Recap #19 – The Lifeguard by Richie Tankersley Cusick


Title: The Lifeguard

Author: Richie Tankersley Cusick

Published: 1988

Tagline: Don’t call for help. He may just kill you.

Description: A summer of sun, sand – and murder. Kelsey’s summer should have been paradise: An invitation to rich and famous Beverly Island, complete with sun-drenched beaches and three gorgeous lifeguards on duty.

But Kelsey’s summer is the opposite of paradise. It starts with the note under her pillow from a girl who’s missing. Then there’s the crazy man in the lighthouse who won’t leave Kelsey alone. And there have been a number of suspicious drownings . . .

At least she has the lifeguards around to protect her . . .

Poor Kelsey. Someone forgot to tell her that lifeguards don’t always like to save lives.

Nostalgia Time!

Well here we finally have it, folks – a book I have actual nostalgia about on my nostalgia recap site! This is the one that kicked it all off for me, but before we get to that, can we talk about this cover for a hot minute? The lifeguard on the cover looks about thirty-five; is he supposed to be one of the boys in the book? He looks like Harry Hamlin. What the fuck.

Okay, so I’m pretty well convinced that this is the first Point Horror I ever read, at the tender age of 8 or 9 years old. I had a friend at the time who lived across the street and was three years older than me, so she had all the creepy books. I borrowed this from her and read a good portion of it before she knocked on my door and told me her mom was making her get it back from me because she thought I was too young to be reading it. Baby Me was frantic – I had to find out who the killer was! This was not fair! So I did something I haven’t done since – I flipped to the back of the book and read the end so I would know who the bad guy was. The shame still burns bright. Also, it didn’t make a lot of sense without reading all the chapters that came before the end. So, some number of years later (I’ll be damned if I can remember how many), I got hold of The Lifeguard again and read the whole thing, without any nosy friends’ moms telling me I couldn’t! Ha! I have great affection for this book, so I was thrilled to read a recap of it at The Devil’s Elbow recap site, and then listen to a Teen Creeps podcast episode on it. None of these ladies seem to have the same affection for it that I do, however, which was quite an affront to my inner 8-year-old self. (Don’t worry, I’ve gotten over it. We’re all friends here.) Clearly nostalgia is a key factor in enjoying this one. As of this very second of me typing these words you’re reading with your very own eyes, I’m exactly halfway through rereading the book, and . . . yeah, not gonna lie, it’s kinda rough. I’m sure 8-year-old me would be punching 36-year-old me in the face right now, but . . . this book is not the fine piece of literature it was in my memory. Ah, well. Onward and upward, right? (Note from Future Me: Nope. There’s nowhere to go but down, straight into the deepest reaches of Hell. Pray for me.)


We open with Killer POV, the tropiest of the tropes in teen thrillers. I’ve recapped so many of these lately that I’m looking forward to recapping the next R.L. Stine book on my list, because I know it doesn’t have a killer’s POV. How bad are things when I’m looking forward to recapping Stine?

The Lifeguard (hey, that’s the name of the book!) is washing blood off his hands and thinking about how he’d had to hit this one, when this was the one person he’d wanted to be gentle with, dagnabbit! She’d begged him not to kill her, but she’d also come to him and told him she was going to tell about the others, so he’d had no choice, you see. So, we already know he’s a serial killer. Awesome. Then he thinks that he couldn’t let them put him away, because he had his reputation to think of. His reputation because he’s a lifeguard! I wasn’t aware lifeguards held such a lofty position in the social hierarchy. Hmm. Maybe I should learn to swim.

We meet our plucky heroine, Kelsey Tanner, on a ferry to Beverly Island. She’s having a nightmare about drowning. I don’t imagine being on a fucking boat is helping the situation. She startles awake and grabs onto the boy sitting beside her. He jokes about women throwing themselves at him all the time, then runs off to get her a glass of water. Because that’s what Kelsey needs – more water in her life. Turns out Kelsey didn’t want to come to the island, she wanted to go to her friend Jenny’s cabin in the mountains with her, but Kelsey’s mom’s boyfriend, Eric Connell, invited them to the island so they could meet his kids and presumably be completely ignored by him since he’s a writer and was planning on spending the vacation working on his plays. Both the sons are lifeguards and his daughter can’t wait to meet Kelsey, Mom told her.

The boy returns with a glass of water and mentions being a lifeguard, prompting Kelsey to ask if he’s one of Eric’s sons. The boy gets a little twitchy and tells her no, he’s Skip Rochford (how is that pronounced? Like Rock? Or like Roach? Because given Skip’s personality, I desperately want to call him Roach), and he knows both boys. Then he says something about guessing Kelsey hasn’t heard the news, but Mom interrupts before he can tell us what he’s talking about. She goes on about how wonderful it is to be on a boat, then realizes Kelsey had The Dream again and laments how long it’s been since Kelsey had The Dream, and she thought she’d be better by now. Kelsey’s all, Bitch you know how much I hate the water but you made me come out here anyway, and Skip’s like, Uh, awkward, see ya later. Just to save time, I’m going to go ahead and tell you that Kelsey’s dad drowned two years ago saving her from drowning when the boat they were on capsized. It’s not hard to figure out, but Kelsey doesn’t reveal the whole story, simple as it is, until almost the end of the book.

In an effort to prove she’s not having a panic attack, Kelsey asks her mom about Eric’s kids – two boys, Justin and Neale, and one girl, Beth. Justin is the younger of the boys, and the perfect fucking golden child, Beth is thirteen and very sweet, and Eric never talks about Neale for reasons. Also, their mother is dead, because it’s better to have two widowed parents get together than two divorced parents in 1980’s books.

Eric meets them at the dock to impart the knowledge that we’re not going to get to meet Beth, because she’s missing. Well, that’s a bummer start to this vacation. Somehow he wasn’t able to get hold of them before they set out for the island, even though Beth disappeared three days ago. Her sandals and beach towel were found covered in blood, and she was supposed to meet up with Skip the night she disappeared. The characters in this book will waver back and forth between this meet-up being a date and not being a date, and nobody will express any concern over the fact that Beth is only thirteen while Skip is at least seventeen or eighteen. Good job, RTC.

