Happy birthday, Cara Camden.
Cara opened her eyes.
She was in the back of a church, one she’d never seen before. Her mother had said it was the biggest one in Beverly Hills. Grand, silver columns ran up along the high walls of the front lobby. Towering above them, a stained glass image of an angel gazed down on her, hovering among the clouds – not a cute little cherub with a diaper and wings, but a stern-faced warrior in a golden gown. In that moment she wanted to be the angel, strong and brave, not broken. Disconnected from the other mourners. She heard their voices but she didn’t see their faces. They were light breezes of sympathy and sorrow, telling sad stories and sneaking concerned glances in her direction. She wore a pretty green dress, her daddy’s favorite color. Her lungs breathed in and out, but she didn’t know why, or why her heart was still beating when his wasn’t. She woke up that morning and he didn’t. She woke up every day and he didn’t.
It was her fault.
She looked down from the angel to the whispering people, avoiding the entrance to the sanctuary. Mary Tyler Moore pulled off her pink gloves one finger at a time as she entered through the doors from outside, where her daddy’s mourners filled the grounds of the church, scattering into the parking lot, carrying flowers and posters from his movies. Cara crept toward her, and Mary dropped to one knee as Cara wrapped her arms around the woman’s neck. Her daddy once told Cara to call her Aunt Mary even though she wasn’t really her aunt, and Cara did so. Mary kissed her cheek. She smelled like the lilacs that used to grow in her grandmother’s garden. Cara squeezed her hard, wishing she could squeeze out the tears. She’d cried so much in the past few days, there shouldn’t be many left.
She remembered dancing with him that last night to his favorite song – her favorite song – Nat King Cole filling their hearts with “Smile.” Holding him close and safe, knowing nothing could hurt her when he was there. She pulled an arm back and held it against herself. She felt cold and naked, remembering for a moment the Giant’s hands on her stomach, her legs, her chest, inching downward.
Someone else came in through the main doors, and Cara got a quick glimpse of the mourners crowded outside. One of the posters was for Adventure Lane, with her own picture emblazoned across it. She shook with guilt. She’d rather be with them. They knew he wasn’t really gone.
Her mom, Sheila Camden, appeared beside her, clasping hands with Mary for a moment, then she touched Cara’s shoulder. “Baby, it’s time,” she whispered.
Cara climbed out of Mary’s lap, looking up again at the angel watching them, like a regal queen from a dream. She took her mother’s hand, clutching at it, as they gathered into a line with everyone else that hadn’t already gone into the sanctuary. She walked down the aisle of this huge room with more pretty stained glass. Pictures of Jesus and more angels. They said her daddy was in heaven now. She wondered if he could see her in the dress she’d worn for him.
The pews were packed and mostly quiet, everyone watching her as they advanced to the front. Corey was there. Kambree too. Mr. Duvall - Robert. Ms. Simon – Carly. Mr. Carson – Johnny. Mr. Carson locked eyes with her as they passed. Her mom and Mary were on either side of her, protecting her. Cara clung hard to her mom’s hand and gasped when she saw the coffin at the front of the room. Black. Shiny. Closed. She wouldn’t see him laid out – not that there was much left to see.
All of these people had come to see her daddy. They loved him too. Many of them worked for his company, Camden Enterprises. As she snuck a glance here and there at them, her distrust faded into the dawning realization that his death had affected them too, in ways she could never know. A short, stocky man with a few strands of hair neatly combed over his balding head let his shoulders sink as she locked eyes with him. She couldn’t remember his name, but she knew he was one of the company’s accountants. His face hung lower than his shoulders as she passed.
They moved her into the pew next to her cousin Peyton, and Peyton hugged her. Cara stared at the coffin. Behind them, Holly and Hayley sat with Luke and Kambree. Their parents too. Aunt Lara kissed her hair, and Cara hoped she hadn’t messed it up. She wanted to look pretty for him today.
Her granddad stepped up to the pulpit, and she screamed inside for him to stay away. Not to say anything. Not a word. Her eyes stung with tears, twisting the light like prisms. She didn’t see what everyone else saw. She didn’t think she ever would again. The world had been a safe place. The world had been beautiful. Her daddy taught her dreams could come true.
She knew better now. Only nightmares came true.
