Grant must have looked at the photo twenty times the night before, hopped up on instant coffee and some old Reese’s Pieces he found in the refrigerator, but somehow he’d missed what now stood out in full color. Susannah. The same regal beauty from that old Polaroid. The same high cheekbones, the same milk skin. She’d cut her hair short, dyed it a russet brown, but he could still see a hint of Eliot in her shoulders, the slight dip to her chin.
That Susannah was alive felt impossible, but at the same time, it made a kind of sense. Eliot with her swapped micro-film and secret money, Frank with the code to his safe. The Wileys, it turned out, were full of surprises.
He thought then of the man he’d seen the night before, sunken in his hospital bed after surgery. His skin tissue-thin and colorless. His eyes still closed. Did he know about Susannah? Had Eliot told him? So many questions, their answers in a coma and on the wind. But he couldn’t swallow one thought from his throat: Susannah’s rising from the dead should have been the end to a story. The answer for those fruitless searches on Brasstown Bald. A motherless child with no more reason to grieve. Why, then, had Eliot gone missing? What else had she needed to know?
Jules came back from the bathroom with a wad of toilet paper clutched in her fist. The skin below her eyes was chapped and her nose still leaky. “Sorry,” she said, sitting down. “I just—”
“I understand. It’s a lot to take in.”
They sat there for a few minutes like dial tones as Octane chattered around them. Chairs scraping concrete. Steam hissing from machines.
“What now?” Grant asked when he felt the urging of restless muscles.
Jules opened her mouth as if to answer. Her lips formed the starts of words.
They had to think like Eliot, Grant figured. Trace her steps. If she’d glimpsed this woman at the Best of Atlanta party, if she saw this picture later, proving what she’d already known—what would she have done next?
“I’m going to tweet the picture,” Jules said, reaching for her iPad. “Maybe someone’ll recognize her.”
Grant pulled out his phone to skim the rest of the photos. A text to Nick confirmed there was no guest list for the party, no RSVP. Not that it mattered, really. Grant would’ve bet money he didn’t have that Susannah used a different name these days.
The iPad between them, he and Jules googled the party honorees, hoping to see that face in an “About Us” section or Instagram feeds. But there were so many categories, so many websites without staff photos. Grant soon leaned back to rest his eyes.
“She can’t have been here the whole time,” Jules said, worrying the toilet paper still balled in her hand. “In Atlanta, I mean. The first few years, before they declared her dead. She couldn’t have risked being recognized at Lenox or wherever.”
Grant tried to do non-existent math in his head. “How long would she have had to wait before it was safe to come back? Ten years? Twenty?”
“Forever? I mean, as long as Eliot’s alive, she could be recognized. Not to mention old friends, neighbors. It’s a risky move however much time has passed.”
“So she must’ve had a reason,” Grant said. “A good one.”
“To track down her daughter?”
He gestured to the notebook. “Seems to me Eliot was the one doing the tracking.”
Jules enlarged the photo again, and they stared at it until Grant’s head started to pulse. He stood to stretch his leg and get some ice water. When he came back, Jules’s finger was swiping frantically through the pictures.
“Look,” she said, when he sat down. She stopped on a photo of three woman in front of a branded backdrop. “See their wrists?” She flipped to another photo, and then another. “Them too.”
“It was a party. They probably had to show ID at the door if they wanted to drink.”
Jules went back to the picture of Susannah. Her white sleeves receded to reveal no wristband. “So why doesn’t she have one?”
“Maybe she doesn’t drink?” Grant suggested. But she was standing at the bar in that picture, holding some laminated page. He couldn’t be sure, of course, but the blurred logo at the top looked an awful lot like Red Brick Brewing. It was probably a beer menu.
“Either she knows somebody there, like the owner, or….”Jules trailed off.
“A big party like that one, you’d still need a wristband, I think, even if you knew someone.” He looked at a few more photos, that orange band on everyone’s arm. “Maybe she got there early? Before they were checking IDs?”
“Yeah,” Jules said, a smile tentative on her face. “And who gets to events that early? People working them.” She hurried down the list of performers, special guests, but he’d seen ATL Collective enough times to know Susannah didn’t play bass for them, and she sure wasn’t the guy from that State Farm commercial. “She could be with one of the groups that sponsored it, I guess. Like the Hawks.” The smile was waning in Jules’s voice.
Though Grant wasn’t paying much attention. His thoughts had snagged on a detail from his conversation with Kenny. The movie set, the security guards. El causing a scene. “She’s a stylist,” he said. “Or a make-up artist or something. She works in wardrobe.”
Jules’s scrunched brow made him slow down, recount the story. By the end of it, she was nodding along.
