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I was standing with my father in the pitch-black dark—the blackest dark I’d ever seen in the few short years of my young life—and the blackest dark that I’ve seen since, which is a considerably longer span.
The surrounding air was dank with flecks from falling water.
A disembodied voice rose up from the mist, then swooped back down to submerge in it. First amplified then muffled, the sounds changed places, each taking its turn at prominence. The drone of the voice, the roar of the falls, and the clammy damp came at me from all directions—from the sides, from above and below—to seal me in a viscous coating and stick me to my spot. The waterfall could have been anywhere. Next to me? Yards away?
I dared not move a muscle.
The woman’s words transfixed me with a tale of scuba divers. Fearless swimmers who, over the years, had plumbed the depths of a fathomless pool. In wet suits and tanks, in masks and flippers, down they had plunged into icy water, in an effort to find its bottom.
No search had been successful.
The roiling cascade dropped into a lake that continued, it seemed, to the center of the earth. To China. To horrible depths my imagination was fully engaged in conjuring.
Cold drops of perspiration ran down my face, my arms, and the back of my neck. I was concentrating hard—trying to locate the source of her voice, trying to pinpoint the crash of the falls, trying not to move and tumble in, and trying most heartily not to be afraid—when my father let go of my hand.
That was it, really—that was all he did. He loosened his hand from my grip. And he disappeared, never to be seen again, while the tour guide never stopped talking.
July the 12th, 1968. The last day I saw my father.
James Emerson Russell was Sonny to most—from the son in Emerson, I imagine. Or maybe from his position in his family of origin. I don’t really know. He was just Daddy to me, what a little girl calls her father.
He was handsome, that Sonny. It is not just my memory. It is what people still say when they don’t stop themselves from talking about him. And, they say it just like that. “He was handsome, that Sonny, I’ll grant him that.” As though his visage were something they grudgingly bestowed on him. Then they change the subject on seeing me.
He was long and lanky—six feet even—impossibly tall to me then. A slight stoop to his walk, crinkly blue eyes, and a halfway receding hairline.
His taste in attire ran to western and that was how he was dressed that last day. Jeans and a checkered shirt. Madras, my mother had called it. Snaps down the front and a turned-up collar. Cuffed sleeves rolled up to reveal strong forearms, all covered in downy blond fuzz. He wore cowboy boots and he carried a hat. In a nod to convention, he would not have worn it indoors. Men did not do that then. Then again, men did not tend to walk out on their children in the middle of tourist attractions, either, but that hadn’t served to stop him. I guess my daddy picked his proprieties from a smorgasbord of options.
He wore a watch and his wedding ring, too, and a belt with a silver buckle. He had surprisingly soft hands for a man. I had held his hand for the longest time, twirling his ring, until the darkness commandeered my attention when the lights were abruptly switched off. Then I just stood still, clutching that hand and willing him to protect me. Those large, soft hands that belonged to a man who would use them to wrest himself free of his daughter.
But how, you might ask, could a full-grown man vanish from the middle of a clump of tourists visiting Ruby Falls in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, on a sweltering summer day? More precisely, how could a man disappear from a cave under Lookout Mountain—when that very act would require accessing the elevator (through the lightless cave), traversing the entrance lobby, crossing the parking lot, starting his car, and driving away—leaving his own flesh and blood child standing frozen under the earth beneath him?
In the end, nobody remembered seeing him do any of those things. And his car, a 1962 Cadillac de Ville, in a vibrant shade of turquoise, remained where he—we—had left it in the parking lot.
It is an unsolved mystery. And it turns out that people who experience an unsolved mystery in their lives become inordinately keen on unsolved mysteries as a topic in general. I am one of those people. My father disappeared from Ruby Falls in the summer of 1968, when I was six and a half years old. He left me alone and mute, unable to move, even once they put the lights back on and herded the crowd past the stalactites and stalagmites and the God-forsaken falls toward the elevators, en route to the streaming sun above.
The tour guides had to pick me up, when it became evident that I was not ambulatory. They groused the whole way up to the surface that I was stiff as a corpse, which, as they made clear to each other and to me, added to the overall creepiness of my father’s de-materialization. Had they been superstitious people (and who, really, isn’t?) they might have thought some sort of black magic was being performed by us.
Lest I forget to mention—my name is Ruby. Not believable, you say? Well, it is true. My name is Ruby (not Falls, if my name were Ruby Falls, that would be unbelievable). My name is Ruby—Eleanor Ruby Russell—but called Ruby from birth, in the way that Southerners do, being extremely fond of middle names.