They reach the house, and Justin comes running out, and Kelsey immediately starts lusting after him. What is with these Point Horror books and their clones and the pseudo-incest? I can’t decide if I’d rather they cut it out completely, or just dive in all the way to a Flowers in the Attic scenario. Anyway, Justin shows her to her room, which is really Beth’s room that she was supposed to be sharing with her, in the cabin where the kids are staying. Apparently Eric needs so much privacy to write that the kids stay in one cabin while he occupies the one next door. That or he just wanted to be able to bang Kelsey’s mom without the kids having to slam headphones on and crank Alice Cooper to an unfathomable volume just to drown them out. (Um. True story. It was awkward.)

Kelsey finds a Welcome note on her pillow from Beth, and Justin tells her about the two main beaches on the island. West Beach is on the west side of the island, and East Beach is on the, stay with me now, east side of the island. East Beach is private and only requires one lifeguard, and West Beach is the main beach and requires two lifeguards, and the two beaches are separated by a couple miles of cliffs. They think Beth drowned by the cliffs and can’t figure out why she went there when she knew how dangerous it was. But hey, we know better thanks to that handy-dandy killer POV prologue, don’t we?

Neale shows up with the news that the search has been called off for the evening, and he’s convinced Beth is dead because even if she wasn’t splattered on the rocks, she would have been sucked into one of the underground caves and drowned. Gee, he’s swell; can he be my big brother? Kelsey also thinks he’s hot, but in a scary, mean way. He’s disgusted that Kelsey and her mom are there and barely speaks to her. So. Justin = sweetness and light and perfection; Neale = scary and mean and antisocial. Gee, I wonder who the killer is versus who the book will try to make us think the killer is.

Kelsey finds another sweet note from Beth that falls from a hanger in the closet, and I wonder what the heck kind of balancing act was going on there. Then while retrieving an earring she dropped under the bed, she somehow knocks the pillow onto the floor (I honestly cannot figure out how this is physically possible) and discovers a note from Beth warning that she thinks someone is going to kill her!

Naturally, Kelsey tries to convince herself it was a joke, and just a coincidence that Beth then turned up missing. Yeah. Instead of telling anyone involved in the situation about the note, she shoves it in the pocket of her bathrobe and takes a shower, planning on calling her friend Jenny the next day to ask her what she should do. Kelsey is a fucking idiot, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to admit that 8-year-old me was an idiot for liking this book, too. (Also for not figuring out who the killer was. It’s glaringly obvious as an adult, and I was usually pretty on the ball with these things, even as a young kid.)

When Kelsey gets out of the shower, she scares the hell out of herself imagining all sorts of horror movie scenarios because the bedroom light is out when she’s sure she left it on. She goes to bed and has The Dream again, then wakes up standing next to her bed, looking out the French doors and screaming when she sees black eyes staring back in at her. What happens next is a bit of a blur, because RTC doesn’t do description well. That, or she deliberately wants to confuse the reader. As far as I can tell, Justin runs into Kelsey’s room and lets Neale in through the French doors because Neale forgot his key and the French doors open from the boys’ bedroom onto the same deck as the doors in Kelsey’s room. I’m so confused about this, because we’ve been told that the bedrooms are upstairs, so this is more a balcony than a deck, yeah? How did Neale get up there? Why climb onto the balcony instead of knocking on the front door to wake someone up? This is all just contrived bullshit to achieve a cheap scare.

For some reason, Kelsey apologizes for . . . screaming? having a nightmare? existing? She can’t get back to sleep, so as soon as it gets light out, she goes for a walk along the beach, despite her hatred for the water. She spots an old lighthouse and finds the road up to it, which has an iron gate across it, but the gate is open with the chain and padlock that normally secure it hanging loose. She makes her way up the road and into the decrepit lighthouse, where she immediately falls across the threshold, plasters spiderwebs all across her face, and hears someone creepily laughing at her.

The laugher is old Isaac, who talks about himself in the third person and I imagine looks like a zombie version of the Gorton’s fisherman with an eyepatch. He says a lot of scary cryptic bullshit about death and evil that freaks Kelsey out, and she runs away, somehow falling off the cliff, only Neale somehow catches her . . . ? Like I said, RTC likes to write really confusing description during “scary” action sequences. Like, sorry, it doesn’t heighten the tension when I can’t tell what the fuck is happening.

Neale yells at her about climbing the rocks and how dangerous it is, then some stuff about drowning and sharks, and he tells her that sharks don’t need deep water to tear you apart – three feet will do just fine. That’s one of those things that I always remembered from this book. No idea if it’s accurate or not, but it stuck with me. Neale wants to know how the hell Kelsey got to the lighthouse – can’t she read? She has no idea what he’s talking about, so he drags her along the road to the gate, which is now shut and locked and has a NO TRESPASSING sign on it. Kelsey insists the sign wasn’t there and the gate was open, and we know this trope well enough by now that I’m sure I don’t have to tell you Neale doesn’t believe her. Then he tells her that only lifeguards have keys to the lock on the gate, which . . . yeah. We know from the prologue that the killer is a lifeguard. So: Neale, Justin, or Skip.

Neale drags Kelsey to a place where they can see the party out searching for Beth by some scary rocks in order to scare her, because Neale is scary. When they get back to the beach, a giant dog (DOGGIE!!!) runs up on Kelsey and nearly knocks her down jumping on her. The dog is Rex, who belongs to Donna, who is currently being yelled at by Neale, because Rex broke his chain and unleashed dogs aren’t allowed on the beach. Rex is friendly, but Donna still needs to keep him from jumping on people, especially strangers. Not everyone is as delighted by random doggies as I am. Skip is with Donna, and he and Neale clearly hate each other. To be fair, Neale seems to hate everyone. Then Skip snottily tells Neale that as long as Donna is with him, she can do whatever she wants because he owns this beach. Boys, put the rulers away; nobody cares about your dick size.