“We have come here today to pay our respects to Benjamin Weston Camden,” her grandfather said. Reverend Saul Green, famous Tennessee preacher from decades past. Her daddy’d told her stories about him. He told her stories about everyone. Her daddy didn’t keep secrets from her. He shared his deepest one with her that night, that last night. Now she was the only one who knew.
“Ben saw the world in colors no one else could see. Whether we wanted to or not, we could never quite see what he tried to show us. That was his miracle, his brilliance, and his legacy.” Her grandfather was a good speaker, but she wished he would be quiet. She didn’t want to think about her daddy that way. Like he was gone. Like he was never coming back. Of course he was coming back. It was her fault. She could bring him back.
Her grandfather clutched the pulpit, and she heard a gasp. It wasn’t until she noticed people watching her that she realized she had been the one that made the sound. She lowered her head and fingered the locket around her neck, but she’d seen them, on the other side of the aisle. Some of her daddy’s director friends were among the heads that had turned toward her – Mr. Scorsese, Mr. De Palma, Mr. Spielberg.
“I was one of two men in this world fortunate enough to have Ben Camden call me father,” her grandfather continued. “Lloyd left us long ago, and now Ben has gone to join him. The wisdom and support I was able to give him through the years cannot begin to compare to the wonder and joy he gave me in return, not only as a son-in-law, but as a man. A flawed, frustrated, hopeful man with so much love yet to give.”
Cara trembled as she remembered the flash of the gun, the sound of the bullet, her daddy’s face turning inside out. She stared at the coffin and knew what was inside. The smell of the gunpowder. The cold floor beneath her. Struggling to hide herself from the Giant. Choking, screaming. Dancing with her daddy. Riding Romeo on the beach in the middle of the night, her daddy behind her, hoofmarks in the wet sand. Her first movie, Maggie Migglesly, his frustration because she kept paying attention to him when she was supposed to be acting. Getting Mary to direct her instead. He was so smart. She blinked and he was splattered across the refrigerator.
“The Lord chose to reclaim Ben, having given him to us for far too short a time. We cannot know why this was his moment, just as we do not know why this horrible event has taken place. Unless the person responsible for this tragedy is found, we may never know why Benjamin Camden had to die. But we can take comfort in knowing that his life changed the world forever. He gave us laughter, outrage, tears, and joy. He gave us art and music and dancing and light. And he gave us the greatest gift he himself had been given: his beautiful daughter Cara, who, by the grace of God, is still with us today.”
They were probably all looking at her now. They were all thinking it should have been her. Her daddy should still be alive and she should be in the coffin. If it weren’t for her, he’d still be alive. They all knew it. They were watching her. She couldn’t see them, but she could feel their eyes on her. There were so many of them.
Her shoulders grew tight and heavy like twisted knots as a thought hit her. The Giant had gotten into their house. He tied them up. He tortured her daddy and touched her, and he got away. He could be there in the sanctuary.
Cara clenched her legs together when she realized she’d wet herself a little. The Giant was there. She knew it. He was coming back for her. He was going to wait until she was alone, and then he was going to tie her up and she’d never be in another movie, never see her mom again, never see Kambree or Peyton or her daddy.
She pressed her eyes closed and knew the Giant was there somewhere. Her daddy couldn’t help. She couldn’t breathe. The Giant was going to touch her everywhere. Her grandfather was speaking, but she wasn’t listening. She tightened her legs together like a vise and turned from the Giant, telling herself a new story, whispering it to herself until it was true.
There was no coffin. There was no killer. She wasn’t naked, and she hadn’t wet herself. That was silly. Her daddy was there. He was waiting for her in the back of the church, and they’d go out for ice cream when it was over.
Whenever Peyton Green flew out to see Cara, Uncle Ben, and Aunt Sheila, her family stayed at the Camden mansion. It was the biggest house she’d ever seen, for sure. She got lost once in its halls. They weren’t staying there this time. Nobody was, and Peyton was glad. The few hours they’d spent at the mansion that day, Cara’s awful birthday, she’d never felt alone, even when no one else was there. A ghost was following her. Maybe the ghost of Uncle Ben.
