulled away from the platform, gathering speed towards Sydney and beyond.
‘When I leave here,’ he told me, ‘I won’t be like you. I won’t keep coming back again and again.’
He said it like I had some kind of choice. I’d been bouncing around like a pinball for years since my parents’ marriage imploded, my dad agreeing to whatever custody arrangements Mum demanded because he didn’t want to end up in family court.
‘But this is your home,’ I replied, glancing up from the bike tyre I was filling with air. ‘Won’t you miss it?’
Henry shrugged. ‘Nup. It’s like when I get on my bike – sometimes I just wanna keep going and never look back.’ He ran a hand through his hair before pulling on his green Lucky-7 cap, casting his face in shadow. ‘You know those old black and white movies Uncle Bernie loves?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘How the cowboy always gets on a horse and rides off into the sunset? And all the kids run to watch until he’s this tiny speck on the horizon, then they blink and he’s gone and they know they’ll never see him again?’
‘That’ll be me. Off on some new adventure.’
I was only half listening at the time. I may have even laughed or said something dismissive.
Then I blinked, Henry.
And now you’re gone.
• • •
I walk the full length of the train station’s waiting room and circle the patch of pebbled concrete where Henry’s bike was found. This room has been swept out regularly since January, probably mopped or hosed down a bunch of times too. Any trace of Henry has been scrubbed clean, the same way The Shallows was drenched and wrung out by that storm.
I don’t feel his presence here. Not in some psychic or spiritual way – I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. I’m all about facts and clues and tangible evidence, and making all the pieces fit together. I do, however, believe in gut instinct. And right now I’m struggling to imagine Henry’s wet footprints leading from the waiting room out onto the platform, in the same way I find it hard to accept he’s a runaway. Henry’s like a brother to me. He wouldn’t leave forever without saying goodbye.
Or maybe that’s just the guilt talking.
Moving through the doorway to the edge of the platform, I glance left and right along the rails. A small skink darts across a wooden sleeper into a tuft of dead grass. It’s a still afternoon. Limp and overcast. I close my eyes and try to recall the pitch black of that January night, the thrashing trees and sideways rain, the thundering wind as it pummelled buildings and moaned through cracks like a tortured soul. I know why I risked going out in that weather, but what was Henry’s reason? What happened that was so desperate he’d rather take his chances on the train, in the city, away from everything he’s ever known?
‘Afternoon,’ says a voice behind me.
I spin around to find an elderly man shuffling through the entry gate towards the waiting room. He touches his fingers to the tip of his flat cap and doesn’t seem to recognise me, even though I’ve smiled at him on the street since I was six.
‘Hi, Mr Milburn,’ I say. ‘It’s me, Chloe Baxter.’
He pauses, tilting his head back to examine me through his multifocals. It takes him a moment to reconcile the image of the sixteen year old who left here a few months ago with the one who’s returned. When he does, a flicker of his brows is the only acknowledgement that I’ve cut off my long, dark-blonde hair, revealing a mousy crop underneath. The summer glow in my skin has faded to pasty white, and I’ve ditched my light floral dresses for a sombre black shirt and jeans. I’m reminded that’s how it is in The Shallows – people pretend to mind their own beeswax and no one ever says anything to your face. Of course, when it comes to car boot sales and sausage sizzles, this small town reeks of community spirit. But as soon as there’s a whiff of trouble, nobody wants to get involved.
‘I have something for you,’ I say to Mr Milburn, hurrying to my suitcase near the station’s entrance. I slide a folder from the side pocket and tug out a piece of paper. Across the top of the page are the words STILL MISSING, with a large colour photo of Henry underneath. I’ve been plastering these flyers all over train stations and shopping centres for months.
Have you seen thirteen-year-old Henry Weaver? it reads. Henry is Caucasian, about 153 cm tall with a thin build, blue eyes and light brown hair. He may be wearing a green baseball cap and black sneakers, and carrying a navy and yellow backpack.
‘Would you mind putting one of these up at the bowling club?’ I ask. ‘I made new ones with a different photo.’
Mr Milburn’s lips stretch thin as he peers at the paper. He and his wife lived next door to the Weavers for years before Mrs Milburn passed away. He knows Henry and his older brother Mason. He knows their mother.
Then again, who doesn’t?
Finally accepting the flyer with a liver-spotted hand, he studies Henry’s photo and the description.
Henry was last seen in The Shallows in the NSW Southern Highlands on the evening of 10 January. He may have boarded a train between the hours of 10 pm on 10 January and 1 pm on 11 January.
Mr Milburn regards me with cloudy eyes. ‘Ever consider the young lad might not want to be found?’
I stare after him as he continues his slow shuffle into the waiting room, unsure of how to respond. I haven’t let myself entertain that scenario.
Trailing over to my suitcase, I feel a sudden ache of loneliness. I wish Dad would hurry up and get here. My mother complains that everyone in the Southern Highlands lives on country time, and says a decade of living here has ruined my dad’s punctuality forever. But honestly, she’ll find any excuse to criticise this town; it helps her justify leaving it three years ago.