Thus, I became famous for a while at the age of six and the press had a field day with my name.
Little Ruby Left in Ruby Falls!
Did Ruby’s Father Fall in Ruby Falls?
Ruby Took the Fall in Ruby Falls!
You can imagine, I am sure, the extent to which the headline writers amused themselves. I might have been entertained, too, except for obvious reasons. Namely, my age at the time of the incident. But, trailing a close second to that was the fact that my mother shielded me from the newspaper clippings that she studiously pasted into a scrapbook. I was a teenager when I discovered that macabre memento.
Strangely—though what about this case wasn’t strange?—my father had chosen my name. My mother hated it—Northerner that she was, she considered it a countrified name—but my father had won the day. That did not look good for him, in the end. Or what everyone has questioned, from that day to this, as being the end or not. Kind of suspect to insist on calling your daughter Ruby, then abandon her and vanish into thin air in the middle of Ruby Falls—bad form no matter how you slice it. It could be taken as intent.
But intent to do what?
My mother had not been with us on our outing that day and the staff had had a hard time figuring out what to do with the rigid child on their hands. Understandably, they had no idea that my father had been the one to leave me alone in the cave. They figured I hadn’t come to Ruby Falls on my own—considering that I was only six years old—but no one had taken much notice of me, or whoever might have been along with me, for the first half of my descent into the cavern. When questioned, some thought they had seen me with a man. But there was no longer a man to be seen with me.
There were no security cameras to review, no credit card records to comb. There really was no way of verifying when and with whom I had entered the cave. Or who might have exited without me.
And I wasn’t saying much.
The police were called. They drove out to the mouth of the cave to have a look at the little girl who was found on her own at the bottom of it. It came to be closing time and no one knew what to do with me, so the policemen stuffed me into the back of a squad car and took me back to the station.
It was around ten o’clock that night, I later learned, after numerous hands of pinochle, when my mother understood that my father and I were not just dawdling over dinner and telephoned the precinct. Margaret Russell—her husband’s social superior in every way: birth, breeding, and means—identified herself, as if the Tennessee cop might know her. Officer Brady gave his name in reply.
And then they got down to business. Officer Brady matched up the child my mother described with the small, silent, staring creature he saw on the bench before him. Pink and green flowered shorts?—check. White eyelet short-sleeved blouse?—check. White socks, red Keds, blond pageboy haircut, and big brown eyes?—check, check, and check.
Aunt Hazel, at whose house we had been staying on our annual Southern trek to see my father’s people, drove my mother to the station to fetch me. The women floated in on drafts of Jungle Gardenia and bourbon (in fairness to them, it was after eleven p.m. by that point). All scarves and heels and shirtwaists, their pumps clattered their arrival just seconds after their scent had pre-announced them.
My mother confronted the officer. Just what did he mean by this? In the face of Peggy’s perfection—her beauty, her cat-eye glasses, her touch of eyeliner and frosted lips—he shouldered the responsibility. He was sorry, he said, for her troubles. He could not say what had happened to my father. He looked to me to save him.
And I was not talking.
Reminded of her duties by Officer Brady’s glance in my direction, my mother swished over to peer at me. I must not have looked good for, big as I was, she reached down to pick me up. For the first time in hours, my body began to uncoil. Her smell, her warmth, her vitality—her utter familiarity in a world that had become a funhouse—seeped into my cold, hard bones and, on the spot, sedated me.
I fell fast asleep in her arms.
Sometime later, my mother laid me on the back seat of Aunt Hazel’s Comet station wagon. The women took me back to my aunt’s and put me in my pjs. They ladled some broth down my throat, offered me Jell-O, which was thought to be curative, and put me to bed, where I remained for the better part of the summer.
My condition, and my father’s absence, grounded my mother and me in Chattanooga.
She, answering questions and chain-smoking.
I, face to the wall.
“Mrs. Eleanor Russell Montague, darling wife of mine, are you breathing?”
I am standing in the catacombs in Rome, scarcely a few feet into the entryway and I find myself immobilized. I cannot step forward and I cannot step back and our tour group is moving away from us. Sweat pops out on my upper lip and trickles down my spine. And as to the particular subject of my breathing, my husband is correct. I don’t seem to be able to do it.
“I…I…” I don’t want to go into details—not now, not here—with him. This happens to be our honeymoon and it isn’t the time to spoil things. “I think I’m feeling queasy. Maybe it’s something I ate?”
