When you lose the person who is most essential to you, who do you become?
Hailed as a “marvel of a book” and “brilliant and unflinching,” Alexis Schaitkin’s stunning debut, Saint X, is a haunting portrait of grief, obsession, and the bond between two sisters never truly given the chance to know one another.
On the day before they return home, Alison, Clairey, and their father walk down the beach to where the local woman who braids hair sits beneath a faded blue umbrella. Their father hands the woman sixty dollars, takes a picture of the girls (the woman looking up briefly—humorlessly, the father thinks—from combing Claire’s fine white hair), and returns to his lounge chair.
As the woman braids Claire’s hair, the sisters sift through the basket of beads, picking out purple and white.
“I’ll come back to check on you,” Alison says. She pecks her sister on the forehead and is off.
The braiding takes nearly two hours. The woman does not try to get her to talk, which is a relief to Claire. She likes sitting here, the silence and the feeling of the woman’s hands working quickly yet gently through her hair. The sun is hot, the bites on her legs beg to be scratched, but she stays still, fortified by an image of herself returning to school with these braids, the beads tinkling as she walks, and how, for a rare, brief time, the other girls will envy her.
When the woman is finished, she hands Claire a clouded plastic mirror. It is better than she dared hope. The woman looks at her. “My, you a patient child.”
That night, Claire claws through her sleep. No matter how she scratches at the bites, she can’t make the itching stop. All night she tosses in and out of dreams. When she wakes up it is dawn, barely light. The bites on her legs are crusted with dried, rust-colored blood. The blood has stained the crisp white sheets, too, blots so perfectly red it makes her dizzy. She looks around the room. Alison is gone.
What do a mother and father do when they are awakened by one child to the news that the other is missing? First, they tell themselves not to panic. Their daughter must have simply gone off somewhere on the resort grounds. It is a large property and there are any number of places she could be. Perhaps she has gone for a jog, or to smack tennis balls against the backboard at the courts. The small red blip of a kayak far out on the water might be her—maybe she decided to squeeze in one last water sport before their departure. Perhaps she got too drunk at the hotel bar last night and is sleeping off a hangover in the room of one of the other girls her age. (The parents are not naïve; they know that a teenager is apt to have one daiquiri too many after her parents have gone to bed on the last night of a Caribbean vacation.) Surely she will come groggily across the sand anytime now, and how furious they will be! And how pleasurable it will be to be furious with a daughter who is perfectly fine, and who will be snotty and dismissive when they tell her how worried they have been.
But she is in none of these places doing none of these things. By late morning, a mother and father’s faith that their child will turn up any moment has given way to terror. Everything but Alison is forgotten. Breakfast, lunch … Claire is starving but says nothing.
Word spreads quickly among the guests.
“Did you hear? That pretty girl with the auburn hair is missing.”
“The one with the scar?”
“They’re saying she never came home last night.”
The police are summoned. The chief of police asks the mother and father a series of questions, and they tell him about their vacation in precise, dutiful detail. As guests sun themselves by the pool and climb the StairMaster to oblivion in the fitness center, the Royal Police Force of Saint X combs the property. The time for the family’s flight home comes and goes.
On the first night after Alison’s disappearance the sunset is the most beautiful yet, a flashy display of scarlet and violet that deepens, as the sun slips below the horizon, until it is the shade of a bruise. On the balcony, a mother watches the sun go down, then sinks to the floor. She crouches on hands and knees and dry-heaves over the cool terra-cotta tiles. A father goes to her, holds her. He tells her that everything could still be okay. She repeats this. Everything could still be okay. Hearing these words echoed back to him from his wife, a father breaks down. They remain on the balcony, intertwined, for some time. A sense of distance from the day’s events comes over the mother and she wonders, with detached curiosity, whether she is becoming—whether she is already—the one thing none of the mothers ever want to be. A father is seized by the most unaccountable memory: Alison, one year old and bald as could be, blowing raspberries against his cheek.
From inside, where she has been set up in front of the television, Claire watches her parents. Later that night, they put her between them in their bed. In the middle of the night she wakes to the feeling of a hand on her back; for a moment, she thinks it is Alison. Then she remembers. It is her father’s hand, checking for the rise and fall of her breath. Claire lies awake, eyes wide open in the dark.