Everyone that had come out for his funeral was staying at the Castle, a fifteen-story hotel on the outskirts of Beverly Hills that was owned by the Camden family. Peyton meandered across the balcony of the sixth floor, placing her black pumps on the red and gold of the carpet and looking through the glass rail down to the lobby beneath. The glass was pristine, not one smudge across the entire floor. No scratches either. Everything looked brand new. The place smelled fresh, like flowers just picked or juice just squeezed. There was the constant sound of rushing water from the fountains in the lobby that echoed up the open chamber to the ceiling above the top story and the distant sounds of live music coming from Cochrane’s, the restaurant on the second floor, or sometimes from the shiny white grand piano on the first.
She loved it; she could stay there forever.
But Peyton could hardly think about that. She kept remembering Uncle Ben swimming in the pool out behind his house, looking so handsome. When she was a little girl, she’d had a crush on him. Never told anybody, of course. Especially Cara. He would take them to the beach, and once when they were trying to build a sandcastle and it just wouldn’t work, he wrapped Cara and Peyton in his arms and they rolled around in the sand, trying to get as dirty as possible. They crashed right into that sandcastle, and nobody cared.
She came up out of the elevator. The lights were dim and she walked the wide hallway alone, looking out over the railing at the people so many floors below. She could yell in this place and nobody would hear her, it was so big.
Uncle Ben was difficult to understand. It was hard to hear all those stories about him and then see him in real life. Peyton couldn’t believe some of them. Most of them. She always thought he was just a little boy inside. Maybe that’s why she’d had a crush on him.
She rounded the corner to the part of the floor Aunt Sheila had reserved for funeral guests. She wondered if Cara would move back to her house when this was over. She passed a few people she recognized but didn’t know, sitting in high-backed purple chairs that looked comfy. They followed her with sad eyes for a moment until they realized she wasn’t Cara. Everyone said the two of them could have been twins. On a table in front of those guests was the latest issue of Newsweek magazine. Uncle Ben was on the cover. Next to it was a Time. Cara was on the cover of that one, staring out past whatever camera had photographed her, a single tear hanging, about to fall. It was a beautiful picture – if only it weren’t real. She’d seen it on television. In newspapers. Cara was everywhere. She and Uncle Ben both.
Peyton approached Room 627 with slow steps. She knocked, lowering her head, but she raised it again so that Cara could see her through the peephole. There was no response. She glanced down the hallway of red and gold carpet, spread out in patterns of lines and circles. She knocked again, but Cara didn’t answer.
She moseyed out to the lounge area. Aunt Sheila sat with Peyton’s granddad on the light pink couches beneath the sagging branches of small palm trees, talking quietly. Her mom and dad were with them. “We have to make sure they focus on Ben,” Aunt Sheila was saying. “Whenever they ask about Cara, we have to spin it to him. I…I can’t see her on another magazine cover.”
“Mom?” Peyton asked, and Samantha Green turned to her, passing a Kleenex over her eyes.
“What is it?”
She looked from one sullen face to the next. “Where’s Cara?”
“She’s in her room,” her mother said.
Peyton glanced back over at that closed door. “I knocked.”
Aunt Sheila handed her a keycard. “Don’t lose it.”
She held it against her palm. “I won’t.”
Peyton unlocked the door and stepped into the room. All the lights were on – every last one. “Cara?” she called. Nothing. There were more palm trees in the room – one on either side of the wall-length window that looked out onto the balcony and the city below. The bed was covered in deep reds with a gold metal headboard, matching the patterns on the carpet. There were blue flowers in a vase beside the television – she didn’t know what kind, but they were pretty, with little round petals layered together. The room was really nice – and empty. “Cara?” She checked in the bathroom, out on the balcony. Nothing. Maybe it was because of what she’d seen and heard the past few days, but she was uncomfortable being in there by herself.
As she shut off the lights, she heard something. She wasn’t sure what it was, but there was definitely a noise coming from somewhere in the room. At first it sounded like the squeaking of a mouse, then the soft haunting whimper of a frightened puppy. Lights on again. “Hello?” Nothing. She had the eerie sense that she was not alone. “Cara?” Her heart pounded. She heard it again. Peyton approached the closet, staring at the white knob on the mirrored sliding door. “Hello?” she called.
There were whispers from within, indecipherable. She pushed back the door, ready to gasp at what she might find.
Cara pushed herself up against the wall in the back of the closet, breathing in and out, gasping for air. A garment bag cast a shadow over half of her face. She stared fiercely at Peyton, her green eyes shaded with a hint of red. Cara whispered to herself, like she was praying.
“What’re you doing?”