Neale takes off muttering about keeping the dog off the beach, Skip takes off acting like a cocky little jerk, and Donna invites Kelsey to breakfast at the West Diner (I’m taking a wild guess it’s located on the west side of the island), where she tells Kelsey that Skip’s grandmother was Beverly – the Beverly of Beverly Island. So, he really does own the beach. And everything else, I guess. We get some exposition about Skip and Justin being BFFs and roommates at boarding school, and Neale always being in a different school than Justin even though they’re only a year apart. Somehow I always picture Neale as already out of school, but I guess this works if they’re 16 and 17? Maybe even if they’re 17 and 18, because I think this takes place over Spring Break rather than summer. I don’t know; I don’t think any of this is addressed or stated directly.

Donna vaguely shit-talks Neale, talking about how no one really knows anything about him, while Justin is so sweet and shy, not like Skip! Then Kelsey asks Donna if Skip is her boyfriend, and the answer is . . . maybe? She says no, that he doesn’t even notice her, but all throughout the book he acts like an abusive, controlling boyfriend toward her, so. That’s a thing. Skip is pretty much the worst.

Then Donna tells Kelsey about the lifeguard who drowned last year, Rebecca. She drowned trying to save someone, but when help got there, they couldn’t find any evidence of the person she’d been trying to save. Of course, no one else saw or heard anything because it was right at closing time for the beach and there was no one around. Skip and Justin were both lifeguards when that happened, and Neale took Rebecca’s place this year. This book is going hard trying to make you think Neale is the killer. But somehow Kelsey doesn’t suspect any of the lifeguards until the last few chapters. Sigh.

Kelsey goes back to the house, where Mom tells her the search is being called off after today and she can call Friend Jenny to see about staying in the mountains with her if she wants to. Kelsey doesn’t, because she wouldn’t feel right about it. Oh, really? Because you want to bang Justin, or because you want to play Nancy Drew? Speaking of Justin, he shows up and gives them the phone number to the house (houses – it’s one number that rings at both houses), which in any real world scenario, I feel like Mom would have already had, right?

Donna comes by to take Kelsey sightseeing, and we get some more exposition on the Family Connell. Beth was sweet but a little “slow,” according to Donna, but everyone was very nice to her, including that big ol’ meanie-mean, Neale. But Beth mostly hung out with Justin, even when he was working, and apparently he adored her. Mm-hmm. They walk along the beach and Kelsey is shocked that it’s packed now when it was empty earlier, but Donna tells her it’s the end-of-summerers trying to pack in beach time before they have to go back to school. So, I was wrong about Spring Break. I wonder why Kelsey and her mom are only spending two weeks on the island then, instead of the whole summer . . . ?

We find out Donna’s rich but her parents make her work, but fortunately she doesn’t seem bitter about it, so good for her. The girls run into Skip, unfortunately not while they’re driving any sort of vehicle that could do any damage to him. He tells Kelsey that running into him was the best part of the tour, and demands they come to his house tonight, because as he tells Donna, she’ll get him all to herself without all “these jealous females around.” Ugh. Men who refer to women as “females” are the worst. “Female” is an adjective, not a noun, you misogynist garbage person. Whenever I see women referred to as “females” I always hear it in a Ferengi voice, which is both perfectly fitting and makes me want to take a flamethrower to the world.

Anyway. Skip is going to give me plenty of opportunities to expand on this rant – fair warning.

Donna tells Kelsey that Skip has been kicked out of every school until the last one that his dad bribed to keep him, and he’s graduated now. So, wait, I was right – if he and Justin are the same age and they just graduated, then Neale has been out of school for a year. This is not how the text makes it sound before now. Or maybe I just didn’t care enough to pay attention? Eh, probably both. So, Justin 18, Neale 19? And I don’t think we’re ever told how old Kelsey is. I’m going to say 16, because that seems to be the average for Point Horror Heroines.

Kelsey asks Donna if Justin has a girlfriend, because Kelsey has no chill and we gotta work some pseudo-incest in there somehow, and Donna says that Justin is too shy but there’s always a first time. Yeah, I’m sure he’s just shy, and not a serial killer who gets off on killing women or anything. Spoilers?

The girls run around the island having island fun until it occurs to Kelsey to ask about something Skip said about people drowning, and Donna informs her that there have been two drownings so far this summer – both teenage girls vacationing on the island. Nope, nothing suspicious about that!

They’re walking aimlessly along, until Kelsey realizes Donna’s leading her up the cliff on a shortcut to the lighthouse. Uh-oh. Better hope Neale doesn’t come along to yell at them. Donna spooks them out talking about how the lighthouse is supposed to be haunted, then they stumble and fall down the embankment, coming face-to-face with a dead girl in the grass!

They run away screaming and again run into Skip, only this time he’s in a Jeep and almost runs them over. Donna is incoherent and blubbering, because hysterical female, amirite? Skip literally throws her in the Jeep, demands Kelsey get in, and drives up the road to the lighthouse. He asks if it was Beth, and neither girl got a good enough look at her to say for sure, then he goes up to look for the corpse without the girls, because again, hysterical females. He comes back pissed off and yelling at them about falling for their joke, then physically pulls them out of the Jeep and tells them they can walk back. Then he calls Donna a “typical, illogical, emotional female” when she suggests the corpse rolled down the hill and that’s why he didn’t find her, and that’s actually a very logical suggestion, so I have to conclude that Skip doesn’t know the definition of any of the words he’s using. Also, the only way I can deal with Skip is if I literally picture him as a Ferengi, because it’s fucking hilarious and the only way I don’t want to set him on fire.

Quark > Skip

Oh, wait, it gets worse. Now Donna is a “crazy, lamebrain female if there ever was one.” Jesus. When Kelsey points out that she saw the dead girl, too, Skip just congratulates them on their convincing joke and promises to pay them back. Then he peals out, leaving them at the lighthouse, probably inches away from a serial killer. I know this is a common trope – both the disappearing body act and the not believing the kids who discovered the body, but fucking hell is it laid on thick here. Fuck me. To top it off, Donna bemoans what a jerk and a chauvinist Skip “can be.” No, Donna, he is. Like, it’s who he is, not just a sometime personality quirk. Run, girl.

