The Final Victim

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The Final Victim
PROLOGUE
    It took two years for her to come back to the beach.
    Two years, the divorce, and the realization that life must go on.
    Charlotte Remington, who took back her maiden name after her husband left, has no choice but to keep getting up in the morning, keep moving, keep breathing . . . if only for her remaining child’s sake.
    Breathe.
    How many times during the initial shock did she have to remind herself to do just that?
    Breathe, Charlotte. In and out. Just breathe . Keep breathing, even though your chest is constricted and your heart is breaking; even though you want to stop breathing . . .
    Even though you want to die.
    Charlotte Remington thought she had everything: loyal husband, loving son, happy-go-lucky daughter, loyal friends.
    Now they’re all gone.
    Now there is only Charlotte, haunted and bereft; and a sad-eyed little girl who watched her big brother drown on a beautiful July day, just yards from the shoreline.
    This shoreline.
    But it happened a long time ago; a lifetime ago.
    The first time, afterward, that Charlotte returned to the southeastern shore of Achoco Island to inhale brackish air, feel sand beneath her feet, and gaze again over the sea, she wanted to flee.
    But she forced herself to stay.
    Breathe. Just keep breathing.
    And she forced herself to keep coming back, all through that first summer without Adam. And again the following year. And the one after that . . .
    It’s been five years now.
    Five years and seven weeks, to be exact.
    Here she sits amidst the Labor Day weekend crowd, the day after a lavish family wedding. She has a pounding headache, though not from overindulging last night: the wedding was dry. Grandaddy, a fiercely dedicated teetotaler, won’t allow liquor to cross his threshold. But there was a band, and a crowd, and Charlotte danced too much, and stayed up far too late chatting with people she hadn’t seen in years.
    It was fun. She has few regrets about last night as she lounges in her blue and white striped canvas sand chair with her woven sweetgrass hat on her aching head, a romance novel in her hands, and her daughter at her side.
    Lianna never goes into the water. Not here. Not anywhere. Not even a pool.
    The other parents in Charlotte’s bereavement support group back in Savannah have experienced similar reactions in their surviving children. One, who lost a teenager in a traffic accident, said his younger son had panic attacks for months every time they got into the car. Another, whose toddler succumbed to a rare stomach disease, said the older sibling eventually developed anorexia, afraid to eat lest she somehow “catch” what her little sister had.
    Perhaps Lianna will never venture into the water again. Then again, maybe she will. The child psychiatrist she’s been seeing since the tragedy told Charlotte not to push her.
    So she doesn’t.
    She just brings her to the island beach on beautiful summer days, where they sit companionably side by side

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