It occurs to me Dad might have the dates mixed up – the school holidays don’t start until next Friday. The only reason Mum’s letting me have extra time here is because she has a work retreat next week and refuses to leave me home alone. I pull out my phone and dial the office number. It connects almost immediately.
‘Reservoir Motel,’ a female voice chirps. ‘We have vacancies!’
‘Oh, err …’ I’m thrown by the unfamiliar greeting. When did the motel get a name change? ‘Is David there, please?’
‘You just missed him. He’s gone to pick up his daughter from the train station.’
I glance up towards Railway Parade. ‘This is his daughter.’
‘Oh, Chloe! He should be there any moment. It’s Luisa here. Luisa de Souza.’
‘Right,’ I say. ‘Hi.’
Rina de Souza’s mother? She used to teach us jazz ballet down at the Scout hall on Tuesdays after school. Luisa was the only person my mother really befriended during her seven-year stint in this town … if we don’t count Sergeant Homewrecker. And I definitely don’t.
‘David’s running late,’ Luisa continues. ‘He was waiting for the window repairer. We had some trouble last night.’
I want to ask her why she’s using the word ‘we’ and why she’s so attuned to my father’s comings and goings. But I snag on her last few words.
‘What kind of trouble? Is Dad okay?’
My voice sounds small and clipped in contrast to Luisa’s. Her responses have a breathy, theatrical air, emphasised by the musical flow of her Portuguese accent.
‘Oh, yes,’ she says. ‘We’re both fine. It was a bit of a shock, but nobody was injured. Well, except him, of course. He was bleeding before he got here.’
‘Who—’ I start, just as Dad’s white ute appears at the top of the hill. ‘He’s here. I have to go, Luisa.’
‘See you soon!’ She hangs up before I have a chance to ask her why that is.
The ute pulls up alongside the empty ticket office. The driver’s side door pops open and Dad appears, his face weather-worn and silvery with three-day growth.
‘You cut your hair,’ he says.
‘You’re late,’ I reply.
Dad grunts in agreement. He lowers the ute’s tailgate, eyeballing my solitary suitcase. ‘That it?’
‘Same as usual.’
When you alternate between homes, you get pretty good at culling your whole existence into suitcase-sized necessities. Repacking your possessions over and over again is like trying to make peace with bad memories – if you’re not efficient about it, something always gets left behind.
Dad nestles my suitcase between two bags of mulch, then turns to me with open arms. He allows me a longer than normal squeeze, slapping me twice on the back with his sandpapery palm to let me know when the hug is over. My father has a gruff way about him, a bone-dry wit and rough edges that people sometimes mistake for hostility. Truth is, I feel more genuine affection from him than I do from my touchy-feely mother.
‘Okay,’ I say, as I climb into the ute’s cab, with a final glance towards the waiting room. ‘You’d better fill me in about this trouble at the motel last night.’
He gives me a sideways look. ‘You spoke to Luisa?’
‘Yeah. And we’ll revisit that topic later. For now, let’s start with who broke a window.’
• • •
His name and a shrug is all Dad offers when I press for more details. He doesn’t go into what Mason threw at the window, whether he knew what he was doing or if he was so wasted he didn’t know which way was up. I bite my tongue and swallow my I told you so. Dad doesn’t deserve it. For the last few months he’s been keeping Room Fifteen unoccupied in case Henry’s older brother needed a place to crash or cool off.
‘What the hell is that?’ I ask as we pull into the motel driveway. A gaudy concrete fountain has been erected in the middle of the front lawn, a few limp plants scattered around the base in plastic pots. Considering the storm-damaged rain gutters and a large shade sail still in tatters, I’m surprised to see this new addition. I glance at Dad for an explanation, but his gaze is on the opposite side of the driveway, where a police car is parked diagonally across two spaces.
Hope flickers in my chest.
But common sense quickly snuffs it out. If Henry had been located, the police would be at the Weavers’ place, not here. We’re not family, as I so heartlessly pointed out to Henry on the night of that storm.
‘Who called this clown?’ Dad mutters. We watch Sergeant Doherty climb out of his vehicle; starched pale blue shirt, navy pants, black boots polished to a high sheen. He clips a small notepad and pen into his breast pocket and moves to greet us as we get out of the car.
‘Apparently there was a ruckus here last night,’ Doherty says. ‘Broken window. Scuffle out here on the driveway. Nobody called us about it.’
Dad rubs a small scratch on the driver’s side door. ‘Wasn’t worth your time.’
‘How ’bout I be the judge of that?’ Doherty rests his hands on his duty belt, elbows at right angles: tough cop stance. It takes all my effort not to roll my eyes. ‘Care to explain what happened?’
Dad shoves his car keys into his pocket. ‘Nup.’
‘Who broke the window?’
‘I did,’ Dad says.