Kelsey runs – right back up the hill to check for the corpse, which has in fact disappeared. She and Donna go back and forth over whether it might have been Beth or not, but neither of them saw her face clearly. Then Donna casually mentions the murders that took place at Skip’s last boarding school and that he dated some of the girls who disappeared. Now, Donna calls these the Brookfield Murders, but no bodies were ever found. The girls just vanished into thin air. So, how do y’all know they were murdered? My patience with this book is going right out the window, guys. I’m gonna need to pour some Jack Daniels into my Cherry Dr. Pepper here in a minute to make my way through this. Oh, god, then Donna mentions both that they were “nice girls,” not the type to get into a car with a stranger (urge to kill . . . rising . . . ) and that there’s a mental institution in the same town as the school, which she finds appropriate somehow. Also that the police had checked to make sure none of the patients escaped at the same time the murders disappearances happened. I’ll spare you my rage sputterings, but rest assured it’s happening as I’m typing this.

The girls locate a flattened area of grass where the corpse had been, proving that they’re not crazy ( . . . rage . . . ), then Kelsey asserts that whoever the dead girl was, she sure didn’t drown way up here. Very good, Kelsey. You get a gold star! Gold stars for everyone! Nothing fucking matters any more! Choke on your fucking gold stars, everyone!

Killer Lifeguard POV time! He lets us know that he’s starting to have blackouts and forget what he’s done, that sometimes he has to get up early and check if his memories of murdering someone were really memories or just a dream. Not sure how he does that, short of scouring the entire island for murder corpses, but sure. He picked this one out special – a runaway that no one would miss, and he can’t believe that Donna and Kelsey found her even as he was racing to get her because he’d just remembered he killed her. He was scared before, but not now. Now he has her with him where she won’t be discovered, and he’s laughing about it. I’m sure Killer Lifeguard is a lovely, well-adjusted individual that nobody suspects of being a serial killer.

Kelsey returns to the house but hears Neale and Justin fighting inside, so she hunkers down on the porch to wait it out. It seems Justin is upset that the search for Beth is being called off, and thinks Neale doesn’t care. Neale claims he’s more worried than Justin will ever know, and not just about Beth. Some variation of this argument happens so many times in this book that I’m sure if it was taken out the book would be about ten pages long.

Justin comes out and plies Kelsey with a Pepsi, then wonders aloud why Neale is so sure Beth is dead and oh my god what does he know that the rest of us don’t? Then Eric shows up just to remind us that he still exists, and Justin goes off to find Neale, who I thought was still in the house but I guess actually took off into the trees (like a wood elf? what are these trees on this beach island?) before Justin came out. Then Kelsey goes inside and calls Friend Jenny, who is just about to walk out the door to go on her family’s mountain cabin vacation. It’s a terrible, static-filled connection, and anyone with half a brain would figure out that someone is listening in on the extension. Unfortunately, Kelsey doesn’t have half a brain. She tries to scream through the static about Beth and the note she found, but Jenny isn’t hearing any of it and is being yelled at by her dad to get off the phone so they can leave. So, ultimately a pointless phone call. You know, except for the person listening in on the extension.

Kelsey takes a shower, then hears someone in her room when she shuts the water off. No one’s there, but she finds wet footprints (not hers) and sand and seaweed on the rug between the beds. She freaks the fuck out and throws clothes on, then runs screaming outside to find someone, only to have Creepy Old Isaac grab her and be creepy and weird at her. He pulls a disappearing act by the time Neale comes out to see what she’s freaking out over, and tells her that no, Isaac isn’t stalking her; he came by to use the phone. Considering the fact that RTC has flat-out told us the killer is one of the lifeguards, she sure does waste a lot of time making Kelsey suspect Isaac. It’s pointless and annoying. Are we supposed to think Kelsey is a moron? Is this supposed to endear her to us?

Neale takes off because a drowned body has been found and they have to see if it’s Beth or not. Despite Kelsey telling us it seems like forever before anyone returns, it only takes about two sentences before the whole crew returns and we find out it wasn’t Beth. Kelsey, for some unknown reason, pulls Skip aside to tell him about someone being in her room, because he was so great about believing her the last time some shit happened. I bet Skip is an anti-vaxxer and a climate change denier, too. Probably a flat-earther as well. He’ll tell anyone who will listen that we didn’t really go to the moon, either.

Predictably, he doesn’t believe her. He and Justin go to check, and Skip tells her it was probably just the body she and Donna found earlier, ha ha ha so funny! They see the footprints but claim they must belong to Kelsey, made when she got out of the shower, and the seaweed is gone. Skip basically gaslights Kelsey into believing she imagined it all, then insists she come along to his party tonight. Tonight, meaning right fucking now. The days in this book advance at a really weird pace.

Skip, Justin, Neale, and Kelsey ride to Skip’s place in his Jeep, and Kelsey is suitably impressed by Skip’s opulent wealth. I, on the other hand, don’t give a shit and am not going to describe his mansion in the loving detail that RTC does. It’s a big house with lots of rooms and fancy shit in it, okay? Donna gives Kelsey the tour, and then Skip takes over, basically so he can sexually harass Kelsey and try to impress her with his swimming trophies. Also so he can imply that he has a bad relationship with his father, but really now, who the fuck doesn’t in this book?

Kelsey and Justin sit by the pool and flirt a little while Skip and Donna argue about something behind them. But it’s cool; Justin informs us that fighting together is what they do best. Because, you know, that’s a healthy relationship. Justin and Kelsey go for a walk down on the beach, and Kelsey is terrified of the water but doesn’t want to be, so Justin offers to help her get in the water. Because going for a swim in the dark on an unfamiliar beach is just the ticket for helping a girl who watched her father drown while she herself was drowning get over her trauma-induced phobia of water. Nothing at all wrong with this great idea.