This newly minted husband of mine stands before me, looking straight at what I’m sure must be my blanched and clammy face. My beautiful new husband, Orlando. He is English, of course. Consider the elegance of the name.
When I attempt to open my mouth again, my tongue sticks to the roof of it and makes a very unattractive smacking sound before I am able to form any words.
“I think I’m getting sick,” I fudge and look around for a guide. “Posso uscire? Non posso scendere. Uscita, per favore? Aiuta!” The Italians are so lovely when you try to speak their language. They let you butcher it and come to your aid most graciously. I call out with a bit more volume. I try not to appear wild-eyed as I rapidly scan the room. Who the hell knows if I’m saying it right, but I really must get out of here!
A kind woman in uniform approaches me.
“Si, si, signorina.” That much I understand and quickly correct her.
“Signora,” I say, offering my left hand as proof. My wedding ring is so exquisitely lovely—so delicate, so tasteful, so clearly an heirloom from my husband’s family—that I proffer it to warm the heart of the guide and get her to help me out of this place as fast as she possibly can.
She appears to be nonplussed.
Nevertheless, she says, “Seguemi, Signora” and I am grateful. At least she makes me feel that I am totally normal to panic this way underground. I guess she’s seen it all. She walks briskly through a cordoned-off area to lead me away from the land of the dead and back to the realm of the living. I feel like Persephone, ending winter and initiating spring.
“Are you coming?” I look back and smile sheepishly at my husband—rumpled in his tan linen suit and Borsalino fedora—and laugh a little at what I hope he’ll chalk up to my utterly charming kookiness.
“Of course, darling.” Orlando is perfect. “I’ve already seen the catacombs.”
Orlando is perfect. He accompanies me into the sunlight. He takes me to a little café and orders wine for the two of us.
“Due bicchieri da vino rosso, per favore.” Orlando’s accent is better than mine.
“Certo, signore,” the waiter says.
Orlando touches my forehead. “Do you think you’re coming down with something?”
I know. This would be my opportunity. The perfect moment to tell my new husband about my circus sideshow of a childhood. We’ve just been in a cave. He’s seen me freak out. Now would be the time to tie it all together in a nice neat bow. One cave with the other. Cave of now with cave of yore. It is exactly the time to trot out that old tale. We could laugh about it, even. Darling, he might say, let me take care of you. Step into the void that your dear old dad has left. Dear old deadbeat dad, he might add. No, he wouldn’t do that. He is too kind to say that. It would be indelicate and might further injure what he must just be beginning to suspect is his already-injured wife.
The waiter plunks down a carafe of red and a little dish of olives.
“Grazie,” I say as I readjust the olive bowl.
“Prego.” He walks away.
I turn back to Orlando. “I was feeling a little off this morning. Maybe it’s just a cold.”
I know! I’ve blown it—have already let the moment pass. I should tell him, but I can’t. I will. I mean, of course I will. It isn’t like it’s a secret or anything. It’s just too much to go into right now. The old story. The old name, Ruby. The scene of the crime, Ruby Falls. I will tell him all of it. It’s just too ridiculous to explain right now. I will tell him when the time is right. We have a lifetime together, after all, to dig up these old skeletons.
“I’m feeling better already,” I say and take as big a swig of wine as decorum permits at three o’clock in the afternoon.
“I’m so happy, my love,” he says and takes a more delicate sip.
We linger there for hours, allowing the light to lapse. To intensify first in an ochre glow that centers between two buildings and catches us in the face. The sun and the wine both flush us, enhancing our honeymoon heat. We drink, we chatter, our hands find each other on the table, our knees find each other below.
When the light is gone and the wine is still flowing, we order carbonara. The Roman food of the gods. Eggs and cheese and bacon and pepper. Pasta cooked al dente. It nourishes us and comforts us and maybe it arouses us. Carbonara: soother of babies, calmer of tempers, aphrodisiac to lovers?
“This is sublime, this pasta.” I have really never tasted anything quite like it and I struggle to find the words. “And it’s also subliminal. It rises from subliminal to sublime, like something imaginary becoming tangible. Right there, on your tongue. It’s beyond that. It’s seminal. I’m eating a seminal meal. I’ll never forget it. The meal of my life.”
Orlando snorts affectionately. “Are you drunk? You’re sounding a bit daft.”
I push my chair back suddenly. “Let’s go make love right now,” I whisper.
“Are you sure? Your seminal sublimity is still sitting on your plate.”
“Orlando, please,” I continue, throwing whatever caution remains to me fully into the wind.