“Don’t tell him I’m here,” she whispered.
Cara covered her eyes and screamed. Peyton’s ears rang and she staggered back as if she’d poked at something she should have left alone. Cara screamed again, and Aunt Sheila and Peyton’s dad, Matt Green, came spilling into the room. She backed away, giving them clearance, and Aunt Sheila was on her knees, pulling Cara close. She was quivering, shaking. Aunt Sheila embraced her, and Cara’s arms fell to her sides.
“He’s coming to kill me.” Cara moaned like a dying animal. Peyton didn’t recognize her voice.
Aunt Sheila scooped her up and took her to the bed, followed by Peyton’s dad. Peyton wanted to run out of there, but she followed. “Nobody’s coming. You’re safe now.”
Aunt Sheila kissed Cara’s forehead. “Daddy’s not coming, Angel.”
Peyton’s mom and granddad sat with Cara as Aunt Sheila and Peyton’s dad took her back to her room in silence, and she was glad she wasn’t alone.
“Hey,” her brother, Forest, said as they entered.
“Hey back.” He perked up and looked her over. Forest was fourteen, four years older than she was, young enough that she could relate to him but old enough to make her feel safer when he was around.
“Have a seat, kids,” their dad said as Aunt Sheila drew a chair to the bed and their dad shut the door behind them. Peyton dropped onto the comforter, wrapping her arms around her legs until she realized that it mirrored how she’d found Cara in the closet. Her legs dangled as Forest sat beside her. Their dad stood behind the chair, watching them, as Aunt Sheila offered a broken smile.
“I know this is hard for you,” Sheila said. She was losing her voice. “It’s hard for all of us. And I know it can be scary to think about what happened. Ben loved you both, and I know you miss him.” Forest hung his head a little, but Peyton couldn’t look away. Aunt Sheila was haunted, but not as haunted as Cara. “A lot of people want to know what’s going on. They want to talk about Ben, in the news and on television, and that’s good. It’s good for people to care about him and remember him. Right?”
“Right,” Forest said, still not looking at her. Peyton glanced at their dad. His clear blue eyes were rimmed with red, and she could hear him when he breathed.
“And there are a lot of people that want to know about Cara. They want to know if she’s OK. And that’s good too. It’s good for them to care about her. It’s good for them, and us, only it’s not so good for her.” She nodded at Peyton, just a bit. “Cara’s confused right now. She’s not herself. She doesn’t quite understand what happened, even though she was there. And I know that confuses us too, and it makes us sad for her. And it’s good that she has us to take care of her. She needs that. But she doesn’t need for everyone else to know. This is a very private thing. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Forest said, and Peyton nodded.
“Maybe she’ll be better tomorrow. Maybe it will take her a while. I don’t know how long it will be until she feels safe again. And until then, we need to remember that this is private. It’s not something you need to talk about. To anyone. Nobody needs to know what’s happened to her. Not until she’s ready to talk about it herself. If you or I tell people, we’re only making it harder for her to get better.”
Tears built up in Peyton’s eyes as she remembered Cara in the closet, face white, eyes wide, looking around as if Peyton wasn’t there. “Is she going to be all right?”
Aunt Sheila cried too, and Peyton’s dad put his hand on her shoulder. “We don’t know,” she said. “We hope so. The important thing to remember is that this isn’t something you can tell anyone. Ever. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Forest said.
Peyton couldn’t shake the image of her cousin in the closet. “I’ll never tell anyone.”
- - -
The sixth floor had died down for the night. Cara sat in a brown chair with thick cushions in the corner of her room in their suite, watching The Tonight Show with Mr. Carson. He had more color in his cheeks than he’d had that morning at the church. But it was a rerun.
She breathed in and out. They’d piled a mess of floral arrangements throughout the suite just before dinner. The room smelled like a florist shop, and nearly every surface was filled with bouquets, tall vases and short round ones. Red roses and peach carnations. Purple stargazer lilies and white tulips. The tulips were her favorite. She cradled one in her lap as Mr. Carson cut the show to a commercial.
Her mother emerged from her room in the other half of the suite, still dressed for the day, and slid her feet into a pair of heels. “Sweetheart, I’m going down to the lobby for a minute to talk to Barbara. Are you going to be OK up here?”
Cara shook her head with sharp swings, feeling her hair brush her cheeks. “I wanna come.”
“Baby, it’s late.”