Justin coaxes her out into the water, and then she’s swimming, by George! But then a wave crashes down on them, separating them and sweeping Justin away, leaving Kelsey panicked and screaming for him. She feels something bump against her legs and immediately thinks it’s a shark, although Neale tells her later that if it had been a shark her legs would be all shredded up due to how rough shark skin is. She finds her way to shore and Neale finds her and starts looking for Justin, whom Kelsey finds down the beach a ways when she starts running to the lifeguard station. Justin demands to know where Neale was when he went in the water, but shockingly this never causes Kelsey to suspect Neale of anything, despite the obvious red herring he’s being set up as.

As Donna and Kelsey are making tea for poor Justin like the good little domestic servants they’re clearly supposed to grow up to be, they discuss the terrors that have befallen Kelsey and how nobody believes her. After Donna leaves to take Justin his tea, Neale comes in and tells Kelsey all that stuff about how if it had been a shark she would be all scraped up, then insists he believes she felt something in the water, just not a shark. Something like a human person trying to scare/possibly drown her? Kelsey is too stupid to pick up on this and instead just thinks Neale is being a meanie mean again and tries to yell at him for not immediately getting Captain Quint out on the water to hunt for Jaws. (Yes, I know that wasn’t the name of the shark. Just go with me here.)

Neale exits and Donna enters, Kelsey whines about how mean Neale is, then wants to know if Donna knows where Neale was when Justin went in the water and asks if she thinks Justin seems afraid of him. Donna tells her that everyone is a little afraid of Neale, including tourists, because he doesn’t return friendly gestures. I mean, by that logic I must be terrifying. Just let me walk down the street without having to smile and wave effusively every few feet, k?

Kelsey runs off to the bathroom to cry, and I somehow completely forgot everyone is still at Skip’s place. She looks out the window and sees Old Isaac out by the gate, and immediately runs through the house screaming that “he” is trying to break in. After whipping the house into a panic playing the pronoun game, she finally reveals that “he” is Isaac, causing everyone to roll their eyes and talk about how harmless Isaac is. Except when Neale cryptically wonders how well you can ever really know anyone, because he obviously suspects one of the other lifeguards of murder. Well, obvious to the reader. Kelsey’s picture is probably in the dictionary under the word “oblivious.”

They decide to go home, which, why didn’t they go as soon as two of them almost drowned? Why the fuck are they still hanging out at Skip’s? Anyway, Kelsey goes searching for her purse, giving her another chance to be assaulted by Skip. He corners her in his gym/hunting room and shows her all the heads of animals he’s hunted and killed, going on about what a rush it is to stalk and murder sweet, innocent, unsuspecting prey. Because red herrings abound! Even if he’s not the killer (spoiler: he’s not), he’s terrible. No woman should go within a mile of this dude. But hey, he admits that he’s a privileged white boy, so there’s that! Well, actually he says he lives in a prison of privilege, which I guess sounds more like suffering from affluenza. So never mind.

When Kelsey and the boys get back to the house, Justin confides in her that it wasn’t an undertow that got him; it was like something grabbed him and pulled him under. Mm-hmm. Then he says he owes her another swimming lesson, and hahahahahahahaha no.

Kelsey goes to her room and sees the stains still on the rug between the beds, and crawls around on the floor looking for the seaweed and the other (???) footprints, and wondering when the other boys had looked in her room for them. What? No, really, what? She saw them go up and look in her room, what the fuck is she talking about? She’s still crawling around on the floor, and that’s when she sees the piece of seaweed shoved under the bathroom door and treats it like it’s fucking Cthulhu trying to take her to its undersea dungeon. She sticks her hands in the pockets of her bathrobe and discovers the scary note from Beth is missing, oh no. Because, you know, someone was listening to her conversation with Friend Jenny.

The next morning, Kelsey chases Neale down and gets in his Jeep (I thought it was Skip’s Jeep? Does everyone have Jeeps? Is it a communal Jeep?) because she wants to ask him something about Beth. They drive around for a minute while Kelsey waits for him to start the conversation. The conversation that she wanted to have. I . . . sigh. Kelsey clearly doesn’t understand how conversations work. Neale apparently figures this out because he pulls the Jeep over and asks what the fuck she wants. They have a conversation where they both discover the other also thinks Beth was murdered, although neither tells the other why they think that, and Neale warns Kelsey to leave it alone so she doesn’t get hurt. Kelsey, being a moron, takes it as a threat rather than a guy trying to save her life. Because, again, Kelsey is an idiot.

Donna and Kelsey go on a breakfast picnic, which I guess is a thing if you’re RTC, and Kelsey tells her everything that’s been going on. You know, all the “scary” stuff. Donna reacts with the appropriate wide-eyed rapt attention that Kelsey craves, then asks what they’re going to do about it. Uhhhh, good question. I’m guessing that telling a responsible adult is off the table.

They’re having their picnic within sight of the lighthouse, and Kelsey keeps feeling like they’re being watched. I mean, yeah, probably. She tells Donna about the “shark attack” in the water the night before, and they have some back and forth over whether it was really a shark or someone faking it to scare them. You know, I don’t think this is ever resolved. Huh. Then Donna is hit by the bright idea that whoever it was was really after Kelsey because she had the note, the proof that Beth might have been killed, and then this exchange takes place:

“But I don’t have it anymore,” Kelsey moaned. “Someone – oh, Donna – ”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“It has to be him. Everything points to him.”

“Isaac,” Donna whispered.

Isaac . . . ? Wha – what? No! How the fuck did you come to that conclusion? What points to him? How are you not suspecting the boys living in the same house as you, with ready access to all your stuff?! How did both you morons come to the exact wrong conclusion, with zero evidence or logic, at the exact same time?! Guys, I hate this. I really hate this. I won’t go into their logic because it’s just too stupid.

Donna suspects that Isaac was out in the water pretending to be a shark the night before, but he mistook Justin for Neale because Neale knows Beth was murdered, so he was after him. I . . . fine. Idiots. They think someone is watching them from the lighthouse and it must be Isaac. Because of course it must be. Oh, also he knows they know because they found that body. I mean, all three lifeguards also know about that, but sure. Isaac. Can’t be anyone else.