He cocks his head for a moment. Then he laughs and calls for the check. “Your wish is coming through to me, loud and clear. Nothing subliminal about it.”
A breeze has sprung up from the south, warm and a little humid. My gauzy skirt billows and collapses, like a bellows, as we stroll through the dusky streets of Rome. Orlando holds my arm to steer me in the right direction.
I stumble once, when we enter our hotel lobby, and Orlando grabs on harder.
“Buona sera,” the doorman says, pretending not to notice.
“Buona sera,” I reply, working not to slur my words.
In our room, Orlando insists I lie down and places a cool cloth on my head.
“You’re so young, my darling,” he says. “Sit up a bit and take these. For whatever might be ailing you.”
Even in my current state, I recognize the double allusion to my earlier claustrophobia and my present tipsiness.
“I’m almost twenty-six years old,” I say, gulping down the aspirins. “If I live to be a hundred, I’m a quarter through. Anything short of that, I’m much farther along.”
“Don’t wish your life away.”
I reach up to pull him down beside me. But Orlando moves away to sit beside the bed.
“Sleep is what you need. I’ll just be here.” He clicks on a light and picks up a book.
“Come to bed, Orlando. Please.”
“Not now. Sleep.”
I sigh and close my eyes. In time, I think, as the wine overpowers my concentration, I will tell my husband my story. I just don’t want to ruin this. Everything happens in its own sweet time.
I look up to catch his eye. His smile could not be more tender.
How did I get so lucky?
In Ruby Falls (Post Hill Press; Publication Date: May 4, 2021; Hardcover), Deborah Goodrich Royce affirms her talent for crafting heart-stopping, jaw-dropping novels around female characters with complicated pasts and psyches. Narrated by its leading lady, a fragile young actress haunted by a childhood trauma, Royce’s expertly plotted encore thriller will keep readers riveted and gasping until the final shocking revelation.
On July 12, 1968, six-year-old Ruby suffered a shattering loss: her father. She remembers holding his hand and trying heartily not to be afraid while standing in the pitch-black dark, with the sound of roaring water and feel of dank air surrounding her. They were in a cave—in the middle of a clump of tourists visiting Ruby Falls in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Then, Ruby remembers her Daddy letting go of her hand… and disappearing. How could a full-grown man simply vanish—and worse, abandon his little girl, his own flesh and blood child?
Yes, that terrible day and the mystery of what happened to her father took a toll. But, with the help of her strong, devoted mother and therapy, that little girl survived—and vowed to leave Ruby behind. Transformed into Eleanor Russell, she finds fame in her early 20s as a daytime soap opera star in New York City. Then, on the cusp on her 26th birthday, she loses her job over some sort of controversy. To avoid publicity, Eleanor flees to Rome and, after a whirlwind six-week romance, returns home with a dashing husband, Orlando Montague. The son of an English aristocrat and Chinese refugee, Orlando is an antiques dealer—like her Daddy was. Determined to start anew in Los Angeles, Eleanor finds and snaps up a storybook cottage in the Hollywood Hills. She lands a plum role—the lead in a remake of Rebecca, keeping all the mystery of Hitchcock’s rendition of Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, but revamping up the horror. With the perfect husband, perfect home, and perfect career boost, Eleanor should be perfectly happy. And she is—or so, she keeps telling herself—even when Orlando begins acting “unkind,” at best.
Keeping the tension mounting and the shockers coming, Ruby Falls follows Eleanor as she begins to suspect that her perfect husband is a liar with sinister motives. Then, her work on the set of a chilling movie starts to blur with her life at home. Is Eleanor trapped in a dangerous marriage? Or is the horror and pain of her childhood coming back to destroy her?
DEBORAH GOODRICH ROYCE made her debut as an author in 2019 with Finding Mrs. Ford. She was an actress in film and television for ten years, and is remembered by soap opera fans for her role of Silver Kane, sister of the legendary Erica Kane, on ABC-TV’s All My Children. She later worked as a story editor for Miramax Films, and was instrumental in the development of such films as Emma, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, and A Wrinkle in Time. With her husband, she restored and reopened the Avon Film Center, a 1939 landmark in Stamford, CT, which now operates as a not-for-profit dedicated to independent, classic, foreign, and documentary films.
Ruby Falls deftly blends classic horror elements with a character study of the corrosive effects of abandonment and betrayal—all in a brilliant, twisty page-turner. I hope you will share the early enthusiasm for Deborah Goodrich Royce’s second impressive thriller (see attached early praise to date). I look forward to discussing coverage with you.