“What’s the movie? We can see if it’s still filming.” Her fingers flitted across the iPad until she found one of the many blogs tracking film locations around ‘Y’all-ywood.’ “Okay. There’s a Kevin Hart movie. The new Ant-Man.”
“Anything about zombies?”
Jules pursed her lips. “There’s one called 30 Minutes or Death, but no description. It could be about zombies.”
Grant googled the film and found an Instagram for a plain-faced blonde actress with bored eyes. “Come on,” he said, standing. “We got to go.”
“Where to?” Jules asked.
He showed her the actress’s most recent post, dated an hour ago. A shot of a boom mic against the dingy sky. Behind it, not that far away, a brick building riddled with rows and columns of windows, spreading endlessly out of view.
They parked in the deck below Ponce City and rode the elevator to the third floor, where a set of doors led them to a terrace a few steps off the Beltline. Judging by the photo, they turned west, toward Piedmont Park, but they were stopped a little past the bridge by a set of sawhorses flanked by uniformed guards with thumbs in their belt loops.
“Beltline’s closed from here to Monroe,” one said. “You’ll have to turn around.”
Grant tried to sell him some story about living in the apartments just up the way.
“Residents were informed in advance.”
Grant would have hiked up his pants leg, used the scar as an excuse, but Jules tugged his sleeve.
“It’s okay, honey,” she said in a voice he didn’t recognize. “Let’s just stop in here before we turn around.”
She led him by the wrist into Paris on Ponce. Inside, she rushed past the mid-century coffee tables and hand-painted signs to the far door, which led to a thin parking lot and more sawhorses. Yellow caution tape lined the storage facility next door, but they were behind the guards here and didn’t see any others.
“Hold this,” Jules said, handing him her bag. She sidled up to the yellow tape, her eyes never leaving the guards’ backs. She picked up some loose pavement and chucked it over her head to the brush behind the shopping center. The guards turned toward it, and she ducked under the tape, motioning for Grant to follow. They had only a few seconds, but it was enough to dart past the next building, where they spilled into a parking lot churning with people.
Some of these people had clipboards, walkie-talkies; others scurried like cockroaches from light. Men with ball caps and backpacks and ambitious ponytails. Impossibly skinny women dressed like waitresses at a drive-in. A white tent on one side offered apples and bags of potato chips. A row of port-a-potties leaned beside vans parked on the grass. Cords snaked from ladders to light rigs to spools of cable. Garbage cans the size of pot-belly stoves hummed with fruit flies. It was the least glamorous place Grant had ever been.
He brought out his phone and scrolled to the photo. “Okay,” he said. “I’m going start with that guy.”
“What are you doing?” Jules grabbed his elbow. “You can’t just ask people if they know her. We’ll get thrown out for sure.”
“What do you suggest?”
She slung her bag over his shoulder again and untucked her shirt. “Don’t tell anybody what you’re about to see,” she said before approaching a bearded man with more than one neck tattoo. “Hi,” she said in a lilting pitch. “It’s my first day. Do you think you could help me?”
Grant didn’t hear the man’s answer but then Jules laughed like he was Richard Pryor. She touched his arm and tilted closer. He pointed somewhere, and seconds later, Jules was back, reaching for her bag.
“If I wasn’t gay before,” she shrugged.
“He told you where she is? What’d you say?”
Jules started walking toward a bank of trailers on the street. “I told him I had to get you to wardrobe but I forgot where it was.”
Grant hurried to keep up. “So I’m an actor, huh?”
“A plumber.” She glanced back to smirk. “A lie’s got to be believable.”
They turned the corner and walked about halfway down, to an extended trailer with two doors.
“Do we knock or….” Grant started to ask.
“Give me a second.” Jules took a couple of deep breaths and stretched her neck.
She had one foot on the first step when the door opened and a woman backed out. A heap of hair in a knot atop her head, her denim jacket flapping out in the breeze. He would have recognized that slight build anywhere. The way she batted her loose hair behind her shoulders with the back of her palm. He felt a tight yearn in his stomach, though for what, he didn’t know.
Susannah turned to start down the steps and saw Jules, gaping at the bottom. “Sorry,” she said. She looked to Grant, who was stuck in the motion of scratching his jaw, then to Jules and back again. She blinked at them with that smile, the one he’d seen a hundred times before. “Can I help you?” she asked brightly.
Her name escaped Grant’s mouth before he had a chance to stop it. He watched it settle over her, a kind of shroud. A hardness swept down her face to her collarbone. Her skin suddenly clammy, pale. Her hands tensed into fists beside her, as her bottom lip shivered. She stumbled down the steps, shoving Jules aside, and backed away slowly, her eyes steady on Grant’s face.
“Wait,” he said. “Susannah.”
But she had turned on her heel and started running, screaming loud enough for Grant to feel it in his teeth.