Oh, cool. Killer Lifeguard POV chapter. He’s laughing at how gullible Kelsey is, and I don’t disagree. She’s prettier when she’s scared, just like all of them, except Beth cuz he didn’t want to kill her, blah blah blah. Turns out he wrote the note we’re having the big kerfuffle about just to fuck with Kelsey (prettier when she’s scared and all that), and now he’s burning it. Okay. Good for him, I guess.

Donna goes off to work, leaving Kelsey to wander around the beach and run into Skip, who buys her a hot dog, then Justin, who grabs the hot dog out of her hand and throws it into the trash. Hmm, seems like something a serial killer would do. What if she wanted to eat that, you dick? Huh? She and Justin talk about the beach party happening later that night and how Donna set them up together, and frankly I couldn’t be paid to care about any of this. Let the pseudo-incest begin!

Kelsey walks Justin to his lifeguard station and takes off, daydreaming dreamily until she ends up at the marina, where she sees Isaac leave his houseboat and spontaneously decides to engage in a little breaking and entering. Well, technically there was no breaking, so amend that to criminal trespass. Anyway, the place is disgusting, just like poor Old Isaac. Kelsey sees a knife and immediately assumes it’s a murder weapon rather than, you know, a utensil that pretty much everyone owns. Then she sees a red scarf just like the one Beth was wearing in a photograph she saw. I guess no one else is allowed to have red scarves. Quick, someone alert all the retail outlets! Before she can steal the scarf and not tell any responsible adult her suspicions, she runs away after getting jump-scared by a rat. I really hope it was the Giant Mouse of Minsk from An American Tail.

She runs all the way back to the cottage, all in a tizzy wondering who to tell about Old Isaac the Murderer, then Mom calls from the mainland to tell her that Eric had a little bit of a heart attack and they’ll be staying on the mainland for a few days. But, you know, Kelsey should still try to have fun and whatnot. She runs outside and straight into Skip, who lets her off the hook by telling her that he’ll tell Justin and Neale about their dad. She goes back inside and stares at the photo of Beth on the mantel, thinking about how sweet and gentle her smile is – just like Justin’s! And then she wonders why the innocent ones always have to suffer. She’s . . . she’s not talking about Justin, is she? Goddammit, I think she’s talking about Justin. He’s not a goddamn wounded bird, you fucking nitwit. Could it be more obvious that he’s the killer? (No, really, could it? I’m not sure I trust my own judgement anymore.)

She lays down on the couch, falls asleep, has The Dream again, then wakes up to a dark room. At six thirty. During the summer. What. Why is it dark at six thirty during the summer?! Lord, give me patience. Kelsey grabs her stupid purple windbreaker (is Sweet Valley missing a Unicorn?) that, believe it or not, is going to be a fucking plot point later on, then heads outside and runs into Justin who was worried because he couldn’t find her, because for some goddamn reason she was in the grown ups’ cottage instead of the one she’s actually staying in. Why is any of this happening? Why am I recapping this? What is life? Why are we here? (Please excuse the existential crisis this book has sent me cartwheeling into.)

They go to the beach party, which is actually a private party at the rich beach that the boys are lifeguarding at or something, I don’t even care anymore. Fifty-five pages to go, and this book has defeated me. Kelsey tells Donna about her criminal activity at Isaac’s boat, claiming it’s proof that he killed Beth, which . . . is anyone actually this stupid? As they’re talking about telling the sheriff (who would probably laugh them out of his office, and rightly so), the three lifeguards come up behind them and reveal they’ve been eavesdropping. Groovy. Donna literally exclaims, “How rude!” proving she’s a Full House fan, and Kelsey insists Isaac is guilty even though he says he didn’t do it but he knows who did. And she just said this in front of the real murderer. Way to fucking go, Kelsey. You’re about to get an innocent old man murdered; I hope you’re proud of yourself.

Neale points out that the knife was for gutting fish, and that Beth’s scarf isn’t the only red scarf in existence, and even if it is hers there are plenty of innocent ways Isaac could have gotten hold of it. Through this conversation, I want to point out that Justin appears to be in shock. Probably because he just realized he’s going to have to kill Isaac and he’s bummed because Isaac isn’t a hot girl. I’m sure Justin’s murder boner isn’t going to be happy about that. Kelsey’s mad no one’s taking her seriously, but Neale has clearly just realized that either Skip or Justin is the killer. But, you know, Kelsey’s too stupid to figure that out and just thinks Neale is being an antisocial meanie-mean again. Skip, of course, laughs at the girls and calls them crazy. Hey, Justin? Can you kill Skip? Um, he totes knows you’re the killer or something, so you know, get on with the stabby-stab or drowny-drown or whatever it is you do. Kthanxbai.

Oh. Killer Lifeguard POV time again. He’s pissed that people are on his beach, and also that now he has to kill Isaac. He likes Isaac! Huh, no accounting for taste, I guess. Then he thinks about how he’ll have to kill Kelsey before too much longer because she’ll figure it out soon and she’s too smart for her own good. Too . . . smart . . . Too . . . I . . . what? No, really, what?! Is this bizarro world? Does “smart” mean something else to Richie Tankersley Cusick? My brain is broken now. Down is up, up is down, we’re living in a world of chaos. He also thinks about how luring Rebecca into the water was such a great trick last summer, just in case we’re every bit as “smart” as Kelsey and needed that spelled out for us. Guys. What even is this book. Help.

Donna and Skip fight, with him yelling at her through the fucking megaphone not to try to make him jealous because it won’t work and she’s dead if she does. Listen, you abusive prick . . . ah, never mind. This was standard boyfriend fare in the Point Horror novels. The good guys are worse than the murderers. But then Skip apologizes to Kelsey for laughing at her and tells her she’s been good for Justin. Yeah, she’s been wonderful for him, uh-huh.