Barbara. Miss Kayin. She was a manager at the Castle and engaged to Mr. York – her friend Luke’s father. Her daddy’s best friend. She looked around at the roomful of flowers and clutched at her tulip as she hopped to the floor. Her mother gave a slow nod and ushered her out the door. The hallways were so quiet compared to all the chatter and activity from earlier in the day. Nobody had mentioned her fit, her hiding in the closet, since it happened. They were probably talking about her behind all those closed doors.
She rode down the glass elevator, watching the world rush up to meet her as if she were an angel descending from the sky. The speakers were playing the same song that had been running softly in the hallways. Dean Martin. “King of the Road.” Her daddy loved Dean Martin, had been friends with him.
The doors split open and they stepped out into the lobby. The sound of rushing water filled her ears – soothing, gentle. Cara lost herself for a moment in the babbling fountains that dotted the place, brushing polished brown and black stones. Plump goldfish swam by beneath the crests of white floating near the bases of the fountains. She looked up to the bar behind all the water. The bartender was running a towel across the wood, watching Cara and her mother. Cara had seen the lady before, when they arrived the evening of her birthday. Every time she passed, the bartender would stop what she was doing and watch.
“I want to go over there,” Cara said, pointing at the pretty woman with sandy hair pulled back in a short ponytail.
“Fine,” her mother said, and Cara followed her to the row of empty stools. “Hi,” her mother said to the bartender.
“Hi, Mrs. Camden.” Her voice was soft and sad, and she snuck a glance at Cara. Cara wondered if even the bartender knew she’d been hiding in the closet.
“Can you keep an eye on her for a minute? I won’t be long. I promise.”
Cara chose a stool along the side of the bar where she could see everything and her back faced the wall. She couldn’t sit with her back to the people. Her mother helped her up. “Whatever you do, do not get up from this stool unless she goes with you, do you understand?” Cara nodded. Her mother kissed her cheek and left her there.
The bartender had stopped wiping the counter. Her eyes were dark brown and she had circles under them. She was probably not that old. Cara wasn’t good with ages. Maybe twenty. She didn’t wear much makeup, and Cara liked that. It made her look more real. More honest. She caught the name on the girl’s nametag: Gretchen. The same name as the part her daddy had written for her in the play they’d put on at her school last year: Brandon the Great.
“I like your flower.” Gretchen winced as if she wasn’t sure what to say.
“It’s a tulip,” Cara said.
“What?” Cara asked.
Gretchen looked down from her. “I was just going to say I bet you got a lot of flowers.”
Cara pressed the white petals to her nose and breathed in the gentle, sweet scent. “Tulips are my favorite.”
“I hear you’re going to be staying here for a while.” Gretchen leaned down to where Cara could only see her from her shoulders up, fiddling with something beneath the bar.
“My mom says they’re going to…” She blinked, glancing around her, over her shoulder. She and Gretchen were alone. She turned her neck sharply, watching a family come through from the valet parking area. The father was holding his daughter’s hand. When Cara turned back to the bar, a glass of milk was waiting for her on a black beverage napkin.
“Gotta have a drink if you sit at a bar,” Gretchen said.
Cara set aside the flower and carefully pulled the glass closer. Her shoulders were tight like rocks. Gretchen smiled at her, the first smile anyone had given her in days. “The kitchen,” she said, and took a long drink of the cold milk. “We’re going to stay until they…rebuild it.”
“They’re rebuilding your whole kitchen?” Gretchen asked.
“Old one’s…ruined.” She glanced down the bar, about halfway. There was the Time issue with her picture on it.
“Right,” Gretchen said. “Do you like hotels?”
“This one’s really nice. I always wanted to stay in it when I was a kid. Must be nice to own a hotel like this one, huh?”
She took another drink of the milk as she looked around, past Gretchen, to the black wood shelves holding the colorful bottles. The fountain beside them. The fourteen stories stretching up above.
“You wanna know what I think?” Gretchen asked. Cara nodded, planting her hands against the cool glass. “I think bad things happen to everybody. Some worse than others.” She nodded at Cara. “The important thing to remember is that most people are good. Most people are just as scared of life as you and I are. And even on days like today, maybe the worst days of your life, there’ll always be more good ones. There’ll always be flowers.”
Cara pulled the tulip back into her hands and cradled it, sniffing the leaves again.