Doherty narrows his eyes at the motel office's shiny new pane. He’s only a year younger than my father but physically different in every way. While Dad is stocky and bristled, Doherty is lean and clean-shaven. While Dad is square-jawed and lumbering, Doherty is pointy-featured and nimble as a fox. Maybe the opposite of my father is what Mum initially found attractive about The Shallows’ head of police, though I have to wonder if it’s also why their fling only lasted six months.
Doherty stares at my father now, deadpan. ‘That right?’
‘Came out to replace a lightbulb and fumbled with the ladder.’
‘At one in the morning?’
‘When you’re a business owner the work never stops.’
Doherty peers up at the light Dad’s referring to. It’s covered with cobwebs and rusted over. He can’t understand why my father’s lying for Mason Weaver, and I have to admit I’m not sure either.
Luisa appears at the office door in a loose floral blouse and white jeans, her wide smile a welcome distraction from the testosterone-fuelled tension. She holds up the cordless phone and beckons my father over, flapping her other hand in an excited wave when she spots me.
As Dad disappears inside, I move to the back of the ute.
‘Listen,’ Doherty says, following me. He lifts my suitcase out of the tray before I have a chance to reach for it. ‘You’d best have a word to your dad about that Weaver kid. We already know he was plastered and picking fights up at the Criterion last night.’ He swivels the suitcase around and offers me the handle. ‘Kid’s got a destructive streak, and your old man’s not helping anyone by protecting him. So have a word, all right?’
‘Sure thing, Barry.’
Doherty holds my gaze for a beat or two, then shakes his head at the incorrect name. Call me Ben, he told me once, leaning one arm out of his police vehicle, a smug grin slapped across his face. That was when I knew something was going on between him and my mother, because up until that point he’d never given me the time of day.
‘Thanks for stopping by,’ I say, turning and walking towards the office. Can you get in trouble for walking away from a cop while they’re still talking to you? I think of the lie I told Doherty the morning we found out Henry was missing. That would mean real trouble. The kind of trouble I need to keep my dad well away from, for both our sakes.
I hear the scrape of Doherty’s leather boots on the driveway, the dull clunk of his car door opening. There’s a burst of static garble from his police radio before the door thumps shut. I fiddle with the zipper on my suitcase until he finally drives away, then march over to Room Fifteen and hammer my fist against the door.
The striped curtains twitch. Mason has been watching everything from the window. The door swings open and he’s framed in the doorway, a foot taller than me, tanned and freckled with blond hair pillow-flattened on one side. His high cheekbones and sullen mouth remind me of the black and white photos of young soldiers Uncle Bernie keeps in scrapbooks; Mason has the same faraway look in his eyes.
He folds his arms, defiant. His knuckles are purple and swollen. There’s a ring of crusted blood circling one nostril, a puffy tenderness around the bridge of his nose. His grey T-shirt is inside out, blood spatters showing through the fabric around the neckline.
You lost control again, I want to say. ‘What happened to your hands?’
Doherty already told me Mason had been fighting. I want to hear him admit it.
Mason unfolds his arms and shoves his hands into his pockets. ‘Slammed them under a car bonnet at the workshop. No big deal.’
He steps out of the room and tugs the door shut behind him. Crouching next to the shrivelled plant by the doorstep, he tips the terracotta pot on an angle and places the key underneath.
‘Mason,’ I say.
He straightens and starts walking across the forecourt, diverting around a crumbling pothole in the concrete.
He ignores the office window as he passes, keeping his head down and pace steady. It’s only when he disappears at the end of the driveway that I realise his last few words couldn’t be more wrong.
It is a big deal.
Mason Weaver just lied to my face.
And it’s not the first time he’s done it.
Text © 2020 Sarah Epstein. All rights reserved.
Three months ago, thirteen-year-old Henry disappeared from The Shallows during a violent storm, leaving behind his muddy mountain bike at the train station.
While Mason doesn’t know who he is or what he’s capable of, he knows the one thing binding him to this suffocating small town is his younger brother, Henry.
Why would Henry run away without telling her? One of Chloe’s friends knows something and she’s determined to find out the truth.
As Chloe wades into dangerous waters and Mason’s past emerges, a chilling question ripples to the surface: how far would you go to keep a secret?
Deep Water is a gripping mystery about a missing boy and a group of teenagers, one of whom knows something but isn't telling, from Sarah Epstein, award-winning author of Small Spaces.
‘The story's strength lies in the gaps: the unsaid, the 'what ifs?' and the secrets. Epstein is an expert in the well-paced unravelling of a mystery, and this novel is filled with edge-of-your-seat tension.’
‘A captivating mystery about small-town secrets and the lies that protect them.’
‘Absolutely thrilling. A truly complex and brilliantly written puzzle.’
‘Clever, compelling and heartbreaking. I loved this book.’
Sarah Epstein is a writer, illustrator and designer. She grew up in suburban Sydney and now lives in Melbourne with her husband and two sons. Her first novel Small Spaces, a YA psychological thriller, won Best YA Crime Novel at the Sisters in Crime Davitt Awards and was an Honour Book at the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards. It was also short-listed for another seven awards including the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards, the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature and the Australian Book Industry Awards.