Kelsey wanders off to use the Porta-Potty, and it’s a good thing she just peed because Isaac pops up out of nowhere and grabs her. He tells her he saw her break into his boat, and she knows too much and they’re likely to find her body washed up on the beach if she doesn’t watch herself. Then she bites him to get away, and I can’t even imagine how gross that must be. There’s not enough mouthwash in the world, guys.

She runs down the beach screaming for help, then realizes someone else is screaming for help from the water, and now we see firsthand how Rebecca must have died last summer. The boys run up, and Justin jumps in the water in a panic to find the drowning girl . . . but why. I have no idea what kind of sense it makes to do this. I guess to fuck with Kelsey some more? For the lolz? God, can I go back in time and slap eight-year-old me for liking this piece of shit?

Unsurprisingly, no rescue crews find anyone drowned or reported missing or anything. There’s some talk about the same thing happening last year to Rebecca, then Kelsey runs outside and screams “I hate you! I’ll always hate you!” at the ocean, and now I want a movie made of this for that scene alone. The “Kelsey screams at the unfathomable depths of the ocean” scene. Worth the price of admission, I swear.

Neale comes outside and Kelsey tells him (and, finally, us) about her dad drowning saving her from drowning, and Neale’s all like yeah, people die, quit feeling sorry for yourself. Then Kelsey cries about how Isaac almost strangled her tonight, and that he said again he knows who killed Beth. Neale wants to know if he told her who did it, but of course we can’t have it that easy. Cryptic old man is cryptic. Donna and Skip walk up and overhear, and Skip essentially tells Donna she’s stupid, leading her to storm off.

Kelsey follows Donna and basically tells her to ignore the shitty things Skip says to her because he really does like her, and you can just get fucked, Kelsey. The whole “he’s mean to you because he likes you” narrative normalizes abusive relationships and you can fuck on outta here with that toxic bullshit. Donna is in no mood to get a ride home with anyone, so she borrows Kelsey’s stupid purple windbreaker for the walk home. Plot contrivance! Plot contrivance everywhere!

Back at the cottage, Justin comes into Kelsey’s room to talk and tell her he’s sorry about her dad, even though zero mention was made of him being with Skip and Donna when they overheard that conversation. Then he and Kelsey make out a little, because they both clearly believe in keeping it in the family. He goes to his own room, leaving Kelsey all hot and bothered, and she goes to bed . . . and pretends the blankets are Justin’s arms. Oh. Dear Lord. If I remember correctly, the ladies of the Teen Creeps podcast had a whole bit about Pillow Justin that does this ridiculous passage more justice than I’m capable of at the moment, so I really do recommend listening to their episode. The blankets are his arms. Sweet Jesus.

Killer Lifeguard POV: He accidentally pushed Donna off a cliff because she was wearing Kelsey’s purple windbreaker and it’s all Kelsey’s fault. Look, the way he describes this, he was just following her, then she turned around and saw him and immediately knew he was going to kill her. What? How? Couldn’t he have come up with an excuse for following her that doesn’t end in murder? How exactly did this play out? Was it like . . .

Justin: (tiptoes up behind Donna like he’s Spy VS Spy)

Donna: Justin, hi! What are you doing back there?

Justin: Oh, uh . . . *looks frantically from side to side* *shoves Donna off cliff* This is all Kelsey’s fault!

. . . because I don’t see how he was forced to kill her instead of making up an excuse to talk to her. Justin is an idiot. Well, he thinks Kelsey is smart, so how bright can he be, really?

Kelsey wakes up to a dark and stormy sky and determines that she’s not going to go for a walk today. Good choice, Kelsey. Good choice. She thinks that the boys will probably be home today since the beaches will certainly be closed, then hopes that she and Donna will continue to be the bestest of best friends forever after! Well . . . okay, Kelsey. She starts searching Beth’s closet for something warm to wear (you know, since she loaned her purple windbreaker to Donna and all) and accidentally pulls a box of papers off the top shelf. She finds a letter from Neale to Beth written on stationary from the Brookfield Psychiatric Hospital, and hey, isn’t that where the murders disappearances happened? The letter implies that Neale is there because he attempted suicide, but Kelsey is too fucking thick to pick up on it. Sigh. She’s also, of course, shocked that Neale was in a psychiatric hospital. Look, when I was a teenager, I was in psych hospitals twice for severe depression. They’re actually pretty fucking normal, non-scary places. If you’re picturing Hollywood’s idea of a psych ward, stop. It’s like boarding school, with a dorm room and a roommate, only with pills, therapy, and closer supervision. (And if you want a razor to shave your legs, a nurse will sit outside the bathroom and talk to you until you’re done. As long as you’re not on suicide watch.) There are more extreme wards, sure, but I guarantee you Neale was in the boarding-school variety of psych wards. But, you know, depressed people are scary and obviously murderers or whatever.

Justin comes in and lets Kelsey know the phones and electricity are out. Also, Skip spent the night on the couch and no one can get hold of Donna. Well, yeah, communication tends to be a problem after you’ve been thrown off a cliff. Then Skip notices his key is missing because there’s a welt that feels like rope burn on his neck where he wears the key on some sort of necklace, then Justin realizes his own key is missing, then Skip rails on about how Donna can just suffer and she got exactly what she deserved. I mean, if you guys broke up then, yes, she got what she deserved – a chance to find someone who’s not an abusive asshole. Or a chance to be happy on her own! Oh, wait, we’re supposed to think this means Skip threw her off the cliff, aren’t we? When in reality, Skip is so full of himself that he thinks depriving Donna of his company is the worst punishment EVAH.

Kelsey keeps pointlessly having foreboding thoughts that are really just more annoying than anything else, then goes out in the Jeep (is this the one Jeep for everyone on the island? a timeshare Jeep?) with Skip to search for Donna. So, this is clearly an open Jeep (think: dune buggy) they’re going out in, in a fucking thunderstorm. Good plan, guys. Can I shower you with sarcastic gold stars again? Also, I guess there are no seatbelts, even though I’m pretty sure there were seatbelt laws in the US in 1988. Anyway. We’re almost done here, which is good. I don’t know how much more of this drivel I can take.

Visibility is less than zero, so Skip of course runs over what we’re not told yet is a corpse, causing him to flip the Jeep and send Kelsey flying. Because of no seatbelts. She crawls around screaming Skip’s name, but I prefer to imagine she’s really singing “Skip! Skip! Skip to my lou!” Either Skip literally flew out of the Jeep, or he’s knocked unconscious, because there’s no way either of them got thrown that far from the wreck and survived. Anyway, Kelsey stumbles across Dead Isaac, made even deader by the fact that they ran over him in a fucking Jeep and smashed him up even worse than he was before. He’s been strangled by Beth’s red scarf, and Kelsey is so relieved that the murderer has been murdered. Goddammit, Kelsey. Then she sees the lifeguard key in his hand, and suddenly realizes that there are two murderers . . . wait, no. Oh shit, one of the lifeguards must be the one and only murderer! It’s Skip, because he lost his key! I mean, so did Justin, and we’re told way back in the beginning of this piece of shit that the lifeguards are always losing their keys, but sure. Must be Skip.

Skip starts calling for Kelsey, and because he’s obviously the murderer (despite Isaac obviously being the murderer literally three seconds ago), she runs away and ends up at the lighthouse, where she hears Donna’s voice calling for help. This is apparently Justin, sorry, Skip, I mean, the Killer Lifeguard (who is Justin, obviously) doing a voice. If he’s that convincing at mimicry, he should dispense with the serial killing and take that show on the road immediately. He’d make a fortune.

Anyway, Kelsey follows the voice into the lighthouse after thinking she sees someone standing in the doorway, but then Donna’s voice calls that she fell and thinks her leg is broken. Kelsey at least has the brain power to wonder who the fuck she saw in the doorway then, but not the brain power to question it beyond that. She goes into the fucking lighthouse, finds a convenient lantern waiting for her, then goes down a falling-apart staircase. I wasn’t aware that lighthouses had basements. She falls into the flooded basement and starts panicking, and this is where RTC’s writing style kicks in to confuse us as to what’s happening. Somehow she’s in a cave now. Okay. It stinks like rotten meat, so I think we found where Justin’s been keeping his little dead friends. Still not sure why he lets some of them be discovered and hides others in this cave, but whatever. I guess because he’s craaaaazy. Although very few serial killers have any sort of mental illness at all, but okay. Crazy explains literally everything in Point Horror, facts be damned!

Kelsey thinks she broke her own leg in the fall, and she’s talking to “Donna” this whole time, telling her that they were wrong, the killer wasn’t Isaac, it was Skip all along, and then the voice starts laughing at her and she realizes it’s not Donna at all, but just someone trying to sound like her. She can’t identify the voice, though, but she realizes the laugh is the same one she heard the day she went in the lighthouse and ran into Isaac for the first time, so I guess Isaac wasn’t the one laughing after all. My bad. Sorry, Isaac. RIP, buddy.

The Voice super villain monologues for a while about how powerful killing makes him feel, and how he didn’t want to kill Beth, but – everybody sing along if you know it – she found out and was going to tell. He taunts Kelsey about Donna’s death being her fault because he was too stupid to identify a girl based on anything other than the jacket she was wearing, and he considers leaving her there to drown when the tide comes in, but he likes her too much for that. So he’ll kill her quick, you know. As you do.

Me, after setting this book on fire

All this time, Kelsey has been backing toward where she hopes the stairs are, and I have no idea how she got turned around to the point where she wouldn’t know. Did she close her eyes and spin around with her arms out, screaming “Wheeee! I’m a helicopter!” as soon as she fell into the basement/cave? As she lunges toward the stairs (hopefully), she trips over a body on the floor, but . . . how? I was under the impression the cave was flooded at least up to her thighs or something. (Upon further investigation, I’m wrong. It’s wet, but not flooded. Guys, this book is badly written.) Whatever. It’s Beth. She’s gagged, bloody and dirty, but still alive. Has she been there the whole time? What about that whole “I could leave you here and wait for the tide to flood the cave and kill you” thing? Did he move Beth here to keep Kelsey company when he kills her? I . . . you know what? Badly written. That’s all I have to hang onto at this point.

Somehow now water is surging into the cave, suddenly deep enough to drown in. God, what-fucking-ever, okay? Kelsey hears Neale calling her name and suddenly thinks he’s actually the killer instead of the hero of this fucking book trying to save her stupid life. She fights against him trying to save her while her brain makes the “Brookfield Murders – Brookfield Psychiatric Hospital” connection, and how am I supposed to set Kelsey on fire while she’s all wet? I mean, I suppose she’d steam a little, but that’s nowhere near as satisfying.

She I guess gets away from Neale (badly written – no fucking clue what’s going on in these action sequences) and sees Justin, and starts calling for him, relieved when he puts his arms around her . . . then his hands around her neck . . . then squeezing and shoving her head down into the water . . . oops. Kelsey blacks out, but unfortunately doesn’t die.

Kelsey wakes up in the clinic with Neale by her side. Justin is apparently dead in the cave; Beth is alive and air-lifted to the mainland; Donna is alive with a broken leg and going home with Skip so he can “keep an eye on her before she gets herself in any more trouble.” I hate him. God, how I hate him. Let’s see, what else? Neale isn’t upset that Kelsey suspected him, because she suspected everyone except perfect Justin. Neale admits to trying to kill himself, but the way it’s framed is really victim-blamey toward actual suicidal and depressed people, framing it like anyone who wants to hurt themselves is stupid and selfish. I mean, sure. Have you just tried not being suicidal?

We find out that Neale suspected Skip, never Justin, which doesn’t track at all with what I read, but sure. Nobody suspect Mr. Perfect with all the opportunities and motives and whatnot. Then Neale holds Kelsey’s hand and kisses it, because of course he’s the fuckable one now.

Nostalgia Glasses Off




One thought on “Recap #19 – The Lifeguard by Richie Tankersley Cusick

  1. Pingback: Recap #35 – Trick or Treat by Richie Tankersley Cusick – Oh God Why?! Nostalgia Reviews

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